Is it time to talk about re-nationalizing the railroads?

Newspapers this morning report that “Railroads warn of nationwide meltdown if extension not granted for safety requirements“.

This is a threat over PTC, positive train control, which the railroads were instructed to implement 8 years ago, but did not, and now the deadline is coming up.

If railroads cannot run their operations in compliance with federal law, they need to cease operations. However having a nation without railroads would be significantly disruptive to the economy (I am sure economists could estimate a GDP effect). The railroads are hoping this threat will persuade Congress to cave and extend the deadline.

The alternative, which is not much bandied about these days, is nationalization. Railroad nationalization has a vaguely European feel to it, and smells of socialism, but in fact, it is quite patriotic and all-American.

In The Transportation Experience, we write

By 1917, US railroads, the country’s largest industry, operated over 400,000 km (240,000 miles) of track and employed 1.8 million people. While the war was raging in Europe, war traffic was congesting America’s railroads, especially at East Coast ports; even before the American Expeditionary Force went “over there.” The American Railway Association tried to coordinate its member railroads to avoid car shortages. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) was granted greater powers to ensure efficiency and that priority cargo received priority treatment. Yet the progress made by these organizations was insufficient.

On December 28 the Federal Government’s Director General of Railroads, William McAdoo, took control of the largest private railroads and placed them under the control of the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) — a creature of Congress. To this day railroads question the need for nationalization and its results; it is a sore point with them that the public might have thought that they were not doing their job. Note: A later USRA (The United States Railroad Association) acquired bankrupt railroads in the 1970s, and was eventually sold to Conrail.

Nationalization had more form than substance to it. Railroad employees were given military titles, and a few inter-railroad arrangements were forced on the properties. Some standardized locomotive designs were developed and engines were constructed. Labor arrangements were imposed that the railroads might not have agreed to under other circumstances. Railroads were granted compensation equal to their prewar profits. The shipping costs per ton-km rose however, in part due to a rise in wages.

While the railroad regulatory regime clearly collapsed with the onset of World War I, the regulation initiatives of the late 1800s and the early 1900s worked for their times. They managed the gross inequities that worried the public. Government served as a referee for among railroad ratemaking disputes, and government had begun to assert its power over who gets the location–transportation rents (via maximum rate prescriptions). The list of problems that regulation did not manage remained long, of course.

One of these was the vast difference in the economic fortunes of the different properties. This was not just a matter of concern to the managers, stockholders, and bondholders of the railroads that were not doing well. Shippers had interest in strong railroads, as did regional groups. They were worried about good, stable service.

Wikipedia writes:

After the United States entered World War I in 1917, the country’s railways proved inadequate to the task of supplying the nation’s war effort. On December 26, 1917, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson nationalized most American railways under the Federal Possession and Control Act, creating the United States Railroad Administration (USRA), which took control of the railways on December 28, 1917. The USRA introduced several reforms to increase efficiency and reduce costs, including standardizing rolling stock and steam locomotive designs. The war ended in 1918, and on March 1, 1920, the railways were handed back to their original owners.

Of course Amtrak and Conrail are other examples. Most local commuter railroads were taken over by states or cities.

Today the US could only justify it because of the potential collapse of the rail network being threatened by the large carriers if they don’t get their way. Nationalization of the railroads would follow nationalization of banks and the auto industry during the Great Recession, and would presumably be temporary while the appropriate safety systems were installed.

Seizing the railroads does provide an opportunity though. The Government could take rights-of-way for a potential high-speed passenger network before reselling the railroads back to the private sector. This would be far cheaper than negotiating one-on-one with the railroads. It would reduce the value of the freight network somewhat, but the public would be better off than if it tried to build the HSR network line by line.

2010 and 2015 Current market capitalizations for major US railroads are (from yahoo finance):

Railroad 2010 2015
CP $9.7B $24.9B
UNP $38B $82.2B
NSC $22B $24.23B
CSX $21B $28B
KSU $3.8B $10.6B

BNSF is held by Warren Buffet.

The total is still a surprisingly cheap $170B (excluding BNSF), though far more than in 2010. (As a point of reference, please compare this to the nominal value of Uber, and decide who is overvalued.)

