Rail Lines and Terminals in Urban Planning

PAS Report 82

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Information Report No. 82 January 1956

Rail Lines and Terminals in Urban Planning

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All too little consideration has been given by urban planners to the problem of railroad transportation within our cities. Too frequently the present facilities have been accepted as fixed and community plans have been adapted to them. In the future it is to be hoped that a more comprehensive attitude may be taken by the authorities most directly responsible for the long-range development of our cities.1

Although a large part of the time of a local planning agency is spent on urban transportation, railroads se1dom receive more than superficial treatment. The lack of attention given railroads in city planning arises from several causes. Until recently, major changes in the physical pattern of the urban rail systems have been so rare that planning commissions may have considered them permanent and unchangeable. Public agencies may believe that they have little stake in railroad problems because public funds are seldom spent on projects involving railroad facilities. The attitude of the railroads toward government control and the vast amount of time required to effect even minor changes has probably discouraged efforts of planning agencies to cooperate with railroad officials in preparing comprehensive local railroad plans. Cities exercise very few regulatory powers over railroads and, since the cities cannot force railroads to comply with their plans, planning agencies have probably felt they cannot afford to spend time on plans that have little chance of being carried out.

Master plans usually contain at least a survey of existing railroad facilities and lines and often include schematic proposals for future changes in the local rail pattern, even to proposals for consolidation. Too often these plans have had no effect on the local railroad system. Individual roads have made changes in their own terminals and yards, lines have been abandoned, new grade separations built. Seldom have these new projects even remotely resembled proposals for the railroad in the city's plan. And railroad systems in most cities are today no nearer consolidation than they were in the 1920s.

While railroad plans prepared before World War II contain excellent statements of principles for railroad planning, they are today virtually worthless as practical guides for rebuilding local rail facilities. Since the war, railroad operations have changed to such an extent that the conditions described in older reports no longer exist. To prepare plans and programs for local transportation systems, the planning agency should be aware of changes that are taking place in the railroad systems. Even though the agency does not intend to prepare a comprehensive railroad plan, it should be aware of the effect of the local railroad system upon other aspects of urban planning: industrial location, residential area planning, grade separation projects, transit and major street planning, and upon the local economy in general.

The Changing Railroad System

From the time railroads were first built in this country in the early 1830s until recently they considered themselves the "universal common carrier" — the one form of transportation that handles all goods offered for shipment to any point on their lines. Until the 1920s, when the national highway system was developed and opened to motor carriers, the railroads remained the only nationwide system for transporting people and goods. Railroads were a dominant factor in local, as well as national, economy. Where there were railroads, farm products could be shipped to distant markets; industries could bring together raw materials and fuel and ship their manufactured products to national markets; cities grew up away from navigable waterways, once so important in city location.

The automobile and the motor truck, which can operate over a widespread network of expressways, highways, country roads, and byways (and often at lower costs and faster speeds), have broken the railroads' virtual monopoly on transportation. Today, passenger business, once a large source of railroad income, has decreased considerably. While railroads still carry more than half of the intercity freight business of the United States, pipelines and trucks have taken and will continue to take away some of the most profitable railroad freight business. Railroads are now in a period of retrenchment, modifying their operations and plants to meet the growing competition offered by other transport media. No one familiar with transportation believes that railroads can ever again attain the dominance they enjoyed until the 1920s. However, most experts believe that though the railroads will continue to decline in relative importance, their absolute volume of business will increase in the future, necessitating operational changes, many of which are now taking place.

Changes in Business

Transportation authorities have often noted the close relationship between national prosperity and the overall use of transportation. Obviously, the need for transportation depends upon economic factors, such as industrial activity, volume of retail and wholesale business, and farm conditions. In times of prosperity, even a declining transport agency, such as the railroads, handles larger volumes of business than it did in poor times; in a depression, most forms of transportation suffer serious losses in business because of the lack of business activity. There is, however, a lag between a business slump and a slump in transportation.

Railroads have experienced several extremely prosperous periods: the years following the Civil War; the 1920s; World War II; and the present postwar period. On the other hand, the depression of the 1930s was an especially difficult financial period for the railroads because of their high fixed costs and the almost simultaneous development of large-scale trucking operations. The following table shows the growth of railroad freight business since 1881:

Year Railroad revenue ton-mileages (million tons)
1881 39,302
1890 76,207
1900 141,597
1910 255,017
1920 413,699
1929 450,189
1930 385,815
1940 375,369
1944 740,586
1953 605,813

Sources: data for 1881–1944 from Historical Statistics of the United States, 1789–1945, U. S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Washington, 1949; data for 1953 from Statistics of Railways of Class I—United States, 1939–1953, Association of American Railroads, Washington, 1954.

Table 1 (following) shows that while the railroads are today carrying more freight than in the past (except for World War II years), their percentage of freight business is declining and their passenger business is suffering an actual as well as relative loss.


