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transportation infrastructure

Public Ownership of Rail Is on the Agenda. Here’s What It Could Look Like

By Alex Press and Maddock Thomas - Jacobin, January 7, 2024

Nearly one year ago, on the night of February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Videos of the smoke and fire released by the nearly two-mile-long train went viral, and residents in the community reported severe health effects.

The rail disaster triggered an outcry: Why did this happen, and what can any of us do about it? Soon, there were articles detailing the alarming state into which the country’s railroads have fallen: accidents are up, and oversight is hard to come by. Plus, there is a severe squeeze on rail workers, many of whom lack sick days of any kind and are effectively always on call.

Railroad Workers United (RWU), a caucus of rank-and-file workers spanning all thirteen national rail unions, recently released a video offering one answer to the rotten state of US rail. “Putting America Back on Track: The Case for Public Rail Ownership” opens in East Palestine, with a resident of the area showing the viewer photos he took the night of the Norfolk Southern derailment. The video goes on to make the case for public ownership of rail, which has been a focus for RWU over the past year.

As Ross Grooters, RWU cochair and a union locomotive engineer, told Jacobin, the workers came out with the demand amid their ugly contract fight in 2022, which ended with Joe Biden intervening to quash a potential rail strike.

“It became really clear between the contract negotiations and the fact that the railroad companies are making obscene amounts of money operating the railroads purely for the purpose of extracting wealth from what should be critical infrastructure, that the only way for rail to work would be outside the for-profit model that it exists in currently,” said Grooters.

So RWU passed a resolution endorsing the campaign. The case has been articulated by RWU members in several publications, from Jacobin to In These Times to FreightWaves, but with the release of RWU’s film, I wanted to hear more about the models under debate, so I called up Maddock Thomas, who is writing a policy paper on public rail ownership for RWU. We spoke about the current structure of rail ownership, alternative public models, and which country has the most functional rail system. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What Happened with the Rail Deal?

Socialize the Railways!

By Tom Wetzel - East Bay Syndicalists, November 13, 2023

The downward slide of the major (Class 1) American freight railroads in recent years shows how capitalist ownership of the railway system is dangerous and inefficient — and fails to make use of the potential of the railways as a solution to the global warming crisis.

Downward slide has been accelerated over the past decade due to the adoption of “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR). This has no precise definition but the aim is to reduce costs. As in “lean production” management theory, any expense not directly needed for profit is regarded as “waste.” PSR is a cost-cutting strategy that puts short-term profits for stockholders as the controlling priority. To maximize the rate of return, the railroads cut corners on maintenance, constantly work to reduce the number of railroad employees, and actively discourage shipments that are less profitable for them to haul. To keep Wall Street investors happy, they work to maximize short term profit. To enrich stockholders, the rail companies have poured billions of dollars into stock buybacks rather than invest in system improvements.

Rail Privatisation: 30 years of waste and rising fares

By staff - National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), November 5, 2023

As Britain ‘celebrates’ 30 years of rail privatisation, RMT reveals that the three-decade debacle has seen at least £31 billion leak out of the system, mostly into shareholders pockets, while passengers are paying 8% more in real terms to travel on a deteriorating system.

  • Renationalising the railway and creating a single, integrated publicly owned railway company would save around £1.5 billion every year which could be used to cut fares by 18%, helping to encourage more people back onto Britain’s railways.
  • At least £1.5 billion and very likely more leaks out of Britain’s railways every year in the form of profits extracted by train operating companies, rolling stock leasing companies, subcontractors and other costs that arise the fragmentation of the railways.1 Throughout privatisation, the annual outflow of funds would have enabled, on average, a cut of 14% in fares (Table 1.)
  • If the railways were nationalised now and the flow of funds into the private sector was cut off, the money saved would fund a cut of 18% in fares.
  • The cost of travelling by rail is now almost 8% higher in real terms than it was in 1995, before privatisation. This figure has dropped in the last two years only as inflation as risen above 13%. Until the cost-of-living crisis, when fare increases were decoupled from RPI inflation, fares were consistently 15-20% higher in real terms than before privatisation.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Putting America Back on Track: The Case for Public Rail Ownership

Transportation Webinar: Where is This Train Going? Freight Rail in the Public Interest

BBC Interview with Safe Landing Member Njigina

Sierra Club Rail Transportation Statement

By Clyde Anderson, et. al. - Sierra Club, August 7, 2023

(Statement from Railroad Workers United): This report is fantastic for several reason, not the least of which is its quality and completeness. We respectfully disagree on the strategy of privatization but they do call for 'Open Access' which we see as a half measure at best. Electrification is a shared interest as the only realistic path to zero emissions while creating lots of union jobs on both sides of the wire. Rail workers will be especially intested in Pages 32-33.

(From the Summary): Effective rail transportation is essential to avert the worst effects of human-caused climate change. Increasing rail and transit, and moving away from our current heavy emphasis on road and air travel, will bring many environmental, economic, and social benefits.

Rail transportation is inherently much more energy efficient than road transport, especially for freight. Reducing one of the basic factors of production – transportation – reduces the costs of virtually every sector of the economy, thereby increasing sustainability. Electrifying railroad operations will further increase these benefits. Therefore, improving passenger and freight rail transportation needs to be a national priority for the US. The purpose of this statement is to inform the public about how rail is a sustainable transportation solution and to provide a guide to action to improve the nation’s railroads.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Aviation Democracy: The case for public ownership of the aviation sector to protect jobs and protect the planet

By Tahir Latif, et. al. - Public and Commercial Services Union, July 2023

PCS has always argued that protecting the long term job security of our members in aviation means recognising the impact of flying on the environment, and vice versa.

Technical fixes – new fuels, better engines, more efficient aircraft – will help but not solve the challenge of climate change. To meet the UK’s climate targets will involve managing down.

As a trade union we want to ensure a reduction in flying does not lead to an accompanying loss of jobs but to a planned transition of workers to the jobs required in a greener aviation industry that is part of a broader integrated transport system, owned by and run for the public, and that meets its climate commitments.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Amazon Strikes as a Climate Justice issue; Trade Union briefing

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