Railroads played a crucial role in the Progressive Era as providers of transportation and targets of regulation. The industry faced the challenges of government intervention, internal competition, and new modes of transportation, especially the automobile and the truck. The combination of expanding demand and poor roads allowed railroads to maintain their near monopoly position on long-distance travel, but the end of the age of the train was rapidly approaching by 1917.

The railroad network in the United States during Theodore Roosevelt’s lifetime consisted of private corporations varying in size from giant regional networks connecting major metropolitan areas to short lines serving single docks or factories. In 1913, there were approximately 180 railroads with operating revenues in excess of $1,000,000 and another 275 with revenue between $1,000,000 and $100,000. A further 3,800 companies operating a few miles of track completed the system. In 1900 there were 193,346 route miles in the United States, growing to 254,037 miles in 1916, the high point of the United States railroad industry. The railroads carried 289 million passengers in 1882 (the first year for which data are available), 607 million in 1901, and 1,211 million in 1919, the second highest total of all time.

Railroad growth occurred through a combination of new lines duplicating existing ones and the creation of interurbans. The latter connected rural areas with market centers and brought fast, regular rail travel to previously neglected areas. The invention of electric traction in the 1890s spurred this development and the overhead wire became a common sight across the East and the Midwest. Steam lines responded by accelerating their own services and adding more trains, yet even as this race heated up the “Good Roads” movement was encouraging governments at all levels to build hard-surface roadways for automobiles and trucks. After 1918 more interurban train track was dismantled than built.

As president, Theodore Roosevelt took a significant step toward regulating industry in 1904. In that year the Northern Securities Case came before the Supreme Court, which ruled that this combination of railroads across the northern tier of the United States violated the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The ruling established the right of the federal government to dismantle monopolistic trusts acting collusively to restrain trade, one of a series of groundbreaking precedents involving railroads set during the Roosevelt administration. Others included the 1903 Elkins Act ending rebates and the 1906 Hepburn Act empowering the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to set maximum rates for carrying freight and people.

Roosevelt feared some railroad barons were acting unethically. In 1906 he instructed the ICC to investigate the legality of a $6 million dividend paid to members of the syndicate which purchased the Chicago & Alton Railroad. His chief target was E. H. Harriman, who controlled several major railroads and had been a contributor to the Republican party. Harriman claimed he was being persecuted for refusing to donate to the 1906 election campaign but the ICC condemned the dividend and criticized several financial practices that were becoming commonplace in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Though critical of railroad monopolies, Roosevelt respected railroad employees. He regularly shook hands with the engineers of trains he rode and was often invited into the cab. The Long Island Railroad had served Oyster Bay since 1889 and Roosevelt commuted on it after becoming Police Commissioner for New York City. As president he travelled frequently by train, including a grueling nine-week, 14,000 mile trip through the West in 1903. He later described the journey as “very hard and rather monotonous.” TR admired railroad workers for their “hardihood, daring, self-reliance, and physical strength and endurance,” calling them moral exemplars. He addressed the 1902 Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen’s convention, praising railroaders’ character and moral standing, and he appointed Edgar E. Clark, the grand chief conductor of the Order of Railway Conductors, to the commission charged with ending the 1902 anthracite coal strike, and, in 1906, to the ICC.