What if the Interstate Highway System had been built in the middle of
the nineteenth century and the system of Railroads built in the middle
of the twentieth century, just the reverse of the actual sequence of events?
I contend that we would have a transportation infrastructure quite
different than the one that we have today.
What If The Interstate Highway System Was Built
Using The Policies Of The Mid-1800's ?
We have a model to use to obtain some insight on how the government would
have accomplished this project. That model is the railroads.
In the 1800's, our government was much closer to its Laissez-faire
("hand's off") philosophical roots than it is today. The government was
not inclined to create or operate a service that was already being provided
by private businesses. If the government decided that more of something
would be for the public good, government policy and incentive payments would
be used to encourage the private sector. During the first century of our
nation that was founded on capitalism, very little thought was given to
having the government itself provide a service which could be done by the
That was the philosophical, political and economic environment in which
America's railroads were founded and built. What would have happened if
America's highways were built in this same environment? Let's go back to
the early in the last century. Railroads and highways were both privately
built, owned and operated. Naturally, the "highways" back then bare little
resemblance to what we visualize a highway to be today. Unfortunately, I
can't make as strong a statement about railroads.
Most intercity roads were unusable during much of the year because of
mud and snow. Originally, each user of the road would have to remove
or go around trees and other debris that had fallen on the road. Even
during the clearest weather, intercity roads were always in terrible
shape making passenger travel uncomfortable and shipping of goods a
Many private companies saw a great opportunity in the poor state of
these roads. These companies began to build their own toll-roads. They
would clear the trees, bridge the rivers, and lay down a roadbed that
would not turn to mud with the rain and snow. These roads would be just
a single lane with occasional turn-offs where wagons going in opposite
directions could pass each other.
It was at this same time that the railroads had an alternate solution.
Their rails were another solution to the poor roads. Not only did the
rails solve the poor roads problem, but goods could be moved much faster
over rails than over even the new roads. This is a fact that remains true
even today when both roads and rails are built to their maximum
The railroads were seen as the transportation solution to connect this
expansive nation together and the rest is history. But, for the sake of
argument, let's say the government decided that highways instead of rail
should be used to interconnect this nation.
A major reason that rail had no competition in the early 1800's was because
trucks and buses didn't exist. Thus, carts and buggies going traveling along
one of these new roads was little competition for a train going down the
rails. To get a proper comparison of how a highway system might have been
built under the philosophies and politics of the nineteenth century, we
have to even up the sides a bit and assume that we did have trucks and
buses back then.
Let's use the same government policies and incentives to get the highways
built as we did to get the railroads built. Since the government did not
like to do the actual building, owning or operating of these facilities
themselves, we won't have them do that. Instead, we'll have the government
turn to the trucking companies to do the job!
Each trucking company will build its own roads. Trucks will haul the freight
and buses will transport the people. In many cases, the trucking companies
will be able to buy up open land and build roads wherever they like. Between
very profitable markets, they will sometimes build roads side by side each
other since each wants a share of those markets.
In other cases, a great deal of investment will be needed on the part of
the trucking companies to build the roads and it may be a long time before
the investors see a return on their money. This will be true of many of
the routes through the west where the population is very sparse. Thus,
the government offers financial incentives to the trucking companies. The
trucking companies will receive large blocks of land on both sides of the
roads they build. They will also get paid to build the roads and even
get extra money going through difficult terrain. But in the end, the
trucking companies will be allowed to own their roads, a lot of land on
both sides of their roads, and get paid for building their roads!
The government sees a specific set of areas in the west that need to have
a road reach them. In most cases, one road to these places is considered
sufficient. Thus, for each road that needs to be built, the government
awards the contract to just one trucking company. Once built, this
trucking company will have exclusive use of that road. If you want to
ship anything by truck or travel along this route by bus, you will have to
do so on one of the vehicles owned by this particular trucking company. I
wonder if this might someday lead to the trucking companies abusing their
monopoly franchise (and lead to severe retaliatory government regulations
that almost destroy this industry)?
Once given a contract, the trucking company sets out to build the road
as fast as they can. Every mile they build gives them more land and more
payments from the government. The faster they build, the faster they get
their money and land! Many trucking companies don't pay too much attention
to the quality of the roads or the safety of the workers during this mad
dash of road building. Many workers lose their lives during the building
process and many of the resulting highways are of questionable safety,
but these problem areas are repaired after each tragedy.
