Federal Regulation of Land Transportation.

Congressio- nal regulation of railroads may be said to have begun in 1866. By the Garfield Act, Congress authorized all railroad companies operating by steam to interconnect with each other “so as to form continuous lines for the transportation of passengers, freight, troops, governmental supplies, and mails, to their destination.”748 An act of the same year provided federal chartering and protection from conflicting state regulations to companies formed to construct and operate telegraph lines.749 Another act regulated the transportation by railroad of livestock so as to preserve the health and safety of the animals.750

Congress’s entry into the rate regulation field was preceded by state attempts to curb the abuses of the rail lines in the Middle West, which culminated in the “Granger Movement.” Because the businesses were locally owned, the Court at first upheld state laws as not constituting a burden on interstate commerce;751 but after the various business panics of the 1870s and 1880s drove numerous small companies into bankruptcy and led to consolidation, there emerged great interstate systems. Thus in 1886, the Court held that a state may not set charges for carriage even within its own boundaries of goods brought from without the state or destined to points outside it; that power was exclusively with Congress.752 In the following year, Congress passed the original Interstate Commerce Act.753 A Commission was authorized to pass upon the “reasonableness” of all rates by railroads for the transportation of goods or persons in interstate commerce and to order the discontinuance of all charges found to be “unreasonable.” In ICC v. Brimson,754 the Court upheld the Act as “necessary and proper” for the enforcement of the Commerce Clause and also sustained the Commission’s power to go to court to secure compliance with its orders. Later decisions circumscribed somewhat the ICC’s power.755

Expansion of the Commission’s authority came in the Hepburn Act of 1906756 and the Mann-Elkins Act of 1910.757 By the former, the Commission was explicitly empowered, after a full hearing on a complaint, “to determine and prescribe just and reasonable” maximum rates; by the latter, it was authorized to set rates on its own initiative and empowered to suspend any increase in rates by a carrier until it reviewed the change. At the same time, the Commission’s jurisdiction was extended to telegraphs, telephones, and cables.758 By the Motor Carrier Act of 1935,759 the ICC was authorized to regulate the transportation of persons and property by motor vehicle common carriers.

The modern powers of the Commission were largely defined by the Transportation Acts of 1920760 and 1940.761 The jurisdiction of the Commission covers not only the characteristics of the rail, motor, and water carriers in commerce among the states but also the issuance of securities by them and all consolidations of existing companies or lines.762 Further, the Commission was charged with regulating so as to foster and promote the meeting of the transportation needs of the country. Thus, from a regulatory exercise originally begun as a method of restraint there has emerged a policy of encouraging a consistent national transportation policy.763


14 Stat. 66 (1866). back
14 Stat. 221 (1866). back
17 Stat. 353 (1873). back
Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113 (1877); Chicago B. & Q. R. Co. v. Iowa, 94 U.S. 155 (1877); Peik v. Chicago & N.W. Ry., 94 U.S. 164 (1877); Pickard v. Pullman Southern Car Co., 117 U.S. 34 (1886). back
Wabash, St. L. & P. Ry. Co. v. Illinois, 118 U.S. 557 (1886). A variety of state regulations have been struck down on the burdening-of-commerce rationale. E.g., Southern Pacific Co. v. Arizona ex rel. Sullivan, 325 U.S. 761 (1945) (train length); Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line R.R., 272 U.S. 605 (1926) (locomotive accessories); Pennsylvania R.R. v. Public Service Comm’n, 250 U.S. 566 (1919). But the Court has largely exempted regulations with a safety purpose, even a questionable one. Brotherhood of Firemen v. Chicago, R.I. & P. R.R., 393 U.S. 129 (1968). back
24 Stat. 379 (1887). back
154 U.S. 447, 470 (1894). back
ICC v. Alabama Midland Ry., 168 U.S. 144 (1897); Cincinnati, N.O. & Texas Pacific Ry. v. ICC, 162 U.S. 184 (1896). back
34 Stat. 584. back
36 Stat. 539. back
These regulatory powers are now vested, of course, in the Federal Communications Commission. back
49 Stat. 543 (1935). back
41 Stat. 474. back
54 Stat. 898, U.S.C. §§ 1 et seq. The two acts were “intended . . . to provide a completely integrated interstate regulatory system over motor, railroad, and water carriers.” United States v. Pennsylvania R.R., 323 U.S. 612, 618–19 (1945). The ICC’s powers include authority to determine the reasonableness of a joint through international rate covering transportation in the United States and abroad and to order the domestic carriers to pay reparations in the amount by which the rate is unreasonable. Canada Packers v. Atchison, T. & S. F. Ry., 385 U.S. 182 (1966), and cases cited. back
Disputes between the ICC and other government agencies over mergers have occupied a good deal of the Court’s time. Cf. United States v. ICC, 396 U.S. 491 (1970). See also County of Marin v. United States, 356 U.S. 412 (1958); McLean Trucking Co. v. United States, 321 U.S. 67 (1944); Penn-Central Merger & N & W Inclusion Cases, 389 U.S. 486 (1968). back
Among the various provisions of the Interstate Commerce Act which have been upheld are: a section penalizing shippers for obtaining transportation at less than published rates, Armour Packing Co. v. United States, 209 U.S. 56 (1908); a section construed as prohibiting the hauling of commodities in which the carrier had at the time of haul a proprietary interest, United States v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 213 U.S. 366 (1909); a section abrogating life passes, Louisville & Nashville R.R. v. Mottley, 219 U.S. 467 (1911); a section authorizing the ICC to regulate the entire bookkeeping system of interstate carriers, including intrastate accounts, ICC v. Goodrich Transit Co., 224 U.S. 194 (1912); a clause affecting the charging of rates different for long and short hauls. Intermountain Rate Cases, 234 U.S. 476 (1914). back