Honoring intermodal pioneers

Honoring intermodal pioneers

At the upcoming Intermodal Association of North America (IANA) Operations and Maintenance Seminar, the Intermodal Association of Chicago will hold a reception “Honoring Tradition & Remembering Friends” who have passed away in the past year or so. Between them, Ray Ascencio, Peter Bambach, George Boyle, Russ Graef, John “Jack” Lanigan Sr., Gregory Mangieri Sr., Stephen Pasco Sr., and James Reo had accumulated centuries of service in the intermodal industry.

I had the pleasure to know all of these gentlemen professionally, and the further honor to consider many of them my friends. However, with all due respect to them, when I consider my 40 years of industry experience(s) — and a sense of where the industry is today — two of these gentlemen stand out.

The intermodal industry’s current Achilles’ heel is intermodal terminal operating, in my opinion. Railroads are increasingly “closing the gates” of terminals because they are congested and, frequently, in an operational death spiral. Jack Lanigan and Ray Ascencio stand out among a handful of historical leaders in the advancement of intermodal terminal operations.

Jack Lanigan was a pioneer in the development of lift equipment. He may not have developed the first lift device, but he was an insightful engineer and forceful entrepreneur who transformed a sideline business for Drott into Mi-Jack. He was able to navigate the challenges intermodal faced in the 1970s, before it was ready-for-prime time.

Lanigan once remarked, “The early railroaders who started intermodal, with whom I worked, had everybody ‘shooting’ at them, even their peers. If they made a mistake it was exaggerated. It was not the competitors who were giving them a hard time, it was their own people. I think that the pioneers of intermodal were like the Dirty Dozen. In spite of everybody and all of the obstacles they had to overcome, they made it work.” (Quote from the Intermodal Founding Fathers of North America Conference, July 27-29, 1999.)

Ray Ascenio started at 47th Street in Chicago and transitioned from Pennsylvania Railroad, through Penn Central and Conrail. His big break came in February 1977 when blizzards in New Jersey shut down the North American intermodal system. After every attempt to solve the snow-related problems had failed (including loading snow south on the Northeast Corridor), someone figured they should send somebody from Chicago “because they knew how to handle snow.”

Ascencio’s views never changed. “Terminal operations have been the most neglected part of intermodal. You can move the train from one point to another. You can add all the traffic that you want. You can double stack it, single stack it, but if you cannot get it on and off the car, or if you cannot get it out the gate, then you have failed in offering your customer a complete service.” (Quote from conference mentioned above.)

He went on to radically transform how terminals should be run and was a leader in negotiating “white paper” contracts with the Teamsters. He went on to build the first private intermodal terminal “E-Rail” and was a pioneer in handling trans-border business to and from Mexico. Throughout his career, he was insistent on developing a professional cadre of terminal managers “who could do any job in the terminal.”

I met both men in 1979 when I entered the intermodal world. Both were mentors, sharing generously of their time and experience. And, in a time of a terrible generational clashes, they were willing to pay it forward and vouch for a new generation of intermodalists. This granted me (and others) admission into their circle of friends and access to centuries of accumulated knowledge and experience. Granted, many of the lessons came late at night and were explained on cocktail napkins.

At the very first IANA conference, Lanigan and I were on a panel about a new terminal concept — the “throughport terminal.” After the session, he pulled me aside and told me that although 95 percent of the audience thought we were nuts, we needed to keep pushing new ideas because eventually they would occur. He was right. He lived to see the Chicago and Northwestern’s Global Two and CSX’s North Baltimore adopt this model.

I worked with Ray for many years and worked directly for him twice. In both cases I was given unusual opportunity, granted exceptional responsibility (given my age), and learned an incredible amount. We did not always agree, but our relationship had an inertial force of mutual respect and a recognition that we were better as a team than as individuals. Along with two or three other individuals, my career is directly attributable to their confidence in me — the opportunities provided and the lessons learned.

Both might feel like strangers in today’s world. They would probably be considered an HR nightmare. They also had no use for strategic sourcing and bureaucracy. Some of their (and the industry’s) most important advancements were done without lawyers and with just a handshake.

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

He gave credit to all the scientists who had added to human knowledge before him, making it possible for him to make his discoveries. I believe the intermodal industry has progressed in a similar way.

On April 29 at the Westin Lombard, Illinois, we will have the opportunity to recognize some of these giants. For more details on the event: http://www.intermodalofchicago.org/

Theodore Prince is chief operating officer and co-founder of Tiger Cool Express. Contact him at ted@tigercoolexpress.com.