Op/Ed: America's Rail Renaissance--My Views

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Sean R Das

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Greetings. As a railfan, I have noticed that after decades of decline, America’s railroads are experiencing a renaissance. However, one must consider the damage that has been done to the industry—can it be reversed? In my opinion, yes.

One of the blows that railroads suffered was the competition from vehicles of the rubber-tyred variety. Railroads reacted by shedding rural branches, reducing trackage by over 50% from what it was in the 1930’s. Severing a community from rail access, however, has some disadvantages that many railroads are realizing. Many former rail lines are preserved as recreational trails (a process called “railbanking”), and according to the July 2009 issue of Trains Magazine, a trail CAN be transformed back into a rail line, provided that the movement of freight or passengers becomes a priority over recreational activities. At the time the magazine was pressed, there were two reactivation projects pending in Pennsylvania. The town of Snow Shoe wanted to reactivate the former NYC Beech Creek branch, despite fierce local opposition. The Kiski Junction railroad wanted to extend their line from the terminal at Schenley onto the former PRR Allegheny Valley branch, an undeveloped section of the Allegheny Valley trail. Within 10 years, I would not be surprised if any more reactivation projects get off the ground.

Government-subsidized highways and better air travel caused passenger train ridership to decline after WWII, and Amtrak was formed to salvage what was left of intercity passenger trains in this country. As a result, passenger train service was cut to about 33% of what existed prior to Amtrak’s creation. However, as the 21st century dawned, the American passenger train has found renaissance. The rising cost of gasoline precludes long-distance driving. Since the events of September 2001, airport security has become too uncomfortable, and airlines are charging exorbitant fees for service. Amtrak has responded by expanding corridor service, investigating the reactivation of discontinued routes, and purchasing new equipment. For 40 years, the federally-financed Amtrak has monopolized the intercity passenger train market in the US. However, with this renaissance, I would not be surprised if intercity passenger service in this country is once again privately owned. I am not saying that the freight railroads would once again haul passengers, but something different might happen. In the UK, for example, the British Rail network, nationalized for nearly 45 years, was privatized into some 125 different companies. While it is not complete privatization, it would most likely set a precedent of what’s to come in the future. On that note…

After diesel power replaced steam in the US, there were some 60 class-one railroads. However, this seemingly endless array of evocatively named railroads has now been merged and compacted into a few giants with names as colorless and unromantic as CSX. While some of these mergers were the result of struggles, some are the result of just plain monopolistic zeal, with railroads seemingly merging for no reason at all, other than to reduce or eliminate competition (sort of like how Germany invaded Poland). Take Union Pacific for example. Within 15 years, UP absorbed 6 competing railroads without ever changing their name or identity. Three of these railroads also had names ending with the word “Pacific.” Coincidence? I THINK NOT! And don’t get me started on the Conrail split. While it is understandable that NS and CSX initially both wanted all of CR, why did they both want to get rid of CR in the first place? It is this monopolistic zeal that is undesirable and must be stopped. In my opinion, we should be creating, not eliminating, competition, by breaking up the mega-merger giants. There will come a point in time where four (six if you count CP and CN) Class One railroads are simply not enough.

I should also note that I would expect to see some commodities that railroads lost to trucks to make a comeback. The federal and many state governments are convincing businesses to move their goods by rail, reducing the amount of trucks on the road, which can cause congestion and pollution. Recently, refrigerated goods have returned to the rails thanks to UP and Railex’s Produce Express, covered in an episode of the History Channel’s Extreme Trains. I would not be surprised of other commodities followed suit!

In conclusion, with the future looking bright for America’s railroads, I hope that another era comparable to the heyday they had prior to the 1950s comes soon! Again, this is not for sure, but I am thinking out loud.
Not to rain on anyone's parade, but I wouldn't expect to see the Class I RR's split back apart anytime soon. The current system we have with only a handful of Class I's instead of a myriad of them has created a much more streamlined and efficient rail network in this country, and the RR industry is thriving like never before largely because of this. Also, a big factor in the rebound of the RR industry was government deregulation in the 1980s. (And right now, there are many in the government who want to increase regulations on the RR industry once again, which would once again harm the industry).

