Railroad historians are converging on Cedar Rapids at a time of revitalized interest in the transportation technology that has often been dismissed as a relic of the past.
The National Railroad Historical Society will hold its national convention this week in Cedar Rapids, bringing hundreds of rail history buffs and experts to ride trains and discuss railroad history.
"You’re in a hotbed of railroad history there," said historian Donavon Hofsomer, author of several books on railroad history and a society member.
Iowans have spent the last few years debating federal proposals to expand passenger rail service in the state from Chicago to Dubuque and from Chicago to Davenport and Iowa City.
The decades-long consolidation of freight railroads has meanwhile slowed, and surviving railroads armed with better technology have been adding capacity if not track.
Rail shipping moves large freight cargos with less fuel consumption and pollution than truck shipping. A 2009 Federal Railroad Administration study showed rail to be roughly two to five times as fuel efficient as trucks depending on the kind of cargo movement.
Diane McCauley, marketing and policy administrator for the Iowa Department of Transportation’s rail division, said rail shipping also minimizes highway deterioration and congestion in an era of tight highway budgets.
Then there’s the economic aspect — about $400 million in annual spending on track maintenance and construction, and about $270 million in annual wages and benefits.
"Railroads are growing and hiring people," McCauley said. "If you meet their qualifications, which are stringent, they are one of the few occupations in which you don’t need much formal training and can start out at a good salary."
Chicago was the nation’s western rail center when Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Rail Act of 1862. The act called for the federal government to "aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, and to secure to the government the use of the same for postal, military, and other purposes."
Pioneer surveyor Grenville Dodge, then of Council Bluffs, is credited with convincing Lincoln to put the Pacific railroad’s eastern terminus there.
"Lincoln and Grenville Dodge had met in Council Bluffs" in 1859, Hofsomer said. "Lincoln apparently listened very carefully to Dodge’s recollections of reconnaissance west of the Missouri."
Operating more efficiently than ever, Iowa’s railroads carry more freight than ever despite shedding thousands of miles of track since the 1980s.
"The farmers get better service, cheaper rates and everything has worked out quite well for them and the railroads," said Phillip Baumel, professor emeritus of economics at Iowa State University. "The losers were the small country elevators in the smaller towns on the light lines."
Cedar Rapids is home base to three railroads, the Iowa Northern, Iowa Interstate and the Alliant Energy-owned CRANDIC. Such local and regional short-line railroads have taken over much of the track slated for abandonment by the larger interstate railroads, McCauley said. They often revitalize the shipping on the line by working more closely with shippers and being more flexible to meet their needs.
"When fuel prices go up, trucking gets more expensive and people look to rail more quickly," said Joshua Sabin, director of administration for the Iowa Northern Railway. The cost advantage is an edge discovered by communities like Forest City and Garner, which recently worked with the Iowa Northern to revive 28 miles of track slated for abandonment by the Union Pacific.
The challenge for railroads is to pay the high costs of maintaining, upgrading and, when necessary, expanding track. Railroads have a hard time expanding track in metro areas, so places like downtown Cedar Rapids with heavy rail traffic offer only limited time windows for train movements.
The Cedar Rapids-based CRANDIC expanded in the past four years, ramping up capacity by about 25 percent to more than 100,000 freight car movements per year after its largest customer, ADM, added a new dry corn milling facility that boosts ethanol production, ADM marketing manager Jeff Woods said.
In the rail freight world, "Cedar Rapids is pretty unique because of the amount of corn and food processing that goes on there," McCauley said. "You have a lot of railroads that converge there and you do have the industrial base that depends on them."
Iowa grows along rails
A few railroads were already building west from Chicago when Lincoln signed the Pacific Rail Act. The building of the Union Pacific spurred the construction of those lines, and more, across the state. Their backers looked to haul supplies for the massive project and to be in a position to handle the tidal wave of transcontinental freight and passengers that was sure to follow its completion.
"Some of the communities were already established, like Fort Dodge, but the railroad made communities like them blossom," said Hofsomer, 74, who grew up in Fort Dodge and Spencer and is now a history professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.
