What Happened to the Railroads?
Before World War II, railroads were an integral part of peoples lives and one of the nations premier businesses. They employed between 1.5 and 2 million people annuallyabout 10 percent of all industrial workersand transported hundreds of billions of ton-miles of freight. But after the war, as Americans embraced cars, trucks, and highways, the role of railroads changed.
In the 1940s, diesel locomotives began to be introduced on U.S. railroads in large numbers. Steam and diesel locomotives ran side by side for a brief time in the 1940s and early 1950s, but new diesel locomotives took over as they radically cut maintenance and operating expenses. Steam locomotive 1401 was last repaired at Spencer in 1951. All steam locomotives on the Southern were retired by 1953, and Spencer Shops, not easily convertible to diesel work, closed in 1960
By 1950, rail traffic was dropping steadily, motivating rail managers to cut costs. This drop in traffic and the fact that diesels needed far fewer people to maintain them combined to cut rail employment. In 1962, U.S. railroads had half the number of workers they had in 1946.
In the 1980s and 1990s, passenger trains were no longer a part of most travelers lives. But railroads rebounded economically, due to growth in rail shipment of freight containers, automobiles, coal, grain, food, and other products. In the 1990s, rails carried more commercial freight more miles than waterways or trucks.