My two favourite statistics


When I was little, the people who seemed old were those born in the 19th century. Some of them even hailed from the time during or immediately following the War Between the States. A handful of those were still vital and sharp witted.

The young-to-middle-aged adults were from the generation who had seen the Great Depression and served, either overseas or on the home front, during World War II. My parents' age; the age of my aunts and uncles and friends' folks.

They were the people who were working for a living, serving the public, running the household.

Some call them "The Greatest Generation" - although I've always felt their own parents probably deserved that honourarium, since they were the ones who instilled within their children the myriad "greatest" values.

Now, of course, they are the people who seem old. Shoot; they are old! An entire generation is rapidly going the way of all flesh and, with their passing, some very definite pre-conceived notions regarding this society and the way it should function.

Naturally, there are a wide variety of opinions concerning these "pre-conceived notions" - which ones may still be needful and which ones our culture may be better off without. Of all those basic notions, many might be considered off-topic here; however, one is very much on-topic and worthy of review.

You see, generally speaking, the people whose lives were shaped by the War were able to appreciate the intrinsic value of railroad transportation. On some sort of foundational level, they "understood" trains: their purpose and their nature, and our own civilisation's symbiotic relationship with them.

Most U.S. citizens who were very much older tended to hold a grudge against our industry due to the various excesses - both real and presumed - which railroading enjoyed during an era of unbridled growth and development. Most younger people, evident as early as the Korean War, tended to discount the railroads and seemingly believed they were anachronistic and, ultimately, unnecessary.

But, when the World War II generation said we needed our railroads, they were speaking from experience. When they'd say "I wish we had trains like we used to," they held some definite ideas in mind.

In a very real sense, it was during World War II that railroading, overall, reached its zenith in these United States.

Oh, sure, today's ton miles and operational efficiencies far surpass those of 60 years ago. Conversely, overall railway mileage peaked a quarter-century before the War. There are many ways to measure things and many standards by which any age can be argued "superior" to another. By the same token, we all know that statistics can be used to prove just about anything!

Nonetheless, thanks to divine providence, necessary stations and terminals and shops were readily available for use in the war effort. Locomotives and cars (and anything else that would roll!) were out on the property. Diesel-electric technology had started to mature, but steam had not yet begun its decline. Steel cars - especially passenger - were fairly commonplace, but wood and "hybrid" construction techniques could still be found across the continent. Huge central-city passenger depots, which some had already begun to fear might become "white elephants," were gorged to overflowing with wartime traffic. 1930s ridership data sheets, emblazoned with anemic passenger counts and red ink, morphed into 1940s posters which ominously asked, "Is your trip really necessary?"

With Memorial Day upon us, I was thinking about all of this - and such thoughts always bring to mind the two statistics which are my favourites of all.

During the Second World War, our railroads moved servicemen by the millions, carrying them to training camps, domestic bases and ports of embarkation. Thankfully, most of them made it back after the job was done - and our railroads were once again there to take them home, where family and friends were waiting.

Railroads also moved all the raw materials from forest, mine, quarry and field. They took finished products to assorted destinations, primarily seaside, for use against the enemy.

The war effort required at least six tons of equipment and supplies for every soldier, sailor and marine headed overseas. It also necessitated a tremendous level of ongoing support: an average of more than one ton of material every month just to keep each member of the service going.

[Please pardon me if I begin to sound a bit like an old A.A.R. movie: "That's what the railroads were called upon to do and that's what the railroads did!"]

The end result, though, is seriously mind-boggling.

All told, our railroads carried more than ninety percent of all military freight and handled more than ninety-seven percent of all organised military travel!

Let that sink in for just a minute.

A figure like 90% sounds impressive enough. A figure like NINETY-SEVEN PERCENT of anything is almost beyond comprehension! I mean, that's only 3 percentage points shy of everyone! My gracious; many efforts at scientifically-based polling offer results with a sampling error margin of 3 to 4 percent!

Just think about it!

Understanding and accepting God's ultimate role ("Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." - Psalm 127:1), those numbers bring a whole new meaning to the idea so many of that generation shared concerning America's railroads: without them, the Allies could not have won the War!

Of course, by giving it their all, our railroads sacrificed their future and almost their very lives. Oh, well...that discussion must remain for another day.

Railroads. Leading the fight on the home front; second in importance only to those who actually served. It was a sacrifice worthy of note; a remembrance worthy of Memorial Day.

90% of all military freight. 97% of all organised military transport.

100% effort.

You know, it'll make you proud.



  • I think that this visceral disconnect with rail is one of the bad effects of contracting so much of military rail operations.  Outside of tankers and engineers, most officers, commisioned or otherwise, have so little personal contact with rail operation that it is an abstraction, and road transport is selected by default even in cases where it is clearly unwarranted.

