Hitch in the plan: When Bob Lowe wants to take a train ride, he doesn’t book a ticket for a seat. Instead, he asks Amtrak to hitch his own private railcars to one of their passenger trains. He is one of about 80 people in the United States who not only own their own railroad cars but are certified to operate them on Amtrak routes across the country. Traveling in these cars—relics of the pre-Amtrak era of passenger rail—is “almost like riding in a time capsule,” he says.
It’s never made a lot of practical sense to be a private railcar owner, and these passionate hobbyists are now wondering whether their pricey pursuit is reaching the end of the line. A year ago, Amtrak announced cuts to its private railcar-hauling service, in an effort to boost efficiency and improve its bottom line. “There’s no real villain in this tale, other than the increasingly ruthless economics of American passenger rail,” Andrew Zaleski writes. Today on CityLab: Let’s Buy a Train.
The We Company, the all-encompassing life-services platform formerly known as WeWork, is entering the booming business commonly known as “smart cities.” Di-Ann Eisnor, the former Google executive who helped grow Waze into a traffic-data juggernaut with 90 million monthly users, will lead the recently rebranded We Company’s efforts to build data-driven products and partnerships with cities and community groups, aimed at tackling barriers to jobs, housing, education, and other problems related to urbanization.
It sounds like a characteristically ambitious move for the startup, which began by renting desks in a Manhattan storefront in 2010. With its signature free-flowing beer taps, ping-pong tables, and “Thank God It’s Monday” ethos, the We Company has since grown into an empire of co-working spaces in more than 100 cities around the globe, with a valuation of $42 billion. It has also built out a host of new services, including dormitory housing (WeLive), Montessori-style early childhood education (WeGrow), fitness (WeRise), and social outings (Meetup, acquired in 2017).
Details are scant on how its latest move to sculpt the future of cities will contribute to its efforts to turn a profit. (Like many unicorns in this stage of capitalism—including ones now going public, like Uber and Lyft—the We Company loses hundreds of millions of dollars per quarter.) There likely won’t be much information available until Eisnor is settled with a team of software engineers, architects, economists, and (apparently) biologists.
But the initiative is likely to include a survey of the firm’s many data sources to see how they might be applied in the service of entire communities. Quartz reported that Eisnor is charged with taking “what We has already done inside the building, take it outside, and reimagine a sort of connective tissue for 21st-century cities.”
Given Eisnor’s history, there may well be thoughtful offerings in store. She’s known around Silicon Valley for her sense of a social contract with customers and communities. One of her major projects at Waze is a good example: She helped launch its Connected Citizens program, whereby the app shared some data with city governments looking to fix recurring transportation problems. In an interview with CityLab, Eisnor emphasized that what We Company builds will be in concert with existing community efforts. “The smartest thing about a city is the humans on the ground,” she said.
But the We Company isn’t a novice in the urban data department, so it may be useful to look at what it has tinkered with in the past. At one point, the company experimented with applying machine learning to information about neighborhood attributes and demographics, in order to inform its real-estate leasing decisions. Such tools could be useful to city builders in the public and private sectors. But they may also raise some eyebrows.
The We Company has long been building a robust spatial analytics infrastructure. Besides having rich datapoints filtered from its members-only network, which includes the professional profiles of more than 400,000 WeWorkers and active messaging boards, We also has 18 years worth of information about how folks socialize offline, thanks to its purchase of Meetup. It also has been using sensors and cameras to test how its employees use common areas, conference rooms, and desk setups, and is planning to experiment with capturing smartphone movements via a wifi beam popular with shopping malls.
And since the company has a major stake in understanding cities and neighborhoods—after all, it wants the highest possible occupancy rates in the buildings it leases—the firm has dabbled in urban data science. As a 2017 article in Entrepreneur explained, it’s not always easy for the company to know which neighborhoods are most likely to attract WeWork members, especially outside major hubs like New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. In secondary and tertiary markets, like a Nashville or Kansas City, or in cities where WeWorks do not exist yet, pinpointing the right corner for a new location might be about a particular mix of amenities, or a hard-to-pin-down vibe. Is there a nice new gym in the area? A certain mix of bars and higher-end restaurants? Then there might be a future WeWork member—a youngish, college-educated, white-collar worker—interested in coming.
Such inferences might be intuitive to people in the real estate business, or indeed, anyone who’s ever walked around a gentrifying neighborhood. But for WeWork to utterly saturate the planet with kombucha taps and plush phone booths—and make good on the billions that SoftBank, its Japanese investment patron, has pumped into it—it seems that decisions about where and when to open new locations have to happen faster, more systematically, and from a remove.
