Once Upon a Time

Written by Chuck Baker, President, ASLRRA
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Photo by Warren Calloway

PERSPECTIVE: SHORT LINE & REGIONAL, APRIL 2019 - “Once upon a time”: Four words that begin some of the most enduring and beloved stories in Western Literature. They are enduring because they have been read over and over again by every generation, and because the hero overcomes obstacles to end up in a good place, and everybody lives happily ever after.

The short line story is not a fairy tale, but it does have much in common with these well-known stories. Once upon a time, short lines were the unwanted cast-offs of the national railroad system. They were unloved by their previous owners because the light volumes generated by their customers could not justify the investment needed to make a go of it. Many were headed for abandonment, which would have left much of rural and small-town America cut off from the national freight railroad system.

Then along came their Prince Charmings in the form of risk-taking entrepreneurs, who, using the economic freedoms and flexibility provided by the Staggers Act, borrowed large sums of money to purchase and rehabilitate these lines. They preserved service and jobs by making these lines more reliable, more competitive and much safer. In 1980 there were 8,000 miles of short line track. Today, short lines operate nearly 50,000 miles in 49 states.

Fairy tales are kept alive because they are heard anew by every generation, passed down by eager storytellers. So it must be with the short line story if we want to continue the legislative successes we have enjoyed in Washington, the standing we have earned in our local communities and the trust we have built with our Class I partners. Short lines themselves are the best ones to tell the tale, and there are numerous opportunities to do so in the immediate future.

In Washington, D.C., that opportunity is Railroad Day on the Hill on May 8, an all-hands-on-deck effort by everyone involved in the railroad industry—railroaders, shippers, suppliers, rail labor leaders and local economic development officials. More than 350 Congressional meetings are scheduled.

We stick to three messages: extending the 45G short line rehabilitation tax credit, opposing truck size and weight increases, and keeping regulations reasonable. It is a way to bring our message directly to decision-makers and, just as important, it is a show of force that demonstrates our industry’s diversity and geographic reach. It is an exhausting day that brings results. But it only works if you, your employees, your shippers and your local economic development officials make the trek. Most Congressional offices will only schedule a meeting if an individual from their district is among the participants, so it is important that you send as many of your people as possible. To register, go to www.aslrra.org/RailroadDay2019. And bring your walking shoes!

Another great way to bring the short line story to life is to show your Congressman what you do in his or her own backyard, to tell the longer version of your success in preserving service, creating jobs and making railroading safe. It also allows you to provide your elected official with a room full of voting constituents including railroaders, shippers, suppliers and local officials. This provides the Congressman living proof that what is good for short lines is good for a diverse set of industries and individuals across his or her district. And it almost always attracts local media attention, “Nectar of the Gods” for an elected official.

You can do this entirely by yourself, or you can ask ASLRRA to help. If your railroad wants to host a visit, our lobbyists can coordinate dates and logistics with your Congressman; assist with invites as appropriate to customers, local officials and the media; assist with the messaging and handout material; and attend the event to help ensure everything goes smoothly and to handle follow-up communication. All the short line has to do is welcome the Congressman and tell the story. The importance of these events cannot be overstated. They get the short line message front and center in the Congressman’s mind and they create a much wider open door when we need that access in Washington. We are no longer one of a thousand suit and tie lobbyists seeking a Congressman’s very limited time, but an extension of the good work you have done back home. To begin the meeting process, simply contact Will Resch at [email protected], or 202-715-2915, and he will take it from there.

Once upon a time, tens of thousands of miles of railroad track were on the verge of abandonment. But no more! Our success today is a result of the short line industry’s hard work at rebuilding the first mile/last mile service of the national rail network. And that success is only recognized because short line companies have told that story over and over again. This year, there are more than 100 new members of Congress who have never heard that story. It is incumbent upon everyone in our industry to keep telling that story in the most visible way possible. Doing so will take a little time out of your day, but it is time well spent, and if you do it, everybody will live happily ever after.


Categories: Class I, Freight, Passenger, Regulatory, Short Lines & Regionals Tags: , , ,