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.



  • Garl: We are what we are, or, to paraphrase, we are whatever we want to be.  Simplistic?  Yes.  You are pretty much correct n when railroads became freight railroads.  It was a specific reason that the railroads adopted the modifier.  They didn't want to be mistaken for a business that ran passenger service.  So, they became freight railroads.  To this day, most Americans don't know that freight railroads are not in the passenger business, and that Amtrak is not just a funny name for a UP passenger train or one operated by any other railroad.  It's just about that simple.  Amtrak annually was before Congress seeking more money.  Every Republican Administration since Amtrak's founding in 1971 tried to "zero" the Amtrak budget request.  And the trains were late.  The Class 1 carriers back then hadn't discovered public-private-partnerships and really wanted as little to do with government as possible.  So, they adopted the term "freight railroads" to differentiate themselves from the guys who were screwing it up for everyone else.

    So go ahead.  Argue that there are no freight railroads, that there are only railroads.  If the semantic difference helps. go right ahead.  The seven Class 1 carriers still will be freight railroads.  The distinction and the term serves their purpose.

  • The power of word choice is amazing Garl and in today’s world we are subject to the very atmosphere buzzing with labeling, descriptors, weasel words, legalese, puffery, et al.  Occasionally, I experiment by using a word/description which I have coined in my writing and seeing how long it takes to come back to me: either with the same meaning or possibly stood on its head!  Perhaps it all started when it was discovered that “new and different” really did not have to have any meaning other then to make people think it meant something.

    I do think that the railroads we grew up with are different entities from what we see as Class I companies today.  Seems to me that the old structures were more like trees with roots and branches, with lots of interaction with the general public via passenger service, REA, down town depots, large workforce, stock ownership, etc.  Today’s railroad companies…the remaining big four or seven… appear to me to be more like product pipelines, isolated entities except when they cross roads in towns, acronym identified ( BNSF rather then Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe of  music fame), heavily owned by faceless funds, devoted not to bringing Johnny home from war or introducing city folk to the wild west, but to making a double digit profit through minimal labor force, long and heavy trains, elimination of curves, grades and low profit branch or periphery lines.  Since big and heavy industry has largely disappeared from American work life and remaining manufacturing seems comprised of relatively small companies making lightweight products assembled from imported components, the vast railroad root structure has also disappeared.  A recent report by the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials pointed out that the overdependence upon road freight must end because the highway infrastructure is in dire condition from the wear/tear of heavy trucks and if we are to have any economic growth, it will be impossible for highway freight to carry it all.  Therefore, the wake up call for large Federal investment in rail (freight) infrastructure is coming not from rail forces, but from the long time champions of trucking!  

    Garl, I grew up with the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad which depended for revenue 50% from freight and 50% from passengers.  It managed to handle the second largest volume of passengers in the US both as commuters and longer distance passengers, the freight of what was then the machine tool capital of the world, and much of the goods needs of the largest city in the US and did it with an astonishing array of equipment from steam to fast electric.  But, as Larry will probably agree, times have changed and I doubt if today’s Class I management with all their computer modeling, gps controls, and pipeline efficiency have any interest in running an old style “railroad.”

  • I do agree, oamundsen.  In fact, I was going to post a comment saying how right I think you are.  An anecdote about railroading in New England before my more serious comments:

    I once worked for a DOT assistant secretary who came to DC from Boston.  In a speech one day, he observed that New England had a rail system that depended on manufacture of machine tools and shoes, but it had shifted to microelectronics and management consulting.  "You can put a week's worth of microelectronics production in an envelope and ship it by Federal Express, and I haven't found a management consultant study yet that was worth shipping by the carload."  He made his point that the world really does change.

    Substantively, the biggest change in railroads that I see is that all the Class 1s and the larger regionals are in the hands of people who are business people more than they are railroaders. I remember the immediate post-Staggers industry of 1981, et seq.  The people running the major railroads still thought they were in the business of running trains; efficiently as possible, but running trains, none the less.  Today, they understand that they are in the business of providing a price/service package that customers are willing to pay for; it just happens to involve the use of trains.  This is a fundamental change, not a semantic issue.  It gets to the heart of how you envision yourself.  It also says to the various stakeholders: customers, employees, legislators, government officials, local communities where you do business, etc., that you are a freight railroad.  It categorizes you.  Most of the public, which encounters railroads only at grade crossings or when the railroad company wants to build a new facility where the community doesn't think it wants it, still doesn't know that freight railroads have nothing to do with passenger trains.  I might have allocated a few bucks to make the public more aware, but it wasn't my decision to make and the Class 1 CEOs decided otherwise.  The freight rail industry (there I go again, engaging in semantics) does put its effort into trying to make the distinction clear inside the Washington Beltway where the honorables can make or break any business if it werent' for lobbyists doing their thing well.