“We need a systematic and scientific way of making assessments,” said Aaron Fritsch, formerly the company’s head of product systems and operations (“SimCity in real life,” reads the description he gave that job on his LinkedIn profile) and the current chief of staff to We’s Chief Product Officer, in Entrepreneur. “Anything that we can do to give people tools to synthesize more information in less time immediately correlates to more locations open.”
To make its real-estate decision-making less about gut feelings and more about hard data, the We Company has turned to artificial intelligence. One of their researchers talked about how this worked in late 2017, at an industry event held at the Brooklyn offices of Carto, a mapping firm. “We have fleets of brokers, real estate experts, who are going out to look at buildings, stand on street corners, and assess the ‘vibe and energy’ of a location,” Carl Anderson, then a senior research scientist at WeWork who left the company in 2018, told the audience. “They do a good job, but they don’t do a good job of explaining why the vibe is good. What are the features that contribute to this feeling?”
To determine what those attributes might be, Anderson explained, WeWork was testing out machine-learning processes that draw in several types of data about a given neighborhood—first, general indicators of its “feel,” such as its daytime population, its median home value, and its Walk Score, and second, all of its storefront businesses and major points of interest, sorted into identifiers as granular as “dog parks,” “Chinese restaurants,” and “steakhouses” by the location data services company Factual. The algorithm analyzed these data points, generating a “thumbs up” for good buildings to investigate, and “thumbs down” for unattractive locales.
“So maybe we learn that having a Blue Bottle Coffee nearby is a good thing,” Anderson said. “And a Western Union might be an indicator that it’s not such a great block. Maybe it’s proximity to rivers and parks. Or whatever. But we’re trying to work that out.” Around the same time, the company claimed that its ability to scope locations in roughly this fashion sped up its already fast-growing footprint.
What Anderson described, in other words, was a kind of automated taste-tracker for a specific set of affluent people. A city planner or housing developer could find such a tool handy, especially if it was more up-to-the-minute and detailed than, say, the census and business registration data that tends to show how wealth and amenities spread around cities. An automated neighborhood-profiling widget could very easily go awry, however, if it isn’t attuned to who and what is being screened out. Imagine, for example, a local government basing planning and investment decisions on the ratio of check-cashing places to upscale cashless coffee shops in a certain neighborhood. One could see this particular “smart city” innovation leading to algorithmic redlining.
The We Company is no longer actively pursuing these types of applications for machine learning. According to a spokesperson, it still pays WalkScore for various data-points about the surroundings of its potential locations, including proximity to transit. The company has largely refocused its data-driven efforts toward assessing the attributes that give office interiors good “vibes”—think algorithmically optimized arrangements of desks, chairs, and lighting, and the like. And it hopes to distance itself from the “smart city” label, which has become fraught with suspicion as other tech companies have attempted to turn urban data into dollars (see: Sidewalk Labs’ efforts to develop a Toronto neighborhood “from the internet up.”) Notably, it is referring to the work that Eisnor will spearhead as a “future cities initiative.”
But we don’t know yet what that will look like in practice. And plenty is known about the risks of applying machine-learning processes—or really any “smart cities” technology—to huge social challenges. Information technology doesn’t solve problems by itself. If the data is biased towards certain groups and away from others, high-tech tools can simply reinforce existing inequalities.
When Maureen Galindo moved into her two-bedroom apartment in San Antonio in 2017, she was a single mother who couldn’t point to a stable income stream. No problem, her landlord said. That’s the kind of place the Soapworks and Towne Center Apartments was.
Since then, she fell in love with the tight-knit community that lives there along San Pedro Creek, blocks from the famous Mexican marketplace at Historic Market Square, where artisans have peddled their textiles, ceramics, and crafts for generations. San Pedro Creek is the wellspring of San Antonio’s largely Latino middle class. Immigrants and native-born Texans of all races and ethnicities call this area home. “It intersects all demographics, besides being rich,” Galindo says.
Galindo’s name was already on the waitlist for a more-affordable unit in a mixed-income development by the time she moved into her apartment. It’s a good thing, too: A new owner took over the Soapworks complex in October. Soon afterward, she got notice that her rent was going up. With three days left on her lease, the notice about a vacancy at the Refugio Place development came as a timely blessing.
“It’s like one big flip,” Galindo says, describing the situation at the apartment complex, now known as the Soap Factory. “It’s still there, and the same people are still there. They’re just not sure when their time is up.”
Things are changing in San Pedro Creek, and the new owners see opportunity. The neighborhood is the site of a multi-phase revitalization project called the San Pedro Creek Culture Park. Henry R. Muñoz, the designer of the new linear park, has described it as a “Latino High Line,” one that restores the natural creek habitat and provides flood control. The 2.2-mile amenity celebrates the city’s Tejano history and culture, even as it also draws selfies to the area.
