Is This Any Way To Ruin A Railroad?


It is worth noting that the railroads have long been technologically capable of operating trains at high speeds. Thirty years ago trains of the Chicago & North Western, the Burlington, and the Milwaukee Roac all regularly hit 100 m.p.h. on the run between Chicago and the Twin Cities; fifty years ago speeds of more than 100 m.p.h. were routine for passenger trains on straight, level stretches of track; in 1905 a train of the Pennsylvania Railroad attained 127 m.p.h. over three miles of track in western Ohio. Trains are slower today only because the companies that operate them have deliberately downgraded the service.

Not that the debate about public transportation will ever be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

In terms of efficiency, of safety and dependability in all weathers, and of financial economy, the railroads are first and their competitors nowhere in sight; but in an affluent, spendthrift society, such arguments as efficiency and economy carry little weight.

What counts in this debate are incontrovertible facts like the steady deterioration of the fleet of passenger cars and the appalling cost of replacing that fleet. If a determination of public policy is not made very soon, there will be no more rail passenger service simply because the cars to carry passengers will be too decrepit for the demands made upon them. To tempt the large sums of capital (public as well as private) needed to build and buy a fleet of new, comfortable, clean, quiet passenger cars, there must be unmistakable evidence of a public demand for an improved rail passenger service, and the demonstration project in the Northeast Corridor, it is hoped, will supply such evidence in abundance.

It may be doubted that the railroad companies will undertake any such service unless the federal government makes it quite clear that they will be allowed to cancel no more intercity trains, that they are in the passenger business to stay. But even if the industry succeeds in uneducating the public, even if new equipment is put into service, tracks and roadbeds are improved, and schedules speeded up, everything in our past experience shows that the passenger service nationally will have to be supervised or at least sharply scrutinized by an appropriate federal agency, just as the conduct of the demonstration projects in the Northeast Corridor is now being supervised by the Office of High-Speed Ground Transportation.

Surveillance is mandatory, for the business of railroading is in truth two quite different businesses—the hauling of freight and the carriage of people—with quite different managerial functions. The hauling of freight is a wholesale, industrial function. It has been well described as a factory that produces transportation in trainload lots for a relatively few customers, the shippers; this factory also functions for the same few customers as a mobile warehouse. The carriage of people, however, is a retail function, more like a specialty shop that sells custom-made goods to an exacting clientele. To ask one man to manage both enterprises is rather like asking the same actor to perform roles written for, say, John Wayne and Doris Day. Moreover, since the revenues from the passenger service in 1961-65 were only about thirteen per cent of the revenues from the freight service, it is not hard to guess how the one manager of both services will spend his time and his energy and his capital funds—unless an unwinking eye is ou him, watchful lest he give less than his wholehearted and zestful best on behalf of his passenger service.

And if the masters of the railroads resist such supervision, if they complain of further intolerable regulation, they must be reminded of what they have studiously ignored and hoped everybody else has forgotten, that the railways are public highways, laid down for the convenience of the general public, required to respond equably and equitably to the public necessity, and administered—at least theoretically—in the public interest. Eighty years ago, in the full wrath of our sovereign majesty, we decreed that the railroads must be regulated by a public authority, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and ever since, the masters of the railroads have attempted to squirm out from under this authority, to subvert it, or to overthrow it. Now that we have built other highways on the ground and invented still others to fill the air, we have grown careless of our dominion and permitted, without rebuff, an insolence from those who administer the railed public highways. In this way, through their contumacy on the one hand and a reckless squandering of our sovereign power on the other, we have reached a crisis in the business and the pleasure of travelling from here to there and back again.

In this crisis, time is a factor that can no longer be controlled. The equipment to operate a national passenger service has been allowed to deteriorate beyond patchwork: it is no longer obsolescent or even obsolete: it is all but extinct. No longer do we have a choice. We must once again exert our sovereign power. We must bid our government rule that the railed highways shall remain open for passengers. Once the masters of the railroads have been given orders in unmistakable terms, they must find ways to revive the passenger service. If they cannot, they must be relieved of the responsibility, and the passenger service must be nationalized.