Aug 07 2010

So you say you like the train, Joe.

Published by at 4:44 pm under All General Discussions

Joe Biden claims to be a great supporter of railroad transportation in the US and like many of us, appears to lament the decline in passenger rail. On the other hand, we see the federal government doing very little to really address the problem in a sustainable fashion. They continue to pour money down the rat hole that Amtrak has become and as the years go by, more of the rolling stock sits in yards in need of repairs that can not be performed due to budget problems.

There is an alternative. One problem with the railroad industry is the nature of the business itself that dates back to the early 19th century. Imagine you want to go into business hauling freight from your city to some other city. The first thing you need to do is build your own road. Before you can invest in your first locomotive, you must purchase the right of way, build the bridges yourself, build any required tunnels, lay track, and then you can buy rolling stock. After that the infrastructure must be maintained over the years at your own expense.

Imagine if our wheeled vehicle traffic was handled in the same way. FedEx would need to build their road, UPS their road, each freight carrier would be banned from routes belonging to the other unless they built their own. It presents a major barrier to competition and is one area where I believe government intervention is in the interest of the people and the economy.

Imagine a system of publicly owned railroad track sort of like the US route system or the Interstate highway system. Companies would be able to enter the business of hauling freight and get out of the business of maintaining roads. Equal access to these rights of way would be given to all carriers with traffic managed by a dispatch organization funded in common by the carriers themselves with an equal fee provided by all carriers so one would not gain favor over another.

Then any company with vision, drive, and some capital can enter the railroad business and gain equal access to routes that interest them. The cost of moving freight would drop. More carriers would engage in the passenger rail business and you might see consolidated passenger operations with, for example, a US airline also engaging in rail transport. If an airport is closed in Chicago, passengers might then be put on their way by rail to their destination or to another airport that is open where they can continue their journey by air.

The entire system could be electrified and powered with nuclear energy to provide reliable transportation without reliance on the price or availability of fossil fuel supplies. The road beds could be constructed to allow for some coast to coast high speed roads designed for an average speed of 100 miles per hour for passenger and light express freight traffic. Heavy bulk and hazardous freight transport would be made safer as the ability to maintain the rail beds would not be contingent on the profitability of the individual lines who might today be tempted to forgo maintenance if money is tight.

It is time to bring the railroads into the modern era. It is time to create an environment that encourages competition among existing carriers and remove barriers of entry to new competition. This is an example where government can partner with an industry and create an economic benefit for everyone rather than being a burden on the economy. Government does have a role to play and under the interstate commerce clause would have the authority to do something like this. It would also be a “stimulus” program that would employ people at all levels of skill while the system is being put together. It would provide both an economic benefit, and a strategic defense benefit in giving a way to maintain communications across the country in the face of a shortage of fossil fuel.

What do you say, Joe? Want to give it a go?

14 responses so far

14 Responses to “So you say you like the train, Joe.”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Free To Prosper, AJ Strata. AJ Strata said: new: So you say you like the train, Joe. […]

  2. tblot says:

    Do you think jumpin joe can think that far inadvance

  3. Mike M. says:

    Valid thinking, Crosspatch, but logistically questionable.

    The United States is a vast country. Five hours coast-to-coast on an airliner flying at 500mph. Trains at a quarter of that speed just aren’t competitive except in special, very dense markets. Where they are now.

  4. crosspatch says:

    Well, Mike, consider a few things:

    1. Most long distance trains are fully booked. Try to get a seat on a train coast to coast. They are almost completely booked months in advance. Also, planes can not operate in conditions that are no problem for a train. Thunderstorms are not a problem, most snowstorms are not a problem, fog is not a problem.

    2. I said an average speed of 100MPH. That means some sections would have speeds much higher. A Chicago to Denver leg might operate at 200MPH or higher.

    3. A train can operate without any fossil fuel, an airplane carrying passengers or freight can not.

    4. You can load an entire armored brigade on a train and deliver them from one coast to the other; troops and all equipment; in 30 hours using such system. You can not do that by air.

    But the important thing is that it would foster more competition and lower transport costs which will benefit the entire economy.

  5. WWS says:

    A good idea – it would be far more efficient to transfer cargo by train, rather than by the truck network that we rely on now.

    I think you could make a very good case that it was the interstate road system (for freight) and reliable air service (for passengers and mail) that destroyed the old economic model that sustained train service.

    – and the sons of pullman porters, and the sons of engineers, ride their fathers rusting dreams, made of steel….

