Wes Vernon Commentary
June 2011

The Past Sins of Today's Railroads

Hear ye! Hear ye! This column hereby issues a call to the chronically self-righteous.

It's time to review the history of every railroad that ever graced the rights-of-way of our nation's ribbons of steel. Let every living creature in any way connected with a railroad whose long-dead officials/founders imposed crooked, violent or murderous deeds on other human beings, please take note:  You are to be held accountable and forever banned from conducting business here.


We are brought to this "fork in the (rail)road" by the fact that Maryland has added to its statutes a law requiring that a railroad (Paris-based Keolis) report in detail the role of its co-parent company SNCF (owned by the French government) in transporting Holocaust victims to Nazi death camps in the forties of the 20th century. In this second decade of the 21st century, Keolis must comply if it remains interested in a contract to run the state's MARC commuter trains on the Brunswick and Camden lines, for which the company in fact intends to submit a bid.

Keolis already has a presence in our community, having won the contract months ago to run Virginia's VRE commuter operations. That service had for years been operated by Amtrak, and the competitive bidding between the rivals had some decidedly adversarial moments. A seamless transition it was not.

The new law in Maryland is the first of its kind in the nation.

Not us, says CEO

Steve Townsend, the president of Keolis, points out that his company was founded in the late 1990s, nearly a half-century after the Holocaust. Thus he adds, quite self-evidently, "We didn't operate the trains in World War II." He hoped that his company's majority owner (57%) will submit the information so that Keolis can submit the bids scheduled for this summer.

As for the plaintiffs who are suing for damages from SNCF, their lawyer, Ralph Prober, whose firm Akin Gump is representing pro-bono 269 aging Holocaust victims, says it is of public interest that we know "the character" of the companies with whom our governments are doing business.


Look, one can empathize with the emotional investment Mr. Prober's clients have in pursuing to the ends of the earth the tiniest possible trace today of left-over responsibility for the Holocaust.

However, the only parties likely to be discovered as culpable are dead Germans since the Nazi regime during the war seized the SNCF operations in occupied France. There might be one or two previously-unknown French collaborators whose post-mortem reputations could take a dive. Beyond that, it is hard to see what would be accomplished other than to punish Maryland commuters for the terrible sins of those in a far-off land. CSX wants out of its current contract to run the MARC trains (that operate on its Brunswick and Camden line tracks) and a previous attempt to find a new operator was canceled due to "lack of interest."

So, other than the (never-to-be-minimized) desire of Holocaust victims for another step at being made whole (however remote), what is to be proven here? We need someone to run the train who actually wants the privilege of doing so, not a Class I railroad whose undisputed high-level of expertise understandably is not matched by the same enthusiasm as deployed in its money-making freight operations.

If we go down that road . . .

Perhaps a precedent is being set whereby all railroads should be held accountable for whatever their long-dead predecessors did or failed to do. Let's see, where to begin?

Let's start with the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

This history began when a European economic depression arrived on the shores of the United States on September 18, 1873 (the "panic" of 1873), with the failure of the banking firm Jay Cooke and Co. Cooke was a principal backer of the Northern Pacific Railroad, as well as other rail lines.

That set off a chain reaction during the next few years, starting with the closure of the New York Stock Exchange for ten days. Of our 364 railroads, 89 went bankrupt as over 18,000 businesses failed between 1873 and 1875.

Compounding all the massive dislocation was that, with the end of the Civil War, our still young (and largely undeveloped) nation underwent a feverish unregulated growth, especially in the railroad industry.

Since Cooke's firm was investing a disproportionate share of its depositors' money into the overbuilt railways, thus clearing the way for the ensuing collapse. The Cooke firm had been a de facto agent of the government in its program of land grants to construct the railroads.

By 1877, there ensued a bitter antagonism between the workers and their employers--10 percent wage cuts and poor working conditions led to a number of railroad strikes that prevented the trains from moving.

Turn to violence

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in response to a second cut in wages within a year by the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O). Despite state and federal militia having been sent to restore the train service, the strike spread to Cumberland, Maryland.

It was on the streets of Baltimore where citizens of that city, who sympathized with the workers, attacked the troops as they were marching toward Camden Station to board a troop train to take them to Cumberland. The outnumbered troops fired on the Baltimoreans, killing 10 and wounding 25. The rioters injured several members of the militia, damaged engines and railroad cars, and burned parts of Camden Station.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was the site of the worst violence. Thomas Alexander Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad suggested that the strikers should be given "a rifle diet for a few days to see how they like that kind of bread." On July 21, in response to rock-throwing strikers, Scott got his wish. The militiamen killed 21 people and wounded 29 others.

In Reading, 16 citizens were shot by state militia (mobilized by the Reading Railroad) in what became known as the Reading Railroad massacre.

Bottom Line

Much of the old B&O today is a big part of CSX. Should that Class I carrier be held responsible for the 19th century killings in the Great Strike? How about the Old Pennsy? Today that is shared in part by Norfolk Southern and--are you ready for this?--Amtrak, which owns the Northeast Corridor. Should freight customers withhold business from the former, and passengers refuse to ride the latter?

Reading merged into a part of Conrail, which today is a small "shared assets" entity of the Conrail breakup of 1999. Maybe the officials of that railroad of the present should be served subpoenas and be made to supply all evidence of its long-ago predecessors' culpability.

Don't forget that Jay Cooke's biggest rail investment was in Northern Pacific, now a part of BNSF. We can second-guess his investment smarts by going after today's owner. It's doubtful that Warren Buffett had this ensnarement in mind when he became the railroad's sole stockholder.

In perspective

There is not the slightest intention here to trivialize the butchery suffered by the Holocaust victims. Nor do the scores of strikers killed in a 19th century labor dispute even remotely begin to rise to the level of six million victims in World War II. But futile efforts such as this usually start with the most extreme cases and ease their way onto the proverbial slippery slope, seemingly with no end.

Trying to make a company pay for sins inflicted by its predecessors/ancestors solves nothing in the real world. And such generations-separated "reparations" accomplish nothing positive. No one is alive who can undo the damage or bring back to life the victims of long-ago eras.

What matters today is that the MARC commuter train lines are in need of a responsible organization that can provide the service. Must the needs of the here and now somehow get lost in all this?