A libertarian shoots the passenger train

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, November 15, 2018

Romance of the Rails, by Randal O’Toole
I have some sympathy for Randal O’Toole. The economist, author, and Cato Institute senior fellow has written a book that must have sparked some inner conflicts, even for someone with a prodigious talent for the sober analysis of statistics.

The book is called “Romance of the Rails,” published by Cato. In it, O’Toole posits a simple philosophy: almost all rail transit is inherently cost ineffective, scandalously so, therefore it should receive no government support. That goes for city transit, heavy-rail commuter, and, most of all, Amtrak. Let the services die and the free market will take up the slack, mostly in the form of more buses and cars.

It’s no surprise that O’Toole’s book has sparked outrage in passenger-rail and railfan quarters. The book has been skewered in social media, debated in various forums, and criticized in rail-oriented reviews. The book earned the distinction of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society’s Broken Rail Award, handed out “on occasions when a book is so outrageously inaccurate or poorly produced that it’s utterly without merit to the historian.” In his review, R&LHS Railroad History Editor Pete Hansen describes O’Toole’s book as “dyspeptic and one sided.”

O’Toole certainly knew the blowback was coming, especially when he writes sentences such as this: “I still love passenger trains, but I don’t think other people should subsidize my hobby.”

There’s a lot contained in those 15 words. Certainly one is O’Toole’s disdain for what he defines as subsidy. That’s in keeping with both his philosophy and that of his sponsor. The Cato Institute is the nation’s preeminent libertarian think tank, with an agenda that calls for dismantling much of what federal and state governments do and turning it over to the private sector. The Institute was co-founded by Charles Koch, who oversees the vast Koch Industries conglomerate, and who, with his brother, David, is a major benefactor for conservative causes.

But there’s that other thing O’Toole said above. He says he loves passenger trains.

During its tenure on the New York Central, the Aerotrain pauses at Albany on January 13, 1956. — Jim Shaughnessy photo
It’s more than just a hobby for him. O’Toole is an inveterate rail traveler, having ridden tens of thousands of miles throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. He’s written extensively about passenger trains, occasionally for railfan publications. He was involved in the revival of Spokane, Portland & Seattle 4-8-4 No. 700 in Portland. He maintains a lively website called Streamliner Memories.

As a passenger-rail historian, O’Toole’s skills are considerable, something he displays effectively in the first half of the book, where he traces the entire sweep of passenger trains and transit from the earliest horsecars and steam trains all the way to the creation of Amtrak in May 1971.

Whether you’re new to railroading and have a lot to learn, or a veteran who’s been reading this stuff all your life, you’ll enjoy O’Toole’s brisk, engaging narrative. He covers a lot of ground: the explosion of streetcars and interurbans in the early 20th century; advances in passenger-car technology after World War I; the excitement of the Zephyrs and other streamliners of the 1930s; the railroads’ brilliant performance in World War II; the epic miscalculation of the postwar fleet-buying binge; the inevitable death march of the privately operated passenger train in the 1960s; the current revival of urban traction.

He pays special attention to the April 1959 issue of Trains, the famous “Who Shot the Passenger Train?” edition, in which Editor David P. Morgan made the case that the varnish was “shot in the back.” O’Toole calls the issue “possibly (the) most important in the publication’s history."

Five F7s haul Great Northern train 28, the 'Western Star,' across the north fork of the Flathead River at Coram, Mont., on August 20, 1965. —H.N. Priebe photo
As a fan, O’Toole’s love of the Great Northern comes through in the text. One of his heroes was longtime GN and Burlington President Ralph Budd, and he writes affectionately about the Empire Builder, Western Star, and other GN trains. You’d almost believe him if he said he wanted to bring them back.

O’Toole is even willing to acknowledge the dichotomy of his book. “Even if you don’t enjoy the policy, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the history,” he said at a Cato-sponsored forum.

But after the history, he lost me. I’m not a transportation economist, so I’m not qualified to go hammer and tongs after O’Toole’s numbers, but they are terribly one sided. In keeping with the Cato philosophy, he’s good at showing how much money the taxpayer “loses” every time an Amtrak passenger or an NJ Transit commuter boards a train.

Meanwhile, O’Toole has comparatively little to say about the real costs of the highway system, which he sees as the natural alternative to rail, or the extent to which local governments pay for airports. His ad hominem attacks on the New Urbanism movement and its role in the resurgent “monocentric city,” as he calls it, shows that he needs to get out more from his home in Camp Sherman, Ore., population 233.  

By the end of the book, O’Toole is so swept up in his screed that he ends up making the stunning suggestion that perhaps only New York City really needs rail transit. Philadelphia? Boston? Chicago? They probably could all switch to buses and more cars and still be the better for it.

I have a suggestion for O’Toole: walk in the Adams Street entrance of Chicago Union Station at 4 p.m. on a weekday, stand at the bottom of the escalator (better brace yourself!), and try to hold on as a river of humanity washes over you for the better part of two hours, all heading for Metra trains to the suburbs.

Then, when you’re finished, go back outside, hop in your car, and try to get somewhere on the Eisenhower Expressway a few blocks away. Better allow for plenty of time, no matter where you’re going. Later, calculate the cost of forcing all those Metra riders to join you on the expressway.

As I said at the beginning here, I recommend you read “Romance of the Rails.” Much of it is a useful history lesson, told with insight and skill. O’Toole comes by his passions honestly. As for the rest of the book, consider the source. And its agenda.

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