Muñoz has called the project a “national symbol for Latino and Anglo communities” in direct opposition to President Donald Trump’s plans to “[build] a wall between us and our Mexican roots.” The next phase in its development, which is currently under construction, will create a Performance Plaza next door to the Alameda Theater, an historic Mexican movie palace.
The original High Line in New York City, an adaptive reuse project that transformed a decaying elevated railway into a public-art-laden parkway, has proved to be an enormous success, one that other cities have taken strides to emulate. But it’s also become something of a monument to inequality, as rents along its West Side route soared and sent longtime residents packing.
To find a problematic public amenity that draws tourism and spurs displacement in San Antonio, however, the city doesn’t need to look any further than its own famed River Walk, a transformational riverfront expansion of parkland, shops, walkways, and restaurants that bougified the San Antonio River a decade ago. The city is only beginning to learn the lesson that while growth is good, it poses risks for residents on the wrong side of a steep income drop-off. Now, San Antonio is taking steps to right the ship.
Advocates say that the “Decade of Downtown” policies launched under the administration of Mayor Julián Castro—who is now running for president in part on his mayoral record—aren’t working for marginalized communities. New developments like the Latino High Line, plus the city’s rising economic fortunes, are putting inadvertent pressure on the Mexican and Mexican-American communities that these projects celebrate.
To help residents threatened by this transformation, last week the San Antonio City Council voted to approve a $1 million “Risk Mitigation Fund,” aimed at displaced tenants and others facing financial hardship. More than 60 households in San Antonio contacted the city to apply for displacement assistance before the council even brought it up for a vote. Advocates welcome the city’s new push—but they also say that it’s not enough to do the trick.
“That’s not addressing the root causes of displacement, but it’s trying to mitigate the hurt being done to tenants in the displacement,” says Amelia Adams, fair housing researcher for the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.
For Galindo, the trouble came when a new owner bought the Soapworks and Towne Center buildings with plans to rehab them. The new Soap Factory tapped the Castro-era Center City Housing Incentive Policy (CCHIP), a program designed to foster dense, mixed-income, multi-family developments in downtown and central San Antonio. And so it has: More than 80 percent of the units in the Soap Factory rehab are reserved for tenants making 80 percent of area median income, with another 12 percent of units go to those earning 60 percent of area median income.
Yet as the new ownership turned over units and added amenities, Galindo’s rent shot up from $860 to $970, mostly in the form of new fees tacked on for existing utilities—a hike of 12 percent in a single year. Converted two-bedroom units in the complex now rent for $1,150.
It’s not easy to prove displacement; the term occupies the same uncertain territory on the map as “gentrification.” It’s a hard-to-define, often-inadvertent byproduct of growth as it overlaps with racial and economic segregation and strict zoning regulations. Some new CCHIP-fueled apartment complexes might set off gentrification red flags simply because they’re new or refurbished, while many provide affordable units. (The city claims that 61 percent of new housing units downtown are affordable.) To suss out displacement in San Antonio, officials have set out a rubric.
The city’s Risk Mitigation Fund authorizes up to $3,000 for apartment tenants (and up to $7,000 for residents of mobile-home parks) who are forced to move due to outright redevelopment or rehabilitation; or for those who receive a rent increase of more than 5 percent that puts the rent out of reach. (For the renter to be eligible, the rent must take up more than 30 percent of her income.) The fund also greenlights one-time financial hardship assistance for certain residents who fall behind on their rent (up to $3,500) or utilities (up to $1,500). The program comprises one recommendation of the Housing Policy Task Force convened by Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
In the context of housing, risk mitigation funds are usually an insurance or reimbursement purse for landlords who agree to take on tenants considered risky, including those with a criminal history or record of evictions. Launching a risk mitigation fund for the tenants themselves—to safeguard them from gentrification-addled landlords, rising rents, and dubious High Line schemes—is a pivot.
In San Antonio, the threat of displacement is not merely an indirect effect of rising rents and slack wage growth. Eviction can serve as a blunt tool for development.
Consider, for example, the experience of the Mission Trails mobile home park in southeast San Antonio. Back in 2014, the San Antonio River Walk was still expanding, and the city wanted the trailer park’s land to build out the southern part of the eight-mile stretch called the Mission Reach. Residents received no more warning than a pair of corrugated-plastic signs at the entrance of their community that read, “REZONING.”
When Mission Trails residents went to a zoning meeting to find out what was happening, there were no Spanish speakers or interpreters to explain it to them. Jessica O. Guerrero, a community organizer who volunteered as a translator, later founded Vecinos de Mission Trails, a nonprofit organization devoted to assisting these former tenants and building comités de defensa del barrio.
“The reception by City Council was heartbreaking,” Guerrero says. “They were saying that tenants don’t understand they were getting a good deal.”
In the end, the city elected to forcibly remove the more than 300 residents of the mobile home park. More than half of the residents were children. Guerrero says that she met one woman who had lived at Mission Trails for 36 years; she had raised her children and grandchildren there. As word about the mass eviction spread, the city and the developer scrambled to provide relocation assistance. But the process was ad hoc and inconsistent, Guerrero says.
“Just aside from the finances of moving, transferring schools was a huge burden,” she says. “There were also older students in their last year of school who didn’t want to leave.”
Heartbreak and crisis followed. With no assurances from the city, some residents felt forced to take the first offer—a few hundred dollars. Others held out for more time or money, but they faced uncertain prospects, like renting an apartment at a higher rate if they didn’t want to take their kids out of school, or relocating to trailer parks outside of town. Departing families sometimes had to leave their belongings on the ground, because the home movers arrived before the people movers did. One couple’s home was torn in two during the move. Displacement is dangerous. “There were caravans of looters coming into the park,” Guerrero says.
After the last family moved out of Mission Trails in mid-2015, the city did nothing with the lot for two years, a source of frustration for former tenants who were rushed out of their lives. Meanwhile, the incentives dried up. For Mission Trails families, San Antonio offered to pay $1,000 toward a new lot at other mobile home parks. Guerrero says that those landlords pocketed the hand-out, then raised the rent after the families moved in.
The tragedy of Mission Trails speaks to the way that growth and poverty are pulling San Antonio in opposite directions. Between 2000 and 2016, the city’s population grew by a staggering 26 percent, according to census figures. Renters can’t afford the new homes going up: While the median renter income for the city for 2016 was $37,200, more than half of new housing starts in San Antonio were priced above $250,000. Investments in the River Walk—from Museum Reach in the north to Mission Reach in the south—total more than $380 million, according to the city, with $46 million in public incentives. The evictions at Mission Trails made way for a $75 million high-end development that received CCHIP incentives. (As mayor, Castro vigorously opposed this relocation.)
Of course, new multi-family developments are creating room for all the residents still pouring in. (The city anticipates another 88,000 new residents by 2022 alone.) The River Walk and other public amenities indeed make San Antonio a more attractive, pleasant place to live. In December, the city reinstated its incentive program for housing developments after a year-long moratorium. The city needs both: more construction and more protections for vulnerable renters.
San Antonio has a greater challenge than many growing cities. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, more than 45 percent of renter households in the San Antonio-New Braunfels metro are are rent burdened (paying more than one-third of their income toward rent), while 22 percent of renter households are severely cost burdened (paying more than half their income toward rent). Only the Austin, College Station, and Laredo metro areas have a higher share of rent-burdened households in Texas.
What San Antonio needs, according to Adams, is a displacement risk mitigation policy with teeth. The fund authorized by the city council on Thursday does not come with any obligations for developers. Adams says that any time a developer comes to the city for grants (as in zoning permissions), they should come with strings attached: fundamental protections for tenants who, in very recent history, were physically relocated without any notice. “In Texas, it’s very hard to require developers to do anything,” she says.
Upgrading San Antonio’s aging housing stock, adding enough housing for the influx of new residents, and creating dense housing in transit-accessible corridors will mean a great deal of building in San Antonio. Castro-era policies put the city on a good footing to anticipate this growth. But a lack of caution spelled disaster for low-income households. Without stronger safeguards, new development will run roughshod over its poor and mostly Latino residents.
“It’s the first step to address displacement that the city has taken,” Adams says. “We want the city to partner with people going through displacement to craft the policy. We want it to be robust.”
Forested areas in cities may seem best left untouched, but it’s a common misconception that they can take care of themselves, according to Sarah Charlop-Powers, executive director of New York City’s Natural Areas Conservancy.
“We need to undo the conception that natural areas are inherently self-sustaining,” she said. “We need to start thinking of [them] as one more type of urban parkland, and we’d never say: ‘We built that playground; we don’t need to check and make sure the equipment is in good working order.’”
That’s one conclusion to be drawn from a survey of managers of urban forests that Charlop’s group conducted with the Trust for Public Land and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. It’s the first national survey of people who oversee America’s “urban forested natural areas”—that is, native habitats and woods in cities, which account for 84 percent of urban parkland nationwide, according to the Trust for Public Land. (Technically, the term “urban forest” refers to all trees in a city; I use it here as shorthand for forested natural areas.)
Survey-takers represented 125 organizations in 110 cities. Most worked in municipal agencies such as parks departments, followed by non-profit organizations and state and federal government.
The upshot: Societal issues such as green-space access and the urban heat-island effect often aren’t integrated into management of urban forests. Forest managers need more data on climate change, pests, and other factors. They need more funding. And they spend much of their time dealing with invasive species and trash.
When asked about the factors that go into their decisions in forest management, only one factor was cited in the top three by a majority of respondents: native species conservation. Biodiversity and public safety were cited as main factors by a large share, but were still secondary for most.
By contrast, climate-change projections and the urban heat-island effect were not considered at all by large shares of respondents (47 and 53 percent, respectively). And 32 percent did not consider proximity to low-income communities. That’s despite the fact that low-income individuals are less able to travel to experience nature away from home: A 2016 USDA Forest Service report found that 50 percent of park users in New York City said they experienced nature only in that city’s parks.
When it comes to the types of information that urban-forest managers can use to guide their work, most relied on maps of designated conservation areas and vegetation types. But 41 percent of respondents said they didn’t have data on pests and pathogens. A full 54 percent didn’t have climate-change projections for the areas they managed.
As Charlop-Powers points out, the lack of data on pests is worrying at a time when the emerald ash borer is decimating forests throughout the eastern U.S. “The need to be able to rapidly respond to natural crises in the same way you’d respond to other types of infrastructure challenges feels really important and under-repesented,” she said.
Likewise, climate-change projections are needed because urban forests store carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere, help control stormwater runoff, offer habitat for many species, and mitigate rising heat—yet climate change also endangers forests’ health and compromises their ability to perform those functions.
Even forest managers who have robust information may not be able to act on it as much as they’d like, because they’re so busy removing trash and fighting invasive species such as honeysuckle and kudzu. Those activities leave less time for practices like soil amendment, which improves soil and plant health.
Invasive species was identified as the biggest ecological challenge by a large majority of survey-takers (79 percent), followed by “disrupted natural processes due to the urban context” (such as runoff from roads) and “negative human use” (such as trash-dumping, vandalism, or trampling of vegetation).
Interestingly, 35 percent cited climate-change stressors as “very important,” and another 33 percent called them “important”—suggesting that respondents are well aware of the threat of climate change to urban forests, but best practices and/or adequate resources to confront it are lagging. The number-one organizational challenge cited was limited funding or staff.
The three groups that organized the survey offer numerous recommendations in their report, including: improving access to urban forests near low-income communities; making them safer by providing maps, clearly marked trails, and easy points of entry; adding urban-forest management to city resiliency plans; creating a shared repository for case studies and data; and increasing the budget for urban and community forestry nationally.
Charlop-Powers emphasized that she sees the results as “sobering, but also heartening in some ways.”
“It’s exciting to see that there is this unsung group of people doing this work,” she said, “and I feel hopeful as a result of what we’ve learned so far that there are real opportunities for increased impact and collaboration between cities.”
The key to the Access Pass success was to make sure from the beginning that it was as easy to sign up for as possible. Eligible residents only need to input their Access Pass number into Indego’s website to make use of the discounted option. While BTS figured out the technical side of setting up the Access Pass, the Coalition has been vital to getting the word out about this alternative, and encouraging individuals to enroll.
When Bob Lowe wants to take a cross-country trip, the first stop for him is 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, where his own private railroad awaits. Sort of.
Lowe owns a pair of railroad cars, artifacts of the pre-Amtrak era, when the country’s passenger-rail network was a glorious patchwork of private operators. One is a Salisbury Beach sleeper car, so named after the shore in Massachusetts, that was originally put into commission by the Boston and Maine Railroad in 1954 and holds 26 people. The other: an old Colonial Crafts, just one of a series of Colonial railcars that entered service on the Pennsylvania Railroad out of Chicago in 1949. It’s got three bedrooms, a drawing room, a buffet kitchen, and a large lounge. So when Lowe wants to take a train from, say, Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., he doesn’t buy tickets for a seat in one of Amtrak’s coach cars. Instead, he asks Amtrak for a tow, essentially hitching a ride in his own cars with family and friends, usually 25 people at a time between both cars.
“There’s people who want to do that and watch the U.S. go by, and that’s why I do it,” Lowe says. “It’s almost like riding in a time capsule.”
Lowe is one of only about 80 people in the U.S. who not only own their own railcars, but are also certified to operate them on Amtrak lines across the country—a subset of a national subculture of rail aficionados who buy up old train equipment. In addition to individual private owners, historical societies, museums, and nonprofit groups also run train excursions in locations around the U.S. While some buy surplus cars, locomotives, cabooses, and other railroad equipment from brokerage firms like Ozark Mountain Railcars, others, like Lowe, purchase cars directly from independent sellers, usually hobbyists themselves who can no longer afford to maintain their collection.
Others buy surplus cars straight from Amtrak, like the prospective buyers who showed up in December at an auction in Indiana to inspect a number of used railcars that were for sale. “Some do this as a hobby,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari says of the bidders who turn out for train auctions. “Some do this as a venture. Some rent their cars out for corporate events.”
Wick Moorman, who stepped down as co-CEO of Amtrak in December 2017, is one of these Extreme Railfans. He owns his own 1948 Sandy Creek observation car, designed to run on the end of trains. He refurbished it, adding some bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, and an observation lounge. As of yet, Moorman hasn’t taken his car out on an extended trip, although he and his wife are looking forward to, one day, welcoming their grandchildren aboard for a journey.
