How Tomorrow Moves, Again

One of the benefits of being old is that you remember things that they don’t want you to remember anymore. How about the Railway Express Agency? What the hell was that? Well, in the 1950s and 60s if you had a bunch of stuff that you needed to send somewhere. you boxed it up and dragged it into your green painted local office of the Railway Express Agency. They would dispatch it for you, on a freight train no less, to the proper destination. I guess they had some kind of vans or panel trucks that carried the shipment from the receiving REA office (which were always adjacent to the tracks) to the front door of the recipient. This was not such a radical idea in the 1950s since nearly everything in that era was shipped on the railroad. Milk, fruit, potatoes, livestock, you name it. It all traveled by rail.

If you are under fifty. you probably can not imagine that the U.S.A. existed without any Interstate Highways but it did. If you wanted to drive from New York to Miami in 1960 you journeyed through a hundred speed-trap type small towns and a thousand traffic lights. There was no I-95. It did not exist yet. So in a 1956 stroke of genius, President Eisenhower signed the first authorization bill to start the creation of the Interstate Highway System. We got real busy on the huge project and relatively quickly we built I-95, I-5, I-10 and even I -90 all the way from Boston to Seattle. We did it all for a mere 450 Billion dollars. If that sounds like a lot of money to you remember that a later and dumber occupant of the White House would go on to waste three times that much in order to invade and occupy Iraq for seven years. That’s how our government rolls. The good, the bad and the horrendous.

The interstates made it possible to drive anywhere for any reason. They also unintentionally destroyed our fantastic rail system. It’s as simple as that. Commercial traffic was allowed toll free on the new public super-highways that were built for the traveling public. It’s the biggest subsidy ever handed to any industry by any government on earth. The total number of miles of custom engineered state of the art highway surface built by the taxpayers for the benefit of the Trucking Industry is now about 47,856 miles. Total number of miles of railroad track built by the taxpayers for the railroad industry. Zero. We didn’t only build highways for them, we also continue to maintain the network for them at a cost of billions of dollars per year. Ah, but the trucking industry allows us to drive on the roads too! Nice guys.

Oh “boo-hoo” you say. So we choose to use modern trucks instead of quaint old-fashioned choo-choo trains. The horse and buggy went out of style too after all. Yeah, well here’s the thing. Never mind that they are a dangerous nuisance on our highways. Never mind that. Trucks are and always will be a hideously inefficient way of moving freight. Do we have an oil crisis or don’t we have one? I guess not because we choose to eternally waste billions of barrels of oil every year by using a fleets of trucks to move all those things that we used to move by rail before the interstates were built.

If you care about the energy crisis you don’t even have to advocate the undoing of the transportation revolution. Even just diverting a mere 10% of the freight on our highways over to the railroad system would save us one billion gallons of diesel fuel per year. What could we do with a billion gallons of diesel fuel Well we could heat 1,000,000 homes through the bitterest of winters. Yeah, well let those senior citizens stop griping about five dollar heating oil and call 1-800 JOE FOR OIL.

OK that’s the story of the benefits of getting freight off of the highways but what about the costs. The number one go-to virtue of truck freight is purportedly speed. Routing a freight car is slow and complicated, while a truck just starts here at point A and zooms down our interstate highway (as fast as re-cap tires and amphetamines allow) until it screeches into the local K-Mart full of hula hoops and beach towels at point B.

Amazingly, the railroads don’t even disagree that vehemently. As an industry they prefer the easy high revenue jobs like hauling coal and chlorine gas. They like the heavy non-perishable loads because trucks just can’t touch the economics of handling those commodities. Basically they don’t want to compete with anybody. The Railroad managers prefer to run a simple system that minimizes their capital investment and maximizes their revenue. You can’t really blame them. They have shareholders. I am a shareholder and I want my quarterly dividends. So let the trains haul coal and chemicals and let the fuel guzzling eight-mile-per-gallon trucks run the consumer goods around the country. That’s good for everybody’s stockholders (right now) but its stupid and its bad public policy because of the realities of air-pollution, congestion, safety and energy usage. If we care about any or all of those issues we will stop having a stupid transportation policy as a nation.

In spite of their fear of competition, the railroads are now being dragged not the 21st century even if they aren’t that sure about it. The old excuses why trains don’t work as well as trucks are being met with common sense applications. Unit trains are one no-brainier. A unit train is loaded at the source with one single commodity and unloaded at the final destination. An Orange juice train moves from Orlando to Jersey City. It doesn’t stop to sort out and switch-out cars hauling paper and cement and scrap iron. There are no such cars on that train. Simple isn’t it.

The other thing that is making the rail business actually grow again is the intermodal revolution. It had to happen. The trucking industry turned to the railroad for the extra capacity that the government can’t or won’t build for them. The driver shortage and the ridiculous congestion on our roads have sent the trucking firms to the railroads for help. Trains now haul long lines of double stacked steel boxes hundreds of miles through the night until the same unopened boxes are hauled away by a road tractor for the local delivery portion of the journey. The truck drivers are home in their own beds at night and the efficiency of moving that untouched load those “middle” 2,000 miles was triple that of what a truck would have cost. Neither unit trains or intermodal trains. however, seem to have much use for the fleet of a million identical boxcars that dominated rail traffic Pre-Eisenhower. Those colorful cars with the catchy slogans are now very old and creaky and they may seem to be gone with the wind forever but history has shown us to be patient in these circumstances. It is probably too early to tell if we will need them again.

