Monday, July 27, 2015

Our trains and railroads need a New Deal - not perpetual under-funding and not deceitful criticism

(The New Deal's Public Works Administration (PWA) helped the "New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad Company" purchase "The Comet" diesel train in 1935. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Recent power problems have left Amtrak riders "livid" over commuting delays. The problems stem from the fact that Amtrak "needs money to repair and replace infrastructure dating to the 1930s associated with the 105-year-old rail tunnel into New York. The cables responsible for the power problems are about 80 years old..." ("Riders livid as power problems cause more Amtrak delays," Associated Press, CBS News, July 25, 2015). Amtrak President Joseph Boardman has said, "the problem is finding the funding to fix the problem...We've been working on plans since 2003, but we need funding for a reliable train system."

The livid Amtrak riders need to ask themselves a question: "What political party do I vote for?" If the answer is "Republicans," then their voting behavior is part of the problem, because one of the political right's favorite pastimes is to under-fund things and then blame the ensuing problems on whoever they under-funded. For example, they'll under-fund the IRS, and then whine, "Hey, why does it take so long to get someone when you call the IRS! Government workers are lazy! We need to privatize!"

And so, with our train and railroad problems, we're getting absurd blame-shifting. For example, even as Republicans have been blocking infrastructure proposals for many years now--to the point where even a top Republican in Congress blames his party for infrastructure problems--and even as Republicans voted to cut Amtrak funding, one day after a deadly train crash, Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie said the cause of railway commuting problems is actually "Amtrak's indifference to New Jersey commuters and its abject neglect of the infrastructure that New Jersey and our entire region relies upon" ("Chris Christie blames Amtrak for 'victimizing' travelers with nightmarish commutes," Reuters, Business Insider, July 24, 2015). Christie also blamed President Obama and Congress, and while the latter is a legitimate gripe, the former is not. For all his faults, Obama has made repeated calls for increased infrastructure investment...only to be repeatedly blocked and ridiculed by Republicans (Republican Congressman Paul Ryan called one of Obama's infrastructure proposals, and the related budget, "envy economics").

Governor Christie seems to ignore his own role in America's crumbling infrastructure. According to New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski, Governor Christie appears to be just as bad on infrastructure as our Republican-led Congress: "[Christie's] piece-meal approach and lack of long-term planning has left our roads and bridges in shambles." The American Society of Civil Engineers reports that 35% of New Jersey's major roads are in poor condition, which seems to back up Wisniewski's claim (although, to be fair, some degree of New Jersey's road problems certainly predate Christie's tenure).

(The PWA helped "Gulf, Mobile, and Northern" purchase two "Rebel" trains, ca. 1934, and they "worked so well that the road bought a third [Rebel] train in 1938." From: John H. White, Jr., "The American Railroad Passenger Car, Part II," Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985, pp. 620-621. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Unlike many of today's political "leaders," New Deal policymakers understood that a strong rail system is a key component to a strong nation and so they used the PWA "to help the railroads out" during the Great Depression:

"Being private corporations, they were not eligible for grants, but PWA made loans totaling upward of $200,000,000 to 32 railroads for improvements [about $3.3 billion in 2014 dollars]...The outstanding allotment was the $31,900,000 loan to the Pennsylvania Railroad for completion of electrification of its lines between New York and Washington, and $6,290,000 for purchasing electric locomotives, bringing the two cities 1 hour closer to each other. On many another railroad, the Diesel-powered, lightweight streamlined trains, such as the Rebel of the Gulf, Mobile & Northern Railroad in the South, and the Flying Yankee in New England, that daily flash thousands of people from city to city, are the results of PWA loans. Still other railroads used PWA funds to iron 'kinks' out of roadbeds [and] improve rights-of-way. These allotments, made in the early days of PWA, enabled the railroads, normally one of the Nation's great employers, to recall many men to their jobs. In July 1934 nearly 70,000 men were working in on-the-site employment in work financed by PWA railroad loans." (From: Public Works Administration, America Builds: A Record of PWA, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939, p. 189)

New Deal policymakers also used programs like the WPA and the Public Roads Administration for public work projects that included removing old tracks, eliminating dangerous grade crossings (with bridges, tunnels, and re-locations), and adding safety signals to other crossings.

Today, roadbeds that are in poor condition are a risk factor for train derailments. As a roadbed subsides or deteriorates underneath a section of track, the track will dip and bend as trains repeatedly go over it. The resulting metal fatigue can lead to a break. Perhaps this would be an excellent area for increased federal funding, as well as a source of jobs for some of the 21 million Americans who would like a full-time job but can't find one (for example, a new WPA).

Our trains and railroads need a New Deal - not perpetual under-funding and not deceitful criticism. 

(Above: An illustration of the Alaska Railroad by WPA artist F. Lo Pinto, from the WPA publication "A Guide to Alaska: Last American Frontier."  Note the snow plow on the front of the train. In the guide book, WPA writers included train tours and train routes for use by visitors to Alaska. New Deal policymakers were well aware of how important railroads were to tourism and industry.)

(Above: An excellent short documentary about the beginning, deterioration, and restoration of the "Flying Yankee." The "Flying Yankee" was made possible with PWA funding. Original YouTube link:

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