Type of carrier Freight ton-miles
1916 1939 1953
Volume in millions Percent of total Volume in millions Percent of total Volume in millions Percent of total
Railroads, steam and electric 367,257 77.2 336,100 62.6 639,856 52.7
Motor vehicles: a a b53,400 10.0 206,808 17.0
Commercial motor carriers ----- -- ----- ---- ----- --
Private automobiles ----- -- ----- ---- ----- --
Inland waterways (including Great Lakes) b87,833 17.3 76,312 14.2 202,439 16.7
Oil pipelines b21,000 4.4 50,995 9.5 165,728 13.6
Airways a a c11 0.0 c427 0.04
Total 476,090 100.0 536,755 100.0 215,258 100.0
Type of carrier Passenger-miles
1916 1939 1953
Volume in millions Percent of total Volume in millions Percent of total Volume in millions Percent of total
Railroads, steam and electric 42,045 98.0 23,669 8.6 32,261 5.5
Motor vehicles: a a 248,859 90.7 530,943 91.2
Commercial motor carriers ----- -- ----- ---- 29,791 5.1
Private automobiles ----- -- ----- ---- 501,152 86.1
Inland waterways (including Great Lakes) b864 2.0 B1,486 0.5 1,487 0.3
Oil pipelines ----- -- ----- -- ----- --
Airways a a 678 0.2 17,448 3.0
Total 42,909 100.0 274,692 100.0 582,139 100.0

a. Negligible b. Estimated c. Freight ton-miles on airways include mail, express, and excess baggage

Sources: data for 1916 and 1939 from Transportation and National Policy, by the National Resources Planning Board, Washington, 1942, p. 33; data for 1953 from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1955 edition, pp. 558–559.

In Transportation and National Policy, published in 1942 by the National Resources Planning Board, the following statement on rail business appears:

[Railways] are, to a considerable extent, absorbed in the performance of services which probably can be more economically performed by other types of transport agency. Moreover, the carriers have made little effort until recently to adjust their basic rate policies toward a recognition of the fact that the future lies in its continuance as the principal agency for internal heavy freight movement.

Today the railroads find it necessary to handle more and more mass movements of bulk freight. In passenger business it is apparent that the railroads can compete with airlines and buses for business only on short runs that have a high volume of business.

Passenger Business. Today very few passenger services produce a profit for the railroads, according to the complicated Interstate Commerce Commission formulas for determining profits and losses.

The high cost of conventional passenger equipment — approximately $3,000 per seat — has precluded the possibility of lowering the cost of rail passenger fares to compete with buses (where the cost per seat is about one-third as much). Premium rail passenger services are expensive to operate and yet do not compare in speed with air travel.

Railroads have suffered their heaviest losses in certain categories of the business: short-distance branch-line services (largely taken over by buses), business travel (now largely handled by the airlines), and vacation and recreational travel (mostly by automobile).

Railroads have still been able to maintain high volumes on their commutation services, where patronage is only slightly below wartime and early postwar peaks. They are still capable of providing fast, low-cost service between large cities within 100 or 200 miles of each other (such as the Washington–Baltimore–Philadelphia–New York line of the Pennsylvania Railroad or the New Haven's Boston–Providence–New York line). In services of this type, the railroads, by running express trains, can equal or better airline travel time between city centers of downtown rail terminals. The railroads also believe they can hold enough business on overnight runs of 300 to 500 miles to justify expenditures for modern equipment and improved service.

Despite the loss of revenue in some parts of their passenger business, few major railroads want to completely abandon passenger service. While many services show a paper loss, they add to a railroad's gross income. Most railroad executives would gladly abandon branch- and feeder-line passenger services but they believe that they must keep mainline and other profitable passenger services as a means of increasing gross revenues and of improving public relations.

A number of railroads are attempting to hold their present business and recapture lost passengers through the introduction of high-speed, low-cost lightweight trains. The Pennsylvania, New Haven, Rock Island, and New York Central roads have ordered such trains (modeled after the highly successful Spanish "Talgo" trains) for experimental purposes and eventual regular service. Another recent development in passenger business is the return to popularity of the single-unit self-propelled rail car. The most recently developed cars of this type are powered by a diesel motor and seat 50 to 80 passengers. Express services and vista-dome cars are also expected to improve or maintain special types of passenger service.

Freight Business. Freight service is the chief source of railroad revenue and, with the exception of a few commuter railroads such as the Long Island Railroad or roads such as the Florida East Coast line, which handles a heavy volume of tourist business, railroads expend most of their efforts in moving freight. A detailed picture of the changes that are taking place in railroad freight operations and the various types of commodities carried by railroads between 1920 and 1953 can be seen in Table 2.


