Archive for the ‘On Transportation’ Category

One ‘Law’ Won’t Change Following the Infamous United Airlines ‘Re-Accomodation’ Incident

May 11, 2017

Whenever I read about an incident in which police are alleged to have used excessive force, I think about a comment made by a political science professor who taught a course I took titled Introduction to the Legal System.

On the first day of class the late Charles A. Hollister told us that law is a very jealous mistress that won’t tolerate competition.

The incident last month aboard a United Express flight at Chicago O’Hare Airport during which a Kentucky doctor was dragged off the plane by airport police officers reminded me yet again of professor’s Hollister’s missive.

He was talking about the legal system, but law is a concept that transcends the courts and its officers.

Every transportation company has a central “law” that is sacrosanct. Though shall not interfere with operations. Planes must fly, ships must sail, and the wheels of trains, buses and trucks must turn. Moving objects are, after all, the essence of transportation.

News reports indicate that the United Airlines incident began when four crew members showed up at the gate and said they had to get to Louisville, Kentucky, on this flight because they were scheduled to operate a flight for the company the next day.

United officials chose four passengers already aboard the plane to bump, three of which agreed to accept the airline’s financial incentive.

By law airlines must compensate passengers denied boarding, a rule that apparently also applies to those already aboard a plane.

But the Kentucky doctor balked. He had his own “law,” which he is reported to have described as “I need to get back home to attend to the needs of my patients.”

What happened after that was the logical result of everyone acting like a jealous mistress and holding fast to their “laws.”

Airline officials called police and millions have seen how they drug the recalcitrant doctor down the aisle of the plane after grabbing and pulling him out of his seat.

Those images resonated with many because it represented one of our worst nightmares about flying.

It was also an aberration. Most people get to their destination aboard the flight that they booked without getting bumped or physically assaulted.

Most people would not defy four police officers telling them to get off the plane. We are conditioned to obey police officers because if we don’t, well look what happened to that Kentucky doctor.

Police generally do not respond well to those who resist or refuse to recognize their authority and they have the legal right to inflict physical punishment upon those who defy them.

Much has been written about how the airline should have handled the situation. Commentators have written that everyone has their price and if the Kentucky doctor was unwilling to take the airline’s initial offer, then the gate agent authorized to make the offers should have gone to another passenger or upped the ante until the Kentucky doctor agreed to take the money and walk.

But whoever decided to choose the doctor for involuntary removal from that flight, or as United CEO Oscar Munoz infamously described it as “re-accomodate” him, also decided to become a jealous mistress and dig in his/her heels and insist on bumping this particular passenger.

How dare a passenger defy an airline employee telling him to get off the plane?

In the wake of the video made by passengers of the Kentucky doctor being drug down the aisle going viral, United has been falling all over itself apologizing, announcing rule changes and seeking to put the incident behind it as quickly as possible.

After attorneys for the doctor said he would sue the airline, the two sides quickly settled out of court for an undisclosed sum – possibly in the millions – and issued statements praising each other.

The rule changes that United and other carrier have announced may lessen the probability of another violent bumping incident from occurring again, but won’t change the basic “law” that came into play in the United Airlines incident.

Planes must fly, wheels must turn and ships must sail and the owners of those vessels will continue to insist that it is they and not those being transported who will dictate the terms of operations.


Preserving Heritage Rail Lines May Involve Overcoming ‘More Beneficial Use’ Arguments

April 11, 2017

Scott Fadness is not a popular person these days among railroad advocates in Indiana.

The mayor of Fishers, Indiana, favors ripping out a former Nickel Plate Road branch line that runs through his city to Indianapolis that until 2015 hosted excursions operated by the Indiana Transportation Museum, including its popular Fairtrain to the Indiana State Fair.

In place of the now dormant rail line, which is owned by a public entity, would be a hiking and biking trail.

ITM and other rail supporters have proposed building the trail alongside the rail line.

But Fadness has rejected that due to safety concerns, saying he didn’t think it would be wise for trail users to be within several feet of a locomotive.

