Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Ian Jefferies

The Hill’s Steve Clemons interviews Ian Jefferies, Association of American Railroads president

Read excerpts from the interview below. 

 

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Clemons: Why is our freight system, our railway system an important story in the time of COVID-19?

Jefferies: Railroads are an integral part of the economy writ large, we often say we’re the backbone of America's economy. Somewhat unseen to a lot of the country, folks don't think about the trains traveling across the country that are moving goods for every part of our economy, whether it's consumer goods that end up on store shelves or maybe eventually end up in e-commerce getting delivered to your house. Whether we're talking about industrial goods like energy products that literally power our homes and businesses. Whether we're talking about products that are used in water treatment, to purify all of our water systems to make sure we have clean drinking water, whether we're talking about grains for export or U.S. consumption. Food, cattle feed, pretty much anything, building construction materials, automobiles. Anything that you see or use in everyday walk of life most likely has the connection to a freight train in some way, shape or form.

 

Clemons: So how have you been able to keep it going? How have you been able to maintain a backbone that continues to move during this time while so much else of the country has not been?

Jefferies: That's a great question. You mentioned it. Freight rails have been around for well over 150 years. So our industry has a lot of experience in working through crises and past even pandemics and natural disasters. So I would use one word to describe this industry, and that's resilient. Railroading is a 24/7, 365-day a year business. And businesses and communities and individuals continue to rely on the goods we’re providing, regardless of whether we're in good times or bad. So railroads took very quick measures to ensure that we could continue to operate and deliver throughout this time. And we have and quite frankly, that's all credit to the outstanding leadership and dedication of our employee base who’s been on the job every day and are working to deliver the goods American need. Certainly credit goes to the federal government for ensuring that freight rail is identified as a critical infrastructure operator. That's been incredibly helpful as we navigated state and local orders, steps that localities took to keep their community safe.

 

Clemons: Have you been satisfied with the level of financial support that may have come from the U.S. government?

Jefferies: So when we talk about stimulus legislation along the lines of the CARES Act, freight railroad, we're in a very fortunate position. We're almost 100 percent privately financed. We invest about $25 billion a year back into our networks, and have them, quite frankly, in the best state they've ever been. And so when we took a look at stimulus legislation that was moving through Congress, our focus was not on direct funding to the railroads. Rather, our goal was to ensure that railroad employees who might be affected due to decreased volumes ... would be eligible for enhanced unemployment benefits, enhanced sickness benefits. Folks may not know this, but freight railroad employees operate under a different unemployment system, a different retirement system than most American workers do. We operate under the rail retirement board and its retirement and unemployment system. So we needed to work hard to make sure that our employees were covered as well. And so, we’re grateful for Congress’s inclusion of rail employees. And looking forward, we're not seeking federal aid, federal direct funding for the railroads themselves.

 

Clemons: How have you been able to set new norms, put new practices in place that create new health guard rails for the running of your systems, both for your employees and customers?

Jefferies: So let's start with the employee base because, quite frankly, without rail employees, the railroads aren't going be moving and goods aren't going be getting delivered. So, most rail employees, by the nature of railroading, you know, they can't work from home. They need to be on the job site, helping the network run. So railroads quickly took steps to reduce risks and ensure that railroaders had a safe working environment. And that included steps to ensure appropriate social distancing in the workplace, even inside the locomotive cab. Use of PPE is pervasive throughout the industry, whether it's masks, gloves, related items as well. And then increased frequency of sanitization and cleaning throughout worksites again, even inside the cab of the locomotive. And our results have been encouraging. And we feel that between, an employee base that quite frankly, is used to strict adherence to safety protocols, day in and day out, we work in a very heavy industrial environment. Safety is always gonna be the priority, regardless of the situation we're in. So, you know, we have a strong, dedicated, employee base that is used to operating under strict rules. And again, kudos go to them for their great operations and their great work throughout this time. ... Now shifting to the consumer of passenger rail. Amtrak, absolutely, is a member of the AAR and suffered pretty dramatic ridership losses during this time along the lines of what you saw on aviation, upwards of 90 percent in some cases. And, you know, we're thrilled to see Amtrak, for example, on the Northeast corridor between Washington and New York and up to Boston is bringing its popular Acela train back online as of this week. And they have taken a number of steps to ensure consumers can have a safe traveling experience. And again that goes to frequent cleaning inside trains, that goes to ensuring that not only employees but passengers are taking appropriate measures via mask wear and and other protective equipment. So I'm confident that Amtrak will absolutely provide a safe riding experience for its customers today and into the future.

