30 Oct 2009, 11:58am
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No news = good news for railroads

UP locoI’m guessing you haven’t heard much about the railroads recently.  The more they fly under the radar the better they like it because these days, when it comes to railroads, only bad news is good news.  The Union Pacific is probably happy.  Sure beats 2004 and the torrent of bad news way back then.  These days they are regarded as just one step up from the water and sewage systems.  These only make the headlines when something goes wrong.  Certainly there are still far too many accidents at grade level road crossings but few blame the railroad for this anymore.  If drivers are willing to risk absolutely everything to beat the train, just to save a minute or two and not miss the beginning of “Jeopardy” or something equally banal, well, you cannot legislate away stupidity.

 In my line of work I get to hear folks moaning about the “demise” of the railroads.  What demise?  They are carrying more freight than ever, making more money and even are being recognized as the greenest form of freight transportation available.  With resources on hand, they are using the current temporary economic slowdown to upgrade their networks in order to capitalize on the inevitable return to prosperity.  Why inevitable?  Because just as economic depressions happen, so does prosperity.  Both are human constructs, after all.  If you want to boil economics down to the essentials it is a combustible mixture of greed and fear.  One leads to boom times and the other to depression.  It really is that simple.

 Of course long distance passenger rail travel is all but dead, except for AMTRAK, which keeps the lingering tradition alive, barely.  Almost forty years old now, the political entity trundles along as a political third rail, too dangerous to touch.  Given a chance, the privately owned freight railroads would make it disappear in a heartbeat, to free up their tracks for more profitable freight services but that isn’t going to happen any time soon.  Neither is the long, long, long, long proposed San Antonio to Austin passenger rail service.  Spending billions of dollars to move merely hundreds of people and get a tiny number of cars off the roads is lousy logic.  Some commentators say that all we have to do is build new tracks for freight services to free up the 130 year old lines that run through our towns and cities.  Um . . . er . . . well . . . hey, good luck with that.  I’m glad you found such an easy and affordable solution.

Having examined the financial records of local railroad companies around the 1920s, I can assure you that even back then the old saying, that railroads made their reputations carrying people but their money from moving freight was very much true.  No railroad made one profitable penny carrying passengers, or self loading freight as they came to be seen by the likes of the Southern Pacific, since the end of World War Two.  That’s why the companies paid the government a fortune, plus donated all their passenger equipment back in 1971 just to be rid of the financial drain.

Even the latest federal administration did not include Texas in its ambitious plans to revitalize passenger travel in the USA.  You can bet that the airline companies will, once again, fight policies to increase railroad traffic tooth and nail unless they can get a piece of the action.  Modern railroads are doing what they do best and keeping as quiet as possible about it.  One fully loaded rock train keeps over four hundred fully loaded heavy trucks off the road and reduces haulage costs per ton from dollars to dimes.  Billionaire investors like Warren Buffet are buying into their success.  As the old Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.”  I look forward to more quietude with calm enthusiasm.


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