Editor’s Note: In 1918, the world was dealing with a deadly coronavirus pandemic, the “Spanish Flu.” Longtime Trains Editor and Publisher Kevin P. Keefe, now retired and a columnist for Classic Trains, sent me his April 2, 2020 “Mileposts” blog, in which he extensively references Railway Age. It is reposted here with permission, with some added photos. “It’s great to have a 170-year-old magazine around!” he said in his note to me. Actually, it’s 164, but who’s counting? Thanks for the shout-out, Kevin. – William C. Vantuono.
On March 3, 2020, Railway Age published my early observations on the COVID-19 pandemic’s potential impact on North America’s freight railroads. In just over three weeks, our world has become a very different place.
This is not a forecast. It’s a prudent warning. The continuing COVID-19 pandemic and our social reaction so far are driving our business culture toward a high-risk economic impact. Stay-in-place warnings and increasingly mandated government requirements will drive down income and gross domestic product (GDP). Fundamentally, the American economy will likely face choosing survival spending tactics.
And so we have agreement in the Senate on a stimulus package to rescue the U.S. economy from the economic ravages of the COVID-19 virus. And now it’s on to the House for passage, perhaps later this week. The sheer size is stunningly immense at some $2 trillion, give or take a few billion.
As America increasingly is sheltering in place, losing unprecedented numbers of jobs and retirement savings, fearful of COVID-19, and facing a stress level unfamiliar except to those who have endured war zones, Amtrak and its workforce face only unpleasant choices if the railroad and their jobs are to survive. Fare-paying passengers have vanished—almost entirely on Northeast Corridor Acela trains; significantly on all others.
A Union Pacific locomotive engineer based in the Pacific Northwest who had just received his notice of exemption from travel restrictions proudly told Railway Age Contributing Editor Bruce Kelly, “We’ve gone from building America to saving it.” This UP field employee in Train & Engine Service has embraced his railroad’s slogan, “Building America,” and his heartfelt statement takes it to a higher level—from motto to mantra.
On Saturday, Feb. 22, history buffs and railfans from around New Jersey gathered in a repurposed and still-beautiful former railroad terminal to celebrate a train that, during its short life, was an iconic and luxurious one that the Garden State could call its own. That train was the Blue Comet on the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ). It was New Jersey’s all-time premier train, which set the standard for décor and service at reasonable prices during an era when not many people could afford even a coach ticket. Few of the people who actually rode that train are alive today, and probably fewer still have vivid memories of the trips they took, but the fast and luxurious train that whisked riders through the countryside and the Pine Barrens of South Jersey to Atlantic City lives on in the DNA of New Jerseyans who remain tired of living in the shadows of New York and Pennsylvania, and who cling to memories of experiences of the past that their state could claim as its own.
Proponents of the Gateway Program split a double-header on Feb. 10, 2020, when the Federal Transit Administration released its ratings for projects for which grant applications were filed through the New Starts, Small Starts and Core Capacity Improvement Programs.
The year was 1917, and on Dec. 18, President Woodrow Wilson invoked the Army Appropriations Act of 1916 to take federal control of the nation’s railroads. The U.S. had entered World War I that April, and a lack of coordination among railroads, along with labor strife, hampered the war effort.
FINANCIAL EDGE, RAILWAY AGE MARCH 2020 ISSUE: In its 4Q2019 earnings call, Union Pacific announced a decline in revenue and the laying off of 3,000 employees (layoffs as opposed to furlough). Freight revenue declined 10%; operating revenue declined 5%. Operating expenses declined 12%, thereby decreasing (improving) the operating ratio (OR) to 59.7%. Additionally, UP indicated that the reduction in workforce would bring the total number of employees to roughly 35,000, from roughly 42,000 in 2018.