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.