It is easy for railroad advocates to dismiss Fadness as ignorant or to proclaim his position as ludicrous as an ITM spokesman did.

Indeed, those accusations probably are true. But overcoming the beliefs of officials such as Mayor Fadness will not be easy.

He may not be a friend of rail preservation, but it could be a mistake to consider him an adversary. He is someone who needs to be won over.

If anything, railroad advocates need to listen carefully to public officials such as Mayor Fadness. You can’t overcome opposition if you don’t understand it.

Rails and trails can and do co-exist. The Rails to Trails Conservancy says there are 1,600 trails in 41 states that are located next to a railroad line.

Yet the Conservancy said there are 10 times more trails that have been built on a former railroad right of way.

As a result more people think trail without rails than they do trail with rails because the former is most likely to be what they have seen and experienced.

One of those trails without rails is a couple miles west of the ex-NKP line on the right of way of the former Monon Railroad line to Indianapolis.

Fadness wants to emulate that trail and has adopted the type of “more beneficial uses of the property” worldview that worries Jim Porterfield, the director of the Center for Railway Tourism at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia.

Porterfield was quoted in the May 2017 issue of Trains magazine as warning that heritage railroads are at risk when a community views them as entertainment rather than historical venues.

Porterfield told Trains that the typical arguments for displacing heritage rail lines include, “year round versus seasonal use, a greater distribution of income to local businesses, more people present, and higher property values along a trail versus a rail line.”

By one estimate, the ex-NKP line in Indianapolis needs $9 million in repairs to bring rail service back. A trail can be built for much less than that.

Mayor Fadness sees the situation as a simple cost-benefit analysis that weights heavily in favor of a trail.

Every rails to trail dispute has its own circumstances. In the case of the ex-NKP rail line, there has been internal turmoil within the past year at ITM that has harmed its credibility.

The location of the line in an affluent area of suburban Indianapolis also works against it. Such areas are a fertile ground for NIMBY opponents who know how to work the political system.

Some at ITM have also spoken about extending the ex-NKP to downtown Indianapolis and offering passenger trains there.

There may be some merit to that vision, but it would cost millions if not billions, to replace track that was removed years ago.

People who do not “love” railroads will laugh off such proposals as unrealistic given the existing available resources.

Mayor Fadness may have his mind made up and time is not working in favor of those who want to keep the ex-NKP branch intact.

If you are going to persuade public officials such as Mayor Fadness, you need to show him that rails and trails can co-exist. And you need to convince him on his terms, not those of a railfan who tends to believe that every foot of rail should be preserved.

The question is whether the railroad advocates have the skills and willingness needed to make the case for rail and trail.

Budget Proposal Just a Starting Point

March 21, 2017

More than likely it is a waste of time to discuss the Trump administration proposal to eliminate funding for Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

A president’s budget proposal is just that, a proposal, and no president of either party sees the budget he sent to Congress come out without any substantive changes.

For that matter the House and Senate will have their own ideas about how to spend public money, including how much to allot to the national rail passenger carrier.

Amtrak has been down this road before, many times in fact. Past administrations have proposed zeroing out Amtrak funding only to see Congress time and again appropriate just enough to keep Amtrak’s skeletal national network operating.

If anything is a surprise that the Trump budget would seek to keep any funding for Amtrak.

Amtrak may have survived past budget fights but there have been route casualties along the way. A major restructuring in 1979 killed the only Amtrak service in Columbus and Dayton with the discontinuance of the New York-Kansas City National Limited.

A 1995 restructuring killed the Broadway Limited, which wiped Akron, Youngstown and Fostoria off the Amtrak map.

They later regained service for a short time when a revived Broadway operating as the Three Rivers ran between Chicago and New York.

Another budget fight took Athens and Chillicothe out of the Amtrak network when the Cincinnati-Washington Shenandoah was discontinued in 1981.

For a short time, that 1981 budget fight kicked Cincinnati out of Amtrak, but thanks to the political clout of the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Cardinal returned to its Chicago-New York flight path in early 1982, albeit as a tri-weekly rather than a daily train.

