Railroads In America: Is The Future On Track?
Following the boom of the early 20th Century, railroads had to compete with automotive and air transport for a share of the marketplace just like many other products or services, and they have done that very successfully, utilizing changes in the marketplace, the economy and the general mindset of the nation, to their advantage.
Since the 1970's, unstable gasoline prices and technological changes have made the industry more competitive. Containers that adapt to truck, ship, or train travel, multilevel automobile-rack train cars, computerized tracking systems, and piggyback carriers that allow trains to carry fully loaded trucks aided the modernization of freight service.
Growing concerns over air pollution caused by automobile use, overcrowding of highways and airports, and the inconvenient out-of-town location of many large airports, have caused many people to return to rail travel, and to call for continued government support of large-scale railroad passenger service. Train travel has always been a romantic proposition, and now is enjoying a rebirth thanks to the traveling public that benefits from the service, and the people that work in the industry.
While high-speed rail was introduced in Japan as early as 1964 and France in 1981, the United States was somewhat slower to adopt this service. It was not until 2000 that high-speed service began in the United States with the Acela Express, running between Washington, D.C., and Boston. Presently there are discussions in California to construct a 700-mile-long rail system linking the San Francisco Bay Area with the Central Valley and Los Angeles, where by 2015 trains would "zoom along at speeds up to 220 mph." (San Jose Mercury News, May 27, 2004).
Railroad proponents also make a case for railroads contributing to decreased highway congestion, as freight trains can carry far more cargo than trucks while producing fewer emissions. Railroads are three times more fuel-efficient than trucks. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, if just ten percent of the freight moved by highway were diverted to rail, the nation could save as much as 200 million gallons of fuel each year.
As the industry changes focus to adapt to new technologies, procedures and market pressures, it has also made great strides to adapt its workforce to these new environments. Schools are teaching the new skills needed to drive the industry into the future, and more and more railroad companies have realized the need for training new recruits and retraining loyal employees to face the new challenges.
The railroad industry has recognized the need to begin training at the college level to prepare employees for the challenging careers available in railroading, and is working with a number of community colleges across the country to develop an associate's degree in railroad operations. This two-year degree is intended to give students a general knowledge of the railroad industry and its history, plus prepare the participant to apply for an entry-level position in the field.
Entry level positions exist in the transportation, mechanical, and engineering departments of most railroads, but labor unions are facing challenging times trying to maintain a safe working environment for their members, as they adapt to the new technologies and realities of the marketplace.
Labor unions will also play a role in determining the future of the industry as they work to ensure an ongoing human component to railroad operations. Their importance to the future of railroading cannot be overlooked as they work to protect railroad workers while at the same time helping preserve the vitality of the industry.