How many lanes are these new roads crossing the nation? Just one, of
course! You can build a one lane road a lot faster and cheaper than a road
with more lanes. The government isn't going to pay more money nor give any
more land to the trucking companies if they build two lanes instead of one.
So what would be the purpose of doing so? Besides, why would anybody need
more than one lane? The trucking companies will building sidings at
strategic points along the route so that trucks heading in opposite
directions can pass each other. They will also have dispatchers every so
many miles to coordinate the trucks and the sidings so that we don't end up
with two trucks heading right at each other on a single lane of road!
What does the trucking company do when they run into difficult or mixed
terrain? Since time is the most important factor to get the government
fees and land as fast as they can, they cover the terrain in the fastest
way available. Sometimes they will blast a tunnel through a mountain or
cut through a hillside, but the fastest way to keep moving is often just
to build the road around the obstacle using switchbacks or very circuitous
routes around uneven terrain. Yes, the route would have been a lot shorter
for the millions of trucks and buses to use the road over the next century
if they took the time to build a straight and level road. But, to do
all that road leveling would often have taken a lot more time. Thus,
sometimes these efforts were made and sometimes they weren't, depending
on the circumstances and the priorities of building as many miles as
could be done each day.
One time, the government even awarded the same route to two different
trucking companies! The government was anxious to open a road that
would go all the way from one side of the continent to the other. They
believed the fastest way to get this done would be to have one trucking
company start at one side and build west and the other trucking company
to start at the other side and build east. Each trucking company would
get paid for each mile they built plus receive a lot of land on each
side of the road. The trucking company that built the fastest would get
the most government money and land, plus be able to collect more fees
by having a longer road.
This created an awful situation when the two trucking companies were
starting to get close to where they would meet. Since each wanted every
mile of road, land and government fees that they could get, they each
started to secretly sabotage and destroy the previous days work of each
other! One side even brought in cannons to fire on the other side! After
quite a bit of bloodshed and destruction, the government finally had to
step in and a compromise was reached as to where the two roads would meet
even before they were completed. This was the only way to stop the war
between the two trucking companies.
The Completed Project
Finally, the basic interstate system of highways was completed! So lets
step back into the 1990's and see what these policies have handed down
These policies resulted in a system of single lane roads running throughout
the nation. Trucks and buses have to stop at strategic locations to
let vehicles going the other way pass. A large staff of dispatchers is
employed throughout the nation to make sure every vehicle is on the proper
road going in the proper direction at the proper time to avoid collisions
and minimize delays. The coordination of vehicles has been optimized in some
places by the installation of automated traffic controls. A few spots
in the nation have roads with two lanes which greatly helps. Some
people talk of a day when every highway will have two lanes, but these
people are dreamers. The costs of such a project would be immense at
today's construction costs relative to what little increase in efficiency
would be obtained.
Each trucking company owns its own roads. Many parts of the nation are
served by only one trucking company. If you want to ship by truck in those
parts of the country, you have to use that trucking company. Trucking
companies will often exchange freight in order to get a load from one
place to another where the two end points are not served by the same
trucking company. The fees and negotiations between the trucking companies
for such exchanges of freight and use of each others roads is beyond the
scope of this presentation.
Sometimes trucking companies don't get along with each other and give
each other a difficult time in negotiating the exchange of freight or
use of each others roads. Customers of trucking companies often get
disgusted over these difficulties and will use some other method
to ship their goods, even if it sometimes costs a bit more. The competitors
to the trucking companies love to see the trucking companies squabble among
themselves. It gives customers good reason to consider going elsewhere for
their shipping needs.
For a lot of reason not covered in the scope of this presentation, a
number of trucking companies have fallen on hard times. Other trucking
companies are not doing too bad. Lately, a lot of trucking companies
have been merging. There is good reason for this. First, it results
in a combined trucking company that can directly ship to many more
destinations without negotiating with another trucking company. Second,
the new company can shut down duplicate roads where the traffic between
the end points doesn't justify more than one road. Third, it can raise
prices on some routes where the two combined companies used to compete
with each other. However, they have to be very quiet about this last
advantage as the government takes a very dim view of this and might
block the merger under anti-trust laws if they suspect this is what the
trucking companies plan to do. Fourth, the new merged company can achieve
many other economies of scale.
