entities have had such a profound effect on their time as GM, but
its era now appears to be coming to an end. As with all empires, military
and commercial, when the costs of maintenance exceed the spoils of
profit, doom waits in the wings.
Beset with the huge cost of retirement income and health insurance
obligations to past and present employees due to the lack of
universal provision of such things in the US and a big decline
in car sales due to surging oil price, GM has been cutting jobs and
closing plants. It is also selling off prime parts of the business
that made it such a dominant force in shaping the transportation industry
we have today.
Last year the sale of the Electro-Motive Division to the rail-oriented
investment company Greenbrier Corporation was finalised, and it now
trades as Electro-Motive Diesel Inc. Started in 1922 as the Electro-Motive
Corporation by H. L. Hamilton to make self-propelled railcars powered
by petrol, butane, natural gas and later diesel fuelled engines with
electric transmissions, it soon became affiliated with carmaker General
Motors as its railcars successfully replaced costly steam trains on
branchline and lightly used passenger services. In the thirties it
built the engines for modern diesel-powered streamlined trains such
as the Burlington Route Zephyrs.
In 1940, the year EMC was absorbed into GM as the Electro-Motive Division,
the railway world changed forever when the first 5,400 hp FT
diesel-electric freight locomotive was produced and demonstrated to
a sceptical and conservative industry. The FT removed any doubt that
the era of steam power had passed, and the descendents of this locomotive
led the way in sweeping steam traction from the Western world's non-electrified
electrification succumbed to the diesel onslaught in North and South
America, Australia and New Zealand as the universality of diesel-electric
traction "electrification without wires" overrode
the efficiencies of straight electric traction where it was restricted
to relatively short sections of track that equalled the operating
range of steam power, or where a worn-out installation was not considered
worth overhauling and retaining, as with the Gippsland line in Victoria.
Electro-Motive Division licenced the building of locomotives to Clyde
Engineering in Australia and NOHAB in Sweden where locomotives were
manufactured to suit local conditions. As well as rail, EMD diesel-electric
equipment is widely used for marine power and electricity generation.
other significant selloff is the finance division, which provides
hire purchase to GM customers ranging from private car buyers to transit
operators and railway companies, on terms that allowed even the most
cash-strapped to buy the products they needed.
the US Supreme Court forced electricity companies to divest their
electric railway properties under the anti-trust legislation due to
conflict of interest (owning both an electricity producer and a consumer),
the only purchaser interested in many of these low earning and often
bankrupt properties was National City Lines Inc (NCL), a property
of GM, Standard Oil and Goodyear Rubber.
various NCL subsidiaries then sought to abandon rail operation while
buying GM buses through GM Finance. Post World War II, faced with
falling revenues and the cost of track and rolling stock renewal many
non-NCL operations also couldn't resist the deal offered by NCL. And
many US cities were applying political pressure to replace "old
fashioned" streetcars with "modern" buses, In 1945,
nearly every major city in North America had a tramway and/or a suburban
light rail system, but by 1970 this was reduced to about a dozen,
including Toronto and Mexico City.
"conspiracy" to abandon Los Angeles' Pacific Electric Railway's
passenger service in favour of freeways and buses provided the storyline
for the live-animated movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit . In reality
what happened was this: Pacific Electric had been owned by Southern
Pacific Company since 1911. It provided suburban and interurban electric
railway passenger service all over southern California surrounding
Los Angeles, and promoted itself as the "World's Largest Electric
Railway". It also hauled a lot of freight behind electric locomotives,
which was the reason Southern Pacific bought it. After WWII the shine
had long gone from the passenger trade and a proposal to sell the
passenger operation to the City for upgrading to rapid transit fell
through in 1949 over many conflicting interests. In 1953 PE passenger
service (already much of it bus-operated) was sold to one Jesse L.
Haugh, owner of Metropolitan Coach Lines. Haugh was fresh from closing
down the San Diego tram system, where, in 1949, he had sold its modern
PCC cars to El Paso, Texas. To great public outrage, he immediately,
with the connivance of the California Public Utilities Commission,
closed the Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Glendale/Burbank lines out
of the LA subway, PE's best performing routes. The remaining lines
to San Pedro and Long Beach, via Watts and Compton, were taken over
by the City buying out Haugh in 1958, but the services was too far
gone to be salvaged and they were closed in 1961.
1965, when it lost its separate corporate identity into the SP conglomerate,
PE continued to operate diesel-powered freight trains over the lines
previously shared with passenger trains. The Los Angeles Railway Co.,
a separate entity that operated the LA tramway system, was bought
by NCL in 1947, renamed LA Transit Lines and began closing down its
rail services. In 1958 it too was bought by the City, but tram and
trolleybus operation ended in 1963. Many of the modern Los Angeles
Railway PCC trams were sold to Cairo.
Norman Bel Geddes designed "Futurama" exhibit at the New
York World's Fair in 1939-40 launched the General Motors' vision of
a future of high speed motorways and endless urban sprawl. In the
50s it became reality with the Interstate Highway System started by
the Eisenhower administration, when former GM president Francis V.
du Pont, was the Transportation Secretary. This vision, based on endless
growth, profligate land use, and apparently inexhaustible supplies
of oil (and ignoring air pollution) created the automotive dystopia
we are saddled with today.
the GM corporate giant seemingly on its knees we may be seeing the
decline of the company that, along with Boeing and its 707 jet airliner,
set the stage for the transported related social, environmental and
energy use problems we have today. Boeing is still making money, but
with the stark realities of environmental degradation and fuel shortages
sure to change the face of aviation sooner rather than later, how
much longer can the current paradigms of energy-intensive transportation
and commerce survive?
Given the know-nothingism regarding these issues displayed by policymakers
in the US and Australia, Benjamin Franklins proverb that "experience
is a hard school, but fools insist on it" is appropriate. Looking
at General Motors foundering, the writing may well be on the wall,
but the politicians only want to complain about graffiti.