The US Railroad Administration (1917-1920)

By the time of America’s entry into WWI (April 4, 1917,) US railroads were in trouble. Profits were limited by government edict, railroad workers had just won the eight-hour day, and much of the equipment was old and worn out. Plus, so many railroads were shipping war materiel to the east that Atlantic port facilities became overloaded. The result was freight cars full of food and other cargo sitting untouched on sidings while the rest of the country was running out of empties.

The railroads attempted to join forces for the common good, but for a number of reasons, mainly having to do with anti-trust and other governmental regulations, this proved unworkable. Finally, in December, the Interstate Commerce Commission recommended federal control. With this action the ICC hoped to not only ease the congestion and expedite the flow of goods, but bring management, labor, and shippers together to work for the war effort.

President Wilson named Secretary of the Treasury (and his son-in-law) William McAdoo as the Director General of the Railroads for the new US Railroad Administration, and changes began immediately. The railroads were divided into three Divisions; East, West and South. Duplicate passenger services were eliminated, costly sleeping car service was cut back and extra fares applied to discourage their use. Uniform passenger ticketing was instituted, and competing services were cut back.

Over 100,000 railroad cars and 1,930 steam locomotives were ordered, all manufactured to new USRA standard designs so terminals, facilities and shops could be shared.  

 Steam locomotives are classified by wheel arrangement, with the number of leading wheels, the number of drivers, and the number of trailing wheels, represented by three digits separated by dashes. Eight different USRA configurations were designed, with several made in both light and heavy versions. The “heavies” were more powerful and could pull more cars, but put a greater strain on tracks. They were only used by those lines which had heavy, modern track.

 USRA standard locomotives included 

  • 0-6-0 and 0-8-0 switchers, used mainly in yards
  • 2-8-2 (Mikado) both light and heavy versions
  • 2-10-2 (Santa Fe) both light and heavy versions
  • 4-6-2 (Pacific) both light and heavy versions.
  • 4-8-2 (Mountain) both light and heavy versions
  • 2-6-6-2 (Mallet)
  • 2-8-8-2 (Chesapeake)

For heavier hauling, there were the 2-10-4 Decapods, originally manufactured for the Imperial Russian Empire but never shipped because of the Russian revolution. These were leased by the USRA, and used primarily by the Pennsylvania Railroad to haul freight through the AlleghanyMountains.

USRA 2-8-8-2

USRA 2-8-8-2

The 2-6-6-2 and 2-8-8-2 are known as articulateds, and they are, effectively, two independent engines under one boiler, with one engine hinged in the middle.  In the early days of railroading, engines were small and curves sharp, but as each generation of locomotives got larger, the sharp curves became a problem. The more drivers an engine has, the greater the pulling power, but at an increase in the minimum turning radius. It got to the point that some of the bigger engines were incapable of navigating the curves. The articulateds were designed to take care of that problem, since each set of drivers moved independently of the other. They were favored by roads like the Norfolk & Western, and Chesapeake & Ohio as coal haulers through the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. These engines could move a lot of material, but were incredibly slow, with top speeds of around 25 mph.

B&O Light Mikado

Baltimore and Ohio Light Mikado

By a wide margin, the most popular steam engine in the railroad roster was the 2-8-2 Mikado. It was used for freight hauling by every major railroad in the United States, and more than 2200 were built between 1917 and 1920. By the end of the steam era, around 1960, more than 9500 “Mikes” were running on North American railroads, representing nearly 20% of all the locomotives in daily service.

There was support among labor unions for continuing the nationalization of the railroads after the war, but neither Woodrow Wilson nor the man on the street wanted it, so in March of 1920, railroads were returned to private ownership. However, while it was in operation the USRA proved to be one of the few government programs which actually worked the way it was supposed to, and until mid 1920, America had effectively a single, very efficient,  railroad.

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