 

Clemons: What's your North Star in operating in an environment where the nation is so divided? How do you, in this moment, get it right by way of your employees, your association members, and give them guidance on a time when obviously the nation is not in a healthy place and we don't know where we're going to be as we approach this election.

Jefferies: Right and that's an issue that we're all grappling with right now. And, you know, I can affirmatively say without any compromise whatsoever that there is no place for hate, for racism, for bigotry, not only in my industry, but in society today. And we certainly stand by all those expressing their concerns about this and stand with them. And you know, this country has a lot of work to do, and we're going to be doing it by working together, As one, as we've heard so much talk about over the last few months. But now more than ever, whether it's working on issues around race and police brutality and related issues along those lines, or whether it's about coronavirus response, we should be looking for ways to work together as one, because taking the lone path is not a way to success. And I think when we look in the mirror and we examine ourselves, we have more in common than we do different and to me there are absolutely paths forward that we can chart working as one. Nothing's easy. There are immense challenges this country is facing right now. You certainly articulated that as well. But, so my North Star is looking for commonalities amongst different parties who have different views. What can we agree on? Can we agree on the outcome we want? And then let's talk about how we get there and runs the gamut of whatever issue we're looking at.

 

Clemons: Are you prepared to be able to carry the increased manufacturing that U.S. companies are promising following the coronavirus? 

Jefferies: We're absolutely prepared and look forward to doing that. This system, this integrated rail system throughout the country, about 140,000 miles of railroad, it's in the best shape it's ever been in. And quite frankly, all of our railroads have made a number of changes in recent years to free up capacity, to streamline operations. And so they're 100 percent open for business. And you know we're ready for a manufacturing renaissance because you're exactly right. Those goods are going to move by rail and the railroads go, the economy goes and go as our customers go. So we've been working with them frequently throughout the past three months to make sure we can adjust to meet their ever changing needs. But also looking forward to the future and looking forward to that day when you know, we see the economy start to roar back to life and with that rail traffic as well. And we absolutely look forward to working to bring more manufacturing back here to the U.S.

 

Clemons: What's the thing that you find that people don't know about the railway system that they should know?

Jefferies: So I will leave you three things I think, because I think to me they are some of the most important things to always keep in mind. First and foremost, freight rail in the U.S. is almost 100 percent privately owned, privately financed. Like I said, we invest about $25 billion of our own dollars back into our network every year. So there's not that reliance on federal funding. Number two, we operate the safest form of surface transportation out there in the U.S. And our workers, I talked about them earlier in our discussion, they go to work every day, focused on safety number one and getting the job done. And so every single day, our company's first goal is to make sure everyone who goes to work every morning comes home to their families every night, and we're not there until we have zero incidents. But we're in the safest time in the industry's long history and will only continue to drive more safety as time goes on. And number three is the environmental benefits of moving things by rail. You think about the fact that one train moves about as many goods as 100 to 120 trucks. That's reducing congestion that's pulling trucks off the highway. We love our truckers, they’re partners, but reducing congestion, reducing emissions. We could move one ton of freight on one gallon of diesel over 470 miles using trains. And so the environmental benefits are huge. So I would say safety, environment and private investment, those are three things to always remember when you think about freight railroading.