Advances in technology have had their price, however. Railroad employment has been particularly hard hit. Today's railroads haul more freight than they did at the beginning of the 1980s, but they do so with 40 percent fewer employees.
From 1979 through 1992, the output per hour in the railroad industry rose 8.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That made U.S. railroads the most productive in the world. Railroad productivity increased 157 percent from 1983 to 1992.
In addition, many sweeping labor agreements have changed the face of the industry. A 1982 agreement reduced the number of crew members on a freight train from four or five to two or three. Early 1980s agreements also spelled the end for the caboose-from then on, the conductor would ride in the locomotive with the rest of the crew.
After a strike in 1991, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers won a wage hike that hasn't kept up with the rate of inflation. The union also gave up some health benefits and agreed to work more hours before getting overtime pay. As a result, an Amtrak passenger train that once required four crews to complete the trip from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, Georgia, now operates with only two.
Such changes resulted in drastic reductions in employment at the nation's major railroads, whose work forces dipped from 475,000 at the dawn of the new era to some 191,000 at the end of 1993. The trend is expected to continue, as technology and computers make railroading safer and more efficient with fewer workers. Someday, through-trains may run by radio signal from remote-controlled dispatching centers, trimming the crew to a single person.
The railroad industry is taking a second look at virtually everything it does to squeeze more profit and efficiency from its operations. Freight cars once tracked by human clerks as trains entered yards now respond to radio signals that can beam their codes directly into a computer.
Amtrak, the nation's federally subsidized passenger railroad, has likewise begun moving toward a new era. With its budget tied directly to federal subsidies, however, it has weathered a difficult era in which money to buy new equipment has been tight.
The purchase of millions of dollars worth of new Super-liner passenger cars at the beginning of the 1990s and a newly designed car known as the Viewliner spelled the end for the streamlined passenger-car fleet of the 1950s. The first of some 140 new Superliners resulted in entirely new versions of popular Amtrak trains such as the Cardinal and the Capitol Limited.
Steps to improve Amtrak service between Washington, D.C., and New York City have seen travel times trimmed, with steps being taken to increase speeds from the 120-miles-per-hour range into the 140s. Congress allocated millions of dollars to increase speeds through computer-aided dispatching, higher-speed track, and new electric locomotives.
Perhaps the most encouraging signs that Amtrak was ready to make a leap forward came in 1993. Amtrak tested the Swedish X2000, German ICE, and Spanish Talgo-all advanced trains. These new trains operate with special devices that allow them to travel at higher speeds on curves. Computer-controlled devices actually tilt the X2000 to give it the ability to flash through curves at speeds much higher than normal. Such trains are envisioned as the next step toward faster service between cities. In the extreme Northeast, they're seen as the key toward extending high-speed service from New York City into highly congested New England.
If successful, high-speed rail lines will spread from the Northeast into other sections of the nation. Modern trains will glide along banked turns and fenced-off right-of-ways to move passengers from city to city in record time.
The University of Texas Center of Electromechanics, for example, has been awarded $2.9 million to develop an advanced passenger locomotive that can accelerate faster. If super-railroads, big technological changes, and sweeping labor reforms were unexpected at the beginning of the 1980s, the next few years could be even more surprising.