|Choo choo! All aboard the Alternate History Express!|
President Abraham Lincoln signs a modified version of the Pacific Railroad Act, without granting any land to the Union Pacific Railroad or the Central Pacific Railroad, but granting larger bonds in turn. It was decided that the federal government, in the middle of the very expensive Civil War, shouldn't give away possibly valuable land that some day might be needed to pay off debts. Other parts of the bill as passed OTL, such as the ambiguous corporate setup, the right of way to build maintenance facilities, sidings and stations, and other assorted provisions.
Problems began almost immediately. The cost of the railroad, estimated at an astounding $100,000,000 in 1861, began to grow out of control when construction began in 1864, as corruption and kickbacks, as well as lobbying the federal and state governments from money the federal government gave the companies. In 1867, Congressman Oakes Ames began to give stocks of the the Crédit Mobilier company formed to help construct the railway, but the railroads were desperate for cash, and wanted to push the federal government to pass the delayed Homestead Act to both give land to the railroad and to lower the price of Federal held land to settlers who were starting to flock west.
Scandal broke out in 1868 when a New York newspaper revealed the details. Republican candidate and general Ulysses S. Grant, while not connected to the scandal itself, was severely damaged when many of his close compatriots, including his running mate Schuyler Colfax and several high ranking Republicans in Congress were caught up in the net. While Grant still won the election, largely due to the new Republican Party in the Southern states readmitted to the Union, the Democrats managed to secure the House of Representatives, making it difficult for Grant to get his goals put into action, including finishing the transcontinental railroad.
A House investigation into the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads, along with Crédit Mobilier began in 1869, but by this time the Railroads were out of money, but with over a thousand miles of railway still to build. Eventually the full extent of the scandal, the number of congressmen caught up in it, and the huge damage to the Republican Party, not to mention the government and the railroad, made it political suicide to support the transcontinental railroad, despite the fact that everyone in the US still wanted one. But with the price now close to $175 million dollars, it was too expensive, and the American people were opposed to building, as one newspaper called it, a "metal string, too expensively built, not even connected, that would be easily severed by Indians, Confederate revenge seekers, Mormons, or all matter of ruffian."
The Railroad De-Investment Act of 1870 was passed by Congress, and reluctantly signed by President Grant. All federal bonds to the railroad were withdrawn, and both railroads were to be left to their own devices. Union Pacific quickly collapsed, and was broken up into smaller, regional railroads. The Central Pacific was still solvent, as it wasn't as affected by the scandals, but it didn't have the capital or resources to finish building eastward. The dream of a transcontinental railroad was dead for now.
|Sorry guys... you just built several thousand miles of tracks for no reason.|
The US economy, while it grew, didn't grow at the exponential rate in OTL. Factories in the east had a hard time getting resources from the west, which stunted the growth of larger companies. Many factories were built in the west due to the easier access of raw materials, but it was too expensive to ship them east, either by train or by boat. By 1900, the US economy was one of the largest in the world, but it was just tied with a unified Germany, not leaps and bounds ahead. Labor policies were also different, and unions were able to work more closely with smaller, more regional corporations. The demands for better job safety and wages were, for the most part, met by the companies. The Panic of 1897, and the failure of businesses and banks threw tens of thousands out of work, lead to the state and federal governments to pass some social welfare laws to aid the people, but it would be a long time before the modern welfare system as we recognize it would be established. Only a very few companies, mainly retailers and some manufacturers like John Deere and a much smaller US Steel, were truly "national."
World War One began to change the US railway system, but it was a slow change. When the US entered the war, with Germany launching an unrestricted submarine warfare, the railway system was thrown into chaos, and unable to ship supplies, men and material easily between coasts. Congress passed the Military Railway Act of 1918, giving the US Department of War full control over the entire railway system. This helped somewhat, but the smaller engines used on more local lines, the lack of maintenance on those lines that were busy but unable to properly maintain engines and lines, and the difference in gauges hampered the war effort.
|Troops and trains kind of go together like peanut butter and jelly. Just with more bayonets.|
With Allied victory in late 1919 as American troops finally arrived in sufficient numbers to prevent France from falling after the 1918 German offensives, the US began to realize the huge mess that was the railway system. A committee established by the War Department, Congress, representatives of some businesses and the railways began to look into the railway system, and in 1921 came out with the landmark Wilson Report, named after the leading academic of the US, and failed Democratic candidate for President Woodrow Wilson from Princeton. In the report, it advocated for a nationalization of the railways, or at the very least the establishment of ten distinct companies overseen by the government, including three transcontinental lines and seven more "regional" carriers. A standardization of gauges, namely to the Standard gauge was also recommended, and a management of prices. The Great Depression in 1928 put a halt to this effort, though several states in the West and South had agreed to work together to buy and build up some regional lines similar to the Wilson Report.