(In thousands of tons)

Year Total, all tonnages Carload tonnage by commodity group
Total carload Products of agriculture Animals and products Products of mines Products of forests Mfs. and misc. Less-than-carload
1953 1,384,301 1,376,046 131,137 13,768 754,293 82,107 394,741 8,255
1950 1,354,196 1,343,309 129,175 14,321 746,808 78,860 374,145 10,887
1947 1,537,546 1,514,981 158,168 19,715 847,807 87,028 402,266 22,561
1944 1,491,491 1,471,366 145,685 25,413 785,265 83,731 431,272 20,125
1940 1,009,421 994,728 88,821 15,458 570,218 58,221 262,010 14,693
1932 646,223 630,989 80,917 18,055 362,226 26,109 143,682 15,234
1929 1,339,091 1,303,048 115,343 24,907 737,879 94,855 330,064 36,043
1920 1,255,421 1,202,219 110,840 26,595 712,155 100,765 251,864 53,202

Sources: data for 1920–1944 from Historical Statistics of the United States, 1789–1945; data for other years from Statistics of Railways in Class I, United States —1939–1953.

By far the largest part of railroad freight business consists of carrying products of mines — coal and ore. These commodities have consistently accounted for more than half of the total freight load of railroads. In the past, much of this tonnage was coal used as fuel for steam locomotives. Before railroads converted to diesel operations, they were dependent almost entirely upon coal and were their own best customers.

The second most important category of freight is "manufactures and miscellaneous." This is the portion of rail freight business that has shown the greatest growth in recent years; and today more than 28 per cent consists of movement of finished manufactured products and subassemblies. The development of decentralized assembly plants, particularly for the manufacture of automobiles, farm equipment, and aircraft, has helped in the development of steady business for railroads. Many roads now run scheduled freights, which carry prefabricated parts from a major manufacturing center to distant assembly plants. Operations of this type are among the most efficient performed by railroads because they involve a minimum of expense and delay in terminals. Full trains can be assembled at the point of origin and moved great distances over several different rail lines without having to be reclassified at intermediate points.

Railroad shipments of agricultural products have remained comparatively stable but shipments of animals and forest products have declined. The greatest losses here have probably been in short-haul operations. Farmers can now carry a few animals to market in their own trucks at a great saving in time and money. Forest products are also now handled by trucks because of lower costs on short hauls.

It is in merchandise and less-than-carload business that the railroads have lost most heavily. While this business has always been small when measured in tonnage, it has been a profitable service for railroads because of the relatively high value of the products shipped and the high rates charged for the service. The railroads have simply been unable to modify their merchandise service to an extent that it can compete with the motor truck.

In the early 1930s the office of the federal transport coordinator estimated that the comparative costs of rail and truck merchandise services were as follows:

Carrier Average terminal costs Average line-haul costs
Railroad $7.28 per ton 3.084 cents per ton-mile
Motor truck 2.62 per ton 3.344 cents per ton-mile

Because of high terminal costs and delays, railroads could compete with trucks only where the distances involved were great enough to permit line haul savings to overcome the truckers' advantage of. lower terminal costs. Railroads have attempted to reduce their terminal costs and speed up service through special merchandise trains and cars that give overnight service between major cities. Although they have kept some of their less-than-carload business in this way, this business is still declining and is now an insignificant source of railroad revenue.

Railroads have also lagged in handling perishables because they have been unable to modernize their equipment fast enough to keep pace with technical advances in refrigeration and storage techniques. Most railroad cars for perishables are still cooled by ice rather than mechanical refrigeration. Cars must be iced periodically. Trucks with mechanical refrigeration equipment can give faster service and maintain even temperatures, resulting in less spoilage. The result is that the railroads have not been able to compete with trucks even on long-haul shipments of citrus fruits, vegetables, and other products that require fast delivery.

The railroads are rapidly being forced into mass hauling, whether they like it or not. In mass long-distance hauling they have been able to keep most of their business and even increase it, except for movement of special goods by waterways and pipelines, where the unit costs of moving bulk goods are lower than rail costs.

Changes in Railroad Plant and Equipment

The railroad system of the United States represents a tremendous investment in plant and equipment, estimated at between $ 25 and $ 30 billion. Since World War II, railroads have spent approximately $1 billion a year on capital improvements, of which about 30 per cent has been spent on improving physical plants. The remainder has gone into new equipment, principally in diesel engines. While these expenditures are the greatest in the history of the railroads, many observers expect even greater expenditures in the future. James Symes, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, writing in the Christian Science Monitor for November 15, 1955, estimated that the railroads will have to spend an additional $20 billion on capital improvements by 1965. Most of this money will probably be spent on improving railroad physical plants — lines, terminals, yards, and repair facilities.

Terminals and Yards. The most urgently needed changes in railroad plants are improvements in freight terminals and yards. Here most of the costs of railroad services are incurred and the greatest savings can be achieved. During the depression years, these facilities were often allowed to fall into disrepair and few new ones were built. During the war years, shortages of materials prevented necessary improvements and extremely heavy use led to faster deterioration. Since the war, the necessity of converting motive power from steam to diesel largely precluded expenditures for yards and terminals. Only in the last three or four years have large sums been spent on reconstruction of classification yards.

