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There is a Difference

August 16th, 2016

Anyone who has flown on an airline in the last couple of years has had to deal with the reality of charges for things that were previously included in the fare you paid (I’m sorry, but the reality of life is that there are really no free things included with something you have paid for, you just haven’t paid for them directly). When the airline industry realized that they could charge for things that they previously provided as a value added service (and that we would willingly pay for them), all of a sudden they found they could keep fare levels the same while providing less for that fare.

The railroad industry does things a little differently than the airlines. First of all, your contract of carriage covers movement from point A to placement at point B, and that is what it always has covered. The railroad’s job was to move the car, and that was it. That worked until one day a customer wanted more than that, and the accessorial charge was born. What is an accessorial charge? It is literally the price to cover things that are outside of the rate that is paid to move the car. It can be for storage, extra switching, weighing, closing doors, rejecting cars, you name it. And railroads have tariffs that list these charges, which generally are reasonable, unless the charge is for something that is not so reasonable (cleaning sewage cars comes to mind). From time to time, railroads will review their charges, and make sure that they are at least covering the cost of doing the service covered (otherwise known as not giving away the farm), and from what I have seen in my career, this is one of those areas that gets the least amount of attention. We are required to provide the tariff with the charges to our customers in advance of any changes, and rarely do we hear anything from anyone.

Recently I made some changes to our accessorial charges tariff that included some nominal increases, and sent out the changes to our customers a month in advance of them going into effect. For the first time ever in my career, a customer had a problem with the increase. I asked the customer for a reason why they had a problem, their response was that they wanted a decrease. I explained to them that the increase was not only fair, it was the first increase in a number of years, and the increase didn’t fully cover how much our costs had risen in that time period. And that was all I heard until the rate went into effect and we sent the customer our first bill.

The customer sent me an email stating that they were not going to accept the charge. My response was that if the customer did not want to pay the charges, then they should not order the services in question. In fact, I informed them that those services would be terminated immediately, and I reminded them that if they could find similar services for less, they would be wrong not to utilize them.

So what happened in the end? I don’t think anyone completely won. While the customer isn’t exactly happy, they are paying the charges. For us, we now have to be concerned that they are looking for other alternatives, but in the end we didn’t give away the farm. We will work with the customer to improve freight rates if we can, and work more to explain the difference between rates and charges.

–By Steve Friedland


steven-fb.jpg

Steve Friedland, vice president and general manager of Massachusetts Central Railroad, is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. He got his start with the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, where he worked for 22 years in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He has served as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR’s Wireless Communications Committee and was chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He is currently a member of the ASLRRA’s board of directors.

It’s Been Quiet, too Quiet

August 3rd, 2016

Every once in a while, my mother will call me at work. Most of the time it is to ask about something that is going on with the family, or she might have a question about something in general. We will get through whatever she called about, and she will ask me if everything is ok, because I sound distracted. 99% of the time, she has called while I am in the middle of something else, and because I don’t want to be rude or get into a game of phone tag with her, I take the call. Now I don’t think that she thinks I am sitting around doing nothing waiting for the phone to ring, but she is surprised when I tell her that I was in the middle of something, and I was focused on it. Parents…

Railroads, as we have discussed before, are the ultimate disciples of Newton’s Second Law, which states that “an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon a force.” That law alone explains why railroads are so fuel efficient: once you get a train moving, other than overcoming friction and other drag, you don’t have to do anything to keep things moving at the same speed. Compared to other forms of transportation, we don’t have as much of those forces, so less fuel is needed.

Operationally, railroads (and especially short lines) are also like that in their organizations. Really, really efficient, because they don’t have a lot of drag. That lack of drag comes from the simple fact that we don’t have as many employees doing the jobs as a larger corporation does. The up side of this is efficiency. The down side can be explained with a comment that was made the other day when a friend at another railroad was promoted to a very high management position in his company. I pointed out to him that if he hadn’t figured it out yet, it didn’t make a difference what his title was, the job was basically the same. His response? “Oh, you figured that out too!”

With all of the above being said, no matter what your title in your organization, you have a lot of hats to wear. Most of the time during the year, you may have multiple hats on at one time, trying to juggle everything. Right now though, it is quiet. With people on vacation, school summer break, and various other things associated with the calendar, there just isn’t much going on in the railroad world right now.

