Thursday, January 29, 2015

America's railroads need a New Deal

Above: A train on the Pennsylvania Railroad. According to an article on the website of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, the New Deal's Public Works Administration electrified the "Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and Washington, D.C." Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Above: A brochure produced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, states that the construction of the Cape Cod Canal (or, "Buzzard's Bay") Railroad Bridge "began in December of 1933" and was "authorized under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 as part of the federal government's efforts to put Americans back to work during the Great Depression." Photo taken in 2006, by Kevin Burke, public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.

A friend of mine recently told me that America's passenger rail system, when compared to the passenger rail systems of other developed countries, is...well...less-than-impressive (another friend told me the same thing about America's bus system, as compared to South Korea's...there seems to be a recurring theme here). Michael Grunwald, Time Magazine's national senior correspondent, agrees: "America’s passenger rail is a global joke, but our freight rail is the envy of the world..." ("Back on Tracks," Time, July 9, 2012).

However, even our freight railroad systems could use some upgrading here and there. For example, in Martinez, California, a trestle bridge is worrying local residents. Apparently, when trains cross the bridge (with very dangerous cargo, by the way) the locals hear "loud creaks and rattles" coming from its century-old, rusty bridge supports. Hmmm...yes, that might be a cause for some degree of concern. ("Aging Railway Infrastructure Raises Safety Concerns As Bay Area Readies To Receive Dramatic Increase Of Bakken Crude Oil, Part 1 Of 3," CBS Sf Bay Area, December 29, 2014).

Above: From a distance, this train bridge / car tunnel in Cumberland, Maryland, doesn't look so bad, right? Photo by Brent McKee, December 2014.

Above: But a closer look reveals plenty of crumbles and cracks. Photos by Brent McKee, December 2014.

While doing better than some of our other infrastructure systems, America's railroads still only garnered a C+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 2013. The ASCE reported that the passenger and freight rail industry were doing a good job of investing in infrastructure but, with respect to the passenger rail system, federal assistance to that investment only averaged "$1.50 per American per year" and that "Long-term funding is uncertain, as Amtrak’s capital funding is planned over a long-term period but must be given a prescribed yearly funding level under its own bill in Congress." Considering that our dysfunctional Congress has recently become even more dysfunctional, I'd say that "funding is uncertain" is an understatement.

Amtrak also receives state-level funding, but many state revenue systems are also dysfunctional. Hence, with both federal and state governments in disarray, at least one historic Amtrak route seems to be in danger of elimination (see "Lawmakers seek funds to save Southwest Chief route," The Santa Fe New Mexican, January 21, 2015). 

U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Barbara Mikulski are trying to bolster America's railroads (as well as the rest of our infrastructure) with their "Rebuild America Act." Commenting on the bill, Sanders said, "Every day, [the American people] drive on roads with unforgiving potholes, over bridges that are in disrepair and wait in traffic jams on congested roads. They see railroads and subways that arrive late and that are overcrowded. They see airports bursting at the seams. They worry that a local levee could fail in a storm" ("Sen. Sanders files $1T infrastructure bill," The Hill, January 27, 2015, emphasis added).

Unfortunately, with Republicans now in complete control of Congress, the "Rebuild America Act" faces less chance of survival than a goldfish dropped into an aquarium full of snakeheads. Republicans have made it clear that they do not like the idea of investing in America's infrastructure (see yesterday's blog post). Our only hope is that the Koch brothers will order their employees (a.k.a., Republican and Tea Party politicians) to support the bill. But I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

New Deal policymakers understood the value of America's infrastructure, and invested heavily in it. With respect to railroads, for example, WPA workers built many railway tunnels and, "Through the cooperation of the Railroad Retirement Board, many WPA workers were hired on railroad track jobs" (The Final Report on the WPA Program, pp. 53 and 93.)

America's railroad infrastructure needs a New Deal...or, in the absence of a New Deal, Congress could at least pass the Sanders and Mikulski "Rebuild America Act." 

Above: The experimental steam locomotive "Pennsylvania Railroad S1," or "The Big Engine," on display at the New York World's Fair in 1939. According to the S1's Wikipedia entry, the Art Deco-style locomotive was a joint effort of "the Pennsylvania Railroad, Baldwin Locomotive Works, the Lima Locomotive Works and the American Locomotive Company." The Great Depression was a tough time for the railroads but, as the "The Big Engine" demonstrates, there was still optimism about the future...and the New Deal helped keep that optimism alive. For example, according to Dr. J. Parker Lamb, a loan from the Public Works Administration helped the Gulf, Mobile and Northern Railroad purchase "two streamlined diesel-powered passenger trains...that would brilliantly mark [Ike] Tigrett's growing reputation as a forward thinker in the rail industry" (Railroads of Meridian, p. 66, Indiana University Press, 2012). Photo above courtesy of Wikipedia.

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