Abstract: Trans-Atlantic Grade Crossings: The Influence of British Railway Regulation on America

John Hepp


My paper will examine the British regulation of their railway system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a model for American reformers. Britain more tightly regulated everything from financing to operations to safety than the United States, and this structure served as a model—both positively and negatively—for American politicians and reformers. Through the early twentieth century, both reformers and railway officials crossed the Atlantic to examine operating and regulatory practices in the industry. Although information flowed both ways—the British Light Railways Act of 1896 was in part inspired by U.S. practices—Britain was far in advance of America in both regulation and operation. By comparing the British regulatory structure with what was developed in the United States we can better understand both the aspirations and successes of American reformers. My paper will develop the British regulatory scheme through the Railways Act of 1921 (which "grouped" over one hundred private companies into just four large railways) and examine how American reformers dealt with issues that were broadly similar to those handled by their British counterparts. In both countries, World War I effectively ended the first phase of railway regulation, and my paper will end with the coming of new regulations in the immediate aftermath of the war.