Now don’t sit back and take this opportunity to take a nap. Use the time to catch up on all those things you will have to scramble to do when the due date sneaks up on you. When was the last time you updated your time table? How about your security or bridge management plan? Crossing listings? All of these things are things that need to be done, but we usually push them off to tomorrow. Why not take the time to get ahead in something, potentially helping yourself down the road for when you don’t have the time to do them, but the due date is looming?

Bottom Line? Just because it is quiet, doesn’t mean you don’t have stuff to do. Get it done, because there will be more to do.

–By Steve Friedland


steven-fb.jpg

Steve Friedland, vice president and general manager of Massachusetts Central Railroad, is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. He got his start with the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, where he worked for 22 years in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He has served as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR’s Wireless Communications Committee and was chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He is currently a member of the ASLRRA’s board of directors.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

July 13th, 2016

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

If you were expecting that, with the title above, I am going to write about police involved shootings and police being killed, sorry, I’m going to leave that for those who think they have an opinion. Instead, I am going to talk about railroads getting along with the communities they operate through, and dealing with the public entities that own the railroad.

It is a fact of Short Line railroading that in many cases, you don’t own the railroad that you operate, and if you are in that situation, you have an agreement with the owning entity that specifies your responsibilities to the owner. Usually, there is a rent payment, combined with a maintenance responsibility, and they also want you to grow the business on their tracks, so that you can continue to be able to pay for the first two items. The above has been the case at both railroads that I have worked at: for the ME the County of Morris owned roughly ¾ the mileage we operated on, and at the MCER the Commonwealth of Massachusetts owns most of the right of way.

If you are the owner of the tracks, your hopes are that the operator is wildly successful, the track is maintained in perfect condition, and all of the surrounding communities are happy neighbors with the railroad. As they say, hope springs eternal, but this is not always the case for the track owner, who can regularly find themselves pinched in between the hopes for financial gain and the realities of the voters who live in those communities.

If the railroad does their job correctly, most people in a neighboring community will never see them because the railroad operates in the day when most people are not home, and it doesn’t make a difference if the railroad moves one or a thousand cars of any commodity, because they never see it. Now if the railroad parks cars, either in transit or for storage, your moving target just became static, and all of a sudden people notice the railroad, because there are cars parked in their back yard. Again, it doesn’t matter if there are feathers or methyl-ethyl-death in the cars, just because the cars are there they are a hazard, and they could blow up and destroy the community.

Now if you are the administrator in charge of the railroad for the owner, the easy thing to do is to tell the railroad to move the cars. Chances are, the railroad did their homework, and would not have parked the cars in that location if there was a better place to park them, and no other locations are appropriate or as safe. Now comes the “discussion,” and this can take place on the phone, via email, face to face, or in court. Complicating everything is that you have the track owners, who, indirectly have been hired by the constituency, and the track operators, who have been hired by the owners and have been given tasks that might not agree with the constituency, who of course hired the owners. This is one of those times that it might not be a bad time to have a mediator or judge involved, because everyone involved at this point believes that they are in a no-win situation.

So how do we all get along? Like any situation between multiple parties, there has to be a little “give.” For the neighbors, listen to what the railroad and track owner has to say about what they are doing to ensure your safety, and make sure that they are doing what they say they will do. For the railroad, maintain an open line of communication with the owner and neighbor, and don’t go into a situation with bravado and be reasonably sensitive to the owner and neighbors. As for the owner, be aware that you are the one that both charged the railroad with growing the business and paying for maintenance, and that while the easy answer is to say no, the better solution might be to try to make everything work.

Now don’t think that I have any illusions that we are all going to be sitting around the camp fire and singing Kumbaya, because that would be a mistake. My only point is that like most situations, a little communication can prevent a big public blow up.

–By Steve Friedland


steven-fb.jpg

Steve Friedland, vice president and general manager of Massachusetts Central Railroad, is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. He got his start with the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, where he worked for 22 years in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He has served as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR’s Wireless Communications Committee and was chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He is currently a member of the ASLRRA’s board of directors.

Christmas in June

June 28th, 2016

It is well-known that once you hit December 15th on the calendar, you might as well wait until the new year to get something of any substance done in business. The fact is, between shopping, holiday parties, shutdowns, vacations, and the holidays themselves, the business year ends then and doesn’t restart until the first week of January. If you take a broader look at the calendar, the roughly five-week span between Thanksgiving and the end of the year sets up the ideal conditions for the year-end wind down.

Now what if I said that these conditions occur another time of the year too?

They do, and they are taking place right now.

