Expansion of U.S. Passenger Rail Service as the Ultimate "Off the Shelf" Green Investment (Part I)
13 Feb, 2009 11:34 am
This is a brief examination of the potential benefits that could be brought to bear through a nationwide revival and expansion of intercity passenger rail service here in the U.S. Not only is passenger rail an eminently fuel efficient form of transportation; it is environmentally sound, because of the large amounts of people that are served per capita, versus the diffuse footprints of single occupant auto-centered transportation. Finally, passenger rail service honors land use patterns by integrating community and commerce into pedestrian and bicycle districts that are localized. However these same communities also become the beneficiaries of a longer distance passenger rail network. In this first of two parts, I will examine some of the institutional constraints and even outright hostility that has accompanied the preservation of even a meager passenger rail network here in the U.S. for at least the past fifty years.
The diverse constituencies of this potential largess range from education to medicine. And all of these sectors are not only important incubators in jump-starting a moribund economy; these are organizations of human capital that are essential pillars in the maintenance of a healthy civil society. However, the proposed "Green Economy" proposals are not only diverse, they are interrelated and community based. Enter the expansion and (re) investment in U.S. passenger rail service. Until about 1955, the U.S. had a diverse and balanced transportation network, that included intercity passenger rail service, ferries on the Great Lakes and other navigable waterways, a long-distance airline network that had recently taken-off (please excuse the pun), after a nearly 20-year delay due to depression and World War II, and finally an extensive highway network, only one year away from expanding exponentially through passage of The Highway Defense Act of 1956, creating the Interstate Highway System—the largest public works project in world history.
This balanced transportation system permitted a diffuse population of large, medium and small cities, as well as smaller towns and even hamlets, ample access to service and connections to the larger nation, (and by implication, the world). Unfortunately, the growth of the national airline and highway networks, did not supplement the transportation network. The growth of these two major (and essential) arteries of transportation, came at the expense of a once world class intercity passenger rail system. Both the highway and airline transportation constituencies have been disproportionately benefited by federal and other governmental largess.
The highways of benefited of course, through the enormous capital project associated with construction of the interstate highway system—the largest public works project in history. Highways are also secondarily subsidized through the maintenance of myriad police departments, municipal courts, and general highway upkeep and maintenance. The airlines have been similarly subsidized through federal investments in air traffic control systems, along with considerable financial support from various regional airport and port authorities. Much of the support from the latter groups is focussed on the important task of the maintenance of a safe and efficient runway for the aviation industry.
After 1955, private railroad concerns were faced with declining passenger rail revenues. The railroads posted this decline, in spite of a post-war push to modernize passenger rail equipment into climate controlled streamliners--capable of routinely traveling at speeds in the 80-100 mile per hour range. Federal public-policy denied any subsidy to intercity passenger rail during this period; while facilitating the growth of the automobile and aviation industries.--at the direct expense of passenger rail.
The new interstate highway configurations promoted the development of newer, far-flung automobile suburbs, far outside of the traditional town centers. Similarly, as the airlines gradually supplanted more than 90% of intercity passenger rail travel, many towns and even some medium sized cities were not only deprived of passenger rail service--many of these locations were also denied access to airline service as a replacement for the disappearing passenger trains, (Remember Arlo Guthrie's haunting rendition of songwriter Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans", as an instructive history lesson here). The economics of airline travel favors larger planes, at larger airports, in larger cities.
Here was a crucial nexus, where public-policy encroached upon national land use patterns and preferences, encouraging and shepherding the relative population decline and in some cases large-scale abandonment of older cities and suburbs. Population and investment gradually decamped from the older business districts for the emerging newer (and cheaper) real-estate located far out in a countryside that had previously been defined by working farms and woodlands. This downward spiraling of events for the older town centers was part and parcel, the courtesy of "The Highway Defense Act of 1956".
As mentioned previously, the economics of the growing aviation industry (both in corporate earnings and jetliner size and capacity), denied all but sporadic passenger air service to smaller markets. These regional and national developments were all occurring against a back-drop of escalating passenger rail abandonments. The private rail carriers, rightfully concluded, that the only form of profitable rail operations was confined to the hauling of commodities, freight and liquid bulk products, (freight trains). Absent any equitable subsidy intervention by government, (at all levels), and especially the federal government, passenger rail could not possibly continue to operate. Without some form of an even qualified subsidy, the passenger railroads were well on their way to extinction. Compare this option with the largely unconditional subsidies granted to the highway and aviation systems. In fact, the federal government picked-up 90% of the tab for construction of the interstate highway system as an incentive to the states.
By 1966, the U.S. passenger rail network was in free-fall. The balanced transportation network a (now) receding memory. In 1969, when only a skeleton of a once mighty and world renowned passenger system was in peril of complete disappearance, a quasi-public organization known as RAILPAX was formed, to address this precipitous decline. RAILPAX eventually morphed into AMTRAK. After AMTRAK was formed, the private rail signatories were compensated for the sale of (their now aging) equipment.
By the time of the formation of AMTRAK, many of the rail carriers had wisely removed tracks that were no longer needed, with the disappearance of so many passenger trains. Municipalities burdened the rail carriers with taxes on properties that were considered "improvements". With less need of track capacity, for only freight trains, the railroads certainly did not need the added tax burden of these "improvements". The tracks were hastily removed and passenger train-offs continued at a dizzying pace. The lack of available track from the private carriers, and the lack of government support to rebuild and maintain this abandoned trackage, "tax free", was just the first of many contentious impediments that greeted the birth of AMTRAK, the last best hope to "rescue" , the remnants of the nation's passenger rail system.
Finally, during this time of the founding of AMTRAK in 1971, the president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, had counseled then President Nixon, to support the formation of AMTRAK—he favored the formation of AMTRAK for one reason only. He, (The Southern Pacific president) believed that AMTRAK would provide a single entity bundling of national passenger rail assets, in advance of the orderly and permanent dismantlement of the US passenger rail network! So certain that AMTRAK would fail; the federal government intentionally ordered freight locomotives for delivery, to haul passenger trains. Many high government officials at the time thought that AMTRAK would cease to exist in about five years or so. The freight locomotives of the abandoned AMTRAK, could be profitably resold to the the rail freight carriers.
Thus, it was in this toxic and cynical environment, that AMTRAK entered into existence in 1971. The lack of good will towards AMTRAK, has continued throughout the years (with a few courageous exceptions on the part of certain public officials). Perhaps the recent volatility of the the oil and natural gas markets will rattle the conventional wisdom. And just what is this conventional wisdom? That's simple! Unconditional Airline and Highway financial support granted by the federal government constitutes an "INVESTMENT". Any federal financial support granted to AMTRAK is understood to be a "SUBSIDY".