Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century/Rock Island Requiem: The Collapse of a Mighty Fine Line

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century/Rock Island Requiem: The Collapse of a Mighty Fine Line

Article excerpt

American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century. By Robert E. Gallamore and John R. Meyer. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 506, notes, index. Cloth, $55.00).

Rock Island Requiem: The Collapse of a Mighty Fine Line. By Gregory L. Schneider. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2013. Pp. xvii, 380, illustrations, notes, index. Paper, $37.50.)

Scholars have long been attracted to the history of railroads, America's first big business, and an industry that since the 1830s has helped to shape the economic, political and social life of the nation. This interest continues as demonstrated with these two recently published books: American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century, by Robert Gallamore and John Meyer, and Rock Island Requiem: The Collapse of a Mighty Fine Line, by Gregory Schneider. Although the titles suggest unrelated studies, both publications complement each other, one taking the big-picture approach and the other being a case study.

American Railroads is the product of two transportation economists. The lead author is Robert Gallamore, an academic who has also worked in the railroad industry. It would be Gallamore who completed a manuscript that had been partially written by his graduate school mentor at Harvard University, the late John Meyer, James W. Harpel Professor of Capital Formation Emeritus at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. In their collaborative work, they discuss the largely economic thrust of the railroad enterprise from the post-Civil War Gilded Age through the twentieth century to the present day. Their conclusions are straight-forward: excessive government regulation of railroad rates and practices have been largely responsible for the decline of the rail industry until passage of the Staggers Rail Act (1980), a landmark measure that allowed carriers to adjust rates, routes, and services without regulatory approval. Al- though creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887 was needed, Progressive Era reformers, led by Senators Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin and A. B. Cummins of Iowa, did much to bring about what historian Albro Martin has called "enterprise denied." Over regulation came about with such rate-control measures as the Hepburn Act (1906) and Mann-Elkins Act (1910). The Valuation Act (1913) proved to be another costly bureaucratic mandate. Moreover, laws enacted during the Woodrow Wilson administration, which were largely designed to protect railroad workers, proved expensive as did federalization of most steam railroads and strategic electric interurbans during the First World War. Then, to worsen matters, the Esch-Cummins Act (1920) included an unworkable provision for the creation of a limited number of merged roads designed to protect shippers who feared that financially weak carriers might reduce service or collapse.

If burdensome laws were not enough, government support after 1916 for highway betterments (the result of the "good roads" crusade) fostered increased truck and automobile competition. Washington also showed generosity to the developing barge business through river improvements and a no- or low-tax policy. The same nurturing took place with the airline industry energized not only by taxpayer support for infrastructure construction but also by the Kelly Air Mail Act (1925) that made aviation commercially viable.

As railroads felt the growing sting of modal competition, regulatory policies did not drastically change, although transportation acts in 1940 and 1958 provided some relief. Gallamore and Meyer demonstrate that the industry was forced to manage continual financial challenges. Carriers desperately needed to replace less remunerative value-of-service with differential pricing for freight traffic in order to generate adequate revenues for operating costs and essential capital for maintaining and upgrading their physical plants, including motive power and communications. …

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