For reasons I may get to in a subsequent diary, I am more than a little pissed at the state of railroading in America. Once upon a time, America’s rail system was an example for the rest of the world. We weren’t the only ones building railroad empires and developing bigger, faster, better trains, but we were no slouches.
And then we lost it. A number of things contributed to America’s iron horse deficiency, some of then deliberate, some of them unanticipated, but the cumulative result is we simply do not have the rail system we deserve — and need.
Steel wheels rolling on steel rails are still one of the most energy efficient means of transportation we have yet devised. (There a saying, a little too true to be funny, that proof of railroad efficiency is its ability to survive railroad management.) Rail technology already available could be used to create a transportation system that would be essentially carbon-free, do much for our energy needs, and boost our economy. The rest of the world gets it — in the Netherlands, their passenger rail system is 100% renewable. But in America, it just doesn’t come up. Why?
There are some promising signs that a few places in America are starting to rethink rails. When both Texas and California are pursuing the development of high speed rail, when Florida is getting faster speed rail, what’s wrong with the rest of the country? I came up with a list of reasons that might explain why America continues to derail itself.
- Most Americans have never ridden a passenger train of any kind, except maybe in an amusement park or on a tourist line — if that much. They have nothing to relate it to in their lives, no experience to gauge what it could do for them. They just don’t see it as something they need. They ‘know’ commuter rail only works in big cities, is too expensive, and ‘those’ people use it. They ‘know’ High Speed Rail is super expensive, tickets will cost too much, no one will use it — and regular passenger rail is too slow. And you’ll never take their cars away from them. Most people have no idea how much of our economy turns on rail transport, or what they get from it. They do know about oil tanker ‘bomb trains’ and horrible accidents though. [Update: And most Americans believe railroads need to have lower ticket prices and pay for themselves, despite having to maintain their rails and pay property taxes on them while competing with airlines that don’t have to pay for airports or air traffic control systems, and highways that are subsidized by everyone.]
- All of the above means there’s a big dearth of public support for railroads today — which means they are not a priority for most politicians. Where there is interest in rail these days, it’s often because there’s no alternative to meet needs only rail can deliver, or a growing awareness that rail offers untapped possibilities for communities that have exhausted all other avenues.
- Billionaires spend big bucks on anti-rail messaging and pushing anti-rail policies, because they are anti-government, and anti-tax. They’ll be damned if they’ll allow the kind of public investment that would be needed to transform America’s railroads — and they don’t see a high enough rate of return to invest in it themselves. They also see railroads as one of the few remaining industries that haven’t driven out unions — so again they have an incentive to be anti-rail on general principles.
- Billionaires also spend money funding ‘green’ groups that are anti-development and anti-rail to use them for troops fighting pro-rail policies. The rails to trails movement has become an aggressive player in this, now going after working railroads for conversion into trails. NIMBY movements also fight railroads, for obvious reasons.
- Big railroads don’t want passenger trains on their tracks if they can help it. They get in the way of their freight business. It’s more expensive to maintain track capable of higher speeds; they don’t need it for huge trains of bulk commodities running at slow speeds. They pay property taxes — removing track is one way to reduce that bill — so there’s less capacity as well. (CSX railroad under Hunter Harrison seems to be pursuing a hedge fund driven goal of getting rid of as much track and as many employees as possible, reducing service to the minimum it can get away with and still earn revenue. The railroad is being cannibalized for shareholder value.)
- Railroads used to be major employers in the days of steam engines. Those machines needed servicing facilities all over the place, and a huge work force to keep them running. When diesels came along, facilities closed, payrolls were slashed — and the railroads stopped being seen as a source of jobs and generated a lot of bad feeling from those they effectively abandoned. The need to stop steam engines to take on water and coal every so many miles was also an incentive to provide passenger service to smaller towns. As long as they had to stop anyway… With diesels, it became all about keeping moving.
- Railroads rushed to drop passenger service — never a real money maker — in the face of competition from a government busy subsidizing highways and airlines. In doing that, they also cut the connection between themselves and the general public even farther. With fewer people working for the railroads, lousy service for their shipping customers, and nobody riding them as passengers, for most people railroads became irrelevant — or even a nuisance. Railroads, never great at PR, have gotten even worse as they’ve become disconnected from the vast majority of Americans in any immediate sense.
- Railroading’s history of monopolies behaving badly is a legacy that still affects them today, with regard to laws and public attitudes. It was one of the incentives that led to government highway building on a massive scale — people were ready for alternatives. After decades, that’s become the default. For-profit railroading has to compete against massive public subsidies for alternatives. These policies don’t reflect the public need for what railroading could do, and railroads don’t have the resources to make the necessary investments on their own — or the inclination or the incentive.
- The aforementioned government policies that taxed the railroads while building highways and airports had the effect of stripping away more valuable freight that went to trucks, leaving railroads to pursue bulk commodities as what they had left. The rise of the interstates was mirrored by the fall of railroads into abandonment and bankruptcy across the country. Towns that had first lost railroad jobs and facilities now found themselves without railroads at all. Towns that had grown up around railroads as centers of transportation lost cohesion. For many Americans below a certain age, they’ve never had any kind of connection to railroads.
- Interests behind the highways and the airlines, also worked to hinder rail. Extensive street car systems disappeared; buses and cars flourished in their place — as did Big Oil. Big programs for highway construction spawned a whole sector of business devoted to that — always looking for the next project, and fielding an army of lobbyists and politicians to serve their interests. There is no coherent national policy on rail, neither passenger nor freight — but plenty of indifference and even hostility in some quarters.
So, here we are. Over the last 60-70 years we’ve pushed highways about as far as they can go. We’ve reached the point where we can’t keep them up — and those same billionaires with their anti-government, anti-tax obsessions, are blocking the kind of public investment we need to do something about it. Eisenhower would never be able to get his interstate system started today. So what of the rails?
Meanwhile, the approaching Thanksgiving holiday week is Amtrak’s busiest travel time. Despite the doom and gloom I’ve spread above, one bit of good news is that Amtrak ridership continues to rise — and Amtrak’s revenue gap is shrinking. More trains, better service attracts more ridership. America really needs to get back on track.
As it happens, there’s a plan for the railroads that could remake this country and solve a lot of problems at the same time. It’s not going to happen as long as we’re in the hands of people determined to take us back to the 19th century or earlier, but there are… solutions… which I will get to in a future post.