Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Railway Interchange 2011: An event to remember

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Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I have never fueled a locomotive in my life, much less in a suit and tie. But in the photo above, taken at Railway Interchange 2011, I couldn’t resist a hands-on experience with a new piece of technology—in this case, the MPL Technologies SpillX system.

It’s an impressive piece of technology, able to fuel a locomotive at a rate of 600 gallons per minute, without spilling a drop. When it’s operating, it cannot be removed from the filler nozzle, accidentally or otherwise. Trust me, I tried.

“Impressive” is a rather understated way to describe this “event to remember” (p. 16). Walking into the massive Minneapolis Convention Center, with our three principal supplier trade associations—REMSA, RSI, and RSSI—under one roof in one huge exhibit hall, wasn’t as awe-inspiring as, say, entering Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or the main waiting room of Washington D.C. Union Station. However, as trade exhibits go, it was rather awe-inspiring. My apologies to the Chicago Hilton and Towers exhibit space, but this place makes the supply industry’s musty old standby look like a flea market!

The outdoor exhibits—track machines, freight cars, and locomotives occupying multiple tracks in a space about the length of a drag strip (that’s a quarter-mile for those of you unfamiliar with motorsports)—were, well, practically blinding when the sun was shining. Just picture huge expanses of safety-yellow-painted tampers and grinders and undercutters and ballast regulators and work cranes that probably could be seen from the International Space Station.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood (opposite) gave a somewhat stirring keynote speech at the Opening General Session. While his talk did contain much of the expected jobs-creation rhetoric that underpins practically every political speech these days, and was primarily focused on high speed passenger rail (a theme that the primarily freight rail audience found a bit odd), LaHood did manage to compliment the freight railroads, who have been under pressure from the Administration to be more accomodating to passenger trains.

La Hood said that the Class I railroads “are our good partners in developing the President’s vision for high speed rail.” That vision involves “giving 80% of Americans access to high speed rail,” a network he said would be fed by local transit and regional rail services. “We believe connectivity is important,” he said.

Calling President Obama and Vice President Biden “the rail men of the 21st century,” La Hood noted that the Administration has already invested $10 billion in the nation’s rail network through various passenger rail projects, an investment “that could not have been done without our Class I partners. There is not enough money available for what we want to accomplish without good partners like them” contributing private-sector funds. Citing projects like the Chicago-St. Louis corridor higher speed rail improvements, La Hood said, “The fact is, we’re not just filing reports and stuffing them in file cabinets.” He added that the Administration strongly supports high speed rail and freight rail.

However, La Hood’s speech was hardly an olive branch to the freight railroads, who through the AAR are suing the federal government for giving Amtrak the “authority to promulgate binding rules governing the conduct of its contractual partners, the freight railroads.” AAR is challenging the constitutionality of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA), which gives Amtrak and the FRA the power to “jointly develop new or improve existing metrics and minimum standards for measuring the performance and service quality of intercity passenger train operations.”

If La Hood had wanted to offer an olive branch, he would have devoted most, if not all, of his speech to the essential and excellent job the freight railroads and their suppliers are doing to keep the nation’s economy moving. That’s what Railway Interchange 2011 was mostly about.