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— by Pat Foran
North American freight railroads were closing the books on the first quarter as this issue went to press, and we won't know how they did until later this month. But the presumption that the economy will continue to improve, that traffic will continue to come back, that things will continue to get better (as opposed to hoping that they will) permeates the pages of our April issue. The recovery might not be in full swing, but it's there, and we're inching forward. And freight-rail execs are pressing ahead accordingly.
In the eastern United States, CSX Corp. is gearing up to hit the ground running when traffic ramps up, as Managing Editor Jeff Stagl reports in this month's cover story. Wishful thinking isn't part of the game plan. "We're staying focused on execution," CSX Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Ward told Stagl.
In southern Texas, activity is picking up at the Port of Brownsville, and that bodes well for the Brownsville & Rio Grande International Railroad (BRG), whose traffic totals serve as a NAFTA barometer. In 2009, BRG moved 22,399 carloads, a 25.9 percent decline compared with 2008's total. The short line's primary commodity is steel, and most of it moves into Mexico. "Steel is coming back," President and Chief Operating Officer Norma Torres told me last month (see Profile).
Something else that's making a comeback: Maintenance-of-way gangs once again are having a hard time finding work windows to complete track projects because railroads are handling more traffic, as our 9th annual MOW survey suggests. It's a casualty of recovery, one the rails don't mind contending with since it means business is picking up.
There'll be other casualties as we inch ahead; the fits-and-starts swaying will hold sway for a while. And that's OK. It certainly beats the downward spiral of a ride that is recession.
By now, the positive train control (PTC) buzz has bored into the brains of most U.S. railroaders, but the chatter was particularly acute last month as the 30 roads affected by the federal PTC mandate — including Class Is, Amtrak and 22 commuter railroads — prepared to submit implementation plans to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) by April 16.
On March 10, Progressive Railroading devoted a Webcast to PTC, the industry abbreviation du jour. Sponsored by Alstom, the event featured insights from experts who put the final rule in perspective, as well as identified key deployment issues. On March 18, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) issued a statement disputing the Chlorine Institute Inc.'s claim that the FRA analysis of PTC benefits was flawed. "The FRA's examination of the costs versus the benefits of PTC clearly shows that there are no present business benefits to the railroads," AAR President and CEO Ed Hamberger said.
Meanwhile, our own Jeff Stagl talked with short-line railroaders who have PTC concerns of their own, from questions about the scope of required PTC work to finding ways to pay for it, including the availability of federal grants or loans.
The buzzing will continue well past April 16 and certainly will be evident at the annual RSSI C&S Exhibition, to be held May 17-19 in Omaha, Neb. If the PTC buzz is anything like the near-giddiness at the 2009 show in Nashville, Tenn., where the C&S set emitted "positive" vibrations that could be heard/felt well beyond the confines of the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, we could be looking at another abbreviation-filled summer.
There's a lot going on in this industry these days, and there'll be a lot more to cover in the months and years ahead. Our aim: As ever, it's to put the wide-and-getting-wider range of freight and passenger rail industry issues and trends into clear, concise and current context — be it through our monthly magazine, "live" events or the increasingly pervasive e-realm.
So: I am very pleased, then, to announce that we've recently expanded our editorial staff. In March, Katie Berk joined us as assistant editor.
Born and raised in the New York/New Jersey area, Berk has served stints as a daily and weekly newspaper reporter/editor, including news editor for the Times-Beacon/Ocean County Newspapers in Manahawkin, N.J., and copy editor for the Morris County Daily Record in Parsippany, N.J. She also served as editor for Tighe Publishing Services in Short Hills, N.J., and as a Web producer for News 12 Interactive in Fair Lawn and Bergenfield, N.J. Berk is a 2003 graduate of the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, N.J.
She'll be in touch.