People change and so do our railroads...

Posted by Chase Gunnoe
on Monday, January 16, 2017

By now, we’ve all learned about the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus closing its circus tours after 146 years of performances. And for us who enjoy trains, we know that’s the end of traveling circus shows by rail. Not just a couple of coaches and some flat cars, but the end of operations for a fleet of more than 120 cars.

It means forthcoming lost jobs, a presumable disposition of rail equipment, and another American icon destined for the history books… or tablets.

It’s the end of yet another aspect of railroading that offered character – it’s the end of evening circus performances filled with entertainment, laughter and American tradition. It’s something my nieces, your nephews, and the next generation won’t get to experience. 

Circus managers unload elephants from Red unit stock cars during a series of performances in Charleston, W.Va., in April 2016. Chase Gunnoe.

It’s another chapter in a world filled with a majority who prefers technology over talent and as our people change – so do our railroads.

We’re a generation of people fixated on technology and automation and not personality and camaraderie. There’s less emphasis on interpersonal relationship building and more focus on networking through the social platforms of Facebook or LinkedIn. They are great forms of networking – don’t get me wrong – but they come with consequences.

The population is growing among millennials who care more about in-the-moment concepts or achieving success through intangible ideas of reality. As the attitudes of our people change, so does everything around us.

And as the editors of this magazine have told me, everything has a railroad perspective.

As people’s lives revolve around technology – so do the businesses in which employ them.  There is a mentality that everything we do can be improved upon if we introduce some form of technology to help execute the task. Hands-on trades skills are replaced with microchips the same as acrobats are replaced with mobile apps.

And as our people change – so do our railroads.

Positive Train Control is a form of automated technology currently being deployed. A successful rollout over time could prove to railroads that driverless trains are practical. For jobs like yardmasters and local rail yard switching crews – they’ve been all but replaced by computer-generated switch lists, digital cars inventories, and remote-controlled locomotives.

NS yardmaster Pete Hypes hated having to transition from written switch lists to a computer when serving as a yardmaster for Norfolk Southern. Hypes had 60 years with the railroad before his terminal was closed due to cutbacks. Chase Gunnoe.

There’s less interaction with others and more dependency on how we can achieve a task using some type of digital device. We rely on these tools more than each other and it changes our demographic.

Announcements like Feld Entertainment’s decision to shut down the circus are no different than railroads consolidating dispatching positions or IT-related jobs. They’re business decisions driven by a changing society that no longer values the skills of its workforce – but the efficiency of available products.

So, take a minute to think about our current reality and envision where our society is headed. Think about our tourist railroads or the structure of our rail labor unions 50 years from now. People are changing and so will our railroads... 

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