U.S., History And Modern Thinking: Railroad Robber Barons And Conservatives And Passenger Trains

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; August 11, 2021

There are two articles floating around railroad-interested social media now which are so wrong we won’t mention a reference to them. Sadly, some without the ability to fully understand the situations embrace their misinformation and consider it gospel.

The first of the two articles embraces the old canard that modern day railroad robber barons are a big reason for the hindrance of new passenger trains and new passenger train routes. The “thinking” in this piece is greedy railroad managers want their tracks all to themselves and they rudely ignore the “public good” of more passenger trains.

It’s true every one of us who wish for more passenger trains look ruefully at any given piece of railroad track, see or hear nothing on that piece of track and fervently wish it was occupied by a fleet of well-run passenger trains.

Many railroad managers see the same view, but long for more freight trains instead of more passenger trains, because freight trains are their bread and butter and the future of the strength of their stock price on Wall Street.

More than a few of us in the passenger rail business have a relative or close friend who comes to Thanksgiving dinner that is either a current freight railroad manager/executive or retired manager/executive. These freight railroad people have worked in an environment that was first created in the post-World War II era as more and more railroaders before the first of the merger-mania appeared sought to discontinue their highly-regulated passenger trains which they felt cost too much money, created too many headaches, and were a drag on profits.

What heavy-handed regulators decreed was in the “public good” to them was a gun to their head demanding they do something they did not want to do, which was run passenger trains.

It all came down to resources and money – or lack, thereof.

Today, after a over half-century of tumultuous railroad industry realignment through mergers and the happy ending of most unnecessary government regulation in a modern economy, it still comes down to resources and money – but, this time, protecting the profits which come on a seemingly regular basis.

Railroad freight income is measured now in multiple billions of dollars. Fifty million dollars is pretty much a blip on their financial radar, or, at most, an accounting rounding figure.

To the non-realists, the “indignity” of these wealthy railroads pushing back against more passenger trains is tantamount to a criminal act. “Shame on them for not voluntarily sharing their wealth! Americans should be ENTITLED to your railroad because it is there!” Such nonsense.

Because it always comes back to money – the presence of it or the lack of it – there is an answer beyond simply accusing railroad management of being Philistines on their best days.

The universal answer is fair and just compensation to railroads for use of their private property. Despite misguided modern thinkers believing everything should occur for “the public good,” confiscation of private property benefits no one in the end.

Since the creation of Amtrak, the economics of passenger trains have been terribly skewed away from reality.

The creation of Amtrak included a 25 year “sweetheart” deal which not only did the participating railroads have to give priority to the movement of passenger trains over their tracks (a concept Canadians may consider adapting), but use of the tracks was paid for in the form of a highly-discounted train mile/track fee.

Half a century gone by and two more 25 year Amtrak contracts with the host railroads agreed to, and Amtrak – given inflation which has naturally occurred over 50 years – is still grossly under-paying for track access to operate its trains.

Today, Amtrak pays a basic train mile/track fee and additionally pays a modest bonus for on-time performance as an incentive. Some host railroads respect their contractual obligations for even a too-small compensation deal while others ignore passenger trains operating on their system and dispatch freight trains ahead of passenger trains.

If the host railroads were fairly compensated, such as being paid a train mile/track fee even remotely close to what they charge their freight customers there would be much less resistance to passenger trains taking up track space.

In the past, railroads have said one passenger train takes up the equivalent of four freight train slots because passenger trains operate at higher speeds than freight trains. With the horrors of precision scheduled railroading and trains which can be from two to three miles in length, the difficulties of weaving passenger trains in and around freight traffic are even more demanding. PSR may have resulted in fewer trains operated, but the requirements of those fewer trains are greater, especially when it comes to adequate passing sidings or an adequate number of convenient cross-overs on double track railroads.

How much should the train mile/track fees be? Today’s fees are well under $10 a train mile, including on-time bonus payments. Fair compensation puts a realistic fee at about $75 a train mile. As can be plainly seen, passenger train economics are simply “out of whack” and need to be seriously updated if any progress is to be made for more passenger trains. With the higher and more realistic train mile fees most likely would come much lower host railroad upfront demands for huge infrastructure investments to allegedly accommodate passenger trains on existing trackage.

The second article rife with bad information was in a conservative publication calling for all passenger trains not on the (cough, cough, cringe) “profitable” northeast corridor to be discontinued in the name of financial humanity.

What modern day conservatives ignore is notable and well-respected conservative luminaries such as Paul Weyrich and former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour not only served on Amtrak’s Board of Directors but led the fight for an expansion of passenger trains.

Mr. Weyrich, who passed away prematurely in 2008 left behind a legacy of conservative accomplishment such as co-founding respected think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation, Free Congress Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The term “moral majority” was coined by him and with the late Reverend Jerry Falwell he co-founded the political action group Moral Majority. He served first on the Amtrak Board of Directors and did a notable encore performance as part of the Amtrak Reform Council.

The conservative credentials of Mr. Weyrich and Governor Barbour are accepted without question. Plus, there have been many other Amtrak board members who were outright conservatives, such as the late Ralph Kerchum of California who was appointed to the board by his friend, Ronald Reagan.

Too many conservatives have taken a too-narrow view of American passenger trains because Amtrak is a child of government. For many conservatives, the knee-jerk reaction is if it’s part of government, it’s not necessary and it’s unholy.

Most basic conservatism often boils down to being fiscally prudent. Don’t spend money you don’t have, save money as often as possible, and have a growth mentality, not a “maintain” mentality. Amtrak has never been accused of having any of these three traits, which somewhat accounts for conservative disdain of passenger trains.

The job requirement for convincing conservatives that passenger trains are good is to show the true nature of passenger trains: Well planned and well run passenger trains not only create new jobs, but creates long-lasting economic growth and stability. The mobility created by good passenger trains contributes to growth through tourism, train travel by those visiting friends and relatives and business travel.

The cost of maintaining passenger train systems creates jobs for railroad employees and all of the companies which are railroad vendors.

Every economic benefit which accrues from new companies being founded or new companies moving to a new city is present with passenger trains.

Too many conservatives just don’t believe any of that because almost 100% of intercity/inter-regional, regional and commuter passenger trains are government owned and operated. When conservatives see passenger trains they only see ongoing, never-ending public trough subsidies. No one has proved to them in modern times passenger trains have the potential of being profitable.

Amtrak – and its enabling railfan organizations – have for too long falsely proclaimed there are no passenger trains IN THE WORLD which make money.

Most people are too lazy to do a little internet research to discover how many passenger trains in Europe and Asia have been making money for years, despite what Amtrak propaganda – in an effort to cover their own ineptitude – has said for decades.

It’s time to lower the political barriers between Amtrak and passenger rail supporters and those opposed and come to some common ground. The answer is not more government programs or dictates, the answer is more realism in passenger train economics and education that passenger trains are not the enemy, but our friends.

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