Why We Need Public Ownership of the Railroads

by Nicholas Wurst & Claire Bayler
Worcester, MA
SMART-TD Local 1473 (personal capacity) & Railroad Workers United (personal capacity)

In October of 2022, amid the highly contentious battle over the Class 1 freight railroad workers’ contract, Railroad Workers United (RWU) adopted a resolution calling for public ownership of the railroads. RWU is an activist organization of rank-and-file railroad workers, their families, and supporters across North America. RWU aims to unite rail workers from all crafts and the various railroad unions behind a program to transform the industry. 

Stepping into the vacuum left by the union leaders’ timid approach won RWU a high profile in the 2022 contract battle and subsequent events. In 2023, the East Palestine, OH derailment demonstrated the scale of the crisis of railroad safety. It made the public ownership campaign even more urgent in the eyes of workers around the country who are getting a crash course education in for-profit railroading and its consequences.

The Independent Socialist Group (ISG) fully supports the RWU campaign for public ownership of the railroads in the United States and North America and similar campaigns throughout the world. Our program calls for public ownership and democratic control of the economy, enabling the working class to make decisions about what is produced, how it’s produced, and how it’s distributed in order to end poverty, create a sustainable society, and further develop science, culture, and education.

As RWU points out, the ownership of railroads by private corporations has resulted in a deep crisis in an industry that moves essential goods and materials. The first years of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how reliant the world has become on fragile global supply lines, but the stage was set as the industry implemented “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR) over the last 30 years. 

PSR is a corporate scheme along the lines of “running lean” or “doing more with less.” For the railroads, it means chronic understaffing, longer hours, less time off, more derailments, reduced training, longer and heavier trains, closed facilities, and decreased maintenance.

PSR turned freight railroading into a highly profitable investment for the rich at the cost of workers. Since most of the track is owned, maintained, and controlled by the major freight railroads, PSR also degrades the quality of passenger rail service.

As the crisis worsens, industries that rely on railroads have been raising the alarm. Government hearings in DC last spring made clear that the meltdown of the freight rail system could trigger a broader economic collapse and even recession. Pay, conditions, and understaffing were identified as the main issues preventing the efficient and timely movement of goods. Yet when railroad workers attempted to strike for better conditions, the federal government intervened. Biden, the Democrats, and Congress enforced a contract with the same status-quo policies.

This is capitalist logic at its core. The railroads are too crucial to the profits of related industries and Wall Street, so big business and their parties say workers should not be allowed to take job actions, even though railroaders are fighting for better service. Corporations refuse to make the investment needed to improve service because that would eat into their short-term profits. Instead, workers are expected to do more work with fewer resources, which only maintains the status quo of constant crisis in the industry.

Federal regulators put on a show about holding railroad companies accountable but refuse to use their regulatory power to address the problems seriously. Meanwhile, they facilitate the ever-growing monopolization of the industry, like approving the ongoing merger of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern in March 2023. The corporate Democratic and Republican parties grease the wheels for the capitalist class, increasing the power of corporations that are the cause of the crisis in the industry.

It’s crucial that the railroad unions organize a serious campaign for public ownership of the railroads with support from the whole labor movement. Decision-making for this key industry should not happen based on maximizing profit but on the basis of moving goods, materials, and people wherever they need to go as safely, efficiently, and sustainably as possible. 

A democratically planned, publicly-owned rail system could expand, upgrade, and properly maintain infrastructure and equipment. Under workers control, the railroad system and unions could organize mass hiring and high-quality training of new workers, including re-hiring the thousands of experienced rail workers pushed out of the industry by job cuts, stagnant pay, and severely declining working conditions in recent years.

Public ownership of the railroads must not be a crude nationalization with undemocratic control by a corporate government or some sort of public-private partnership where politicians funnel taxpayer money to private companies via contracts to run public services. For example, Cincinnati Southern, a freight railroad owned by the city of Cincinnati, is operated for profit by Norfolk Southern (NS). NS is now trying to buy it outright. Public-private partnerships lead to declining quality of service which is then used to justify privatization, as is happening with the National Health Service and National Rail in Britain. 

Public ownership should mean democratic control by elected committees on all levels, where the members are subject to recall, compensated at the average wage of the workers they represent, and elected from railroad workers, workers in related industries, passengers, and members of trackside communities. With the ongoing disaster affecting residents of East Palestine, multiple recent derailments, and the fatality of an NS conductor at work, it’s vital that all working-class people affected by the railroad decide how the railroad system should operate.

How do we win public ownership? It must be the central demand of a campaign to transform the railroad industry in North America. This campaign must fight to reform railway unions and support organizing a workers’ party to take on the rail corporations and the corporate political parties.

  1. Build Railroad Workers United and agitate among the unions to raise demands like worker-led safety programs, an end to Precision Scheduled Railroading, limits on the size of trains, increased crew sizes and full staffing of all crafts, immediate unity among all crafts and unions in negotiations and public actions, etc.
  2. Railroad unions should organize escalating local, national, and international actions to fight for improved pay, conditions, and safety.
  3. Organize with local communities to fight for the expansion of quality, affordable passenger services, upgraded infrastructure, and safety. 
  4. Coordinate all efforts to transform the rail unions, like the Challenger slate in IAM District 19 and BMWED Rank and File United. Develop a shared program, strategy, and vision for what railroad labor should look like. Pave the way to unite all railroad workers into one industrial union. Build links and solidarity with the broader labor movement.
  5. Fight to overturn the Railway Labor Act, which puts additional restrictions on the right to strike for railroad & airline workers. Run independent workers’ candidates for political office on a clear program as a step towards building a workers’ party to challenge the Democrats and the Republicans.
  6. Bring the major railroad companies under public ownership and democratic workers’ control. Create a single efficient, rational, sustainable rail system for freight and passenger service instead of a handful of profit-gouging companies carving the North American continent into monopolies.

“Privately owned industry and production for individual profit are no longer compatible with social progress and have ceased to work out to humane and civilized ends.”

Eugene V. Debs, 1915. President of the American Railway Union and Socialist Party candidate for US President.

Image Credit: Ron Cogswell via Wikimedia // (CC BY 2.0)