I guess there’s something floating around Facebook right now comparing sleek, elegant European trains against clunker, junky trains that roam the rails in the United States. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve already had some questions about it.
There was a time when U.S. trains were pretty bleak to look at, but that time isn’t now.
While I’m not enamored with the paint schemes the four largest railroads are using, the Union Pacific’s heritage paint schemes are very nice. And in recent years the mighty Kansas City Southern, the smallest of the Class 1 railroads, brought back its Southern Belle scheme that it used in the 1950s. I’ll put the KCS Southern Belle scheme up against anything you’ll find in Europe.
There certainly are some clunker engines out there, but those get more use in and around yards. Why bother with the expense of keeping low-visibility engines looking nice? It’s not the best use of railroad capital. Out on the main lines, you’re more likely to see the clunker rustbuckets when the economy is booming. The bottom-of-the-barrel stuff comes out when the railroads run out of other engines to run and have to use the beaters to keep the trains running on time.
It’s easy to compare the best of Europe to the worst of the United States to try to make a point, but it’s not a valid point. Railroads in the United States aren’t nearly as glamorous as they were a generation or two ago, but they’re healthy and profitable.
Now, 40 years ago, things were considerably different. Passenger travel by rail was an endangered species, and the industry underwent some questionable mergers, the worst of which was probably the Penn Central, the unholy marriage of the struggling Pennsylvania Railroad (yes, the namesake of the Monopoly square) and New York Central. The Penn Central realized few synergies and ended up being no healthier than its predecessors–it fell into bankruptcy after just two years. Many of the trains of that era were rustbuckets with utilitarian paint schemes that looked like they were cobbled together from spare parts inside a war zone. Companies on the verge of bankruptcy can’t afford to run the very best, you know.
But the railroad industry of today is much healthier. It’s had time to adapt and find ways to make money.
Frankly, even in the 1970s it would have been an exaggeration to say that all European trains are beautiful and all U.S. trains are eyesores. But today, that same notion is just ridiculous.