Defending the rail industry from falsehoods

Written by Bruce E. Kelly, Contributing Editor

Railroads and their customers must not leave fate in the hands of a misinformed public.

Long before the concept of “fake news” became a thing, the rail industry suffered routinely at the hands of mainstream media, whose members believe that bulk commodities and passengers get transported in “boxcars,” and that most of North America’s rail network still operates on literally the same track structure that was spiked into place a century or more ago. The truth about railroading becomes even harder to find when reporters attempt to cover a story combining elements of tragedy, technology or public awareness.

On Oct. 10, 1995, Amtrak’s westbound Sunset Limited derailed on the curved approach to a bridge in remote desert country 65 miles southwest of Phoenix, Ariz., injuring nearly 100 onboard, and killing an Amtrak sleeping car attendant. The incident occurred on a lightly traveled segment of Southern Pacific alternate main line that is now owned by Union Pacific and no longer in through service. Investigators discovered that bolts and joint bars had been removed from a section of track prior to the train’s arrival, an act of sabotage that remains unsolved to this day.

FBI and railroad officials said a jumper wire had been placed between the disconnected rails to maintain continuity in the Automatic Block Signal circuit, thus giving the engineer a clear signal toward the broken track. The fact that SP’s line between Phoenix and Wellton, Ariz., was mostly governed by ABS semaphore signals dating back to the 1920s was apparently beyond the comprehension of some mainstream news outlets, which reported that a “computerized” signal system had been tampered with.

CNN committed one of the less egregious errors in describing the accident scene. It referred to the plate girder bridge on concrete piers as a “wooden trestle.”

The most sensationalized comments were made about the derailed train itself. Only four cars had significantly left the roadbed, one of which rolled onto its side adjacent to the track, and two of which slid off the 30-foot-high bridge, landing on a flat, sandy stream bed. That didn’t stop the Los Angeles Times from publishing its outrageous description of “Amtrak’s twelve-car Sunset Limited plummeting into a rock-strewn gorge.”

These were trivial failings in journalism, with probably no more consequence than leaving ordinary citizens misinformed, as they often are, about a rail-related news event. Other times, however, the misrepresentation of facts or publication of outright falsehoods has influenced public opinion and government action that can be detrimental to the rail industry, its customers and the economy as a whole.

Today, one of the biggest examples of rail commerce and jobs growth being negatively impacted by misinformation lies in the Pacific Northwest, where multiple proposals for new unit train terminals to handle coal and oil have been delayed or cancelled completely. On first impression, the stated goals of the special interest groups who oppose such terminals appear admirable: protection of the environment, and safety for communities located along rail lines that would carry that traffic. But in order to sway the general public and elected officials into agreement for their cause, some groups have released grossly exaggerated information through social and mainstream media, with no fact-checking performed by those outlets.

Worst-case scenarios have been virtually spoon-fed to Northwest and national media, with the assumption being that if all of the proposed coal and crude terminals were built, there would be an enormous, corresponding increase in the number of unit trains carrying those commodities into the region. In 2012, the Western Organization of Resource Councils released a 60-page report titled “Heavy Traffic Ahead.” Buried within its extensive examination of route options, capacity issues and rail operations between the Powder River Basin coal mines and Northwest port sites, the report made a number of bold forecasts such as this: “The projected movement of 75 million tons per year by 2017 to 170 million tons per year by 2022 will equate to the movements of 27.86 to 63.15 loaded and empty coal trains per day.”

That prediction of more than 20 additional trains per day by 2017 has not happened, nor could it. BNSF currently does not have the capacity to accept such a spike in coal traffic without canceling a number of other train types that already travel its Northwest network. The same goes for Union Pacific. The preferred gateway for PRB coal to reach the Northwest is through Spokane, Wash., which already faces periods of acute congestion handling the 65 or more trains of various types each day (BNSF and UP combined) that now run there. To suggest that these railroads would somehow build enough new capacity over the next five years to support as many as 60 additional trains by 2022 defies both physical and fiscal reality, even if those new Northwest terminals were up and running and ready to receive trains.