Given the history of Amtrak funding, it would seem likely that some, if not all, of Amtrak’s long-distance trains will survive due to political wrangling.

What could happen is that the fight becomes one of percentages as in what percentage of the Amtrak long-distance network will survive.

If that is the case, Ohio could be in the middle of the fight when some modifications of the long-distance route network are proposed to consolidate “duplicate” service, e.g., the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited between Chicago and Cleveland.

I could see someone proposing reducing the Capitol Limited to a Pittsburgh-Washington service that connects with a combined Lake Shore Limited and Pennsylvanian between Chicago and New York. That would leave Erie, Pennsylvania, off the Amtrak map.

Already, Amtrak and the Michigan Department of Transportation have proposed rerouting the Lake Shore Limited through Michigan, presumably in lieu of an existing Wolverine Service train.

Someone in Washington in an Amtrak office, a Department of Transportation office and/or a congressional office has probably been studying the Amtrak map with an eye toward finding a way to end federal funding of the Lake Shore Limited by making it into a state train.

Michigan and Pennsylvania already fund the legs into Chicago and New York City respectively. Why not tell Ohio that if it wants service it needs to fund the leg between Detroit and Pittsburgh?

And if Pittsburgh-Washington service is to survive then Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia or a combination of those three states will have to fund what would be left of the Capitol Limited.

Some lawmakers like to talk about offering “options.”  They may or may not know or may or may not care that Ohio is unlikely to agree to fund the middle section of the Lake Shore Limited route.

But if Ohio says “no,” well it was given an option and it voted with its wallet.

Buried in the Trump budget proposal is the rational for sharply reducing funding for programs that benefit public transportation: “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.”

Look for some in the coming months or years to begin seeking to apply this philosophy to funding for Amtrak long-distance trains.

It would be part of a larger effort to frame the narrative over passenger train funding as a local issue, not a national one even if the trains in question work to form a national transportation network.

A World Without Coal for America’s Railroads? That Possibility is Still A Ways Down the Tracks

March 13, 2017

Trains Editor Jim Wrinn asked a perceptive question in the March 2017 issue.

On TransportationSpeaking about how railroads are losing unit train loads of revenue because of the decline of coal, Wrinn cited a country western song to pose the question, “how do we live without coal?”

It was a paraphrase from a 1997 song sung by Trisha Yearwood titled How Do I Live.” Wrinn asked the wrong question, though.

A better question comes from the last verse of The Oven Bird, my favorite Robert Frost poem. Is what to make of a diminished thing.

I can understand why Wrinn writes as though coal is about to vanish from the rails.

He has edited numerous articles in recent months about the railroad industry’s loss of coal revenue.

The lead article of the March 2017 issue of Trains observes that coal has been the backbone of railroads since the first loads were hauled in Pennsylvania in the 1840s.

Two survivors in the 21st century descended from coal-heavy railroads and coal kept them prosperous when so many other lines were failing. This includes the Chesapeake & Ohio – the C in CSX – and Norfolk & Western, the first half of the Norfolk Southern name.

In 2008, there were 598 coal-fired power plants in the United States but 212 of them have closed or converted to natural gas. Ninety-four of those closures occurred last year and 41 more are set to burn their last ton of coal this year.

Since 2015, more electricity has been generated by natural gas than by coal. But read the article carefully. There are still 386 power plants burning coal.

The coal used by those plants is not going to be transported from mine to generating plant over the Internet or shifted in large quantities to trucks.

There may be fewer of them, but unit coal trains will continue to polish the rails for the foreseeable future. Coal may be down, but it is not yet out.

Everything I’ve read about railroads and energy markets concludes that although the Trump administration is likely to relax environmental rules pertaining to the use of coal that is unlikely to materially reverse the trend away from using coal to generate electricity.

It is fashionable in some quarters to blame increased environmental regulations for the slide of coal.

There is some truth to that, but there are more economic reasons for the decline of coal as there are regulatory ones and the two are very much intertwined.

