Could We Help?

Posted by John Hankey
on Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Please understand this as a fantasy piece. All of it would be possible and none of it seems feasible. In my mind’s ear I hear all of the reasons why something like this couldn’t happen, especially in today’s business environment. I doubt that bankers, Wall Street and hedge fund overlords would stand for it.

Could the railroad industry seriously help alleviate the suffering of tens of thousands of people in California following this horrendous spate of wildfires?

Does the industry have resources and special abilities it could bring to bear?

And could that effort somehow leverage additional support from the American Industrial/Business/Commercial community?

Or is it still all about Social Darwinism and the bottom line?

In the early twentieth century, and after a series of devastating storms and calamities that devastated the Midwest, the B&O Railroad adopted what it called “The Good Neighbor Policy.” It evolved from the B&O’s President Daniel Willard’s thinking about the ethical relationship of major railroads with their communities.

For its time, it was both revolutionary and common sense. The B&O’s policy—laid out in ads, statements, and actions—was that the B&O was a good neighbor with substantial resources. It was able to respond quickly and “do the right thing”—whatever that might be.

In times of storm or drought or emergency, the railroad would use its facilities and resources to support communities in need. The Great Flood and Tornado of 1913, which devastated communities from Omaha to Pennsylvania, was an example of how the railroad could help in both the short term and the long term. There were few other resources available. Over time, the B&O provided assistance in dozens of situations across its 5,000 mile system.

Which leads me to my point. What could the railroad industry do, with its immense resources, to help in California?

This is the fantasy part. I am old and feeling utterly helpless as I read and watch the news from California. I am also 3000 miles away. I could help an individual or a family or a community begin to rebuild a life—especially if they had no insurance or had an already precarious existence. How do I and my neighbors make available our extra stuff—the furniture, clothes, kitchen ware, material goods of everyday life—to people living in tents on the other side of the continent?

I understand the logistics of moving material goods from one part of the continent to the west coast. I know the Red Cross thinks that cash is the most effective means of support. I might disagree.

Just with my extra stuff, I could help someone in Paradise at least regain a toehold. That 3000 miles is the problem. It makes no economic sense to ship anything there at UPS or Fedex rates. There is no one on the other end to distribute anything.

What if the railroad industry stepped up? As in, sincerely beginning to deliver material goods to the affected areas in a couple of weeks—because the people there are trying to create new lives out of ashes, and this might be a humane first step?

What if the industry used its immense logistics abilities to establish a couple dozen collection points? That would need to be carefully thought out and managed, but I have to think that the American railroad industry could figure out the details if it wanted to. I know how the B&O Railroad responded a hundred years ago with clarity, purpose, and results—within hours.

I see this as a three-step process, with a lot of questions.

What do people in Butte County (and other places) need?

What can ordinary folks (and hopefully, corporate entities) help with?

How could the railroad industry help deliver it?

I’ll point out that Amtrak stops at Chico, a few dozen miles from Paradise, the epicenter of the devastation.

Is this a California problem, or something of a shared, traditional, American problem—like so many other shared catastrophes that brought out the best in all of us?

And what if this is merely the next in a series of calamities in which we need to forge relationships and depend on the strengths of our connections and economic resources?

In my fantasy vision, I see America’s railroads setting up collection sites to receive contributions of all sorts of things of potential use to people trying to rebuild their lives. I see flatcars and box cars receiving donated RVs and mobile homes to be made available as temporary housing.

I see low-value but useful bins of warm clothing, household items of all sorts, good working appliances, bedding, and the kinds of things that might help people get through the winter loaded into boxcars and headed west from strategic points around the nation.

I see our railroads handling this freight free, on an expedited basis, as a public service. And I see our railroads issuing a challenge: Let the RV industry in Indiana contribute 1000 units, and America’s railroads will deliver them as part of its contribution to recovery.

I see our railroads moving food, fuel, building materials, and critical needs from wherever they are to wherever they need to be at cost or even for free—because it simply is the right thing to do in this kind of emergency. There is a time to bow to the Lords of Wall Street—and there is a time to do the right thing.

The effort may make no immediate economic sense. But it could be a precedent or lever. I hate to suggest a kind of shame factor. But if America’s railroads were willing to pitch in and move significant quantities of important relief freight—on an expedited basis—would that in turn induce other industries (food, fuel, materials) to likewise display some social consciousness and generosity?

I realize this is a fantasy. I see no reason why the railroad industry would find any of this useful, especially in today’s corporate climate.

I’ll just suggest that there was a time, a century ago, when at least one railroad understood that it had responsibilities as part of a larger social, economic, and cultural community. If the B&O had survived and somehow made it to the West Coast, I believe it would have been asking how it could be of help.

Today’s railroad industry could do so much more—and burnish its credentials—if it cared to.

Unfortunately. I see nothing of the sort happening. The Good Neighbor Policy evaporated long ago.

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