As for passenger rail, don't hold your breath on seeing a return of long-distance cross-country privatized passenger rail service anytime soon. Passenger trains, even high speed like exists in Europe, simply cannot compete in a free market economy against the speed and convenience of airplanes for distances greater than about 400 miles. Regional high speed rail corridors (400 miles or less between major population centers) will likely be a viable option in the future, and I would support such corridors, with the hope that they'd ultimately be privatized (even if they must be government-sponsored at first). But understand that such high speed rail corridors would have to be built from the ground up with new trackage that stands apart from most existing rail lines, because you simply cannot run 150+ mph trains (which is the minimum you'd need for it to be true "high speed") on the existing rail infrastructure in this country. There are far too many curves and grade crossings, not to mention that these corridors are owned by the freight companies outside of the NEC, and all of the freight companies are expecting big surges in rail demand going into the future, meaning increased freight rail traffic. As it is, the nation's railroad corridors are already beginning to become stressed by increased freight traffic levels, as most of the existing corridors were built over a century ago, well before we had the kind of traffic levels we have today. Now imagine trying to throw a 200 mph passenger train into the mix - ain't gonna happen. We'll have to build new separate rail corridors that are set-aside exclusively for high-speed passenger trains, and that is a very expensive proposition, on par with the cost of building the interstate highways (and much greater when adjusted for inflation). At a time when our nation is going bankrupt and facing a massive deficit in the trillions, we simply cannot afford to embark on a project of such scope and size at this time, and won't be able to afford it anytime soon. High speed rail is a prohibitively expensive pipe-dream right now until we first and foremost address the national deficit and get our nation's economy "back on track" so to speak.

But as for the freight RR industry itself, and even local and regional commuter rail services, I believe you'll definitely continue to see growth as long as the federal government doesn't throw the RR's back into the era of heavy-handed government regulations that nearly killed them in the first place.

Midsouth fan

Conrail was the government's attempt to save railroads of the northeast. It was gov't owned at first, then went public, then finally sold back to private interests. It took almost 30 years, but the gov't was actually successful in keeping most of the northeast's RRs in existence.
Yeah, but why did those railroads need "saving" by the federal gov't to begin with? Because a whole myriad of outdated government regulations dating back to the days of steam (such as having to keep a fireman on the crew), and from an era before the advent of serious competing modes of transportation (i.e. the automobile and the airplane), made it virtually impossible for the railroads to pursue the strategic business strategies that were necessary, such as abandoning unprofitable rail corridors and passenger services and downsizing their payrolls, to make them viable enterprises. And that's to say nothing of the fact that the federal government generously subsidizes the airports and the interstate highways with motor vehicle gasoline taxes, whereas the railroads receive hardly a fraction of the money going into the highways and airports while at the same time being required to pay exorbitant property taxes on all of their tracks and rolling stock. Trucking companies don't have to pay property taxes on the roads they use, airlines don't pay taxes on the airspace they use, the only tax is in what they pay at the pump for fuel, and that's pittance compared to the taxes that railroads pay. And oh by the way, railroads have to purchase the same diesel fuel that the trucking companies and airlines do, and so the railroads are also paying the same fuel taxes that go to subsidize their competitors in addition to the hefty property taxes they already pay. Ever since the advent of interstate highways and airlines, railroads have been competing on unequal footing because of the federal government's continued policy of providing huge subsidies for those two competitor modes of transportation, at the railroad's expense through fuel taxes, while those competing modes are unburdened by the hefty property taxes that railroads pay. It's easy to say the federal government "saved" the railroads with the creation of Conrail if you ignore the fact that the government was almost solely responsible for creating the very circumstances in which the railroads needed saving in the first place. And Conrail only became successful because of the Staggers Act of 1980 which deregulated the industry. Otherwise, not even Conrail could have survived in the long run.


Not only that, but Conrail was seen and treated (at first) as the bastard child that nobody wanted by Washington; it wasn't until after the Staggers Act and the decision to run Conrail as a true business (with control in the hands of a true management teram and not any part of the Washington bureaucracy) with the intention of selling it as soon as it was financially solvent that any real investment in motive power, rolling stock, or physical plant repairs and improvements were made. Most of the folks on Capitol Hill probably saw Conrail as "an unpleasant political necessity" (rather than a very real economic one) and may well have been willing to just leave those northeastern railroads alone if they'd thought they could get away with that.

Washington "saved the railroads of the northeast" because it had to, not because anyone there really wanted to, and mainly because their own stupidity and endless meddling caused those railroads (and quite a few others) to fail. The Staggers Act and the subsequent elimination of the Interstate Commerce Commission are about the only truly good deeds that the federal government has done for the railroads; everything else has just about been nothing but bad news as far as the railroads are concerned (although getting rid of the ICC certainly did eliminate one of the main causes for many, if not most, of the Class 1 railroad failures of the Twentieth Century and has made what the feds have done or tried to do since more of an inconvenience than something far more harmful; that won't stop the idjits in Washington from trying, though...).

No, Washington ain't gonna get much praise from the railroads, and with good reason...

Midsouth fan

And oh by the way, railroads have to purchase the same diesel fuel that the trucking companies and airlines do, and so the railroads are also paying the same fuel taxes that go to subsidize their competitors in addition to the hefty property taxes they already pay.

No we don't...we run red-dyed tax-free diesel that farmers run in their tractors.

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