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Interstates and rail freight in the U.S.

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Interstates and rail freight in the U.S.
Posted by Aurora SL 1 on Sunday, March 24, 2024 5:31 AM

Apologies, a long-winded question from an irregular poster. Also, I have hesitated to post this question as it may sound like I am trying to start a conspiracy theory, but hear me out. 

Firstly, some context. I am posting from Australia, where on the eastern seaboard, only about 10% of freight between the three big cities - Brisbane / Sydney / Melbourne, moves by rail. Pretty much all the rest is on trucks, predominantly what we call over here 'B-doubles' (Prime mover + plus two full length trailers). There might be a tiny fraction, less than rail, on coastal shipping. 

Between Australia's two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne (both with populations of greater than 5 million people), less than 2% of the freight task is handled by rail.

These paltry rail freight totals could shift to road and no one on the highways (Interstates) would notice. With the exception of trans-Australia - a very different story - interstate rail freight is almost gone in Australia, partly (or largely) because of the excellent highway infrastructure and sub-standard rail infrastucture. 

My question is this: when the Interstate system in the US was being established in the 1950s and after, was part of the aim, explicit or implicit, to remove freight from much of the U.S. railroad network, expecially in the north east? 

 

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Posted by Overmod on Sunday, March 24, 2024 10:45 AM

The 'original' implicit purpose (as promoted by Eisenhower) was to facilitate quick military mobilization of self-propelled equipment.  Hence the original calling them 'defense highways'.  I can still remember as a child seeing road signs in New England marking routes onto 'defense highways' and thinking that ordinary cars would need special permission or permits to be allowed to go there.

Earlier practice on American highways was prompt, taken at state level, to restrict both the length and size of both OTR trucks and buses.  The particular failure of the Nite Coach model of 'luxury bus' service to areas not well served by comparable rail consequently never gained profitable acceptance in the United States, although there were periodic attempts, including at the Santa Fe, to introduce the idea of 'trainlike' amenities and service on buses.

While the ICC was still in the business of regulating everything, they took pains to keep the motor-carrier industry free of railroad financial dominance, just as they did for aircraft (first passenger in New England in the early Thirties and then freight with ATSF in the late '40s).

Part of the idea of the Interstate development as a 'consumer' network is that it would be internally financed, with a surcharge on fuel and, for trucks, imposition of a share of 'road use taxes' (whigh turned out not to account for the vastly larger deterioration of roads from heavy, fast truck traffic, but that's a later part of the story...).  To my knowledge there was no active push to shift freight traffic from railroad to road, but the practicality of long-distance trucking became much greater as road use by the general public became facilitated.

As a potentially interesting note on Australian road trains: very early in the development of the 'turnpike' systems, there were proposals to run long-distance 'doubles' between terminals located with highway access.  To get around local road restrictions the doubles would only run over the turnpike, and the trailers conventionally frayed the 'rest of the way'.  One of my favorite Matchbox toys was an "Interstate Double-Freighter" which was a tractor-trailer with bogie for a second trailer -- of course I as a child took delight in hooking up three or more.  An important point of the turnpike operations is that they involved very limited sharp curves or reverse moves, so the safety limitations on 'pups' that still apply in the US were less relevant.

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Posted by Aurora SL 1 on Monday, March 25, 2024 5:08 AM

Overmod, thanks for the response, makes a lot of sense. I had completely forgotten the defense aspect of the Interstate sytem and I didn't know that individual states had placed restrictions on both trucks and buses. 

but the practicality of long-distance trucking became much greater as road use by the general public became facilitated.

A depressingly familar sceanrio, abviously also seen on this side of the Pacific.  

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Posted by timz on Monday, March 25, 2024 12:42 PM

Aurora SL 1
was part of the aim, explicit or implicit, to remove freight from much of the U.S. railroad network, expecially in the north east?

Okay, so you're not starting a conspiracy theory. In that case, we don't understand the question. Are you asking if Eisenhower (or someone) hated the railroads and wanted to put them out of business? Probably not, since no conspiracy theory. So what are you asking?

(As if we had any hope of answering your question, whatever it is.)

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Posted by Overmod on Monday, March 25, 2024 5:20 PM

It needs to be remembered that railroads were 'widely perceived' to be on their way out at times during the postwar period, with the rise of 'modern' diesel tractor-trailers to replace gasoline, and the advent of turnpikes and good roads to allow both 'door to door- and break-bulk/cross-dock service with far less capital and far more agility than any railroad could deliver.

Frankly I'm surprised that GM didn't do the same thing with truck lines that it did with NCL (having learned that you don't bind the mouths with overpriced sweetheart parts deals).  I am one of the people who think there was a conspiracy at the ICC against perceived 'railroad power' which threw a wrench in Santa Fe's excellent air-freight complementary service in the '40s and culminated in the regulation abuses of the early 1960s.  

