Running the Trains on Time


            London            One of our staff and I used to joke about infrastructure.  He would come back from a vacation somewhere in the UK or Europe and laud how great the infrastructure was, and I would feebly try to defend US infrastructure.  I admit that doesn’t sound much like a knee-slapping laughter, but I’ll pretend you would have had to have been there at the time.

More seriously, infrastructure has been a huge leap forward as a priority under the Biden administration, worth almost a trillion dollars.  Sadly, it’s only a drop in the bucket of what is indisputably needed from bridges to roads to water systems to an endless list of deferred maintenance, and that doesn’t even deal with what is required for the energy transition to deal with climate change.  Sitting in London’s giant Kings Cross transportation hub for subways and trains in the United Kingdom brought this all home for me and thousands of others that the US is not alone in infrastructure backlog.

Admittedly, compared to the UK and Europe, the passenger train system in the US is abysmal, everywhere other than perhaps the East Coast corridor from DC to Boston.  The UK system is extensive, but the old issue of rating a government’s competence by whether the “trains run on time,” logs yet another huge issue for the longtime governing Conservative Party as it faces elections in upcoming weeks.  Before coming over for ACORN’s second national conference in Leeds, England, I was warned by Nick Ballard, the head organizer, that this time they couldn’t give me a booking itinerary from London, because there was no way anyone could predict how – and whether – the trains would run.  Part of the issue has been a rolling strike in recent years because of labor disputes, but though inconvenient, the union always alerts the public in advance, so riders can make adjustments if possible.  We’ve had whole meetings scheduled around strike notices.

No one knew exactly why there was a problem.  Endless loudspeaker announcements would indicate a train had broken down somewhere near London, but the impact of this mysterious problem was clear.  One train after another was cancelled, and almost all of them were delayed.  After watching the board closely, one train finally seemed to be going north, but that didn’t solve the problem.  Thousands crushed forward towards the platform, leaving train workers to barricade the entrances and delay other trains because the platform itself was dangerously overcrowded.  There was no happiness anywhere, as you can imagine.  Even when passengers were allowed past the barricades, there was no information about what track the train might be on, and hapless train workers were caught in a scrum of people, while they looked at their handhelds and tried to sort out one question after another.  Once on the train, chaos still was the order of the day as countless apologies were broadcast about nonexistent services and additional delays.

So, yes, the trains are still better in England and Europe than the US, but as one person after another told me, one of their reasons for voting for Labour in the coming election was their hope that somehow privatization of the rails would end, infrastructure would be improved, and, just maybe, the trains would be nationalized again, so good service would return, labor peace would rein, and the trains would run on time.