    Your plan is good – it could work, and turn things around. But it would take people who would actually think seriously about the future to make it happen.

    “Dost thou not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?” -Count Oxenstierna (ca 1620) to the young King Gustavus Adolphus

    Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,
    Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
    Half way home, we’ll be there by morning
    Through the Mississippi darkness
    Rolling down to the sea.
    And all the towns and people seem
    To fade into a bad dream
    And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news.
    The conductor sings his song again,
    The passengers will please refrain
    This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.

    Good night, America, how are you?
    Don’t you know me I’m your native son,
    I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans,
    I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

  6. crosspatch says:

    What I believe would happen is that people like FedEx and UPS would then get into the rail business buying their own locomotives and cars. Then it would evolve into companies that specialize in simply supplying the locomotives and charge companies to have their cars pulled.

    One of the problems these days is that a line like Amtrak must use another company’s right of way. So lets say Amtrak is using a Union Pacific right of way. A Union Pacific freight gets priority over the Amtrak passenger train which must pull over, allow the freight to pass or slow down and only proceed as fast as the freight ahead of it.

    Such as system as I have proposed could be quad tracked with “fast” and a “slow” track in each direction.

    And the speed difference might not matter in many cases. For example, the Metroliner gets you from downtown Washington DC to downtown New York faster than you can do it with taxi/plane/taxi.

    Chicago is less than 600 miles from DC. A downtown to downtown train on good track at high speed could make it in three hours or less. A flight, wheels up to wheels down is 2 hours from Dulles to O’Hare. Consider 30 mins to get to the airport, have to get there at least an hour before takeoff, two hours of flying and at least 30 min to downtown so you are looking at 4 hours by plane.

  7. crosspatch says:

    In China, high-speed conventional rail lines operate at top speeds of 350 km/h (220 mph), and one maglev line reaches speeds of 431 km/h (268 mph).

    We can do this.

  8. WWS says:

    Gotta agree with you about the time constraints not being an issue the way many say that they are. Example: I’m thinking of going to New Orleans over labor day, visiting relatives, and even though I live about 300 miles away I’m thinking it’s going to be just as fast and lot cheaper to drive, and then I’ll have my car while I’m there.

    here’s why: I also live about 100 miles from DFW, and every town in DFW’s shadow has gone to where their airports only have feeder flights a few times a day into DFW at exorbitant costs for very short flights. (no competition, somehow American has gotten a monopoly on this market) So I always drive to DFW to get a flight – long story short, what with dealing with driving over there, parking, security, and a decent waiting interval I’m looking at a good 4 extra hours on the front and the back of every round trip I take.

    I can drive myself to New Orleans with a lot less hassle than that, even if it is 300 miles away. And it’s a shame any kind of train service vanished on that route 50 years ago. I think I can put my finger on why we lament the passing of the trains; once upon a time we had a nationwide mass transit and freight system, and it worked well, it was fairly efficient, and most people liked it. And we threw it away for…. what? This?

  9. garrettc says:

    Students and others that regularly make long distance travel to home with more than a suitcase have found rail travel to be very competitive. They hop on the train with ten boxes of stuff (important stuff,mind you) and party all the way. Rail travel could be improved, no doubt. Maybe WiFi. movie cars, cheap bunks for overnight travel. The seating in coach is way better than air, that is for sure.

  10. Newt says:

    Does that mean state workers would maintain the RXR? I can just see it now. Would the stockholders be compensated for the assets of the railroad or would the states just take then over?

  11. AJStrata says:

    CP, Count me in, that is a good idea. And the users of the roads pay tolls!

    Cheers, AJStrata

  12. han_solo says:

    >Imagine a system of publicly owned railroad track

    How about instead, we have private utility companies own the track, but require them to be totally separate from any carrier due to conflict of interest.

  13. […] more… Why ObamaCare has gaping holes – 08/07/2010 Gaps. more… So you say you like the train, Joe. – 08/07/2010 Joe Biden claims to be a great supporter of railroad […]

  14. crosspatch says:


    First of all the railroads would keep all their rolling stock and would still operate. They would just no longer have to maintain the trackage. Their profit margin would immediately improve and money that was spent on rail could be spent on maintaining rolling stock. If I were running the thing, I would compensate all railroads per mile for any of their right of way that was purchased. The per mile charge would be the same for all railroads. This means that the ones who have the most track would get the most money, short line operators would get less but nobody’s right of way would be valued over any of the others.

    BNSF, for example would now not only have access to their own right of way, they would have access to Union Pacific’s routes.