December 2010 | Commentary | In Perspective

When No One Listens, It’s Time to Shout

Tags: Industry Associations

Quiet, rational urging doesn’t work. I now feel the need to shout: our industry needs a unified voice.

When you see a toddler about to stick his hand into an open flame, you don’t speak in a passive voice, “Hands should not be put into flames.” You shout, “no!” and rush to stop the child from injuring himself.

That’s the feeling I got during the November 2010 National Industrial Transportation League (NITL) annual meeting, where there were enough passive voices to fill a burn ward with toddlers. While spirited discussions and significant efforts to keep the industry from harm did take place, the conference’s outward tone didn’t match the urgency of current conditions.

Market forces, regulatory actions, environment, safety— the issues facing the transportation industry don’t stop coming. NITL’s small staff slogs up to Capitol Hill and various governmental offices, doing their best to raise awareness and promote positions that are beneficial to regulators, the industry, and the public at large. I have no doubt that the staff are working hard, but they must often feel they are shouting into the dark.

Couldn’t they could do more if they had the weight of the transportation industry behind them? It doesn’t add to their credibility when a major mode such as rail threatens to pull its NITL support.

An example of an issue that may have been historically sensitive but today has value for all the modes is size and weight. Rail intermodal isn’t a fledgling industry struggling to compete with trucks. It is a strong, desirable mode. If railroads don’t get a pricing benefit for having more weight in those trailers they are hauling, perhaps they should revisit their pricing structure. That’s another issue, though.

The point is, there are solutions that work for everyone— some more than others— but the “greater good” is served when we improve service and efficiency, and ensure a strong, economically viable transport industry to meet those needs.

Significant spending

Logistics costs continue to hover around 10 percent of the gross domestic product, and North American companies spend 11 percent of their revenues on logistics, according to a recent Cap Gemini study. If that percentage sounds low, consider that it is the narrow end of the commerce funnel that controls the flow of trade and, therefore, wealth.

Or, consider that we call it a crisis when 90 percent of Americans have jobs and 10 percent are unemployed. It’s not just the size of the number, but the significance of what it represents that counts.

The fragmented approach to industry representation in the face of major issues including air cargo security, motor carrier hours of service, safety, and size and weight rules doesn’t appear to be gaining enough traction for the industry as a whole. If the railroads can’t sit in a room where increased trailer weights are being promoted, they’re missing the point.

Listen to shippers’ challenges to reduce costs and improve transportation efficiency. Consider that motor carriers face a driver shortage that could be exacerbated by stricter hours of service rules and increased scrutiny of safety records. They both need rail intermodal as a long-haul solution. And more weight means more freight in those containers and trailers moving by rail, so it’s more efficient for everyone.

That may not be the argument that turned the railroads away from supporting NITL, but it demonstrates one reason the transportation industry needs a unified voice that is loud and clear about serving the U.S. economy.

The NITL used the tag line “The voice of the shipper” for most of its 103-year history. A strong, authoritative voice carries more weight than a lot of shouting, so let’s help NITL become the voice for freight transportation.