I’ve yet to read a single story that has flatly predicted the date when coal will cease to be used as a fuel to generate electricity.

As I read Wrinn’s column I was reminded or an anecdote I read about a family from Corbin, Kentucky, that traveled to Washington to watch Donald J. Trump be inaugurated as the 45th president.

The woman and her husband own a movie theater and times are tough in their hometown. She expressed the hope that Trump will overturn the environmental regulations that she blames for the decline of coal.

In her mind, relaxed environmental regulations will lead to an increase in coal mining which will lead CSX to hire back laid-off workers.

Presumably, that will be good for her theater and the economy of Corbin. If only it comes to pass.

But editor Wrinn is not spinning such scenarios and neither are any of the authors or analysts who have written about coal and the railroads in the past year.

Wrinn is optimistic that railroads will find ways to reinvent themselves because they’ve done it before. They will learn to live without coal, but it will be as a lesser facet of their business not as non-existent part of their franchise.

Coal may be a diminished thing, but it is not – yet — a vanquished thing. Someday it may be gone but we still have a way to go before we get there.

Until then railroads have trying to figure out what to make of a diminished thing that has been so good to them for a long, long time.

Numbers, Numbers. How Much is Hunter Worth?

February 20, 2017

When E. Hunter Harrison retired early from Canadian Pacific, news accounts noted that he left millions of dollars on the table in exchange for a limited waiver of a non-compete clause so he could pursue the CSX CEO job.

As it turned out, Harrison did no such thing.

On TransportationThe hedge fund Mantle Ridge agreed to pay Harrison the money he gave up at CP.

Mantle Ridge in turn wants CSX to reimburse it for the cash it guaranteed Harrison for walking away early from CP.

CSX claims that Harrison is seeking a four-year contract worth $300 million. That $75 million a year would make him not just the highest paid North American Class 1 railroad executive but also place him among the highest-paid CEOs in America.

By comparison, the man Harrison wants to replace, Michael Ward, earned $2.9 million in 2015. Another retired Class 1 CEO, Charles “Wick” Moorman, who agreed to take Amtrak’s top job for $1 a year, although he is also eligible for performance-based bonuses of up to $500,000 a year.

But Mantle Ridge counters that Harrison’s compensation package would actually be worth $200 million of which $120 million are stock options.

Such is life in the rare air of the corporate suite where eye-popping salaries are justified by saying a CEO brings a “unique skill set” to the job.

Executive compensation experts interviewed by Trains magazine said Harrison’s pay demands are at the high end of the scale, but not unreasonable by CEO pay standards.

Once the news broke that Harrison was seeking the top CSX job, the value of CSX stock jumped $10.4 billion, an increase of 30 percent.

Ben Branch, a finance professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, told Trains that CSX stockholders might think Harrison has a “dramatic plan” for improving the company.

“It’s rare,” Branch said. “You don’t have many situations where a CEO almost single-handedly is expected to deliver dramatic improvement.”

Jason Shiel, a managing director of finance firm Cowen and Company, told Railway Age the pay demanded by Harrison is a negotiating point and he is likely to receive less, although not necessarily much less.

Harrison is known for his scheduled precision railroading operating philosophy, which some railroad industry analysts say is similar to what CSX practices now.

Ultimately, some think Harrison’s long game is to engineer a merger that creates North America’s first transcontinental railroad. It is an idea he been peddling for years and failed to pull off last year when he proposed a merger between CP and Norfolk Southern.

For us mere mortals whose primary connection with CSX is watching its trains pass by, all of this talk about eight- and nine-figure executive compensation is nothing more than a parlor game.

The numbers baffle ordinary people who have no chance in their lifetime of ever earning a salary exceeding five figures a year. Most of us can’t fathom how you become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

For most CSX employees, having Harrison rather than Ward at the top will make little difference.

They will continue doing what they have been doing even if there may be some changes in how they do it.

Yet it is likely that some may find themselves victims of Harrison’s expected cost cutting.

