walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Main Lines_, Richard Saunders, Jr.

Subtitled: Rebirth of the North American Railroads, 1970-2002

Written in 2003, in some ways this book is completely up-to-date -- the projections for where passenger rail might go in the near future at the tail end of the book, the rationale for passenger rail, and the criteria for making a go of passenger rail could all appear in a news article right now and make good sense. In the interim, the case for human causes of climate change has gotten stronger and we've had a couple fuel price spikes and are at a higher plateau, of course, than at the turn of the century.

Saunders spends the first chapter summarizing his earlier book, _Merging Lines_, which I'm having some trouble laying hands on. Maybe I don't need to get it since it is summarized here; difficult to say with certainty.

Saunders is a bit chatty for an academic historian, and a lot of his sources are newspapers, personal communication and similar, which is a little disconcerting. But the book as a whole is a revelation, and definitely made me want to go smack Stilgoe around a little for being hopelessly obscure about some things where he didn't need to be. OTOH, I'd like to sit Saunders down and talk to him a bit about how three pages on the accounting problems with railroads is hopelessly inadequate. I will assume it is the publishers fault that this topic is not listed anywhere in the index.

The story Saunders tells is straightforward. Railroads in the 1960s fell upon hard times as a result of increased competition from highways and airplanes (both subsidized heavily by federal and state and local governments) in conjunction with extensive rate regulation which did not include automatic inflation adjustments. Add to that a tax code which encouraged holding companies/conglomerates to use railroads as tax shelters, strip them of their resources, borrow against them to invest in other businesses and, in general, fail to maintain track and equipment, never mind expanding or adjusting capacity to meet the needs of the larger economy. Then add to that frozen union work rules and really, it's a shocker there was anything left rolling into the 1970s. Some disastrous mergers and corporate scandals exposed the problems.

The ICC, the primary regulator for the railroad, underwent some big changes in stages through the 1970s and 1980s, and had a series of scandals of its own. In their efforts to referee competing private interests, they often came down on the side of ridiculously outdated work rules (a 100 miles = a full days work. Even if it takes all of 2 hours to do it. And firemen on a diesel. Yeah, _that_ makes sense.), and against technology changes like the introduction of unit trains of hopper cars to transport grain to CAFOs. On the one hand, yay, but come on. That's just a bunch of foolishness.

The railroads didn't like dealing with the government if they could possibly help it, having developed a massive allergic response in the wake of nearly-everyone-else-nationalizing their railroads earlier in the century. The unions were amazingly disciplined (really, they make the Republicans under Bush look like cats trying to herd) and single-minded in pursuit of their own immediate self-interest, even if it meant every single improvement in technology was largely nullified (including some that would make their lives safer, or their jobs in the future more certain. And, as a for instance, that their industry might still exist.).

What pulled their chestnuts out of the fire? A couple rounds of legislation to subsidize track and equipment rehabilitation was necessary at the start. The result of the failed merger between Pennsylvania and the New York Central was nationalized as Conrail (and eventually spun back out, then chopped in two and split between Norfolk Southern and CSX) and preserved some rail in the Northeast. Amtrak and several state or regional transit authorities were created to take over passenger through and commuter service (which everyone was losing money on, and which eventually everyone realized they actually could not do without, unless they wanted to build a lot more highways and exactly where would those go). Conversion of power generating plants from oil (which was pipelined) to coal (which rode on the rail, at least as long as the people attempting to create coal slurry pipelines could be blocked from actually doing so) provided a whole lot of traffic that absolutely could not move by truck. More legislation removed rate making authority from the ICC (mostly). A few rounds of strikes and, ultimately, strike breaking led to modifications of work rules (creakily, but it did eventually happen). Ultimately, the ICC itself went away and its last duties (dealing with potential antitrust issues of mergers) moved to a newly created agency under the DOT.

With welded rail, merged rail systems that allowed the winners to create faster, more efficient routes (double tracked with reverse signals, and clearances for doublestacks) moved more freight than ever before. Miles of track dropped steadily through merger, and the elimination of granger and other less used track. The vampiric conglomerates continued to be a problem, but eventually those mostly went away as it became clear in the 1980s and 1990s that railroads were making a lot more money in those conglomerates than all the other crap they'd rolled up.

Saunders spends only a little time on track control/dispatch/other computer systems, and, unsurprisingly, not in enough detail to satisfy me. Towards the end of the book, however, he casually mentions the recruitment problems the railroads were starting to have at the turn of the century. Transportation programs at universities barely covered rail: at best, they focused on the shipper side of rail. So all the management at railroads had to learn on the job. The mind boggles. As I discussed this with R., he casually mentioned the engineering (as in, civil or industrial or systems or whatever engineering) side, and I initially disputed this as a problem, until it suddenly dawned on me that _this_ might well be why signaling systems are so abysmally bad on rail (not standardized, which means roads that result from mergers might well need to deal with a half dozen or more inherited signaling systems -- really, a human factors disaster in the making). Compound that with the reluctance of railroads to share anything with each other. Eeek.

There's a shocker of a paragraph towards the end about discussions between shippers and railroads ordered by the Surface Transportation Board (replacement for the ICC) around 2000. The reporter covering it was surprised not that shippers had complaints about erratic service, timeliness and so forth, but rather that the shippers uniformly felt like that had absolutely no other choice: no one believed trucking could replace rail. We've really been sitting on this cusp for close to 10 years now. Of course, back when this book was being written, states and regions were just beginning to make deals with Amtrak to improve corridor service; now we see the results all over the country. Back when this book was being written, Acela's technical problems looked like they might kill it; now we know that _nothing_ is making Acela go away. Back when this book was being written, the author could plausibly lament all the money going into the Northeast corridor that wasn't going into passenger service elsewhere.

It's a good book. I'd love to read a few more chapters to bring it up to this year, but in a few years, I'll think the same thing again, especially as the federal money to improve passenger service gets spread around a little more. A lot of track work has been done in recent years/is being done to try to make it possible to run passenger trains along corridors already packed with freight; a summary by region would be really wonderful.

Should you read it? Well, the secret history of American business is the history of railroads, so, yeah, probably. But you won't, because I doubt anyone is suffering from this level of obsession with the business and policy of transportation.
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