Whither the "freight railroad"?


One of the more interesting phases of my career to date has been the time I found myself the only railroader in an office full of marketers.

That job lasted four years, eight months and 18 days - not that I was counting at the time! It was actually pretty interesting and, as my college days included some marketing and advertising courses, I already knew a few ways to effectively communicate with my fellow worker bees.

The most profound lesson learned during that stint was the ultimate power of words to shape public thought; specific ways attitudes could be molded and habits formed through the selective application of particular ideas.

I touched upon this matter in my recent piece entitled "The myth of 'Higher Speed Rail'." There, I lamented the fact semantics could drive a debate (while steadfastly refusing to deny it occurs).

Many phrases are benign, both in function and purpose. Others use (and misuse) power, their negative influence reaching so far and becoming so pervasive that it's hard to believe no original harm was intended.

When I was young, I never remember seeing a railway company refer to itself as a "freight railroad." A "freight only" carrier was a different animal. That term designated a railroad which, for whatever reason(s), had exited the passenger trade. Even so, it's physical plant remained; perhaps downgraded to an extent or with fewer terminal or depot or yard facilities, but with its heart intact.

In fact, it can be successfully argued that the only chance most roads (if not the entire industry) had for survival was to change their listing in the Guide to "freight service only."

So...when did that idea morph into "freight railroad" and why?

The great change seems to have occurred around 1980, with the creation of Amtrak and Conrail laying the groundwork. Once NERSA had relieved Conrail of its remaining passenger obligations and the final Amtrak holdouts had either capitulated or given up the ghost, there was a seemingly conscious move to re-brand our industry.

Railroads were no longer simply "railroads." They were now FREIGHT railroads!

Here's where semantics comes into play. One might call a railroad company a "freight railroad," since that describes its primary business, yet its infrastructure - the rails and crossties and ballast - continues to remain available for all types of traffic (at least in theory).

The basic problem crops up when we (or, worse yet, some naive or uninformed observer) presume that the presence of "freight railroads" means, by definition, there must also be "passenger railroads," maintaining lines independent of the freight carriers and existing to operate passenger trains only, as if there was some inherent operational distinction between the two.

This presumption can't be beneficial to passenger train service; therefore, the sole benefit must rest with the freight companies. After all, if literal "freight railroads" truly exist, any future passenger train operations should be required to create their own supporting facilities. Those things are not the concern of freight railroads, since a freight road does not carry passengers.

Pretty simple. Pretty clean. Pretty straightforward.

Pretty erroneous.

Whether we're discussing conventional passenger service (which I maintain is our most reasonable starting point) or so-called "High(er) Speed Rail" (which our government continues to tout), any future passenger operations will require the support and cooperation - call it "partnership" - of the domestic railroad industry. In fact, anything but true H.S.R. demands that our common carriers play along, since the creation of even small stretches of dedicated passenger infrastructure will tend to raise costs to untenable levels.

Even the "passenger railroads" which supposedly exist (such as the Northeast Corridor) end up being supported, in part, through the operation of freight trains along the route.

We're all in this together. The sooner we come to understand that fact, the better off we'll be.

Of course, the general system (my preferred term) may continue to exist long after we've all returned to the dust from whence we came, and the carriers themselves may continue to embrace the appellation "freight railroad" for decades to come - and remain profitable while doing so. But, these things don't bode well for the passenger side of this equation and, despite the current administration and its transportation toadies, the private carriers stand to gain in the long term if they go through yet one more period of rebranding, restoring the simple name "railroad" to its former position of universal usage and respect.

There are no "freight railroads" and there are no "passenger railroads." There are only RAILROADS...and they are the ones who will direct our path to the future!

The ultimate manifestation of railroading is not the passenger train or the steam locomotive - or the double-stack container train or the D.P.U.

It's the steel wheel upon the steel rail.

And that's not just marketing; that's reality.