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Passengers: the "greatest threat"

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Garl B. Latham

Ruminations of a foaming professional.

Passengers: the "greatest threat"

  • Comments 25


About one week ago, CSX's V.P. for public safety, Howard R. Elliott, told members of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that, based upon information his railroad has "received from federal intelligence sources," the "greatest terrorist threat to CSXT comes from the approximately 8 million passenger and commuter train miles each year that operate on CSXT-owned rail lines.”

Yes, that's right; the single "greatest threat."

To be honest, I was impressed. Louis W. Menk in his prime couldn't have developed a more profound anti-passenger offensive strategy!

If course, Mr. Elliott's rhetoric may be nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to siphon cash from federal coffers. After all, for several years now, one of the easiest ways to get someone's attention has been to utter the word "terrorism" and begin pointing fingers.

Still, this attack-the-passenger-train paranoia doesn't even BEGIN to make sense, save from the perspective of a Lou Menk or Downing B. Jenks.

Next time you see a general merchandise train and give it a roll-by, consider all the placarded rolling stock which has been festooned with graffiti. Now, ask yourself: might a miscreant determined to wreak havoc have also gained access to the property and sabotaged a tank car or two? [Anyone for chlorine?] If we can't
secure our yards and industrial sidings enough to prevent "artists" [read: "criminals"] from defacing private property, how can we be sure those with more nefarious purposes aren't doing a bit of tinkering on their own?!

[Question: when's the last time you've seen regularly operating general system passenger equipment that's been "tagged"?]

Maybe I should be happy that passenger service can demand our industry's rapt attention; but, why does the subject always require a negative outlook? For that matter, why are passengers basically invisible, otherwise (at least those who aren't busy attracting terrorists)?

The BNSF's own Matt Rose, in his recent interview with Susie Gharib (of PBS' Nightly Business Report fame), says when he thinks "about the challenges facing our country," he pictures "a three-legged stool. Reduce our dependency on foreign oil, reducing our carbon footprint and improving America's highways for commuters and highway transportation." Those are things that, in the future, our "railroads, quite frankly, [will] be able to do..."

Okay. I'm with him for the first little bit. It's right here on the P.R. web site that I've opined regarding a "three-legged stool" of my own: a comprehensive national transportation/energy/environmental policy. Reducing dependency on foreign oil? That's energy. Reducing our carbon footprint? That's the environment. But, "improving America's highways for commuters and highway transportation"?!

That is NOT the best we can do! That is NOT what our ultimate goal should be!

Why is it the railroad's responsibility to improve "America's highways for commuters and highway transportation," anyway? [I presume Mr. Rose is speaking of reduced congestion - which still isn't logical, but at least makes more sense than a few of the alternative meanings.]

Have we sold out to the Wendell Cox school of transportation planning?

Are we so afraid of the negative issues associated with passenger operations (and, most assuredly, there are some) that we're willing to either completely ignore trains and trumpet automobiles instead, or (worse yet) accuse passengers and the equipment assigned to their service of being jihad magnets?

Back to CSX for a moment. A couple of days ago, head man Michael Ward, while visiting the Milken Institute, said that the U.S. must make a “renewed and aggressive” commitment to modernize its infrastructure. “Other nations are making serious forward-looking investments," he said. We need "to do the same and do a better job of maintaining the strong but aging systems we already have in place.”

One might hope that investing and maintaining would include our railroad system.

A suggestion, if I may. Let's step back and look at all of this from the public's perspective. Many people might be amenable to public investment in privately-owned infrastructure if they perceived a personal benefit. The vacuous promise of less congestion or fewer tractor/trailer rigs on roadways sounds as meaningless as it actually is. However, mention the idea of improved passenger train service and, suddenly, most folks can visualise the common good.

Our common-carrier railroads need to control these discussions, not abdicate that responsibility to government entities. Tell elected officials why 90 miles-per-hour is doable along shared rights-of-way, but 125 isn't. Explain the way railway companies are justifiably concerned with liability and tax issues. Describe how it makes
sense to lower terminal-to-terminal running times through the elimination of slow spots. Show maps of possible by-pass routes. Indicate a willingness - even eager anticipation - of a new passenger railway era along private trackage, IF things are done right from the start.

Prove to the people that railroads are their partners in these schemes and that our industry is solution-driven, too. If we do this, we'll hear less about re-regulation. We'll see fewer times where plans are made without consulting the property owners, first. We'll have some additional leverage when looking for federal help while wrestling with unreasonable local demands.