Nationalization should be an option on the table. Certainly, railroads are competitive with trucks and each other in certain markets, but in other markets they possess characteristics of spatial monopoly. And collectively their presence is more important than any individual railroad. If the economic sector is essential for the rest of the economy, which freight railroads are (imagine this winter without coal for heating, imagine trying to ship that coal by truck), at least in the short run, they must keep operating.

In the long run, the economy should continue to seek alternatives to the Octopus.

The Empire Strikes Back, or ‘One Way to Deal with a Desire Line’ Redux. |

In September of 2014, I wrote One Way to Deal With a Desire Line, describing the University of Minnesota’s attempt to deal with a desire line by planting a tree in the middle and placing concrete curbs to reroute traffic, costing pedestrians several seconds a day each. That tree died, as documented in A Tree Dies in Minneapolis, or ‘One Way to Deal with a Desire Line’ Revisited.

McNamara Tree with rope barrier
McNamara Tree with rope barrier

Like the King of Swamp Castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail whose castle sank into the swamp, the University has planted another tree. But this time, it is reinforced, with an almost invisible rope line.

That will teach pesky pedestrians trying to get an education and reach classes on-time to take the straight line path that used to be there but was changed because someone once saw a bicycle on the Scholars Walk.

[I know “Empire” was the 2nd movie in the original trilogy, and this is the third post in a series. But unless I want to make the University the hero in this saga, I can’t make an Episode VI reference yet.]

Public Transit Does Not Have to Reduce Traffic Congestion to Succeed

Eric Jaffe at Citylab writes: Public Transit Does Not Have to Reduce Traffic Congestion to Succeed. An excerpt below …

Expect plenty of other benefits

Good transit offers a world of benefits beyond any impact on rush-hour roads, beginning with agglomeration—the economic boost that occurs when people and jobs cluster in cities. Once a city reaches a certain level of congestion and hits a wall in terms of road space, rail or bus systems are the only way to pump more people into the central areas that produce these gains. Here’s Jarrett Walker on how transit “raises the level of economic activity and prosperity at a fixed level of congestion”:

Congestion appears to reach equilibrium at a level that is maddeningly high but that can’t be called “total gridlock.” At that level, people just stop trying to travel. If your city is car-dependent, that limit becomes the cap on the economic activity — and thus the prosperity — of your city. To the extent that your city is dependent on transit, supported by walking and cycling, economic activity and prosperity can continue to grow while congestion remains constant.

Other benefits to transit include better overall access to the city (especially jobs), greater mobility for people who don’t drive (for reasons of choice, health, or income), and of course improved sustainability. There’s a basic equity issue here, too, captured by transport scholar David Levinson in a great essay earlier this year at explaining why “it warps thinking that the aim of public transit funding is to benefit those non-transit users”:

Transit today is, in almost all US markets, slower than driving. People who depend on transit can reach fewer jobs than those who have automobiles available. Some people use transit by choice, for instance to save money (if they need to pay for parking), and the rest without choice. In my opinion, it is more important to spend scarce public dollars to improve options for those without choices than to improve the choices for those who already have alternatives.

There is a way to relieve traffic congestion: charge drivers to enter high-traffic areas at high-traffic times. Congestion pricing has worked everywhere around the world it’s been implemented. But since not everyone is able or willing to pay a road fee, congestion pricing requires something besides the right price to succeed—namely, good public transit alternatives.

Kudos to the University of Minnesota and City of Minneapolis |

We at have been fairly critical of the excess of traffic control devices on the Washington Avenue traffic mall [1][2][3]. We have questioned the purpose of all the lights, including mid-block walk signals, when there is no motorized cross-traffic. The response from users of the traffic mall has been a great many violations of the law, students (and dare I say faculty and administrators) crossing against the light after using their own eyes to check to see if it is safe. This, of course, breeds genuine contempt for traffic control devices and contempt for government competence in general.

Don't Walk
Don’t Walk: Washington Avenue at Union Street, just west of the East Bank station. A pedestrian signal telling me not to walk in the landscaped median area from east to west.

We ask: why would the University and City do this? Don’t they know how ridiculous all these signals are?

But then I thought about the purpose of the University. We aim to teach our students to think for themselves. We ask them to question authority. Officially our Mission Statement says about Education:

We prepare students to meet the great challenges facing our state, our nation, and our world.

