"Track to the future" (June 2006, page 31) is a great follow-up to the long trail of "The Future of Railroading" articles that go back some 50 years. In all the learned discussions of the railroads' future, however, there's one major subject—a subject every bit as important as track weight, locomotive horsepower and railroad economics—that is generally overlooked: sales and marketing.
The Staggers Act caught the railroads by surprise. Decades of regulation, rate bureaus and tariffs had left the rails unprepared for the rigors of competition and short on sales and marketing expertise. True, a few attempts were made on that front, but they were often overshadowed by the immense power of the operating departments. Steel and horsepower dominated.
Railroads are not like refineries or manufacturing plants, where raw materials are dumped into a hopper, valves are turned and products emerge. Railroads are really job shops. Except for unit trains, freight trains are a number of small jobs moving along, each with a job ticket (the waybill).The ticket calls for the final product to be the delivery of that particular car. Trucks deliver by appointment within a few specified hours. Whole trains are usually "promised" with a 24-hour window, at best.
Can railroads of the future match the magnificent forecasts made over the last 50 years? They might. But only if their management can find a balance between the vital operating know-how and the equally vital need for marketing skill and talent.
Al Michaud, former VP of sales for Conrail and VP of marketing for Amtrak