Wish we still had Railway Express

Nobody’s Christmas gifts would have been late!

We know that the passenger network of trains was becoming less complete, especially after WWII, while the airlines and road systems were being built up.

But in the Transportation Act of 1940, the railroads and Federal Government terminated the old land grants which relieved the railroads of transporting mail at a discount price. Did the Post Office Department began looking for alternatives to rail transport of mail, even though it was a very efficient operation? This act may have provided one of the specific reasons for the mails to be diverted, little by little to highway trucks and to the airlines.

Arguably, the Transportation Act of 1958 had as significant an impact upon RPO network pruning. It liberalized the procedures for discontinuing passenger services. With the loss of branch line RPOs –mostly 15-feet and 30-feet space authorization- – the feeder services to trunkline RPOs were severed. Also, local separations once performed on the branch-line RPO routes had to be replaced with additional separations on the main-line 60-feet RPOs. Distribution space on the trunk routes was already constrained by increasing mail volume at the same time that train freqency was declining. This condition was partially mitigated by substantial expansion of the Highway Post Office network. However, long-distance highway contract routes (Star Routes) were established or reconfigured more often. Since they were closed pouch runs, making those dispatches fell as a burden upon main-line RPO routes as well as newly-established or expanded stationary office distribution.

Do you think the decline of the USA RPO network was a major factor leading to the decline of the U.S. Postal System in general, which is what we are faced with today? Could it also be the increase in the number of pieces of mail due to increasing population? Could it have been done by the Federal Government to put the passenger train business out of operation so that truckers would carry mail and the auto and oil companies would profit by building and fueling cars?

Perhaps the reason that railroads were treated as a “growth” industry during the 1940s is partly because there was a wartime traffic surge. There is also a latency effect in society that was slow to realize the shift from rail to other modes. People were ingrained to use scheduled transportation –notably rail, bus, and public transit– but when given the opportunity to utilize on-demand personal private transportation, made the shift that is easy to view in retrospect.

The Post Office Department was slow to adapt from a scheduled transportation network upon which it relied for a century. It also benefitted from a cost structure in which it paid an allocation of a service instead of the entire cost of that service.

A economic distortion exists that railroads appear to be very expensive because they own the right-of-way franchise and pay taxes upon it, while competing highway and air modes do not pay for their rights-of-way and no taxes are paid for the highway real estate that is diverted from alternate uses. So, highway transportation appear less expensive even when the Post Office Department paid the entire cost of trucking. Air transportation was always more expensive per pound, but Congress and the Executive Branch utilized air mail rates as subsidies to cultivate national air passenger services.

The flaw in Post Office Department transportation planning is that it presumes that all services will always exist; that the status quo is the norm. In eras of slow technological change –such as the pre-1950s– it’s easy to see how this view was based. However, continuation of rail passenger services was not a sure thing. On occasion, the Post Office Department did protest passenger train discontinuances, but these concerns were mitigated if the railroad company agreed to provide substitute highway service. The Gulf Transport Company set up by the GM&O is an example. Although it operated the equivalent of a Highway Post Office service, these mobile units continued to the called “Railway Post Offices.”

Because the Post Office Department lived on year-to-year congressional appropriations, it was not fully capable of providing multi-year strategic planning. When the Jersey Central approached the Post Office Department around 1964 asking for a long-term mail contract as a basis for purchasing new RPO cars, the Post Office Department declined. Result: Jersey Central suspended all RPO services. I believe the Boston and Maine encountered the same reluctance for a long-term commitment and therefore acted in a similar manner.

One must recognize that the Post Office Department in the 1960s was confronted with an untenable situation: mail volume was increasing dramatically at the same time that the capacity to handle this increase in mobile units had reached its maximum capability in a declining network. Capacity was measured in two ways: the amount of distribution space, and the number of skilled distributors (a.k.a. Postal Transportation Clerks). The number of RPO car-miles was dropping precipitously while the ability to recruit, train, and utilize clerks was not keeping up with needs. Of course, high labor cost was a consideration; the fully-allocated unit cost of handling a letter was asserted to be increasing in a variety of consulting studies.

The solution for labor cost was two-fold: first, to simplify the job so that labor with lower skills and less training could perform distribution. The ZIP Code facilitated this; a clerk could manually sort zoned mail without any scheme knowledge. Second, mechanization and later automation of mail processing steps allowed substitution of capital for labor.

Although well past the RPO era, consider the present-day bar code sorter used by the Postal Service. A single machine processes about 10,000 letter-mail pieces an hour. The entire production of a ten-person RPO crew during a run lasting from 8 to 14 hours was about 10,000 pieces. Further, closed-pouch transportation in sealed trailers, railcars, or air cargo is less expensive than customized rail or highway vehicles. In the extreme case, attempts to outfit planes with mail distribution fixtures was cost ineffective.

Although the Railway Mail Service was very successful –after all, how many activities performed today are likely to last 113 years– it was on a collision course with changing postal techology, the declining reliance upon hard-copy communications, and rise of alternate transportation modes. There has been much discussion of whether the Post Office Department or the railroads “killed” passenger services. The answer is neither; both reacted to the changing business, economic, and societial environments. Considering that 90 percent of USA intercity transportation is via private automobile, it holds the smoking gun.

A similar scenario is true for Seaposts. There are no scheduled ocean liners plying the Atlantic and Pacific routes; just chartered cruise ships. Airline travel and not the private automobile replaced those services, but the point is that mail was withdrawn from those routes as well.

The Post Office Department and the Postal Service generally sought to utilize the fastest means of transportation available in an era. While many can point out that mail service within 500 miles is slower now than when mobile units operated, the fact is –even allowing for congestion– that point–to-point over-the-road trucking is faster for distances under 600 miles, while air transportation is quickest for distances above that amount. Rail is largely relegated to facilitating one-way transportation, such as highly directional traffic flows or repositioning empty trailers and containers. Using highway and air services instead of intercity rail is therefore not illogical. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the decision, Mr. Gunn while president of Amtrak concluded the revenue gain of furnishing mail transportation on trains were insufficent to offset infrastructure costs and operational impacts. If this was true in 2003, the underlying principles guiding that decision have laid in the passenger rail network prior to 1971.

Now Railway Express: It is notable that this organization formed in 1929 recognized that handling small parcels via passenger trains did not allow it to keep up with competition from companies such as United Parcel Service. One might take the view that since it was railroad-owned, it had a greater interest in preserving rail operations but chose not to. There are other reasons for its business model not surviving and the company’s disappearance, but regarding rail operations a case can be made that REA and USPOD read the cards the same way during the 1960s and placed declining reliance upon over-the-rail services.

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