Equally exaggerated claims have been made about crude oil unit-train traffic growth. In its 2014 “Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study” (published in March 2015), the Washington State Department of Ecology assumed that all proposed export or offloading terminals for crude would be constructed (on top of the half dozen terminals already operating in the Northwest), and then went on to predict that crude-by-rail traffic will more than double to eight loaded trains per day by 2020 and reach “… about 113 trains weekly or 16.6 trains daily by 2035.”

These overblown forecasts and others like them have been repeated verbatim in news stories, letters to the editor, paid advertising and statements by persons either in or campaigning for public office. In a story published Feb. 24, 2014, the Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane said, “Environmentalists issued a report estimating that fossil fuels could bring 82 trains a day through Spokane and Sandpoint [Idaho] a decade from now.” The newspaper provided no backup for that figure from state or regional transportation officials, but it did say, “BNSF Railway officials said those estimates are unsubstantiated.”

The media have rarely given railroads their fair share of time and space to refute the anti-coal/crude movement and present actual, official traffic forecasts to the public. BNSF Executive Chairman (and then CEO) Matt Rose took his company’s case directly to several Northwest media hubs in August 2012. In an interview with The Columbian of Vancouver, Wash., Rose disputed the claims of 60 or more additional coal trains per day, saying, “I promise you, that’s nowhere in the realm of seriousness. It’s not realistic.” The figures for potential coal train growth that Rose presented, under the more plausible scenario of just one, possibly two, of the proposed export terminals ever getting built, were in the range of eight to ten trains (half loads, half empties) per day. That corresponds with what Montana Rail Link (MRL) Director of Sales and Marketing Jim Lewis expressed to the media in November 2012. Lewis pointed out that any increase in Northwest coal traffic would only involve four to five loaded trains per day, with the other four to five being empties.

Five years later, MRL and BNSF continue to jointly move just two to four loaded coal trains per day into the Northwest, most for export through a Canadian terminal, and some for consumption at power plants in western Washington and northeast Oregon. (UP provides the final link in delivery to the Oregon plant.) Both Northwest power plants are scheduled to close within the next few years, and none of the proposed coal export terminals has gained final approval. But railroads in the region still face interference from anti-coal/crude activists (including track blockades), and the media continues citing the same inflated claims for how much that traffic may soon grow.

The plight of coal—and media coverage of it—took on a more national and political tone during recent election cycles. Those who blame President Obama for launching a “War on Coal” point to his 2008 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, in which the then-senator from the coal-bearing state of Illinois said, “So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.” The entirety of that Obama interview reads not so much as an outright shot against coal but more like an honest assessment of the economic viabilities of various forms of energy production. In fact, it has since become standard for most in the mainstream media to say that it was simply the lower cost and increasing abundance of natural gas that took a huge bite out of coal.

But actions speak louder than words, whether the public hears of it or not. A study released in 2013 by the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University found that only “9% of [then] current coal capacity is challenged by low natural gas prices,” and that 56% of coal capacity would in fact “be challenged by the stricter emission regulations.” Such regulations began to surface in 2011 with the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards ruling, in 2013 with President Obama’s memorandum on Power Sector Carbon Pollution Standards, and in 2015 with Obama’s Clean Power Plan, all of which would augment the long-established (and frequently amended) Clean Air Act. Those stricter rules introduced (but not fully implemented) during the Obama Administration are under consideration for scale-back by President Trump.

In February 2017, a “Today in Energy” report issued by the U.S. Energy Information Administration outlined the current impact of economics and regulations on coal. The EIA said, “Without the Clean Power Plan, there is less incentive to switch from carbon-intensive coal to less-carbon-intensive natural gas or carbon-free fuels such as wind and solar. In the scenario where the Clean Power Plan is not implemented, coal again becomes the leading source of electricity generation by 2019 and retains that position through 2032.”

Another recent and more widely-seen admission that economics alone are not to blame for coal’s hardships came during a 60 Minutes interview of media mogul and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg that aired on April 23, 2017. During discussion of Bloomberg’s philanthropic efforts, reporter Steve Kroft said that Bloomberg had donated “a hundred million dollars to assist the Sierra Club and its lawyers in shutting down more than 250 coal-fired plants.” (Various reports indicate that Bloomberg personally donated $50 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in 2011, then another $30 million in 2015. Tens of millions more came from additional sources.) Bloomberg spoke to 60 Minutes in apocalyptic terms about the health risks associated with coal, while expressing sympathy for coal workers themselves. But he insisted, “Technology cost the miners their jobs, not the Sierra Club.”

