Whether we want to live in the past or imagine a better future, railroads offer the better bet than coal.

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Much merriment has been had on Twitter about Donald Trump’s executive order rolling back Obama climate protections, allegedly to restore coal jobs (and “climate change is a hoax!”). Tweeps suggested bringing back elevator operators, telegraph messenger boys, milkmen and switchboard operators.

The point is that however much climate rules are relaxed — and the planet imperiled — the coal-mining jobs of old are unlikely to return in large numbers. Mines are highly automated and situated on blown-off hilltops, rather than being the gritty tunnels of memory.

One would more profitably seek to roll back the clock to peak railroad employment of more than 2 million. That was in the 1920s and rail jobs totaled more than twice that of peak coal mining. Even in 1948, railroads employed 1.5 million Americans. In 2014, the number had fallen to 113,300.

At one time, trains required a crew of five. But the employment opportunities didn’t stop at freight-train crews. In the glory days, the remnants lasting into the 1960s, passenger trains linked cities and towns across the nation. Division and maintenance points and yards were large employers, too. And freight, mail and express service were handled over hundreds of thousands of miles of track.

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Much of this is a memory. Mergers and consolidation have cut railroad mileage in half. Since 1971, Amtrak has run a nationwide passenger network that is a fraction of where it stood even on the eve of Amtrak’s birth. Now freight railroads can operate mile-long trains with as few as one crew member and some would love to bolster profits further with robot/drone trains, no humans at all.

Technology had a big role in the changes, including diesel locomotives replacing maintenance-intensive steam engines; terminal automation that eliminated jobs, and sensors doing the work once performed by humans. So did new competition from automobiles, trucks and airplanes. But regulation and government actions were major influences, too. Railroads were heavily regulated and taxed at the federal and state levels while government built highways, airports and an air-traffic control network. Government mail contracts were important to subsidizing passenger service. When they were arbitrarily ended in the late 1960s, this contributed to the need for Amtrak. Not until the Staggers Act of 1980 were railroads freed from regulation that made sense at the turn of the 20th century but was destructive as the decades rolled on.

So, like coal, there’s no going back.

Except more enlightened government policy could invest in high-speed rail and rail transit; maintain, improve and extend Amtrak’s network; more aggressively fund safety and traffic improvement projects. These would provide construction and operating jobs, even with the trend toward automation (a whole other problem). Rail is by far the most climate-friendly major transportation option. (And all modes of common carrier and automobile transportation are subsidized).

Instead, we’re making a retrograde move, as in so many other areas. For example, Trump’s budget calls for killing Amtrak’s long-distance passenger trains, a long-time dream of many Republicans (where’s the conserve in conservative?). There goes the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight that serve Seattle, if Congress goes along.

Trains and coal have always been connected. Instead of coal-fired locomotives, recent decades have seen profitable so-called unit trains (all coal cars) carrying coal to power plants. The decline of coal has been especially painful for the Eastern mega-railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX. Whether Trump’s executive order helps is an open question. Coal’s biggest nemesis is cheaper natural gas and renewables.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

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