“It’s like having that sports car out in the garage,” he says. “You like to look at it and say, ‘I’m really happy I have that.’ And your wife is saying, ‘When are you going to get that damn thing out of the garage?’”
Unless you’re a fictional Old West secret agent or a modern dictator who likes to travel in bulletproof style, being a private railcar owner never made a lot of practical sense. They’re huge, heavy, and ruinously expensive to buy, maintain, and store, especially if you want to actually give it some exercise on the tracks. But recently, being a private railcar owner has become even harder. One year ago, Amtrak issued a policy notice saying it would make drastic cuts in operating charter services run by private owners. “These operations caused significant operational distraction, failed to capture fully allocated profitable margins, and sometimes delayed our paying customers on our scheduled trains,” read the notice from March 2018. “There may be a few narrow exceptions to this policy. … Otherwise, one-time trips and charters are immediately discontinued.”
In practical terms, that means that unless railcars belonging to a group or private owner are in some easily accessible rail terminal, like 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Amtrak is no longer going to great lengths to get private cars hooked up to its passenger service lines traversing the country.
“Amtrak’s recent changes have been devastating. Our membership has dropped by a third from 2018,” says Tony Marchiando, owner of a 1948 Pullman sleeper car and president of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO), a trade association that represents owners, assists in chartering trips. It now has about 330 members. For the group’s annual convention, members string their equipment together to make a special train of private cars—the 2012 train, which ran from D.C. to Chattanooga, Tennessee, boasted 29 private cars.
Private railcars are still on the tracks, but their owners, already an endangered species, are now wondering whether the end of the line is approaching for this pricey pursuit. “Where the industry is right now, it’s a little bit dicey, because people don’t know what’s going to happen,” says John Radovich, a longtime railcar collector based in Dallas.
Radovich is the proprietor of what he likes to call a “hobby gone bad.” In 1979, he purchased his first piece of equipment: a car with a lounge at one end, diner counter at the other, and a small kitchen in the middle. It was from Northern Pacific, the predecessor to the Burlington Northern company (since merged into the BNSF Railway Company, North America’s largest freight railroad). Since then, Radovich has bought 13 more railcars, including five Sante Fe hi-level cars—predecessor to Amtrak’s bi-level Superliner passenger cars—at an Amtrak auction about 10 years ago.
In the past, Radovich has run weekend trips for groups of about 15 to 20 people. They’ll take a car of his up from Dallas to Oklahoma City by way of Fort Worth. To hitch a ride on Amtrak, a private railcar owner first finds an Amtrak route headed in the direction they’d like to go, and then couples onto the train behind the cars carrying ticketed passengers. To take a train from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., Lowe provides 30 days’ notice for his request to have his cars also hooked up behind Amtrak locomotives. On his runs to Oklahoma City, Radovich hooked a car of his to Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer and Texas Eagle trains, which provided all the necessary connections to and from Dallas.
For this, they pay Amtrak $3.67 per mile (an increase from the $3.26 per mile as of last year, Lowe says). Any trailing cars after the first one run an additional $2.81 a mile. That doesn’t include the other expenses that go along with private car ownership. Each one of Lowe’s cars, for example, cost him about $150,000. His Colonial car was turnkey, but he put $50,000 into the Salisbury Beach car for maintenance and upgrades, including new brakes and electric heat, to make it Amtrak certified. If you’re a DIY collector on a tighter budget, a beater unrestored car, without electric power, can start at around $25,000. A fully restored one can be upwards of $500,000.
Don’t forget the storage costs. Lowe keeps his rolling stock in Amtrak’s yard in Philly for $1,800 a month. A trip Lowe organized during 2017’s solar eclipse to take nine people from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte, North Carolina, cost about $12,000 to organize. That year, Lowe spent about $125,000 on his hobby.
“The one thing everyone can tell you about private car ownership: It is very expensive,” says Randal O’Toole, a Cato Institute senior fellow and author of Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need. “Now that Amtrak has restricted its movement of private cars, it is also of limited usefulness.”
O’Toole is a well-known critic of public transportation in general and federal Amtrak subsidies in particular. But his opposition to modern U.S. passenger rail is laced with fierce affection for its past: He’s a former private railcar owner and a member of a nonprofit group that restored the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle 700 steam locomotive, which is owned by the City of Portland. Members of the group, wanting a fleet of coaches to run behind their oil-burning 1938 engine, purchased former Great Northern coaches once used as commuter cars by New Jersey Transit. O’Toole was so enthusiastic, he bought four of them, plus old Amtrak dome car.
