Era Focus: Modeling the Modern Age

Era Overview

1960's train picking up passengers at the Albany-Rensselaer station Yellow and green 1960s train 3640 on railroad tracks

As the Transitional Era drew to a close, the future of railroads looked uncertain. Following years of financial strain and increased competition, it was clear that the role of the railroad in American life was changing. Railroads no longer cornered the market for transportation, and instead would have to adapt to become a viable component of a much larger multimodal system. The mergers of the 1960s had not produced the results that had been hoped for. While they had been successful in streamlining management, newly merged railroads found themselves burdened with twice the amount of outdated infrastructure, new fleets of dilapidated equipment, and miles of duplicate lines which had once competed with each other.

1971 Amtrak train at a train station Blue 1971 Conrail Train 2798 on the railroad tracks

In 1971 the Federal Government stepped in with the creation of Amtrak – a federally-managed company designed to oversee intercity passenger service. Around this time, many railroads also transferred operations of their ailing commuter lines to local transit agencies.  This allowed railroads to recoup some of their losses, but it wasn’t enough to save the industry. In 1976 the Federal Government was forced to intervene once again with the establishment of Conrail, a government corporation similar in design to Amtrak. Conrail saved seven major east coast freight railroads from bankruptcy, including the notoriously troubled Penn Central. While the situation wasn’t quite so dire in the west, mergers were still taking place. The most notable being the folding of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and Spokane Portland and Seattle into the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1970.

Orange 1990s BNSF train 7520 on railroad tracks Blue, yellow and red 1990s Northstar passenger train on railroad tracks

Following further reorganization into the 1990s, including the folding of the Southern Pacific into the Union Pacific, the merger of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe into BNSF, and the split of Conrail’s operations between CSX and Norfolk Southern, the future for freight railroading was finally starting to look up. While major railroads streamlined their operations, hundreds of new short lines sprung up along previously under-utilized secondary routes and branch lines. Often locally owned, these railroads became integral to the structure of modern freight railroading, allowing major railroads to focus their efforts on mainline and terminal operations, without having to get involved in the last mile delivery of carload shipments. Passenger railroading similarly began to see a resurgence, with Amtrak continuing to operate across the country with steadily increasing passenger numbers. Local commuter service also rebounded during the 90s and into the 2000s, prompting a return of passenger trains to many regions which had previously lost all service.

The Trains of the Era


Black and yellow train 6884 on railroad tracks Blue and yellow CSX train 627 on railroad tracks

By the 1970s, diesel power was firmly established as the dominant form of motive power. Steam was relegated to museums, and despite a brief surge of interest during the oil crisis of 1973, electric power remained mostly confined to passenger lines in the northeast. At this time there were two major locomotive manufacturers; EMD and General Electric. Both were vying for the coveted position of being North America’s dominant locomotive provider, engaging in a power race which would last more than two decades. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, EMD held the reigns, building on the success of their SD40-2 line. This would begin to change however, with the release of GE’s successful Dash 8 series in the late 1980s. The race would ultimately be won by GE, with the introduction of their ground-shaking 6000 horsepower AC6000 in 1995.

1980s orange and yellow BNSF train 5824 on railroad tracks 1980s green and yellow train on railroad track

While the 70s and 80s were focused on raw power, the late 90s and 2000s saw a shift towards cost-effectiveness and achieving acceptable emissions standards. The AC6000 (along with EMD’s similarly powered SD90MAC-H) had proven that power wasn’t everything, with railroads favoring slightly less powerful 4,400 horsepower locomotives for better reliability and fuel efficiency. Today GE remains the leader in freight locomotive production, with members of their Evolution Series being some of the most prevalent on North American rails, while EMD (now Progress Rail) continues to remain a significant player with their evolving line of SD70 series locomotives.

Red, white and black CalTrain on railroad tracks 2000s Bombardier train 2009 on railroad tracks

As the resurgence of passenger railroading continued, new manufacturers surfaced, including Bombardier and Siemens, producing a new generation of locomotives specifically designed for passenger use. One of the most notable developments of this era was the launch of America’s first high speed train – the Acela. Beginning operation along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor in 2000, the Bombardier built train set was the fastest on US rails, being capable of speeds of up to 160mph in revenue use. In 2020, the Acela’s successor, known as the Avelia Liberty, began testing for acceptance into service. Based on the latest French TGV, the Avelia Liberty will boost the speeds achievable in Acela service, while being capable of reaching 220mph under optimum conditions.

