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For the most part, freight-rail execs are an optimistic lot — publicly, anyway. They send positive vibes pretty much every year at this time when we ask them how they’re feeling about the year ahead. Typically, the overriding sentiment they send is non-specific, noncommittal “cautious optimism.” The vibe is a bit different this year. Freight-rail execs tell us they’re feeling good — if not great — about 2019, that a banner year may be in the offing.
That’s not to say we’re rolling out an Outlook issue without any freight- or transit-rail officials saying “We’re cautiously optimistic about ...” A few did. But if our surveying the past month or so is any indication, freight-rail leaders are more positive about the prospects of an upcoming year than they’ve been in some time.
Concerns? They’ve got a few. Trade remains a wild card, particularly if tariffs are involved and especially with respect to China. Also: The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement was signed on Nov. 30, but still needed to be ratified by Congress as this issue went to press. Until it is, a few rail CEOs won’t sleep easy.
What else is in store? From some of the cage-rattling and listening in I’ve been doing, I think we’ll hear:
• More nuanced conversation about precision scheduled railroading (PSR). The PSR evolution continues apace, with almost all of the Class Is incorporating elements of it, if not their own blend. Given the North American rail network’s interconnectedness, PSR is becoming part of short lines’ DNA, too. They’re part of this evolution (and so are shippers). Expect to hear more about how and where, and why communication among carriers is as crucial as it’s ever been. • More details about the industry’s technology embrace. Class Is have been touting rail’s commitment to adopt and adapt next-level technology. Expect to hear (and read) more examples of same — as well as more instances in which they’re rethinking processes and, well, “innovating,” regardless of whether technology’s involved. • More angsting about Amazon. The Amazon effect — on customer expectations, on lobbying (think truck size and weight) on whatever else the company’s powerful presence and nimbleness poses for rail, issue wise — is in full swing. And the rail realm will continue to follow the Big A’s every move.
This issue represents something of a rail-writing swan song for Associate Editor Dan Niepow, who put together the transit component of this month’s 2019 outlook coverage and so much more during the past four years. Our colleague and friend recently took a position with the Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Dan will serve as the daily newspaper’s community issues reporter.
As conscientious as they come, Dan has been a valuable contributor to Progressive Railroading since he joined us in February 2015. In addition to providing us with top-notch reporting, news and feature writing, and proofreading skills, Dan helped us take our digital and social-media offerings to another level. He’s been a team player and a consummate professional, and I’ll miss him. But I’m happy for Dan as he takes this next step. I wish him all the good things.