Workin' on the Railroad

Writing in American Environmental History, a brilliant history of exploitation and conservation of our national resources, Joseph Petulla recalls that at the turn of the 20th century it was "obvious that in a country of growing cities spread along thousands of miles, a few railroad companies could set prices for long-haul transport and even charge high prices for the land along their track.

"It is not so obvious but probable that railroads were responsible for the extremely rapid growth of American cities, which were becoming centers of huge industrial enterprises that used the railroads to tie together the resource-producing, processing and marketing areas."

Now a century later we see basically the two major national freight railroads -- Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and Union Pacific -- and one passenger rail service -- Amtrak -- the latter battling to stay alive in the face of air transportation and a hostile federal government which not only established it, but begrudgingly funds it as well.

And in a reversal of their mission of over 100 years ago we now see the railroads irresponsibly exacerbating the rapid demise of rural America's towns and cities.

Thus the saga of Amtrak has become one whereby the Bush administration seeks to add to the burden of the states by turning its operations over to them while hostile commercial freight lines would just as soon be rid of it altogether, except possibly in the selective high-revenue markets, like the Northeast corridor, thus returning to the golden yesteryears of privatization.

Bush's current federal budget seeks no money for Amtrak, except for $360 million to maintain commuter service that uses Amtrak tracks in the Northeast corridor if the railroad goes bankrupt.

Reporting in the Feb. 20 New York Times, Matthew L. Wald notes the "ambivalence of its own board of directors. The [Amtrak] board, whose four members were appointed by President Bush, missed a Feb.15 deadline to submit a budget request to Congress. Two days later, the chairman, David M. Laney, sent a letter to Congress saying that the board plans to make a grant request, but that 'the status quo at Amtrak is neither viable nor acceptable."

The Times reported that the board said it was developing legislative proposals that "would provide the foundation needed for the development of US passenger rail service, whether or not Amtrak remains its chief steward."

"With no subsidies, Amtrak would quickly enter bankruptcy, which would likely lead to the elimination of inefficient operations and the reorganization of the railroad through bankruptcy procedures," the Transportation Department said in a statement accompanying the budget.

Meanwhile, if such plans materialize the nation's rural and remote areas, would more than likely be treated with indifference -- if not ignored -- in much the same fashion as the Greyhound Bus Company has abandoned so many of its rural routes in recent years.

In addition, as US Sen. Jon S. Corzine, D-N.J., noted in a March 2 New York Times letter-to-the-editor, "cutting off Amtrak's money will merely shift to the states a burden that they cannot handle. This has the potential of jeopardizing or even ending the operation of some lines.

"In the Northeast in particular, it would also affect the many other transit systems that run on or use the Northeast Corridor infrastructure ... On [Sept. 11, 2001], our commercial aviation system was shut down, stranding thousands. Meanwhile, Amtrak ridership surged as thousands of people took Amtrak to get home. Since then, Amtrak ridership has continued to climb to record levels."

It is ironic that Amtrak sees itself in this situation today since its creation in 1971 came after the nation's large railroads' passenger services became so intolerable that the federal government was forced to create a company to provide such services.

It wasn't just "progress," however, or the growth of the airlines that brought about such a sorry state, but a deliberate effort by the companies to discourage people from traveling by rail.

For example, one of the last passenger services in the nation was the Southern Pacific Railroad which in the months leading up to its exit created a specific office in its San Francisco, Calif., headquarters to devise ways of alienating travelers from using its trains so it could rationalize its exodus from passenger service and concentrate on freight.

By employing tactics -- like those revealed by Bruce Brugman of the San Francisco Bay Area Guardian -- as changing its north-south schedule on its West Coast route so travelers would miss their east-west connections by anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and one-half, thus necessitating a 24-hour lay over in the connecting city, the company set about to deliberately discourage passenger travel.

From personal experience this writer remembers taking one of the last trips on a Southern Pacific train where the dining car was simply a hollowed-out coach with vending machines lining each side of the car.

With the death of Amtrak one can envision the railroad behemoths allied with corporate interests pushing a compliant Interstate Commerce Commission for higher and largely unregulated freight rates.

As Daniel Machalaba and John Wilke reported in the Feb. 17 Wall Street Journal the Justice Department has already launched an investigation into the pricing practices of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. and Union Pacific Corp. shipments from one of the largest coal-producing areas in the US.

"The probe by the Justice Department's antitrust division comes amid complaints by electric utilities that moves toward greater pricing transparency by the two railroads could lead to their coordinating prices and driving shipping costs higher. The shipments concern Wyoming's Powder River Basin, whose coal is prized by utilities for its low sulfur content." A department spokesman acknowledged it "is looking into the possibility of anticompetitive practices involving the transport of coal."

It is not stretch of the imagination that once the railroads have the rails to themselves they will likely to be devising ways of bleeding the states of money in the form of state subsidies originally destined for passenger service.

Such an agenda is not without its precedent. At the outset of the 20th century a consortium of banks, railroads and grain companies -- the "Boys From St. Paul" -- exercised an iron grip over the economy of the Northern Plains, occasioning A.C. Townley, the colorful co-founder of the radical populist Non-Partisan League, to observe, "you can put a banker, a grain trader, and a railroad executive into a barrel and roll them down a hill and a son-of-a-bitch will be on top the whole time."

A. V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project which publishes the online newsletter The Agribusiness Examiner at

Home Page

Copyright © 2005 The Progressive Populist