Monday, August 7, 2017

New Deal trains & railroads: A photo & art story of jobs, infrastructure investment, and transportation improvement

Above: "Locomotive Standing," a lithograph by Harold Faye (1910-1980), created while he was in the WPA's Federal Art Program, 1939. Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and the Gibbes Museum of Art.

One of the few bright spots in the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card is America's rail system. While our nation's infrastructure, as a whole, received a D+, our rail system received a B. But the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) notes that there's still a lot of room for improvement: "Through both public and private investment, funding for freight and passenger rail has been growing over the past five years. But despite this increase in funding, the amount needed to maintain, modernize, and expand capacity has not been met."

Under the Trump Administration, and the Republican Congress, we should not expect comprehensive funding to happen. For example, in keeping with the central principle of the conservative movement (i.e., cut or eliminate domestic programs to fund military adventures and tax breaks for the rich), the Trump budget is calling for massive cuts to our rail systems (see, e.g., "Trump budget slashes federal aid for rail, long-distance Amtrak routes," Washington Post, May 23, 2017, "Trump budget cuts funding for security at train stations, rail networks," Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2017, and "Trump budget to cut rail services to hundreds of rural communities," The Independent, April 7, 2017). Yes, Republicans, Tea Partiers, and the plutocratic-Goldman-Sachs-Trump-Administration want to dim one of the few bright spots in the ASCE's report card.

The philosophy was quite different during the New Deal. Massive investments were made in America's trains and railroads. And the results were improved infrastructure, improved service, new jobs, and the maintenance of existing jobs. WPA workers, for example, built railroad tunnels, laid down new tracks, salvaged old tracks, and helped improve the Alaska Railroad.

(For more information on the WPA's work, see: Federal Works Agency, Report on Progress of the WPA Program, June 30, 1939, pp. 124, 127; Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, pp. 34, 47, 53, 85, 86-87, 93, 118, and 131; and Annual Report of the Governor of Alaska to the Secretary of the Interior, fiscal year 1939, p. 6).

Above: "Railroad Crossing," a lithograph by Blendon Reed Campbell (1872-1969), created while he was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1939. Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and the Sheldon Museum of Art.

Of all the New Deal programs, the Public Works Administration (PWA, not WPA) probably played the largest role in (a) improving America's rail infrastructure and (b) maintaining rail jobs. In its 1939 report, America Builds, the PWA highlighted the hard times the railroads were experiencing during the Great Depression, and explained its role in alleviating those hard times: 

"PWA sought to help the railroads out. 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 3.6 billion in today's 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, 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" (p. 189).

The following images and quoted captions, unless otherwise noted, were created by the PWA and/or the WPA (ca. 1933-1940), are provided courtesy of the National Archives, and show PWA-funded projects:

  Above: "Car construction crew put to work with PWA funds at the Baltimore and Ohio shops at Keyser, West Virginia."

Above: "A new high speed electric locomotive ready to start its run between Washington and New York. PWA funds financed the purchase of this train."

Above: "Workmen bring an old type steam locomotive up-to-date in the Pennsyvania shops. This work was financed by PWA funds."

Above: "The Rebel, crack streamliner of the Gulf, Mobile and Northern Railroad, slides out of the yards. PWA funds financed the construction of this train."

Above: "Assembling car frames in the shops. PWA funds financed this work."

Above: "Head-on view of one of Pennsylvania Railroad's new electric locomotives. The purchase of this locomotive was financed with PWA funds."

Above: "Scene on the Pennsylvania Railroad." (New Deal investment in trains and railroads meant better service for passengers.)

Above: "Long Island Railroad," an oil painting by Earl John Colville (1878-1970), created while he was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1937. Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and Gregory Halpern.

Above: "This streamline steam locomotive pulls the crack train of the Milwaukee Road - the Hiawatha. This train was purchased with PWA funds."

Above: The Flying Yankee, one of New England's crack streamliners. PWA funds financed the purchase of this train." (Recently, the Flying Yankee was restored, with hopes of public viewing).

Above: "Scene on the Pennsylvania Railroad line." 

Above: "Railroad Retirement," a sculpture by Robert Kittredge (1910-2003), created while he was in the New Deal's Section of Fine Arts, 1941. This sculpture, and other New Deal art, is located in the Mary E. Switzer Memorial Building (formerly the Railroad Retirement Board Building) at 330 C Street, SW, Washington, DC. Trains and railroads provide many good jobs that can't be sent overseas - conductors, switch operators, engineers, car attendants, construction workers, inspectors, mechanics, machinists, cooks, and more. Many of these jobs provide good wages and benefits. Given this, shouldn't we be investing and promoting America's rail industry more, instead of less? What is the Trump Administration thinking? Well, considering that it's packed full of born-into-wealth plutocrats, Koch-funded Tea Partiers, Goldman Sachs alumni, and the like, it's quite clear that they're thinking more about tax breaks for the rich (i.e., themselves), and less about good American jobs that support healthy middle-class lives and sound retirements. As Trump would say, or rather, tweet: "Sad!" Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and Kristen Fusselle.

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