My post identifying the FRA as American passenger rail’s biggest nemesis drew a lot of links due to the relevance to Rep. Mica’s proposal to privatize the Northeast Corridor. So it is time to step back and ask in general which problems privatization could solve, and which problems are facing American rail travel apart from the FRA. The operating assumption here is that capitalism is not a magical thing that always works, but rather a system that solves some problems created by competing economic systems while creating others.
First, privatization can be done in two separate ways. In Japan, or in the US before 1971, railroads comprise both infrastructure and operations. They run their own trains on their own tracks, and negotiate bilateral trackage rights agreements when they need to access other companies’ tracks. They compete for passengers, but cooperate when necessary; for example, many Shinkansen trains run through the territory of both JR Central and JR West, but the change of drivers only takes a minute.
The other way to privatize, favored in Europe and by Mica, is to split track ownership and operations, on the model of airports (not owned by airlines) and highways (not owned by truckers). Tracks remain public, operations are contracted out to the highest bidder. Regional services in Europe require subsidies, so the highest bidder in this context is the one asking for the smallest subsidy. Depending on which country it is and whether the service is regional or intercity, the public entity controlling the track may fix the schedules and fares in order to guarantee seamless compatibility between different operators.
Both ways have subcategories – for example, in the first method, the government could provide zero subsidies (Hong Kong), minor subsidies for capital construction (Shinkansen construction in Japan, the electrification of the Northeast Corridor south of New York in the 1930s), or ongoing subsidies for operations (Metra, some US commuter lines until the 1970s or 80s). In the second method, the operators can be all private as in Britain, or they could be a mixture of private and state-owned as in France and Germany.
The competition in Japan and the US works, when the railroads have power. There is not much cooperation apart from bilateral agreements and trackage rights. Thus, while Tokyo’s Suica and PASMO are top-notch smartcard implementations, they are poor examples of fare integration; people can swipe the same card on any company’s lines, but transferring from one company to the other requires paying for a separate ticket. For travel between two different metropolitan areas’ companies, smartcards are compatible only based on bilateral agreements, even though all smartcards in Japan use the same FeliCa technology.
When the railroads are not in power, disaster can happen. This is not easily seen in Japan, where the largest cities have not undergone urban renewal or transit decline, but in the US, agency turf means competing for a shrinking customer base and making the customer experience worse.
Therefore, straight Japanese-style privatization requires modifications to ensure timetable and fare integration, and compatible rolling stock. Here, ironically, FRA regulations provided something positive, paving the way to make the Bombardier Bilevel Car a standard commuter rail coach, which different North American cities can lease from one another when necessary; this indicates that what is necessary is better regulations modeled after those of the UIC or Japan rather than a free-for-all.
The other issue with privatization is that one of its primary features, the pruning of marginal branch lines, can become a bug. Focusing on core products has led railroads to neglect markets perceived as marginal rather than try to improve them. Both France and Germany have neglected regional travel in order to look more profitable; although SNCF and DB are state-owned, they act like private companies. In Berlin the resulting deferred maintenance led to a total meltdown, in which three-quarters of the S-Bahn stock had to be recalled on a day’s notice; while German trains are for the most part all compatible, the Berlin S-Bahn is an exception because it was electrified earlier and uses a different voltage from the rest of Germany.
Even in Japan, this is visible once one notes that for JR East and West, the core products are both the Shinkansen and the Tokyo and Osaka commuter networks. All the rest on those networks is lumped together under “Other lines,” so that JR East’s reports do not distinguish the Sendai and Niigata commuter lines from legacy intercity lines. It’s perhaps telling that the fastest non-Shinkansen train in Japan is in Hokkaido, where tilting DMUs on curvy single track with a top speed of 130 km/h average 100 km/h between Sapporo and Hakodate.
Note that the regulations here are mostly irrelevant, except where they involve cooperation between different private companies. Bad regulations can exist both under a private system (e.g. the US before 1971) and under a public one (e.g. the US today); the same is true of good regulations.
We should now step back and look at what enabled the success of the breakup of Japan National Railways, and the subsequent sale of its three constituents serving Honshu to private investors. Restructuring slashed the labor force, improved the quality of management, shut down lightly used lines, and erased the debt that JNR has accumulated to cover operating losses (for it was not subsidized, unlike Western money-losing railroads). It was done slowly, and the government helped find jobs for the displaced workers, which was easy since at the time Japan’s economy was booming. Subsequently, safety and punctuality increased.
The problems privatization solved, then, include operational inefficiency, political meddling forcing the operation of marginal lines, and labor problems. JNR not only was overstaffed, but also was represented by four separate unions, split along political rather than professional lines, ranging from centrist to communist. In the years before privatization, this was mitigated by reforms to both management and labor.
The experience of the positives of JNR privatization further shows that instead of shock therapy or PPPs, a slow reforming approach is required. The best practice is to do this slowly, like in Japan, and postpone the final decision until substantial changes have been made. A government that is too incompetent to run things by itself is also too incompetent to ensure privatization works for the public rather than just for cronies; at least some increase in the quality of government is required if privatization has any hope of success.