Let’s start with the summer “holiday season.” There are roughly five weeks in between Memorial Day and July 4, and while the shopping isn’t as great, you do have graduations, the end of the school year, vacations, and the lot in the run up to Independence Day. Throw in on the financial side that you are at the end of the quarter and half of the year, and you have created the same conditions. We have seen it here at the railroad, where there has been a definite wind down of traffic going into the Independence Day weekend, and a number of our customers will have seasonal shutdowns or inventories taking place over the next couple of weeks.

Should we be looking for Independence Day decorations going on sale around Easter? I don’t think so, but I do think that business-wise maybe we should be looking at the year in two six-month segments instead of one twelve-month one. June is the new December, and July will start out slowly, just like January does. The good news is that unless you are reading this in the antipodes, we are in the height of summer, and fortunately we only have to deal with winter (and the snow) once a year.

Enjoy the summer slowdown.

–By Steve Friedland


steven-fb.jpg

Steve Friedland, vice president and general manager of Massachusetts Central Railroad, is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. He got his start with the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, where he worked for 22 years in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He has served as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR’s Wireless Communications Committee and was chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He is currently a member of the ASLRRA’s board of directors.

Pictures of You, Pictures of Me

June 9th, 2016

A number of years ago we were putting together the opening video for the general session at the ASLRRA Connections, and after doing the typical pictures of locomotives videos for the open in previous years, we decided that this year we wanted something different. We asked for pictures of people. And we got people pictures. Lots of them, and in the end we created a video that in a little over two minutes showed the faces of our industry, the people who made the freight move. It didn’t matter what part of the business they were a part of, from track, to operations, to maintenance, and administration, they all were a part of what made the freight move on the tracks. We did a number of opening pieces for the annual meeting over the years, and the one with the people is still one of my favorites.

It may surprise some of you that I did not get my start in journalism writing a blog for RailResource. In fact, my start in journalism came in the 1985-1986 school year at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., where I took journalism as my senior English class, and I was the photography editor of the weekly school newspaper, The Columbian. I’ll admit now that I took the class more for the friends who were in it and the fact that I wasn’t going to have to deal with poetry or Shakespeare, and while I did write a number of articles throughout the year (including an interview with E-Street Drummer Max Weinberg), my primary focus was on the pictures.

Growing up I always had an interest in photography, probably because my father did, and he enabled my interest to grow when on my 16th birthday I received my first 35mm SLR camera. That was in the middle of my sophomore year of high school, and as I learned to use the camera and got (somewhat) better at composing photographs, people started asking for copies of my pictures. Remember this was the middle 80’s and getting copies of a picture wasn’t as easy as sending an email (email was not in wide use yet, and digital pictures only came from satellites in space), so I also learned to process black and white film and print pictures myself in the darkroom that my father had. I got better at my hobby, and by the time junior year ended, it was on to the newspaper world and “serious” photography.

I spent almost every day of school my senior year with my camera with me, and I took pictures. A lot of pictures. By the time the school year ended, I took almost 1000 frames of film, mostly B&W, and a bunch of slides. The pictures were of everything that one goes through in their senior year of high school, from plays, sports, special events, trips, classes and dances, and most of the pictures were never seen, because other than the couple that got used for the newspaper or maybe made it into the yearbook, the negatives got tossed into a box, and I moved on to the next week’s assignments.

Fast forward to 2016, and my high school class is putting together the plans for our 30-year reunion. With the advent of social media, especially Facebook, a lot of us have stayed in touch more than most would have in the past. For example, of the roughly 340 people in my graduating class, over 230 are in our Facebook group. As the discussions for the reunion started, and the planning committee worked on the details, I mentioned to a couple of my close friends from high school that I still had the box of pictures, and asked them when would it be the time to share them. One said that she was finally ready after 30 years to see them, and everyone who I spoke to was excited to see them. Then the fun started.

If you were judging the photos on quality alone, you probably would not be impressed. But these weren’t photos at this point, they were memories. So I scanned about 100 of them, and put them up on Facebook for all to see. And see them they did, and these photos, which had survived four moves, a basement flood, numerous opportunities to be thrown out, and more importantly 30 years, finally were seen by far more people than had seen them when they were just taken. My favorites (and by counting the likes, the favorites of my classmates) are the candid shots, which really were not my “assignment” to shoot. Some were taken because I was finishing off a roll of film, others were done as atmosphere shots, and because of this most were never seen until now. And now, they are there for everyone to enjoy.

