Influence of railroad organization and traffic policies

In the 1950s, several railroads have been able to squeeze both passenger trains and express freight through their system, some of them used speed as a core marketing item. In the long term, slow low-cost railroads have survived better, because railroads have such a huge gap between a management decision and its side effects. If a railroad defers infrastucture maintenance, nobody might notice within the next 5 years, with the exception of the employees. If there is need to impress the stock market, or the value of the railroad does not please the owners prior to merger talks, deferring maintenance is a quite frequent management technique. Unfortunately, it does not only need a long time to notice the effects, but it also needs very long time to get back to normal. If this situation arises in Europe, the government as the infrastructure owner might bail out its agency or company, but nobody will help an US railroad, unless there is fear to strip whole regions of railroad traffic.

A popular example is the "Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railway". The Milwaukee Road had the shortest and fastest route to the Pacific harbours in the Northwest, connecting less settlements along the route, but offering faster long distance runs. The Milwaukee Road ran a whole fleet of "hot" intermodal trains. After a management change in 1957, the company concentrated on a merger into the new "Chicago, Milwaukee and Northwestern Transportation Company", and deferred maintenance. The merger was negotiated until 1965, but never happened. While slower railroad operations have recovered from deferred maintenance, the Milwaukee Road, relying on speed as its main selling point, never did. It slowly degraded towards one long slow order, and 15 years later, the company was bankrupt.

Bikepath trestle 
with catenary poles, in the Cascades
The Milwaukee Road bikepath, a logical result of traffic policies.

European railroads are divided into

The TOCs pay a track price for using the infrastructure, like usage of a toll road. It is just more expensive. Regarding upgrade projects in Europe, a common situation is

Such a project will enter the list of traffic infrastructure investments, that are financed with public funds. Several countries have integrated planning for rail and road infrastructure upgrades, and public infrastructure investment might amount to billions per year.

Regarding airports, roads, and waterways, US transport infrastructure is a public asset as well. The exception is railroad infrastructure, which is privately owned in most cases. There is no free access for competitors, but railroads run their own freight trains on their own tracks, unless trackage rights have been granted in merger agreements of the past. As a general rule, no public investment will be put into this system. (There have been very few deals of the "public money for upgrades in exchange for passenger train trackage rights" kind.)

"No public investment" is an incomplete description: The railroads pay property taxes for the track, which depend on the value of the property. This is an additional incentive for US railroads, to rely on "do more with less". The railroad system has far less capacity than in the past, but transports more freight. One result is, that many lines do not allow to run trains of different speed any longer. Either the fast ones or the slow ones are delayed regularely.

It needs to be stressed, that these railroads still exist. They are the survivors.

There have been railroad managers, who have put their hopes on public money for passenger-orientated railroads. An example was George Alpert, the last president of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad ("New Haven"). He spent five years of lobbying effort, which ended with the bankruptcy of the New Haven.

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Last modified: 2003-10-09