Magazine | April 6, 2015, Issue


Consider the Freight Train

I am flabbergasted by Kevin A. Hassett’s piece “Off the Rails” (March 9), which includes the statement “Even the worst rail systems in Europe are superior to the Amtrak-dominated American railroad system.” Amtrak forms a small part of American rail operations, and is dependent on government support, while the for-profit railway companies go from strength to strength applying modern technology to the movement of freight that is the backbone of the American economy.

European railways are mostly owned by national governments and run by bureaucrats answerable to their political masters. In the European Union, comparable in size to North America, little freight goes by rail. Much of the EU’s “international” rail freight involves crossing just one or two borders, presumably mainly in the coal-and-steel basins of Belgium, Luxembourg, and adjacent parts of France and Germany. This pattern dates back to the 19th century.

Compare that with the 275-car, 15,000-ton trains that cross several American states in a single run. Europe is big enough for that — indeed, there are intergovernmental liaison groups that for years have been studying such ideas as a freight-only line running from Riga to Lisbon.

As for passenger trains, you get what your government pays for, on either side of the Atlantic. Good luck to Mr. Hassett’s suggestion to “end federal subsidies to Amtrak,” which he expects would lead to profitable passenger trains in the private sector. As 19th-century railway builder James J. Hill reportedly said, “The passenger train is like the male teat, neither useful nor ornamental.”

Lionel Albert

Knowlton, Quebec

Kevin A. Hassett responds: The data described in the piece are for passenger-rail injuries only. While Mr. Albert is correct that the freight system in the U.S. is privately run, and astonishingly efficient, this has no impact on the conclusion that even the worst of the big-government Europeans runs a safer rail system than we do. Privatization is not a pipe dream. The Japanese, for example, have done it fairly successfully.

Correction: “An Odd Couple for the Ages” (February 9), by James Rosen, asserted that, in 1969, Richard Nixon was “facing a Congress with both houses, for the first time in 120 years, under opposition control.” In fact, from 1955 to 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced a Congress with both houses under opposition control.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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