Mr. Mumble Mouth gets his comeuppance

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, August 12, 2010

I leave the dentist's office yesterday morning with a new filling. The right lower quadrant of my jaw is sound asleep and paralyzed. Then the cell phone rings in my car. "Tsdaf'asdf pojr Fred" I mumble. "Fred, this is Wick Moorman." "Hi Wvpjasdf!" "Fred, are you having your wife start your car every morning, to be sure it's safe for you? You really should. Let's talk about your column."


Okay, the start-the-car remark is an inside joke. But could anything good come out of a conversation that begins this way? Actually, yes. I’d been waiting for Wick to come down on me, because the column in the September issue of Trains comes down on public-private partnerships of the sort that Norfolk Southern and some other railroads like to do. I am of a mind that too many PPP’s don’t really prove the public benefit. And the column comes down hardest on a cockamamie idea floated by the Association of American Railroads that the government give cash to railroads if climate legislation leads to a loss of coal traffic.


When I criticize people publicly, I accept that they may push back just as hard. And that’s why my friend Wick, the chief executive officer of NS, is on the line. So I bring my car to a stop and flex my jaw in hopes of being understood later as Wick has his say.


Among other things, Wick argues with my assertion that railroads can afford on their own dime the capital projects they want government to help fund, such as the CREATE program to unscramble Chicago railroads. Well, he has a point. I never doubted NS when it said it could not justify making all the infrastructure investments necessary to make its line between Harrisburg, Pa., Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., truck competitive. All I can do on the phone is remind Wick that my column never mentions this project, the Crescent Corridor.


“Now Fred,” he continues, “you really pound Ed Hamberger [the AAR president] for suggesting that railroads get some relief should our number-one source of business, coal, be affected by climate legislation in Congress. You see, on the one hand the government wants railroads to make huge infrastructure investments to take trucks off highways. How are we supposed to do this if Congress turns around and destroys a big part of the coal industry?” “Tsfpoasf wegpoin sogfh,” I reply, trying to say that Wick sure makes the case better than the AAR press release does. And it's true that this giveaway of my retiree tax dollars would only occur if substantial damage is done to railroad coal revenues. I'm not won over but volunteer to be a human sacrifice if Hamberger wants to chew me out over lunch some day. Wick thinks that it can be arranged for me to be put on the menu.


And Wick says he wishes I had pointed out that the government subsidizes the truckers by providing them the interstate highway system that their big rigs tear to pieces in no time flat. I reply that if privately owned railroad want parity with publicly owned highways, they should sell themselves to the government, so that they can also be undermaintained and underfunded, like Amtrak. We both laugh, or rather, he laughs and I make funny noises.


Wick has to go somewhere. Before we sign off, I ask what I can do to let him have his say. He replies that’s not necessary at the moment. But maybe this will help. — Fred W. Frailey


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