Except for recently rebuilt terminals and yards, railroad terminal facilities seldom provide efficient service for the goods they handle. Less-than-carload freight stations and team tracks2 are used far below capacity and often they cannot be converted to efficient specialized terminals because of location and lack of space for expansion. Older freight classification yards are overcrowded and obsolete; they contain few of the time and labor saving devices found in new yards. There is also often a shortage of specialized terminal facilities designed to handle bulk shipments of particular products such as grains, ore, or manufactured goods. Special facilities are being built to handle piggyback operations, less-than-carload container cars, and other services now being instituted by the railroads.

The most important change in urban rail facilities now taking place is the widespread reconstruction of classification yards equipped with automatic car retarders; "humps," which make possible the movement of cars in the yard by gravity; and electronic devices for centralized yard operations. These speed up operations, permit more cars to be classified, and reduce labor costs.3 The extent of the savings that may be made in new yards is indicated by the Pennsylvania Railroad's estimate that its new $34 million classification yard at Conway, Pennsylvania will save approximately $11 million a year.

New centralized classification yards will probably result in the abandonment of secondary yards in smaller cities. For example, the new yards of the Southern Railroad in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Birmingham, New Orleans, and the one now under construction in Atlanta will handle virtually all of the classification of freight carried by that system.

Lines. Few new rail lines are being built and there is a continuing decrease in the number and length of lines operated. The length of railroad lines in this country has decreased from a peak of approximately 260,000 miles in the late 1920s to approximately 225,000 miles in 1953. Each year the amount of lines abandoned has exceeded the amount of new lines laid. New lines are truly the exception rather than the rule. Between 1932 and 1953, only 1,423 miles of new road were constructed, while 27,032 miles were abandoned.

In an attempt to improve mainline operations, railroads will continue to reduce curvatures and grades in existing lines. They will replace old light-weight rails with heavier track and will introduce centralized train control, which permits the operation of all switches on a line from control towers miles away. Branch and feeder lines will continue to be dropped as fast as the Interstate Commerce Commission will permit. Thus, while the number of lines will decrease, the use of' remaining lines will be heavier than in the past.

Changes in Operations

The railroads have considerably improved their operations in recent years. This is shown by innumerable statistics published annually by the I. C. C. on the average distances traveled by trains and cars in a day, by the length of trains, by the increased availability of serviceable equipment, and every other measure of efficiency.

The result has been that today railroads are carrying heavier loads on longer trains at greater speeds than ever before. Twenty-five years ago, the average freight train consisted of 46.4 cars. Today the average freight train contains 65 cars. In the same period, the speed of freight trains has gone up from an average of 12.8 miles per hour to 18.7 — an increase of 9 miles per hour. In addition, the average carrying capacity of freight cars has risen from 45.9 tons to 53.8 tons. The average freight train load is now 1,287 tons as compared with 786 tons in the period between 1926 and 1930.

Yet, despite these improvements, the railroads must continue to improve their services if they are to meet similar (or even greater) improvements in other forms of transportation. In addition, railroads must rely more heavily upon time saving practices and equipment and upon services that utilize several carriers, such as piggybacking and seatrain4 movements.

The changes in railroad operations, business, and equipment may be briefly summarized by stating that today the railroads are carrying as much freight as they have ever carried before under peacetime conditions. They are performing their services more efficiently. Railroad equipment is in greater use than in the past — a smaller percentage of railroad cars and engines are now idle or unserviceable. Freight trains are longer and heavier today than at any time in the past. All of these changes are most noticeable in mainline high-density movements, rather than in branch line or feeder line services. The total effect is one of intensified use of major parts of the railroad system — those best suited to mass-haul operations.

Railroads as an Element in Urban Planning

Most comprehensive railroad plans thus far prepared by local planning agencies have consisted of surveys of the existing urban rail pattern and proposals for consolidated terminals, lines, and yards. Plans of this type must be considered idealized conceptions of the most efficient local rail system, rather than pictures of the future railroad network.

The principles used in the preparation of such plans are the same principles used by the federal transport coordinator in his studies of local rail terminal facilities in the 1930s. They call for the elimination of unnecessary duplication of railroad facilities through the consolidation and joint operation of yards, terminals, and lines. In order to accomplish such consolidations the following facilities would be required:

Belt Lines. An outer belt would intercept all traffic entering a terminal area. Goods with local destinations would be shuttled to the proper local line; goods destined for other areas would move along the belt line and never enter the urban area. An inner belt line would be built around intensively developed industrial and commercial areas to provide for the interchange and distribution of local freight and passenger traffic.

Lines Inside Belt Lines. A limited number of lines would connect the outer belt with the inner belt. Lines inside the inner belt would be only those required for commuter service and to handle shipments to industries and businesses near the downtown area.

Joint Classification Yards. Large classification yards would be located at various points along the outer belt line so that trains might be broken up and reassembled outside built-up areas. Smaller classification yards along the inner belt would provide for local distribution and serve light industries.