Now that I have finished this box of pictures, I know there are more to be found, and the archeological dig will start in my house this weekend. The reunion is in October, and while a lot of the guys will be heavier and have a lot less hair, the women will be just as beautiful as they were 30 years ago. We will remember the old times, and we will remember the ones who can’t be with us, and we will all be happy to be back together again. And there will be a lot of pictures taken to last us the next 30 years.

–By Steve Friedland


steven-fb.jpg

Steve Friedland, vice president and general manager of Massachusetts Central Railroad, is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. He got his start with the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, where he worked for 22 years in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He has served as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR’s Wireless Communications Committee and was chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He is currently a member of the ASLRRA’s board of directors.

It Was Only That

May 31st, 2016

When the National Transportation Safety Board had their meeting to report on their findings about the Amtrak accident in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, I will admit I did have some concerns about what the Board would find. In some ways it was kind of like the person who is having the worst day of their life, and after the car broke down, they lost their job, and they broke up with their significant other, all the person could do was ask, “what next?” In this case, it was the result of the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act, Lac Megantic and the rules and debate that followed (and is still going on), PTC, HoS, ECP brakes, and you can name a half dozen more new things we have had to do to make ourselves “safer”.

I’m not complaining about these rules or systems, I am complaining about how we have become knee-jerk regulators, sitting back and not doing anything until there is an accident, and then we shift into Chicken Little mode, with everyone running around claiming that the sky is falling and we have to do something to make the “dangerous” railroads safe. Most of the time these people completely ignore the volumes of safety data in front of them, and in order to put themselves in a good light with their bosses (the voters), they go ahead and propose that the safety toy of the month be imposed on all railroads for their own good.

Having said the above, you could imagine my relief when the findings were released. In this case, the engineer, distracted by work related communications, lost situational awareness of where he was, and accelerated where he should have been braking. That’s how you get a train going 106MPH derailing around a 50MPH curve. I literally said to myself, “it was only that.”

Could the accident have been prevented? Of course. There should have been at least cab signals, which could have prevented the over speed, and PTC would have definitely prevented the loss of situational awareness and the over speed. Amtrak has since installed PTC on that line in that direction.

I do feel for Mr. Bostian, the engineer of the train. He was working at a job that he wanted to do, and by all reports was conscientious about the job he was doing. He simply lost track of where he was due to distraction, and where you are covering over a quarter of a mile every ten seconds, he just didn’t have enough time to get his bearings back. He now has to live with what happened for the rest of his life, and may not be able to work at the job he wanted to work at ever again. I’m sure the lawsuits will go on for years, and some people will never truly happy with the results. From my perspective, I am somewhat relieved that we don’t have a bunch of politicians running around with a bunch of brilliant ideas on how we can save ourselves from…ourselves.

–By Steve Friedland


steven-fb.jpg

Steve Friedland, vice president and general manager of Massachusetts Central Railroad, is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. He got his start with the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, where he worked for 22 years in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He has served as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR’s Wireless Communications Committee and was chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He is currently a member of the ASLRRA’s board of directors.

Reach Out and Touch Someone

May 13th, 2016

When I was a child growing up in Maplewood, N.J., my father was an amateur radio operator, or a Ham. He would spend evenings down in his radio room in our basement trying to communicate via radio to all parts of the world (causing the televisions in the house to be all static, usually right in the middle of the show you were trying to watch), and over the years he ended up speaking to people in well over 100 different countries or territories in all corners of the world. The acknowledgement of the communication with the person was done through something known as a QSL card, which was literally a 3 ½ by 5 ½ inch card that was sent through the mail with the identification of the station that my father had spoken to, when the communication had taken place, and what frequency the communication had occurred on. For my father these cards were a source of pride for the accomplishment of being able to talk to someone new in a place far away that he knew that he would probably never get to in his life, especially considering that up until the early 1990s there wasn’t that communications tool that we have all grown to rely upon maybe too much these days – email.

Now I am not going to go on for the rest of this piece complaining about email. I think it is a necessary tool that we need to use both in business and in our personal lives. It has allowed us to do what my father tried to do thirty years ago, which is communicate with anyone we want to just about anywhere we need to at any time we want. What I am going to go on about is the insistence of some to communicate solely by email and not pick up the phone and talk to someone. Before you start thinking that I am going to say that this is an issue with younger people, I don’t think it is. In fact, I really believe that this is an across the board issue with people of all ages. It is far easier to send an email in 30 seconds than to dial a phone and maybe have to talk with someone, and with the email you have something that someone who I used to work for called “plausible deniability.” In other words, your butt was covered if you needed it.