How about the spectre of unfunded mandates? Why not make a deal where every line that can (not necessarily does) host passenger train service have its P.T.C. system installed and maintained at the taxpayer's expense?!

We need to get over our aversion to varnish and understand that passenger trains, if properly planned, designed and executed, could play an integral role in
tomorrow's world. Who better to plan, design and execute these things than the railroads, themselves?

Passengers might even go from being our greatest threat to our greatest asset!

It could happen!

 

 

  • Respectfully, Garl, cool it.  I'd hate to see you burst a blood vessel from anger.  You are, I believe unfair the Lou Menk and Downing Jenks.  They were no more anti-passenger train than were any other railroads CEOs; they were just more outspoken about the problem.  That problem, you may recall, was that the railraods were losing millions on passenger trains and the ICC would not allow them to take the worst of the trains off.  In a world that tosses words like "socialism" around with great abandon, we had a situation where government forced private companies to absorb mounting losses and refused to accept any responsibility for those losses until Penn Central collapsed and they finally created Amtrak.  And to put in context the remarks of Mr. Elliott of CSX, his point simply was that passenger rail service is virtually unprotected. I think you not only read too much into his remarks, but I think you read them incorrectly.  Sorry about that.

  • I agree with Larry's assessment.  CSX is not anti-passengers as they have worked with every one of their commuter rail tenants and with the State of Florida on SunRail and Tri-Rail.

  • Ah yes, CSX...

    The same folks that have went after railbuffs with hammer and tongs.  Pursuing the takeout of buff websites that detail such vital national security information at the milepost at Standing Rock Alabama.  Meanwhile, at the exact same time, unknown parties were setting fire to Iraq bound military equipment loads in the headquarters city of Jacksonville Florida.

    CSX, who devotes resources to pursuing takedown of Ebay auctions of CSX printed material claiming copyright privilege.  

    CSX, so concerned with "terrorists", sends it railroad "police" to chase buffs off a public highway overpass over Tilford Yard in Atlanta Georgia, all the while "independent freight salvage contractors" open containers and help themselves only a mile away.   But then again, said contractors carry guns and knives and would ventilate the "police" officer and generate a FELA claim.  Much easier and safer to appear relevant chasing buffs.

    What is wrong with this picture?

  • My, my, my, such venom.  I reread FuzzyPeach's screed but still cannot see what it has to do with Garl's original blogpost on passenger rail service.  Someone referred to CSX and FuzzyPeach was off to the races.  Such venom represents a lot of wasted energy.  Yes, you have the right to take pictures from any public right of way.  Railroad cops being unreasonable?  Let them bust you, then file suit, and watch how fast the railroad lawyers will press you to accept a settlement.  Heck, you might end up rich.

  • Larry,

    After reading your response, I wanted to wait a couple of weeks before returning to review my post. I thought it might be a good idea to place some [ahem] "temporal separation" between me and the time this piece was first composed!

    As always, I appreciate your perspective. I must admit, I fail to perceive the "anger" of which you speak. I may have become a bit _emotional_; but, from me, that's to be expected!

    You and I are in absolute, unqualified agreement concerning the "passenger problem" and the years leading up to the creation of Amtrak. I understand every leader in our industry felt the pinch and each was required to deal with it in his own way; however, not every one was as (shall we say) "outspoken" as Messrs. Menk and Jenks. I suppose, in all fairness, I could have added a few other names to my short list, such as Espee's D. J. Russell. Honestly, though, it's hard for me to sit in judgement against Mr. Russell's memory. As illogical as it sounds, I think that's partly because he reminded me of my late father! At any rate, I have a little T&P blood coursing through my veins - and anyone in power at the MoP during the post-War era was automatically suspect. In addition, when it came to a near pathological hatred of varnish, Mr. Menk remained in a class by himself.

    I would love for you to go into more detail concerning Howard Elliot's comments, if you wish. To me, this is the bottom line: the CSX has every right to its agenda. [I touched on that near the beginning of my screed, when I said, "Mr. Elliott's rhetoric may be nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to siphon cash from federal coffers." Perhaps that was too subtle. I'll exercise more care, next time!]

    I have absolutely NO problem with CSX wishing to profitably operate its business or protect its own interests. I DO have a problem with that road wishing to cast aspersions upon the passenger end of our industry.

