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Last year around this time, freight-rail execs were pretty bullish about the 2019 they thought they saw coming. They told us they felt good — some felt really good — about what they saw. Some suggested a banner year could be in the offing. As 2019 unfolded, it became clear “banner” wouldn’t be a word used to describe this rail year.
Not surprisingly, rail leaders are a bit more circumspect about 2020’s prospects. Lagging economic indicators, trade tumult, murkiness surrounding the prospects of reauthorizing the surface transportation bill and the U.S. presidential election whirligig-ing to come are all contributing to their wariness, freight- and transit-rail leaders told us during the information gathering for our annual Outlook coverage. The cloudiness definitely is preventing many of them from making definitive predictions. And when uncertainty holds sway, railroads and their customers can put clamps on things. Capital spending. Long-term projects. Their best-laid innovation plans. Things that keep the dot-connecting rail world, in all its increasingly global glory, spinning ‘round.
Not that rail leaders don’t see silver linings. Many think (or at least suggest) there’ll be some growth, albeit slight, in 2020. How might that growth manifest? Where? Why? How are freight- and transit-rail companies gearing up to meet whatever comes? For answers, we checked in with Class I CEOs, transit-rail execs and contracting company leaders. Also: An eBook will be available soon on progressiverailroading.com that will include longer responses from the Class I CEOs, plus their answers to an additional question.
Our annual RailTrendsTM conference also provides a glimpse into what’s to come in rail country, and this year’s model proved to be no exception. Held Nov. 21-22 at the New York Marriott Marquis, the sold-out summit offered attendees an array of short- and long-term looks into the North American rail realm. Note: Visit progressiverailroading.com for RailTrends program consultant Tony Hatch’s inimitable take on the event (coming soon), and for a comprehensive RailTrends eBook reported and written by Managing Editor Jeff Stagl (also coming soon).
The uncertain state of international trade certainly was top of mind, culminating in 2019 Railroad Innovator Award winner Pat Ottensmeyer’s acceptance speech. As chair of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s U.S.-Mexico Economic Council, Kansas City Southern’s president and CEO, and other rail industry advocates, continue to call on Congress to pass the proposed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Ottensmeyer urged the crowd to help keep trade in general and the pact in particular from becoming political campaign fodder in the days ahead.
During Q&A, a RailTrends audience member asked him what rail folks could do to help. Ottensmeyer suggested several organizations that provide outreach and support, and told the audience member he’d email her more detailed information, including website links. He did, and copied me on the email:
• USMCA Coalition: www.usmcacoalition.org • U.S. Chamber of Commerce: www.uschamber.com/usmca • Trade Works for America: tradeworksforamerica.com
[Editor's note: On Dec. 10, House Democrats and President Trump announced they'd reached an agreement to revise a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada. That same day, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Capitol Hill reporters the Senate would not take up the agreement until after President Trump's impeachment trial is completed.]