Joint Terminals. Most terminals operated by individual carriers in or near central areas would be abandoned. These would be replaced by a union passenger station, as well as strategically located freight terminals along the inner belt line for use by all carriers.

Perhaps the best discussion of the development of plans for a consolidated local rail system is in Local Planning Administration (second edition, International City Managers' Association, Chicago, 1948, $7.50). Two appendices outline a number of suggested planning studies of local railroad systems.

Comprehensive railroad studies are worthwhile means of bringing together available information on an existing local railroad system and pointing out its deficiencies. Moreover, general plans for future rail development in urban areas can point the way toward voluntary agreements between railroads and between the city and the railroads. But the chances of the plans themselves being realized are negligible for several reasons:

First, it is improbable that the railroads will be willing to cooperate with public officials in modifying their facilities as suggested in the plan. They oppose joint use or ownership of railroad yards and terminals. Railroads with modern facilities and advantageously located terminals and lines will not be willing to give them up in order to improve service on other lines. At best, they will make minor concessions, such as permitting other lines to use their facilities on a limited basis or agreeing to reciprocal switching agreements. Railroads as a whole oppose development of jointly operated facilities, such as belt lines, because they claim they lose control over goods shipped on their lines.

Another difficulty is that railroad executives are usually skeptical about plans prepared by other than railroad engineering staffs. Even though the proposals may be technically feasible, railroad men may refuse to acknowledge their merit because they were prepared by people "unfamiliar with railroad engineering and operations."

Special Rail Studies

The best uses of a comprehensive railroad plan are to stimulate thought and discussion and to point out the possibility of preparing plans for special aspects of the overall plan that can be carried out. Planning agencies have frequently prepared proposals for grade crossing elimination and union passenger and freight terminals. However, the changes in railroad operations described above are opening up additional areas for specialized study. The following are some of the considerations that should be dealt with in preparing such studies.

Grade Separations. The railroad study most frequently made by planning commissions has been a plan for elimination of railroad-highway grade crossings. The reason these studies have been conducted, while other railroad studies have been neglected, is that grade crossing eliminations almost always involve the expenditure of public funds. The attitude of city officials at one time was that every street-railway grade crossing should be eliminated. In fact, in the 1920s the state of New York allocated $300 million to eliminate grade crossings in that state. Today, the emphasis is not only on eliminating grade crossings but on finding ways to reduce traffic congestion at them and to reduce the hazards to drivers and pedestrians.

The best source of information on planning for grade crossing separations is The Railway-Highway Grade Crossing Problem, by Kenneth A. Beggs, published in 1952 by Stanford Research Institute, Stanford, California. This study is particularly concerned with the economic justification of individual grade crossing improvement projects. It presents methods for figuring potential benefits to the public in grade crossing elimination through savings in time and life that may be realized by separation. Methods for determining whether separation or signalization and gate protection is the better solution for a particular crossing are also discussed. However, too little emphasis is given to the possibility of increasing property values and opening new lands for development in areas that are now inaccessible because of the difficulty and danger of grade crossings.

While a great deal of attention has been given problems of eliminating grade crossings, planning agencies have not often enough attempted to prevent the establishment of new grade crossings. In planning for industrial expansion and in developing major street plans, it is possible to hold down the number of future grade crossings by careful land planning. Intersections of major streets and railroads should be avoided wherever possible. Streets should be located between 500 and 2,000 feet from railroads, rather than immediately parallel to the lines. This design provides areas for industrial development between railroads and highways.

Old grade separation plans will have to be revised to meet the changed use of various parts of the local rail system. Separation projects along major lines that have been rejected in the past as uneconomic should be restudied to see if the greater use of mainlines now justifies grade separation. Projects involving secondary or branch lines may no longer be necessary if rail traffic has decreased appreciably. Increased dangers at rail crossings caused by faster trains; and greater time losses to automobile drivers caused by longer trains may make necessary total restudy and revision of grade separation programs.

Union Passenger Terminals. Particularly in the past, when railroads were the leading passenger carriers, planners often proposed the unification of all passenger terminals to facilitate the interchange of passengers from one line to another. Also, monumental passenger terminals were objects of civic pride.

Today, conditions are not favorable for carrying out plans for union passenger terminals. In the past, railroads did not favor union terminals because they did not wish to give up competitive advantages or open their facilities to other railroads. Now, they think that no large capital expenditures can be justified for new terminals. As a result, any expensive modifications in passenger terminals will have to be financed at least in part by public money.

The New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, completed in 1954, is only one part of the almost complete reconstruction of the railroad pattern in the central areas of New Orleans. The entire project, which cost approximately $56 million, consists of the following parts:

1. Construction of a new passenger terminal and abandonment of five passenger terminals formerly located in the central area of the city.

