Nationalize Our Railroads

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Issue 14, Volume 113

By Lenny Metlitsky 

I’m not a socialist. Yet, every day, I’m reminded of the failures of our excessively privatized infrastructure. Our highway and road infrastructure is mostly owned, maintained, and operated by the government, yet our railroads are left to rot in the hands of private companies who prioritize cutting costs and maximizing short-term profits. Democrats and Republicans alike are always discussing whichever latest lobby-induced subsidy they should implement to “improve” the economy (or line their pockets with), yet the real solution to optimize trade and make it cheaper, more efficient, and less polluting is clear: nationalize our railroads as soon as possible.

The U.S. rail network was one of the most extensive in the world. Currently spanning over 140,000 route miles—or over five and a half times the Earth’s circumference—our railroads move tens of millions of carloads of goods all across our country. However, our rail network used to be even better, as the current system is not on the right track (pun intended). Rail mileage peaked in 1916, and since then, our railroads have only had fewer and fewer tracks. Following the rise of the automobile and increased spending on car-centric infrastructure, many railroads went bankrupt and abandoned all service and maintenance. Shortly after, more than 47,000 miles of track were forced to have agonizingly slow speed limits for safety reasons,, as the tracks had become extremely damaged and urgent capital for investment was unavailable. Even with government bailouts, maintenance had been deferred, and the rail intercity freight had fallen by over 60 percent. The direct effect of this decline was the merging of railroads into four companies, each holding monopolies over a certain region of the United States: Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Union Pacific, CSX, and Norfolk Southern. With the formation of regional monopolies, trans-American (don’t tell Ron DeSantis) freight transport lost to trucks on highways, and intercity passenger rail almost certainly lost to the automobile.

Worst of all, the regional freight rail monopolies of the United States accepted this defeat. Instead of fighting to be more competitive with the state- and federally-funded interstate highway system and its polluting trucks, freight companies such as Union Pacific and Northern-Southern “adapted” to the market in order to maximize short-term profits. They did this by finding a niche: shipping non-urgent bulk goods. The majority of these goods are coal—everyone’s favorite cancer-causing fossil fuel. Not to mention, the coal industry is propped up almost entirely by subsidies, so instead of funding a clean, fast, and efficient rail network, it’s been left to rot in favor of causing respiratory problems in communities and worsening our climate crisis. Another loss is the opportunity for long-term profit. Perhaps if our private railroads were just a little less focused on maximizing quarterly earnings and instead invested in their infrastructure, they would achieve far greater profits in the long term as operating costs lowered.

On top of the various issues that freight transport by rail is facing, it has also decimated our intercity and national passenger rail network. Since private railroads own the tracks and infrastructure, Amtrak, our national passenger rail provider, has to rent the right to use the tracks at certain times, following a schedule. In an ideal world, this would be an easy way to get some service going. But since private freight rail companies own these tracks, they make life hell for Amtrak. The four major freight railroad monopolies are uncooperative and have been refusing to follow agreed-upon schedules, causing mass delays and inconsistent service for Amtrak. Even with schedules being lined with excessive padding, Amtrak has an embarrassing on-time rate anywhere track is shared with freight rail. Amtrak even admits this itself, stating, “Freight train interference—a dispatching decision made by a freight railroad to delay an Amtrak passenger train so that their freight trains can operate first—caused 900,000 minutes of delay in 2021.” To make matters worse, some of Amtrak’s long-distance routes have on-time rates of less than seven percent and regularly run days late.

Attempts to sue freight companies have been proven pointless, as freight rail companies deny responsibility. To make matters worse, freight rail companies have been “single-tracking,” where one direction of the track is removed, and removing electrification in order to reduce maintenance costs and maximize profits. Such changes have destroyed functioning infrastructure, resulting in even more delays. To put the final nail in the coffin, such corner-cutting paved the way for a preventable 115,580-gallon spill of toxic chemicals in Ohio.

While the United States struggles with its privatized infrastructure, national rail networks have already been a fundamental part of most developed countries. For example, Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Japan all have nationalized rail networks, high-speed rail networks, and some of the most interconnected networks. More recently, Britain has made the switch to a nationalized rail network as well. In the past, Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government had begun the process of privatization of many government responsibilities, similar to the United States. However, even with overseeing legislation, something that the U.S. does not have much of for its railroads, privatizing British rail was a terrible mistake. This mistake ended up costing taxpayers more money in subsidies to uphold company profits in exchange for service even though these services were not delivered to lower-traffic areas. Similar to what happened in the United States, trains began to run less punctually, and only 20 percent of Southern trains arrived on time from April 2015 to March 2016. The worst service obviously came during the pandemic, when many companies were going bankrupt from the sharp decrease in demand and were struggling to provide even basic service. The British Department of Transport took control of every line, and though nationalization was supposed to be temporary for the pandemic, the overweighing pros and public pressure caused the Minister for Transport to publish a press release, which stated that “rail franchising reaches its terminus as a new railway takes shape” and “[rail franchising] was no longer working.” Britain shares some of the United States’s biggest issues with our privatized rail networks, and they found one solution that works: nationalization.

With overwhelming reasons to nationalize our railroads, including the fact that countries whose rail networks we look up to have already done so, the next step for the United States is clear. A nationalized rail network will transform our railroad into generating trillions of dollars in economic growth for the United States. With a well-connected passenger rail network that runs frequently, consistently on time, and without the interference of uncooperative freight rail companies, the United States will be able to take a significant first step in addressing our looming climate crisis by de-incentivizing the use of cars and trucks, the “cancer of America,” for transport. And while Thatcher may roll over in her grave at the thought of not having privatized rail, the incompetence and disregard for effective rail transport by American freight rail companies demands that our railroads must be nationalized. Our country may currently be polarized, but nationalization is an urgent bipartisan issue that will benefit the American people and the American economy for decades to come. After all, if we have a nationalized interstate highway system that is a core part of our gross domestic product, then why shouldn’t our railroads, which are even more efficient infrastructure, be nationalized too?