Is it time for America to nationalize its railroads?

The New York Times has an op-ed that ulitmately asks the question: since raiload company executives can’t seem to run their companies as the public good that they are, perhaps it’s time to do as other countries are doing and nationalize the railroads:

Precision schedules imply that trains run on some semblance of a schedule. But monster trains and longer distances often lead to a series of small delays that can easily cascade into much longer ones. This means that when a rail crew’s shift ends, its replacement is often called at odd hours to their station, usually with less than two hours’ notice.

Ten years ago, railroading was a middle-class job in which workers might not get typical weekends but they could at least get some equivalent time off. With new attendance policies, conductors and engineers would be disciplined for activities such as visiting a doctor or attending a funeral. Effectively, for these workers, a weekend or an eight-hour workday does not exist.

These problems are rarely highlighted on companies’ accounting metrics. During union contract negotiations, rail companies asserted that their capital investment, not worker’s labor, led to their profits. Union Pacific and B.N.S.F., two of the largest rail companies in the country, posted record figures in 2021. However, simply looking at profits hides a more complicated story.

Nearly two decades ago, companies used to spend around 80 percent of their revenues on running trains and covering operating expenses like payroll, fuel and maintenance. The remaining 20 percent could then be used for stock dividends and buybacks for shareholders. Today that operating ratio is much closer to 60 percent. Since 2010, rail companies have spent $196 billion in stock dividends and buybacks for shareholders. Pursuing these financial goals has actively surrendered railroads’ market share to trucks, delayed trains and angered both unions and customers. It’s not sustainable.

Rail companies seem set on their self-destructive tendencies, often proposing one-person crews in labor negotiations that would further squeeze workers. Even with a successful negotiation, train yards and mainlines would still be full of long, slow, trudging trains on congested tracks with overworked crews. Through disinvestment, private rail management has shown for decades a disinterest in building a rail system that works for workers and shippers. If they can’t figure out how to run a functioning railroad, maybe it’s time to take it out of their hands.

If the figures bandied about by the author of this piece are true, then it’s definitely not the railroad workers who are the biggest problem. It’s the people who run the railroads.

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