The Revitalization of The American Passenger Railroad System
With the maturation of the two dominant forms of American transportation, the airplane and automobile, the country is in transportation crisis. Gridlock on our highways and in our urban areas, security issues and flight delays at our airports, and the end of cheap oil require that our nation bring balance to transportation by restoring its railroad network. In the 1950’s, Americans were told that trains lacked the speed and flexibility of planes and cars, respectively. The railroad industry had been the dominant form of transportation for the previous 100 years and had taken its position in the marketplace for granted. This attitude only served as a catalyst for public policy to become affected by the false perception that trains were technological obsolete. Consequently, substantial opportunities went unrealized for the development of passenger rail in America.
Policy stalemate constraining passenger rail opportunities since the 1950’s
The Transportation Act of 1958, which came after pleas from money-loosing railroad companies to be allowed to cut service, shifted rail oversight responsibility from state regulatory boards to the newly fashioned federal Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). Where previously the states had exercised their preservationist sympathies and had more control over their own jurisdictions, now the power was concentrated at the federal level of government. Furthermore, a damning report was released that derailed the future of 20th Century train service by streamlining the process of discontinuing unprofitable routes. Indeed, from 1958 to 1971, a stunning 75% of 1939 passenger train mileage was cut from service. Before this, a significant share of freight rail traffic had been lost, removing a portion of revenue support that could have helped to bolster the railroad industry when passenger loads dropped off. The coup-de-grace was the 1971 Nixon administration’s answer to the rail conundrum, Amtrak, which cemented into place the disfunctionality of American passenger rail public policy. Rather than including the states in federal partnership to stimulate and privatize rail, the administration put on its denial-blinders by creating a quasi-public passenger rail company that would center any future blame for the possible demise of the industry on Amtrak leadership. Because Amtrak was set up with the mandate to operate as a “for-profit” organization, it was excluded from tax revenue trust funds that massively support automobile and aviation infrastructures, both privately operated modes. This institutional isolationism foreclosed on policy options and benefits for Amtrak and contributed to the cycle of “policy creating politics”, especially in economic regulation, which has the effect of redistributing societal resources.
Policy Lessons For American Rail Revitalization
During the second half of the twentieth century, while the U.S.A. squandered its previously mighty passenger train network, other countries succeeded in expanding upon their rail networks by adding profitable high-speed rail (HSR) to their systems. The author cites France, Germany, and Japan, all developed nations with no disparity in automobile and airline dependency from America which would otherwise excuse the U.S. for not keeping up with the times. These countries raised the bar by introducing profitable HSR amid very different political and policy dynamics across diverse geographic, economic, and social settings. Meanwhile, the states of Ohio, Texas, and Florida each tried and failed to develop their own intrastate HSR systems. Though the specific causes for breakdown varied, each state shared the common deficiency of not producing a carrier – an actual railroad company – that would operate the HSR. The proponents and backers of HSR in those states were all working against heavy opposition, as were the people behind the new Denver International Airport, a recent example of a high-profile infrastructure project with an exceptionally remote location and an enormous price tag. Despite the negative elements of opinion, however, the new airport succeeded in becoming reality, largely because the main carriers, especially the airports primary tenant – United Airlines, were front-and-center in the battle to build the new airport.
Precipitous Change Through Privitization and Network Franchising
The author writes that “all or nothing” change in contemporary rail policy has never happened and is not likely to in the future. But precipitous change can happen if serious effort is made to identify, evaluate, and especially, implement workable policy alternatives. Regional or state policy leadership could then create the opportunity for an entirely new carrier to enter inter-city passenger train service. This would then diffuse to other jurisdictions and go on to become embodied in national transportation policy. This snow-ball effect would start with the federal government’s facilitation of Amtrak’s privatization and subsequent franchising by enticing the private sector. This enticing would begin with the establishment of a commission charged with the organizational work of planning and administration, and would coordinate financial and legal aid. This model of national railroad renewal is what the author calls “network franchising”. It represents a 180-degree difference from existing policy in that the country’s rail system would function and thrive under private ownership yet because of its public benefit would operate on a publicly owned, operated, and financed infrastructure. This is exactly how the other two major modes of cars and planes operate today. A world-class passenger and freight rail system would bring about much needed balance to America’s transportation matrix and, with essential policy adjustment, improve train offerings to passengers, taxpayers, and business partners.
Based on a book report I produced on New Departures - Rethinking Passenger Rail Policy in the 21st Century by Anthony Perl (2002)
Christopher Berggren is an urban photographer and blogger focusing on civic amenities that make cities livable as well as socially and economically sustainable. He recently completed research projects in Copenhagen and Stockholm, interviewing local leaders and studying the features of planning that make these among the most visited and ecologically advanced cities in the world. He is a ...
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