As a U of M student you’ll engage with your professors and fellow students from the very beginning. And you’ll develop your strengths with beyond-the-classroom experiences.

In a Hogwartsian, beyond-the-classroom, fashion, we have put students in a situation where they do have to rely on their own eyes, not officious light bulbs, to decide when to cross the street, if they don’t want to waste minutes per day (and hours per year). In a devious plot, the University and City of Minneapolis have succeeded. Students now do think for themselves since relying on authorities to think for them is so wasteful.


Cross-posted at

Historic US GIS transportation SHP files

Jeremy Atack writes to



I have posted my historical GIS transportation SHP files for the Lower 48 states from this nation’s founding through (approximately) 1911 on my www site  Each transportation mode–canals, steamboat-navigated (as opposed to navigable) rivers, and railroads–has its own archive ZIP file which contains the complete series of files (projection, database and polyline files, etc.) required by ESRI’s ArcGIS and ArcGIS Pro.  These are collectively referred to as “a SHP file” though there are actually multiple files for each mode of transportation.  Once unpacked, these files for each SHP must be kept together and should only be edited using a GIS program.  If corrupted, the entire SHP file will become unusable.

The metadata file (.XML) briefly describes the contents of each SHP, the manner in which it was created, and summarizes any edits since these files were originally posted.  Issues relating to the creation of these SHP files are discussed in much greater detail in the documentation file also appearing at


This looks like a fantastic resource for anyone doing historic analysis of intercity network evolution. Now if only someone would digitize and standardize historic urban transit networks with modern GTFS coding …

Our use of impact factors is backwards

Academics incorrectly use impact factor (IF) to judge the quality and impact of an article.

The only factor to judge the quality of an article is the article itself, and that is subjective.

The only way to measure its impact is its citations (in peer-reviewed journals or elsewhere, like popular media).

If an article published in a low impact factor (IF)  journal has 100 citations, and one in a high IF journal has 100 citations, the first should be more appreciated, since it does not benefit from the spillovers of the journal reputation. It is overcoming a disadvantage.

Thus a high citation article in a low IF factor journal is likely better than one in a high IF journal (if citations are an indicator of quality, and citations are increased with spillover effects — which people must believe otherwise why try to publish in high IF journals). Impact Factor should only be used to discount article citations, not as a positive metric in tenure and promotion.

I have heard all the reasons. IF is an indicator if the author publishing in the “right places”. It’s harder to get published in a high IF journal (likely true, but not as true as you think). There aren’t enough citations by the time a tenure decision has to be made, so this is a surrogate.


Read the actual papers. If you won’t read the papers (and/or don’t know enough to ascertain originality), trust their colleagues. At any rate, if it’s not in your area, why is the system structured to give you a vote on their academic merit? Judge their teaching, or their collegiality, but not their output.

Where have all the masons gone?

The quality of masonry in the built environment has dropped significant in the past century.

I would like to blame this on the rise of the Anti-Masonic Party and William Wirt, unfortunately for my desire for a tidy history, that was in 1832, and preceded the decline of masonry by about a century. Furthermore, freemasonry and stonemasonry in practice are not terribly related by this time (though freemasons were once stonemasons back in the 14th century). Freemasons like George Washington did little actual brickwork.

So instead, let’s turn to the rising price of labor, as men who once would have become stonemasons, as their fathers were, were instead attracted to other businesses, and the real estate sector found that high quality detailing was no longer worth the premium it cost. Today, masonry is often a non-structural skin which is pre-manufactured, what my wife calls “brickaneer“. Yet even pre-manufactured brick veneer seems to lack style, and is just a boring layer. Better perhaps than some alternative skins, but nothing like it once was.

The more interesting question is perhaps why the market doesn’t reward aesthetics on the exterior of buildings now, when it once did.

Consider the four apartment buildings shown below, they are all in the same Powderhorn Park neighborhood, of similar size, but were built  in different decades. The level of detail on two of them is far greater than the other two. At some point interest or willingness to pay for Masonry detail failed. This is unfortunate.

New buildings don’t do much better. Compare some 21st century structures with Thresher Square. Whatever you think of aesthetics, detail is clearly lost.  Perhaps there were many older simple buildings that were just lost to history because of their unimpressiveness, and only the best bits were saved. I think it is more significant though than just survivor bias. No new construction seems to have the same level of exterior architectural detail we once saw.

