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Making connections in Congress

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Norfolk Southern employees, left to right, David Carter, Calvin Walker, Michael Frogg, Stacey Hugo, and Rachel McDonnell walk to a Railroad Day meeting in a House office building.

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NS railroaders: Face of freight rail on Capitol Hill

Locomotive engineer Raiford Wilson connected with U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., by describing how he runs a Norfolk Southern train that transports cases of Kentucky-made bourbon to the Virginia port for export.

Michael Frogg, an NS police special agent who played football at the University of Tennessee, scored points with Rep. Jimmy Duncan, R-Tenn., by introducing himself as a former offensive lineman for the Volunteers.  Duncan, a UT graduate himself, is a huge fan of their football team: He smiled, gripped Frogg’s hand, and said he recognized Frogg’s name.

As division road foreman of engines on the Piedmont Division, David Carter can talk in detail about how NS keeps South Carolina’s economy moving. He used that knowledge to get the attention of a legislative aide to South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House’s third-ranking Democrat.

Looking like Beltway insiders in their suits and ties, these three railroaders joined about 40 other invited NS employees for the rail industry’s biggest day of the year in Washington: Railroad Day on Capitol Hill. The mid-March event, sponsored by the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, drew more than 500 people, including railroad employees, rail industry suppliers, and customers.

During a whirlwind day that included 360 scheduled meetings, the rail supporters visited House and Senate offices and met in small groups with lawmakers or their staffers. The gatherings offered a chance to put a face on freight rail and to talk about three issues important to the industry. The issues were familiar to most of the railroaders: preserve balanced rail regulation; support extension of a tax credit for short line railroads; and oppose bigger trucks.

While NS’ Washington team works daily to protect the railroad’s interests and educate lawmakers about freight rail, railroaders such as Wilson, Frogg, and Carter can connect in ways that lobbyists and policy experts cannot, said Bruno Maestri, vice president government relations.

“When we have our people come here – the people who do the jobs on the railroad – they’re not only telling the Norfolk Southern story, they’re telling a people story,” Maestri said. “In our case, that’s 30,000 people from across our system, and they have families and friends, and so that’s hundreds of thousands of people. That makes a difference to members of Congress.”

The value of Railroad Day is that the industry speaks as a single voice, said Darrell Wilson, NS’ assistant vice president government relations.

“It’s the short lines, it’s the Class 1s, and it’s the railway supply folks – all of us coming together,” Wilson said. “Our government relations staff talks about the railroad every day, but this day is special. It gives us an opportunity to make real headway on two or three top-line policy issues, and it helps legislators and staffers get a better understanding of what we do.”

For example, in a meeting with Rep. Clyburn’s legislative assistant, a representative of the Lancaster & Chester Railroad, a short line based in Lancaster, S.C., stressed the importance of extending the federal short line tax credit. The credit, which expired at the end of 2013, is crucial to the company’s ability to upgrade a 17½-mile section of rail that serves a soybean meal and oil plant and benefits farmers in Clyburn’s home district. The L&C picks up 75-unit soybean trains from NS at Chester, S.C.

“Right now we’re on hold,” said Stephen Gedney, L&C president, adding that upgrading the line is important to accommodate the plant’s needs. NS’ Carter, who attended the session in Clyburn’s office, explained the importance of the tax credit to Norfolk Southern. “It’s a big issue for the short lines, but also for the Class 1s,” Carter said, noting that the L&C works hand-in-hand with NS to serve the customer. “The L&C is a business partner of ours, and we depend on them – and so do many people in South Carolina,” Carter said.

Carter also talked about how NS is moving goods between Charleston and the state’s new inland port in Greer and NS’ access to Orangeburg Global Logistics Triangle, a regional import/export intermodal transportation gateway in Clyburn’s district. While meeting with Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., Carter mentioned his Georgia roots – he was born in Valdosta – and talked about the jobs and tax revenue NS contributes to the state’s economy. He mentioned NS’ Inman Yard, one of the railroad’s largest, and the service NS provides to the Port of Savannah.

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NS employees, Calvin Walker, left, checks his email
while Michael Frogg, middle, and Railford Wilson review
Railroad Day material to prepare for their next legislative
appointment.

Railroad experience a plus on Capitol Hill

Before arriving on Capitol Hill, Carter had not given much thought about how his background and railroading experience would be an asset. By day’s end, he and other NS representatives had a better understanding of the political process and how all NS employees could contribute to freight rail’s success. For example, Frogg, who polices about 550 miles of track in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, had a unique perspective on why Congress should not allow bigger trucks on the highway.

