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Lockwood’s Blog: All Aboard the Blame Train

Posted: August 1, 2014 by Rolf Lockwood

Reluctantly — oh so reluctantly — I’m going to trek down a tired old pathway here, one that I thought was way, way in the past. Silly me.

The war between truck and rail is so yesterday.

Except, apparently, it isn’t. At least not in the mind of one particular pro-rail writer who recently had an opinion piece published in the Toronto Star entitled ‘Wrong parties charged in Lac-Mégantic disaster’ (Sunday, May 18). Greg Gormick is the writer in question, whose clients have included CN, CP, and VIA.

In any case, Mr. Gormick suggested in his editorial that the four parties recently charged in last year’s Lac Mégantic rail disaster — the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic rail company and three of its employees — are not the guilty ones. Instead, he blamed “decades of failed federal and provincial transportation policies, and the public spending decisions that flowed from them.”

More specifically, he wrote that successive federal and provincial governments have funded trucking “lavishly” while the poor old railways have had to fend for themselves financially. Trucks, you see, operate on public roads that our industry isn’t asked to pay for, at least not to the extent we use them, while trains run on tracks built and maintained by the railroads themselves.

Well, that simplistic argument is older than all the hills combined. And I’d suggest that any one of you out there on our streets and highways, gifted to us by those wonderful government benefactors, could show Mr. Gormick an overall tax hit that would make his hair curl.

Regardless, the issue of taxes and benefits and who pays what is infinitely more complex than he makes it sound, and there’s no black-and-white definition of things.

But try these two simple numbers: 72.0 and 69.6 percent. Unfamiliar territory for any trucking outfit I know, those are the operating ratios for Canadian Pacific and CN for the first quarter of 2014. Unless you haul very high-value freight, when did any of you last break 95 percent?

I’m reminded of that tired old joke about the trucker who wins a lottery. Asked what he’ll do with his newfound millions, he says, “Keep on truckin’ ’til the money runs out.”

Yet Mr. Gormick calls us the “publicly funded competition,” and here’s where he brings in the Lac Mégantic tragedy.

“One result [of the corporate ‘poverty’ faced by the rail industry] has been the abandonment of light-density lines, where the traffic no longer covers the maintenance and service costs,” Gormick wrote. “On the remaining lines, the physical and human assets are constantly squeezed to wring out profits to maintain the infrastructure and service, while also keeping investors happy. Under these conditions, should anyone be surprised if some railways — especially smaller, less profitable short lines — wind up cutting corners to the point of negatively affecting safety?”

Well yes, I’m surprised. Damn surprised that some railways, small or otherwise, have been allowed to cut corners to that extent. I’m actually shocked that the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic railroad was allowed — with regulatory approval, for God’s sake — to be an awful lot less than rigorous in its safety practices.

We sure couldn’t get away it.

Last February I noted newspaper reports about the inadequate insurance that little rail outfit was allowed to carry. Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt admitted that it had only $25 million in third-party liability insurance, federally approved. Yet the cleanup of leaked crude oil alone looked like costing $200 million, before talking about all the other costs associated with rebuilding that little town or compensating its traumatized citizenry.

If the rail industry gets away with that kind of shortcoming, no wonder the big boys can manage a 70 percent OR.

But listen, I’m not here to revive our side of the rail-vs-truck war. It’s been raging more or less continuously since the 1920s when freight first began moving off the rails and onto the roads. Frankly, I thought this fight was over a decade or more ago. I thought we’d learned to live together in peace and harmony. Rail has its place, so does trucking. Sometimes they converge perfectly, sometimes they compete. So be it. Neither one is going away.

What we don’t need is vitriol like the stuff Mr. Gormick has been spewing, making monstrous stretches in logic to blame trucking, and not so indirectly, for the Lac Mégantic disaster. That’s just nuts.

We do agree that government policy is the main culprit here. So let’s leave it at that. Please.


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