What if Donald wins? Hillary?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, March 11, 2016

It's not too soon to be thinking about how railroads will be affected by the election of our next president. Let's start by imagining President Donald Trump. Every U.S. chief executive since the creation of Amtrak in 1971 has done no better than to give the passenger train company lip service. Most (I'm tempted to say all) Republican presidents sought to end its federal subsidy, which would have led to its demise. I can see a President Trump possibly making one big difference in the other direction. For this country to ever have high-speed (220-mph) passenger rail, somebody is going to have to think outside the box in regard to its financing. Whereas high-speed rail may pay its own operating costs and then some, the cost of construction would be humongous. No Congress, controlled by either party, will be willing to pay that cost out of the federal budget. Being the grandiose man he is, I can imagine a President Trump proposing that it be financed off the budget, by a government-guaranteed, long-term, low-interest loan. President Hillary Clinton could do the same, but I have more trouble imagining her stepping up.

But the intercity passenger train as we now know it, apart from a new high-speed rail initiative? I suspect the present service offered by Amtrak will continue to be political football engaged in by opponents from both political parties. You'd have to convince me that either Clinton or Trump would rally behind Amtrak, going beyond that lip service. There is literally no historical precedent for a president to do so. The result is that Amtrak would probably stumble through the next presidency, bloodied and bruised and more worn out than ever, but largely intact.

Freight railroading faces some interesting challenges if The Donald becomes president. Political support for free and open trade across international borders is collapsing everywhere. A chunk of Trump's support comes from people whose former jobs are now being performed in Mexico, China and Vietnam, to name just three places. What if Trump imposes, as he has said he might, a 20 percent tariff on goods imported from China? That would make a noticeable dent in intermodal traffic, primarily from West Coast ports. You could argue that in a bit that traffic will ultimately return as goods suddenly too expensive to be imported from China are made elsewhere in Asia and brought to U.S. ports. And what if he gets built that wall along the Mexican border, from San Diego to Brownsville? Can you see that increasing rail traffic between the two countries? I cannot.

Now for President Clinton. She is a less volatile person than Donald Trump, but that's not necessarily good for rail traffic, either. I doubt she would lift a finger to help the coal mining industry get back on its feet. Can you imagine otherwise? Plus, she has stalwart support from leaders of trade unions, who would love for her to slap that same 20 percent tariff on imports from China and maybe elsewhere. I have difficulty seeing that happen--Hillary Clinton is pretty steady-as-you go. But I could see her imposing more safety regulations on the railroad business, and woe unto the railroads that haven't installed positive train control by the present deadline of 2018 and come back asking for even more time.

I would like your ideas on this subject. But asking for them on this topic is like throwing a match onto a puddle of gasoline. Please keep your tone of voice polite.--Fred W. Frailey

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