We need to communicate by voice more. It is too easy to misinterpret someone’s message and intent by relying on the printed word only. I’m not saying it is time to ditch the email, but it is time to make the call first and follow it up with the email or email and follow with the call. When I was at the M&E I would speak to most, if not all of the customers first thing in the morning every day. It was the best way to ascertain their true needs (it is really easy to say “I need the car ASAP” in an email, where they really needed the car by the end of the day), and you also were able to read between the lines as to what was going on in the customer’s company, because you were able to communicate directly with the person, and not through an indirect email that someone spent way too much time thinking about composing, just so they said the “right” thing.

While we are not exactly in the age of the QSL card taking weeks to arrive by mail acknowledging that the communication took place, we are in an age where we shouldn’t just be happy with “I sent them an email.” Follow up the email with a call, or vice versa. You will probably get more than just a one-word answer.

–By Steve Friedland


steven-fb.jpg

Steve Friedland is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. At the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, he worked in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He currently serves as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR’s Wireless Communications Committee and is chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He also is a member of the ASLRRA’s board of directors.

Six Months In

April 28th, 2016

I have been at my new job at the Mass Central for six months now, and looking back over the time, it has definitely been challenging at times, quiet at others, and possibly some of the most rewarding time I have had in my 20+ years in this industry. While any day at a short line is different from the day before, for the most part my job at the Morristown & Erie was the same it had been for 20 years – make sure that the freight went to the right place, and make sure that the customers are happy. There were “extracurricular activities” that made things interesting, but for the most part the job was the same.

So what is so different at the Mass Central? First of all, for the first time in my career, I am the boss. While I have been the boss at SDS for 17 years, there is a big difference between bossing yourself around and being responsible for nine other people. There have been times when I have been in a room with the guys, and all of them have looked to me for an answer, and it is at that point that you realize that the answer you give is the answer that they are going to follow, whether it is the best answer or not. You try to give them the best answer that you can, and while your gut is generally right, there are times that you don’t get it right. That is when you own up to your mistake and work with the resources you have to make sure that you don’t make the same mistake a second time.

Another difference about being the boss is trying to bring the best out of your employees. Each person has their strengths and weaknesses, and being able to identify the strengths quickly and put them to the best use possible is a huge challenge. All of my guys (and gals) have their moments, but as a whole they all have made my job a lot easier. One of the other things that distinguish my employees is that they all have bought in on what we are doing to grow the railroad. To a person, they want to see the company grow and be successful, and are doing what they can to make it work.

For all of the good things, there are a couple of things that I am still dealing with. I still haven’t figured out a good schedule for which weekends I go home and which weekends my family comes up to Massachusetts. The drive home to New Jersey can range from 2 ¾ hours to 6 hours, and when it gets bad, it gets really bad. Finally, I do miss my family during the week. Everyone has done their best to adapt to not having me around, but it is not easy for them, and not for me when I wish I could be there to help.

All in all, this has been a very good move for me. I like the job, I like the people, and I like the challenge. The support of my family has been great, and while it isn’t perfect, it is a good start to this next chapter of my career.

–By Steve Friedland


steven-fb.jpg

Steve Friedland is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. At the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, he worked in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He currently serves as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR’s Wireless Communications Committee and is chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He also is a member of the ASLRRA’s board of directors.

Family (The strange, dysfunctional type)

April 12th, 2016

Last week’s ASLRRA 2016 Connections was a really good meeting. It had all of the ingredients that you would expect: a great hotel, big expo with lots of suppliers to talk to, a good turnout of railroaders, good general sessions, and a set of breakouts with topics to interest everyone. It is an amazing process to watch, especially since Holly and I were some of the first people to arrive and some of the last to leave. You start as just another person in the hotel, somewhat anonymous, and then almost at once you start to take over the place, with exhibits in the hall, signage in the ballroom foyers, and people, lots of people. And, if you have been doing this for as long as I have (this was our 15th year exhibiting, and the 18th Annual I have been to), you know most of the people there.

I’ve written in the past about how this meeting could not run without its volunteers, and this year was no exception. The cast of characters is vast, from roadmasters, customer service managers, attorneys, accountants and railroad executives, and they are all there because they want to be. They enjoy helping, and want to help because it is their way to give back to their association. They all recognize what the ASLRRA means and gives to them, and this is their small way to say thank you.

