Working On The Railroad

Over the past few years, I’ve spent many a column talking about my history with the beverage and candy industries. But there is another business I used to work in as well — one more well-known to many ag retailers. I’m speaking about my time working for a railroad company.

This experience came long before my time being a trade journalist, when I was still in middle school as a matter of fact. At the time, my mother had spent 15-plus years working for a now obscure railroad company called Erie Lackawanna. During the summers, I would occasionally go to work with her, helping out with the filing of documents, stamping the word “PAID” on various contracts, and getting coffee for the assembled staff. My pay was an allowance from my mother for lending a helping hand.

For a curious young adult, these days spent in the office were a great primer for the life I now lead. It was also interesting from the “fly on the wall” perspective, getting to understand how your typical railroad operated, how contracts were processed, and what kinds of products were shipped via this nation’s rail system. Basically, everything from new automobiles to rolls of zinc could be found on the average Erie Lackawanna train. And lots of coal (not surprising since the company’s main lines were in Pennsylvania).

There was also a sense of pride present among the employees — a feeling that they were part of a grand railroad tradition of moving the goods and services that kept the economy working. In their minds, this feeling stretched all the way back to America’s efforts to unite the country by rail during the late 19th century. I felt it, too.

Of course, this makes the recent news regarding the industry puzzling. The railroad company I knew was fearless when it came to moving cargo and dedicated to serving the needs of its customers without complaint. But earlier this year, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) called for chemical companies to “eliminate” the manufacture of certain products, including anhydrous ammonia (NH3), under the Chemical Facility Anti-Ter­rorism Act of 2008, presumably to avoid having to transport them.

Naturally, The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) responded to this by pointing out that one railcar of NH3 produces approximately 128,000 bushels of corn (equivalent to 345,600 gallons of ethanol) and, more importantly, there is no substitute for NH3 in fertilizer production. TFI went on the say that its members were committed to safely and securely storing and transporting NH3, working to develop new tank cars with the Federal Railway Administration.

“The railroad industry has an obligation to the public to provide transportation in support of American commerce,” said TFI President Ford West. “AAR may have forgotten its own testimony that rail is the safest form of transportation for hazardous materials. TFI suggests that AAR refocus its efforts on doing whatever is necessary to continue the safe and secure delivery of these critical materials.”

I couldn’t agree more. Much of this nation’s commerce infrastructure was built on the backs of these “iron horses.” For an industry that literally moved mountains to connect East with West more than 100 years ago, how hard can it be to safely and securely move some fertilizer around in 2008?

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