- From Rail to Road and Back Again? A Century of Transport Competition and Interdependency by Ralf Roth, Colin Divall
From Rail to Road and Back Again? delivers exactly what its title implies, taking the reader through the initial evolution of our earliest railways and their sometimes cooperative, sometimes uneasy, and often competitive co-existence with road networks, to where we are today. In addition, the authors treat us to chronological, parallel treatments of these developments in three different arenas that all grew at about the same rate: the United States, the United Kingdom, and Western Europe. The introduction alone, at 30 pages, is itself an excellent review of the book’s goals and contents, tying the diverse writers’ efforts into a cohesive, historical overview.
The parallel developments studied include detailed looks at containerization, which as more than one of the chapters points out, was not invented by Malcolm McLean in the 1950s, but rather was perfected by him, and he succeeded by getting the first-ever international adoption of a standard container. In reality, practical containerization examples are given to us that date back as far as 1775 in England, through the use of “wagons with detachable wheels,” the smaller-sized precursors of today’s containers and chassis. There is even an explanation of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s first intermodal shipment, which interchanged containers between rail and water on the Chesapeake Bay, keeping the experiment intrastate within Maryland and away from the watchful regulatory eye of the Interstate Commerce Commission. We also are told about the “demountable car bodies” used to reduce wartime congestion in and around Cincinnati in 1917. In addition to the US experience, we are taken through containerization history in the other two venues: the UK, plus Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. [End Page 104]
Thankfully, answers are not always provided to history’s “chicken and egg questions,” such as “did road systems grow because of the growth in vehicle ownership, or did vehicle ownership grow to fill an expanding network of roadways?” But the reader is usually given sufficient information to arrive at his or her own answers. In other examples, answers are suggested, as in the early debates on the economics of investing more in either rail or highway development, which questioned whether steam railways were more economical than a system of roads with smaller, multiple steam vehicles (they were, by a factor of 3). These read amazingly similar to the same issue’s pros and cons today.
The writings selected for this book include the impact of transportation developments on their environs. For example, the “star” pattern of city expansion and development is clearly explained as a natural consequence of railways and roads being built along radii from a central city hub, while the growth between “arms” had to be facilitated by the introduction of beltway roads and rails to connect the arms away from the hub. There is also discussion on why US and Western European railroads displaced their competing networks of waterways as prime movers, yet roads were not (and could not) be completely replaced by rail—fortunately for later technologies that needed to utilize those pathways. Another example is the examination of how subways replaced less efficient short-distance surface and elevated rail systems, yet are most efficient when coordinating with surviving surface elements like buses and long-distance rail.
The story of transportation regulation is also told across the three selected venues, such as how UK and US railways were prevented by law from owning motor carriers and from lowering their rates to compete with motor freight (which legislators thought would protect the rails from financial ruin), and also how the Interstate Commerce Commission, bound by law to protect weak US railroads from potentially harmful competition, kept less-than-carload (LCL) rates artificially high after World War I, killing off what might have been a much earlier intermodal revolution.
The authors also examine the impact of the German autobahns...