Rail Today

by Greg Bryant

A) US passenger rail is 'the worst' in the world.

B) US freight rail is 'the best' in the world.

But the measure of 'quality' here is completely unmoored from reality.

In 'A' we are complaining, quite rightly, about the lack of investment in infrastructure that can benefit huge numbers of people, and our ecological footprint. 'A' is in the public interest. 'A' can be a public good, but is unfortunately privatized in the US, because study after study has shown that there is essentially no profit in passenger rail, so it's best quality is at worst a private public partnership, and at best a public institution: part of the commons. Even better if the trains are built and maintained as locally as possible, as they used to be a hundred years ago, when local trains puffed or buzzed efficiently into places before cars were common. In much of the rest of the world, the car didn't come to dominate the passenger rail network quite so viciously. Here, as everyone knows by now, passenger rail was dismantled by the auto industry.

In 'B' a handful of very wealthy companies are boasting about how they took public right-of-ways from US citizens and indigenous peoples, and saw that they could profit on hauling freight over rail, which is 7 times more energy efficient than road traffic, and requires far less labor per pound as well -- two train engineers can transport as much as hundreds of truck drivers, more safely, for far less energy. Freight did $71 Billion in business in the US last year. And they are an oligopoly.

In 'B' we're allowing the pride of easy profits to overshadow the fact that ease of transportation is destroying the planet. Industry analysts predict global shipping will expand by 50% by 2050. That kind of growth, and the volume of 'efficient intermodal shipping' that happens today, allows the global exploitation of labor and the environment, the reduction of resilience and local self-sufficiency in the face of climate change, and makes everyone dependent on a system that only profits the very rich.

The for-profit transportation industry is infamous for horrible labor practices. I'm not sure anyone in it wouldn't trade in their harrowing job for a life of the local small-scale artisan or farmer. We have allowed a profit and growth driven capitalist industrialism, in partnership with imperialism and monopoly capitalism, to take everything from the majority of the population, set us against each other, and increasingly grow inequality.

The global export, shipping, and transport sector is a keystone of the fragile edifice that our lives depend upon too much, and the vast majority of the world's population, including all of its biodiversity, is suffering as a result.

So, 'good' passenger rail is about an efficient public good.

'Good' freight rail is about maintaining a system of profit-taking at the expense of the rest of us.

August 29, 2022