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— By Pat Foran, Editor
On Oct. 2-4, the Railway Supply Institute (RSI) and Coordinated Mechanical Associations (CMA) held their 2016 Rail Expo & Technical Conference at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. The event featured more than 50 educational and technical sessions, and 126 exhibits. It drew nearly 1,300 attendees, according to RSI.
Given the timing of the event — the third quarter had just ended, summer’s sunnier shades had begun to slip into the grey-golds of fall — talk of turning calendar pages colored a number of the conversations I had, particularly in the exhibit hall.
While some rail-industry suppliers said they’d seen signs of year-end light from Class Is moving grain and auto parts, others told me they’d essentially given up the ghost on the rest of 2016. Instead, they were looking ahead — many optimistically — to what they hoped would be a better 2017.
That might be why Lance Fritz’s keynote seemed to resonate with RSI-goers. Delivered during the Oct. 3 general session, the address from Union Pacific Railroad’s chairman, president and chief executive officer had hope in it.
Yes, Fritz acknowledged the economic headwinds and increasing “global complexity,” but he also accentuated the possible.
“The way we deal with it [at] UP is we choose to be optimistic,” Fritz said. “A lot of opportunity lives in this kind of environment.”
Companies such as 3M, GE and IBM were founded during a recession, he said, adding that UP was created during the Civil War.
“Tough times, kind of counterintuitively, are the perfect time to start with new ideas,” Fritz said. “We think that the best ideas, for us as a company and a nation, are ahead of us.”
Witness the technological evolution in the rail realm. Fritz cited UP’s Machine Vision, an open-source-based system incorporating the latest detection devices that can identify and measure 22 train components.
Ideas come in different shapes and sizes. Fritz also noted UP’s “long-rail” strategy, which calls for importing 480-foot sections of rail from Japan, then welding three of them together to form quarter-mile-long strings.
“We think about it in very long runways — 10 to 20 years,” Fritz told the audience, with “it” being the railroad’s future.
It’s a sentiment all railroaders know, but the reminder was welcome. In a year of bleak news and bluster, that sentiment and subsequent resolve to stay the course for the longer haul clearly hit home in Omaha.
How are other railroaders feeling about things, or at least the near term, as we prepare to turn the page on 2016? We’ll check back with some of you for our annual outlook coverage, which we’ll publish in December.