For all the attention to detail paid to computer design, where has the real architecture gone? I am not a huge fan of Victorian frills. Bauhaus aesthetics were a response, simplifying the ornate form without function, but seemed far more skilled than what we get now. Why did detail (not frills, but details) never recover. Notably, the cornice disappeared with masonry.  Whatever we call late 20th century and early 21st century architectural styles,  future decades will not appreciate the way we appreciate the surviving buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park


The Edge on Oak Street
The Edge on Oak Street
Mill Quarter Municipal Parking Ramp
Mill Quarter Municipal Parking Ramp
Thresher Square and Old Spaghetti Factory
Thresher Square and Old Spaghetti Factory

Temporal Sampling Intervals and Service Frequency Harmonics in Transit Accessibility Evaluation

Recent working paper by my Accessibility Observatory colleagues:

Box plots for sampling strategy performance over all blocks at each sampling frquency. Boxes show inter-quartile range (25th – 50th percentile) with horizontal medial line; whiskers extend 1.5×IQR above and below. Outliers are plotted individually. Mean is indicated by a dot.
Box plots for sampling strategy performance over all blocks at each sampling frquency. Boxes show inter-quartile range (25th – 50th percentile) with horizontal medial line; whiskers extend 1.5×IQR above and below. Outliers are plotted individually. Mean is indicated by a dot.


In the context of public transit networks, repeated calculation of accessibility at multiple departure times provides a more robust representation of local accessibility. However, these calculations can require significant amounts of time and/or computing power. One way to reduce these requirements is to calculate accessibility only for a sample of time points over a time window of interest, rather than every one. To date, many accessibility evaluation project have employed temporal sampling strategies, but the effects of different strategies have not been investigated and their performance has not been compared. Using detailed block-level accessibility calculated at 1-minute intervals as a reference dataset, four different temporal sampling strategies are evaluated. Systematic sampling at a regular interval performs well on average but is susceptible to spatially-clustered harmonic error effects which may bias aggregate accessibility results. A constrained random walk sampling strategy provides slightly worse average sample error, but eliminates the risk of harmonic error effects.

How I spent 200 minutes last night, or Tim Cook and Jonny Ive should buy their iPhones in the Apple Store

Apple is famous for its user experience. I was at the Apple Store (Rosedale, Minnesota) for 3 and 1/3 hours yesterday upgrading my phone. (5s to 6s, the 5s worked fine, but the battery is clearly nearing the end of its useful life, and getting to 0% before I go to bed and recharge, plus my contract was up, and I wanted to change carriers).  Somehow, 3.5 hours seems too long. This was not Apple Staff’s fault. It’s the system. The system for getting an upgrade should be re-engineered. This will not happen until senior Apple staff actually experience what it is like to go through the bureaucracy required to get a new phone. (Of course Tim Cook and Jonny Ive would likely be recognized, so they will need costumes and have to go incognito).

I got an appointment for 6:00 – 6:30, signing up online last week. I would have done it through the mail like last time, but, (1) There is some complexity with switching carriers (Sorry AT&T, it’s not you, it’s international coverage and the Great Firewall of China. Here’s hoping T-Mobile works better.), and (2) I wanted to trade-in the old phone which seemed more complex via mail. So I signed up to get it in person. This was a mistake.

Like a visit to the Genius Bar, I sort of thought they would actually serve me at the appointed time, so I got there at 5:50. (10 minutes early) Ok, there was a queue. It was the first day of the 6s sales, which I hadn’t quite realized (I knew it was coming out, I didn’t realize it was the first day or I would have avoided and done this over the weekend, though evening should be better than when the doors open in the morning, no?). I made it into the store at 6:40. (40 minutes). Apple should have a better estimate of how long the set-up process takes so it schedules the right number of customers for the right number of staff.

