By Noel T. Braymer
An annoyance of supporting improved Rail Passenger service are the critics who will do and say anything to try to kill rail projects. Quite often what these critics claims are not supported by reality. Yet these opponents seem to get plenty of attention from the media. So who are these folks? Why are they so against better rail service and alternatives to jammed roads, crowded airports and faster and more relaxing travel. Or for that matter the economic development that comes with improved rail passenger service? Lets look at the usual suspects.
Nimby’s or Not In My Back Yard. People will often tell the press that they are not opposed to rail passenger service, they just don’t want it near to where they live. It is not so much that they are opposed to rail service, as they are opposed to any changes in their neighborhood. When a major rail project or any major project is proposed, by law several alternatives must be studied in the hope that the best alternative is chosen. When several potential routes are announced for a new rail project, large groups of neighbors living next to the different alternatives come out to oppose the alternatives nearest to them. This often get media attention with quotes from and pictures of upset people. As the planning process progresses and alternatives get eliminated, the number of people opposing a project drops off as alignments in their neighborhood are dropped from consideration. As part of the planning process changes are made to some alignments to placate residents, which often increases the cost of the project. After modifications are made, as residents get a better idea of what is planned, and a route with the least resistance is found, a project can usually go ahead. Not everyone can be pleased, but by the end of this process the level of opposition is greatly reduced compared to the first public meetings.
There is often opposition in rural areas to High Speed Rail as has been seen in California and now in Texas. Much of the opposition is based on complaints about how construction and loss of their land will affect farmers, their business and future earnings. Not expressed, but likely on the minds of these farmers is development caused by rail service would increase the value of their land and increase their local property taxes. These farmers often dominate their local politics. With development and population growth, these would dilute these farmers political influence which makes it harder for them to control their local government.
2). The Railroads
The railroads are rarely happy to run more passenger trains on their tracks. It isn’t so much that they are against rail passenger service, as they are against losing money. Over the years to stay in business, the railroads have trimmed expenses on their tracks to make the most money from their freight trains. Freight trains don’t need to go as fast as passenger trains. The railroads can run more freight with a few very long trains for less on mostly single track with few sidings than with many shorter trains needing many sidings. A single late passenger train can disrupt meets for many freight trains forcing them with long waits at the limited number of sidling because of a late passenger train. In general railroads are friendly to commuter railroads when they agree to pay what the railroads want to run these trains on their tracks. Also commuter railroads usually pay the railroads for track improvements to smooth out operations with mixed freight and passenger service. This includes the passenger services assuming liability in case of accidents on their railroads. We’ve seen this in actions on the Capitol Corridor trains in Northern California. For years the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Agency has paid the Union Pacific Railroad extra money to maintain their tracks to a higher level than they need for their freight trains. But the UP has benefited with smoother operation of their trains by doing this and UP likes getting the extra maintenance money from the JPA. This has lead to a generally cooperative relationship between the Union Pacific and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Agency.
Another example of this is with Metrolink and the BNSF. Metrolink runs some of its trains between Riverside, Fullerton and Los Angeles on the BNSF mainline between Los Angeles and the east. Work is underway building triple tracking between Los Angles and Fullerton to allow operation of more Metrolink and Amtrak passenger trains. This includes eliminating grade crossing as well. When the line is fully grade separated there will be 4 tracks between Los Angeles and Fullerton in order to run more passenger trains. In order to run Metrolink trains from Fullerton to Riverside a third track was needed because BNSF needs a double track railroad for their freight traffic. The public paid for the 3rd track, and it is not unusual to be on a Metrolink train in the middle of the 3 tracks with long freight trains on the other tracks much of the time. With the completion of the Colton Flyover eliminating a major bottleneck for both the BNSF and the UP, there is interest in extending more Metrolink trains terminating now at Riverside to San Bernardino. The BNSF has said no problem, but first the public has to pay to add a third track to San Bernardino from Riverside.
3). The Oil, Car Makers and Tire Companies
The fact is General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum were indicted and convicted in Federal Court in 1949 of conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and related material (tires and oil products) to National City Lines which was also owned by these companies. After going to the appeal process General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum were each fined $5,000 dollars and their executives a dollar each. The fact is these companies did buy up many transit agencies in the 1930’s and 40’s, many of which operated rail transit service. This included the passenger service of the Pacific Electric Railroad of California. The tracks and freight service remained with the Southern Pacific railroad. The reality is even at their best private rail transit service rarely made money. Their primary purpose was to open land to development and to bring electrification to land that was being developed by the company that owned the railroad. This mostly happened before 1920. By the thirties with the Depression and increasing car ownership, many rail transit companies were in trouble and it was cheap and easy for a front company like National City Lines to buy these distressed companies, get cash scraping transit rail and making money for the owners of National City Lines buying their buses, tires and oil product. Ideally with hindsight local government should have preserved much of the rail infrastructure and improved it for better public transportation. It was also at this time that General Motors developed the diesel electric locomotive which was much more economical than steam power. After World War II conversion to diesel was a major factor in keeping the railroads in business after business declined with the end of the war.
Politics and political spending for over the last 30 years has been increasingly dominated by a few very rich men in this county. Some donors give money almost exclusively to one of the 2 major political parties. Other donors hedge their bets by giving money to both parties so no matter who wins, they will have access. Most of this donated money goes for political advertising, most of which goes to the television networks. Elections are major moneymakers for the networks and the media in general. Most of these rich donors also fund multiple foundations and other non-profit organizations to promote their goals. These goal often include lowering their taxes and not raising them for other rich Americans. Along with this they often oppose anything that will increase government spending that will not improve their business.
Many of these rich men have made much of their money in fossil fuel. The foundations and other organizations supported by these rich men regularly publish reports critical of emerging renewable energy which would compete with fossil fuel or transportation modes which don’t use fossil fuels. Most of the opposition to the science of increasing carbon dioxide correlating to increased global temperature is from such foundations and Think Tanks funded by this small number of very rich men. Much of what is published can be called propaganda. Propaganda’s purpose is to shape public opinion by appealing to emotions and often fear rather than facts. Often propaganda is misleading or flat out fiction. These foundations and Think Tanks are well funded and have excellent media relations. It also helps that the rich men that fund these organizations control companies which buy a lot of advertising in the media.
So this makes government agencies that operate or plan and build rail passenger services vulnerable to constant attack stories against rail passenger service. This is not to say that American Rail Passenger service can’t be run better and more efficiently. But the point of these stories are often part of a larger political effort to get politicians supported by political donors in power and those who don’t out of office. One of the oldest red herring arguments against rail passenger service is that it doesn’t make money and needs subsidy. What is not noted is by that measure no form of transportation makes money. Rail passenger service can and in many places does operate at a profit. This is what most transportation services do. But government subsidizes the infrastructure needed for most forms of transportation. Private transportation companies outside of paying taxes doesn’t pay for the full costs of the Coast Guard, the Army Corp of Engineers, Airports, the Federal Aviation Administration or to build and maintain the public roads. Those are paid in full by all taxpayers. Taxes are something many major companies pay little or none of, which are often owned by the very rich men who complain about subsidizing rail passenger service.