The following is a brief history of major legislation passed in the United States relating to the railroad industry starting back in the 1860's.
- Southern states had blocked westward rail expansion before 1860, but after secession the The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 was finally passed by Congress. It authorized the Union Pacific Railroad to build westward from the Missouri River to the California boundary or until it met the Central Pacific Railroad. Government aid took the form of land grants and subsidies. The Act led to the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.
- In response to monopolistic practices and other excesses of some railroads and their owners, Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887. The ICC indirectly controlled the business activities of the railroads through issuance of extensive regulations.
- Congress also enacted antitrust legislation to prohibit railroad monopolies, beginning with the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890.
- In response to union strikes, Congress passed the Arbitration Act of 1888, which authorized the creation of arbitration panels with the power to investigate the causes of labor disputes and to issue non-binding arbitration awards. The Act was proved ineffective, with only one panel ever convened under the Act.
- Safety Appliance Act - This law was enacted on March 2, 1893 and took effect in 1900 after a 7 year grace period. It made air brakes and automatic couplers mandatory on all trains in the United States. The act is credited with a sharp drop in accidents on American railroads in the early twentieth century. Amended a number of times over the years.
- Congress attempted to correct shortcomings of the Arbitration Act by passing the Erdman Act in 1898. This law likewise provided for voluntary arbitration, but made any award issued by the panel binding and enforceable in federal court. It also outlawed discrimination against employees for union activities.
- A successor statute, the Newlands Act, passed in 1913 proved more effective, but was largely superseded when the federal government nationalized the railroads in 1917.
- Hours of Service Act - Originally enacted in 1907 to promote the safety of workers and the public by limiting the hours a person engaged in movement of a train could remain on duty. Initially the law allowed for a 16 hour work day, which was lowered to 14 hours in 1969.
- In 1908, the Federal Employers' Liability Act was passed. Most railroad workers injured on the job fell under the act.
- Accident Reports Act - In 1910, Congress enacted this law that requires that railroad carriers to file reports to the federal government on all accidents and incidents resulting in injury or death to an individual or damage to equipment or a roadbed arising from the carrier’s operations during the month.
- Originally passed in 1910, the Signal Inspection Act grants the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) authority to regulate the maintenance, testing, removal or modification of signal systems.
- In 1911, Congress passed the Boiler Inspection Act, bringing all locomotive steam boilers under Federal auspices. Over the decades since then the Boiler Inspection Act has evolved into the Locomotive Inspection Act as it currently exists. See http://www.trainnet.org/libraries/lib001/lia.txt
- In 1916, the Hours of Service Act passed and the Railroad Brotherhoods won the fight for an 8-hour work day.
- In August 1916, the U.S. Congress passed the Army Appropriations Act which included clause that allowed the President to take control of any system of transportation during times of war. The U.S. Railroad Administration (USRA) then temporarily took over management of railroads during World War I. President Woodrow Wilson issued the order for nationalization on December 26, 1917. Federal control of the railroads ended in March 1920, under the Esch-Cummins Act.
- The Esch–Cummins Act of 1920 created a Railway Labor Board (RLB) to regulate wages and issue non-binding proposals to settle disputes. In 1921 the RLB ordered a twelve percent reduction in employees' wages, which led to the 'Great Railroad Strike of 1922'
- Congress passed the Railway Labor Act of 1926 to rectify the shortcomings of the RLB procedures. It also required employers, for the first time and under penalty of law, to bargain collectively and not to discriminate against their employees for joining a union. It provided also for mediation, voluntary arbitration, fact-finding boards, cooling off periods and adjustment boards.
- In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, clearly established the right of all workers to organize and to elect their representative for collective bargaining purposes. The following year the Washington Job Protection Agreement was passed.
- In 1937, the Railroad Retirement Act was passed.
- In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act advocated by President Roosevelt was passed making certain minimum wage, maximum weekly working hours, and anti-child labor provisions permanent.
- The Landrum Griffin Act of 1959, also known as the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), defined financial reporting requirements for both unions and management organizations. Landrum-Griffin also seeks to prevent consultants from spying on employees or the union. However, because of Landrum-Griffin's vague language, attorneys are often able to directly interfere in the union-organizing process without any reporting requirements.
- The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was a major revision of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 [the Wagner Act], passed by the Republican-controlled Congress over President Truman's veto. The law established 'unfair labor practices' which can be charged against both unions and employers. It broadened an employer's arsenal to fight union activities and organizing drives. Presidents have invoked the Taft-Hartley Act thirty-five times to halt work stoppages in labor disputes.
- In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was passed prohibiting wage differences based on sex in the U.S.
- In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed prohibiting many forms of job discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, or religion. The Mass Transportation Act was also passed in 1964.
- In 1966, the Department of Transportation Act was passed, creating the Federal Railroad Administration to promulgate and enforce rail safety regulations and conduct R&D in support of improved rail safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation officially came into being on April 1, 1967.
- Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 - This comprehensive law authorized the Secretary of Transportation to prescribe regulations for all areas of railroad safety (supplementing existing rail safety statutes and regulations) and to conduct necessary research, development, testing, evaluation, and training.
- In 1970, Congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act creating a government corporation to take over operation of selected inter-city passenger services from other private railroads. The government corporation, Amtrak, began operations in 1971.
- The Occupational and Safety Health Act (OSHA) was passed in 1970.
- Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 to salvage viable freight operations from bankrupt companies in the northeast, mid-Atlantic and midwestern regions of the country, creating the government owned Consolidated Rail Corporation (ConRail). Conrail began operations in 1976. The Act also formed the U.S. Railway Association, which took over the certain powers of the ICC with respect to bankrupt railroads and abandoned lines.
- Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (Hazmat Act) of 1975 - The primary objective of this Act is to provide adequate protection against the risks to life and property inherent in the transportation of hazardous material in commerce.
- Under the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976, Amtrak acquired most of the right-of-way and facilities of the Penn Central Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston. In addition to freight railroads, Conrail inherited unprofitable commuter rail operations from several railroads in the northeast.
- In 1980 Congress enacted the Staggers Rail Act to revive freight traffic, by removing restrictive regulations and enabling railroads to be more competitive with the trucking industry.
- The Northeast Rail Service Act of 1981 authorized additional deregulation of northeast railroads. Among other things, these laws reduced the role of the ICC in regulating the railroads and allowed the carriers to discontinue unprofitable routes.
- In 1995, Congress abolished the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), transferring its powers to the Surface Transportation Board.
- In 2001, the Railroad Retirement & Survivors' Improvement Act was passed.
- In 2008, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) passed, establishing the initial framework for the development of high-speed rail corridors in the U.S.
- The comprehensive
Safety Improvement Act
was also passed in 2008 – For details, see
If you know of any other major legislation related to the U.S. Railroad industry that we missed, please let us know.