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How America’s Trains Nearly Went Off the Rails

By Admin

Reported by Peter Coy for The New York Times. (Opinion)

I haven’t operated a railroad since I got a Lionel train set for Christmas decades ago, but even I can see that something is wrong. Railroads in North America are struggling to keep trains moving. Shippers are furious over delays. Workers are unhappy about inflexible leave policies. Congress had to impose a labor agreement to prevent a nationwide rail shutdown, which might have started today.

You may have heard or read that a root cause of the problems is something called precision scheduled railroading. That’s not entirely true. In concept, precision scheduled railroading has the potential to benefit not just railroads but shippers and workers as well. Its first principle is to stick to a schedule for delivering freight, the way passenger trains stick to a schedule for delivering people. In short, “Do what you say you’re going to do.”

The real problem is that railroads have used the buzz phrase of precision scheduled railroading as a cover for a long series of ill-advised cost-cutting measures that make scheduling for shippers and workers less precise, not more. The solution therefore is not to ditch precision scheduled railroading, but to do it right.

I even got a prominent labor leader to agree that precision scheduled railroading is a good concept. “If you take the stated goals of P.S.R. from the corporate side, it sounds great,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. “But the lived experience for our unions has been fewer people, more work, less redundancy and frankly less equipment.”

According to a great article on that ran earlier this year, a young railroad employee named Hunter Harrison got the idea for precision scheduled railroading when he was working in the tower of a rail yard in Memphis in the late 1960s. An executive stopped by, pointed to tracks filled with idle freight cars, and asked: “Young man, what do you see out there?”

According to the article, Harrison responded, “Well, I see a lot of business, sir.” To which the executive said, “Well I don’t. I see a hell of a lot of delayed traffic with all those cars just sitting there.”

To solve that problem, Harrison developed precision scheduled railroading. He implemented it at Illinois Central Railroad, where he was chief executive for five years in the 1990s. Then, like Johnny Appleseed, he spread the idea to other railroads during stints at Canadian National, Canadian Pacific and CSX. After his death in 2017 at age 73, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern adopted the practice. BNSF Railway, the biggest, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, has not. Harrison’s influential 2005 book, “How We Work and Why: Running a Precision Railroad,” is out of print, but you can get a used copy in acceptable condition on for $499.99.

Read more here.