Customers of the trucking companies have a very mixed view of these
mergers. They like the idea they might be able to ship their freight
from one end to the other via a single company, but they are concerned
about having a lack of options in selecting a trucking company and
the higher prices that usually result from such lack of options.
What If The Railroads Were Built
Using The Policies Of The Mid-1900's ?
We now turn to the middle of the twentieth century, around the late
1940s, early 1950s. Don't forget the above scenario. We are going to
assume a world with that time of interstate highways system exists as
we turn our attention to the railroads. Passenger aviation is still young.
The number of people that travel by airplane is staring to increase,
but those that do, do so in propeller driven aircraft.
The government considers that an adequate highway system exists. What
the government sees lacking is a modern, efficient, high-speed method of
getting troops and supplies across this nation in times of national
emergency, and in times of peace, getting both goods and people from one
place to another across this vast nation. The government determines that
it needs an interstate railway system. In the interest of national defense,
the goal of building such a system is raised to top priority.
A plan is drawn up. Several direct east west railways are planned along
with several north south railways throughout the nation. The railways
are designed so that the end points of each route are in major cities.
Optimum trade-offs are surveyed to have the railways go as close as
possible to cities along the way that are known to have a high volume
of travelers between them. Feeder railways or loops are designed to cover
cities that are too far or too small to be served by one of the direct
Every attempt is made to design the railways on as straight a route as
possible. Tunnels are bored through hills and mountains where feasible
and smaller hills are cut or leveled so that tracks neither have to
climb over these hills nor go around them. This design shaves hours
off every schedule as well as making the railways suitable for the
fastest trains that advances in rail technology will be able to provide
for years to come. All railways are electrified so that the lightest
weight most powerful and fastest trains possible can be used.
Because of their different weights and requirements, freight and
passenger railways use separate tracks for optimum design and performance.
Both the passenger and the freight lines are double-tracked throughout
to eliminate the need of coordinating trains heading in opposite directions
over a single track. Switch points at regular intervals are provided so
that one train can pass another when this is needed due to a disabled
train or other reason. Double tracking throughout saves additional hours
from every schedule and separating passenger from freight lines permits
each to operate at maximum efficiency with no interference with the
Research is done to make sure that passenger train terminals are placed
closed to the actual places where people want to board or travel to.
In every city at least one station is planned so that an easy connection
can be made between the intercity rail system and the local transit
systems. Transportation Centers and Park & Ride Locations are always
co-located with Intercity Passenger Train Stations to allow for easy
transition between various modes of transportation. An Intercity Train
Station is situated at every major airport so that the trains can act
as convenient feeders to the airports. People from both suburbs and other
cities that don't have their own major airport will have rapid and
convenient access to the airports through the intercity railways system.
Every train station will have long-term parking available so that people
can easily drive to the station, park their car and board a train even
if for an extended journey.
As time passes from the 1950's to the 1960's, the 1970's, the 1980's and
the 1990's and beyond, housing and commercial development grows in areas
that have convenient access to the intercity and interstate railways.
With the government focus and preferences given to the development of
the national interstate railway system, it becomes the major means of
transportation for both freight and passengers. The taxes collected from
the private companies that operate the freight and passenger trains over
the public railways easily pays for the operating and maintenance costs
of the railways. A surplus results from these taxes each year which is
used to repay over time the original government investment to build the
national railway system.
The Preferred Mode Of Travel
In This Reversed World
So what mode of transportation do individuals like to personally use
to get around in this world of privately owned single lane roads and
optimized high-speed rail systems? For commuting to work or school,
the extensive rapid transit systems in this different world can't be beat!
Sometimes, however, the only reasonable way to get where you are going
is by your own automobile.
Using a car around large metropolitan areas such as the San Francisco
Bay Area or the greater Los Angeles area is no problem. Since most people
use the superior transit systems, there are no road traffic problems. Thus,
for those travels that are not adequately served by other transit, getting
about by car isn't very difficult. There are good roads serving every great
metropolitan and suburban area.
The only serious transportation problem is getting from one major area
of population to another, such as going from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
A lot of people use airlines, but people often like to have their own car
with them at their destinations. Thus, a problem in need of a solution rose:
How people could take their car with them when they travel?
