The history of passenger trains

It’s hard to imagine now, but in the not too distant past, U.S. travel was limited to horse drawn or horseback travel, boat travel or travel on foot. The introduction of passenger rail travel revolutionized the idea of mobility and opened vast distances for settlement and development.

While the exciting history of passenger trains is better handled in books than in a single article, this overview is a good place to begin your research.

The very first rail travel in the U.S. occurred in Charleston, South Carolina in 1830.  The steam-powered train dubbed the “Best Friend of Charleston,” carried 141 brave passengers a total of six miles on its maiden run. Short run trains were soon established in Baltimore and in Boston.

Only 10 short years later in 1840, there were already over 2,800 miles of train track in place.  By the start of the War Between the States in 1860, that number had jumped to over 30,000 miles of track.
The U.S. government actively supported passenger rail growth with generous subsidies and land grants. Passengers enjoyed the speed and reliability of train travel.  Even in inclement weather, travel was possible and relatively comfortable.  What had once been viewed as a daring although rather impractical experiment had become an essential part of life in the expanding American society.

The turning point in the history of passengers trains and railroad expansion occurred in a remote area of Utah only a short time after the War ended. It was there in 1869 where the Golden Spike was driven, officially connecting the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad with those of the Central Pacific Railroad: the first transcontinental railroad was born. Each week, one train ran from east to west, and one from west to east.  Cross country travel would never be the same.

Passenger rail travel tripled between 1896 and 1916, with train travel accounting for over 95% of all major intercity travel through 1910, according to many sources. But the golden days of rail travel were not to last. Train travel peaked in 1920, with an estimated 1.2 billion passengers in that year alone.

A combination of sharp increases in fares and the rise of the automobile reduced passenger numbers by nearly 20% by the time the decade ended. The Depression further reduced train travel, and many predicted its end. But a new technology would breathe new life into the ailing industry only a few years later.

In 1934, the inaugural run of the Burlington, Chicago and Quincy’s diesel-powered Zephyr train and the Union Pacific Railroad’s gasoline-powered M-10,000 brought a new face to train travel. The Zephyr reflected a collection of significant technological advances, including shot-welded stainless steel materials, a General Motors diesel engine brought to life by GM Electromotive design engineers Tom and Andrew Finigan, a new aerodynamic design, air-conditioning and elegant recessed lighting in the passenger cars. The new design cut the traditional steam travel time almost in half, and reenergized the passenger travel industry.  Suddenly train travel was as much about glamour as utility.

Although rail travel never regained its 1920 numbers, passenger travel by train had become a permanent part of the American landscape. But its heyday had clearly passed.

The most painful blow to train travel occurred in the 1950’s with the advent of affordable airline travel.  Suddenly spending a day or two on a train was not as appealing as making that same trip in a few hours on a plane.  Automobiles had become the norm for short intercity trips-another mainstay of early train traffic.

By the mid 1970, airlines carried 73% of U.S. intercity passenger travel, while railroads carried only about 7%.

Although recent increases in fuel prices and annoyance with cumbersome security procedures at airports has resulted in some increases in train travel, few predict the revival of the train a primary means of travel in the U.S.  It seems that the magical days of the elegant train trip are indeed consigned to history.

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