Cluster Headaches

Earlier this year we wrote about the consequences of putting all one’s eggs into one (or two) baskets. There were 45 Class I railroads in the U.S. prior to deregulation by Congress in 1980, we recalled, but now, because of mergers and acquisitions, there are just seven, and only the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe operate west of the Mississippi. We had a look at some of the results of this ill-advised consolidation in yesterday’s commentary, and in previous ones as well.

• Just days ago, Houston’s Mayor Bill White bluntly summed up the difficulties in his region by stating that railroads have become arrogant and don’t give a darn.

• Up in Oregon, Monica Isbell, a transportation consultant based in Portland, conducted a survey of 21 Oregon companies dependent upon rail service, and revealed that all but one of the companies experienced problems with railroads. These problems were described as “severe, long-standing and persistent”, and to make matters worse, the railroads were unresponsive in solving these problems. “Most of these companies feel powerless to change the situation,” she said, “and they’re afraid to complain for fear it could jeopardize further their already substandard service.”

• Victor Sandoval owns a restaurant in Pomona, California. “It’s hard to create a nice atmosphere with mile-long trains rumbling by outside,” he said. And there are deliveries that show up late because trucks got caught at crossings, he added. “Each morning we come in and sweep up the mortar that fell from the bricks in this building because it gets shaken all night long by the trains,” he complains.

• Sharon Neely, a spokesperson for the Alameda Corridor East project, claims that railroads are an obstacle and that they’ve have historically tended to wield power with arrogance. She cited the law giving a privileged position to railroads by limiting their costs to just 5% for the construction of city grade separations to ease traffic, placing the remainder of the financial burden on the shoulders of the aggrieved communities.

• Then there’s Fred Arm, a retired attorney residing in Richmond, California. Night after night, he bolts upright in bed and sits there wondering what it was that awakened him. Then the train whistle sounds again, and now he knows. “It’s every day and every night,” says Arm, who lives in a city sliced and diced daily by as many as 70 trains. “They blow the horn when they back up, they blow it when they go forward. It never ends.”

The railroads make no apologies for these disruptions. “We were here first,” is their claim.

Sharon Neely disagrees. “Yes, the railroads were here for 100 years and cities developed around them … but they weren’t carrying 90 trains a day and blocking intersections for 20 minutes.”

[Mayor White is correct. They’re ‘arrogant’, alright. And privileged. And powerful. And rich.]