Kumbaya, y'all


Technology, fashion, music, pop-culture...with me, societal trends tend to come and go with little fanfare. An exception I've noticed is my unintentional adoption of curious verbal cliches, leading to the occasional spontaneous use of "far out" in response to an engineering proposal or "well, duh!" to a politician's inanity. [Just for the record, the latter example is NOT recommended!]

Recently, when discussing the gulf which exists between railroading's freight and passenger camps, I said my ultimate wish was for us to work around our differences, "hold hands and sing Kumbaya!"

Around the campfire, naturally.

A mental image of Benjamin Franklin's "Join, or Die" snake comes to mind. I am convinced that we, as railroaders, along with freight and passenger railways, rail transit operators, suppliers, shippers, manufacturers and investors, stand to gain far more than we could ever lose by adopting a spirit of mutual cooperation and presenting a unified front.

Of course, there are certain items which will be of greater interest to one group or another. That's to be expected. Still, flanged wheels and steel rails have the ability to override minor differences.

Hopefully.

I sometimes worry it won't be enough. Of course, I'm also concerned when government aid is equated with government interference and rightful property owners are perceived as dangerous unless made impotent.

Freight trains and the railroads operating them are not the enemy! Without their infrastructure in place, the U.S. would have precious little passenger service. Even the Northeast Corridor, now essentially owned by Amtrak and other passenger-centric government affiliated agencies, would likely have remained part of a common carrier's network had it not been for the creation of Conrail.

Without the political will to design, construct and maintain a new public railway network dedicated to passenger service, trains which carry people must continue to negotiate the use of trackage owned and maintained by independent, private firms. You know; the ones who run the trains which do not carry people! [Besides, although many pro-passenger types are loathe to admit it, our industry's contribution as freight haulers means far more to the general economy than even the most grandiose vision of passenger service ever could.]

Conversely, passenger trains and the companies operating them are not the enemy! Absent these agencies' inherent affiliation with the general public, our
private railroads would often get lost in the political shuffle and remain isolated from the masses. Certainly, for two score years now, it's been routinely accepted that such a hermit's existence is not necessarily a bad thing! It is a luxury, though, which comes at a palpable cost.

With the acknowledged risk of overplaying an analogy, today's railroads can be perceived as a sort of Tiger Woods: competent and healthy, yet aloof and uncaring, leaving little room for maneuverability if, ah, "disabled" in some way. Give those of a certain mindset an inch and, quicker than one might say "coal slurry pipeline," the spectre of re-regulation could raise its ugly head.

Personally, I tend to applaud roads like the UP when they eschew public money if uncomfortable strings are attached. Bring passenger service into the negotiations? No thanks, California; we'll fund improvements to the historic Overland Route ourselves!

There's no need to shy from the truth, either. Passenger improvements don't always help the freight guys, and for transportation "leaders" to insist otherwise is disingenuous, at best. Joseph Bateman's response to Springfield, Illinois' daily paper was a recent and well publicised example of a way to be both respectful and forthright.

On the other hand, do we honestly believe that Chicago's CREATE would have a realistic chance at funding if improved passenger train service was NOT part of the package? The BNSF's Paul Nowicki seems eager to explain the various ways their trains are "held hostage" by plate glass and varnish, which is fine; but, use that as an excuse to decline the taxpayer's largesse? Ain't gonna happen.

Fort Worth's Tower 55 is another location where public money is being sought to help fund the work. [To be fair, these calls for government involvement often originate with local elected officials and not with railroad executives.] At every public meeting, attendees are reminded of the passenger issues, even though the Trinity Railway Express commuter line has constructed a parallel, dedicated bypass, and current Amtrak services require only six daily trips through the plant. Even
so, it's the public's connection (current or potential) to passenger trains which drives the interest, and it will be the promise of future passenger expansions (impossible without a new-and-improved Tower 55) which will solidify public support.

As with any chain, however, one refurbished link will simply call attention to the next trouble spot. Finish the work at Tower 55 and issues within Dallas' Union Terminal or throughout the greater Houston area will suddenly jump to the fore. And we're still in Texas!

This is one reason why I support the idea of public involvement in capital programmes nationwide, with railroads directing the infrastructure work and taxpayers guarding the final budget. Precisely how this approach falls under the "public/private partnership" umbrella is relatively meaningless, as long as projects are completed...and as long as we don't spend too much time wringing our hands over who might receive the greatest amount of perceived value. After all, if the railroads "win" once in a while, it might keep them happy - and more amenable to the next idea. If the passenger operators occasionally "win," it may help to placate those who are actually paying the bills.

