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On Feb. 26, more than 500 rail industry representatives descended on Washington, D.C., as part of “Railroad Day on Capitol Hill,” an event that seems to generate more energy with every gathering. This year’s aim? Pretty much the same as last year’s, when rail supporters hit the Hill to persuade Congress to support investment incentives (tax credits) that’d stimulate growth, back public-private partnership projects — and reject measures the rail lobby insists would limit railroads’ ability to invest in infrastructure. One of the differences this year, aside from having to persuade during a deeply rooted recession, was a recognition among “Day” sponsors that the way they talk about these issues — from the words they use to the context in which they’re delivered — never has been more important. They’re choosing their phrases more carefully. And that’s potentially a big thing.
The focus was evident during the Day’s 7 a.m. orientation briefing. Among the literature and primer-like legislative materials the attendees received, one piece of glossy paper stood out. Titled “Railroad Regulation: A Smart, Balanced Approach,” the two-sided paper featured a succinct characterization of rail life, pre-Staggers (“Over-Regulation Nearly Killed American Railroads”) and post-Staggers (“Balanced Regulation — An American Success Story.”) The word “re-regulation” isn’t used. A “communications consultant” helped them “reformat” their approach, said Association of American Railroads (AAR) Senior Vice President of Legislation Obie O’Bannon. The consultant? Frank Luntz chairman emeritus of Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research. A sentence on the firm’s Web page reads: “We find the EXACT words and phrases to help you succeed — the messages that will frame the debate and generate support for your side of the issue.”
The point: The rail industry’s already regulated, O’Bannon told briefing attendees. “We just want [Congress] to pursue something that is balanced and reasonable.”
For the most part, the lobbyists I walked the halls of Congress with tried to frame the issues thusly. It’ll take time for them to get used to the new way of talking. A group told U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a short-line tax credit champion, that they were concerned about bills that might increase railroad regulation, but struggled to steer clear of uttering the “re-reg” word. When told of the change in vocabulary, Moran said, chuckling: “I’m going to have to get used to this. You guys have said that for so long ... [but] in today’s political climate, I can see why you’re taking that approach.”
It isn’t just about politics, though ... or at least it doesn’t have to be. By being “exact,” they stand to have a better shot at delivering a clear “Freight Rail Works” message — one that some of even their staunchest critics get — and at framing the issue. Another potential benefit of being exact/more precise/more accurate: They can begin to wean themselves off the “fightin’ words” rhetoric that can muddle the simple message they’re trying to deliver.
Of course, nothing’s that simple or clear-cut on the Hill. It wouldn’t take much to turn phrases like “balanced and reasonable” into a whole new battle cry. But it seems to me the message-senders are more sincere about being clear this go-round. Congrats to Day sponsors AAR, American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, Railway Supply Institute, Railway Tie Association, Railway Engineering-Maintenance Suppliers Association, Railway Systems Suppliers Inc., National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association Inc. and shipper coalition Saving Our Service for a day’s worth of smart(er) conversation.
Last month, I was fortunate to visit the Piscataway, N.J., headquarters of Strato Inc., which manufactures and engineers a range of products for the rail and transit industries. Mostly, I listened to Strato execs share their story, and it’s a good one: They’re celebrating the company’s 40th anniversary bent on meeting the challenge of change and meeting it head on.
They’ve been moving forward incrementally, doubling the engineering staff during the past five years. The company’s 6,000-square-foot research-and-development lab features rapid-prototyping and end-of-car hose simulation capabilities. New product development is part of the plan. During the past year or so, Strato has unveiled a coupler mounted bracket and two heavy-duty, long-life yokes.
It was an instructive visit. I left thinking this: Here’s a privately held company that serves the hard-hit mechanical segment and the strategists there are looking ahead, thinking longer term, striving hard to stay the customer-focus course — and more than living to tell about it. Thanks to all the Strato folks who took the time to show me where they’re at, what they’re thinking about and what’s possible, even in this anything-but-certain environment.
Pat Foran, Editor