  • I have been enjoying this discussion, and oamundsen's point about "freight" railroads positioning themselves as sterile, acronym-laden, product pipelines is spot-on IMHO. The fact is - as Larry so well pointed out - the general public has little connection with (what amounts to) supply-chain "pipelines" running through their communities and backyards, albeit above ground in this case (and we all know how popular pipeline utilities and HAZMAT is in Mayberry these days).

    While the utility of the industry is well established, “keeping under the (public) radar” does the freight railroads no good when confronting the NIMBYs and BANANA crowd. Transportation infrastructure – both freight and passenger – must grow to accommodate a growing population and emerging markets, as noted by AASHTO. By continuing to eschew the public (read: passengers) the “freight” railroads will find little success in attracting positive attention from policymakers – both local as well as in Washington. All the positive, green-oriented, “look at the great things rail does” ad dollars sent CNN’s way will have little effect otherwise if John Q. Public’s interaction with the industry is limited to (seemingly) long waits at grade crossing barriers.

  • I want to point out that I think I was the first person to say HSR = Higher Speed Rail.  

    It's public domain but I should have trademarked it or made it something that could assist in my retirement.  Everyone can use it...unlike those mean freight railroads that won't let passenger trains take over their tracks again.

  • BTTF:

    Thanks for the offer. I'll begin using that term the same day I begin using the phrase "choo-choo trains."

    "Higher Speed Rail - the concept, the name, the promise - is a complete fabrication! A myth! The term doesn't represent an equipment type or operational standard; rather, it is a promotional appellation which, as a matter of course, tends to over-promise and under-deliver: precisely the OPPOSITE approach most legitimate businesses wish to take when selling a product.

    "Sound bite solutions, as conveniently tempting as they may be, have no place in transportation planning!"

    From "The myth of 'Higher Speed Rail'"


  • Higher Speed Rail certainly is not a fabrication, complete or partial.  It is, perhaps, an example of truth in marketing.  The government, as Ray LaHood and Joe Szabo are running the HSR exercise, is prepared to put some taxpayer dollars into specific corridors.  As there is no money nor intent to build an exclusive right-of-way for European or Asian-style high speed rail, as would be required by real high speed rail, we really are talking about operating on freight rail tracks and for safety reasons, that restricts HSR to 90 mph or perhaps 110, which is higher speed rail.  This is not a semantic debate.  It is real.

    A bit of levity: when I worked in the Office of the Secretary at DOT some 39 years ago, we routinely referred to "choo-choo trains."

    High speed rail - the real thing - will become a reality right after the federal government pays off its multi-trillion dollar national debt.  You can bank on that.

  • Larry, oamundsen and Dan:

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Larry, your explanation concerning our industry's adoption of the term "freight railroad" as an attempt "to differentiate [itself] from the guys who were screwing it up for everyone else" was a classic! While the designation is still sadly inaccurate, your bit about how the "seven Class 1 carriers still will be freight railroads" since the "distinction and the term serves their purpose" cuts right to the chase.

    oamundsen, I can't tell you the last time I've read something which, at once, was both so technically and historically accurate, yet so profoundly moving. Not long ago, in one of his comments regarding my "anguished" post, "Interesting, but not useful," Larry asked me why I was "so emotionally involved." Well, it has at least something to do with the fact you touched upon here: the way "today’s Class I management" have little if any "interest in running an old style 'railroad'."

    Larry then observed how this is really far from being a simple semantical issue, since it all "gets to the heart of how you envision yourself." Our railroads (or "freight railroads," if you insist) "are in the hands of people who are business people more than they are railroaders." Once upon a time, the men at the helm "still thought they were in the business of running trains; efficiently as possible, but running trains, none the less. Today, they understand that they are in the business of providing a price/service package that customers are willing to pay for; it just happens to involve the use of trains. This is a fundamental change..."