There has never been a single example of a nation investing in true high-speed passenger service prior to maximising the use of their existing conventional infrastructure. Not one! That alone should be ample reason for pause. If we could create a formula whereby our railroads actually generated value from the hauling of people, if they had none of the headaches associated with maintaining or marketing the various services and complete protection from a lawsuit-happy citizenry, and, if the passenger trains were really wanted and treated as industry flagships, with a general acceptance - from every level - of the care and feeding people demand, I truly believe our modern age would see a wholesale resurgence in travel by train, surprising the most supportive and pleasing the most jaded.

I have no doubt that U.S. high-speed service would be popular. I also have no doubt it would be expensive. Furthermore, without a comprehensive
transportation/energy/environmental policy in place before the project(s) began, I have no doubt it would be far less effective than it should be, since H.S.R., alone, hasn't the ability to lead us toward transport budgetary efficiencies or an era of seamless intermodalism.

When I see people who are literally unable to visit family during the holidays due to a lack of basic transportation options, when I see our nation teeter just one gasoline price spike away from financial hardship and one terrorist attack away from essential gridlock, when I see new roads - yes, even maintenance on existing ones - becoming increasingly unaffordable (yet with no reasonable options being considered), when I see commercial airline service evolving into something so inconvenient and uncomfortable that price is no longer the primary control factor, when I see the possibility that our "drive or fly" society - so carefully crafted over so many years - will come to an end and that vision no longer seems far-fetched...well, it causes me to think that maybe, just maybe, a truly American version of a cooperative, multifaceted railroad industry may once again leap off the pages of books and take physical form!

These things are not just theoretically possible; they are logically defendable, and on a multitude of levels.

If I had but one desire granted this new year, I'd ask for our blessed government to be graced with an epiphany. In my dreams, they'd finally be able to envision a transport environment where trains, of all types, were well established, well respected and well used.

So, grab an acoustic guitar, kindle that campfire and sing along with me! If we don't impress upon others the importance of our mode, we may lose this opportunity. Oh, I know at least some of these dreams will eventually come true; but, that may not occur until the damage has already been done and the pain has already been greatly intensified. We can stave off the worst by showing others, today, what a 21st century railroad can do!

The choice is ours. We are the alternative, and the people are ready!

Far out, man!

 

  • Mr. Garl B. Latham should be given recognition by the North American railway community for his ability to;

    'THINK OUTSIDE THE ---BOX-CAR'---

    In addition to acoustic guitars---how about some fiddles, harmonicas, trumpets, drums, harpsicords and xylophones to sound the triumphant return of 'RAIL-SUPREMACY' & 'TRANSPORT SENSIBILITY!!!

  • You've put more into your comments, Garl, than I can respond to in any reasonable length.  I do have some thoughts for you, though.  First, let's get rid of one myth.  The railroad companies once did the whole thing.  They ran trains that carried freight and they ran trains that carried people, usually along with mail and express.  They didn't wake up one morning and decide they didn't like passenger trains.  The watched that part of their business erode over a couple of decades.  They did not have the right to simply drop the losers, but had to get ICC authority to do so.  First, they got rid of the short-haul locals that were the first to see their customers move over to the private auto.  Then, as trucks took the best traffic, aided by the publicly-provided highways for which they didn't pay their allocable share, they no longer had the freight profits that for so long subsidized passenger service.  That's when the crisis hit and even dumb folk could see it.  Even then, there were railroad CEOs with enough pride that they didn't initially join Amtrak (at a cost of two years of passenger deficits).  Southern continued to run the Crescent and called the losses a public relations expense.  The same for Santa Fe and its Super Chief, and a couple of others.  When the equipment had to be replaced, however, even they finally gave in.  This was not a pro or anti passenger train issue.  It was an economic issue, and one that affected survival.

    I'm not going to get into an ideological debate over public subsidies for passenger service.  Those who don't believe government ever should be involved in such activities are not going to change their minds by anything you or I write.  You might ask them, though, for the justification of building roads for 80,000 lb. loads and not making the users pay; or how they justify building steel and glass palaces called airports, and that passenger subsidy is alright, but local transit and long-distance trains are "socialism."  About the only answer I would expect is "because I say it is."

