Bring Railroads Under Public Ownership!

An argument in support of the "Public Ownership of Railroads" platform amendment for the upcoming national convention.

The railroad industry is in crisis. After the Biden administration invoked the Railway Labor Act in 2022 to break a strike, railroad bosses pushed workers to the brink. This was in addition to years of work speedups and cutting corners for the sake of dividends and stock buybacks, a process the railroads, their trade publications, and lobbyists call “precision scheduled railroading.” Regulators are too poorly funded and captured by industry to hold them accountable. It was only a matter of time before a catastrophic derailment would take place, and the disaster in East Palestine was the result. Left unaddressed, more such disasters, like the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013, which killed 47 people and destroyed or contaminated the entire town center, will follow.

Our current freight rail system is also failing to rise to the challenge of our pending climate catastrophe. Railroads are the most efficient (and should be the safest) way to haul large amounts of goods long distances. They should be on the leading edge of any climate mitigation proposal. That will not happen in the current economic arrangement.

The current capitalist owners of our rail system will sacrifice everything, including the long-term viability of their own freight railroads, the safety of our communities, and workers’ lives, in order to extract private wealth. The result is a failure of vision to implement a safe and vibrant rail system which is a backbone of sustainable transportation.

We introduced our platform amendment in support of Public Ownership of Railroads with the intent of treating railroad infrastructure just as we would other necessary critical infrastructure like communications, electricity, sewers, and water. Their safe and sustainable operation is the responsibility of the public, and therefore their ownership should also be public. Instead of private control ensuring a rail system at the leading edge of declining working conditions and environmental disasters, democratized control would ensure a rail system at the leading edge of economic and environmental justice.

Around the world and across North America, most critical infrastructure such as airports, bridges, canals, harbors, ports, and roads, are all held publicly. Railroad infrastructure worldwide is typically held in some version of public or national ownership arrangement. But in the US, most freight rail infrastructure remains private, because it is profitable. This is only possible because, in the 1970s and 1980s, regulators allowed railroads to abandon lines that served the public but did not turn a profit. This included both freight branch lines serving small towns, as well as passenger service that Congress and the states cut or offloaded onto Amtrak and state-owned commuter railroads. Even today, this profit comes at the expense of working conditions and the public interest. Freight railroads are allowed to disregard existing regulations, and even fail to live up to their intended purpose. In an effort to maximize “operating ratio” (an idea similar to retail markup), they will reject business that is not profitable “enough.”

Meanwhile, longer and heavier trains continue to pose risks and block crossings in our communities. Children are forced to crawl under train wheels on their way to school. The biggest freight railroads, designated “Class I,” are also responsible for creating roadblocks to expanded passenger service and routinely block current passenger service from operating efficiently and on-time, as anyone who has taken a long-distance Amtrak train can attest.

By externalizing the risks to ourselves and our communities, railroads have been able to put trillions into the pockets of billionaires, while people in towns like East Palestine suffer. The rail industry continues to move less freight, derail more frequently, and still make more money capital.

Our proposed platform amendment would add three planks to the platform, two to the Economic Justice section, and one to the Green New Deal section:

  • Nationalize and bring under public ownership (through federal majority ownership with worker, tribal, state, and municipal equity) railroad infrastructure and operations.
  • Bring under public ownership and develop in-house alternatives to major vendors that provide essential equipment and contracting services to public agencies, such as manufacturing transformers; railroad and public transit fleets; lithium-ion batteries; and providing infrastructure planning, engineering, and construction services.
  • Nationalize and bring into public ownership privately owned freight railroads to improve their safety and working conditions, modernize their infrastructure and operations, merge or better coordinate with intercity and regional passenger railroads, increase their modal share relative to trucks, and phase out their hauling of fossil fuel rail traffic as quickly as necessary.

The first plank expresses the demand for public ownership in the broadest terms. We propose federal majority ownership in recognition that railroads are by nature highly centralized, and thus in the public interest at the highest level. At the same time, we recognize the essential contribution of railroad workers, and the fact that railroad infrastructure provides a vital lifeline or imposes an environmental impact (and often both) to the various Indigenous nations, states, and municipalities through which the trains pass. Additionally, the railroad system of the US connects to Mexico and Canada, which may introduce an international dimension to public ownership. Therefore, the nationalization process must balance the centralized nature of railroads with the various needs of the people and places they affect, and DSA’s platform as we propose to amend it would anticipate this.

The second plank recognizes that complex infrastructural systems like railroads rely on an ecosystem of vendors such as consultants, contractors, and equipment manufacturers. These functions were once vertically integrated within the railroads themselves: the Pennsylvania Railroad famously built most of its steam locomotives in-house at the Altoona Shops. This model could be revived with railroads under public ownership, at least for a greater share of planning, engineering, and project management functions now undertaken by consultants. Other services could be provided by independent firms or privately owned union shops in the short term. UE’s Green Locomotive Project is an early example of workers fighting to shift production towards green initiatives, and this plank envisions such a process on a larger scale. The benefits of a green, unionized, and ultimately socially owned vendor ecosystem would also aid regional transit agencies, public utilities, and municipal departments currently reliant on a few large vendors.

The third plank establishes a mission and vision for the railroads under public ownership. The immediate change would provide better working conditions and better infrastructure stewardship, but public freight railroads must also modernize and expand as part of the Green New Deal. Operating revenues currently going towards dividends and stock buybacks would be reinvested in modernized infrastructure and expanded service. Management arrangements would be restructured to better coordinate – or even merge with – Amtrak and regional passenger railroads that share the same corridors. There are a variety of approaches to pursue, from a single big railroad to public ownership of infrastructure with independent operation of trains. Regardless of the structure, public railroads would be part of a nationwide strategy to shift passenger traffic from cars and planes and freight traffic from trucks to ensure a safer and more sustainable transportation system across the country.

We proposed our platform amendment for the 2023 National DSA convention because we believe our clearest, most sensible, and strongest path to correcting the issues in our for-profit rail system while ensuring railroads are used for the benefit of all, is bringing them under democratic control. We hope you agree, and ask that you vote yes to make it part of DSA’s platform.