Working on the Railroad

Which country has the  world’s best freight rail system,according to experts?   It is the United States, by a wide margin.  And it has gotten a lot better since 1981.  

Those of us who have traveled the comfortable and reliable passenger rail in Europe are surprised by this information.  But the key to our confusion is the word “passenger.”  American passenger rail doesn’t work as well.   And freight tends to be out of sight, so most people just don’t pay attention or even suspect what is going on in the vastness of our country and in those lonely places literally on the wrong side of the tracks.

If you look at the nearby chart, you see that rail productivity exploded and prices came down after 1980.  The Staggers Act was one of the few sustained successes that came out of the Administration of Jimmy Carter.  It rationalized regulation and eliminated some of the pricing schemes that had previously crippled the railroads.  It still working.  Some people thought that railroads were creatures of the past that couldn’t compete with trucks, but they were wrong.  

In fact, the fastest-growing part of rail freight is “intermodal” traffic: containers or truck trailers loaded on to flat railcars. The number of such shipments rose from 3m in 1980 to 12.3m in 2006.  This is something that affects all of us who drive on the highways, since one freight train can carry as much as 280 trucks. Now maybe we all appreciate freight rail a little more. Of course, success creates its own dangers.   Bigger container cargoes and an expected doubling of the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2014 will create need for capital improvements.   Government may pony up some of the cash, but government money comes with government management.  It would be horrible if we returned to the bad old days before 1980. 

(BTW – I  worked on railroad cars in the 1970s.  I remember that each train had to have a “fireman”.  What did the fireman do?  Nothing.   A generation before, the fireman’s job  had been to shove coal in the old steam engines.  When diesel replaced steam, union rules and regulations protected this now redundant and phony baloney job.  Some of the firemen would actually do a little useful work, but others would tell us, “I ain’t gotta help you f*ers and I ain’t gonna.”   And they were right.)The other threat to freight rail is passenger rail.   High speed passenger rail has its own tracks in a few places, but most of the time they share the tracks with freight.  Passenger trains pay only a fraction of the costs, but they tend to get right of way over freight.  Passengers complain a lot more than does a load of coal or timber, so when push comes to shove, freight is shoved aside.  This saps efficiency and greatly adds to costs. 

We have to be careful when we rush to copy Europe’s trains not to copy the downside with the good.  Freight rail is the most efficient form of terrestrial transportation and there is a good reason it so rapidly replaced canals and wagons.  It can continue to compete well in the age of trucks, as long as we don’t mess it up.