Competition has been the driving force behind the U.S. freight rail industry and related public policy since the first railroad began operations in 1830. This is a curious phenomenon for a contiguous “network” of railroads within a transportation “system.” With competition in the marketplace and competition for government attention as the prevailing influences, the system continues to underutilize rail technology, even though railroads move freight on one-third the amount of fuel and consequent air pollution as trucks moving on the highway. Next Michael Sussman, founder of OnTrackAmerica, describes how collaboration is helping to rebuild and strengthen the national railway system.
Power of Collaboration in the Railroad Industry
By Michael Sussman
Railroads are energy, capital, and space efficient. Yet their market share of an otherwise growing transportation demand has continually declined since the early twentieth century. What is it about this competition-based system that suppresses the use of efficient modes of transportation?
Competition, as a commercial and regulatory principle, often rewards better-operated companies. But it is usually ineffective at preventing companies that enjoy more financial and political clout from dominating the marketplace. How often in recent years has that domination had a detrimental impact on our greater communal interests? The country needs a rail system that advances in concert with our national needs; instead, it has developed according to its corporate needs.
In 1995 it became apparent that many smaller freight railroads across America were under-supported by policy makers and lending institutions. This threatened the long-term economic vitality and overall quality of life in America.
The railroad industry was cost-cutting by consolidating srvice to higher-volume components of the rail system. This path, while leading to greater profitability for the industry, contributed to a far less efficient transportation system than was called for by post–World War II demographic and business trends. The years since have been characterized by dramatic population growth, steadily increasing freight traffic, ongoing growth of rural and urban communities, and the proliferation of small businesses, distribution centers, and time-sensitive shipping needs. The trucking industry, in spite of its inherent fuel disadvantage, has filled this service gap ably. But with the increase in fuel prices and its uncertain future availability, the question becomes “Now what?”
To satisfy the imperative for collaboration between government and private sector, a broad network of relationships with government representatives at the federal and state levels was established. The success in bridging the public-private sector communications divide led to the founding of OnTrackAmerica, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating new methods and forums for the multistakeholder development of better policies and more effective private initiatives.
This collaborative approach has proven to be been highly effective in creating financing breakthroughs for smaller freight railroads. Project and industry funding options typically are offered by individual entities competing against other funding sources. This alternative approach leads to benefit for all involved by facilitating cooperation among multiple banks and government agencies. In practice, it has resulted in significantly higher capitalization levels with better terms than if those funding sources were made to compete for the entire project.
Even the clients’ existing bankers, who previously had declined further lending, are included in this collaborative approach. Rather than being pitted against other banks, the current bank is urged to offer what it can and what it prefers, as its part of an overall strategy for helping the client grow.
In the case of the Iowa Northern Railway, a corn-hauling railroad that was suddenly in the heart of the alternative energy belt, additional capital was required that outstripped the lending limits of its local bank. A collaborative approach provided bankers at Iowa’s Lincoln Savings Bank with the understanding and assurance they needed to expand the railroad’s credit from $150,000 to over $1.5 million. This facility became the anchor for $30 million in additional funds secured from a Federal Railroad Administration loan program, a Chicago regional bank, several equipment lenders, and even the railroads’ customers and suppliers.
The basic orientation of competition is toward individual gain. Yet so much of what occurs in business involves multiple parties, with all parties benefiting if success is shared. Shared benefit and the resulting gain are the foundation of collaboration. What if our “for individual gain” concept of competition was reoriented to a competition (or striving) to make the greatest contribution to the community? That model of competition would naturally lead to a refocus of business plans and activities toward “collaboration for the common good.”
While competition is a useful tool in certain elements of regulating private interests in the marketplace, it can be a dangerously wasteful force in public policy discourse and formulation.
Competition, unfortunately, is now the overarching principle of interaction, not just between political parties but also among agencies, legislative offices, committees, think tanks, universities, and other entities that influence and produce public policies. The marketplace of ideas should continue to accommodate competing ideas. But the process for thinking and teasing out competing ideas requires our best collaboration.
Our world and our economies are undergoing changes at a rate that demands we upgrade public-sector management processes. OnTrackAmerica has taken on the challenge of bringing forward a new method for large-scale industrial policy, planning, and implementation. By lowering antagonism and increasing trust among businesspeople, academic and industry experts, the community, and policy developers, the potential emerges for unveiling the best solutions and resulting public policy. Just as cooperative multimodal relations among transportation providers are now clearly needed to advance the efficiency of the overall system, collaboration among public policy creators is the necessary ingredient for improving our national transportation policy.
Design improvements for intelligence and efficiency at the level of governance do not have to wait for the crucible of crisis. No law or regulation mandates that business must depend only on competitive, vested-interest lobbying of government legislators and policy makers. All well-intentioned citizens are entitled to advance leadership and cooperation in government and commerce. Contrary to what is expressed in popular culture, many people in Washington and beyond are anxious to participate in productive collaborative engagement. A new model of leadership that convenes and facilitates that collaboration is the missing ingredient.