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Uncle Sam should take over Altamont tracks
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It is ironic that the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission is going back to Washington, D.C., to lobby the federal government to secure $20 million toward $150 million in order to buy the Union Pacific tracks and right-of-way over the Altamont Pass.
The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 granted Union Pacific – and Central Pacific which it swallowed up through its successor Southern Pacific in the late 20th century – 400-foot right of ways plus 10 square miles of land for every mile built. One of the proviso was the railroads had to provide passenger and freight service to the emerging communities they’d serve as they connected East with West. A subsequent amendment in 1864 enlarged the land grants from 10 to 20 square miles of alternating sections along the tracks.
Today, the Union Pacific does not run passenger trains. Up until a little over a year ago, UP perceived Altamont Commuter Express trains as stepchildren giving preference to their freight movements. Even coal trains were getting a higher priority.
One might say that it’s Union Pacific’s right to run traffic as they see fit since it is their tracks.
That, however, flies in the face with the original deals that made it possible for the railroad to bridge the continent. It is abundantly clear the purpose of the federal government’s generous granting of land to the two railroads was not just to provide a financing mechanism but to open up the West by allowing the movement of freight and passengers.
Now 144 years after the railroad was completed the railroads do not run passenger trains. Yes, times have changed but how could the original contractual obligation that gave the railroads such mass resources and the ability to pocket handsome profits simply disappear?
So now the federal government is being hit up to spend $20 million to buy a small part of the Union Pacific system so passenger trains can not only run on time but so additional trains can be added.
While a lot has happened between 1862 and 2009, the fact still remains the railroads were made possible with federal resources granted for the express purpose of moving freight and passengers. The fact UP and others found it no longer profitable should not have been an excuse to let them toss aside their obligations.
One could argue the politicians back in the 1860s didn’t intend to bind the railroads in such a manner forever.
This brings us to a crucial point. The incredible lack of accountability with taxpayer resources and money  now unfolding daily along the banks of the Potomac is nothing new. Politicians have been mighty generous with the public’s resources and money for nearly two centuries whether it was the infamous railroad barons, oil barons and coal barons or Wall Street.
It took the private sector to build the railroads and, yes, it was a big risk. That, though, doesn’t give them the right to essentially renege on the original deal with the passage of time.
The eroding of the responsibility of railroads was made possible through politicians just like those in Washington, D.C., who are working mightily to relieve Wall Street and big firms that overextended themselves through greed and mismanagement. Railroads in California got away with various schemes including price fixing through forced monopolies involving the moving of goods and people. The railroad’s chokehold on California was eased in part by Gov. Hiram Johnson who created the Railroad Commission which was the predecessor to the California Public Utilities Commission.
Is it wrong to rag on the railroads for abandoning unprofitable passenger rail service when surface transportation by car become so inexpensive and easy? Perhaps.
One thing is certain. It would be a heck of a lot cheaper if folks like Congressman Jerry McNerney brought some real honesty back to Washington, D.C., and simply nationalize various segments of railroads needed for passenger service and then let the freight trains pay for the right to use those tracks.
In an age where the federal government is taking ownership of large corporations “for the public good” is in vogue, seizing control of railroad sections and allowing agencies like the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission to operate and maintain the tracks with first priority given to passenger service seems like the next logical step.
In this case, however, the federal government will simply be taking back what they gave away in the first place.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail