In a "perfectly capitalistic" society, governmental interference with the conduct of free enterprise (that is, enterprise that seeks no governmental aid in any form) would be prohibited, and taxation would be essentailly a "user charge" for those services which the electorate deemed essential.
Obviously, that is never going to happen, and by their very nature, all forms of transportation have to involve government participation. But with the specialized exception of pipelines, no form of transportation other than rail provides and maintains its own right of way.
And the railroads' economic troubles really intensified when competition developed in the form of truckers and barge canals for freight and airlines for passengers, all of whom use a right-of-way provided by government at some level. Granted, they usually pay something toward the upkeep, but it's debatable whether all the costs are covered, and when the competitors don't operate, or diminish their activity, they don't pay as much. The railroads' costs, on the other hand, are largely fixed, in good times and bad.
And most inerestingly of all, while the other carriers have wrestled with several issues in a destabilized market for the past 25 years, the freight railroads have rebuilt their plant, refomerd their operating conditions, and returned to prosperity, with no help other than the one-time infusion of aid via Conrail --- a public-sector measure which actually succeeded.
But now the rail industry is down to a handful of major players, the attitudes of which run from outright government ownership (Canadian National) to Union Pacific's "bunker mentality". That generalization doesn't include areas like Amtrak and commuter operations which finally arose from the conclusion that even Uncle Sam can't get blood from a stone.
So where does it all go from here? The current Administration rode to the White House on a wave of resentment and mistrust toward private enterprise unseen since the "New Deal referendum" election of 1936, and it has clearly indicated that it sees the addictive "rationale" of forcing further sectors of the economy under stricter Federal oversight as suited to its agenda. Exactly how much of the electorate buys into this line of thinking is likley to be determined over the next six months.
The idea of keeping the rolling stock, but turning responsibility for maintenance and, possibly, traffic contol over to the public sector is nothing new. And it might be argued that the complete re-orientation of the communications sector of which the A T & T break-up in 1985 was the linchpin, has paid large dividentds. But certain technological and market trends also appear to be working in favor of a further concentration of an industry which, due to the fixed nature of its assets, can't afford to be portrayed as an evil by a media which often shows a painful ignorance of actual industry operating conditions.
Hopefully, it's time for all the players in the nation's energy/transportation/infrastructural issue to engage in some deep and serious discourse.
What a revoltin' development this is! (William Bendix)