Railroads of the 1990s

Railroads of the Future

Just as the steel railroad car replaced the wooden one, and the diesel replaced the steam engine, it's reasonable to expect even more change from the major railroads in the years to come.

More and more powerful locomotives aided by computers that track everything from the adhesion of the wheels on the rail to the performance of the motors will be pulling trains in the near future. Dedicated trains in which each rail car is powered, thus providing for smooth starting, stopping, and operation, is one possibility.

Intermodal traffic, which has grown more than 60 percent in the last decade, is expected to jump another 60 percent in the next few years. Fast intermodal trains roll across the Colorado high plains on the Santa Fe line as Q-trains and on the nearby Union Pacific line as Z-trains or "Zippers."

Railroads will become better utilized thanks to satellite tracking and computerized signaling and safety devices. As the nation continues to wrestle with environmental problems, the railroads will continue to be an important resource, moving the same amount of freight with only a tenth of the pollution.

The first reviews on deregulation seem to be positive. A shippers group called CURE (Customers United for Rail Equity) sought to partially re-regulate the industry beginning in 1986, but made little progress. In vindication of the 1980 Staggers Act, the federal government in late 1995 dismantled the Interstate Commerce Commission. Debate focused on which remaining federal agencies would assume the I.C.C.'s duties to hear rate disputes and merger cases. The future of the railroad as a free-market industry looked secure.

Throughout their more than 170-year history, American railroads have reflected the development of this diverse and changing country. They grew up with the nation in the 1830s and spearheaded the drive West. They turned ever more complex and, by the turn of the century, became the province of wealthy speculators. They went to war twice in this century. And facing the new world after World War II, they struggled with old ways of doing things.

Today, they're obsessed with technology and productivity, as our society demands newer, faster, and better ways of doing things. In that sense, the railroad is a mirror of American culture. Never before has it been involved in so many new ways of doing what it does best-carrying freight and passengers. As many American industries are busy trying to "re-engineer" their companies, the railroads are well into almost one generation's worth of experimentation and change.

Need proof? Watch what happens south of Seattle late on a springtime afternoon. At a mainline crossing where both Union Pacific and Burlington Northern are within feet of each other, the gates flash and come down. The headlight of a southbound Burlington Northern train appears. Quickly, its two diesels and string of double-stack containers whizz by. The sound of the engines is a deep roar, like a baritone clearing his throat. The tracks sing as the cars pass beneath them. In the distance, a small beacon, the conductor of the twenty-first century, flashes red, sending out an electronic greeting.

Or watch on a sunny Sunday afternoon as a giant CSX coal train rolls through Marietta, Georgia, on its way from a Kentucky coal mine to a Florida power plant. Two AC-powered engines roll the 13,000-ton train south almost effortlessly. Gone forever are the laboring steamers, stopping regularly for water and coal.

Gone, too, are many of the doubts about railroading's future. The industry is headed full throttle toward the twenty-first century, and it's not looking back.