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August 2009

Rail News: Rail Industry Trends

A conversation about composition and character (Pat Foran, Context, August 2009)


For the past seven months or so, CN’s been working to integrate a major portion of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway (EJ&E). As of press time, the Class I had reached voluntary mitigation agreements with about half of the 33 Chicago-area municipalities situated along the EJ&E’s lines in Illinois and Indiana, as Desiree J. Hanford reports in this month’s cover story.

CN continues to negotiate with the hold-out communities on a variety of issues — from noise mitigation to emergency response training to who’s-gonna-foot-the-bill-for-grade-separation work. It’s a harbinger of things to come during the (likely) final mega-merger round — and, perhaps, if/when freight-rail traffic volumes ramp up in the years ahead. More than ever, the merger- and growth-minded must be acutely attuned to the local citizenry’s interest in quality-of-life concerns as citizens define them.

As CN’s EJ&E integration journey began to unfold, I remembered a book I’d received several years before — “When the Railroad Leaves Town: American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment.” Written by Joseph Schwieterman, a professor of public services management and director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at Chicago’s DePaul University, “When the Railroad Leaves Town” was published in 2001.

The author, noted U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in the foreward he wrote for the book, “offers a colorful portrait of the legacy of American railroads in American communities whose rail lines have fallen victim to abandonment. He provides us with dramatic evidence of how changes in our nation’s railroad system have altered the character and composition of our towns and cities.” Durbin also commended Schwieterman for chronicling “in rich detail the lessons of this distinctly American transportation saga.”

The senator was less taken with the changes in character and composition he believes are coming for some of his Illinois constituents now that CN is coming to town in a potentially bigger way. In a Dec. 24, 2008, statement issued following the Surface Transportation Board’s final approval of the deal, Durbin characterized CN-EJ&E as a “project that has untold negative consequences on communities in our region and on quality of life for affected residents. ... Because Canadian National has continually shown that the best interests of our communities are not a priority, I hope the STB is serious about its oversight responsibilities.”

What “oversight” and “serious” mean, in a regulatory sense. What railroads take with them when they leave town, and what they bring when they come back. What “quality of life” means, and for whom. What we’d like our communities to look like, character- and composition-wise, as the new economic order takes shape. How we define rail’s role in national, North American and global contexts. They’re all topics of discussion now, and certainly ought to be during the surface transportation authorization bill conversations to come.

If these topics don’t make the cut, and policy talk isn’t part of the dialogue, then how we approach (or stumble into) the final merger frontier or the high-speed rail evolution could be fodder for post-game academic analysis and not much more. In the meantime, rail execs will navigate and negotiate without compasses, providing a color splash or two and the first hints of legacy upon a conspicuously small canvass. It’s gonna be an interesting stretch.

RailTrends — October 6-7 in NYC

Amid questions about economic order, rail policy and the future of transportation, Progressive Railroading will present its annual RailTrends conference Oct. 6-7 at the Affinia Manhattan in New York City. This year’s theme really couldn’t be anything but this: the rail industry’s role in a restructured economy. And the program is shaping up nicely.

Speakers include CN President and CEO E. Hunter Harrison, who’ll be receiving Progressive Railroading’s first-ever “Railroad Innovator Award” (see page 10); new FRA Administrator Joe Szabo; Acting Surface Transportation Board Chair Francis Mulvey; Watco Cos. Inc. CEO Rick Webb; Norfolk Southern Corp. Executive Vice President of Planning and Chief Information Officer Deborah Butler; Kansas City Southern EVP of Sales and Marketing Patrick Ottensmeyer; National Industrial Transportation League President and CEO Bruce Carlton; Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ed Hamberger; Railway Supply Institute Executive Director Tom Simpson; and, if they can get out of Dodge (i.e., D.C.) on Oct. 6, U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, and U.S. Rep. John Mica, ranking member of the T&I Committee.

For a complete agenda, program updates or to register online, checkout the RailTrends Web site. Hope to see you there.


Pat Foran, Editor



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