Sunday, May 3, 2009

Allies of the Earth

I recently learned of this book Allies of the Earth by Albert Runte ISBN 1931112525, in which the case of to save the environment, railroads should have been required to operate the same system of passenger trains existing say fifty years ago. There is a fairly substantive Google excerpt of this work presently available, as well as several web retailers offering discounts from the cover price.

However, from one who has been following railroad industry affairs for close to sixty years (including eleven "on the inside'), there is no way in a world with numerous alternate freight and passenger resources, then and now, that continuation of the industry as a regulated public utility could be justified. The industry should have been deregulated long before 1980; had it been so, I'm certain the 1970's 'Dark Ages", during which I was employed within, could have been minimized if not outright avoided.

But now to turn to the microcosm of passenger service (and how else could a line of business contributing maybe 10% of the revenue fifty years ago and maybe 2% today be viewed - Amtrak and all commuter agencies each about 1%). Again the only position the industry held from likely 1960 onward was OUT. By the mid-50's, the North Eastern and North Central roads had "had it', by 1965, even the most "stalwart" Western roads, such as the Santa Fe, were also ready to throw in the towel.

I'm not certain if the initiative that resulted in RPSA '70 and, under such, Amtrak arose primarily from the "can't drive/won't fly' or any of the other constituencies noted by Mr. Runte in his work, but rail passenger service was regulated and hence, the industry was not free to do as GM did to the Pontiac brand last week. Quite simply, the total discontinuance of all service would have been too much of a "cold water shower'.

While most of the roads operating passenger trains signed up (those that did not did so because the terms were unfavorable account individual reasons relating only to their property), had the offer been 'you have the choice to sign up and enjoy some benefits from doing so or you can get out NOW, I guarantee you Amtrak would have been stillborn" (possible "benefits - dubious indeed; cash flow as Amtrak pays up front, cash flow from overrides arising from assumption of liability- same as an insurance company enjoys - as well as management fees, employee transportation, and a means to move Office Cars -"PV"'s- about their systems).

However, to the extent the water cooler in my office proved to be a reliable source about anything, the industry was given assurances that "live with it for five years and at that time it will at least be going, going'. It could be held that the Carter Cuts, coming some eight years into the Amtrak era, represented the first step towards that understanding. Only problem, that understanding shall we say died after the 1996 Mercer Cuts - and those cuts only addressed services that had been added, largely by political fiat, subsequent to A-Day.

All told, I'm certain contemporary railroad management considers signing up with Amtrak to be a "bad deal' and just one more case of "if you let government in, how do you get rid of 'em?" (I'm fearful of what the auto and banking industries are about to find out). Had the railroads simply stayed out, I'm certain there would be Northeast Corridor service operating over 'ward of the State" Penn Central (instead of RRR '73 providing "no passenger service' , the legislation would simply said "and passenger' - how else do things work in the Potomac Wonderland?). Regarding other services, I'm certain many would have been gone during 1976 when the five year moratorium under RPSA '70 expired - and ALL would have been gone when Staggers (dereg) was implemented.

In view of being 'duped' by RPSA '70 into joining Amtrak, it is simply no wonder that when two US roads, the KCS and the UP, made substantial investment in the State owned Mexican railway system, they simply laid down the condition precedent of NO passenger trains. Those existing, would be gone - and "don't even THINK of a Mextrak'.

Finally, even though I find little if any justification for continuing passenger trains outside of regions with sufficient population to support commuter and intercity Corridors operating over publicly owned rights of way, I do enjoy an occasional Long Distance ride; in fact, when it appeared, that during 2008, I was not going to use Auto Train for my (almost) annual Florida journey, I took a Chicago to Denver joyride, which affirmed my "more positives than negatives" overall assessment of Amtrak service.


  1. If the railroads had been or were now given a tax credit to assist in covering the operating losses of passenger train, I'm sure they would be very interested in still operating them.

    If a train can earn its keep for the railroad, it will invest to keep earning that money.

  2. Mr. Anonymous, two points: first, a refundable tax credit i.e. Earned Income Credit in the case of Individual taxation, is analogous to an allocation of an appropriation. It is a handy device used often to "hide' such.

    Secondly, when Amtrak and the roads negotiated Amended Agreements during the mid-70's that provided for performance payments so "rich" that it was in the road's interest to "run 'em on time". Unfortunately, owing to budget constraints, during the mid-90's, Amtrak had to curtail the scope of those payments so that they became mere "pocket change". The results were quickly evident in train performance, albeit slightly favorable improved by the current economic climate.

    But for a public agency to offer performance payments so "rich" that an investor owned Class I road would desire to operate, including necessary investment in both track and equipment, passenger trains for their own account is simply "unfathomable".

    While I doubt if "getting rid of Amtrak' is a "front burner" issue with the railroad industry (and with the regulation-minded Administration in town nowadays, such an initiative would likely be adverse to the industry's interests), if Amtrak were to inform a road they would no longer be operating over their lines, the reaction on that road's "mahogany row' would simply be "good riddance".

  3. John here: What Mr Anonymous apparently does not know is that the US Post Office Department Railway Mail Service was a subsidy on the operation of passenger service. Sealed and working mail both kept quite a few trains online into the late 60s ... October 1967 to be exact.

    When RPO service was traded as a budget item by the Johnson Administration (Democrats with Democratic Congress, mind you) for 1st generation USPS Big Sorting Facilities, the train-off petitions went to the ICC thick and furious.

    I've been predicting at other fora the coming Carbon Tax for a couple years. It's creeping closer. If policymakers want to move passenger traffic from air or auto to rail, one way to do it is to reward rail with tax advantages. Likewise, the other side would be to penalize auto and air with heavier tax burdens.

    Of course, at this remove from A-Day, there's a tremendous amount of infrastructure for passenger rail gone, and it would need restoration at some level: Coach yards, commissaries, stations, all would need to be built anew to serve a larger volume of passenger service. Many of the big terminal buildings have been converted to other uses, and their train shed area has been converted to other forms of real estate (see KC Union Station and 2 Pershing Square in Kansas City for just one example.)