116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Although it appears at the time of writing that a large strike among freight railroad workers has been averted, the contingencies of preparing for one still threw a wrench in the scheduling of Amtrak’s cross-country passenger trains, halting them for several days in the middle of September, including both routes which pass through Iowa, the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief. But since Amtrak hauls passengers, not cargo, why did the actions of freight rail firms have such a significant impact on passenger rail?
This is because in the vast majority of the United States outside of the northeast, Amtrak does not have jurisdiction the rail upon which its trains run – instead, the track is privately owned, with those private freight rail firms “hosting” Amtrak trains on their track. For years now, this arrangement has been a frequent cause of delays for American passenger trains as freight railroads have illegally prioritized their own operations rather than make way for passenger trains, as is federal law, but recent events have also shown another level of precarity for the United States’ passenger rail infrastructure, as the ultimate cause for the labor dispute – management refusing to step away from abusive scheduling policies which prevented workers from taking time off for family and health – also threatened to bring a key component of the country’s transportation network to a standstill.
If a similar situation existed on our Interstate highways, it would be as if I-80, I-35, and I-380 were not owned and maintained by the state and federal government, but rather parceled off between Heartland Express, CRST, and Hy-Vee, who in turn made everyone pull over and wait to make way for their trucks. To have those roads shut down to passenger traffic, even for just a few days, as was the case with the railroads, would be incredibly disruptive to Iowans and the state’s economy, and in the words of Hank Hill, would be “asinine” – and yet this is the condition of most railroads in the US.
To this end, a topic of discussion has been the nationalization of American railroad firms – or at the very least, public ownership over the railroad tracks themselves. Many of the issues facing American railroads today – unpredictable schedules, poor working conditions, shrinking market share compared to trucks, and shrinking railroad capacity overall – can be attributed to a business culture among the major freight railroads where maximizing short-term profit is prioritized over all other measures, even if it means neglecting the trains, tracks, and workers themselves and carving the railroads from the inside out just to make a quick buck.
Beyond numbers on a spreadsheet, there are inherent benefits to a robust national rail network especially in relation to climate change. Rail remains one of the most efficient ways to move freight, second only to river barges, and trains have been found to generate a tenth of the emissions that trucks do. However, in part due to the obstinate practices of private freight rail firms described earlier, recent trends have shown the share of freight carried by truck to be increasing, along with a corresponding decrease by freight. The same story plays out with passenger rail as well. Poor reliability and slow speeds by Amtrak trains, running on privately-controlled freight lines, continue to be a barrier in getting people out of cars and planes, and onto more climate-friendly rail. Public control over these lines would make it much easier for these tracks to be upgraded to 21st-century standards.
A federally-controlled national railroad network would not be out of scale to the expanse that is the Interstate highway system. And furthermore, it has actually already been done before in American history, under the auspices of the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) from 1917 to 1920. The need to coordinate a disjointed railway system to ship men and materiel overseas for the war effort, as well as the threat of strike action by railroad workers, prompted the federal government to administer the country’s railroads as a unified entity for the duration of the conflict. Over just a few years, an estimated $1 billion was invested by the USRA in improved infrastructure and equipment, including “more than 100,000 railcars and nearly 2,000 locomotives” using standardized USRA designs. For workers, USRA control of the railroads also resulted in a uniform eight-hour workday and increased wages. If the unions had their way, the USRA would still be extant, but the formal end of the war in 1919 would see the dissolution of the administration in the year thereafter.
The state of public railway ownership in the United Kingdom, where both ownership and operation of the country’s railways was privatized under a Conservative government in the 1990s, is also instructive of the hazards of privatizing national infrastructure. When the state-owned British Railways was privatized in the 1990s, it was split into several private companies, including multiple franchises which ran services, and a company which maintained the rail infrastructure itself, called Railtrack. However, its lifespan was ultimately less than a decade long, from 1994 to 2002, as poor maintenance and safety issues resulting in multiple fatal crashes resulted in the creation of the publicly-owned Network Rail, which up until now has maintained the infrastructure for the UK’s private rail franchises. However, amidst sharp drops in revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic and pre-existing issues with high fares and delays, it now appears that both Network Rail and much of the private operator franchise system is to be reconstituted into the state-owned corporation “Great British Railways” – not quite renationalization, but certainly yet another step away from the privatization efforts of the last century.
Record stock prices and profit margins among the freight railroads, even as the material conditions of the country’s network itself continues to alternate in between states of stagnation and decline, suggest that under private control, the country’s railroads are being fleeced for the immediate benefit of a select few. Many of the gripes people have of the state of rail in the US – unpredictable and obnoxiously long trains, decaying infrastructure, a shrinking and mistreated workforce, and slow and uncompetitive speeds – are not inherent to rail as a mode of transportation, but rather are the result of choices made by private railroad owners. Public ownership of railroads in the US, perhaps under the casus belli of the climate crisis, would allow management of the railroads to be oriented towards the reconstruction of American railroads for the public benefit, rather than the private grift of a few.
Austin Wu is a Gazette editorial fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org