Wednesday, May 19, 2010

COMMENTARY: “Quote me as saying I was misquoted.”

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Have you seen the headline on the latest press release from CURE (Consumers United for Rail Equity), written in bold capital letters? It‘s rather shocking:

“BNSF CEO REFUTES CRITICISM OF RAIL REFORM”

Saints preserve us! Has BNSF Railway’s chief executive, Matt Rose, changed direction, broken away from the rail industry and endorsed CURE’s cure for the monopolistic actions of the big, bad railroads? Do Bob Szabo and company really, truly desire a healthy rail industry?

Well, just read CURE’s press release. Here it is, verbatim:

“Many freight rail company representatives and advocates have resorted to scare tactics and misrepresentations in an attempt to undermine the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act of 2009 (S.2889), bipartisan reform legislation that would remove barriers to competition in the rail industry and improve rail customer access to protections in law against monopoly rail pricing and practices. But in a recent interview with the Nightly Business Report, Matthew Rose, CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, made a statement that refutes that criticism, saying reform would still allow the rail road (sic) industry to effectively operate and make profits. Specifically, Mr. Rose said:

“‘But certainly we believe that a free market approach to transportation has served this country very well. And you can still have partial changes to the regulatory environment and allow the railroads to do what they need to do.’

“‘Mr. Rose’s comments demonstrate that, despite the heated rhetoric of opponents of legislation, Congress can pass rail reform that protects consumers and shippers while continuing to ensure a vibrant rail industry,’ said Bob Szabo, executive director of Consumers United for Rail Equity (CURE). ‘S. 2889 is bipartisan legislation unanimously approved by the Senate Commerce Committee that achieves this careful balance by restoring fairness for rail customers without damaging the industry’s ability to achieve continued growth. We urge Congress to ensure the enactment of S.2889 at the earliest possible date in 2010.’”

I’m not sure whether to be angry or laugh. I’m more inclined to choose the latter, but what bothers me is that people who don’t know any better might actually believe CURE’s line of, er, gobbledeegook.

groucho_marx.jpgAs Groucho Marx once said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” He also said, “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.” Or, “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them ... well, I have others.” Finally, “Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can't make head nor tail out of it.”

If Groucho were still around and were asked to comment on the goings-on in Washington involving railroads, he’d probably resurrect these gems. He’d probably appreciate Norfolk Southern’s Wick Moorman, who recently referred to a group of “cynical and short-sighted shippers” who with the enthusiastic help of Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, are attempting to win reduced freight rates by tinkering with rail regulation, and a Washington attitude toward railroads that “is verging on schizophrenia.”

I asked Railway Age Contributing Editor Larry Kaufman to weigh in:

“Typically, CURE takes Matt Rose out of context, and in doing so, it ignores his rather direct statement:  ‘. . . we believe that a free market approach to transportation has served this country very well.’ Nothing in Rose’s statement endorses CURE and its hand-crafted effort to set the railroads back to the pre-Staggers era when railroads were financially crippled. Rose certainly did not refute any criticism of rail reform. On the contrary, a reading of his entire interview makes it clear that he does not disagree with justified criticism of the CURE bill.

“Congress may, in fact, be able to pass legislation that protects consumers and shippers while continuing to ensure a vibrant rail industry, as CURE claims, but the Rockefeller bill, S.2889, isn’t it. Szabo seems to think that calling something ‘bipartisan’ gives it dignity, whether deserved or not. The fact is there is no Republican or Democrat transportation policy, so a statement that a measure is bipartisan qualifies as meaningless. While there is much in S.2889 that would warm the cockles of a utility or chemical company’s heart, there is nothing in it that benefits railroads. Some compromise!

“As for ‘heated rhetoric,’ the railroads have been quite circumspect in their pronouncements, especially as they continue to try to work with Senate Commerce Committee staff to develop an acceptable bill. No, the heated rhetoric comes from CURE, which has been unable for 29 years to persuade the Congress that the Staggers Act needs amending.”

In American politics, anything goes, distortions included. Matt Rose, and for that matter all railroad chief executives, the Association of American Railroads, or any rail industry organization, have far too much class to resort to such tactics.

As Groucho Marx once said, “Quote me as saying I was misquoted.”

—William C. Vantuono, Editor, Railway Age

William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.