The other day I was talking with a friend about how much of our contemporary world was shaped by the 1960s. My curiosity was piqued when discussing the disappearance of standard-cab locomotives from modern main lines. Consider the EMD GP40 locomotive was first introduced in 1965, setting a design standard that would last into the 1990s. Even the so-called “wide-cab” locomotive dates to the era, with the EMD DDA40X of 1969. “It’s been what, 30 years? And there hasn’t been all that much innovation.” At this point my friend stopped me, noting the error in my math — 1965 was 55 years ago.
Time, I suppose, sneaks up on us all, but on the railroad it moves so slowly that it is easy to imagine it isn’t moving at all. When, inevitably, you do notice, it can feel shocking. Consider the centerbeam flatcar, the double-stack container well car, and the “bathtub” coal gondola are now all more than 40 years old.
It can feel positively strange to think about events even further back in time, and then count the distance. The end of main line steam is now 60 years back. The introduction of the EMD FT? More than 80 years. Amfleet? Now approaching middle age at 45. The 1920s, a decade that ushered in the era of modern railway standardization, is now a full century in the rearview mirror.
To some, the relative lack of change in the railroad world is something to celebrate. This is understandable. After all, railways have a rich culture of language and practices, and all too often change has actually meant elimination. For railfans, myself included, learning about the past is often learning about what one has just missed witnessing. Nobody welcomes loss. Steam isn’t coming back, cabooses are gone for good, and Amtrak will never rival the 20th Century Limited for service or amenities.
Yet the lack of change is a problem, too. Though hotshot intermodal trains may seem the most important, the moneymaker for most railways over the last four decades has been coal. This is true for the big eastern roads — in 2019, 20 percent of CSX revenue was from coal — but it’s true of western railways, as well. The 1980s opening of mining in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin helped underwrite the profits of Burlington Northern and successor BNSF, as well as Union Pacific. That’s 40 years of coal money — but coal demand in the U.S. has been falling for half of that time. Nothing has stopped that decline, and no new commodity has appeared to replace that lost revenue.
Trade associations frequently talk about how much more efficient freight railways are today than in generations past. What, though, has actually changed? What new traffic have they built, what new marketing strategies? Innovations such as Positive Train Control or Precision Scheduled Railroading have not exactly revolutionized the industry. Cost-cutting and efficiency measures may bolster profit margins for a time, but they will not offset the loss of the inevitable end of lucrative coal traffic.
Built by visionaries, railways once revolutionized ground transportation. Stripped of the cash-cow of coal, they are now forced to choose between two futures. One is to continue on the path of contraction, constantly fighting to maintain profits by miserly attention to reducing expenses. The alternative? To return to their roots, and re-embrace innovation. I know which one I want, but which one investors and managers will take remains to be seen.
—Consulting Editor ALEXANDER BENJAMIN CRAGHEAD is a transportation historian, photographer, artist, and author.