It is an article of faith among passenger rail advocates that the federal government killed intercity passenger trains by subsidizing the Interstate Highway System. “There were a number of reasons for the rapid decline of rail passenger service, but the overwhelming factor was the explosion of government funding for new highways and airports,” says the Progressive Policy Institute, which adds, “In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate and Defense Highways Act.”
One major problem with this is that intercity rail ridership began declining decades before Congress approved the Interstate Highway System. As the chart above shows, per capita rail passenger miles peaked in 1919 and fell by half during the “roaring 20s.” They declined another 50 percent during the Depression, then grew to a second, but quite artificial, peak during World War II.
After the war, per capita passenger miles dropped precipitously despite rapid economic growth. By 1949, they had fallen to 1929 levels; by 1960–after Congress authorized the Interstate Highway System but before very many miles had been built–they had fallen to less than at the depths of the Depression. The interstates obviously had nothing to do with this. Since 1970–the year before Amtrak took over–they have hovered between 20 and 30 passenger miles per capita, or 10 to 15 percent of what they were in 1919.
Of course, the states were building roads before 1956, but most of the cost of those roads were paid for out of gas taxes, which had been approved by state legislatures expressly to provide user fees for roads. The first limited-access highways–the forerunners of the interstates–were paid for with tolls. For that matter, considering that 20 percent of all driving in the United States takes place on interstates, which make up only about 2 percent of road lane miles, the gas taxes paid by interstate highway users have more than paid for them, and if anything they are cross-subsidizing other road users. (Yes, interstates cost more per lane mile than other roads, but only about twice as much on average, so they still more than pay for themselves.)
Caveat: To make the above chart, I had to distinguish between intercity trains and commuter trains. Data reported before 1978 combines intercity and commuter passenger miles. The commuter passenger miles are broken out for the years from 1922 to 1970. I also have the intercity passenger miles for 1977. For the other years during the 1970s, I interpolated the data. For years before 1922, I assumed that commuter traffic grew at the same average rate that it grew between 1922 and 1929. While this is crude, the potential for error is limited in the early years by the fact that commuter traffic made up less than 20 percent of the total.
If any federal action helped to kill passenger trains, it was a 1947 rule passed by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) regulating high-speed trains. The ruling, which went into effect in 1950, specified that trains could not go faster than 79 mph unless railroads installed expensive signaling and other improvements.
During the 1930s, several railroads had responded to the decline in passenger traffic by speeding up their trains. The Burlington, Milwaukee, Pennsylvania, Santa Fe, and Union Pacific were among the roads that routinely ran passenger trains between 100 and 120 mph in order to get average speeds of 60 (over the entire journey) to 80 (between some cities) mph. This was a huge improvement over the 30 to 40 mph average speeds of most trains at that time. The result on routes with such fast trains was almost always a huge increase in passenger traffic.
The ICC rule put the brakes on these trains. The railroads estimated it would cost them $80 million (more than $800 million in today’s dollars) to install the signals, which wouldn’t be worth it for the passengers that made up a limited part of the railroads’ business. Rail officials pointed out that, while there had been accidents involving fast streamliners, most would not have been prevented by better signals. (For example, two people were killed when a Burlington Zephyr collided with a tractor that had fallen off a freight train on a parallel track just seconds before the Zephyr passed by.)
As a paper by historian Mark Reutter notes, when railroads complained about the ruling, an ICC commissioner responded, “When you get to the final analysis here, it is a question of whether you [the railroads] should determine how these funds should be used or whether the government should. . . . And hasnâ€™t Congress given the commission that responsibility?” Yes, and it was only in 1980, when Congress abolished the Interstate Commerce Commission and returned that responsibility to the railroads themselves, that the railroads became revitalized.
The Antiplanner doesn’t think this rule alone led to the dominance of the automobile. Consider that the average American travels close to 15,000 miles a year by car today, the highest non-wartime per capita rail ridership of under 400 miles per year is pretty pathetic. Trains were mainly used by the wealthy, and middle-class workers whose jobs required (and paid for) travel, not the average person. Cars are simply less expensive, more versatile, and more convenient than trains.
But the ICC rule is probably more responsible than any other government action for the demise of private passenger trains in the United States. Without it, prairie railroads such as the Burlington, Milwaukee, and Santa Fe would have likely continued to experiment with faster trains and such trains might have continued to be profitable in a number of major corridors. The lesson should be that government should keep its hands off the private sector.