2. Relocation of a number of rail lines within the downtown area.

3. Construction of 28 grade separations.

4. Abandonment of passenger car yards and construction of new yards for the union terminal.

These projects were paid for by the railroads and by city, state, and federal governments. The following, which appeared in New Orleans Times-Picayune for May 1, 1954, is a breakdown of the approximate costs of the entire project:

Union passenger terminal, including subsidiary buildings, yards, approach tracks, etc.   $ 17,549,000*  
Financed by:      
Revenue bonds, obligations of railroads $15,000,000    
Funds supplied by railroads 2,126,000    
Changes in railroad facilities, paid by railroads   4,875,000  
Total cost to railroads     $22,424,000
City's 85 per cent share of grade separation costs   19,724,000  
Street improvements paid by city   3,533,000  
Total city contribution, financed by bond issues     23,257,000
State and federal contributions for three grade separations, closing of New Basin Canal     8,915,000
Grand total     $54,596,000

*Includes $3,519,000 as railroads' 15 per cent share of grade separation costs.

In the New Orleans project, the railroads' share of the terminal cost was financed by revenue bonds issued by the city. These were underwritten by the railroads, which agreed to pay rentals sufficient to retire the bonds and pay interest charges. A unique feature of these bonds is that the roads have agreed to make themselves responsible for the bonds in solido — each road assuming the other's obligations in addition to its own. Until the bonds are retired in 1998, the railroads will pay no ad valorem taxes.

The railroads — and their executives — are less than enthusiastic about the project, however, even though the initial costs to them are comparatively low. John L. Eschrich of the Louisville Courier-Journal, in an article on May 9, 1954, characterized the dedication of the terminal as giving "some railroad executives a freezing feeling about the spine." He goes on to say:

It was a gala affair. It also is an illustration of the furious pace of change on the American scene. It took eight years to bring the terminal up to dedication day. In that time railroad-passenger business took a drubbing.

It begins to appear that some railroads will have to spend several thousands of dollars a day "just to be tenants in the new terminal," a rail executive said. "It is a white elephant financially for us."

The station is a work of art — simple architecture, attractive murals, air-conditioned, modern furniture of the best.

However, in spite of the fact that the railroads got rid of more than 100 grade crossings and the fact that the railroads' part of the cost of the $57,000,000 work will be only $25,000,000, the dwindling passenger business leaves them holding a financial bag with a big hole in it.

The New Orleans terminal may be the last new union terminal. In other cities it may be possible to convert a passenger station owned by a single railroad to a union terminal hut it is doubtful that railroads will be willing to enter into agreements calling for long-term financial obligations — unless rail passenger business reaches a steady and predictable level.

Freight Terminals. Probably the most acute urban railroad problem is that of inadequate freight terminals. Since terminal locations must be related not only to the lines of the carrier but also to the areas of the city served, terminal location is extremely sensitive to shifts or changes in urban land use. Ernest W. Williams, Jr., in The Outlook for the Railroad Industry, published in 1943 by the National Planning Association (Planning Pamphlet No. 22) describes the origins of present railroad terminal problems:

The railroads grew without plan in an atmosphere of intense competition. Under these circumstances objectionable conditions arose in the cities and towns where competing railroads developed rival terminal facilities, each seeking as favorable a location as possible, hence striving to locate facilities well in the heart of the commercial section. This caused much waste of urban land, interfered with street traffic and development, and cast a blight upon adjacent property. Moreover, the attempt at central location forced the latecomers to take what space they could get, resulting often in cramped and inefficient facilities. The prevailing competitive spirit, too, prevented adequate connections and hampered interchange and interline switching to and from industries off the line of the road-haul carrier. Much of the delay and expense in terminal operations is a result of these early failings.

Today, railroads are attempting to improve their terminal facilities but they are still building individual rather than consolidated freight terminals. Furthermore, so long as the present competitive rail network continues, there is little probability that railroads will build joint facilities except in cases where there is no reasonable alternative. In many cases, they feel that they are justified in this action because industry and other users of freight service have located along the lines of the railroads that handle most of their freight business. In almost any city served by more than one railroad, most industries located along each line use goods that are shipped primarily on that line.

Changes in the kinds and amounts of commodities handled by rail have changed the terminal requirements for railroads. Many facilities are now located in the wrong places and are functionally obsolete. This is particularly true of general freight terminals and team tracks. Formerly, a rail- road generally carried less-than-carload shipments to a central terminal (or to several), where the consignee could pick up his package. Now the railroads offer door-to-door service by motor truck. One freight terminal, located in or near the classification yard, can be used to handle all goods and to simplify the transfer of goods from rail car to motor truck. Piggy-back operations, which require special facilities and relatively large amounts of space, are similarly best handled in outlying locations, where land costs are low and trucks may be dispatched in uncongested areas.

Classification Yards. Although ideal railroad plans call for joint use of freight classification yards, nearly every new freight yard built in this country has been constructed by a railroad for its own use only. And while interchange connections have been an important factor in the location of new yards, few have been built so that they may be used by several railroads. There are no indications that the railroads are yet considering jointly owned and operated classification yards.

