It's tempting to compare a Surface Transportation Board with one member to a professional wrestling battle royal where there are five huge guys - let's call them railroads - and one referee who is supposed to keep order.
That sort of comparison, while some might think it apt, would appear to be wrong today for a couple of important reasons.One reason is that there are two commissioners, not one.
The other reason is that we all know pro wrestling is a joke, a sham and a farce. The Surface Transportation Board should not be any of those things - not today, not tomorrow and not ever because the agency is dealing with a whole range of serious matters.
To begin with, there is the makeup of the board itself.
One commissioner - Gus Owen - has sent a resignation notice, but he is hanging around until the end of 1998 in a move that amounts to giving his employer four months' notice. Some resignation.
Before he goes, Mr. Owen and board Chairman Linda Morgan have to decide several important issues, including whether to allow more rail competition in Texas, whether to change some ground rules for rail rate disputes and whether to allow a tiny regional railroad to build a $1 billion extension to railroad's mother lode - Wyoming coal traffic.
All of those cases should be decided by Dec. 31. That's good; two heads are better than one at STB.
But consider what happens on Jan. 1, 1999.
Unless something changes before then, Ms. Morgan will be a one-member board.
She heads an agency that lacks long-term direction and remains under attack from some shipper and rail interests who grumble privately that they are not getting a fair shake.
Is this really a situation that anyone wants - to have a single person in a federal agency deciding major issues? Can anyone out there cite an example where this has ever happened before on any federal regulatory body that is supposed to have three members?
As if the pressure of being a single commissioner isn't enough, Ms. Morgan has to face the difficult task of sorting out whether to approve the Canadian National-Illinois Central merger, the first major North American rail merger, all by herself.
She appears bold enough to make that decision single-handed.
However, her astute political skills will be tested as the four largest railroads (total revenue $30 billion or so) bite and gouge to protect themselves from possible business losses to the smaller CN and IC.
It's hard to imagine how those five carriers can be kept reasonably happy with a final decision, no matter how many people participate.
There are other important decisions on the horizon.
Several shipper groups are beginning a well-financed campaign to make legislative and regulatory changes to the current rail commercial policy.
Shippers have been proposing changes that appear to chip away at rail profits without bringing the entire hulking giant crashing down face first.
The railroads, showing no sign of bending on important financial issues, are protecting a current position that features steadily increasing profits in recent years that have not been adequate enough to suit some parties.
If this were the same scenario as the railroads vs. shippers battle in 1988, the carriers might prevail again.
However, this time the situation is more perilous.
For railroads to win the coming fight over rate and competitive policy they will have to alienate at least some of their customers who seek relatively modest changes.
However, those same shippers that the railroads alienate easily could wind up backing expected efforts to increase truck sizes and weights in the next Congress.
Can railroads afford to have shippers lined up with motor carrier interests that would welcome such changes?
Hardly. Remember that every time railroads bring up the subject of bigger trucks (even if truckers don't), the steel track guys paint a gloom-and-doom scenario full of huge volume and profit losses.
So where does that leave the railroads?
They could choose to lose some profits by making modest concessions on intra-rail competitive issues to keep customers happy. That would fit nicely with recent welcome efforts by carriers to be kinder to shippers.
Or those carriers could risk losing far more business later if disgruntled customers choose a tag-team partner (truckers seeking better productivity in a tough economy) who is five or six times larger and more powerful than the railroads.
Ouch. That's a tough choice indeed.