This mirrored the 'good roads' development for passenger cars, but so many factors favored the trucks:  essentially free roads both for OTR without delays or lights and also for last-mile connections to all sorts of facilities without effective rail access.  No switching or routing delays (unless you count a few stops ahead of yours with a LTL forwarder), specialized locomotives with no particular alternative uses; no enormous tax bills saddled by locals who want to sock it to the robber barons; and perhaps worst of all, trivial barriers of entry to 'privateers' who are willing to take someone's older or unfinanced truck and bust their buns trying to make a buck until they can't... at which point the truck gets repo'ed and sold to the next greater fool.  That takes away much of the railroad's perceived cost advantage -- you will notice that although the BSM and the Speed Witch had some success when they were 'the only game in town', that was largely 'game over' by the time no one wanted to pay for passenger-train Super-C service.  When your competitors are cheaper, faster, easier to crew, and present in ever-greater numbers, the railroad business-as-usual even in an age of CTC and diesel-electrics doesn't look too promising in an awful lot of service areas.

Consider the abject failure of REA, which had a nifty business model when every town had a subsidized passenger station and agent who could lump and drive.  When that went away... so did REA's whole operating model, not to be replaced with anything that could work with their infrastructure.

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Posted by wjstix on Tuesday, March 26, 2024 11:48 AM

Legend has it that Ike was impressed by Germany's Autobahn system, and that the Interstate Highway System was inspired by it. However, Lt.Col Eisenhower was in charge of a 1919 military truck expedition, which sought to see how long it would take to drive coast to coast using US and state highways. The trip ended up taking 62 days. No doubt this had an affect on his opinions.

Eisenhower’s 1919 Road Trip and the Interstate Highway System | WyoHistory.org

It should be noted in the 19th and early 20th century, railroads were very powerful and were seen by many people as 'the enemy'. Many states set up Railroad Commissions (in some cases with elected members) who regulated railroads. This prevented railroads from for example gouging farmers for hauling their produce to market - railroads would encourage farmers to settle along their line, then charge high rates to ship their grain or other farm products to the large cities. This doesn't mean the Interstates were meant to hurt railroads, but that perhaps a lot of people didn't care if it hurt railroads or not.

The interstates had some unintended consequences. In many cases, low-income minority neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for the interstate through big cities. It also fostered the rise of suburbs - the intention was to speed up traffic between metro areas, but in practice people could use the interstate to live in a second or third ring suburb and still commute to downtown. This helped cause the "urban decay" of the 1950s-60s.

Stix
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Posted by BaltACD on Saturday, March 30, 2024 9:35 AM

wjstix
. . .

The interstates had some unintended consequences. In many cases, low-income minority neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for the interstate through big cities. It also fostered the rise of suburbs - the intention was to speed up traffic between metro areas, but in practice people could use the interstate to live in a second or third ring suburb and still commute to downtown. This helped cause the "urban decay" of the 1950s-60s.

For those making the decisions the consequences were fully intended and directed toward minority neighborhoods.

Never too old to have a happy childhood!

              

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Posted by rcdrye on Saturday, March 30, 2024 3:19 PM

Interstates weren't originally supposed to go "downtown".  Some cities, notably Los Angeles and Chicago, built their own to connect.  Chicago's Department of Subways and Superhighways was responsible for the State Street and Dearborn subways, as well as the Congress (now Eisenhower) and Dan Ryan Expressways, neither originally part of the Interstate system.

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Posted by wjstix on Wednesday, April 3, 2024 3:02 PM

BaltACD

The interstates had some unintended consequences. In many cases, low-income minority neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for the interstate through big cities. It also fostered the rise of suburbs - the intention was to speed up traffic between metro areas, but in practice people could use the interstate to live in a second or third ring suburb and still commute to downtown. This helped cause the "urban decay" of the 1950s-60s.

 

For those making the decisions the consequences were fully intended and directed toward minority neighborhoods.

 

My point was the original purpose of the interstate system wasn't to destroy minority neighborhoods, it was to connect urban metro areas to each other. The decision to run the interstate through a big city, rather than around it, was a later decision made at the local level to a large extent. 

 
Stix
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Posted by BaltACD on Thursday, April 4, 2024 10:36 AM

wjstix
 
BaltACD

The interstates had some unintended consequences. In many cases, low-income minority neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for the interstate through big cities. It also fostered the rise of suburbs - the intention was to speed up traffic between metro areas, but in practice people could use the interstate to live in a second or third ring suburb and still commute to downtown. This helped cause the "urban decay" of the 1950s-60s. 

For those making the decisions the consequences were fully intended and directed toward minority neighborhoods. 

My point was the original purpose of the interstate system wasn't to destroy minority neighborhoods, it was to connect urban metro areas to each other. The decision to run the interstate through a big city, rather than around it, was a later decision made at the local level to a large extent. 

Politics is Politics - Those in power are the privledged and will undertake actions that benefit them being in power.  The reality of such a situation is that those actions will be implemented in the regions occupied by those not in power.

Local politics is even more divisive than national politics currently are.

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Posted by wjstix on Tuesday, April 9, 2024 4:10 PM

Except we're talking about a national program, not local politics. Ike didn't implement the interstate system as a way to destroy black neighborhoods. What local people did later doesn't change that.

Stix

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