“I was in local law enforcement before I joined Norfolk Southern, and I’ve seen the aftermath of crashes and how that affects families and the community,” Frogg said. “My family is on the highway just like everybody else’s is, and with bigger, heavier trucks you run the risk of more fatalities. I don’t want that to be my family or relatives or friends of mine.”

“All of us should always want to know what’s going on in Washington and how it’s affecting where we work, because that is your paycheck at the end of the day,” added Calvin Walker, a track patrol foreman who traveled from Roanoke, Va., to attend Railroad Day.

The personal touch

As they walked the halls of Congress, Stacey Hugo, NS manager community outreach, acted as field general for a group of employees that included Frogg, Carter, Wilson, Walker, and Rachel McDonnell, public relations specialist. Before joining NS, Hugo worked on Capitol Hill as a lobbyist and congressional staffer, and she advised the group based on that experience. For instance, Hugo made sure that Frogg told Duncan about playing UT football. With only a few minutes to make their case about rail issues, quickly connecting on a human level is important, Hugo said.

“It’s an ice breaker – if I can say, ‘Hey, I went to UT and so did you,’ right there you’ve got a connection,” she said. “It’s about finding ways to network. It could be anything from what they did before to make a living, to where they went to college, to a hobby they have.”

It’s unlikely that a legislator who disagrees with a rail industry position would be swayed during Railroad Day visits, Hugo said. However, the meetings can prompt legislators to seek out more information that could cause a change of heart.

“You can get them thinking that maybe they should take another look and learn more,” Hugo said. “We get a lot of follow-up from staffers after Railroad Day who say their member of Congress wants to know more about what’s going on with freight rail in their district. That’s a big point – to pique somebody’s interest so they call you back.”

Some congressmen did not need persuading. When Marty Battaglio, NS director information security, began explaining the industry’s opposition to bigger trucks, Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, stopped him short. “I got out one sentence, and he said, ‘I understand, I oppose it, too, no need to go any further,’ ” Battaglio said.

Wilson, an engineer for 27 years, said the reception from a staff assistant for Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, also was encouraging. “I explained how important Ohio is to Norfolk Southern and our operations,” Wilson said, including the Bellevue Yard expansion and NS’ Heartland Corridor intermodal terminal in Columbus. “I think the session went real well.”

Nick Delamarter, an NS trainmaster at Conway, Pa., met with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and with staffers for Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. In both meetings, representatives of several short lines that work with NS around Altoona and Pittsburgh talked about the tax credit. Delamarter said federal lawmakers needed to understand its importance.

“For them, it might be just another bill on the table, but to us and our short line partners, it could make or break a lot of our customers,” he said. “If a tax credit for the short lines expires and makes business more difficult for them and their volumes fall, our volumes are going to fall. When our volumes fall, jobs tend to fall, so it’s important that legislators understand that.” 

Elizabeth Lawlor, a resident vice president on NS’ state government relations team, is based in Montgomery, Ala. While in Washington for Railroad Day, she met with members of Alabama’s congressional delegation, teaming up with representatives of short lines that operate in the state. They found bipartisan support for the tax credit, she said.

“Participating with the short lines gives us a very local feel,” Lawlor said. “When we speak with one voice, we’re able to express to our congressional members that we are one big network and that our connectivity  is critical to getting the job done.”

Brad Salter, manager market planning in Norfolk, had what might have been the rarest opportunity of the day. With a 45-minute gap between office appointments, Salter spied the office of his local congressman, Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., as he walked in the Cannon House Office Building. He introduced himself to Rigell’s receptionist. Next thing he knew, Rigell popped out of his office and invited him in. In addition to the warm welcome, Salter said he talked to Rigell about the three rail industry issues.

“He represents a lot of people who work for Norfolk Southern, and he was pleased to hear I worked for the railroad,” Salter said. “He was really nice, and his staffer came in and took pictures of us. It was a great time.”

Maestri said he hopes that employees who participated in Railroad Day continue to serve as ambassadors for freight rail.

“When they go back to their shops and offices, we want them to tell their co-workers that these elected officials really care about their views,” Maestri said. “Our employees can make a difference. That message is critically important.”

At NS’ Rally the Line website, employees can learn more about legislative issues of importance to the rail industry and sign up to become an NS advocate.

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NS employees are briefed on Railroad Day issues – including opposition to bigger trucks on the highways – during a 7 a.m. breakfast session. Pictured from left are David Ray, Stacey Hugo, Calvin Walker, Michael Frogg, Rachel McDonnell, Raiford Wilson, and David Carter.