Railroads Lost and Found

ALMOST AS SOON AS THE RAILROADS WERE BUILT, sections started to become redundant and were closed. Some lines, built by railroad companies to meet a need that turned out not to exist, were never profitable and were soon abandoned; others, built to serve a particular mine or factory, lost their purpose when the works in question closed. The rapid demise of some superfluous early railroads was inevitable. In Britain, 200 miles (320km) of track had already closed by World War I, either because the lines were never viable or because of competition from rival routes. The first significant closure was the 17-mile (27-km) line between Chesterford and Six Mile Bottom in Cambridgeshire, built by the Newmarket and Chesterford Railway. It was closed in 1851 after a more direct route was created. Unusually, the line closed outright rather than being kept open as a freight route, a profitable alternative for many early lines. Other countries simply built too many railroads. France had more railroads than it needed, thanks to government support for railroad construction in the 1860s, and many of the lines did not survive into the 20th century. Ireland, despite enduring the terrible famine of the 1840s that resulted in the death and emigration of 3 million people, built a network of lines that never made economic sense, given the country’s sparse population. At the 1920s peak, it boasted 3,440 miles (5,540km) of railroads serving a population of 4 million. It was hardly surprising much of this network closed in the 1930s, especially as automobile use increased.

In a way, it was remarkable that more lines did not close in this period, one reason being that railroad companies had to seek government permission to close lines in many countries, including the US and Britain. Permission was rarely granted since terminating a service was inevitably unpopular and attracted negative publicity for politicians, meaning that many little-used lines remained open. In Britain, an 1844 Act required railroads to run at least one service a day to serve poorer travelers. This resulted in a phenomenon known as “parliamentary trains,” with companies operating the minimum number of trains necessary to circumvent the costs of closure. Some of these “ghost trains” run to this day. Even rather hopeless lines could be kept open to avoid controversy. Renowned chronicler of the Victorian railways Jack Simmons wrote of the Bishop’s Castle Railway in mid-Wales, for example, which became insolvent five years after its completion in 1861 and yet remained in operation until 1935.

Relatively few railroads closed around the world in the interwar period. In part this was because of local opposition to closure, as the railroads were now an established form of public transportation—usually the only one until the advent of buses. Railroad companies were reluctant to sanction closures too, as it was hard for them to predict the effect of closing branch lines on the network as a whole. Railroad economics are complex, and managers had to determine whether passengers on a branch line would continue to use the system if their local service was no longer provided before deciding if the revenue they contributed overall made it worth keeping an unprofitable branch line open. This is a continuing conundrum.

In Britain, which boasted over 20,000 miles (32,000km) of railroads at their peak before World War I, there were few closures in this period, despite growing competition from buses and automobiles. Just 240 miles (386km) of track were shut and another 1,000 miles (1,600km) restricted to freight services. Only the most extreme cases succumbed: the Invergarry and Fort Augustus branch line in the Scottish Highlands, which was completed in 1903 but never reached Inverness as intended, was closed in 1933 because it was carrying only six people per day. Closures remained the exception, however, until after World War II.


In the US, one type of train suffered major closures in the interwar years. This was the interurban (see electric interurbans), an extended railroad system that linked neighboring towns on tracks alongside roads. Built cheaply, they sprang up across the nation in the 1910s, usually operating a single car, akin to a bus on tracks. At their peak in 1913, these crude railroads covered 15,000 miles (24,000km), but they were badly hit by competition from automobiles. Closures started immediately after World War I and accelerated in the Depression after 1929, meaning most interurban lines had a lifespan of barely 20–30 years—very short for the cost of the infrastructure. A remarkable 6,350 miles (10,250km) were abandoned in the early 1930s, and by the end of World War II only a few lines survived. All but a handful had shut by 1960. As George Hilton and John Due, authors of The Electric Interurban Railways in America, put it: “the interurbans… never enjoyed a prolonged period of prosperity… they played out their life cycle in a shorter period than any other important American industry.”

