FROM THE EDITOR, RAILWAY AGE JULY 2022 ISSUE: If the headline above sounds familiar, you’ve been reading Railway Age for a very long time. “Lines on the Job” was the column of the late editor Gus Welty; we retired it in 1997 when Gus passed away.
I wonder what Gus would think of the current national contract negotiations, which, to put it politely, are “tense”. Since I can’t ask him, I turned to long-time railroad investor and board member Gil Lamphere for a current thought – his own “lines on the job”:
“Labour has always been treated like a retractable Elmer’s glue stick: hired, trained to stick with the railroad and keep it in place, but furloughed when the business cycle slows down. That changed when the Railroad baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) retired with 30 to 40 years of experience, mostly as a result of changes to the Railroad Retirement Act.
“Millennials (‘Generation Y’, people born between 1981 and 1996), lacking institutional knowledge that takes years to develop, came on board with different expectations of rapid advancement after being educated. But they didn’t want to stay in one place anymore, let alone the railroad that had trained them and given them experience. They wanted and developed employment opportunities elsewhere. So much for rebooting the focus of institutional knowledge.
“Michael Ward, when he was president and CEO of CSX, saw this coming. Ward recognized the workforce as a critical part of the railroads. Ward showed the stats to his board of administration and described the characteristics of millennials. His strategy was “we will meet Millennials halfway. A year later, he reported to the board on how his strategy was working. “Halfway -path doesn’t work,” he said. “Millennials are winning. They will not compromise. We are the ones who have to adapt.
“Wall Street likes a low labor count, which means lower expenses and higher profits. But Wall Street is struggling to realize that the current low workforce numbers are an artificial number, and struggling to devalue the railroad business if it doesn’t perform on time. And Wall Street is confused as the rails scramble to increase labor after years of Wall Street profiting and rewarding ever-lower labor numbers produced by the PSR or simple layoff reductions .
“Labour shouldn’t be Elmer’s retractable glue stick, but the super glue needed to permanently hold the intricate network and timeliness of a railroad, tying together a highly efficient railroad , balanced and punctual. Wall Street must come to terms with the fact that chemin de fer is a complex, long-term outdoor game that requires experienced, hardy players on a permanent team. This is especially true if rail wants to combine the competitive dynamic growth of intermodal with its traditional semi-monopolistic bulk cargo business and perhaps even expand its carload business. Like capital expenditure, labor is the permanent capital in which the railways must invest.
The term ‘human capital’ has replaced ‘people’, ‘staff’ or ’employee’, especially in larger companies. It makes perfect sense. As Gil Lamphere and other experienced railroaders will tell you, there is no greater area of investment.