    It is also a sad state of affairs.

    If railroaders, especially the ones occupying the carpeted offices, don't intrinsically care for/about the railroads, then who _will_?!

    "How we envision ourselves," indeed! One the one hand, we have a group who believe (or at least _believed_) that, if you operate the very best railroad you possibly can, the money will eventually follow. On the other, we have those to whom the bottom line is, well, the "bottom line." There IS no greater purpose; there IS no ultimate good. No public interest, convenience or necessity. No pride, no dedication, no tradition.

    Dan, your comments were well taken. I've been trying to preach the same things for ages! The very idea that our railroads might forever remain "under the radar" is undermined by the realisation that others are busy making plans which include their property!

    It's theoretically possible that spending time and money in Washington will be enough to hold negative changes at bay. It's also possible that it'll require but one "activist judge" to begin eroding various fifth amendment protections.

    My advice would be to take active ownership of these issues, NOW! If we bury our collective heads in the ballast, we might get run over by a train!

    Having said all that...

    I have a couple of questions for the group:

    1. Is it possible for the modern day equivalent of an "old style railroad" to exist in the 21st century? I'm not talking about superficial matters, either, so cabooses and depots and telegraph sounders need not apply. For lack of a better phrase, I'm talking about "the way we envision ourselves."

    2. Is it necessary for this "old style railroad" to exist before conventional passenger train service can once again become an integral and efficient part of the equation?


  • Larry,

    If "High[er] Speed Rail" represents "truth in marketing," then what does it _mean_? Surely, by now, we should be able to honestly define the concept!

    It isn't "higher" than true H.S.R., nor is it "higher" than the speeds our private, North American railroad industry was able to accomplish three-quarters of a century ago.

    If it's really "higher" than _anything_, it's only higher than the U.S. speeds we see today - and that's nothing to brag about. Even Amtrak's Acela, after BILLIONS of dollars of taxpayer's money has been invested in the N.E.C., mainly serves to highlight what a wondrous thing the original PC Metroliners accomplished back in the late '60s!

    As I've said before:

    "Passenger trains in these United States - the sort of which, today, would be considered 'corridor' runs - were operating at 'higher-speeds' during the 1930s! Furthermore, the first passenger train to exceed 100 miles-per-hour set its record in 1893! [I understand and accept the various issues surrounding the NYC&HR's claim. Still, it's fascinating that Locomotive #999 and the Empire State Express supposedly reached 112 1/2 miles-per-hour almost 120 YEARS ago - and that its speed EXCEEDS the threshold of today's so-called 'high[er]-speed rail'!]"

    LaHood and Szabo are trolling for dollars, period. If artificial and ultimately meaningless terms promise to help foster the growth of their bureaucratic fiefdom, they're willing to use them.

    By the way...domestic H.S.R. - the real thing - will become a reality just as soon as the powers-that-be decide to do it. As with every other federal programme, it will remain the beneficiary of governmental largesse until the day our house of cards finally collapses.

    After all, the concept of paying debt presumes fiscal responsibility - and we're discussing Washington.


  • You know Garl, there are many fables in human history of the ultimate truth being told by outliers while the main stream blithely follows the leaders off the cliff.  I just read that the global foreign exchange turnover is 4 trillion dollars per day but, only 13 % of these transactions are for “non-financial” business!  Most of the trades generating these vast numbers involve financial instruments not even dreamed of in 1980 and have virtually nothing to do with the production of goods and services.*  My contention of late has been that high capital industries such as railroads are competing in the money markets against these creators of high return - including today’s “banks” - and therefore resort to very socially destructive acts to grind out a quarterly return on a scale alien to past returns on such slow but safe & steady investments.**

    Did you know that despite the apparent leaps in railroad productivity in the US, the stock market value of “freight railroads” today is 1/5  that of railroads of 1980?  That although 78% of freight is hauled by truck vs. 16% by rail,  it costs 29% less to ship by rail today then it did in 1981.  And somewhere in that report by American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, is the computation that a standard 40 ton semi does thousands of  times more damage to roads  than does an automobile!

    Perhaps you agree that in these past 30 years, the vast US rail system  was collapsed into high speed, efficient pipelines for commodities and goods manufactured overseas, while the national infrastructure funding built wall to wall highways which are being destroyed by the very freight they carry. And it is now unspeakably expensive to rebuild these highways and attendant grid of roads, and also impossible to expand them to a socially acceptable size in order to accommodate any economic growth.