For the volunteers, this group of people is family. The relatives all gather once a year, exchange stories about what has been going on in their lives since they last saw each other, break bread together, and generally have a good time, like many “normal” families. Like your own family, there are the weird cousins, the cut ups, and “that” cousin that has an opinion on everything. The ironic thing is that I see a lot of these people more than I see my own aunts, uncles, and cousins, and I probably know more about what is going on in my railroad family’s lives than what is going on with my biologic ones.

Back in 2012, I chaired the meeting, and we had a staff and volunteer dinner before the meeting started to thank everyone who had donated their time to the cause. There were probably 50-60 people at the dinner, and once everyone had their fill of food and drink, the thank you speeches started. ASLRRA president Rich Timmons went first, and talked about all of the time and effort that was needed to put the meeting on and how it could not be done without the volunteers. Judy Petry, volunteer chair followed, and she also emphasized the importance of the work of the volunteers, and thanked them for the time they committed to the meeting. After the “professional” speech makers finished, it was my turn. Like my predecessors, I thanked everyone for their time and effort. I then focused on this “strange, dysfunctional family,” one that came together every year from all corners of the country to put on this monster of an event, and one that got along far better than some real families. I’m not sure how exactly this group formed the way that it did, but I am glad to be a member of it.

After the meeting hits its crescendo and things start to wind down, the “ownership” of the hotel passes from the ASLRRA to the next group to come in (this year it was the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, just a little bit different from short line railroaders), and we sink back into anonymity as the family spreads back out across the country. It is an awesome sight to watch the whole process happen, and a week after the most recent one I am ready to get back together with the whole family again in Dallas next year.

–By Steve Friedland


steven-fb.jpg

Steve Friedland is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. At the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, he worked in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He currently serves as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR’s Wireless Communications Committee and is chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He also is a member of the ASLRRA’s board of directors.

It’s good, but not that good…

March 16th, 2016

With my new state of never being in one place for more than a couple of days at a time right now, you would think that a week on the road wouldn’t be that big a deal. Actually, it was, and for a number of reasons: First, I got to spend three nights at home in New Jersey in eight days, which wasn’t too bad. Next, I was in Washington D.C., for Railroad Day on Capitol Hill, where we had the combination “thank you for your past support, but we now need your support for this” tour, and that was followed by the CSX Short Line Conference in St. Augustine, where we all got to hear about how the economy is starting to put the brakes on the latest resurgence of rail traffic.

While I am sure that you all want to hear about the time spent with my family, I think it is more important to go into more detail about RR Day. With the cycle that the industry has been in over the last decade or so with Congress on the 45G investment tax credit, we go through one year of asking for their support for the renewal, then the next year of thanking them, followed by a year of asking for their support, and so on. This year, we had a two for one deal. Not only did we have to thank everyone for their support for the renewal of the tax credit, we also asked them for their support on a bill that had just been introduced to make the tax credit permanent.

You might think that this was a big ask, coming off of another successful renewal of the tax credit, but it really isn’t. Why? Because of the bipartisan support that the tax credit gets every time we go for the renewal. In this last renewal, the short line tax credit was in the top 25 of all bills introduced in this congress. We had 260 co-sponsors in the house, and 54 in the senate. These were from both sides of the aisle in both houses, so even in this splintered political landscape, small railroads got everyone’s attention for the right reasons.

Now on to CSX following the fun in D.C. Rail traffic, as a whole, can both lead and lag the economy at the same time due to the broad variety of commodities that we carry. What starts to get people’s attention is when volume drops. Now, it can drop quickly, like it did in 2008, or it can drop quietly, like it is doing now. If you had asked me two years ago if cheap energy prices could cause traffic to drop, I would have started calling the men in white coats. Two years ago the industry couldn’t find enough people to staff its trains, and locomotives could not be built fast enough. Right now, CSX alone has over 2000 people on furlough, and over 200 locomotives parked. When you are looking at efficiency by running fewer larger trains, you have to start wondering what that will do for velocity in the long run. Who would have thought that coal, the life blood of many a railroad, could be disappearing from some railroad’s portfolios?

So in the end, were they both successful meetings? Yes, but I wish they would have been reversed in order. I was making my first visits to the Massachusetts delegates this year, and it would have been more compelling to bring them the big picture story when we were trying to ask them to make a very important piece of funding for our part of the industry permanent.

–By Steve Friedland


steven-fb.jpg

Steve Friedland is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. At the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, he worked in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He currently serves as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR’s Wireless Communications Committee and is chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He also is a member of the ASLRRA’s board of directors.