    The rail bill moving through the Senate is a good case in point about our society's follies.  With the railroads on the verge of collapse in 1980, Congress finally decided to deregulate them.  Not because they liked railroads, but because they didn't want to have to absorb the cost of nationalization.  The steel wheel on steel rail was going to continue - how else would you move the quantities of coal, grain, chemicals, and other commodities?  The only question was who was going to own that steel wheel on steel rail.  The bulk shippers have hated the Staggers Act for the nearly 30 years of its existence.  Yes, the railroads are increasingly healthy financially, but the government agency that monitors such things still finds only one Class 1 railroad that is "revenue adequate," meaning it earns enough to reinvest in its business.  So now we have yet another attempt to roll back the Staggers Act.  This one is all about the money, folks.  There are no principles involved.  You have multi-billion dollar corporations on both sides.  It's not partisan because neither party seems able to pronounce the word railroad; there is no Democrat policy and no Republican policy.  What I find disappointing is that so many of the readers of PR and others who come to this blog site don't seem to care enough to conduct a rational discussion of the issue that will have the greatest effect on this industry that relies on the steel wheel rolling on a steel rail.  

  • WOW! a semi tractor-trailer that can pull 80,000,000 pounds over a 'free(lunch)way'---THAT IS CRUMBLING RIGHT BEFORE OUR EYES!

    ALSTOM has a new 'lectric-loco' capable of haul a paltry load of only 20,000,000 TONS!

  • Pick your favorite wing:

    chicken wings, wing dings, Tennessee deep fried turkey wings, chicken lips, left wing, right wing, middle of the track wing, independent wing, libertarian wing, cato wing, heritage wing, Deutsche-Americanische wing, Marxist-Leninist wing, Dali-Lama wing, Rush Limbaugh wing, wing-wing-wing---

    All the wings have this in common:

    SIP---SLURP---or---GULP that OPEC OIL...around every corner!

  • Do you work at appearing foolish, RAILWAYIST?  Or, does it just come naturally?  You are a remedial reader.  There is no reference to any truck pulling 80,000,000 lbs., but there is reference to 80,000 lbs., which just happens to be the legal GVW on Interstate highways.  And, just for the record, the motor carriers, aided by shippers, are trying to get that upped to 97,000 lbs.  Meanwhile, you prattle about wings and OPEC.  Same old, same old.

  • Larry,

    As always, I sincerely appreciate your comments. I'd like to respond to a few of them:

    "First, let's get rid of one myth. The railroad companies once did the whole thing. They ran trains that carried freight and they ran trains that carried people, usually along with mail and express."

    Absolutely! I trust nothing I said in my original article led you to believe I was unaware of that fact.

    I've always been of the opinion that some sort of deal with the individual carriers could have been brokered way back when, which would have allowed them to keep operating their own trains...if only the feds had really been interested in the health and welfare of our industry. Instead, we got Amtrak - a "we're from the government and we're here to help" solution if ever there was one. Worse yet, once Railpax had been signed into law, the roads were practically blackmailed into accepting the contract!

    One of the most haunting quotes from that era came courtesy of Tom Rice. His Seaboard Coast Line was pretty much as pro-passenger as they came - and the bustling Northeast/Florida market they owned kept several daily trains busy and (relatively) healthy. Immediately after Amtrak started, he said:

    "If we had been permitted to cut service to the level that Amtrak has cut it - we never would have joined Amtrak."

    It wasn't the passenger train itself which was intrinsically evil, but the railroad's inability to adequately respond to market demand...a fact that could be laid right at the feet of our federal government.

    "They didn't wake up one morning and decide they didn't like passenger trains... This was not a pro or anti passenger train issue. It was an economic issue, and one that affected survival."

    Please understand, my "pro or anti" sentiment developed with today's roads in mind.

    An historical sidelight:

    The poor ol' Penn Central, bankrupt and struggling for its very life, was forced to run _four_ daily passenger trains from Chicago to New York along the former Pennsy main right up until the day Amtrak took over. Amtrak IMMEDIATELY cut that figure to one - and, today, there are NONE! Zero; zilch; nada.

    It wasn't/isn't right and it wasn't/isn't fair.

    "The rail bill moving through the Senate is a good case in point about our society's follies. ...the railroads are increasingly healthy financially, but...only one Class 1 railroad...is 'revenue adequate'... So now we have yet another attempt to roll back the Staggers Act. What I find disappointing is that so many of the readers of PR and others who come to this blog site don't seem to care enough to conduct arational discussion of the issue that will have the greatest effect on this industry..."

