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Bridging the Gap: The Railtowns.org Imperative


Freight Train Crossing a River - Photo by Tom Fisk

Why Is Railtowns.org Needed?

Because we're already 150 years later than we should've been. As far as we can tell from our research, railtowns have never banded together as communities with common interests. Unlike coal or steel towns, railtowns have yet to leverage their combined power to better their situations. Contrast this with how the railroads we host have operated. They have coordinated and cooperated, acting in a sense as a collective since at least October 1, 1872, when ranking railroad officials convened for what was dubbed the Time Table Conventions. Over the years, through many mergers and rebranding, this collective spirit is still echoed in the Association of American Railroads.

For most of the 150+ years since then, the Railroads have worked together to influence legislation and create a business and environmental landscape that favors their existence and profitability. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this.


The problem for railtowns is that we're a century and a half behind. No one has been championing OUR safety, accessibility, and prosperity. The repercussion of this neglect is both noticeable and severe today. In the nascent stages, railroads and their host cities shared a symbiotic relationship. Railways were often the lifelines connecting cities and ferrying goods across the nation. While there may have been areas of disagreement on issues like land acquisition, displacement, political influence, and pricing, each needed the other in order to thrive.


The relationship has since evolved, becoming more complex with the advent of alternative transport modes. The once central role of railroads, particularly concerning freight, may have diminished over time. In those early days, freight rail was synonymous with the railtown economy, catalyzing growth and transforming these towns into bustling commerce hubs. Everyone in town likely knew how important the rails were to their well being. Without it, a town was effectively cut off from the world.


Now, the scenario has changed. Most large railtowns have diversified transport options, with road and air transport being ubiquitous, and maritime and pipeline transport are common in certain regions for some products. For many in these communities, the once vital freight rail is now perceived merely as a loud nuisance or worse, a potential hazard.


Rail has the potential to be a catalyst for positive change, enabling every rail-connected community to thrive. But in many towns that’s not how they’re viewed. And it’s not reflective of the relationship that currently exists. In order to better serve the needs of their industrial shippers, railroads seem to have become decoupled from the towns and people who live and work there. And this makes business sense, particularly since US law, as currently interpreted, prevents anyone other than the federal government from regulating interstate rail. And since the federal government has taken no action on the issues our towns are facing, particularly with blocked crossings in recent years, that leaves our communities with nowhere to turn for support.


Historical precedents show the power of collective action. Regional Transit Authorities, Healthcare Benefit Groups, and Housing and Urban Development Initiatives are testament to the community advancements achievable when we unite. Our towns are already in the habit of working together to improve the quality of life for our communities. We just haven’t extended it to this issue.


That’s why Railtowns.org has been formed. There are numerous advocates for rail safety, and quite a few that encourage increasing rail access, but none specifically bridge the gap between communities and the railroads they already host. None represent the interests of our communities to the rail industry. No one town, one state, or one region can right the imbalance and ensure that we will have the safe, accessible, and prosperous communities our railroad partners talk about. It has to be all of us.

All of us, united? We absolutely can. It’s not just time we broke down the silos keeping us apart; it’s 150 years overdue.

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