In the eyes of Harrison and other high-ranking and well-paid railroad executives, labor costs are just another number to be reduced in order to please Wall Street.

How those reductions affect individual CSX employees financially and emotionally won’t be a subject of discussion at the special CSX board meeting. It never is.

All they talk about are numbers and for most of us that is all Harrison’s pay demands are.

Divorcing Amtrak is Hard to Do

February 6, 2017

The great Hoosier State privatization experiment is about to end. It started in July 2015 when Iowa Pacific Holdings began “operating” the quad-weekly Chicago-Indianapolis train.

On TransportationI put the word “operating” in quotation marks because, technically, IP did not “operate” the Hoosier State.

In practice, it was a partnership with Amtrak. IP provided the equipment and marketing support, and was in charge of on-board service.

But the operating crews were Amtrak employees and the nation’s passenger carrier handled the relationships with the host railroads, primarily CSX.

As it turned out, Amtrak has received most of the money paid by INDOT and its partner communities that fund the service.

For a while, Iowa Pacific received many kudos because of what it wasn’t, which is Amtrak.

Under Amtrak auspices, the Hoosier State was a bare-bone operation used to shuttle equipment between Chicago and the Beech Grove Shops in suburban Indianapolis.

By comparison, the IP operation of the Hoosier State was a luxury train, with business class, meals freshly prepared on board, and a full-length dome car for those willing to pay extra fare.

IP head Ed Ellis – who once worked at Amtrak – talked about expanding service and the need to cut the travel time.

He said IP would aggressively market the service, seeking to build markets that Amtrak had ignored.

One marketing gambit IP talked about was running a bus between the Crawfordsville station and Bloomington, the home of Indiana University.

IP correctly recognized the college market is a good source of passengers, but apparently the Bloomington shuttle never got on the road.

Iowa Pacific had a lot of people rooting for it to succeed with the Hoosier State, many of whom believe that a private operator can provide better service than Amtrak.

Some also want to believe that a private operator can make money on passenger service by providing better and more economical service than Amtrak. Ellis and IP apparently believed that, too, but the Hoosier State didn’t yield the expected financial returns for IP.

Ellis always knew the daily service and faster trains he desired hinged upon the willingness of government entities within Indiana to provide the capital funding needed to upgrade the slow meandering route used by the Hoosier State and Amtrak’s tri-weekly Chicago-New York Cardinal.

If IP could demonstrate that the Hoosier State was a success despite its route limitations, then perhaps Indiana officials would be amendable to funding track work in the same manner that the departments of transportation in neighboring Michigan and Illinois have.

But that has always been a long shot. Indiana has never been as supportive of intercity passenger rail as its neighbors.

Amtrak will take back the Hoosier State in Toto on March 1. Although INDOT said it has a verbal agreement that some of IP’s services will be retained, that is not a sure thing.

It remains to be seen if INDOT will seek an operator other than Amtrak and, for that, matter, how much longer the state and on-line communities are willing to pony up money to underwrite the operating losses.

One key take away from the IP Hoosier State experiment is that divorcing Amtrak is more difficult than it might seem.

Behind the Record CVSR Ridership in 2016

January 23, 2017

The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroads made headlines last week when it announced record ridership in 2016 of 214,063, shattering the record of 210,347 set in 2012.

On TransportationThe news made the front page of the Sun News weekly newspapers in Cleveland and merited mention on the Trains magazine website.

The record means a couple of things. First, there were no washouts or other service disruptions in 2016 to depress patronage.

Second, it was an aberration. Ridership over 200,000 has been rare on the CVSR.

If history is any guide, the CVSR will struggle to sustain its success. After carrying more than 200,000 passengers in 2012, ridership in 2013 fell to 186,270 and continued to fall in 2014 (185,912) and 2015 (185,500)

The 2016 uptick is due to a number of factors, including lack of service disruptions caused by weather or track work, the institution of new programs to attract new business, record ridership in the Bike Aboard! program, and good ticket sales for steam in the valley.

