In the last 40 years the railroads have had a free hand in rates and service. Now they have gone back to the robber baron tactics. It's really sad that they could not control themselves, make a decent return, and continue to provide adequate service.
For anyone focused upon or caring about the world-class US freight rail industry and/or its technology, especially in light of any threat that limits its ability to make long-term capital investments or respond to certain accelerating change, it's critically important to get to the reality of the situation and away from misconception and propaganda. Overly punitive regulatory or legislative action or combination of actions in the short-run risks rail's longer term relevance and sustainability.
There's obvious real tension and challenge in this modern era of the past 40 years between the adequacy of financial returns and the adequacy of service. In this light Class 1 management behavior has been more reasoned and reasonable than "uncontrolled robber baron tactics" and no less than that of shippers, labor, and government.
In terms of making a "decent return", as free market public entities in a capital-intensive business uniquely owning its infrastructure amongst competitors, its regulators call that revenue adequacy. Defined as a carrier earning the average rate of return needed to persuade investors to provide capital and the very thing necessary to ensure a healthy rail system, that was only achieved 54% of the time in the past 10 years. With about a quarter of US Class 1 route miles yet deemed revenue inadequate by regulators and the measure itself deemed inadequate amongst the interrelated Class 1's, can we conclude that the industry is even making a "decent return"?
In terms of the adequacy of service, that's also been an on-going modern-era challenge. Hunter Harrison's PSR principals on balance improved service while also improving financial performance. With anticipation then successful execution of these principals at CSX, there has been a pivoting to the spread of uneven and incomplete PSR principals leading up to and during the unanticipated major on-going disruption from Covid. Even with a laser-focus on railroads, the commonality of labor and other issues and their impact with other transportation and supply chain providers, if not across the entire domestic or global economies, can not be ignored. So, how should these short and long range issues be assessed and where might accountability be measured and focused not only including, but also beyond owners and managements: Covid & the Great Resignation; organized labor; government?
As I see it, there's both food for thought and likely merit in CSX CEO Foote's recent assertions that the railroads without PSR would have been in worse shape coming through the pandemic than they are now, that shipper groups are essentially seeking rate relief, that PSR was showing its transformative benefits leading up to Covid, and that there's a need to get things right with labor as had been the case during earlier transformative periods.
For anyone focused upon or caring about our world-class freight rail industry it's important to not take things for granted, to seek the complete picture, to understand that there's a range of options available to its government overseers and amongst all of its constituencies, including labor and shippers, and, that its competitors or competing technology will not be sitting still in the least.