United States Of America

General info

The US rail network was mainly developed by private companies, reaching a peak of around 350 000 route-km. This was subsequently reduced to around 225 000 km through closures and consolidation. Declining traffic and tight regulation saw many railways running into financial problems during the 1960s and 1970s, leading to some high-profile bankruptcies.

In 1976 the Railroad Revitalization & Regulatory Reform Act (the Staggers Act) merged seven bankrupt companies into the federally-owned Consolidated Rail Corp and initiated the deregulation of the freight railways from 1980. This revived the fortunes of the remaining companies, eventually allowing Conrail to be returned to the private sector. Further mergers followed, with approval from the Surface Transportation Board, and today seven major Class 1 railroads account for more than 90% of industry revenue. Other lines were spun off to regional and short line operators, sometimes backed by state governments. Smaller freight railways continue to change hands, but today there are 21 regional and 537 short line operators. Some short lines are run by the industries they serve, whilst others belong to a handful of specialist holding groups.

The rail freight sector is now relatively stable, enjoying a market share of around 40% in terms of tonne-km, thanks to large volumes moving over long distances.

In the 1950s and 1960s, most private freight operators were losing money on their long-distance passenger services, which were increasingly being withdrawn, particularly after the federal postal service ceased sending mail by rail. In 1971 the federal government created the National Railroad Passenger Corp (Amtrak), which took over most remaining services and is now the principal inter-city operator. Amtrak also took control of the infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor linking Washington DC, New York and Boston, which is the country’s primary passenger route.

Most infrastructure remains in the hands of the freight railways. The Class 1 railroads fund their own infrastructure and rolling stock renewals, with an average capital spend in excess of US$6bn a year. Considerable investment has been going into capacity expansion, with some public-sector contributions towards specific projects. Regional and short lines have access to some state and federal government funding for improvement programmes.

In recent years there has been renewed interest in expansion of inter-city passenger rail services, which may see other operators entering the market. Around US$10bn was made available by the federal government to encourage high speed rail development, which is funding work on the Northeast Corridor and routes in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest plus the proposed high speed line in California. Various projects are under discussion in other states, but the promised federal funding for some schemes was rejected by state governors concerned about the long-term implication of their operating costs.


Key data

Maps United States of America | Cities: Atlanta | Baltimore | Boston | Chicago | Dallas | Denver | Honolulu | Houston | Los Angeles | Minneapolis / St Paul | New York | Oklahoma City | Philadelphia | Phoenix | Portland (OR) |Sacramento | Salt Lake City | San Diego | San Francisco (with Oakland) | St Louis | Washington DC
Population 314 million
Network 225 000 km
Gauge 1435 mm - apart from 108 km 914 mm narrow gauge
Electrification 147 km 600 V DC, 237 km 750 V DC, 167 km 1000 V DC, 205 km 1.5 kV DC, 93 km 11 kV 25 Hz, 110 km 11 kV 60 Hz, 25 km 12 kV 60 Hz, 582 km 12·5 kV 25 Hz, 423 km 25 kV 60 Hz, 126 km 50 kV 60 Hz.
Industry Structure Freight railways largely privately owned and vertically integrated, dominated by the larger Class I companies. Short-lines often serve the last-mile freight market. Inter-city passenger services run by state-owned corporation; suburban, metro and light rail the responsibility of city and regional public transport agencies.