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Why are Railroads Important to the US?

Updated on October 15, 2016

The Importance of the Railroads

Railroads today are a vital part of our economy, with out railroads the United States would not be a world power, would not be able to sustain the number of citizens it currently has to be brutally honest, the roads would be clogged from end to end.

The railroads haul everything possible and I can tell you that the computer you are using, the car sitiing in your driveway, and pretty much everything in your house (including the parts to build yout house all travelled by rail at some point.

Lumber-From the Northwest and Canada

Oil from North Dakota

Oil Products from Texas

Automobiles Imported from Asia

Automobiles built in the US


Cereal Grains for consumption in the US and Export

The list goes on but lets take a look at these commodities.

Union Pacific Auto carrier that is capible of holding up to 18 cars, depending on size and shape
Union Pacific Auto carrier that is capible of holding up to 18 cars, depending on size and shape


That car in your driveway took its first trip on the rails befor it was built. The Frames, the bolts, the engines, and any other part you can think of travelled by trains to the automotive plants around the country. Then the finished Cars and trucks are shipped to the area where they will be sold by rail then trucked to the dealer. Most cars and trucks all start their lives in this manner, as it is the most economical way to move a massive amount of cars at one time.

The lumber car being loaded for shipment.
The lumber car being loaded for shipment. | Source


Wood, the primary building material is a major commodity, comes mostly from Canada now a days. The only area that carries a measurable volumes in the U.S. Is the northeast, in Maine. The lumber is then shipped to customers across the country. The down turn in the economy has hurt the housing industry, which in turn hurts the lumber industry, the main building material in housing. Lumber is on a down swing right now because housing isn't being built and the economy is down. Just the other day I was looking at google maps and saw that there were strings of lumber cars on sidings. Hopefully the housing market will pick up and those lumbers cars will be back in action soon.

Grain train

Grain train westbound on Marias Pass MT
Grain train westbound on Marias Pass MT | Source


The Mid west of the United States is known as the bread basket of North America. Every year from August to October there is a mad dash to harvest all the grain and get it to the consumer, Wheat, Corn, Barley, Oats, Soybeans are all harvested and shiped in Unit trains to ports for export, or processing plants to be used in everything from Breads, cereals, pancake mix, and may other products.

The Grain is loaded in covered hopper cars and then assembled into unit trains for shipment. Each car CARRIES ABOUT 200,000 pounds or 100 tons of grain. Wheat, oats, Barley Corn and soy are the most common grains hauled by the railroads, and the fall is the most common time to see grain trains rushing out of the midwest, as the harvest has to move before these cereal crops spoil. Granted the crops can stay in storage, however the farmers and railroads want to move the crops to market as quickly as possible.

Coal Train

Coal train being loaded.
Coal train being loaded. | Source


The coal train, one of the most controversial cargos on the rails today, and its not because of while its transported, Its what is done with it after it is at its final destination. Coal is carbon, and when burned releases CO2. I wrote a hub on coal and discussed the problems with it, but the problem is not in the transporting.

Double stack Container

A double stack container train.
A double stack container train. | Source

Containers and trailers

Ever wonder where the goods from Walmart came from? If you said a foreign country you are more than likely correct. Now how did they get to your Walmart? If you said truck you are also correct, BUT you missed a large part of the transportation, the train, the ships arrive in ports such as LA, Long Beach and Seattle, then the containers are loaded on trains bound for the Midwest and east coast. 95 percent of the goods arriving on our western shores are bound for places inland. A large majority will stay in the US but a small percentage of the freight goes into Mexico and Canada.

There is bridge traffic as well heading to ships on the east coast for points in Europe, this is a very small percentage, but is there. All different products are carried in containers from art supplies to yo yos.

Truck trailers are the other type of container, these are truck trailers and be lifted right off the train an attached to a truck for delivery. UPS and Fed Ex use this form of shipment for ground Packages. If you send by ground and not air, it will spend a portion of the trip on a train.

Empire Builder in Montana
Empire Builder in Montana | Source

Passenger Trains

The passenger train has been part of the landscape ever since the very beginning. These trains were considered first class in the respect that they had priority over every other train on the line. The postal service helped them achieve this status shortly after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Mail was carried aboard passenger trains as well as on their own special trains that operated as passenger trains, some mail trains handled coach passengers such as the Burlington Route's Coloradian.

Passenger service was virtually wiped out over time as automobiles and air travel became more popular. In 1971 after the declining decade of the 60s the US government created Amtrak, with two million in the bank, 300 locomotives and about 500 decent operational cars, Amtrak became the National Passenger Rail service. It initially was very skeleton system, but over the last 43 years hit has been altered and added too. Many routes came and went, which some the author believes should have stayed. As they served areas that are out of the way and even though they have the highways would still take time getting to, and because of the smaller airports, the cost of flying is pretty high.

Today Amtrak has proved its worth many times over, most notably in times of great tragedy and disaster. 9/11 was and still is a tragic day, and as the skies had no planes flying, Amtrak was operating at and over capacity adding extra cars and trains on the Northeast corridor for a week after the attacks until the airlines started flying again at their capacity..After Katrina in 2005 Amtrak again came to the rescue adding extra cars to out bound City of New Orleans, Cresent and the Sunset Limited.

Amtrak carried second and third class mail for a while in the 90s but that was taken away from them in early 2000s. Today, they are struggling with the competition of the airlines, but they are making strides in corridor operations, in the Northeast, Midwest California and the Northwest, with 110 MPH testing in Illinois trains are fast becoming a competitor once again in short haul corridors.

© 2013 Clayton Hartford


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