Wednesday, March 27, 2013

To public, railroads still toil in obscurity

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To state the obvious: Other things besides railroads preoccupy the average American’s daily life. But when one deals with, works on, or writes about the railroad industry on a daily basis, a reminder of the obvious doesn’t hurt.

MRL KellyMy latest reminder resulted from talking to reporter Kim Briggeman of the Missoulian, the daily newspaper based in Missoula, Mont. The subject was the Railway Age 2013 Regional Railroad of the Year, Montana Rail Link, which calls Missoula its headquarters home. We traded information—I asking questions on Missoula’s particulars, geographic, political, and otherwise, relating to rail; Kim asking me about our magazine, why short lines and regional railroads matter, and how many of them might exist nationwide.

In the middle of the conversation, I wished him well as he prepared to interview MRL President Tom Walsh for his own story on the railroad. “I’m new at this,” he replied modestly, referring to railroading issues. Then he said something to the effect of: I know where the MRL tracks are; I just don’t know much about where they go or how they’re used.

Briggeman probably knows more than he let on, and he certainly knows more than I do on that score – I don’t live in Missoula. Still, the observation resonated with me. Montana Rail Link is a regional railroad, a big regional railroad, in a big state that qualifies as its own region.

If MRL were in my part of the U.S., its right-of-way would easily span five or six states. Not that such an interstate presence would automatically make much difference in perception; Montana Rail Link isn’t the only railroad, let alone the only regional railroad, that somehow slips below the proverbial radar, even as MRL’s performance (and those of its brethren) makes a real, measurable, quantifiable, financial difference to the lives of everyday people, every day.

Briggeman’s excellent article on MRL, published March 27, notes in part: “Bowen said freight carriers such as Montana Rail Link historically have been poor about promoting themselves, and [MRL President] Walsh admitted his company probably doesn’t do enough to shine its public image.” True enough, but my intent was not to presumptuously single out, shame, or embarrass MRL with that observation; it was meant as an industrywide observation, particularly in years past.

The freight rail industry, led by the Class I’s but also including suppliers such as General Electric, has begun breaking out and promoting itself on TV, on the web, and in print advertising in recent months, and that’s encouraging. Moreover, the general news media (mainstream and otherwise) has paid attention to hydraulic fracturing and to coal movements (up or down). And intermodalism’s increasingly visible profile has captured the attention not just of the media but also of Wall Street. One more example, but a good one, of stating the obvious: Money talks.

That may help the average American overcome its short-term attention span to matters rail, often focused only when bad news takes place. MRL President Walsh, interviewed by Briggeman, summed up his own experience with this phenomenon: “Most of the headlines MRL appears in are about an occasional accident or a controversy such as the coal trains that use its line en route to the West Coast.”

MRL, and indeed the rail industry, deserves better. That’s one reason why Railway Age bestows its annual awards, to be sure—in fact, one reason among many why Railway Age exists, so we ourselves need to be part of any consciousness-raising. But awards (from us and others) won’t alter public perception by themselves.

And don’t ask the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) to carry on its century-long, exemplary work all by itself, either. ASLRRA is a powerhouse out of proportion to its size on Capitol Hill. But it’s up to ASLRRA’s members, and others in the industry—and one hopes, outside of the industry—to get the message of freight rail’s value to the U.S. economy out where folks can digest it, and realize what they have, and more important what they don’t dare lose.

Other things besides railroads preoccupy the average American’s daily life. Not all those things have such an impact on that daily life. Thanks to Kim Briggeman for the useful reminder.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.