Essay: One-way Ticket To Oblivion

PrintPrintEmailEmail

But the railroad men reserve most of their indignation for the government policy that has allocated vast sums of public funds ( i.e. , taxpayers’ money) lor the construction of airports, highways, and inland waterways, and lor research to improve the technology of aviation and motor transport. In the last twenty years, federal, state, and local governments ( i.e. , the taxpayers) have spent some two hundred billion dollars on highways, cloverleafs, overpasses, underpasses, tunnels, and bridges for the use of automobiles, trucks, and buses. More billions have gone for airports, air navigation systems, and subsidies to companies operating helicopters.

The anguish of the railroad executive may he imagined. No wonder, say the railroad men, that their freight revenues have dwindled and their pasall but disappeared. Moreover, the railroad companies arc obliged to pay taxes on their tracks, depots, and other real estate, while highways, airports, and waterways get oft scot free.

Isn’t it scandalous, and a shame?

Well, no; or, at most, not much.

There is nothing new about federal assistance to those who would travel to and fro. The sovereign power of the United States of America, pursuant to Article 1, Section 8, paragraph g of the Constitution thereof, has been aiding and abetting private enterprise to stimulate transportation between and among the several states ever since 1802, when Congress appropriated money for the building of the Cumberland Road.

If there is one mode of transportation whose way was smoothed by public funds and by grants ol public lands, it is the railroad. The iron horse was fed and watered at the public trough for more than fifty years. No man knows precisely how much of the public s funds was handed over to the railroad promoters by one or another set of politicians: a conservative student of the matter estimated that by 1870 the states alone had given $228,500,000 in cash, while another $300,000,000 had been paid over by counties and municipalities. The federal government and the various states gave, in addition, about 184,000,000 acres of the public lands to the railroads; this represents nearly one tenth of the land area of the continental United States. To this day several railroad companies are profitable concerns thanks only to those land grants. Some companies are making more money by exploiting the mineral rights in the lands given them seventy-five years ago than they are by operating their railroads.

In the sweet spirit of conciliation, however, let us suppose that the railroad men are right: they are fettered by archaic regulations and they arc harshly and inequitably treated by an arbitrary, exigent government. Good. Let us postulate a sinister plot by a government probably socialist, certainly creeping toward socialism, the leaders of which have sworn to bring the railroads to their knees. But can even such a paranoid fantasy begin to explain the long, steady decline of the railroad industry from its pre-eminence fifty or sixty years ago?

Here is a puzzle. For it is a fact that the railroad is a remarkably efficient form of transportation, and why its operators have not easily, even derisively, squelched their competition is hard to see.

A railroad is a device for rolling people or commodities from one place to another. When it comes to rolling many people in a short time, as in hauling commuters to a city, the railroad is incomparably superior to all other such devices: cheaper, quicker, safer, cleaner, quieter; it needs less real estate and fewer operators to do the joli: it can keep rolling in fair weather or foul. On one track, a railroad can haul fifty thousand persons an hour. To haul the same number in the same time over a highway requires ten thousand cars travelling in four lanes and requires further that the weather be fair, that there be no accidents or mechanical breakdowns, and that each driver carry four passengers.

When it comes to rolling commodities, the railroads’ competitive edge is even more startling. A diesel train averages 192 ton-miles to the gallon of fuel, while a truck gets only 58 ton-miles to the gallon. But perhaps the most telling advantage of the railroad lies in manpower. A train hauling one hundred freight cars has a crew of five. To haul a comparable load by truck takes hundreds of drivers.

Nevertheless, the railroads’ share of freight revenues has steadily declined. There are some categories of freight (the products of mines, the products of forests) that have traditionally been considered a captive property of the railroads. Yet even here the tonnage is down, the revenues are down.

From first to last, it is a remarkable phenomenon. The men who run the railroads seem to have positively booted the commuters, and the passengers generally, away from their ticket windows and off their trains. They seem to have totally ignored the shippers of freight or to have taken them too much for granted.