Is it time to talk about re-nationalizing the railroads?

Newspapers this morning report that “Railroads warn of nationwide meltdown if extension not granted for safety requirements“.

This is a threat over PTC, positive train control, which the railroads were instructed to implement 8 years ago, but did not, and now the deadline is coming up.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

If railroads cannot run their operations in compliance with federal law, they need to cease operations. However having a nation without railroads would be significantly disruptive to the economy (I am sure economists could estimate a GDP effect). The railroads are hoping this threat will persuade Congress to cave and extend the deadline.

The alternative, which is not much bandied about these days, is nationalization. Railroad nationalization has a vaguely European feel to it, and smells of socialism, but in fact, it is quite patriotic and all-American.

In The Transportation Experience, we write

By 1917, US railroads, the country’s largest industry, operated over 400,000 km (240,000 miles) of track and employed 1.8 million people. While the war was raging in Europe, war traffic was congesting America’s railroads, especially at East Coast ports; even before the American Expeditionary Force went “over there.” The American Railway Association tried to coordinate its member railroads to avoid car shortages. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) was granted greater powers to ensure efficiency and that priority cargo received priority treatment. Yet the progress made by these organizations was insufficient.

On December 28 the Federal Government’s Director General of Railroads, William McAdoo, took control of the largest private railroads and placed them under the control of the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) — a creature of Congress. To this day railroads question the need for nationalization and its results; it is a sore point with them that the public might have thought that they were not doing their job. Note: A later USRA (The United States Railroad Association) acquired bankrupt railroads in the 1970s, and was eventually sold to Conrail.

Nationalization had more form than substance to it. Railroad employees were given military titles, and a few inter-railroad arrangements were forced on the properties. Some standardized locomotive designs were developed and engines were constructed. Labor arrangements were imposed that the railroads might not have agreed to under other circumstances. Railroads were granted compensation equal to their prewar profits. The shipping costs per ton-km rose however, in part due to a rise in wages.

While the railroad regulatory regime clearly collapsed with the onset of World War I, the regulation initiatives of the late 1800s and the early 1900s worked for their times. They managed the gross inequities that worried the public. Government served as a referee for among railroad ratemaking disputes, and government had begun to assert its power over who gets the location–transportation rents (via maximum rate prescriptions). The list of problems that regulation did not manage remained long, of course.

One of these was the vast difference in the economic fortunes of the different properties. This was not just a matter of concern to the managers, stockholders, and bondholders of the railroads that were not doing well. Shippers had interest in strong railroads, as did regional groups. They were worried about good, stable service.

Wikipedia writes:

After the United States entered World War I in 1917, the country’s railways proved inadequate to the task of supplying the nation’s war effort. On December 26, 1917, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson nationalized most American railways under the Federal Possession and Control Act, creating the United States Railroad Administration (USRA), which took control of the railways on December 28, 1917. The USRA introduced several reforms to increase efficiency and reduce costs, including standardizing rolling stock and steam locomotive designs. The war ended in 1918, and on March 1, 1920, the railways were handed back to their original owners.

Of course Amtrak and Conrail are other examples. Most local commuter railroads were taken over by states or cities.

Today the US could only justify it because of the potential collapse of the rail network being threatened by the large carriers if they don’t get their way. Nationalization of the railroads would follow nationalization of banks and the auto industry during the Great Recession, and would presumably be temporary while the appropriate safety systems were installed.

Seizing the railroads does provide an opportunity though. The Government could take rights-of-way for a potential high-speed passenger network before reselling the railroads back to the private sector. This would be far cheaper than negotiating one-on-one with the railroads. It would reduce the value of the freight network somewhat, but the public would be better off than if it tried to build the HSR network line by line.

2010 and 2015 Current market capitalizations for major US railroads are (from yahoo finance):

Railroad 2010 2015
CP $9.7B $24.9B
UNP $38B $82.2B
NSC $22B $24.23B
CSX $21B $28B
KSU $3.8B $10.6B

BNSF is held by Warren Buffet.

The total is still a surprisingly cheap $170B (excluding BNSF), though far more than in 2010. (As a point of reference, please compare this to the nominal value of Uber, and decide who is overvalued.)

Nationalization should be an option on the table. Certainly, railroads are competitive with trucks and each other in certain markets, but in other markets they possess characteristics of spatial monopoly. And collectively their presence is more important than any individual railroad. If the economic sector is essential for the rest of the economy, which freight railroads are (imagine this winter without coal for heating, imagine trying to ship that coal by truck), at least in the short run, they must keep operating.

In the long run, the economy should continue to seek alternatives to the Octopus.

The Empire Strikes Back, or ‘One Way to Deal with a Desire Line’ Redux. |

In September of 2014, I wrote One Way to Deal With a Desire Line, describing the University of Minnesota’s attempt to deal with a desire line by planting a tree in the middle and placing concrete curbs to reroute traffic, costing pedestrians several seconds a day each. That tree died, as documented in A Tree Dies in Minneapolis, or ‘One Way to Deal with a Desire Line’ Revisited.

McNamara Tree with rope barrier
McNamara Tree with rope barrier

Like the King of Swamp Castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail whose castle sank into the swamp, the University has planted another tree. But this time, it is reinforced, with an almost invisible rope line.

That will teach pesky pedestrians trying to get an education and reach classes on-time to take the straight line path that used to be there but was changed because someone once saw a bicycle on the Scholars Walk.

[I know “Empire” was the 2nd movie in the original trilogy, and this is the third post in a series. But unless I want to make the University the hero in this saga, I can’t make an Episode VI reference yet.]