It wasn't until 1941, with the US in the middle of the Second World War that broke out in Europe in 1938 when Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and dragged the US in when Japan attacked Hawaii in late 1940, was the Wilson Report finally enacted upon. The US government bought up the railways suggested in the report, though many had been consolidated in the 1930s during the Great Depression, and set up the Department of Railways to manage them. The modernization and nationalization of the railroads was a huge boon, and it allowed the US to gear up for war more quickly than in the First World War.
After victory in World War Two was achieved in the bloody invasion of Japan, the Department of Railways began to reorganize the railways, starting with the huge, week long "Gauge Day," when tens of thousands of miles of non-standardized gauge lines had one rail torn up, moved to be 4 feet, nine inches from the other rail, and spiked back down, turning all the major lines of the US into Standard gauge. The Department of Railways went further, forming four transcontinental lines, ten regional railways, and a huge modernization of engines, rolling stock and facilities, all under the overarching name of the Federal Railway System (FRS).
The late 1940s and 1950s was the heyday of the American Railway system, but almost as soon as it started, it ended. The Interstate Highway Act of 1957, promoted by President and former General Douglas McArthur as a national highway system built and maintained by the federal government, began construction. Air travel, which was mostly dominated by the federal US Air for it's early years, began to take over the transport system. While goods and materials were shipped by railway, people preferred to take the faster airplanes or go by car. By 1984, the Department of Transport (the manager of the FRS, US Air, and the Interstate Highways) was forced to scrap almost all the passenger lines, tear up old train lines, and try to adapt to new realities. But with funding from the government, the first "Eagle," a 200 mph electric locomotive was tested, and experiments to make fast, efficient and clean inter-city passenger routes proved to be a success. Expansion north to Canada and south to Mexico allowed the FRS to compete with the airlines, maybe not in terms of speed, but in comfort and reliability, to travel throughout North America.
In the 21st century, with several popular "Flying Eagles" soaring between America's great cities from coast to coast, it's hard to imagine that 140 years before, even as late as 1930, that the great American rail system that rivaled the interconnected European Union and Japan was a collection of small, barely profitable and competing railways. While the US government has cut back their social welfare system in the years since due to the high cost and bloated government, and corporations are growing larger and larger through mergers and acquisitions, all sides of the political spectrum have agreed to let the Federal Railway System continue to expand and innovate, connecting the USA together.
I have to give this scenario somewhere like a 3.5 on a ten point scale, with 1 being virtually implausible, and 10 being very plausible. I don't know how the US could have grown to be the super power it is today without transcontinental railways. The size and expanse of the country alone would make it nearly impossible to not have some form of interconnected railways system after the Civil War, but eventually the need for it would decline, especially passenger transport as airplanes and cars would take over. But, as countries like Japan and those like the Eurostar between the UK, France and Belgium have shown, if you provide a high speed train service between major centres, then there will be people, especially those looking for a deal, to buy those tickets instead of going on an airplane.
And really, who doesn't enjoy a train trip?
When I wrote this article I based it on he development of the British railway system: a lot of competing independent companies, different gauges, and eventually nationalization of all the major railways into one system.
I also didn't mention the Panama Canal in this article, as I didn't see the US having the resources, money, people or machinery, to build one, but still possessing the power to keep European nations from building one, Monroe Doctrine and all. If the Panama Canal is not built, then the American railways are still very important right up until the present for shipping goods from coast to coast. If the Panama Canal was built, then the all those smaller railways would have gone belly up in the next couple of decades.
But what do you think? What if there wasn't a big transcontinental railroad? Or if you have a topic or idea you would like me to talk about, please leave comments below, email me at email@example.com, or tell me on Twitter @tbguy1992.