As part of a special series in Railway Age’s April 2023 issue, 13 chief executives of leading North American companies answer the single-most critical question: What is the biggest challenge facing the North American rail industry? Patty Long of the Railway Supply Institute is the seventh to share her perspective.
As a society, and all too often in our nation’s Capitol, we spend our time focused on differences—difference of opinion, policy priorities, funding levels—rather than seeing the areas in front of us where we can clearly agree. Consider the almost unanimous belief in the benefits of moving people and products by rail. Objectively and statistically, rail is the safest, most sustainable, most economical and most efficient mode of transport.
Recognizing this, a bipartisan majority in Congress passed legislation in November 2021 to invest more than $100 billion U.S. taxpayer dollars in the rail industry, as 297 members of Congress (228 in the House and 69 in the Senate) voted for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), a $1.2 trillion investment overall. They understood that it would create jobs, promote more sustainable movement of people and products, and update a system that is key to our country’s economic health and national security.
Fast-forward 18 months, and our critical industry is behind the eight ball. The once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize U.S. infrastructure is slipping away under the weight of extreme inflation that threatens the U.S. transit industry and its domestic supply chain. At the same time, U.S. modal share for freight rail continues to decrease.
And who should care? The answer is a comprehensive ecosystem that begins with the American public and includes dozens of industries and the organizations that represent them.
On the passenger rail side, there are organizations that should be working together to ensure that infrastructure investments continue to fuel job creation, economic growth and keep a once-healthy supply chain intact. Proven solutions such as more efficient procurement and inflation adjustments have already made a difference for other industries such as defense.
And, while the RSI has started this discussion with the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), there are many others that need to be at the table, including, but not limited to, Associated General Contractors (AGC), American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARBTA), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), AFL/CIO, and the Sierra Club.
On the freight side, the percentage of goods moving by rail is decreasing even as rail transportation is shown to be safer, more cost-effective, and more sustainable. But, we are losing on service, flexibility and transparency.
I can track my Domino’s pizza from the oven across town to my front door, and get a tracking number from the USPS to see the status and location of my package to grandma, but no one can tell me when my boxcar full of critical parts rolling across the Midwest is going to arrive at its destination. That has to change, and we have the technology to change it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not naïve to the challenges of consensus. But the process begins with the acknowledgement that we all want the same outcome. And we do!
Shippers want to move their goods by rail for the reasons I’ve shared. Class I’s and short line railroads (many family-owned) want their business to succeed and thrive. Rail suppliers that build and own the freight railcars, maintain the track and develop the communications and signals want to invest in new cars and technologies to further improve safety, sustainability and logistics. Environmental groups (and most humans I know) want fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Labor wants more jobs. And the U.S. taxpayer supports spending less on maintaining roads while decreasing traffic congestion and highway fatalities.
More rail is the proverbial rising tide that lifts all our boats. We need to sit down together and determine how to improve our collective fates. To those I’ve mentioned (and others I’ve inadvertently left off), this is a personal invitation to partnership. Let’s check our differences and our egos at the door and focus on the bigger picture to fuel collective growth and progress.
Patty Long has more than 30 years of experience in the manufacturing trade association world, having held senior positions with the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Asphalt Pavement Association and the Plastics Industry Association. RSI is the largest and only trade association representing the full supply chain for the North American railroad system.