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Reverse History

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 private sector.

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 hazard.

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 capability.

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 to us.

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 railways.

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 other.

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 thumbs down.

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 costs.

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 our future.

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 systems.

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.

Steve Grande

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