Drew Pearson called Washington a merry-go-around, but he didn't explain why. If you stand by the wooden arm with the brass rings, you will see the horses go by, and on each one is perched a senator or a congressperson or two, perhaps several officials from the executive branch and attendant lobbyists. Each horse has a name --Middle East Crisis, Medical Insurance, Disarmament, Inflation, Panama Canal, Unemployment.
Every time a horse completes the cycyle and nears the brass ring, the tumbling jumble of people riding it shout, scream, extend their arms, slide on and off the brightly painted beast and, then, as the organ music pipes its merry melody, they disappear around the circle again. This time it is the pile of straining, hysterical humanity atop the horsie named Railroad Crisis who are reaching out and falling on the floor to get their stretching fingers on the brass ring.
The Milwaukee Road wants to give up service on more than 6,000 miles of rusting, uneven, perhaps even dangerous track in Iowa, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho and Washington. Grain, coal and lumber shippers regard the close-down as little short of a disaster, as do numerous small towns stretched out over the miles and miles of the Milwaukee Road's trackage. The company, already a recipient of the better part of $100 million in federal largesse, says it either abandons service on those far western routes or the whole railroad goes under, including the profitable parts in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois.
Probably the best thing to do is let the Milwaukee give up the service, but on condition an auction is held for the land, equipment and right of way on the abandoned routes. That would make it possible for the state governments affected or new private capital and management, or a combination of both, to start another railraod freed of the old debts, labor contracts and encumbrances that pushed the Milwaukee Road out of the area.
Beyond that temporary solution, we have got to stop postponing a hard look at our inefficient, fuel-wasteful, expensive national transportation practices.
If we spent the money on railroad trackage we now spend on building and maintaining highways to accommodate heavy, road-destructive, long-haul trailer trucks, there would be no comparison between the two. Trains would be faster, use less person power and, of course, less fuel. And if push ever comes to chug-chug, trains can run on coal, while trucks can't.
The prognosis for making trucks significantly more fuel-efficient is rather sooty. Raising loads, and therefore highway- and bridge-maintenance costs, more radial tires and the introduction of something called the "high torque rise low rpm engine" all will help a little, but even so the most recent Department of Transportation study projects a depressingly large increase in truck fuel usage of 40 percent in the next six years, with but a 20 percent increase in the freight hauled.
Moreover, to realize the savings from railroad use, no public money should be needed. All we have to do is stop subsidizing long-haul trucking by building highways made excessively costly to accommodate the CB radio network.
The railroad policy question has been obfuscated by the sentimentalists who want to bring back the passenger train because, they argue, it also is more fuel-efficient than the airplane. They're right, but airlines use well under 1 percent of all the oil used to move people and goods. The billions necessary to bring back the old-time Pullman car porter and satisfy the nostalgia of people who want to hear the whoo-whooo of the choo-choo in the night will save insignificant amounts of fuel at best.
The railroad passenger lobby should go clickity-clack back to the toy train layouts while we guide public policy to get the Wabash Cannon Ball delivering freight. But, oh! The merry-go-round has gone round, and the railroad horsie has swung out of sight.