There is one relic of the 50s that I am calling for right now. Mail trains. Here is an excerpt from a recent news item from Florida. “A dump truck following the tractor trailer was unable to stop and collided with the rear of the tractor trailer. Both drivers exited their vehicles without injury before a fire erupted on the tractor trailer which was carrying mail.” That is just one of dozens of these incidents in which undelivered U.S. Mail has burned up on the highway. Can you imagine the loss? Among the tons of junk mail where certainly some heart-felt letters and birthday cards containing five dollar bills. Maybe a few thousand tax refund checks were on that truck. Mail is hauled on the highways by low bid contractors. When you see a dirty worn out nondescript “big rig” out on the highway it is probably a mail contractor trying to make a profit by overtaxing his equipment and his driver. It is absolutely unnecessary.

Every afternoon at 5 PM the same Amtrak train leaves Washington DC bound for Chicago where it arrives the next morning after passing through Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the dark. There is no mail on that rain. Why not? In the Pleistocene era of the 1950s there was a mail car on that rain and Post Office employees sorted that mail as it moved! It didn’t just arrive in Chicago the next day in a bunch of sacks. It arrived sorted and ready for delivery. The Amtrak train is going to Chicago anyway. Is there any conceivable reason why some sleepy, drugged-up truck driver is fighting his way out there through a blizzard, slipping and sliding toward Chicago in a busted up Freightliner full of unsorted mail when the darn Amtrak is going there anyway every single day – weather be dammed. Progress marches backward.

We probably don’t use Amtrak to carry mail because somebody outside the government is making big money on the truck contracts and somebody inside the government is corrupt. Even without the corruption factor however, it just seems that it is always easier to do the dumb thing. Railroads are complicated and they require a lot of management and planning. That’s too hard. We are not much of a planning type of country anymore. Communists plan. Cowboys just jump in the cab and go! Well I guess Dwight Eisenhower was a natural born communist because he sure planned the heck out of the biggest transportation project in the history of the world twelve years after he planned the liberation of Europe from the Nazi army.

All that planning and figuring stuff out was fine in the fifties but it requires a lot of people who can do math and engineer solutions to logistical problems. Borrrring! Now in the millennium we sure don’t want to go back to a bunch of guys in sort sleeved white shirts with pocket protectors crunching the numbers and inventing the rockets that landed men on the moon before you were born. Naw… lets just keep doing things the easy way.

Now finally, having ripped trucking up and down the freeway, I want to try to be fair for a moment or two. Truck drivers do an amazing job. If you have ever talked to an over-the-road driver you walked away with your head spinning after he described his itinerary over the last ten days. Just like Johnny Cash, he has been everywhere. Pocatella, Schenectady, Portland, Portland, Jacksonville and that was just one week! The other thing I have to concede is that most of these guys are driving artists. It is nothing less than incredible the way they can handle those behemoth rigs in traffic. By and large they are also more courteous and level headed than the average idiot behind the wheel of a private car. They have to be better drivers than the rest of us or else we can’t have them on our roads at all.

Never forget though. that they contributed nothing to the building of the roads and they make us share the cost of repairing and expanding the network by our tax contributions on gasoline that build up the massive Highway Trust Fund. They do not even use gasoline yet its is taxed for the benefit of the trucking industry. The trucking lobby when confronted with the cold facts of how wasteful of energy their entire business is. will fend off the charges by talking about new hybrid trucks on the horizon and about how they would be more efficient (like trains) if we would just let them pull multiple trailers behind their tractors. OK, no. If you were going to develop more economical power then just do it without being legislated. And as far as the tandem trailers go, no thank you. They are not safe and highway safety is not for sale for the sake of saving the trucking industry.

We can continue subsidize trucking to the nth degree but we have to realize the true cost of the subsidy. It seems quaint now but in the 70s Jimmy Carter described the energy crisis, particularly the need to limit the importation of middle eastern oil as “the moral equivalent of war.” If this is a war, the trucking industry is the moral equivalent to Switzerland. They are neutral! We were all given a list of things we must do as responsible Americans to conserve a few more gallons. Inflate your tires, ride a bicycle to work, sell your boat, get a push mower. Where was the trucking industry in this discussion? How come their 10 billion gallons a year was not on the table? Well it has taken us a while to realize that we are being idiotic to continue this diesel orgy but the issue actually has been there the whole time and it has gotten worse every year since Nixon and Carter put the rest of us in crisis mode.

Like so many other societal problems the answer is sitting right here in front us. We just have to tell the truckers enough is enough and reclaim our rail network that we moth-balled when our new toys arrived all shiny and sexy with Confederate flags airbrushed on the hood, the stripper mud flaps and crazy nicknames stenciled on the cab. Those Peterbilts sure look macho. all tricked out like that but they ought to have the Saudi Star and Crescent on the hood. It is the Royal Princes of the OPEC Muslim sheikdoms who the good ole boys in the audacious Big Rigs are making really rich and famous.