You could be forgiven for not knowing who Harley Staggers was. After all, the name sounds like a character in an Elmore Leonard novel.
But the next time you stop at a gas station or drive on streets and highways to get there, just know that this West Virginian made those activities more affordable for you and your family.
The Staggers Rail Act, named for the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman, was signed 40 years ago last month by President Jimmy Carter, ending nearly a century of railroad industry regulation.
American railroads up until that time had been under strict limitations imposed by the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 to constrain rail industry monopolies that dominated the Gilded Age. 100 years later, those outdated requirements had become as constricting as the starched collars and heavy wool worn by railroad magnates a century earlier.
A combination of archaic statutes, stultifying rules and fierce competition from trucks plying the interstate highways were strangling rail operators by the 1970s.
The Staggers Act eased regulations freeing railroads to modernize their business practices and preserve this vital transportation mode. Freight railroads could set their own rates, lowering costs for most shippers and almost everyone along the supply chain.
As revenues improved, so did the condition of the track network, as the industry was able to conduct long-overdue maintenance to bolster safety enhancements. Train derailments nationwide fell from 6,442 in 1980 to 1,375 in 2018.
Today, according to the Texas Department of Transportation’s 2019 State Rail Plan Update, rail transportation services directly and indirectly generate a total economic output of $14 billion and support more than 58,000 jobs in Texas.
Improved drilling technologies have brought about a resurgence in American energy production and a reduced reliance on foreign oil. But those improved production methods require abundant supplies of sand to free the natural resources trapped deep underground. Much of that sand made its way to Texas drilling fields via thousands upon thousands of rail cars, making possible the energy production that lowers our prices at the gas pump.
Rail cars provide the same essential transport of materials for road building, hauling thousands of tons of aggregate from Texas quarries to support both new construction and maintenance. In a twist even Elmore Leonard would love, railroads thus facilitate the building and upkeep of roads for Texas truckers.
And those products we buy from around the world? Once they arrive at a seaport, part of their path to Texas consumers often includes a ride on a train, providing the essential link between a cargo ship and an 18-wheeler.
Railways provide a vital link for commodities coming into the U.S., and the same is true for products going out. Exports of myriad commodities are valued at more than $200 billion per year, supporting roughly 1 million jobs, according to TTI research. Most of those exports rely upon rail lines for at least part of their journey to foreign markets.
When you consider factors like these, it’s not a stretch to say that the Staggers Act saved the entire railroad industry, and more.
America’s ability to transport goods safely and efficiently depends upon this sustainable and reliable connection. We can hardly imagine today how we might fare without railroads as one of those vital links. And thanks to Harley Staggers, we don’t have to.
Allan Rutter is the Freight and Investment Analysis Division Head at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and was the Federal Railroad Administrator under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004.
This article was originally published in San Antonio Express-News, November 17, 2020.