    Perhaps after 30 years of cutting the rail system down to 50% of its former self and concentrating on “efficiencies” to generate profits marginally attractive (6-8%) to equity investors, it is time for these “freight railroads” to morph into some new entity to better serve the emerging transportation needs in a still newer world: a reality-based world of diminishing, more costly fossil fuels, of a reshuffled economic marketplace,  of a large, diverse and growing  population, and of a society aware of the environmental/security impact of fossil fuel dependency.  I have no idea what such an entity could be, but I do know this: before Warren Buffett bought into BNSF, I had a conversation aboard The Empire Builder with a gentleman who sure looked like him. We discussed our backgrounds; I asked what he did for work, he replied, “ I don’t work, my money does.”  When coal burning power plants recede into a dark environmental history, might BNSF have something else to haul to make Mr. Buffett’s money more money?

    * Robert Peston, BBC economist

    ** no wonder they want to “stay below the public’s radar!

  • oamundsen:  Very intereting comments, particularly abou the preponderance of transactions that contribute no product or service to the society.  Thanks.  Do be careful of statistics, though.  If one uses ton-miles as a measure of transportation service produced (is there any other valid measure?), then the rail picture is considerably better than you have it.  Railroads are bumping up against 43% and trucking is considerably below that at 30%.  This includes local delivery and short haul movements where railroads cannot and do not even try to compete.  So, the railroads are doing just fine, thank you very much.  Also, remember that when deregulation became a fact, there were some 40 Class 1 railroads.  Some still exist, but now are Class 2, while others have been merged into various of the seven Class 1s of today.  The stock market value of the industry thus is not a valid indicator that railroads have stagnated.

    If and when utilities stop burning coal - or even burn a lot less of it, BNSF will have something else to make Mr. Buffett's money earn more money.  Right now, it's called intermodal.  For the past decade or more, IM has been predominantly import traffic.  As railroads have become more efficient, it has been able to compete with motor carriers over shorter lengths of haul.  Now, with their ability to operate profitably over shorter hauls, railroads are drawing a bead on domestic traffic.  That's why NS and CSX are putting so much capital of their own and of the public's into their corridor strategy, shortening routes, clearing tunnel clearances, etc.  Of course, I am an incurable optimist.

    Garl: You pose a couple of interesting questions, but I think we are disagreeing semantically not substantively.  Why would anyone want an "old style railroad" today?  The people charged with running today's railroad companies are better executives than the industry has ever seen before.  They are pouring capital into constantly improving their product (freight transportation service) and they know better than most what business they are in.  As they have no desire to exit the railroad business, they don't spend a lot of time - perhaps none - envisioning themselves.  Trying your second question, I don't believe conventional passenger train service ever will be an integral and efficient part of the equation.  Freight railroads (not really sorry for using the term) will act as hosts for Amtrak and commuter services.  If passenger authorities provide the necessary capital, the freight railroads will provide the curve reductions, platform improvements, longer sidings, and other features necessary for good passenger service.  No money, no tickee.   It's just that simple.  As I have commented before and elsewhere, passenger rail service never was profitable.  The Northeast bankruptcies simply brought that into the glare of public policy.  Amtrak is what resulted.  Instead of railroad stockholders subsidizing passenger trains, all U.S. taxpayers now do so.  But they don't provide sufficient subsidy to allow for any better train service than we have today.  As an "old style railroad" will never again exist, the question is moot.

    You say, Garl, that "H.S.R. - the real thing - will become a reality just as soon as the powers-that-be decide to do it." I hope you don't try to hold your breath until that day comes.  This country is virtually broke and those who run government and make public policy have made it clear that there are any number of high priorities for spending taxpayer money than the railroads.  Heck, we aren't even spending enough by half on highway infrastructure.  As for the wistfulness for the gooed old days, they weren't all that good in reality.  Yes, name trains ran faster.  Freight trains were not 135 cars long, the cars were not 89-feet long, and the sidings didn't have to be very long, thus clearing the way for passenger trains.  While waxing romantically over passenger trains, don't forget the trains that had no identity other than a number that crawled across the countryside tossing off some mail and express and picking up milk.  It's not terribly romantic.  I am a historian of sorts (my books have been histories) but I know that I live in the 21st Century.  I appreciate knowing about the past so that I can try to understand how today came about.  I certainly don't want to go back in time.