Excursions behind Nickel Plate Road 767 (a.k.a. NKP 765) sold out.

Like a fast food franchise, the CVSR must constantly introduce new products and promote those that it has.

It can be difficult to find ridership data for the CVSR before 1990, but a news report following the first year of operation in 1975 said that 7,000 rode 21 weekend trips, most of them pulled by steam locomotive 4070 in 1975.

In 1990, the last year that the 4070 operated, ridership was 9,300 on 32 trips.

The following year, there were 91 trips and ridership of 15,700. In 1992, ridership increased to 24,000.

Patronage took a massive jump in 1995 when 475 trips netted ridership of 61,000 compared to 42,000 over 300 trips in 1994.

Ridership hit triple digits for the first time in 2000 when 100,130 rode. By then the CVSR was operating 1,000 trips a year.

Since breaking the 100,000 mark in 2000, ridership has remained in the triple digits with the exception of 2003 when it plummeted to 93,000.

The drop in ridership that year can be explained in one word: flooding.

It knocked the CVSR out of operation when 14 miles of track suffered severe damage. Service was suspended for nearly three weeks.

Ridership can also be depressed by other factors.

In October 2013 a stalemate over the federal budget that shut down the federal government knocked the CVSR out of service for about a week during the busy fall foliage season.

That played a role in the 24,000 drop in ridership that the CVSR experienced in 2013 when compared to its record-setting year of 2012.

It took three years, but at least, the railroad has recovered from that.

Another Railroad Tradition Bites the Dust

April 25, 2016

Perhaps it was inevitable. Airlines haven’t issued timetables for years so it was a matter of time before Amtrak followed suit because there was money to be saved.

Last week Amtrak said it would no longer print its system timetable. It will continue to create a system timetable as a PDF file that you can download from the rail passenger carrier’s website.

It also will continue to print route-specific folders that will be available at some stations and aboard trains.

You could summarize the reason for ending printing of the national timetable in two words: changing times.

But what, exactly, changed?

On TransportationIn a statement Amtrak said it was its patrons. “Surveys have revealed that few customers want or use the printed System Timetable and expressed a preference to access information on-line,” Amtrak said in a statement.

It also said that “schedules, policies, and programs are ever-changing, and it’s impossible to keep the printed document up-to-date.”

The latter assertion is blowing smoke. Routes rarely change and the vast majority of schedule changes are temporary adjustments made when a host railroad is undergoing major track work.

Amtrak also cited being “environmentally friendly,” which has become a catch-all excuse used by every company in America when it is trying to cut and/or shift the costs of printing to its customers.

Saving itself some money is, I suspect, a primary reason for ending the printed system timetable. Amtrak of late has seen its patronage drop and has been looking for ways to cut expenses.

Ending the printing of the system timetable will save some money, although it probably won’t be a substantial amount.

But it will be one more thing that Amtrak can put on a list when it goes before Congress to show that it has been fiscally responsible.

If the surveys – the results of which we will likely never see – really do reveal that few passengers want or use the national timetable, it is not difficult to understand why.

Aside from the trend toward using smart phones as a primary way of accessing the Internet, the system timetable is bulky and inconvenient to use on the go.

It won’t easily fit in a pocket and the typical traveler probably doesn’t care about schedules for any route other than the one he or she is traveling.

Much of the time if you wanted a system timetable you had to ask for it because they seldom were placed in a rack for distribution.

The system timetable hasn’t always been as large or even as attractive as it has been in recent years.

Although Amtrak timetables have always had a color cover, the interiors were often bare bones offerings of page after page of schedules printed on newsprint paper.

Today’s Amtrak system timetable features color printing and photographs along with numerous display advertisements.

I had always presumed that the revenue from those advertisements paid for the expense of printing the timetable. If so, they didn’t pay for it enough, apparently.

I’ve always been a fan of timetables and I have a near complete collection of Amtrak system timetables dating to the first one issued on May 1, 1971.

I enjoy leafing through the timetable as a way of vicariously traveling by train to countless places in America.

