In the United States, all railroad employees and their families are entitled to a number of benefits under the Railroad Retirement Act and the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act. These include unemployment insurance as well as retirement-survivor benefits, the latter of which is paid by way of an annuity that is administered by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), an independent agency of the US Government.

The Collection

Railroad Documents

Much like other insurance companies, the RRB has field representatives to help railroad workers and their families file claims for benefits and adjusters who determine their validity. Calculation of benefits and processing of payments is highly automated, and the RRB also employs information technology staff to manage the various electronic systems.

The RRB was actually, to a great extent, a product of the Great Depression. The railroads were ahead of other industries in introducing private pension plans. In fact, the first American railroad pension plan dates back to 1874. During the 1930s, however, serious defects in early private pension plans became magnified by the Depression, and a more suitable solution had to be found. Legislation was passed, creating a national retirement benefit annuity program for railroad staff.

If the Depression showed us anything, it was that there were many elderly people who had insufficient retirement income, or none at all. This is the era that spawned social security, but not until 1935. Railroad workers during the early thirties saw an immediate need for retirement benefits, so they did not wait for social security to come around. Instead, they expanded upon and unified the existing private plans under one umbrella.

This process was begun in 1934. By the time the entire system was implemented in 1937, social security was a reality, but the RRB began delivering benefits years before social security did. To this day, the railroad retirement system remains separate from social security, though the two are closely linked. A retiring railroad worker is entitled to a railroad annuity that is somewhat greater than the amount he/she would receive on social security. The portion corresponding to that which he/she would receive from social security is partially reinsured by the social security system. In this way, the funds are in the same position they would be in if the worker were covered by social security instead of the railroad program.

Annuity Museum maintains a collection of annuity certificates and other documents related to the RRB, some dating back as far as 1937.