Most factors involved in the location of new yards are of greater concern to the railroads than to the public. The distribution of freight and the location of rail lines, as well as the regional pattern of traffic, will determine the general areas that will provide the most economic operation of a yard. In the past, yards were frequently located near the center of the city, since the industries served by the railroads were near downtown commercial areas. Today, with industry moving to outlying locations and a decline of railroad merchandise business, the railroads are moving their yards to undeveloped outlying areas in order to obtain large areas of land at low cost and to be nearer their customers.

Land cost is a major factor in yard location. A modern classification yard may be several miles long and may contain 100 or more miles of track. Several thousand acres of land may be required to handle modern freight trains; and there must be land for expansion. Since yards must be almost level, topography is a major consideration.

Even though the planning agency has little or nothing to do with the location of freight yards, it should be aware of plans to enlarge existing yards or to build new yards on different sites. Since yards are the noisiest and dirtiest of railroad operations and are operated 24 hours a day, it is impossible to develop good residential areas nearby. Because of their size, classification yards create barriers to development and pose problems for street and highway planning in the vicinity.

While large cities will be concerned with problems of yard expansion and relocation, smaller cities may lose yards that they now have. Although the location of yards is dictated by traffic considerations for each road, secondary classification yards, usually found in small cities and towns, will probably be closed as large modern yards are built in big cities. Thus it is possible that small cities will be faced with the problems of unemployment caused by closing such yards.

Re-use of Abandoned Railroad Properties. It is almost impossible to generalize on the re-use of lands freed by abandonment of yards and lines. Where railroads operate over easements, the land will revert to the former property owners. In cases where the railroad has owned the land in fee, however, sizeable tracts may be made available for other uses. In some cases the railroads themselves will use the property but in others the land will be put on the market and sold to the highest bidder.

Land released by abandonment of yards and terminals for re-use is no different from other tracts of land. In cases of line abandonment, however, old railroad rights-of-way may be used for streets or expressways, as has been done in New Orleans and Chicago. It may also be possible to use abandoned lines as rapid transit rights-of-way. In Cleveland, the new rapid transit system operates over a right-of-way formerly used by a railroad.

While the planning commission usually will have little to do with the decision of a railroad to abandon property, it should be aware of the plans to release even small parts of a system. Although the railroads are often hesitant about publicizing future actions, such as abandonments and track relocations, they may be willing to cooperate with the planning agency to see that land is re-used for appropriate purposes.

An excellent instance of cooperation in handling a railroad relocation is found in Providence, Rhode Island. There, the New York, New Haven and Hartford road announced its intention to relocate its main passenger line through the city and build a new passenger terminal on another site. The Providence city plan commission, in its study, Railroad Relocation, published in September 1953, analyzes a number of proposals for re-use of the land formerly occupied by rail lines, passenger yards, and the terminal. The railroad has agreed that the property will be sold only in accordance with the wishes of the city, thereby assuring that the land will be appropriately re-used. This agreement will also insure that the city does not miss an opportunity to acquire lands needed for public purposes and will facilitate purchase.

Some Possibilities for Future Railroad Planning

Railroads today are at a critical period in their history. The next few years may well determine the fate of the national railroad system. Long-needed revisions in railroad plants and operations are now taking place. Whether these changes can be made at a fast enough pace to keep up with other forms of transportation is yet to be seen. Clearly, however, the railroads will remain for some time as the chief mass carriers.

Lack of certainty about the future of railroads has made planning railroad facilities extremely difficult. Plans made in the 1930s have long since been scrapped because of changes in the rail system. Many of the traditional areas of city planning for railroads have little meaning today — the union passenger terminal and the joint less-than-carload freight house are minor problems because of the loss of railroad business in these categories. Jointly owned and operated railroad facilities are about as far from realization today as they were in the 1930s when Federal Transport Coordinator Joseph K. Eastman proposed plans for consolidating rail terminal facilities.

Since railroads are still privately owned carriers, there appears little chance for public planning agencies to prepare plans for coordinated or consolidated local railroad systems or terminals. However, there are a number of opportunities for planning commission study based upon a knowledge of changes in local railroad operations. Most of these studies do not suggest changes in the railroad pattern; instead they are based upon the potential effect that imminent changes in railroad plants and operations will have upon the city.

Rapid Transit on Railroad Lines. Most early studies made to determine whether railroad lines within cities could be used for rapid transit service, in addition to or in place of regular operations, came up with the conclusions that it was impractical because of small profits in such operations. However, cities and transit agencies are now taking an interest in using private rights-of-way for rapid transit. Reasons for considering railroads for rapid transit facilities are obvious: many rail lines lead to the central area of a city and in some cities downtown lines are operating far below capacity because in recent years industries have moved to outlying areas.

