Frank N. Wilner, Contributing Editor

Frank N. Wilner, Contributing Editor

Frank N. Wilner is author of six books, including, Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; Understanding the Railway Labor Act; and, Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations from Virginia Tech. He has been assistant vice president, policy, for the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals.

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News item: Canadian Pacific (CP) is pursuing a hostile takeover of Norfolk Southern (NS). CP is asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether NS and other U.S.-based major railroads—some of which oppose the takeover—are unlawfully conspiring for “the primary purpose of restraining trade.” CP says “fear of competition does not justify the collective action of competitors.” Yet the Supreme Court long ago ruled that “joint efforts to influence public officials, such as railroad regulators, do not violate the antitrust laws even though intended to eliminate competition.”

Wednesday, 06 January 2016 00:19

Show us the letters, STB

On January 5, 2016, Reuters published a story containing excerpts of letters reportedly sent to the Surface Transportation Board by industry groups representing several major Norfolk Southern freight customers. The letters ask the STB to reject a merger of Canadian Pacific and NS, should a merger application be filed. We contacted the STB for copies of those letters and came up empty.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015 20:02

Centrist approach may quiet STB debate

The critical takeaway from enactment in December of the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act, S.808, is that, absent headline-capturing abuse of captive shippers by railroads, it is unlikely Congress will refocus anytime soon on diluting railroad market power.

Monday, 30 November 2015 02:17

CP-NS: Voting trust and other conundrums

Levitation takes two forms among railroads—magnetic levitation relating to futuristic high-speed passenger transport, and stock levitation associated with bidding wars for asset control.

Monday, 16 November 2015 23:30

CP-NS transcon a craps table roll

Few obstacles bedevil railroads as has the Mississippi River. Spanning it was the nation’s first rail bridge in 1856—promptly assaulted by steamboat Effie Afton. While the bridge was repaired and more constructed, the river remains a problematic divide, separating, with few exceptions, eastern railroads from those operating in the West and producing grueling interchange bottlenecks at Chicago.

Monday, 19 October 2015 06:25

STB: Speak to improve the silence

Imagine sharing with two equally qualified colleagues the decision-making authority affecting long-term railroad service quality, profitability and capital investment. Such is the power of the three Senate-confirmed members of the STB—Chairman Dan Elliott and Deb Miller, both Democrats; and Republican Ann Begeman.

Thursday, 03 September 2015 15:48

No fingerprints on NEC track grab

Here’s a mystery for you, but don’t anticipate—as in the board game, “Clue”—that it’s “Col. Mustard, in the library, with a candlestick.” The perp here is the U.S. Senate—the deed done under the Capitol Dome and with a pen (okay, a word processor).

Tuesday, 11 August 2015 15:00

PTC: It’s the deadline, stupid

Syntax-challenged George W. Bush was bang-on correct in saying, “You got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in.” So it is with Positive Train Control (PTC)—a $14 billion safety overlay utilizing computers, transponders and GPS to stop or slow a train automatically before certain types of accidents occur.

In a historic first, and in a rail industry whose labor and management leadership ranks long have been dominated by Caucasian males, the first all-female Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) in the 78-year history of PEBs has been created to investigate and make recommendations in a collective bargaining dispute involving New Jersey Transit (NJT) and 16 of its rail labor unions.

Following almost six months of unemployment, and nearly a year of dining on the gristle of uncertainty, Dan Elliott is returning to the Surface Transportation Board following voice-vote Senate confirmation June 22. President Obama previously said he would rename Elliott as agency chairman upon confirmation. Fellow Democrat Deb Miller has been serving as acting chairman of the three-member STB since Jan. 1.

For more than three decades, railroad regulators have used the same method to determine which shippers are captive; and, if so, to determine a remedy to limit railroad market power and assure rates charged captive shippers are reasonable.

Tuesday, 09 June 2015 10:35

Liability shouldn’t threaten survival

Violent clashes often occur at the intersection of liability, ability to pay and the law. They follow train accidents that send victims and railroads to court as adversaries.

It’s no surprise that Federal Railroad Administration Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg, a Democratic political operative—and a darn good one by all accounts—is President Obama’s choice to become the agency’s permanent chief. Politics generally determines executive branch appointments and it’s a shrewd wager the Senate will confirm her.

Dan Johnson died last week. He was 67. You probably neither knew him nor recognize his name. Yet if you are a railroader, he touched your life in meaningful ways.

Poor Mr. Dooley—Calvin, that is, president of the American Chemistry Council and not the fictional Mr. Dooley created during the late 19th century by humorist Finley Peter Dunne. The latter gained library space in Teddy Roosevelt’s White House; the former seemed to hoist himself by his own petard—Shakespeare speak (“Hamlet”) for the bomb maker managing to blow himself up with his own device.

Successful baseball pitchers learn to throw first-pitch strikes and stay aggressive in the strike zone when their team is in the lead. Life imitates baseball, meaning railroad spokespersons will serve their industry well over the next 10 weeks if they similarly perform—first before a congressional subcommittee examining 35 years of partial economic deregulation under the Staggers Rail Act, and then the Surface Transportation Board (STB) as it considers shipper entreaties that the railroads’ improved financial condition warrants tightening of the strike zone.

Thursday, 26 February 2015 14:47

Fini to saga of Amtrak's common stock

American Financial Group's 18-year quest to turn hopelessly unprofitable Amtrak into a gold-coin spewing piñata appears to have met its Waterloo in an emphatic all caps "CASE CLOSED" order of a federal court Feb. 23.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015 10:07

A second act at STB for Dan Elliott?

Proving once again he has more lives than cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, former Surface Transportation Board (STB) Chairman Dan Elliott is poised to receive his second White House renomination. The first renomination expired with adjournment of the 113th Congress in December after the Senate failed to confirm him. A formal announcement of the second renomination will be made this week.

Monday, 12 January 2015 09:40

New chiefs ID'd for FRA, AAR law department

As the White House considers candidates for Senate confirmation as the next Federal Railroad Administrator, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says he will name his Department of Transportation chief of staff Sarah Feinberg — a long-time Democratic operative with strong White House ties — as acting administrator upon the voluntary departure this week of FRA chief Joe Szabo.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014 10:56

Hello? It's Dan Elliott for President Obama

News item: Surface Transportation Board (STB) Chairman Dan Elliott was forced to bid adieu Dec. 31, 2014, after the Senate failed to confirm his renomination. President Obama still could make a recess appointment prior to a Republican controlled Senate sworn-in Jan. 6.

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