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By Pat Foran, Editor
Like everyone I know (and probably everyone I don’t), freight- and transit-rail leaders are more than ready to turn the page on 2020. All pandemic long, they’ve kept their respective organizations running while prepping for post-COVID clarity they believe will come sometime in 2021. It’s got to come, many suggest. Things have to get better, if only because “they can’t get no worse,” as Messrs. Lennon & McCartney sang in the summer of 1967.
Things already have gotten a little bit better in some freight-rail circles. For several major railroads, fourth-quarter freight volumes were up year over year as this issue went to press in early December. What that says about 2021’s prospects for a sustained “better,” though, was anything but clear, particularly as the pandemic yet again tightened its grip. Meanwhile, the near-term outlook for many U.S. transit agencies, some of which reported a 90 percent ridership plunge in spring, remained downright murky.
Planning for how — and, crucially, when — things will get sustainably better has been and will continue to be challenging. Rail industry strategists could use a few more answers (or hints) to a range of difficult-to-answer questions, as Managing Editor Jeff Stagl notes in the preface to our 2021 Outlook coverage. Nevertheless, “quite a few” freight-rail leaders project at least some business growth next year, he writes. Where might that growth come from? How are roads preparing for it? What obstacles might they have to work around? How might what they’ve gone through in 2020 help them in 2021 and beyond? For answers, we reached out to the seven Class I CEOs, and a cross-section of transit-rail execs and contracting company officials. (Note: We've collected their responses in an eBook that will be available soon on progressiverailroading.com.)
You’ll see the year-end “cautious optimism” execs tend to express. You’ll also see optimism of the less-cautious variety. A reasoned kind, grounded in reality and borne out of what rail leaders and their dedicated employees experienced during this year of years.
“My deepest hope as we head into 2021 is that we are ready for a fresh start while remembering what we’ve gone through and remain committed to addressing what we found unacceptable in 2020,” Union Pacific Railroad President and CEO Lance Fritz told us. For UP — all railroads, really — to thrive, it’ll mean “winning the COVID-19 fight, re-establishing jobs, building effective infrastructure and reigniting entrepreneurial spirit,” Fritz added.
It’s the tallest of orders. Stressful, too. But as CSX President and CEO Jim Foote (and this year’s Railroad Innovator Award recipient) put it Nov. 20 during our Virtual RailTrends® conference, stress also makes you face up, stand up and buckle up. Here’s to facing up, standing up, buckling up. And fresh starts.
Also available soon at progressiverailroading.com: RailTrends program consultant Tony Hatch’s take on the virtual event, and a comprehensive RailTrends eBook reported and written by Stagl.