However, there are a number of problems connected with such a proposal. Often rail lines run through industrial areas and undeveloped land some distance from residential areas. Even where lines are near residential areas, rapid transit stations would have to be built. Furthermore, few railroads will be willing to spend the money required to convert their lines to accommodate rapid transit operations. Rapid transit operations would also require careful scheduling in order to avoid conflicts with other movements on rail lines.

There are probably few cities where the present rail network can be used as a rapid transit system unless additional tracks and stations are provided. However, the advantages offered by the existence of a right-of-way should not be overlooked in rapid transit studies.

Air Rights. One possibility for planning that involves the railroad system is the development of air rights over railroad lines and yards in high-value commercial districts. A number of buildings utilize space above railroad lines. The Park Avenue development in New York city and the Merchandise Mart, the Chicago Daily News building, the new Prudential Life Insurance Company building, and the United States Post Office in Chicago are among the best known developments of this type. More recently, proposals for the construction of skyscrapers over the Pennsylvania and Grand Central stations in New York, as well as proposed developments in Atlanta and Cleveland, have renewed interest in the use of air rights.

Air rights developments are based on the premise that a property owner controls not only the rights to the land surface but also to space above and below the surface of the earth. These rights may be conveyed. Since most railroad operations require only a few feet of space above the tracks, they can permit the construction of buildings over the tracks, so long as the buildings do not interfere with the movement of trains on the lines.

Probably the best explanation of the use and value of air rights is contained in an article "Appraisal of Air Rights," by Richard Lawrence Nelson. in the October 1955 issue of The Appraisal Journal. In speaking of the appraisal of air rights, Mr. Nelson says that the value of air rights should be based upon the potential uses of a platform constructed above a railroad line or yard. The platform is, in effect, a new land surface above the earth. The platform concept is applicable to land use as well as appraisal because buildings built in air rights are little different from those constructed at grade.

Air rights developments are expensive and so far the cost has precluded their use in all but the largest cities, where space is at a premium. According to Mr. Nelson, the cost of construction in air rights is between $4 and $20 per square foot more than for conventional construction. However, where railroad locations in central areas are also highly desirable for commercial uses, the value of the location may be great enough to outweigh the higher development costs.

Public Financing of Railroad Improvement. United States railroads are traditionally privately owned and operated. Unlike most other countries, where railroads are nationalized, rail facilities here have been financed almost entirely by private funds. There are, of course, government owned railroads: the Western and Atlantic Railroad is owned by the state of Georgia and operated under lease by the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad; the city of Cincinnati owns the Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Texas Pacific Railroad, operated as a part of the Southern Railway System. And cities and public authorities also operate a few rail terminals and other facilities, such as produce markets and rail-water terminals. These include the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, which handles freight shipments for the port of New Orleans; the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal; and the Port of New York Authority less-than-carload terminals.

Most railroads are now in a financial position to make improvements that will produce immediate or long-term savings. However, they are not yet ready to finance projects that, while producing great public benefits, will not increase railroad revenues or reduce expenses. In such cases, where profits cannot be realized by the railroads, new facilities will probably not be built unless public funds are made available.

Public funds may be used in several ways. In projects involving benefits to both the public and the railroads, public funds may be used to finance a portion of them, such as is now done in the construction of grade separations. No drastic changes in public policy would be required to permit the use of public funds to help finance other projects involving railroad facilities.

Public authorities set up for other purposes are also financing facilities used by railroads — for instance, produce terminals that include loading, docks to handle rail and truck shipments and port authority owned facilities to handle the transfer of goods between rail cars and ships. Sometimes the facilities have been built in direct competition with privately owned rail-water terminals. In other cases, the authorities have purchased existing facilities and improved them.

It is also possible that in cities where rail terminal problems are acute and. there is no possibility of achieving better coordination under existing competitive conditions between privately owned railroads, a public railroad authority may be given the power to acquire existing rail facilities. This is, of course, a radical departure from the private ownership tradition but it may be a way to improve the operations of a city's railroad network. The authority might own and operate all rail lines and facilities within its jurisdiction or it might own the lines and facilities and lease them to operating companies. Such an authority would provide an opportunity for coordinated planning for local rail services. It could be established only after state enabling legislation for it had been passed but such a proposal would probably encounter the opposition of railroads. Nevertheless, the public railroad authority is a possibility that cannot be overlooked in considering solutions to local railroad problems.


1. Ernest W. Williams, "Railroad Transportation in Urban Development," from the Report of the Urban Planning Conferences under the Auspices of Johns Hopkins University, The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1944, p. 44.

2. Tracks, often with loading docks, where freight is transferred from rail cars to trucks.

3. For a discussion of the potential effects of automation and other changes in railroad operations upon labor, see Automation and Technological Change: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Economic Stabilization of the Joint Committee on the Economic Report, Congress of the United States, 84th Congress, 1st session. (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington 25, D.C., $2); pp. 454–474.

4. "Seatrains" are tug pulled barges equipped with tracks loaded with rail freight cars.

Copyright, American Society of Planning Officials, 1956