Passenger Cars

Amtrak passenger car Amtrak passenger car

In the 1970s, Amtrak found itself with a mismatched fleet of legacy equipment from predecessor railroads, some of which were almost forty years old. As part of their goal of reinventing passenger railroading’s image, they contracted with Budd to produce a new line of single level cars for nationwide use. Called the Amfleet, the design was based on the Metroliner EMU built for the Pennsylvania Railroad in the late 1960s. The car was a resounding success, prompting a second generation with larger windows to be built just a few years later. While these cars were excellent for medium distance routes, they didn’t have the facilities necessary for long distance runs. For these routes, Amtrak contracted with Pullman Standard to develop a bilevel car based on the Santa Fe Hi-levels, which were already operating on some routes. These were known as Superliners, and again were successful enough to warrant a second generation, built by Bombardier.

Comets from Pullman Standard in 1970 Comets from Pullman Standard in 1970

While Amtrak was busy updating America’s intercity passenger equipment, commuter railroads were starting to see improvements as well. After years of contending with ancient heavyweight equipment, New Jersey’s Department of Transportation finally received new cars from Pullman Standard in 1970. Known as Comets, these quickly became the most popular commuter cars in North America, with production continuing well into the 1990s under Bombardier. The cars were delivered to almost all Northeastern commuter railroads, as well as Amtrak (under the Horizon name), while many legacy examples eventually found their way onto commuter systems in Utah and California. Elsewhere in the country, new bilevel cars were developed to cope with increasing demand. Some were based on earlier Gallery Car designs, while others took a radically different approach. As many early modern era cars such as Amfleets began to reach the end of their useful life, a new standardized fleet was developed by Siemens, with cars entering service on Florida’s Brightline in 2018, and Amtrak’s California and Midwest operations in 2020.

Freight Cars

Black freight train Tan train cars

With fierce competition from air and road companies, freight railroads spent much of the modern era developing new business practices to remain competitive. The most significant change was a shift away from carload shipments to a focus on bulk transportation. Commodities such as coal, oil, automobiles, and grain grew in importance to freight railroads, as no competitor could match their efficiency for transporting these high demand items. As a result, it is common to see unit trains of a single commodity such as these in far greater numbers than traditional mixed freights. Despite this shift, carload operations still continued in lesser numbers, with new, larger boxcars carrying far greater loads than even their more recent predecessors.

1950s trailer train 1977 train hauling cargo cars

First developed in the early 1950s, trailer trains continued to grow in importance, as railroads developed agreements to work with an ever-increasing number trucking companies, rather than compete with them. However it was container transport that truly revolutionized freight railroading during this era. The first Intermodal Well Car was developed by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1977, allowing railroads to double the amount of containers they could carry by stacking them two-high. Since this time, containers have become the single largest commodity to be shipped by rail, with railroads even acting as land bridges for containers traveling from Asia to Western Europe, in addition to handling shipments with domestic destinations.

Industries and Scenery

New York cityscape Wind turbines in a field

The 1970s and 80s was a period of reshaping for the American landscape. While cities continued to struggle due to industrial decline, suburbs thrived and expanded. Main Street gave way to strip malls, shopping centers, and big box stores, while factories gave way to distribution centers and intermodal facilities. In cities, downtown cores were dismantled in favor of financial districts, while massive stadiums were built to host local sports teams, in a bid to attract tourism and revitalization. As suburban congestion worsened in the 1990s and 2000s, cities began to reawaken as attractive high density residential and commercial communities, with new, modern rail transit options often incorporated into redevelopment. Meanwhile technology continued to have a greater impact on the landscape, with more high tension power lines and communications towers springing up from east to west, while newer forms of energy contributed to the landscape, with wind turbines, solar farms, refineries and pipelines replacing aging power plants.

Do you model the Modern Era? Send us some photos of your railroad on Social Media – we’d love to share your work on a #TrainLayoutTuesday post!