Monday, January 4, 2016

The Threat of Stillness

One month ago, I found myself on the roof of the tower overlooking Kansas City Southern's Shreveport Terminal, camera in hand, snatching up photographs of the annual Holiday Express' excursion for the Trains Magazine Newswire.  Below me, the staff of volunteers and paid employees were putting the finishing touches on the six display cars, and members of the public were already lining up in the parking lot. The impeccable KCS business train sat a few hundred yards down the line, tucked safely away from curious members of the public.  KCS 1 and 2 rested in the distance at the head end, tinged pinkish by encroaching twilight.

The Shreveport terminal was the KCS's alternate location for the Holiday Express' stop after a fireworks show evicted it from its normal location closer to downtown. Passing freight trains would occasionally set the ground rumbling with a harsh slack contraction and the remote controlled locomotives constantly shuffled around in the background. The terminal staff and train crew bemoaned that the show was apparently competing for the public's attention and had caused the number of attendees to be somewhat lower compared to the previous year, but the lines seemed to consistently stretch through the parking lot and out to the street.

For me, though, the event's relocation was fortuitous. I found the staff at the Shreveport Terminal to be exceptionally friendly, more so than any other railroad I have visited. It was their suggestion to go up to the tower for photographs and were kind enough to put on an impromptu tour of the business train. They took me at my word when I said I was familiar with being around railroad equipment, and were forthcoming about their experiences working for the company.

I got a bit of a sense that the KCS staff seemed glad that someone was paying attention to the company. I attribute that KCS has had a relatively stable year, compared to the tumultuous 2015 endured by the rest of the American Class Is.  Slumps in the energy industry prompted BNSF & UP to each lay off hundreds of workers, and CSX closed the long-cherished Clinchfield Line. Canadian Pacific, meanwhile made several bids for ownership of Norfolk Southern and seems unabashed in its covetousness even though it has been rebuffed three times now. BNSF stated that it was open to bid for Norfolk Southern should Canadian Pacific's attempts fail. The specter of Positive Train Control legislation loomed over all other problems: Until the United States Congress agreed to an extension to the compliance deadline late in the year, it seemed very likely that the railroads would in one way or another be forced to cease operations. Enormous economic consequences would result.

KCS remained aloof from most of the economic problems plaguing the other railroads, since coal and natural gas do not compose as significant of a proportion of their cargo. The Shreveport staff was not aware of any layoffs beyond halting training for some new hires, and to my eye, the yard certainly looked filled almost to capacity.  Why KCS was immune to the merger game was more difficult to explain. They would seem to be the most logical target for absorbtion: KCS is smaller in size than any of the other major North American railroad, and is the only on that possesses an unbroken route to shipping ports in Mexico.

I posed the question of why KCS seemed to remain in the background to the terminal management when they joined me up on the roof during a smoke break. They agreed that it was surprising, but seemed resigned to the possibility that their company might soon become a target for acquisition.

Shreveport was among the last and most local of the year's travels. In 2015, covering railroad-related events took me to twelve different states and put me in the thick of the industry.  Before visiting the KCS yard, I had been a guest at the corporate headquarters of both BNSF and Union Pacific.  Some, like the 611's run, will never be repeated. There were moments in which I summoned up a wellspring of badassery I never realized I had within me-- by God, I will boast about convincing a state trooper to take me into a blocked-from-public-and media wreck site for years to come.

No matter where I went or what the nature of the occasion was, though,  every one of the events I went to felt in some way influenced by the fear that change for the railroads might be just around the corner, and that it might be a great enough change for all of us to feel it.

Workers within the railroad industry were set on edge by fears that their positions could be swept up in the next round of layoffs, and analysts with a prophetic bent caution that a slowdown to the nation's economy often lurks behind trouble on the rails.  Others fear that mergers or decreased funds at the railroads' disposal may spell the end of excursion programs. The latter might seem to be a selfish concern, but is the easiest defined of all the things we stand to loose in 2016 and represents one of the only ways which people outside the industry can participate in what the railroads are doing.

I dislike trying to make predictions for the future, because there is always the possibility of some completely unforeseen events invalidating even the most likely forecast. What I think can be easily surmised from the events of 2015, though, is that the American railroads are poised for change. By the end of 2016, and certainly in five year's time, they might look completely unrecognizable from their current state.

Use of the word completely might suggest a finality that seems too exaggerated, but I think that there is at least a chance that it is the most appropriate term. Another round of mergers might lead to a wholesale lack of variety on the tracks, of even more towns falling silent as the spurs going through them are taken out of service. The most conspiratorially minded observers raise the possibility that further mergers are a way to nationalize the American railroads--that is an unlikely outcome, but one that is attractive because it at least gives the illusion that there is order behind the industry's chaos.  Many fear that PTC will eventually allow railroads to further reduce or even eliminate the crews on trains: Safety concerns aside and job losses aside, there seems to be something offensive in the prospect of removing the human element from our railroads.

What's interesting to me about the stage set up for us in 2016 is that the people living through what he now know to be important transitional moments in the history of our railroads often did not fully grasp what was happening around them. There were many other propositions for a transcontinental railroad in the 1860s that might have given other companies a competitive edge, for instance, and the end of steam seemed less inevitable when the only diesels on the market were mechanically cranky.

My feeling that we might be standing on the edge of another such moment of transition, that one day we might wake up and realize that our iron roads had transformed yet again, crystallized on top of the Shreveport terminal. Changes will come in 2016, and we shoudln't be surprised by how far they might extend. We'll just have to strap in and hold on for the ride.

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