I could still do that, but it won’t be as convenient. I would have to collect all of the route folders and that won’t be easy to do.

In my experience, Amtrak tends to distribute route folders by region, so the Cleveland Amtrak station is not likely to have folders for routes on the West Coast.

Ending the printed system timetable might draw a few letters or emails of protest, but that isn’t likely to have any effect. In the end, Amtrak is probably correct that few passengers care or use the system timetable.

And so another railroad tradition falls by the wayside and I’m going to miss it.

‘Accident’ or ‘Crash?’ Both Might Be Accurate Terms But Don’t Quite Mean the Same Thing

April 20, 2016

As a professional writer, I pay close attention to the words I use to convey information and express thoughts.

Hence, I took an interest in a recent discussion on a railfan chat list in the wake of an incident in which an Amtrak train struck a backhoe 15 miles south of Philadelphia.

Two Amtrak maintenance-of-way workers were killed and 30 passengers aboard the train suffered minor injuries.

The online discussion focused, in part, on the use of the word “accident” to describe what happened.

On TransportationA poster in the thread asserted that because events such as the one in which the train struck the backhoe are preventable many in the railroad and regulatory fields now call them collisions or crashes rather than accidents.

That’s because the word “accident” suggests that no one was at fault.

If the two construction workers had been killed after being struck by a meteor, that would be an accident because no rules were violated and, hence, no one was at fault. It would have been the proverbial act of God.

The poster was correct that the incident involving the backhoe was preventable. A piece of construction equipment doesn’t just happen to find its way onto a railroad track over which trains are operating at better than 100 miles per hour.

Someone made a mistake. A rule was violated and it is often said that every rule in every rule book of every railroad is written in blood.

But does that meant that if a rules violation leads to injury or death that it is not an accident, but a collision, a crash, or even an incident?

I would describe it as an accident because the event was unintentional.

The operator of the backhoe did not go to work intending to be struck and killed by a train.

The engineer of the train did not go to work intending to strike a piece of construction equipment and kill someone.

The passengers didn’t board the train intending to suffer personal injury.

It will be several months before the National Transportation Safety Board issues a final report that will specify which rule or rules were violated by whom and how.

Once the NTSB report is released, there may be some discussion about the adequacy of the rules and/or how they are practiced. Some might call for a revision of the rules in the name of safer practices.

In the meantime, the Federal Railroad Administration has ordered Amtrak to review its safety practices and retrain its workers.

All of this is oriented toward creating and maintaining an environment in which there are zero injuries and fatalities.

That is unlikely to occur so long as that environment involves humans because people are subject to such things as forgetfulness, lack of knowledge of the rules and procedures, lack of skill in following the rules and procedures, and engaging in poor judgment.

The business of assessing fault has consequences that transcend what caused the incident and what rule(s) were violated by whom.

Jobs might be lost, careers destroyed and thousands, if not millions, of dollars must be paid to repair damaged equipment and property, not to mention paying the medical costs for making the injured whole again.

Someone has to pay for those costs and the determination of who is fault goes a long way toward identifying who those people and companies will be.

In that context, whether the event is framed as an “accident” or a “crash” could be important in how that determination is ultimately made.

Such frames guide how people, including judges and juries in a court of law, think about what occurred and make decisions as to who owes what and how much to whom.

On the surface, the words used to describe an event might seem to be a trivial matter.

Arguably, “accident,” “crash” and “collision” all accurately describe the same thing.

Yet there can be subtle differences in how the meanings of those words are perceived and that might make a significant difference in sorting out the aftermath.

Maybe Harrison Just Wanted the NS Top Job

April 12, 2016

I’m going to miss E. Hunter Harrison. He was always good for at least one posting a week and journalists love colorful guys who like to talk a lot to the media.

Now that Harrison and his financier Bill Ackman – the majority stockholder in Canadian Pacific – have folded their tent and retreated to Calgary after their failed campaign to acquire Norfolk Southern, things are going to return to normal, whatever that might be in a world in which rail traffic continues to decline.

