'Coal, Grain and Autos'

Tim Rhein, the former CEO of APL, tapped into a deep reservoir of angst in the transportation industry concerning railroads.

Whether it's public utilities who have access to rail competition or intermdal shippers who feel that deep down the railroads don't care about their business, few shippers express total satisfaction with rail service, and some are far less charitable than that. As current news shows, some would like nothing more than to re-regulate the rail industry to combat lack of competition.

Temporarily barnstorming out of retirement, Rhein seemed to engage in a form of catharsis by venting long-held frustrations he has with railroads as a major container shipper.

"I am not a big fan of the railroad industry," Rhein said during the first-ever Legends of Transportation town hall discussion at the 9th annual Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference last week. He told the story of how, during a visit to the Union Pacific control center in Omaha, he asked the location of a certain APL stacktrain. "They said, 'your train is stopped.' And I asked why, and they said, 'it’s on a siding, the grain train has to get through,' and that is the way they think," he said. "If you put a gun to their head, the priorities are coal, grain and autos."

Rhein retired in 2001, after a dismal decade in the railroad industry that witnessed the problematic mergers of Burlington Northern and Santa Fe in 1995, UP and Southern Pacific in 1996, and the break-up of Conrail in 1999, all followed by a government-imposed moratorium on subsequent mergers.

Many argue that rail service has improved since then as intermodal has become an ever more important revenue segment for the industry. Asked whether he has sensed any of that in watching the industry from retirement, Rhein didn't budge. " The little watching that I've done I’ve seen no change."

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