Cutting Rail Services Now Will Hobble Us in the Future
Passenger rail ridership is growing across America, on routes urban and rural, over distances great and small. Very little of it is producing profitable rail service, but neither should it have to. Every form of transportation in America is subsidized to one extent or another. But it’s rail that is usually held to a higher standard – unlike freeways or airports, passenger trains are increasingly expected to pay their own way. And if they don’t, then they’re increasingly perceived as failures and should be cut.
The problem is if we do cut, we’re going to screw ourselves when it comes time to massively expand passenger rail service to meet economic and climate needs. And that time is already here.
One of the reasons for the ideology that rail alone should be held to a profitability standard is that for a short but crucial time in the second half of the 20th century, passenger rail was seen as obsolete. Cars and planes, it was believed, were the wave of the future. By the 1960s this ideology had come to dominate life in both the United States and in Britain.
Passenger rail was indeed struggling financially in the 1960s. But what turned out to be a short-term problem created by a unique set of circumstances – namely, oil that has never been that cheap again – left in the minds of many a lasting belief that rail really was obsolete. For people who came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, the narrative of trains as something from the past, with no place in a modern society, became gospel. It’s something they still believe today, though tellingly, younger people who have no memory of dying rail service tend to be much stronger rail supporters.
One of the most high-profile examples of the ’60s-era attitude that rail was obsolete came in Britain in 1963. Known as the “Beeching Axe” after the government minister in charge of British Railways, the cuts closed about 8,000 kilometers of rail across the country, with 50% of stations and 30% of the overall network being closed down. As private car ownership was soaring during the postwar boom, Beeching believed he could make the system profitable by cutting these supposedly underused routes, many of them providing excellent service to towns across the country.
By the end of the decade most of the cuts had been implemented, but British Railways was never profitable. Only £30 million was saved while losses ran at £100 million. During the 1980s Conservatives argued the problem was public ownership of the rail network. So it was privatized, but that hasn’t worked out either. Profit-seeking companies skimped on maintenance, leading to deadly crashes. The government has renationalized some parts of the system it had previously sold off. Today 75% of Britons want the railways renationalized as the public is convinced that privatization has been a failure.
But the legacy of the Beeching Axe remains, as The Guardian explains:
Today the makeup of UK transport looks very different from the one envisaged by Dr Beeching. Rail passenger figures have almost doubled over the past 10 years; commuter trains are crammed; young people are deserting the car for the train; and Britain’s railway bosses are struggling to meet soaring demands for seats. The legacy of Beeching – dug-up lines, sold-off track beds and demolished bridges – has only hindered plans to revitalise the network, revealing the dangers of having a single, inflexible vision when planning infrastructure.
What Beeching and the public thought was a permanent situation in 1963 turned out to have been a temporary problem. Today, demand for passenger rail service is soaring, but the cuts have made it difficult and more costly to meet the demand.
Christian Wolmar, whose books on privatization’s failures have become central to the debate, put it clearly in The Guardian article:
“There are countless examples like these,” says Christian Wolmar, author of Fire and Steam: How the Railways Transformed Britain. “Transport planners in the 60s simply could not conceive of the idea that a line, once closed, would need to be reopened. Their mindset saw trains as dirty and futureless. Reopening a closed rail line was simply not a possible option. So British Rail just sold off the land whenever it could, a policy that is costing us dearly today.”
The problem is that in a new era, with new needs such as saving money on transportation as oil prices soar and as the climate crisis worsens, the earlier cuts have made it difficult to restore service. And in Britain, as in the US, it’s young people in particular that are driving the demand:
“In the 60s, young people – when asked by pollsters – often said they would rather have a car than the vote,” says Professor David Begg, chief executive of Transport Times. “Today they are more likely to say they would rather have an iPhone than a car.”
Underlying factors for this disillusion with the car include road congestion and spiralling costs of driving, particularly for the young: car insurance has increased by 80% for young people in the past two years, for example, compared with a 20% rise for those aged 50, while numbers of those aged 17-19 who take the driving test have dropped by a fifth in the past five years. At the same time, rail companies have been aggressive in promoting cheap deals for the under-25s.
“Young people simply cannot afford to run cars and that has driven up rail passengers numbers at a rate of about 6% a year at a time when we are going through major financial depressions,” adds Begg. “It is quite extraordinary.”
Well, it’s only extraordinary if you aren’t expecting it or living it. For many of us, it’s just common sense. Sitting on a train, even a long-distance one (if you’ve got the time) is much more comfortable than sitting in a car, plus you’re able to use your smartphone. You can’t currently do that on a plane, yet even if and when that rule is changed, soaring oil prices will lead to demand for trains over planes too.
Britain’s experience with passenger rail over the last 50 years, from massive cuts to soaring demand that can’t be met because of those cuts, is a stark reminder to those who argue for cutting American passenger rail service in order to save money – you probably won’t save as much as you think in the short-term, and you’ll spend a lot more than you expect in the long term when demand forces you to restore what you cut.