Railroad CEOs with tin cups

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, May 17, 2010

When railroads these days want to add capacity — say, some double track or Centralized Traffic Control or a big new intermodal terminal — the first place they look for money is the government. As I stood on a bridge watching Norfolk Southern trains recrew in Oakdale, Tenn., the other day (photos at right), at one end of what used to be called the Rathole, I wondered what Bill Brosnan would think about this new method of financing improvements.
Brosnan was president of the Southern Railway from 1962 to 1967, but as head of operations, he really ran that railroad from the early 1950s onward, such was the force of his personality. The man hated union work rules, passenger trains, regulators, and just about anyone or anything that stood in the way of his making Southern the world’s most efficient railroad. That being so, the Rathole stood near the top of things Bill Brosnan hated.
The Rathole was what people called the Second District of the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway. The CNO&TP, owned by the city of Cincinnati and leased today by Southern successor Norfolk Southern, extends from Cincinnati to Chattanooga, Tenn. And the Second District, from Danville, Ky., to Oakdale, was 138 miles of schedule-killing tunnels (27 of them, at one point in time), steep grades and sharp curves.
In 1961, Brosnan grew tired of piecemeal improvements to this brutal operating environment. He decided to destroy the Rathole for all time. Over the next two years, the railroad opened or bypassed all but three of the remaining tunnels, laid almost 25 miles of new railroad, and built a spectacular new bridge 300 feet above the New River. In that era, railroads were shrinking, not expanding, and capital dollars were scarce. Yet Southern spent more than $200 million, in today’s dollars, on this project and didn’t ask anyone for a penny of help.
Thanks to Brosnan’s true grit, NS today can put 40-plus trains a day across the Second District and not break into sweat. One of the premier freight corridors in the U.S. is there when Norfolk Southern needs it. Compare that, please, to how the Class 1 railroads fund improvements in 2010. For instance, one very healthy Class 1 had the gall to ask the Federal Railroad Administration for a $1 billion, long-term, low-interest loan to finance new locomotives, and a Class 2 sought a cheap loan under the same program to refinance its own short-term debt. Meanwhile, in Chicago, the CREATE program to unclog that city’s rail network has languished for the greater part of a decade because railroads, who will garner most of the benefits, insist that city, state, and federal governments pay most of the costs. I suspect that, were he running a railroad today, Bill Brosnan would not stand idly by as inefficiencies in Chicago pile atop one another. — Fred W. Frailey

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