The first question for the commander using the national rail power for war, as we saw in this post, is "Can you get anything done using the railroad?" We saw Lee struggle with the task of using a single railroad company's assets to post sentries along that railroad. We saw Pemberton negotiate contingent/emergency use of a railroad's assets to protect that railroad from its own imminent destruction. Not an encouraging picture southward.
We know the contemporary Northern railroad companies were fighting for government contracts, that is, to be of government service. We saw in the South that both parties sought to avoid putting the railroad in government service. So we have a disparity that transcends track gauges, rolling stock inventory, miles of line, and numbers of locomotives.
Now we come to the second question determining use of railpower in war: "What would you like to do with your railpower?" There is a connection to the first question in that this also has shades of managerial capacity coloring it. Lee and Pemberton were limited to extremely simple imaginings - posting sentries and defending the line itself - which (basic as they were) still pushed the managerial envelope to the breaking point of their circumstances.
So there are managerial constraints on "how would you use your rails." A bigger constraint is doctrinal. As long as Lee and Pemberton were operating in a department that included the length of a single railroad, in this case the Charleston & Savannah, their limits were managerial and one-dimensional. Where multiple railroad companies are active in a department, the military management issue becomes multidimensional in its difficulty. Further, imagine railroad companies operating across departments - the department structure imposes more levels of complexity. We are now seeing difficulties that transcend the North/South divide.
The most striking use of rail in popular Civil War literature involves Johnston's intervention in Beauregard's battle with McDowell. I think people look at that and read into it all the railpower potential it offers, which is a mistake.
Johnston, in his report of 10/14/61, says he assumed a position in the Valley based on an intention to frustrate McClellan's joining with Patterson (Scott actually frustrated that junction). This put him near a rail junction. When the federals seized Romney - Johnston thought this was McClellan's vanguard - Johnston sent two regiments by rail to drive them out. We have no details on the railroad aspects of this small operation but we can assume that the project prototyped miliary/managerial interaction in the Dept. of the Shenandoah in a way that could be replicated on a larger scale.
Johnston was ordered by Richmond to join Beauregard. This was not an operation he conceived of himself, he was told to do it. In the course of coordinating with his fellow department commander to the east, Johnston was offered the plan of going around Beauregard's Army of the Potomac to a position on its right. He rejected this - we can surmise how expensive in time in would have been - in favor of his own plan that delivered men by rail to a junction near the Army of the Potomac. Given no other evidence, I am crediting Johnston with the idea of using the Manassas Gap RR in a Romney-writ-large project. His engineer, Whiting, seems to have been the officer in charge of the relevant arrangements.
Let's consider what's special in this case. First, Johnston did a good job of imagining a use of the road in his sector (relieve Romney); then he enlisted railroad management for the short project, and at the end of the operation he had the beginnings of an apparatus for railroad/army collaboration in his department. Second, Johnston used his railroad experience to deliver a larger force to Beauregard. In this he crossed department lines (problematic itself in normal circumstances). Note that he debarked his forces near the end of the continuous Manassas Gap RR line; this eliminated the need for multi-road coordination and simplified his management challenges.
In sum, Johnston operated in a way so as to reduce to the absolute minimum the amount of managerial friction that use of the railway entailed; his circumstances enabled this and though he crossed department lines, he did so in a way as to incur no additional complexity. What would have happened if halfway to Manassas Junction, the ownership of the line changed? Would he have shouldered the difficulty of additional negotiation and coordination? Or just debarked halfway and marched the rest of the distance? Johnston deserves some credit but the rail move from Piedmont to Manassas Junction was a misleadingly simple problem to solve.
I mention departments here to bring us back to the question of "What would you like to do with your railpower?" To do something across departments involves multiple railroad companies and perhaps even some of those beloved, much-ballyhooed technical issues like track gauges. It also includes the requirement to think operationally.
In his book Lee vs. McClellan, Clayton Newell argued that Lee could not prevail over McClellan in western Virginia because McClellan was an operational thinker and Lee was not - and given the scale of their departments, operational thinking was key. Newell goes so far as to credit McClellan with the invention of the concept of "theatre of war."
I mention this because the modern reader generally and inherently understands, McClellan-like, the matter of operational scale and is prone to read that into the culture of Civil War generals where it does not exist. This limitation is a matter of imagination and habit and the externalities of departmental armies.
To use railways strategically might involve moving men from one region to the next over an indeterminate period of time. We have examples of that and it involves decisions at the War Department level with coordination made by special staff not necessarily associated with a departmental army.
To use railways tactically might involve pushing heavy ordnance around.
To use railways operationally, as at Bull Run, one would need to envision delivery of men and cars at the point of necessity across departments in sufficient density and with sufficient cohesion so as to strike a blow at the right moment. This is to place immense managerially and administrative demands on virtually staff-free general officers who tended to be entirely focused on their own departments. Being in a practical sense virtually unimaginable, operational railpower additionally bumped against the cultural limits on imaginations that were not inherently "operational" in scope.
There is a wonderful illustration of army/railway cooperation in Russell Bonds' new book, Stealing the General. The Union soldiers who steal a Rebel locomotive (the General) in Georgia, do so in the midst of a military encampment of at least three regiments. The car is even guarded by military sentries who are evaded. When the hijacked car pulls out of the station, railroad employees themselves attempt to chase it on foot with no effort at all made to enlist the surrounding army for help. One employee rides a horse seven miles in the opposite direction to reach a telegraph office where he can ask railroad management for instructions. (The instructions are to bring a locomotive back to the station and carry soldiers in pursuit of the General.) The disconnect between army and railroad cannot have been greater.
Against this background it seems extravagntly weird to compare railway potential in terms of miles of track and other technical issues.