Of trains and jobs

Although the Obama administration has recently shown alarming interest in the idea of expanded F.R.A. oversight, today's rail transit systems remain little more than "kissin' cousins" to our railroad industry. Steel rails, flanged wheels, standard gauge...apart from a handful of basics, few similarities exist between a double-stack container train and the typical streetcar.

Still, to the advocate, there are several trends which embrace the entire spectrum of rail-based transportation. The fact that railway technology can be considered "green" tends to recognise all types of trains in a nondiscriminatory way. Many supporters who brag about DART's all-electric fleet will also champion CSX for hauling "a ton of freight up to 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel...which is good news for anyone who breathes."

Trains make cities greater, societies more productive. They reduce congestion by getting trucks off the road, and offer travelers safe, enjoyable alternatives. Shoot, they can do everything but make hens lay more eggs and cows give sweeter milk!

I certainly appreciate such kind words, though it's verbal support that can come at a price. After all, the railroad's primary job is to move things from one place to another in a safe and efficient way. Anything else is lagniappe.

These "transportation trends" won't go away, however. Think about that the next time someone mentions one of railroading's selling features as if it was its greatest asset.

Of course, individual trends rise and fall. In the transit world, it hasn't been that long since most emphasis was being placed on a city's potential "world class" status - something a metropolitan region would never achieve without modern passenger trains. It was soon replaced by an almost equally nebulous "economic development" stance, followed by the absolutely ethereal "livability" goal.

Please don't get me wrong. You'll never find anyone more naturally predisposed toward a "pro-rail" bias! I only wish to keep my wits about me. One of the greatest temptations for a company or industry is to believe its own P.R.!

So, what is the mega-trend, du jour? It's job creation, naturally! Railroad projects, especially new ones, can be a way to "put Americans back to work."

It's almost as if the projects themselves don't really matter. We still have no comprehensive national transportation policy; no uniform set of standards to judge the viability or ultimate success of individual systems; no plans in place to see these "new starts" interconnected, either by other train services or through true intermodalism.

Now, for the sake of argument, I can surely believe that every dime spent for coaches and crossties is a dime well spent. If so, then the question can easily become one of jobs and transit's ability to generate work.

Here, we actually have some statistics to back up the claims!

From a document entitled "The U.S. Employment Effects of Military and Domestic Spending Priorities," published by the Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, the relative value of a taxpayer's dollar (actually one BILLION dollars...since, after all, it IS the taxpayer's money!) was compared between various public programmes and the resulting employment stimulus generated.

The original study can be found at:


Bottom line? "Mass transit" came out the winner, hands down!

For every $1 billion spent on defense, 8,555 jobs were created. Health care spending saw a bit of an increase: $1 billion gave us 10,779 new jobs. Public education programmes caused the numbers to jump even higher: 17,687 positions for a billion bucks.

All impressive, to be sure. But, comfortably sailing in to first place was our horse, with $1 billion of spending translating into 19,795 people working (or approximately $50,000 per job).

We can debate the whole "job" thing; I'm certainly not advocating a specific "spending priority." Conversely, if the powers-that-be insist upon taking this approach, we could do a LOT worse than sticking behind our "kissin' cousins" and their collective goal of a train in every pot.

Personally, I use mass transit (and Amtrak) - and I like good, sweet milk!


  • I take no issue with your central theme.  However, I suspect this is only true for opening new routes.  And every time you throw capital at opening a new route, you add to the operating expense deficit the agency must cover.  Many transit agencies are currently laying off people and cutting service as they struggle to cover budget deficits.  At some point to make transit viable there has to be a stable funding source for operations.  Should we be throwing money more equally at capital and at operating deficits?  I'm sure a dollar spent on operating deficits probably has far less leverage than a dollar of capital expenditure.  But you can only open so many new routes while cutting back on service on the existing lines.

  • While I agree with both Garl and Jason, I think the fundamental issue is being overlooked.  As for regulation of transit, it isn't the FRA but FTA that is proposed to do that, but what's an initial between friends?  I think we all accept that mass transit, as it used to be called, does not recover from the farebox anything close to its full operating cost, much less its capital cost too.  Cities and metropolitan regions, great, world class, or not, provide such services for a variety of reasons, some even mutually exclusive.  That's why public officials make the final decisions, hopefully with input from the various publics to be served.  It's their job.  In Denver, with which I know Jason is familiar, the Southeast Line of RTD light rail came into being only because transit supporters were smart enough to tie the capital project to a much-desired expansion of the parallel I-25 highway.  At the time, we had a governor (idiot?) who said about the transit project "No one will use it."  Needless to say, ridership has exceeded forecasts since Day 1 of its operation.

