Who killed the railroads?

This has been bothering me for a while now. I don’t fully buy the argument that cars outright destroyed the US railroad industry between 1900-1930. Passenger rail, maybe, but railroad conditions and use had steeply declined by the 1920s, (less than?) a decade after the Model T and the implementation of the assembly line at Ford(1). By the time the rails were being ripped out to build roads, they were in terrible, sometimes unusable, condition.

I haven’t read a whole lot on the development of trucks, but my assumption is that cargo trucking didn’t develop as fast as commercial auto. Roads were pretty bad until the 20s, when Thomas Harris MacDonald took over the Bureau of Public Roads. It couldn’t have been the shipping container, either, because that wasn’t widespread until after the 1950s.

So, what gives? What additionally led to the decline of railroads? Did their use decline even during World War I (adjusting for wartime passenger rates)? Did road building actually speed up the decline of railroads much more than I had assumed? Is my understanding of the whole thing wrong?

If you have any recommendations to answer any of the above, please let me know!


(1) Contrary to popular belief, Ford did not invent the assembly line. The idea was implemented by William Klann, a Ford production manager, after visiting a Chicago butcher shop.

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