Someone proposed that the highways be expanded to at least two lanes
in each direction so that people could drive themselves to their
destinations. To increase the private roadways from one lane to four
lanes, two going each way, would require a tremendous amount of
investment capital. Even if the construction costs were amortized over
40 or 50 years, analysts predicted that very few people would pay the
toll necessary to cover that and the operating costs just to have the
luxury of bringing their car with them. Wall street gave the idea
The idea was taken to congress. Advocates mentioned all the jobs
this would create. News agencies mentioned the unusual amount of
funds flowing to supportive political action committees from
the petroleum industry, construction companies and the auto industry.
Opponents questioned the safety of mixing heavy trucks with light
personal automobiles on the same roads and if it was even possible
to build a roadway with traffic not controlled by dispatchers. The
dispatchers union was upset that a system of highways that wouldn't
use dispatchers was even being proposed!
Eventually, the entire idea was laughed out of congress. The cost to
build and operate such a project would be massive. It would require
that the government take the highways away from perfectly solvent
trucking companies, something without precedent in U.S. history, and
then expand and maintain these highways through taxes and/or user
fees. For such massive road construction to be justified, analysts calculated
it would take millions of people each driving in their own cars hundreds of
tiring miles between major city pairs every year and paying a substantial
toll or tax. Estimates were made of how many people would pay to use
such a system of roads just for the luxury of being able to take their
own car with them on their travels. The numbers could not justify the
In the end, however, everything worked out well. The railroads came up
with an idea where people could place there automobiles in a special car
on the train. The people could then travel in comfort to their destination
on the train, arrive relaxed and refreshed, and then retrieve their
automobile so they could use it at their destination city! The cost of
travel in this manner was far less than the cost of fuel, tolls or
taxes and motels that would have been needed if people drove themselves.
Travel by train was also much safer than driving and turns a potentially
stressful experience into one of the most quality travel experiences.
I guess we can all be thankful that things turned out this way instead
of having great ribbons of wide asphalt highways filled with gas guzzling
smog producing cars strangling our nation.
By replacing the word "highway" with the word "railway" and visa versa in
the above scenarios, you end up with a story that is pretty close to
actual history. Although analogies seldom match their object 100% and
it would probably be easy to pick some problems with the above analogies,
I think the general point still remains valid: If we had built our
interstate highway system using the philosophies and politics of the mid
1800's, we'd have serious problems with our highway network today. If we
had a national railway network with the same philosophies, politics and
economics that were used to build the interstate highway system in the
mid 1900's, we'd have a national railway network that would be the major
mode of medium and long-distance transportation.
The purpose of this article is not to say that we should now engage in
a national effort of building railways similar to what we did for the
interstate highway system. I don't believe our nation can afford that
and really don't believe our nation would have been able to afford the
building our interstate highway system without having borrowed against
I'm just offering some food for thought. Before we blame the railroads
or Amtrak for the current state of passenger rail travel, I think it is
very important to look at the government policies that led to the
current state of things. Those politics distorted the natural economics
of the transportation industry. They made one mode of transportation
look more efficient and less expensive than another when that truly was
not the case. Thus, not only passenger transportation but even freight
transportation by rail almost vanished in this nation. Only after the
removal of many unreasonable government regulations did the freight rail
industry start to recover. The problems associated with the survival of
passenger rail are numerous, but burdensome government regulations
continue to be a major contributor to those problems.
I'm not excusing the railroads for mistakes they themselves made which
helped lead to their own demise. There were many of those, but that is
not the issue covered here. Here, I'd just like you to think about how
things might have been different if the government decided to build
a national system of roads in the mid-1800's and a national system of rails
in the mid-1900's.
Before we curse the railroads and Amtrak and blame them for their own
demise, I'd like us to consider the governmental actions that contributed
to the current state of affairs. Many state that the reason
few people use passenger rail is that it is an obsolete mode of
transportation. I do not believe it is an obsolete mode of transportation
at all. I believe past and government policies have prevented rail from
becoming the useful and widely preferred method of transportation it would
have become without the intervention of government into the transportation
system. On the other hand, I don't believe that driving ones own car
hundreds of miles between cities or even shipping freight by truck over
those distances would ever have become what it is today had the government
not interfered with the natural economics of these transportation
Before we let Amtrak die and allow intercity rail transportation vanish
from this nation for a long time, maybe forever, we had better make sure
that we aren't throwing away a valuable irreplaceable national resource.
I believe that the government should do whatever it can to keep Amtrak
alive, healthy, and growing and at the same time, determine how to
return rail back to the proper role that it can and should have in the
national transportation infrastructure.
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