  • Garl, Larry and others:  Thanks for this and other very civil and engaging discussions; also, I hope that you are enjoying a pleasant Labor Day break.  Larry, I certainly understand about the veracity  of statistics…they are tools of the devil…and this does make comparisons over time somewhat strained. The whole “apples and oranges” thing is also a factor when such game changers as inter modal  and super dedicated coal trains are part of the mix. And, Larry, I agree that living today is far better for far more people than days past, but as a historian, I trust you would agree that some aspects of fast paced life today in travel are extremely difficult for some blocks of people, such as disabled and older folks, when compared to well done passenger train travel.  Not being romantic or foaming,  just my own experience as I age.

    Perhaps there is  common ground by questioning whether or not the entity, Amtrak, is the right way to run passenger service over tracks owned by “freight railroads?” What would an improved corporate entity look like better-structured to meet an increased demand for 21st. Century intercity travel?  This may be a factor relatively easier to change ….it is a creation of Congress so can certainly be altered by them… than beating the freight railroads over the head with regulation to force bedding down with Amtrak as it now stands.  Adversarial long term relationships never work well; each party has to receive something they need, there has to be respect for each other, and there has to be input from numerous stakeholders via votes on a directing board.  For the many reasons evidenced in the AASHTO report, the time for a reasoned approach to national transportation policy has arrived* and passenger rail transport will probably be receiving acknowledgement as having a legitimate place at the table, and at the plate.  But, to keep feeding increased funds into the presently configured Amtrak is almost a definition of madness: doing the same thing and expecting different results.

    * Obama is to announce some 50 billion infrastructure stimulus package today which includes rail projects.

  • oamundsen:  You are absolutely correct - in my opinion - that some aspects of life today can be difficult for some citizens.  Considering my advancing years, I may yet be in that category sooner than I wish.  Well done passenger rail service is something I devoutly wish to see.  Now that I have more time for traveling, I think back to my earlier days when I had multiple frequencies available and train travel was easy to use and quite pleasurable.  It's almost impossible to use it today for point-to-point transportation, which is a shame.

    Amtrak, as it exists today, probably is not the entity to run U.S. passenger rail service, whether on freight railroad property or its own NEC.  I don't know what would replace it, though.  Remember, Amtrak was designed to fail.  Congress has had 39 years in which to amend its own monstrosity, which many, including me, believe was created to fail.  There were officials in government at the time who believed that Amtrak could be starved and the system gradually truncated until a handful of corridor trains were left along with a few palace trains wandering around the country to serve the "blue-haired" ladies, those who were afraid to fly, and poor folks.  Draconian?  Yes.  But it might help to put our current passenger train situation in perpsective to recall those days. I certainly cannot disagree with anything you say in your latest comment.  Congress always has had the authority to do the job correctly.  But it hasn't.  Remember, no member of Congress ever has been defeated because he or she advocated reducing government spending.  Many have been defeated for advocating more government spending.  Right now, we are dragging our sorry butts out of a deep recession and one of our two parties adamantly is doing everything it can to stop the President from implementing a half-a**ed second stimulus of only $50 billion for the infrastructure.  I don't know about you, but this certainly doesn't give me a warm feeling that my government will do the right thing by our 300 million-plus fellow Americans.

  • I wonder what passenger trains would look like if "contracted" out to say RJ Corman, G&W - type carriers that know how to run a railroad?  Not run by government types.  Maybe that's why all the CEO's fail (read: Gunn) because they were railroaders trying to exist in political arena.

    I'm way in over my head here so just throwing it out.

  • Not over your head at all, Back.  I do think the "Amtrak problem" is a bit more fundamental.  The thing was designed to fail by the Nixon Administration DOT.  It is a political monstrosity that is on starvation rations.  I don't believe anyone could make it operate properly.  A real passenger rail system would have more than one frequency daily on each route off the NEC.  It would have an integrated national network that would allow travelers to get from New Orleans to Miami without having to go through Washington, or from Denver to Houston without having to go through Los Angeles or San Francisco.  I believe Gunn understood this and his efforts to deal with it eventually cost him his job.  Boardman, on the other hand, seems quite content to do what he can with what his political board gives him.