Eddie Willers, special assistant to the vice president in charge of operations of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, is accosted by a bum on the streets of New York City, who asks him, "Who is John Galt?" The question is an expression of futility — a slang phrase that indicates a hopeless situation. Eddie doesn't like the question, just as he doesn't like to see shops closing along Fifth Avenue and other previously prosperous streets. He is troubled by the steadily declining revenues of the railroad and the diminishing industrial output of the country in general.
Eddie speaks to James Taggart, president of the railroad, regarding the desperate condition of the track on their Rio Norte Line that serves Colorado, the last state whose industrial production is booming. He reminds Jim that Colorado — the home of Ellis Wyatt, whose discovery of a new method of extracting oil from shale rock led to the boom — is vital to the country's survival and can't be left without transportation. Taggart Transcontinental needs new rail now. Jim says that his friend Orren Boyle, the head of Associated Steel, has experienced unavoidable delays in the production of his rail and can't be blamed. Eddie says that Hank Rearden of Rearden Steel, the last great steel producer in the country, can provide the rails. Taggart refuses to consider Eddie's proposition.
Jim's sister and Eddie's boss, Dagny Taggart, returns from a trip to examine the Rio Norte Line. Dagny found the line in worse shape than she expected. She tells Jim that she has cancelled the order with Associated Steel and placed it with Rearden. Dagny has ordered rail made not of steel but of a new product, Rearden Metal. Jim objects on the grounds that the new metal has never been tried before and hasn't been approved by public opinion. Dagny, who studied engineering in college, tells him that she has seen Rearden's formula and tests, and she's convinced that Rearden's invention is superior to steel. Dagny also says that she'll use Rearden Metal to rebuild the Rio Norte Line and win back shippers from Dan Conway's superb Phoenix-Durango Railroad, which now carries most of Colorado's freight traffic. She's determined to save the railroad from the consequences of Jim's policies, especially his construction of the worthless San Sebastian Line which, she asserts, the socialist Mexican government will imminently nationalize.
Other things besides her brother's destructive policies disturb Dagny. For example, she wants to promote Owen Kellogg, an efficient employee of the Terminal Division, but he quits and leaves the railroad industry entirely. Furthermore, Dagny heard a young brakeman on her returning train whistling a theme that sounded like a composition of Richard Halley, the composer whose works she loves. But Halley retired suddenly eight years ago and disappeared. When she questioned the brakeman regarding the new piece, he replied that it was Halley's Fifth Concerto. After she reminded him that Halley wrote only four, he became evasive. Dagny calls the company that publishes Halley's music and finds that he hasn't written a new piano concerto.
The American economy is gradually collapsing. Industrial production is in steady decline, stores are closing, and workers are unemployed. A general gloominess pervades the culture, giving rise to the rhetorical question, "Who is John Galt?" The question expresses the widespread belief that no one can answer the difficult questions facing the American society. Dagny and Eddie contemptuously reject this pessimistic attitude and fight it.
Ayn Rand sets up a contrast immediately between Dagny, the story's heroine, and her brother, Jim. Both are businesspeople, but each holds markedly different moral and political theories. Dagny is a model of the spirit and practice of capitalism. She believes in industrial production and profit — hard work and earning large amounts of money. She orders rails from Hank Rearden instead of Orren Boyle because Rearden delivers his product and Boyle does not. Likewise, Dagny will provide freight service to Ellis Wyatt and the Colorado industrialists but not to the destitute economy of socialist Mexico because Wyatt and his colleagues produce but the Mexican economy does not. Jim, on the other hand, is an example of the spirit and practice of socialism. He believes in sacrificing for the "public good" and in giving chances to the little guy, rather than dealing with those already successful. He orders rail from Associated Steel instead of the efficient Rearden Steel in order, he says, to give Orren Boyle a chance. Likewise, Jim builds the San Sebastian Line at a cost of millions to give the impoverished Mexicans an economic opportunity. Dagny seeks to earn profit; Jim seeks to serve the public welfare. Because of their underlying differences, Dagny and Jim clash regarding the San Sebastian Line, the choice of steel companies, and many other things.