The cars themselves were stored by the group on a large yard owned by the Southern Pacific railroad, which charged them just $1 a year thanks to the group’s nonprofit status. Shortly after, however, Southern Pacific was bought out, the storage price increased, and O’Toole sold all of his cars. “In retrospect, I was foolishly naive,” he says. “Instead of spending a bunch of money on buying five cars, I should have bought one car and saved the rest of the money for restoration work.”
All of the private railcar owners CityLab spoke with aren’t living lavish lifestyles; they’re just extremely committed, maybe unwisely so, to their hobby. And they have to be, given the costs.
“I’m not in this business to make money off of it,” says Lowe, a 33-year veteran of the airline industry. Some trips he has taken, he says, have cost him more money than the dollars spent on tickets by passengers in the Amtrak trains his cars are hitched to at the end.
This is where Amtrak’s policy change last year makes things dicey. It’s not that Amtrak sends locomotives to tow private cars onto existing routes. In the case of Lowe, his cars are already easily accessible at 30th Street Station. Radovich must add an extra step: A local shortline train hauls his cars to the nearest station where Amtrak is making a scheduled stop. (Shortlines are to railways what interconnecting flights are to airlines.) He stores his fleet of cars on his own right-of-way, which is where the shortlines pick him up.
But sometimesAmtrak must delay ticketed passenger service at stations in order to connect private cars onto an already-scheduled route. And that’s starting to conflict with Amtrak’s plans—and making private railcar owners wonder whether the costs of ownership are still worth it.
“There are fewer opportunities to get on and off the train in terms of switching a privately owned car on and off,” Radovich says. (For the curious, here’s a list of the locations where “special car moves” are permissible.) “Buying a train car or right-of-way is likely the cheapest part. From there, it never ends.”
You can blame this, like many things, on Richard Nixon, whose administration oversaw the creation of Amtrak in 1971. Before, private railroad companies operated both freight and long-distance passenger and commuter rail service on their lines around the country. As cars and airliners stole long-distance riders, most companies found they lost more money than it was worth to keep their passenger service. The Rail Passenger Service Act, signed by Nixon in 1970, allowed companies to sell their money-losing passenger routes to the federal government, creating a consolidated national carrier.
But the law failed to guarantee long-term funding, forcing Amtrak to regularly scramble for fresh subsidies to make ends meet. Amtrak is consistently under pressure to cover its costs, and its subsidies are often a point of criticism. (As O’Toole is wont to point out, there’s a salient difference between his car ownership and Amtrak’s subsidies: “I love passenger trains, but I don’t believe other people should have to support my hobby with their tax dollars.”)
Amtrak leases track space from freight railroads in order to run most of its passenger lines, which move more than 31 million people each year. Its quasi-governmental status makes it a perennial punching-bag for conservative lawmakers who expect it to turn a profit. In recent years, Amtrak has made some progress on this quest to break even; for the 2020 fiscal year, Amtrak has requested $141 million less than what Congress appropriated for fiscal year 2019. But while it’s reduced its operating deficit lately, its long-haul routes still generate huge losses. Part of the plan might involve abandoning these routes in favor of adding service along the dense (and profitable) Northeast corridor, where Amtrak “has proven competitive with both flying and driving,” as the Wall Street Journalreported recently.
One little-discussed casualty of this effort by Amtrak to improve its bottom line has been service cuts that affect private railcar owners.
“We’re not stopping at every station along the line because it would be an inconvenience to a larger number of paying customers,” Magliari says. “And there’s a reduced number of places where we’re going to attach or detach private cars because we don’t want it to affect our primary business.”
There’s no real villain in this tale, other than the increasingly ruthless economics of American passenger rail. As a slice of Amtrak’s annual revenues of more than $3 billion, the storage and the transport of private railroad cars represents just under $4 million. It’s just not worth delaying trains to handle private railcars.
For now, AAPRCO members are in something of a holding pattern, according to Marchiando. Some are still planning to take trips. Marchiando says his car, which stays in St. Louis, will probably log about 10,000 miles this year. But other owners, he says, have just parked their cars, unable to move them to destinations they once visited. Others have sold them to tourist railroads.
Die-hard collectors like Radovich, however, keep the faith. These days, he rents out his Santa Fe cars every Christmas season to a local shortline railroad that runs a Polar Express for kids and their parents.
“They load up 300 people at a time and take them down the track to the North Pole,” he says, with an audible chuckle over the phone. “You read the book, get served hot chocolate, and everyone gets a little bell. And, for a short period of time, things are wonderful in the world.”
Philanthropy holds more than $1.5 trillion in assets globally, more than the U.S. federal government’s entire budget in 2018. Despite the fact that much of this funding goes toward social change work, gaps in outcomes across areas like health, education, income, and wealth are getting worse, not better. As a collaborative of the largest U.S. foundations and financial institutions dedicated to closing these gaps, we’ve asked ourselves: “How can we fix the disconnect between our investment and the impact we hope to achieve?”