    This may not be the popular view, but here's mine:  I think you provide modern efficient mass transit so that people can get to work reasonably efficiently, so vehicle emissions are reduced, so economic development can be channeled to desired locations, so people feel good about their community.  All of these go with mass transit.  The minute you get to arguing over the cost you have lost the debate.  It never will pay for itself.  That said, there are plenty of reasons for having it anyway.

    Merry Christmas all.

  • Merry Christmas to all...!

    Let take the jobs idea another step.

    Defense spending to include a new United States Military Railway System. All branches HQ's & domestic bases to be connected by rail. Personnel encourged to travel by rail. Heavy articles to go by rail.

    The health care industry in conjunction with the Veterans Administration to operate hospital trains from domestic aerodromes to base hospitals.

    Public education to re-introduce various levels of railway technology into the K-12, community college, trade & technical schools and 4 year universities to revive after a long deeeeep freeeeeze!

    Railway engineering, civil, geo-technical, mechanical, electrical, manufacturing, materials engineering, drafting and design classes will be available after educators have the concrete chipped out of their brains, the oil removed from their bloodstreams and the rubbery tyres taken off their feet ---etc...etc...etc...

    The 4 R'S ARE BACK!


    O.P.E.C. is OUT!

  • It was so pleasant not to have this blog site coopted by your rambling screeds, RAILWAYIST.  I won't bore others or bother myself with a point-by-point rebuttal to your uninformed post above.  But a few things need to be set straight.

    As usual, you display complete ignorance of economics.  The military does not exist to support railroads.  It exists to defend our nation.  That's a period at the end of the last sentence.  Heavy equipment already moves by rail, although you seem not to know that.  The railroads, through the Association of American Railroads, maintains a high-wide inventory so military planners can route their shipments most efficiently.  Your advocacy of hospital trains sounds nice, except that most military hospitals are located at or adjacent to military air fields.  I doubt you've heard of any difficulty moving our injured military personnel to the most appropriate hospital where they can be treated.

    Educators may need the concrete chipped out of their heads, but not because they don't teach railroading.  They are supposed to teach reading, writing, mathematics, and other subjects that will enable our young people to enter adulthood with the skills to survive in an increasingly competitive world.  It those skills take them into railroading, so much the better, but I could think of a number of fine occupations in addition to railroads that might wish the public education system to develop their next generation of employees.  By the way, your list of occupational categories is highly redundant.  Besides, I haven't heard of any shortage of qualified workers in the rail supply industry or the railroads themselves.  Finally, OPEC is not the cause of our problems.  Our proclivity to consume far more oil than we should is the cause.  Your own spelling in your screed above leaves something to be desired.

  • "For every $1 Billion spent on (fill in government program here), xxxx jobs were created". This brand of Obama economics is frightening. How about the reverse? For every $1 Billion returned to the private sector, yyyy jobs were created. I for one believe that private sector investments create far more productive jobs than a government investment.

    And what kind of jobs are we talking about? MUNI drivers who can't be fired no matter how serious the infraction? Transit maintenance workers who can't pull a bolt out of a particular bin because the Union controls the disciplines, so we pay twice as much to maintain a passenger vehicle as we need to.

    If this is what you are talking about, I say "no thanks".

  • Dynamiter:  You have made your political views known in previous comments.  You have a right to any belief you want, but I would respectfully point out that most of what you say could be applied equally to either political party and the Administrations they spawn.  Yes, private sector jobs are considered better than public sector jobs, but when no one is creating private sector jobs (to say nothing about eliminating several million existing ones), I and I believe most Americans will take public sector over nothing.  I also believe your minor diatribe against public sector workers is simply inaccurate.  For many years, the more thoughtful people involved in railroad labor relations argued that it wasn't the rates of pay but the work rules that layered costs upon costs of rail personnel expenses.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but those railroad jobs and their silly work rules were private sector jobs were they not?  And unions protected their private sector members just as vigorously as they protect public sector workers.  Ob, by the way, the current recession began during the reign of King George II (GWB to his friends), and the government deficits were created by the Republican Congress that inherited a budget surplus and declining national debt from the Clinton Administration in Jan. 2001.  I don't think this blog site is the right place for political screeds, but if some wish to use it in that fashion, I'm willing to offer some facts in the face of ideology.  Happy New Year.

  • Thank you Larry.