Jim lacks a mind of his own. Public opinion is an important consideration for him. For example, he's afraid to take a chance on Rearden Metal because the product is new and not yet accepted by society. Jim Taggart isn't a man willing to trust his own judgment, and he's not one to innovate or take a chance on inventions or new methods. Dagny, on the other hand, isn't concerned with what people believe or say. She has a mind of her own and follows her own judgment. For example, she studies Rearden's formula and examines the results of his testing in order to understand the metal's superiority. Dagny is a rigorous engineer concerned only with the facts of the metal and its capabilities, not with the public's beliefs or fears. Dagny says that she'll take full responsibility for the metal's performance, and Jim finally agrees to the purchase of Rearden metal rails. Dagny stakes her future on her own judgment.
This chapter also shows the ominous collapse of American industrial production. The closing plants and stores, the rising unemployment, and the lack of consumer goods aren't the only elements adding to the growing gloom. The retirement and mysterious disappearance of brilliant, talented individuals in a wide range of fields adds to society's pessimistic outlook. For example, Richard Halley, the brilliant composer whose music Dagny loves, has retired and gone into seclusion. Likewise, Owen Kellogg, a rising young star of Taggart Transcontinental, tells Dagny that he's leaving not only the Taggart line, but railroading entirely. He loves his work, and he doesn't plan a career in another field, but he leaves. Owen's reasons are a mystery to Dagny; she finds his actions inexplicable.
The question of the new piece of music also troubles her. She knows with certainty that only Richard Halley could've written the melody that the young Taggart brakeman whistled. But the boy's attitude became evasive when Dagny reminded him that Halley wrote only four piano concertos. And the publisher of his music assures her that Halley is retired and has stopped writing. There is no fifth Halley concerto. What, then, was the young brakeman whistling? Why did he tell her it was Halley's Fifth and then retract his claim?
The steady decline of American prosperity reminds Eddie Willers of the oak tree that stood on the Taggart estate when he was a child. The tree was huge and powerful and stood for centuries. In fact, Eddie thought that it would always stand there. Its roots were deeply embedded in the soil, and Eddie thought that if a giant grabbed the tree, he would be unable to uproot it but would swing the hill and the entire earth with it "like a ball at the end of a string." The youthful Eddie thought of the oak tree as a symbol of strength and solidity and felt safe in its presence. However, lightning struck the tree. When Eddie looked into its trunk, he discovered that the interior had rotted away long ago. The trunk was merely an empty shell, no longer containing living power. The adult Eddie experiences the same feeling when walking into the Taggart Building. He always felt safe there, in the midst of its great power and its capacity to provide train service to a continent. But now when he walks into the president's office — the heart of the building and of the railroad — Eddie doesn't find the energy of a great living power. Instead, he finds the deadly inner corruption that is James Taggart.
The oak tree, giving the appearance of strength and vitality, is a symbol to Eddie. It reminds him that things aren't always what they seem — particularly that the outward appearance of power isn't necessarily an accurate indication of inner reality. Taggart Transcontinental (and the U.S. economy in a more general sense), although powerful and seemingly safe through many years, has now rotted away. Eddie wonders what is causing the deterioration.
Who is John Galt? This phrase is uttered as a sign of despair and hopelessness. The question lacks specific meaning and cannot be answered. Its use in everyday language is a sign that people believe answers don't exist to the problems that plague American society. Dagny and (to a lesser extent) Eddie are dynamic thinkers and people of action who believe that answers are possible and that positive steps can be taken to save American society. Consequently, they reject the pessimism that this question embodies.
Rearden Metal This is the new substance created by steel industrialist Hank Rearden after ten years of demanding effort. The new metal is lighter, stronger, and cheaper than steel. Although its innovative nature frightens people and it hasn't been accepted yet, Rearden and Dagny both know that this product will revolutionize industrial production.