Essay: One-way Ticket To Oblivion

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Without the American railroads there could have been no American business. With a web of rails we bound our continental spaces together and spurred them into production; on a skeleton of rails we Hesliecl out our commerce and hardened our industrial muscles. It is not too much to say that the railroads hauled an underdeveloped nation out of debt and carried it much of the way toward industrial supremacy in the world.

The men who administered the affairs of the railroads were lordly fellows who acknowledged or flouted the law as it fitted their convenience, who trafficked in congressmen like so many chattels, who dangled state legislatures like seals from their watch fobs, who took it for granted that the U.S. Army would squash any strike by their workmen, and who deigned in their spare time to instruct Presidents in the conduct of national affairs.

By 1995, when the American railroads were only seventy-five years old, no other industry approached them in capital investment, in revenues, or in power. A competent observer estimated that their officers controlled one sixth of the wealth of the United States and that their capital was “ten times that of the combined banks and trust companies of the country.”

But in the sixty years since then, while the national economy has steadily expanded, the fortunes of the railroads, except in wartime, have as steadily shrunk. During the late 1930’s, several railroad companies gave up the struggle and raced to see which might first be run through the wringer of bankruptcy; these companies operated one third of the nation’s total mileage of railroad tracks. Many other companies contrived to avert receivership only by virtue of fat federal loans.

The railroads can no longer be usefully measured against other industries. Today there are several corporations (General Motors, Standard Oil of Xew Jersey, and American Telephone and Telegraph), each of which boasts greater revenues than the entire railroad industry, and each of which clears a net profit that puts the net profit ol the entire railroad industry to shame. Today the railroads haul less than half the nation’s freight and only a ludicrous three per cent of its passengers—fewer people than travel by automobile, by airplane, by bus, fewer than by any other mode of public transportation.

What has happened to the railroads? In 1905 they were ogres, feared and detested, collectively portrayed as an octopus or as a school of man-enting sharks. Today they seem to be more like a kitten, not a playful kitten with claws that can scratch, but a poor, bedraggled kitten that has lallen down a well and mews and whimpers pitcously to be pulled out.

What has become of the railroad executives who once swaggered about, entertaining Presidents and senators in their private cars? Today they have forsaken their own railroads, preferring to travel on airplanes, for after all, they still deem themselves men of consequence for whom every millisecond is a matter of transcendent importance. Today they snivel in the public market place, begging state governors for a free handout.

It is an extraordinary transformation and, as might be expected, the spokesmen for the railroads, who have had a long period of leisure in which to scratch their heads and puzzle over the matter, know just whom to blame for what they insist is a national crisis in transportation. They have levelled a whole fistful of accusing Rngers: at the Interstate Commerce Commission; at their employees, the members of the railroad brotherhoods: at their competitors, the automobile, the airplane, the bus, the truck, the barge, and the pipeline: b first, last, and always most passionately, at the federal government.

That there is a modicum of truth in these plaints must be admitted; not much, to be sure, but enough to measure on n torsion balance.

For example, the Interstate Commerce Commission, which regulates the railroads, affords a fair example of how successive Congresses, in their infinite wisdom, can contrive a truly impressive bureaucratic snarl. In 1887 the commission comprised five commissioners and a stalf not much bigger. In response to “the public necessity and convenience,” the commission has bloated up to eleven commissioners and a secretariat of nearly 2,500 persons: the law under which it operates has swollen from a lean statute of ten pages to one of more than four hundred pages: its responsibilities have multiplied like bunnies, and so have its regulations: today its procedures are labyrinthine in method and glacial in dispatch. But if the railroads are to some extent hobbled by regulations dating from the days when a spittoon was still a useful and elegant accessory in the depot, the officers of the railroads have themselves cannily opposed revision or repeal of some of those regulations. And if, on matters of substance, the commission has been known to waver and wobble for as long as nine years before making up its collective mind what it should do. this bureaucratic indecision had its origin, once again, in the conference rooms of the great railroads.