    If they insist upon doing so, then SOMEBODY needs to stand up to them! I would expect railroaders to be able to translate CSX's corporate code; however, I have very little faith in the typical elected officials' ability to do so...and, in this case, they were - and are - that line's primary target audience.

    Furthermore, I never meant to intimate the presence of passenger traffic wouldn't (much less couldn't) increase a carrier's risk. My argument was that it's unfair to accuse passengers of being the literal "GREATEST risk" (emphasis mine) when there are tank cars full of hazardous chemicals plying the rails, each offering potential terrorists a much bigger "bang for the buck."

    You know, it's interesting: two of the most successful "terrorist" attacks on U.S. passenger trains to date - both on the SP and both unsolved - occurred out in the middle of nowhere and involved a relatively small loss of life. [I'm sure we'd all agree that one life lost is one too many; however, to a true terrorist, success must be measured, in part, by lifeless bodies.]

    What good is that when you can simply mess with a freight car or two within a populated area?!

    The "greatest threat"? Balderdash!

    Garl

  •                             ' P E T R O Z I L L A '

    the gigantic - ever-expanding - oily-amoeba - mega-slick in the Golf of Mexico is the ---"GREATEST THREAT"--- not a passenger railway system with the capacity of Taiwan Railways that just happens to get in the the way of freight/coal trains.

  • Railwayist:  These issues are too important to waste time on your sophomoric, kinow-nothing rants.In the future, please try to make a meaningful contribution to discussions here - or take them to the blogs at Trains magazine, where all the foamers will applaud you for being so clever.

  • Garl:  I've not been asked or authorized to speak for Howard Elliott or CSX.  That disclaimer said, here's my take on what I consider a non-controversy.  I think you did get emotional, probably more than was necessary or particularly wise.  If so, so be it.

    As for terrorism, remember, the object of terrorism is to terrorize.  I was on the SP when the Sunset was derailed wast of Phoenix and east of Yuma.  You may recall the FBI agent in charge saying "We'll get this guy.  We're the FBI, and we get people like this."  Like you, I'm still waiting for the FBI to live up to its own image of itself.  There definitely are, as you say, carloads of ethyl methyl deadly all over the rail system.  But unlike a passenger train, which looks like a passenger train, the tank car could just as easily be carrying corn syrup from Decatur to a soft drink bottling plant in California.

    I don't think Mr. Elliott was being anti-passenger at all.  I think he was laying out the issues involved in providing safe service.   CSX has been and is no more anti-passenger service than any other railroad.  It has quite a bit of Amtrak and regional commuter service running over its tracks.  It certainly doesn't need me to defend its honor.  Stating again that I am not speaking for Mr. Elliott, I suspect, and interpret his use of terms like "greatest threat" not in the affirmative but as a class of service that no railroad in the industry really can protect against terrorism.  

    As for the CEOs of the past and their differing attitudes toward passenger service, some of the differences can be understood simply by understanding how close a road was to financial collapse.  The Great Northern, under Mr. Budd, maintained its long distance trains long after they would have been annulled permanently by other roads.  Budd saw them as a public relations benefit for GN.  Lou Menk learned his railroading on the Frisco, a road never far from bankruptcy (it only spend 25 years in Section 77 between 1932 and 1957.  Frisco executives learned how to do more with less.  The Southern, as you may recall, chose not to join Amtrak and considered the Crescent to be a matter of pride and also a public relations plus -- until the equipment no longer could be rebuilt and new trainsets were required.  At that point, Southern joined Amtrak.  It wasn't really a matter of whether the chiefs loved or hated passenger service; they hated losing scarce dollars and they loved earning profits.

  • "[CSX] certainly doesn't need me to defend its honor."

    No sir, it doesn't.

    For that matter, passenger trains don't need me to defend them from anyone, either. Unfortunately, knee-jerk reactions can occur naturally.

    As you said: ultimately, it's "a non-controversy."

    As I said: "Mr. Elliott's rhetoric may be nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to siphon cash from federal coffers."

    As The Journal of Commerce said: "...increasing the use of freight rail corridors for intercity passenger trains adds more security issues for the freight system. It also raises a question of who pays."

    As the Jacksonville Business Journal said: "The larger issue at play here are the increased costs railroads have to take on as the nation pushes for more passenger service on their railways."

    And so it goes.