    During WW II, both the percentage and the absolute volume of freight moved by road -dropped- over time.

  • A most interesting blog Garl.  If I may, let me offer some comment.  In WWII, trucking was a considerably different creature than it is today.  Average truck speed was around 30 mph, and payloads were a fraction of what today's 80,000 gvw truck can haul.  Airlines weren't much better for moving troops and recruits, a DC-3 having perhaps 50 seats.  Railroads really were the only effective means of moving troops and material.  Railroads had a long history of dealing with the government and especially the military, which no other mode had at that time.  Remember, it was discharged Union and Confederate officers who essentially built the western railroads.

    The also was a body known as the Military Railway Service that mobilized at the beginning of the war.  After the fiasco that led to government takeover of the railroads in WWI, government and railroad leaders were determined not to have a replay.  Units of the MRS were created from the various railroads.  Men went in as an entire unit and stayed together for the duration.  Railroad executives became generals and colonels heading up their own men.  The idea was that the men knew the procedures of their own railroads and would be able to dive right in and provide transportation instead of spending time training them up.  MRS had operating battalions, shop battalions, engineering battalions, etc.  The railroads acquitted themselves magnificently during the war.  They truly were the "only show in town."  There were some 12 million men under arms, and there was no way the airline industry of that era with the equipment it had could move more than a very small fraction of the troops that had to be moved.  The same went for materrial.  Truckers were prepared to do what they could, but they really couldn't do more than they did.  It was a railroad "show."

    If anyone is interested, Carl R. Gray (Gen.) wrote a book "Railroading in 18 Countries."  Gray was the son of a Northern Pacific CEO, if I recall correctly.  Let's not forget that in addition to moving men and material in this country, the railroad divisions and battalions were required to move men and material from the ports and beaches up near the front.


  • Garl -

    A most insightful and thought provoking piece!

    It is all about change. Once into Post WWII, the US evolved into very much consumer purchase driven realities. In any event, the US has moved from There to Here. Nothing stays the same.

    The wisdom summed up in "Wizard Of Oz"? "Toto, I don't think we are in Kansas, anymore!". As you may have guessed, I can do whole Seminars on the issues.

    Alas! It an early weekend morning, with promise of a beautiful day. Too early in the day for me to do much heavy lifting. Maybe I need some more coffee?


  • Garl write 1st class reflections about the Great American passenger railroads and stations of the past.

    It's really hard to face the present reality facing AMTRAK doing it's utmost to provide a 'mad-car-disease' afflicted nation with some meager rail service.

    In a two week span, railways in the UK transport Amtraks yearly passenger count of approximately 30 million.  

    If Romney, Trump and the mad hatters tea party move into the White House---HALFTRAK will be the new name for a further scaled back passsenger train systems until all of the rolling stock will be sold for scrap or exported to nations without the 'mad-car-virus'.

  • Just a reminder for Railwayist that the UK is not the US.  You can travel from one end of the country to the other in about four hours.  You cannot make it across the U.S. in two days.  As usual, Railwayist offers only the most simplistic of comments demonstrating a lack of knowledge or understanding of the subjects on which he chooses to comment.

  • It does make one proud. Great piece.

    Knowing you as the fine Texas gentleman you are, I have alway wondered--why do you write in British?

  • Cause Garl is a 'Right Honourable Gentleman' with a big following within British Railway circles.

    HRH Charles, Prince of Wales will soon be certified as a High-Speed Locomotive Driver.

    A Royal Railway Tour of North America is in the works for 2013 as a way to help promote rail travel.

  • Yeah, great, we can all become socialists and have the same two class system they have in Europe. No one will be able to afford a car, so we better get those HSRs built on the taxpayer's backs.

  • Are you through with your latest political rant, Systemsnut?

  • Party politics aside, Larry, he has a point.  Collective solutions generally only work efficiently and effectively when they are genuinely shared.  The "Sewer Socialists" and the Progressive (Republican)s managed to do some good work, some of it on transportation, in the Midwest, but that was because everyone saw streetlights and sewers as a genuine public good.

    As long as so much of, roughly, the Democratic Party, makes so much of their immediate advantages from HSR -jobs which they can claim as coming from their efforts - and so little of quantifiable benefit to the public at large, support is going to split right along party lines.

  • anmccaff:  You may be correct, but my point still is that transportation/infrastructure never has been a partisan issue.  The idiots who cannot get a highway bill renewal passed after nearly three years are making it a partisan issue.  Systemsnut has a right to any opinion he wishes.  He does not have a right to base it on his very own facts to which others do not subscribe.