Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Guess what killed passenger rail?

Despite what your liberal friends say, it wasn't the Interstate Highways.  Passenger rail travel was declining for a decade before the Interstates were built.  No, the real reason the inter-city rail withered and died in the United States was government regulation:
If any federal action helped to kill passenger trains, it was a 1947 rule passed by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) regulating high-speed trains. The ruling, which went into effect in 1950, specified that trains could not go faster than 79 mph unless railroads installed expensive signaling and other improvements.

During the 1930s, several railroads had responded to the decline in passenger traffic by speeding up their trains. The Burlington, Milwaukee, Pennsylvania, Santa Fe, and Union Pacific were among the roads that routinely ran passenger trains between 100 and 120 mph in order to get average speeds of 60 (over the entire journey) to 80 (between some cities) mph. This was a huge improvement over the 30 to 40 mph average speeds of most trains at that time. The result on routes with such fast trains was almost always a huge increase in passenger traffic.

The ICC rule put the brakes on these trains. The railroads estimated it would cost them $80 million (more than $800 million in today’s dollars) to install the signals, which wouldn’t be worth it for the passengers that made up a limited part of the railroads’ business. Rail officials pointed out that, while there had been accidents involving fast streamliners, most would not have been prevented by better signals. (For example, two people were killed when a Burlington Zephyr collided with a tractor that had fallen off a freight train on a parallel track just seconds before the Zephyr passed by.)

As a paper by historian Mark Reutter notes, when railroads complained about the ruling, an ICC commissioner responded, “When you get to the final analysis here, it is a question of whether you [the railroads] should determine how these funds should be used or whether the government should. . . . And hasn’t Congress given the commission that responsibility?” [emphasis by Borepatch]
And so all this Progressive SWPL vision that is fixin' to (further) bankrupt California with a $100B high speed train to nowhere wouldn't be needed if the government hadn't regulated passenger rail to death.  For teh Childrenz™, of course.


Rev. Paul said...

So Big Brother killed passenger rail? I'm sure I left my shocked face around here somewhere ... no, really.

Old NFO said...

No surprise... sigh

SiGraybeard said...

What is it with progressives and trains, anyway? You can't get two of them together for five minutes without hearing about "high speed rail".

drjim said...

They never outgrew their choo-choo train toys!
And most of them HATE aircraft, which also explains why they've done everything to make air travel as annoying as possible.....

wolfwalker said...

Graybeard, Progressives adore the concept of high-speed rail because of three factors:

1) Progressives hate cars, so anything that reduces car traffic is a Good Thing. Particularly mass transit. Particularly any kind of mass transit that can be electrically powered.

2) Progressives are europhiles, and Europe has implemented high-speed rail with some success at reducing the number of cars on the road.

3) Progressives are reactionaries in many ways (it goes along with wanting to go back to a feudalist caste system), and trains are an older technology than cars.

4) your average Progressive is too frightfully stupid to understand that high-speed trains are impractical as a primary method of commuting in America, with its wide sprawling cities and its suburban, car-based culture.

Borepatch, I agree the ICC rule was a blow to passenger travel, but I don't agree that it was the lethal blow. Or anything close. What killed passenger railroad travel was a combination of factors: the growth of the automobile culture, the growth of air travel, the speed limits on trains, and (often overlooked) the expense of maintaining the tracks. Railroad tracks, even in the heyday of trains, were not like roads. Break a road, and there are [almost] always other roads you can use to get around the break and get repair crews and equipment to the site. But break a rail, especially in a remote area, and traffic on that line is dead stopped until repair crews can reach the site. This meant keeping full repair crews, men and equipment, on duty at regular intervals all along the line so you could be sure you'd have a crew within a reasonable distance on either side of a break. Very very expensive.

vandiver49 said...

@wolf walker,

I agree with points 2 and 4 but trains being old has nothing to do with them being ineffective. The problem is that trains are in essence a linear solution to a multi-variable problem.

For example, in the NE corridor, most people would have stops at the major cities (DC, B'more, Philly, NYC, Prov, Boston) as fewer stops mean higher speeds. But instead the train has to stop at BWI, and Wilmington, and PHL, Trenton and various other locals thus negating any advantage a train might have.

A car, while fractionally slower, can arrive faster since all those stops can be bypassed. Planes, coupled with a greater speed, also utilize this advantage (though the airport process time can negate some of this benefit)

Also, while their are some Progressives who do hate cars, I think most are simply trying to shoehorn a NYC or Boston city system on urban areas ill-designed to accommodate their dreams. (tacitly a variation of point 2)

Cliff Smith said...

Another cause of the death of passenger trains, stations were expensive to maintain and were taxed heavily by the locals.

Rick C said...

Regarding wolfwalker's point 4, don't forget that the Progressives want us all living in Soviet-style apartment towers in the city. When we're there, and the suburbs are dead, mass transit would self-evidently make a lot more sense.

Who cares if you don't want to live cheek-to-jowl with everyone else?

kx59 said...

I always thought it was the advent of air travel that did passenger rail in.

wolfwalker said...

vandiver: "trains being old has nothing to do with them being ineffective. "

I agree. But I do think that trains being old is one reason why Progressives like them. Despite their collective name, Progressives tend to be somewhat luddistic where technology is concerned ... at least, technology that they don't like. Trains to them seem to represent the Times Before, when technology was not the soul-destroying, world-threatening monster that it is today.

Stretch said...

And let us not forget Congressional intervention on behest of "the people."
Farmers wanted low fees for shipping produce to market.
Union workers wanted ever higher pay.
Enter the ICC, FTC, et.al. at Congressional mandate and you get a major Charlie Foxtrot.

Anonymous said...

Heh, and the Lusitania was carrying shot-loads of 303 ammo

Should descendents of the passengers be suing the US Gov?

wolfwalker said...

To be fair, Stretch, we should also remember that the first big railroads were also the first serious monopolies, and their owners are the people who inspired the term 'robber baron.' They owned the railroads, which meant they owned the only way of getting farmers' crops to market. They charged exorbitant freight rates and paid sickeningly low wages, and much of the difference went into their own pockets.

Don't let yourself be dragged into thinking that the mid-to-late 1800s were anything like today, economically. Today the unions are leeches and the federal government is a bloated tick. Back then, federal railroad regulations and workers' unions filled a useful purpose. I think that breaking the power of the railroads is precisely the sort of thing that the interstate commerce clause was written for.

Anonymous said...

Passenger service is detrimental to freight service. There's much more money to be made in hauling freight. Passenger service has to operate on a schedule and has priority, delaying freight traffic. The track geometry has to be balanced between the different speeds each service operates at, while optimum for neither. This greatly increases maintainence and costs. All in all, passenger service is very expensive to operate and the carriers would prefer not to have to deal withn it whatsoever. This has been common knowledge since the age of steam. That's why the railroads wanted to rid themselves of passenger service entirely.

drjim said...

have to agree with anon. One of my dad's brothers worked for the EJ&E railroad for 30~40 years. He always said the same thing, but went a bit further!

deadcenter said...

Don't forget the massive subsidies paid to make those rail tickets "affordable". Warren Meyer on Coyote Blog has several good posts regarding the actual passenger cost vs. subsidized cost. Short version is if the rider's ever have to pay the unsubsidized cost, commuter rail will have far fewer riders than it has now.