Our Industry Must Present a United Front

Written by Chuck Baker, President, ASLRRA
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Recently, I was honored to receive the OneRail Coalition’s newly established Canby Award. Named for the Coalition’s founder and former director, Anne Canby, the award recognizes an individual’s “dedication to preserving and improving the U.S. rail network.” Michael Davisson, Professional Staff for the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, was also selected as a recipient. 

Anne Canby

While I am grateful for the recognition, Anne is the individual deserving of the most recognition. Anne dedicated her life’s work to transportation and promoting rail at all levels of government, serving as the New Jersey Commissioner of Transportation, Delaware’s Secretary of Transportation, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. DOT. After leaving government service, Anne founded OneRail in 2009 as a non-profit organization to create a strong and unified group of stakeholders in support of a robust U.S. freight and passenger rail industry. Over the years, she continued to expand and strengthen the coalition to include Class I, II, and III freight railroads; Amtrak; state DOTs; rail labor unions; commuter rail; rail suppliers; engineering companies; and rail passengers. Her work raised awareness of the many economic, environmental, and safety benefits of freight and passenger rail.

We have a great story to tell regarding those benefits. Regretfully, we don’t always tell it as effectively as we could, and part of the reason for that is we don’t always capitalize on the inherent strength of our very diverse stakeholders. The rail industry is so much more than trains crisscrossing the country. It is a critical workforce representing hundreds of thousands of employees who earn above-average wages and enjoy excellent health and retirement benefits. It is a robust and growing rail supply industry that also employs a huge workforce and that is responsible for developing many of the technological innovations that reduce harmful emissions and improve rail safety. It is supporting organizations that provide safety education and training such as the Short Line Safety Institute and Operation Lifesaver. It is a lynchpin partner to local economic development officials who need rail service to implement their development projects. It is millions of commuters who depend on rail to get to and from work. It is transportation for tens of thousands of shippers whose ability to grow and prosper depends on efficient and competitive rail service. And it is an “All-American” proposition. All of our employees, all of our billions of dollars of capital investment, and all of our service to shippers takes place here in the United States.

It is no secret there are issues that divide us, and we often air those differences in the press, in the Halls of Congress, and before the agencies that regulate us. More often than not, those exhortations result in stalemate. It is when we exhort together that we are the most successful. I know that was the case with the short line’s effort to enact the 45G rehabilitation tax credit, in which we were provided invaluable support from all the rail industry’s stakeholders. 

When I first became a railroad lobbyist, I was struck by the success of the Highway Trust Fund lobby. Like the railroad industry, the Trust Fund has a diverse group of stakeholders with significant differences over the issues of gas tax levels, state funding formulas, transit allocations and project eligibilities. Yet, when it came time to rescue the Trust Fund from financial peril, every related association and individual stakeholder got into the same boat and rowed in the same direction to get to the finish line.

Anne noticed this dynamic long before I did, and getting everyone in the railroad industry into the boat and rowing in the same direction was her goal and remains today the primary objective of the OneRail Coalition.

I have no doubt the rail industry’s stakeholders will continue to disagree, debate, and rock the boat on specific transportation policy issues. But, I believe there are issues where we can and surely should present a united front and push as forcefully as possible. I believe fully funding and expediting delivery of the various rail programs such as CRISI in the newly enacted infrastructure bill is one of those issues. Being vigilant about maintaining a strong financial foundation for the Railroad Retirement system is another. Getting young workers into the industry, and keeping them here, is another. 

Speaking from the short line perspective, we believe next year’s reauthorization of the Farm Bill represents an opportunity to improve rail transportation and infrastructure in rural areas where so many shippers are dependent on the rail network, and we look forward to actively engaging our customers and many partners in that effort.

As important as supporting individual policies is, our collaborative effort is to always be educating policymakers on who we are, what we do, and how we benefit the country. In 2023, there will be a new Congress with scores of new members and hundreds of supporting staffers who have little if any knowledge about railroads or understanding of our economic and environmental benefits. Our industry’s ability to educate on those subjects will be much more effective if the first time they hear that message, it is delivered by a united front of stakeholders that make up the entire railroad industry. 

Short lines are the ultimate connectors. Like Anne Canby, we pledge to do our part to aggressively seek opportunities to bring all rail stakeholders together to move our industry forward.

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