That’s reflected on today’s Iowa map. The state’s largest cities lie along the routes of major railroads built across the state in the 1850s and ’60s — "all of them representing arms of urban economic imperialism of Chicago," according to Hofsomer.
The rail network matured as settlers flowed into Iowa after the Civil War, sprouting spurs linking isolated county seats to mainlines, then smaller outlying communities to the county seats.
"In post-Civil War Iowa, the state and its railroads grew up together," said Hofsomer. "When one thrived, the other thrived."
Before there was any competition, the railroad was the only way for Iowans and their products — at least those not on either major river on its borders — to travel farther than a few miles. North-south routes developed to link Minneapolis and St. Paul to St. Louis, Omaha and Kansas City. Still more branch lines were built, until the 23rd-largest state was fifth in rail mileage.
"No place in Iowa was farther than 13 miles from rail lines" at the rail era’s peak, Hofsomer said. "In the age of railroads, the railway industry set the tempo for the nation."
The depot was the economic, social and cultural focal point of the community it served. The mail traveled by rail, often sorted on the move aboard Railway Post Office cars, and even news from the outside world came over the same telegraph lines used to dispatch and control trains.
There were at least a few railroad employees in every town — many more where two or more lines connected or where steam locomotives were changed and serviced. With the exception of Council Bluffs where all those routes converged, Cedar Rapids became the state’s leading rail hub, a mini-Chicago at the junction of six railroads.
Railroad era peaks
The railroad era peaked shortly before the U.S. entered World War I, although its ebb took another 40 or 50 years. Iowa rail mileage peaked in 1915, at 10,500 miles, and contraction began as automobiles became middle-class affordable.
Private cars and trucks claimed the railroads’ short-haul business, both freight and passenger, between the world wars. Highway construction boomed after Word War II, culminating in 1956 with the first miles of the Interstate Highway System. Public subsidies also made air travel cheaper, faster, safer.
Amtrak, a government-owned corporation, took over all but a handful of passenger trains operated by dozens of railroads in 1971. Overnight, hundreds of communities lost passenger service.
To much of the public, that meant any rail service, and hundreds of Iowa towns lost freight service, too, as the state’s railroad mileage dropped 63 percent, to 3,945 active miles of track in the state in 2010.
All those Iowa branch lines proved too many for cash-strapped railroads, and their disappearance accelerated through the 1970s and ’80s. The railroads shifted their grain business from boxcars with 40 tons’ capacity to covered hoppers that can haul 110 or 115 tons, bypassing the smaller country elevators.
"These old branch lines that were built with 60-pound (per yard) rail were not capable of hauling those 100-ton cars," Baumel said. "It came to the point where they had a choice: upgrade them or abandon them."
Larger elevators were built to load trains — the standard length is now 100 cars — and "the little country elevators couldn’t generate that kind of traffic," Baumel said. "The farmers bought semi-trucks that allowed them to go 20 or 30 or 50 miles to market their grain. The whole system changed, and it meant the small country elevator on these light-rail lines couldn’t survive."
The state’s rail map was redrawn in the 1980s with wholesale abandonments. But new, leaner companies took over some routes, including the old Rock Island lines across the state through Iowa City (now the Iowa Interstate) and from Cedar Rapids northwest to Manly (now Iowa Northern).
More efficient equipment continued the process begun with the diesel locomotive in the 1930s, eliminating tens of thousands of railroad jobs and taking the "railroad" out of many railroad towns. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 234,000 railroad employees nationwide in April; in 1947 there were 1.5 million.
But freedom to set their own rates and abandon unprofitable routes allowed railroads to focus on their strengths, moving lots of stuff long distances. While the network was contracting, railroad ton-miles jumped 189 percent between 1985 and 2008, to 67 billion, generating $1.7 billion in operating revenue, according to the state Department of Transportation. (A ton-mile is one ton carried one mile.)
The consolidation of dozens of the old-name railroads into today’s "Big Seven" systems opened new markets to Iowa products, Baumel said.
"Now all of these railroads, they all serve the West Coast and the southern ports, and have good connections to virtually all the relevant markets for Iowa grain," he said. "The Union Pacific and the BNSF are hugely profitable. The railroad industry today is in better shape, more profitable, and serves Iowa better than ever before."