    Speaking only for myself, I have trouble discussing it because I'm not sure how to handle the matter! I've personally communicated with my elected officials. Beyond that, what should I (we) be doing?!

    I'm not being facetious, either.

    "It's not partisan because neither party seems able to pronounce the word railroad..."

    Yeah; they're all tarred with the same brush!

    GBL

  • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Garl.  This is the kind of discussion I would hope we could have on the current issue of the railroads and their involvement with the government.  And, no, nothing you said in your original post led me to believe you didn't understand what I call the myth of railroad hatred of passenger trains.

    You are correct about the possibility that a better solution to the passenger problem than Amtrak was availaable.  The most economical solution would have been to subsidize the railroad companies to continue providing passenger service.  This was not doable politically because the railroads had been painted as the cause of the problem and the public would not have tolerated direct subsidies to them.  The true free-market solution would have been to allow passenger service to continue to atrophy and eventually it would have withered away and there would be no passenger trains.  Amtrak/Railpax was the cynical position of DOT and the Nixon Administration.  The view was that some corridor service could be maintained between Boston and Washington, and a few long distance trains would be supported to wander around the country for "blue-haired ladies" - as one government official said at the time - po' folks, and those who just were afraid of flying.  As I said, cynical.  Amtrak, as we know, never has been properly funded and demagogue members of Congress, mostly Republican, just for the record, have maintained the fiction that if it were properly run it could earn a profit and be "weaned" from its subsidies.  That never was true and what's disgusting is that those who said it knew better when they did.

    Tom Rice's statement is understandable.  He had to pay in two years worth of passenger losses, which for the Seaboard were considerable, to join Amtrak and be relieved of the burden of being forced to operate passenger trains including those for which there was no demand.  

    As for current legislation, I wouldn't expect anyone to comment on something they may not feel comfortable with, although that doesn't seem to stop some people.  I do believe, though, that whenever some hypocritical utility or chemical company (sorry, Curt) makes self-serving statements they need to be called out on it.  For example, we have the utilities screeching about being captive and demanding competitive rail service.  The fact is they don't give a rat's ass about competitive service; they want lower rates.  It's just that simple.  Staggers allowed railroads to engage in differential pricing, which for the benefit of those who are not comfortable with economics is charging different prices of different customers for the same product or service.  All businesses engage in differential pricing.  Example: a kilowatt is a kilowatt is a kilowatt, but utilities charge one rate for industrial customers, a different rate for commercial customers, and yet another rate for residential customers.  Neither you nor I has a choice of utility, so we, too, are captive customers.  One major midwestern utility is battling with a state PUC right now over how an approved rate increase (expressed in increased revenue terms) shall be apportioned between customer classes.  The utility says it believes the customer that places the greatest burden on its system should pay the most.  That seems reasonable.  Of course it is the opposite of the utility view of rail pricing.  I can assure you that if there were no demand for utility coal from the Powder River Basin, there wouldn't be three and four tracks serving the basin, nor would the main lines south and east of the basin be as highly maintained.  There certainly would not be the capacity that has been built for the coal business.  There is so little traffic potential in most of Wyoming that some lines might not even exist.  Clearly, the utility customers place the greatest burden on railroad capital investment.  They just don't want to pay for it.  Simple enough?

    Finally, for now, I would urge you and anyone else who really cares about railroads to demand that DOT develop the national transportation policy for which DOT was created in 1966.  We're still waiting, and none has been forthcoming.  But Secretary LaHood looked good at the photo op for the start of construction of a bike trail in metro Denver last year.  Yep, that really contributed to solving our nation's transportation needs.

  • I know it would/will never happen but just imagine Up and BNSF saying "if your don't like the rates TRUCK your coal."  Then stop running the trains for a few days just for impact.  Not practical or realistic I understand.  

    Larry's point about the cost is spot on.  I don't get to choose my utility, and how do I know they offer me the best rate?  

    When is power going by way of the Bell system?  Oh yeah, I can't get the cheap power from Vermont utility because they didn't hang the lines in my neighborhood.  Sound familiar with deregulation or letting any railroad run on any track talks?

  • You are spot on, also, BacktotheFuture.  I would remind any utility coal customer about the service levels back in 2004 and 2005 when UP and BNSF were out of capacity.  Actually, as there is no law that mandates railroads to invest in anything at a loss (Staggers specifically thinks that's a bad deal), you will see both railroadseffectively telling the utes to truck their coal simply by not investing in the capacity needed to satisfy the market.