    Happy New Year.

  • You'e more than welcome, besmerkena.  As you know, having been a regular at this blog site for quite some time, I'm highly opinionated.  I do believe, though, that for my opinions to have any validity, it is my obligation to deal in facts and not in ideology.  I wish more people had that attitude.  Again, thanks.

  • In today's AAR SmartBrief, the lead article referenced was from the National Journal. Their current "Expert Blogs" Transportation list question (originally published Monday) reads, "What were the three most important transportation developments of 2009? And what should be the top three transportation policy priorities of 2010, either for government at any level or for the private sector?"

    Steve Van Beek of the Eno Transportation Foundation posted his response yesterday afternoon.

    Number two on his list of important developments in '09 was "The New National Commitment to Rail."

    Skipping right over that and going to number one on his top priorities list for '10, we read:

    "Continuing putting America back to work: Transportation provides an effective way to stimulate the economy and create high-quality jobs. With unemployment around 10% in the nation (far higher in many states and localities), and with millions of out-of-work Americans who want to work, Congress should prioritize a second jobs bill so we do not get a 1937-style double dip for our economy later this year."


    By the way, Larry...I meant to apologise earlier for my alphabet soup mix-up. It _is_ the F.T.A. and not the F.R.A.; but, as you asked, "what's an initial between friends?"!


  • I actually do find him (Dynamiter) entertaining, but his viewpoints dont change my mind about passenger rail. If he has a negative opinion on the subject i do want to hear it. I like to hear opposing viewpoints to mine because it might make me change my mind on a subject. I use to want more gun control but listening to some opposing viewpoints i now own a couple of shotguns, even thou the 2nd amendment really does not say EVERYONE can own one. Just in a WELL regulated miltia. I for one would love more passenger rail and less highways, i guess most people havent figured out building more highways has and never will help. Los Angeles would be a dream to drive if more highways helped.

  • Just some brief comments or observations. As a niche supplier to the railway industry we have the opportunity to see how different countries do things. It's always been ironic to us that many in the US seem concerned with nationalized health care of socialized health care while our transit authorities are all government owned and operated. I just returned from Australia where efforts to privatize their transit agencies started in the mid-90s or thereabouts. Lots of 'fits and starts' at the beginning but wow what a difference getting a decision in comparision to our transit agencies. Things move quickly, efficiently and without 25 person committees. I can't help but wonder what would be the harm to go outside our own borders and search for 'best in class' and what others are doing. As a manufacturer we do that every week, almost every day. Turns out the Melbourne Metro operating contract went to the Hong Kong MTR. That's right, a public entity in Hong Kong is searching for other metros in the world to operate and in a competitive tender HKMTR had the best plan and cost. I am full support of cost effective investment in railway; freight and transit in this country. For what it is worth, my biggest worry is putting all this money in the hands of agencies that just can't make decisions well.

  • Excellent comments, ddavis.  The bottom line of transportation policy is to ensure that there is sufficient funding for those projects and ventures that the society chooses to have.  When the former BritRail was privatized some years ago, freight service was deregulated and privatized, and passenger service was handed out to some 20 or so operating companies.  The infrastructure also was privatized, with the expectation that freight would pay a full-allocated share of right-of-way costs and passenger fares would be regulated and the government would make up the difference.  It never did, and still doesn't, and the right-of-way continues to deteriorate, with the expected effect on service.  If Hong Kong's authority has a contract that guarantees enough money from Melbourne, it no doubt can and will run a fine transit system.  If it is beggared, which so many governments tend to do, it won't.

    You've put your finger on smething else, whether you intended to or not.  Throughout the world, the concept of public transportation does not seem to strike fear into people's hearts.  They're kind of matter-of-fact about it.  It's something the society does.  Some of that may be recognition that parking is exceedingly scarce in central cities, streets are narrow, etc.  Only in the U.S. does the whole thing get caught up in political dogma.  Here, we get arguments against socialism.  Even where transportation is privatized, the private operator relies on public funding to cover the deficit between what it can extract from users and what it costs to operate the service.  Some, like Dynamiter, would argue that if it doesn't pay its own way, it shouldn't exist.  That is a legitimate position and a decision on that is one the society must make.  That's the whole idea behind representative democracy; we elect people to represent us at various levels of government and they are expected to make those decisions.  Does anyone out there - you, for example, Dynamiter, really believe the quality of life will be better if we do away with urban public transportation?  If you can do so without engaging in nasty invective and name-calling, I'd like to see a discussion of this issue on the merits.