Yesterday I posted a diary about Solutionary Rail as a response to the IPCC report. America’s railroad infrastructure could get carbon out of transportation, connect the entire country to clean power, and revitalize the economy while also building for resistance to the climate crisis effects we can no longer avoid.
The technology is there; other countries are doing more with rail — so what’s the problem in the U.S.? Phillip Longman writing at Washington Monthly lays it out in no-nonsense terms.
Biden’s big bet on rail infrastructure will be wasted unless he takes on the financiers who control the industry.
For a chief executive whose love of trains won him the nickname “Amtrak Joe,” this must be a pretty exciting moment. President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, which designates an unprecedented $66 billion to expand rail service across the country, appears poised to pass the Senate.
The bill promises to furnish a more convenient and environmentally friendly mode of travel between destinations that are far enough apart to make driving tedious but close enough together to make flying impossible or at best impractical. You may never use these new trains yourself, but those who do will create less traffic congestion, cleaner air, and a cooler planet. Removing more freight from pavement-pounding long-haul semi-trucks onto super fuel-efficient trains will make driving safer and more pleasant, and may yield huge reductions in carbon emissions.
But for any of this to happen on any meaningful scale, the Biden administration will need to do more than invest more public money in train travel. It will also need to reverse decades of deregulation, lax antitrust enforcement, and other policy blunders that left latter-day robber barons in control of nearly all the nation’s highly monopolized railroad infrastructure, just as they were in the worst days of the Gilded Age. This time, the financiers aren’t presiding over an expanding rail system; they’re selling it off and permanently liquidating its assets for short-term economic gain.
Longman has chapter and verse on how America let railroads evade the responsibility they used to have to serve the public interest. Railroads had unparalleled government support as they spread across the country in the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s — but that investment by the public was coupled with an obligation to serve the public.
Once upon a time rail service was a transportation monopoly, and like all monopolies subject to abuse. Just as net neutrality is a battle being waged today over who controls the Internet and who gains from it, regulation of the rail industry was intended to provide fair access for both passenger and freight service, even in some cases where it cost railroads money — because of the overriding public interest. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “The public be damned!”, it might have been taken out of context, but it effectively captured the arrogance of the financiers of the 19th Century. (Things really haven’t changed all that much.)
Today, railroads have largely been disconnected from serving the public interest. The government funds highways, not rail — and as Longman warns — funding rail again better come with serious strings attached or the money will simply enrich Wall Street and shareholders while providing little in return. And it’s not something we can afford any more.
There’s an urgent and overwhelming societal need to divert more freight from trucks to trains. Freight trains are three to five times more fuel efficient than trucks, and produce far less emissions. Indeed, when electrically powered by overhead wires, trains can be emission-free, and lack the battery disposal costs that plague electric trucks. According to one study, a modest investment in electrifying freight railroads could reduce carbon emissions by 39 percent and, by 2030, remove an estimated 83 percent of long-haul trucks off the road.
Moving more freight by rail would also reduce the number of Americans who are killed or injured by collisions with large trucks, a casualty rate of 156,000 people per year. In addition, it would reduce dramatically the damage done to America’s roads and highways by large trucks–each of which causes the same wear and tear as 9,600 passenger cars.
Yet hedge funds, private equity firms, and other financiers are using their control of highly monopolized, underregulated railroads not to expand rail freight but to sell off rail assets and hand over all but the highest margin business to trucks.
Some of this downsizing is justified by the decline of the railroads’ thermal coal business as electric utilities convert to natural gas. But most of the downsizing results simply from financiers forcing railroads to shed all but their most lucrative lines of business. Such practices threaten to shrink the nation’s rail network to the point of non-viability, but so long as rail expenses fall faster than rail revenues, the short-term return on assets increases. That’s all Wall Street cares about.
READ THE WHOLE THING
The diary I posted about Solutionary Rail yesterday got a fair level of interest, but nothing like you’d think a potentially major strategy to take on climate deserves. And that’s not surprising. Most people don’t give a damn about trains in this country.
Railroads have become disconnected from the lives of most Americans — visibly that is. (If you are buying the cheap stuff we import from elsewhere, odds are it came by container train from the ports before it got to you.) Passenger service is something most people don’t connect with trains when driving is a reflex and air fares are (comparatively) cheap thanks to government subsidies and deregulation. Unless you have commuter rail available, odds are you can count the number of times you’ve ridden a train on the fingers of one hand.
Ironically, the switch from steam to diesel also helped break the connections between railroads and the American people. Steam engines are high maintenance — thousands of jobs were filled just to keep them operating.
Many towns enjoyed good rail service for freight and passengers — because steams engines could only go so far before needing to take on more water and coal. Diesels made it possible to skip those stops — and if there wasn’t any other economic benefit to the railroad, they made every effort to drop service. When the government stopped requiring them to, that was it.
Railroads used to be the single biggest employer in the country, and the equivalent of Amazon and Federal Express with their ability to deliver things to where people lived. All that is long gone.
People are envious of High Speed Rail other countries enjoy — but building it in this country is going to take years and a reversal of widespread antipathy to government spending, and the Wall Street drive to put money into things that promise higher returns than investing in rail.
Electric cars are the bright shiny promise of a future where we can continue to live the car culture dream. Certainly carbon-free cars are something we need to pursue, but they will not save us. We’ll still have all the other negative consequences of car culture, and we’ll be locked into a transportation mode that is far less energy efficient than steel wheels on steel rails. When you picture it as meaning we have to build 3-5 times as many wind turbines and solar panels compared to how far the energy could go by rail, that puts electric cars in a different light.
I’ll return to Longman for the closer:
...Since 1980 the nation has lost more than 40 percent of its rail mileage, as many lines were ripped out that would be invaluable today as we struggle to decarbonize the economy and rationalize our transportation system. And once financiers twigged that Congress had turned railroads into unregulated monopolies answerable only to shareholders, they swooped in and pressured rail management to adopt policies like PSR to further downsize and squeeze out the last drops of monopoly profit.
One solution to this mess would be to nationalize the railroads. The U.S. actually did this, temporarily, during World War I, with many impressive results. Or we could nationalize only rail infrastructure, leaving private companies to operate trains. This “open access” approach has shown promising results in Europe, and it’s not all that different from how the Interstate Highway System works.
Alternatively, we could take a “back to the future” approach, once again treating railroads as public utilities, but paying better attention this time to coordinating regulation and subsidies among all transportation modes, including new ones like drones and self-driving cars.
The one thing we shouldn’t do, however, if we want to preserve Planet Earth and build back a transportation network that suits our needs, is give the railroad industry more money without demanding that it serve the public interest. The looting has gone on long enough.