Monday, March 08, 2010

From the Editor: Rapid deployment in the midst of gridlock

Written by 

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

 

william-vantuono-web.jpgMichael Ward’s reputation as a highly effective railroad manager is eminently well deserved as the cover story of our March 2010 illustrates. “As a company, we’ve done a great job at responding to this downturn, and we’re going to be ready when the economy comes back,” he told me in late January. “We’ve got the resources, and we can deploy them relatively rapidly.”

 

There are many ways to measure a railroad’s progress. The stock price is one of them. One year after U.S. Class I stocks reached their lowest point, we took a  look at how they have been doing. The Big Four had more than doubled in value. CSX was leading the way—up 135%. Union Pacific grew 104%; BNSF and Norfolk Southern, 100%. Quite an accomplishment.

 

One thing that the best managers cannot control is legislation that could drastically affect their company’s future value to shareholders. I became acutely aware of this while attending the railroad industry’s annual march on Washington, Railroad Day on the Hill. The organization and planning that go into this event is monumental, and I’m sure that it has some sort of impact.

 

Just how much impact—on a government mired in partisan gridlock and filled with politicians more interested in payback than progress—remains to be seen.

 

“Congress is a reactive body, not a proactive one. It talks in sound bytes. Most Congressmen and Senators are more concerned with how they spin an issue, rather than how they plan to deal with it.” Who said that? A railroader? No. A journalist? No. Then who?

 

A special assistant to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Need I say more?

 

How about this exchange: Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) was the only Senator who actually was present at one of five meetings in which I participated. We explained the issues of concern to the railroads. He listened politely, but overall seemed rather bored. As we were taking our leave, I jokingly remarked, “Well, Senator, it looks like we’re going to get a whole lot more snow in the Northeast than you get in Oklahoma.”

 

Inhofe promptly woke up, and climbed on his imaginary soapbox: “After seven years, I’ve won my battle with Al Gore! He’s been proven wrong! Global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people! THERE WILL BE NO CARBON CAP AND TRADE LEGISLATION! I GUARANTEE IT!”

 

Thank you for sharing that, Senator. Excuse me, but I need to find the men’s room (I didn’t actually say that). 

 

To be fair, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who usually makes it a point to be present at Railroad Day on the Hill meetings (especially for a delegation from New Jersey), was undergoing chemotherapy that day. His Senior Policy Advisor, David Garten, was very supportive, and said what I thought was the most encouraging statement I heard: “We will not support any legislation that hurts the railroad industry.”

 

Sen. Rockefeller, are you listening to your Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee colleague (and fellow Democrat)?

 

As the AAR’s Ed Hamberger has observed, the industry now needs to go back to Congress and keep pounding away at the issues. Railway Age will do its part. Next month, we’ll have a special feature on the AAR’s “Great Expectations: Railroads and U.S. Economic Recovery” report. Our working title is a similar take on Charles Dickens:  “Great Expectations;  Hard Times.”

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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.