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Railroads, USA

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U.S. Freight Railroads

by Cathy Richey


Freight railroads are critical to the economic well-being and global competitiveness of the United States. They move 42 percent of our nation's freight (measured in ton-miles). This is everything from lumber to vegetables, coal to orange juice, and grain to automobiles, chemicals, and scrap iron.

US railroads connect businesses with each other across the country and with markets overseas. They also contribute billions of dollars each year to the economy through investments, wages, purchases, and taxes.

There were 554 common carrier freight railroads operating in the United States (as of 2002), classified into five groups.


1. Class I railroads are those with operating revenue of at least $272 million in 2002. Class I carriers comprise only 1 percent of the number of U.S. freight railroads, but they account for 70 percent of the industry's mileage operated, 89 percent of its employees, and 92 percent of its freight revenue. Class I carriers typically operate in many different states and concentrate largely (though not exclusively) on long-haul, high-density intercity traffic lanes. There are seven Class I railroads, ranging in size from just over 3,000 to more than 33,000 miles operated and from 2,600 to more than 46,000 employees.

Class I Railroads:

  • The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSD.

  • CSX Transportation (CSX).

  • Grand Trunk Corporation, which consists of the U.S. operations of Canadian National (CN), including the former Grand Trunk Western (GTW), Illinois Central (IC), and Wisconsin Central.

  • Kansas City Southern (KCS).

  • Norfolk Southern (NS).

  • The former Soo Line (800), owned by Canadian Pacific (CP).

  • Union Pacific (UP)

2. Regional railroads are line haul railroads with at least 350 route miles and/or revenue of between $40 million and the Class I threshold. There were 31 regional railroads in 2002. Regional railroads typically operate 400 to 650 miles of road serving a region located in two to four states. Most regional railroads employ between 75 and 500 workers, although four have more than 600 employees.

3. Local line haul carriers operate less than 350 miles and earn less than $40 million per year. In 2002, there were 309 local line haul carriers. They generally perform point-to-point service over short distances. Most operate less than 50 miles of road (more than 20 percent operate 15 or fewer miles) and serve a single state.

4. Switching and terminal (S&T) carriers are railroads, regardless of revenue, that primarily provide switching and/or terminal services. Rather than point-to-point transportation, they perform pick up and delivery services within a specified area for one or more connecting line haul carriers, often in exchange for a flat per-car fee. In some cases, S&T carriers funnel traffic between line haul railroads. In 2002, there were 205 S&T carriers. The largest S&T carriers handle hundreds of thousands of carloads per year and earn tens of millions of dollars in revenue.

5. The two major Canadian freight railroads (Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway )  each have extensive U.S. operations.


U.S. freight railroads employ about 177,000 people, the vast majority of whom are unionized. With average total compensation in 2002 of more than $80,000, freight railroad employees are among the nation's most-highly compensated workers.

By any measure of capital intensity, freight railroads are at or near the top among all major U.S. industries. From 1980 through 2003, Class I railroads spent more than $320 billion on capital expenditures and maintenance expenses related to infrastructure and equipment. Non-Class I carriers spent billions of dollars more. These massive expenditures help ensure that railroads have the capability to offer high quality, safe, and cost-effective service to meet the freight transportation needs of our nation.


Amtrak Passenger Train

The railroad's official name is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. Amtrak began service on May 1, 1971 when Clocker No. 235 departed New York Penn Station at 12:05 a.m. bound for Philadelphia. In 1971, Amtrak announced a schedule of 184 trains, serving 314 destinations.

When service began, Amtrak had 25 employees. Today, the company employs 22,000 people. Since the beginning, even-numbered trains have traveled north and east. Odd-numbered trains travel south and west. Among the exceptions are Amtrak's Pacific Surfliners, which use the opposite numbering system inherited from their former operator, the Santa Fe Railroad, and some Empire Corridor Trains.

Amtrak serves more than 500 stations in 46 states. Those not included are Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Wyoming is served by Amtrak Thruway Motorcoaches. Amtrak operates over more than 22,000 route miles. It owns 730 route miles, about 3 percent of the total nationwide, primarily between Boston and Washington, DC, and in Michigan. In other parts of the country, Amtrak trains use tracks owned by freight railroads. On weekdays, Amtrak operates up to 265 trains per day, excluding commuter trains. Amtrak trains operate every minute of the entire year.

The Auto Train, which travels between Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, Florida is the longest Amtrak passenger train with two engines and 40-plus rail cars.

  • At 1,480 feet, the platform at Amtrak's Auto Train station in Lorton, Virginia is longer than the Sears Tower.

  • At 2,768 miles, the Sunset Limited between Orlando and Los Angeles is the longest Amtrak intercity passenger train route.

  • At 86 miles, the Hiawatha, which travels between Chicago and Milwaukee, is Amtrak's shortest intercity passenger train route.

  • Passenger Cars: Amtrak operates 2,141 railroad cars including 168 sleeper cars, 760 coach cars, 126 first class/business class cars, 66 dormitory/crew cars, 225 lounge/café/dinette cars, and 92 dining cars. Baggage cars make up the remainder of the fleet.

  • Locomotives: Amtrak operates 425 locomotives -- 351 diesel and 74 electric.

  • 19 Acela Express trainsets currently provide high-speed rail service along the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston.

Amtrak owns three heavy maintenance facilities in Wilmington, and Bear, Delaware and Beech Grove, Indiana, and other maintenance facilities in Boston, Chicago, Hialeah, FL., Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, Niagara Falls, Oakland, Rensselaer, NY, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

  • Amtrak owns 17 tunnels consisting of 29.7 miles of track and 1,186 bridges consisting of 42.5 miles of track.
  • Amtrak is the nation's largest provider of contract-commuter service for state and regional authorities
  • Through its commuter services, Amtrak serves an additional 61.1 million people per year.

Amtrak currently provides commuter service for the following state and regional authorities:

  • Caltrain (California)

  • Coasters (California)

  • Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC)

  • Metrolink (California)

  • Shoreline East (Connecticut)

  • Virginia Railway Express (VRE)

Amtrak also provides maintenance services for the Sounder Commuter Rail system in the Seattle area.

Some taxpayer rights advocates object to Amtrak and want it killed. They do the math and have numbers showing a high cost per rider. However, they aren't doing the math that shows a far higher cost per rider in the automobile. Doing that math requires counting the vast subsidies, such as the expensive to build and maintain highways. Those highways also require police patrols, snow removal (in most states), and other services. In addition, the death toll on the highways takes a toll on the economy.

Doing that math also requires counting the vast subsidies to various industries that are involved in competing (to Amtrak) modes of transportation. For example, Big Oil relies on "defense" outlays of staggering sums to maintain the flow of oil from the Middle East. Leaving a trillion dollars out of your calculations in favor of the automobile is not how you rely at a valid comparison. The Middle East oil policy began in the Carter years and has been central to USA foreign policy ever since. An additional military "PAC" (CentPac) was created just to accommodate it. Since then, another PAC was created to maintain the flow from Africa as well.

Rail is probably our single best medium-distance and short-distance strategy going forward, at least for a few decades, when you look at all the costs.


About the author: Cathy and her Doberman Trooper conduct research into all kinds of topics and produce articles like the one you see here. To contact Cathy, write to Get the facts from Cathy, and let the Cathy Factor give you an edge.





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