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Project Proposal

Going Off the Rails: The Effect of Railroad Abandonments on Rural Development

Dustin Frye (Economics)

Project Description

The expansion of railroads transformed the landscape of trade and travel in the 19th century, resulting in over 250,000 miles of track by 1916. Due to competition from trucks, mileage started to slowly decline in the 1920s. The declines continued, starting with the Great Depression, nearly 30,000 miles of track were abandoned by 1950 and through the post World War II era when over 79,000 miles were abandoned between 1950 and 2000. In total, over 40 percent of railroad miles were abandoned during the 20th century. These abandonments significantly altered the competitive environment for shipping by rail.

Recent literature documents that railroads have exercised their recent market power through price discrimination, with most studies focusing on railroad deregulation in the 1980s (Ellig 2002). The goal for this study is to digitize the records of the abandonment of railroads throughout the 20th century and document the counties and regions that were more affected by these abandonments and to what degree these abandonments affected the cost of shipping goods in these regions.

A secondary goal of this project is to contribute to the literature on the effects of transportation networks on welfare. There is a large literature devoted to understanding the benefits of expanding transportation infrastructure, but very little is known about the potential effects of removing infrastructure. Digitizing these records would provide the first opportunity to explore the effects of removing transportation networks on income and economic welfare.

Anticipated Project Activities

This project centers around data collection, cleaning, and basic data analysis. The project will initially focus on using Geographic Information System software to digitize the railroad network in the United States and track the abandonment of segments of track. Once this task is completed, the student will transition to combining this spatial information with economic data covering prices and production for analysis.

Preferred Student Qualifications and Skills

Given the degree of spatial data construction required for this project, the ideal candidate must have a basic working knowledge of a Geographic Information System software, preferably QGIS. Additionally a working knowledge of Excel and STATA would be extremely useful, although not necessary.

Anticipated Follow-up Teaching/Professional Activity for Student

Depending on the progress from the summer, the student may be invited to continue as a research assistant. It's also possible for the student to develop their own related research project for a course project or senior thesis.

Project Location

Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY

Project Duration

Eight weeks

Project Start Date

May 30, 2017

Project End Date

July 21, 2017