Living Cities and others in the social change space have grappled with this critical question for years. We don’t have all the answers, but we’ve made significant progress in aligning our activities toward a clear set of results and building a system for measuring progress. Throughout the process, two themes emerged that can inform leaders working in any institution or sector who hope to build accountability to results.
At Living Cities, we believe that achieving economic justice for all requires a focus on both race and results. This belief is based on what we’ve learned over our 28 year history of investment in economic opportunity for low-income people. In the past several years, we came to realize that despite millions of dollars, thousands of hours, and powerful networks, our impact has been incremental compared to our aspirations.
We had to get clear on two things. First, our overarching goal was unclear and didn’t reflect a desired end condition. The concept of economic opportunity is useful at times, but it represents a starting point, a piece of the puzzle rather than a vision of economic well being. Relying on opportunity as our endpoint placed a heavy burden on the individual, ignoring all the systemic factors that have to be in place for a person to actually take advantage of an opportunity. It excuses public, private and philanthropic actors from their responsibility to create and maintain the conditions necessary for everyone to participate and thrive.
Second, we learned that you can’t achieve results ‘for all’ without a anti-racist approach that addresses the history and legacy of structural racism. Race neutral solutions fail to improve conditions for communities of color because they assume race is irrelevant. The reality is that race continues to be one of the strongest predictors of outcomes in any given area of life. We began to realize that without strategies that address the historical and current realities of structural racism, our work to get results for all people would continue to be undermined.
Get Specific and Accountable
Looking back, a major spark for our internal focus on performance and results came out of our collective action work with cities (known as the Integration Initiative). The cross-sector partnerships we support through this work involve naming a shared result, essentially a measurable, population-level outcome that the collaborative is accountable to and aligns resources around.
Status quo approaches to social change work don’t incentivize asking the tough but important question: “Are we doing the right things and are we doing those things right?” Figuring out how to build muscles around results and measurement to begin to answer this question was a daunting process. We started to make progress internally and in our work with cities when we began to adopt a framework known as Results Based Accountability (RBA).
Prior to this point, our overarching mission was to get results for low-income people. As the practice of RBA spread throughout Living Cities, we realized that we needed to get more specific. In the past, our approach mirrored that of many funders: try a lot of things that seem to make sense or feel innovative and see what sticks. This was in large part because we were focused on addressing symptoms and not root causes.
After much deliberation to find the best point of leverage, leadership aligned on a new guidestar for our work: ensuring that all people in U.S. cities are economically secure and building wealth. We now call this our North Star Result.
Target Root Causes
What came next was essentially a long process of mapping backward from this new result to ensure our portfolio of programs was aligned and poised for impact. We started one step down from the top: what factors enable people to become economically secure and build wealth? The list was understandably long and diverse: homeownership, wages, generational wealth, and education were just a few.
The next step was to identify root causes as we dove deeper into why disparities exist in each of these areas. The “aha” moment came when leadership collectively named racism–interpersonal, institutional, and systemic–as a common thread uniting these persistent gaps. It wasn’t until we took our results framework of RBA and applied an anti-racist lens that we really started to have influence over our result. We started to think deeply about what it takes to get results for all people. Our solutions had to target these racial disparities in order to disrupt the status quo, change oppressive systems, close the gaps, and achieve results for all people.
Equipped with a clear result and commitment to racial equity, we still faced a number of challenges. With so many possible intervention points, how would Living Cities decide which factors to address? What would these realizations mean for our portfolio of programs? How would we support our staff and partners in making this important but challenging shift?
We’ll explore these questions and share insights on the critical role of relationships in Part 2 of this series.
Earlier this year, ILSR released its 2019 Community Power State Scorecard, revealing the best and worst states for local clean energy across the country. In this new comparison of state rankings, we take a closer look at which states have taken the lead, which are improving, and which have more to do to create a policy landscape that supports distributed energy.… Read More
Released earlier this year, ILSR’s 2019 Community Power State Scorecard revealed new rankings of states that support local clean energy. How do states perform when compared to their neighbors? We explore this question to give advocates, lawmakers, and communities insights into how to improve state policies that enable local clean energy.… Read More
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Under a hypothetical scenario, researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland predicted that if the pay scale between blacks and whites had been equal since 1962, the gap would have closed by 2007. Instead, unequal income accounted for more than 80 percent of the wealth gap by the 1990s (as shown in purple in the chart above). But previous research has denied that income was a major factor in the wealth gap, and another scholar tells CityLab’s Brentin Mock that wages alone can’t fix it. “I don’t imagine a world where you could simply close the income gap and everything else just falls into place,” she says. Today on CityLab: Why Can’t We Close the Racial Wealth Gap?