Richard has another really good piece in today’s Florida Times-Union. This time it’s about the nation’s freight rail carriers and their “rail renaissance” — which in this case means their increasing profitability.
One of the great things about this story is that it goes behind the upward trend in railroad profits, and stock prices, to try to figure out what forces are at play that produced the “rail renaissance.” It turns out that there are a lot of them: industry consolidation that has dramatically reduced the number of carriers over the past 70 years and thereby reduced rate competition, investments by the railroads that allow them to carry ever more freight, decreasing number of employees, with the decline in associated costs, and an infrastructure advantage over the nation’s highway system.
Now that I think of it, I’ve had several recent experiences driving through rural areas only to be stopped by a train that was stacked high with containers and seemed to go on forever. For the railroads, those incredibly long container trains are engines of prosperity.
It makes you wonder: if rail carriers have made a comeback, is there any chance that the passenger rail industry might similarly have its own “rail renaissance”?
I was born as the Golden Age of Train Travel in America was ending, and railroads were being eclipsed by airplanes and the interstate highway system. As I grew up, the passenger rail system was shriveling, many grand downtown stations were being torn down, and cities like Columbus were being left with no rail service at all.
Still, there has always been something evocative about trains. When I traveled through Europe after college, I enjoyed the train experience — the jostling and rocking, the whistles and bells, the clickety-clack of steel wheels on steel track, and the aging smell of the cars. I enjoyed the chance encounters with complete strangers that a communal travel system offered. It was stimulating and added to the feeling that I was really getting exposure to the cultures and people of the countries I was visiting.
I enjoy driving, but there is a lost romance to train travel that the interstate highway system just can’t match.
Here in Nashville, the backdrop to the registration desk in the spectacular lobby of the Union Station Hotel is an old train schedule. Just look at the names! The Dixie Flyer! The South Wind! The Hummingbird! The Azalean! The Florida Arrow! The Pan American! Who wouldn’t want to board one of those trains, as porters hustled by and stacks of luggage were loaded, as steam huffed from the engine and warning whistles screamed, in search of adventure?