In almost every country with a significant railroad system, there were line closures in the postwar period, and the US was no exception, closing lines in great numbers. Major railroad companies realized their profits would now come from freight rather than passengers, given the growing competition for suburban journeys from automobiles and for long-distance travel from planes. Closures required permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission, the federal agency that regulated the railroads. By the early 1960s, all the main companies were petitioning the commission to close lines, and by the end of the decade there was a veritable stampede to end passenger services. Many companies used subterfuge to force the commission’s hand, using old rolling stock, reducing services, and even demolishing stations to make lines appear uneconomic. Once permission to close was forthcoming, the companies were ruthless about implementing closure. So eager were they to get out of the passenger business, they stopped trains from running the minute authorization came through—so commuters of the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad who had taken the train into town on the day closure was confirmed had to make their own way home. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad dumped its last 14 passengers in Birmingham, Alabama, 400 miles (645km) short of their destination; only after protests was a bus provided to get them to their final destination.

The pace of US closures became so frantic that the government intervened, creating the state-owned and subsidized railroad company Amtrak in 1971 to safeguard the remaining passenger services. It is an irony that the US, which tends to eschew state intervention, still has a nationalized railroad system. Although it went from a peak of 254,000 miles (410,000km) in 1916 to 94,000 miles (152,000km) today, it is still the biggest railroad system in the world, although it is mainly used for freight. Amtrak carries a mere 30 million passengers annually, compared with roughly 1.2 billion in Britain and 1.1 billion in France, both countries with far smaller populations.

In Britain, pressure to close lines came to a head in 1963 with the setting out of a radical plan by the chairman of the British Railways Board, Richard Beeching. He found that the railroad network was very unbalanced, with half of the country’s 18,000 miles (29,000km) of track carrying only 4 percent of passengers. His solution was radical. The now infamous Beeching Report, known by its detractors as Beeching’s Axe, resulted in the closure of 5,000 miles (8,000km) of track and a third of the 7,000 stations. While many lines that were clearly not viable were axed, some major routes were terminated too—subsequently a great cause of regret.


In other countries, closures were carried out incrementally, less radically than in the US and more slowly than in Britain. France lost half of its 37,000-mile (59,000-km) network in closures that started in the 1930s until, to protect the remaining lines, the government nationalized the system in 1938. In Eastern Europe, Communist regimes retained their rail systems more-or-less intact as few people could afford cars, but extensive closures took place after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. However, in recent years the closure process has been reversed in some countries and railroad mileage has increased, with the reopening of mothballed lines and the construction of new, principally high-speed lines.


All these closures had one surprising, beneficial side effect—the creation of a preserved railroads industry based on steam trains. Countries where steam trains had until recently remained in service, including Poland, China, and India, attracted enthusiasts; in other countries, volunteers preserved sections of old lines and now operate tourist services on them. The first railroad in the world to be preserved as a heritage railroad was the British Talyllyn Railway, a 7-mile (4-km) narrow-gauge railroad opened in 1866 to carry slate down a Welsh valley from quarries to the coast. When its closure was announced in 1951, a group of volunteers kept the line open. The railroad heritage movement has spread around the world since then, and some of these lines even operate regular services that connect with the main line. Old lines are being reopened all the time, among them the Welsh Highland Railway, which reopened in 2011 and now, together with the Ffestiniog Railway, provides an 50-mile (80-km) route across north Wales. In France, too, there are around a hundred such preserved lines, covering 750 miles (1,200km) of track. These railroads attract 3 million visitors a year, and include a section of 2-ft (60-cm) narrow-gauge lines used on the Somme front in World War I (see Wartime Railroad Disasters). The US also has a big preservation movement. Its most scenic railroad is the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a 45-mile (73-km) line through Colorado. The route was built in 1881–82 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to exploit silver and gold mines in the San Juan Mountains. The remaining section is one of the few in the US that has seen continuous use of steam locomotives since the 19th century.


Some of the most spectacular railroads in the world have been brought back into use after being abandoned. In Ecuador, a 280-mile (450-km) line between the port city of Guayaquil and the highland capital, Quito, has been restored and its steam locomotives are now a major tourist attraction, recreating one of the greatest rail journeys in the world. Thanks to these preserved railroads and the volunteers who work on them, the steam engine will remain a source of admiration for generations to come.


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