However, the Sierra Club’s own statements to Railway Age, and coverage of its Beyond Coal campaign in other media, tell a far different story. An extensive May 2015 report in Politico, which should be a must-read for anyone in the rail or utility industries who cares to know what they’re actually up against, said, “The real war on coal is not primarily an Obama war, or even a Washington war. It’s a guerilla war. The front lines are not at the Environmental Protection Agency or the Supreme Court. If you want to see how the fossil fuel that once powered most of the country is being battered by enemy forces, you have to watch state and local hearings where the utility commissions and other obscure governing bodies debate individual coal plants. You probably won’t find much drama. You’ll definitely find lawyers from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the boots on the ground in the war on coal.”

That report went on to describe Beyond Coal as “the most extensive, expensive and effective campaign in the Club’s 123-year history, and maybe the history of the environmental movement.” A key angle of the Sierra Club’s anti-coal effort is economics. As Politico put it, the group “usually wins by arguing that ditching coal will save ratepayers money.” This plays into the more widely stated perception that costs alone have hampered coal, until that view is sharpened to recognize the tremendous financial and social support that Beyond Coal has received from Bloomberg and others.

The Sierra Club itself takes much credit for the shutdown of numerous coal-fired power plants across the U.S., and the blockage of proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest. In June 2016, the Climate Policy Director for the Sierra Club told Railway Age, “It’s certainly the case that a massive, ambitious American grassroots movement to move beyond coal is winning one campaign after another.” But the group is targeting more than just coal. The Sierra Club also launched Beyond Natural Gas and Beyond Oil campaigns, which have since merged into the Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign. The Sierra Club said, “While the carbon content of coal is higher than natural gas, substantial climate pollution can be associated with leaks of natural gas during production and transportation, and in some cases that pollution can even be larger than coal burning.”

So, while some in the media continue reporting that natural gas has edged out coal because of decisions in the marketplace, they’re failing to tell the public that natural gas itself is in the crosshairs of the same organization—well-funded and highly organized—who lobbied to cripple coal. The failing-to-tell part is what’s at the core of misinformation. When Trump aid Kellyanne Conway famously coined the phrase “alternative facts,” she was dealing with subject matter where she herself was on questionable ground. But it was equally wrong for NBC news anchor Chuck Todd to retort, “Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” That’s not true in instances where those facts can be proven, and where they happen to present truth in a manner that runs counter to a news organization’s or activist group’s narrative.

The glass can be half full as well as half empty, two completely opposite yet truthful assessments of the same thing. One view just happens to be more positive than the other. Case in point: coverage of CN’s first-quarter 2017 results. The headline at Railway Age: “CN: Off to a Strong Start.” The headline at Bloomberg News: “CN is Struggling to Remain North America’s Most-Efficient Railroad.” The RA story cited substantial increases in CN’s income, revenues, carloadings, and capital spending, while also noting CN’s operating ratio of 59.4% reflected a slight increase of only half a point. Bloomberg, on the other hand, emphasized concern about the OR, as well as a one-day single-digit decline in stock price, while later showing that CN stock gained by double digits (13%) across the entire quarter. Leave it to the rail trade journal, and not the mainstream news outlet, to recognize the upside in those CN numbers.

If the prospects for things like energy export terminals, high-speed rail lines, expanded freight capacity or long-distance passenger service fail or succeed based on sound scientific and environmental findings, on economic viability, or on whatever legal say is held by citizens or authorities, there may be no grounds for challenging the outcome. But it’s not acceptable when such decisions are based on half-truths or exaggerations that have been distributed through a highly influential system whose top members are not immune from being questioned (and occasionally toppled) for their loose grasp of the facts. (Dan Rather, Brian Williams, where are you?)

Railroads and their customers can’t afford to let misinformation prevail in the court of public opinion. False claims left un-refuted will eventually become lodged as fact in the minds of those who hold the power to approve commerce, or deny it.

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