Thousands of words are going to be written and spoken during the coming days and months about why CP failed to win over NS.

Most of those treatises will zero in on what Harrison did or didn’t do right in his efforts to merge CP and NS.

On TransportationAlready, Trains magazine columnist Fred Frailey has weighed in by saying that Harrison’s greatest mistake was to lose the political battle.

Frailey said that rather than emphasizing an operating plan Harrison should have formulated a political strategy to win over shippers and key political figures.

Once CP’s plan to merge with NS triggered intense political opposition the game was over.

That Harrison emphasized his operating plan – which he calls precision railroading – didn’t surprise me.

Precision railroading is his legacy, his claim to fame among a dozen other railroad CEOs. He’s written two books about it and the CP-NS merger dance gave him innumerable opportunities to talk about it.

I always thought that one of Harrison’s primary objectives all along was to take personal control of one of the big four U.S. Class I railroads so he could impose his philosophy of railroading on a larger stage.

It was one thing to do it at regional railroad Illinois Central or at two Canadian carriers.

Now, CP and Canadian National are just as big time as NS or CSX, but they are still Canadian carriers that happen to own a significant number of miles of track in the United States.

They don’t have quite the same networks or business mix as the big four of U.S. Class 1 carriers.

Harrison strikes me as being on a mission to show that his railroading philosophy not only works but is superior to the approaches used by other Class 1 carriers.

Although associated in the minds of many with Canadian railroads, Harrison is actually a Southern guy, having grown up in Memphis, Tennessee.

The IC was a well-run operation and Harrison has won a lot of respect in the railroad world.

One former CP manager who was part of the management team that Harrison and Ackman ousted after taking over CP said that Harrison “gets it” when it comes to running a railroad. The ex-CP executive had other complimentary things to say about Harrison even if he thinks Harrison gets a little too much credit for the so-called CP turnaround.

What he understood is that railroads make money moving freight cars, not allowing them to sit in railroad yards or sidings. Keeping freight moving was a cornerstone of Harrison’s precision railroading philosophy, even if it meant tacking a few low-priority boxcars onto the rear of a hot intermodal train.

Harrison is not going away. He’ll still be running CP, still be giving interviews and speeches, and still promoting his vision of how a railroad should be run.

I was surprised that Harrison and Ackman bailed out before the NS shareholder’s meeting next month.

But they might have been “encouraged” to do so by the opposition of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Justice Department didn’t oppose merging the two companies per se. Rather it expressed concern about the voting trust arrangement that CP proposed which had Harrison and some of his associates going over to NS at the start of the merger review process by the Surface Transportation Board.

Perhaps the Justice Department opposition and/or some back channel communication from the STB convinced Harrison and Ackman that regulators were not likely to rule in their favor in the STB review of a hypothetical voting trust arrangement that CP asked them to examine.

The fact that Harrison couldn’t wait a year or two for the merger review process to play out showed how much he wanted to be CEO of NS now and suggests that for him personally it has always been about influence, control and legacy.

He didn’t really need for CP to buy NS to do what he wanted to do. Perhaps the proposed takeover was just his way to get into the NS executive suite.

Harrison might not have cared all that much if the STB rejected the merger because he would continue leading NS and running it his way.

We can expect Harrison to continue to beat the drums about the need for further consolidation in the North American Class 1 railroad industry but his words will receive less attention than they did when he was trying to take over NS.

That is not to say that further merger talks aren’t down the tracks. The climate today may not be right for a merger to create a transcontinental railroad, but it is not to say it that won’t change.

For now the Class 1s seem content to rule their own fiefdoms. Goodness knows they have plenty of challenges at hand, including dealing with declining coal and crude oil traffic. Bulk commodities aren’t what they used to be and railroads might have to start competing for less than carload or short-haul business that they long ago all but ceded to trucking companies.

Finding other business to replace coal is much on the minds of railroad CEOs these days.

However, sluggish business conditions have a way of encouraging mergers in corporate America. It may be that NS is amenable to a merger but would rather have danced with another partner.