Thursday, January 14, 2016

AltHistory Scenario #17: What if the Transcontinental Railroad was Never Built?

Time for another big alternate history. And this time, let's talk about trains. Generally, American trains. Specifically, the first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific/Central Pacific.

Choo choo! All aboard the Alternate History Express!
Point of Divergence

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.
Many smaller railroads, usually serving just a local area, state, or between two larger cities, began to be built instead. But though the original Pacific Railroad Act suggested that the railroad be constructed in the standard gauge (4 feet, 9 inches), many of these smaller railroads had a huge variation in gauges, meaning that to travel between Chicago (which is just a small city on the shores of Lake Michigan, though a major centre for the transfer of trains) to New York took a week, stopping in many other towns to switch trains that may have been delayed. Eventually there would be railroads that would stretch from east to west, but the train lines were not unified, the costs to travel and ship freight by many smaller companies were high from New York to San Francisco was ridiculously high, and there was almost no market of farmers needing machinery or supplies in the Midwest. In fact, it wasn't until the recently formed Dominion of Canada built the Trans-Canadian Railway in 1890 did the idea of a transcontinental railroad was brought up in the US again, but the memories of the scandals with the Union Pacific (and the stories of the kickbacks and bribes from the TCR in the US, and the barely profitable nature of the northern line) put that idea to rest. The failure and breakup of the TCR in 1898 seemed to prove the point in the States as well.

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.

As much as I like ships... the Panama Canal was kind of a dick move historically as far as the railways are concerned.
But Teddy Roosevelt built it. But he basically sponsored a revolution in a smaller country to get it
Jeez. For being a big ditch, the Canal sure has a lot of baggage.

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, or tell me on Twitter @tbguy1992.


  1. There's a lot more knock-on effects besides just a smaller economic growth. Because railroads were essentially paid in land to build railroads, they had a massive incentive to encourage people moving out and buying their new land. Even if, in retrospect, people moving their was a bad idea.

    The growth of the Plains and the West was pretty much dictated/directed by railroads. Sans them and the whole move west of the Mississippi slows way down. Add a few decades to places like Colorado and Nevada becoming states.

    Interestingly, west coast states might not be able to “afford” much of their racism against the “Yellow Peril” simply because China and Japan are going to be one of the few sources of new labor. Oh, they'll still gripe about them and exclude them from all the “best” places, but the Asian-exclusion laws that got passed on OTL might not on this one.

    I'm not sure Canada will go ahead with a TransCanadian Railway if the U.S. doesn't have one. Yeah, it was nominally one of the promises it made to BC to entice them to join the rest of the Dominion, but if no one has *built* such a thing (and indeed, the U.S. experience has seemingly proved it “impossible”), will BC even think to ask for such a promise?

    I think you're overestimating the amount multiple gauges will slow down traffic on the railways – at least in the 19th century. Yeah, there's a lot of stopping to switch to other trains/gauges. But with the steam locos at the time, there was a lot of stopping *anyway* (about every 50 miles or so) just to refuel and rewater. I also don't think the number of multiple gauges will be a problem for long. Sure, everyone's invested in their own gauge, but like a lot of things (think the Video tape wars) one version will eventually just be cheaper/more available to buy stuff for than others and while putting down duel gauge trackage is a pain (especially at switches), it's not anything that didn't happen a lot even on OTL. I'd expect the over 50% of track to be a single “standard” gauge” within a few decades, transcontinental or no, and 25-30% of the remained to be a single “narrow gauge” by then as well – not really too different from OTL.

    I'd also expect some tycoon or another to try and do the equivalent of what Standard Oil did with oil companies and gain a monopoly on a large number of these regional railroads. Having a monopoly on *something* was just too big a draw in the late 19th, early 20th century. It'd be ironic to finally get a transcontinental railroad...and have a Teddy Roosevelt then come in and break it up…

    IAE, I'd still expect a transcontinental well before you have it on your timeline, even if it is just created by piecing together smaller railroads. Russia managed the TransSiberian – a route about three times as long – by 1916 and I can't see the U.S. being *that* far behind.

    BTW, with limited connection between the coasts, the U.S. is not only going to want to create a “Two-Ocean Navy” but also a “Two Ocean Army.”

    Another BTW – I can't see a President Douglas McArthur (unless things totally get changed) pushing for an Interstate Highway System. For one thing, it's just not the kind of ticky detail he doesn't seem to be interested in, but for another, Eisenhower was inspired by what he saw in Germany with their road system. If this TL still puts McArthur in the inspiration, no Interstates.

    Besides, I think you've modified things enough that the U.S. developing a nuke for WWII is at least for a few years more after WWII, nukes themselves are unlikely. Since one of the prime reasons for the Interstates was so people could evacuate quicker in case of a nuclear war, well...

  2. Wouldn't California also become even more ruggedly individualistic/independent than OTL, cut off from the rest of the country without a good rail system? Everything from exporting fresh produce to other parts of the nation to the advent of Hollywood comes into question then.

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