By 7:40 I was signed up with T-Mobile. This should not have taken an hour. (This alone must have cost Apple $25 per customer to sign up just in labor costs (I’m guessing), leaving aside my time.) (60 minutes)

  1. Why cannot the signup software scan the old phone (a photo from the setting screen e.g.) rather than the Apple staff typing everything from one phone into an iPad? (Or isn’t this in an Apple Database already?)
  2. Why must my information be entered more than once? How many times does the system need my name and phone number and iCloud account information, etc.
  3. Why does the T-Mobile signup app ask for my PIN as if I have an account with them. I don’t. If it wants me to create a new PIN, it should say something like ‘create a new PIN’, not ‘enter your PIN.’
  4. Staff said the T-Mobile app was better than the others. This is absurd. Apple should have a straight-forward App that populates the carrier databases later, rather than waiting for their laggy experience.
  5. If I am buying my phone from Apple and service from carriers, somewhere on the Apple website should be a comparison of the different carrier services and prices. I can’t find it. I don’t really know what its going to cost without going to their sites, which are hardly paragons of clarity.

Ok, so now I have a new phone in a box, and am ready to turn in my old phone for a trade-in. First I want to restore my most recent iCloud backup to the new iPhone. This was slow, and failed the first time. Apple staff reinstalled the OS and 9.0.1 update and we did it again. It worked the second time, but this took a while. In the mean time I surfed the web on my old phone with 6% battery. At least they give you free charging at the Apple Store, and free WiFi. Note, the progress bar telling you how many minutes this update will take steadily lies. Surely someone can come up with a more accurate predictive algorithm.  This took from 7:40 until 9:10 (90 minutes).

I understand downloads and installs take time, I did it at home overnight last time. But if you want us to do it in the store (and I don’t want to lose my old phone until my new one is set up), this should be faster. I don’t know if the bottleneck was the local WiFi (which was certainly being slammed), or iCloud servers (which are also likely being slammed) [I suspect the latter], but this is not unanticipatable. And my being in the store is using up some Apple staff time that could be better used.

In short, this would be a much simpler process if Tim Cook and Jonny Ive and Eddie Cue and Phil Schiller and Angela Ahrendts and the other relevant executives at Apple eat their own dogfood and buy an iPhone like the rest of us, rather than being issued phones in-house. They would redesign the process, and save tens or hundreds of millions of human hours now wasted globally at the in store iPhone sign-up/set-up process. If Apple sells one-hundred million phones through stores, and each takes an hour, and this can be cut to 1/2 hour, they will save 50 million human hours for the customer and 50 million staff hours. A human life is less than 1 million hours.

The main thing is just they should take old phone, scan it, take in all your information (enter once your icloud account & password) in one fell swoop, and your new choice of carrier and plan, and set you on your way, and then however long it takes to install properly, and then issue you a set up new phone. You can get a text from them once they are done and return to the store. The old phone scanning can even be pre-done online, as can your personal information intake, they just need to validate in person you are who you say you are, and your phone is what you say it is. I am idealizing a bit perhaps (maybe you must enter your iCloud id and password multiple times, though I am not really sure why), but something closer to this would be standard practice were senior executives to experience this.

So far the new phone is fine, mostly like the old one. The wallet for Apple Pay (with an interesting if trivial bug) does not use my primary credit card, so still is more proof of concept than something that allows me to leave my real wallet at home. There is functioning health app that I did not have before on the 5s, so I can track more than Pedometer++. There is  a slightly bigger screen, but not enough to move me off the iPad when reading at night. And hopefully a longer battery life, which just comes with it being new. A few apps allow force, er, 3D touch.  I will not be profoundly affected by this the way the iPhone 1 or 3g made a difference.

The Apple OSes have their annoyances, mostly related to security and two-factor authorization. How often do I need to do this. I know I opted in to it, but this is a huge waste of time, and I am likely to opt out. Also separate passwords for each app is especially annoying. When I first start up the OS, it asks me for my iCloud password, which is long and complicated (for good security) and I dutifully enter. Then it asks again (apparently for the other apps like Messages and FaceTime), but this is a different password, and it doesn’t say that, so I enter the wrong password several times before it reminds me to get a 1-app use password from, which requires two-factors (a text to your phone with a code) to log in to, and cannot remember its the same browser from day-to-day though you tell it to. And since I do OS maintenance and installs for the family, I revisit this whole process multiple times. And this isn’t even including the PIN to enter the device, or the passwords for other apps that want them when you set up a new OS release. Somehow I don’t think Apple executives experience this either. If I were John Siracusa, I would document this exhaustively with screenshots. But this is a blog about transportation.