    Garl

  • Just for the record:

    From the Council on Foreign Relations, 12 March '07

    "Rail Security and the Terrorist Threat"

    by Eben Kaplan

    [excerpts]

    "Much of the freight [carried by train] presents little danger to people living near the tracks, but some does - particularly certain industrial chemicals. The deadliest of these chemicals are almost identical to those used as weapons on the battlefields of World War I, and in 2005 former White House Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Richard Falkenrath told the Senate these chemicals pose 'the SINGLE GREATEST DANGER [emphasis mine] of a potential terrorist attack in our country today.'

    ”...security...along [railroads] tends to be lax... Should [a tank car] rupture - either from a terrorist attack or an accident - the results could be catastrophic. Fred Millar, a rail security lobbyist and former member of the Washington, D.C. local Emergency Planning Committee, likens the shipment of chemicals through America’s biggest cities to 'pre-positioning weapons of mass destruction.'

    ”Dr. Jay Boris of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., told the City Council that the worst-case scenario for that city could result in up to a hundred thousand fatalities. A video from his laboratory simulates the spread of a toxic gas cloud over three major U.S. cities. A more conservative 2004 Homeland Security Council report estimated that a ruptured chlorine gas tank in a densely populated area could kill as many as 17,500 people and injure an additional 10,000. In addition to the dead and wounded, tens of thousands would have to evacuate, causing widespread panic. Nancy L. Wilson, the Association of American Railroads’ vice president for security, calls Boris’ projection 'pure fearmongering' and suggests the Homeland Security Council model would require perfect conditions. Wilson, who speaks for the rail industry, says a more plausible scenario might result in hundreds dead, not thousands."

    www.cfr.org/.../rail_security_and_the_terrorist_threat.html

    GBL

  • Thanks Garl.  This time I have no argument with your comments.  I don't believe fencing the entire U.S. rail system will deter a single terrorist.  Terrorists will figure a way to attack the system whether it is fenced or not.  But in the category of spilling coffee in your lap while wearing a dark suit - it doesn't show much, but it sure does give you a warm feeling all over, there always is the feel good option.  As we saw with the unfunded federal mandate on PTC after the aberrational Chatsworth wreck, Congress can be counted upon to take the "feel warm all over" option and mandate fencing.  And there is every likelihood that Congress would mandate it but not be willing to pay for 200,000 miles of fencing.  Heck, it wouldn't spend a lot less to fence our border with Mexico.  I wonder if this country ever will focus on anticipating in advance what terrorists might do or the targets they may choose.  Based on our need to remove shoes and place all lotions and potions in plastic bags and in containers of less than 3 oz. for separate screening, our security efforts still are reactive.  Every time you get on an airliner, the terrorists have won another battle because we are spending scarce capital and wasting untold hours of valuable time (also an asset) trying to stop a repeat of previous terrorist attempts.  And, while I'm offering a rant, let's remember that Mr. Abdfulmutallab (the underwear bomber) made it past security and onto a transatlantic flight.   He failed because of his own incompetence at assembling his weapon, not because J.S. or Dutch security performed well.  If one of these guys ever pulls off a spectacular by using chemically soaked clothing, will we then be required to strip to the buff before getting on a plane?

    Remember, the function of terrorists is to terrorize.  A case can be made that the bad guys won that battle a long time ago.

  • "Remember, the function of terrorists is to terrorize.  A case can be made that the bad guys won that battle a long time ago."

    ...which is probably the saddest thing of all.

    GBL

  • Garl:  Yep.

  • "Tell elected officials why 90 miles-per-hour is doable along shared rights-of-way, but 125 isn't."

    While you are at it, tell them why 125 isn't in North America but is in Europe!

  • andrewsharp:  125 mph is in Europe - and a few other places like China and Japan - for the very simple reason that the governments of those places are willing to spend their taxpayers' money on true high speed rail passenger service.  It's just that simple.  And, 90 mph is doable on shared freight/passenger rights of way in the U.S. but not 125 mph for the simple reason that with the exception of the Northeast Corridor, which is owned by Amtrak, the rights of way in the U.S. are privately owned and the owners do not believe that freight and 125 mph passenger operations can co-exist safely.  It's just that simple.  If you believe that Congress should jpony up the money for the separate right of way necessary for safe 125 mph passenger operations, you had better inform Congress of that - and find a few million other Americans to join you.  If Congress were to try to mandate such shared operations, as it did the Positive Train Control requirement, I would not be at all surprised to see the railroad industry challenge that with a law suite challenging the constituionality of it as a violation of the "takings" clause of the 5th Amendment.