Review of "The Best Transportation System in the World"

Mark Rose, Bruce Seely and Paul Barret’s book The Best Transportation System in the World: Railroads, Trucks, Airlines & American Public Policy in the Twentieth Century limns the development of these three modes of transportation in America, and to a lesser extent waterways, to illustrate the federal government’s role in the formation, regulation, maintenance and segregation of these industries.

As transportation of goods for trade is one of primary importance for capitalist development, these four industries were of highlighted as of particular concern to American politicians seeking to increase the country’s wealth. Stoppages or bankruptcy would lead to negative effects rippling throughout the economy, as primary and manufactured goods would cease to circulate and capital would stop flowing. To prevent such economic vicissitudes from occurring, railroads increasingly had their capacity for free action limited by government. Committees such as the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Department of Transportation were formed to contend with these market forces and encourage the development of the nation’s industry through capital outlays, loan co-signing and regulatory oversight. These oversight and advisory boards, however, had limited capacity to influence business or enforce the policies stemming from their research.

One such example of this that I found particularly interesting was the manner in which national or regional planning was a solution continuously developed and promoted by every single professional studying the situation in an advisory capacity. Railroad consolidation was first promoted by transportation economists such as William Z. Ripley as a panacea to railroads competitive waste and fluctuations. Though it was not until the 1970s that this was able to gain political traction, and even then not in the manner envisioned by these professionals the authors make it clear why this is so: the various transport regimes desired to limit competition to increase profits and provide a modicum of stability in fluctuating, artificially isolated markets.

When one additionally factors in the high entry costs of these industries and the pressures to upgrade machinery following post-war technological developments, it becomes more understandable why the government would wish to partially subsidize them. One of the best examples the authors give to illustrate the governments overarching concern with stability and the manner in which government subsidized transport regime is in the airline industry and the variations they tried to create a efficient system. In this industry, the authors are concerned with illustrating that in the decision making process that to lead specific public policies political considerations was the driving force and not the promotion of capitalist rights. Regions with small populations that might not be profitable for companies could not be abandoned according to the regulatory regime but instead had to be included and the costs deferred amongst passengers taking other routes. This of course had pricing effects which the authors illustrate via reference to promotional, student and business fares.

With its tight focus on business history, public policies and the development of the “presidential state” to regulate and later deregulate these industries for increased capital efficiency through a vast number of primary sources, there are few things with which one can find fault. The only thing I believe could strengthen it the book, recognizing my own biases behind such a statement, would be a short narrative of the railroad conditions prior to the 1920s as the political actors from that time to the 1980s repeatedly use that epoch as a rhetorical device, much like the phrase, “the best transportation system in the world,” to mobilize political actors. Doing so would provide greater clarity as to why it was that such restrictive and at times seemingly counter-intuitive policies were implemented.