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Best practice must cross the frontiers

01 Feb 1997

THERE CAN be few better ways of implementing international best practice than by giving senior management hands-on experience of rail operations in different countries. With Wisconsin Central Transportation Corp now running rail freight in the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Great Britain, that is precisely what WC President Ed Burkhardt is going to do. Giving the Sir Robert Reid lecture to the Chartered Institute of Transport in London on January 14, Burkhardt said he planned to switch managers between English Welsh & Scottish Railway, Wisconsin Central in the USA and Tranz Rail in New Zealand. There is much to be learned.

We have remarked before that Tranz Rail carries wagonload and less-than-wagonload freight at a profit, flying in the face of conventional wisdom on many railways where wagonload is dismissed as a money-losing venture. Of course it will run in the red if archaic work practices stay in place, costs remain high, and negative attitudes pervade the business. The consequence of failing to tackle these issues is a spiral of decline - witness the agony that French National Railways is going through in the wake of the government's cave-in to union demands in December 1995.

Burkhardt says that the EWS 'Enterprise' wagonload business 'is our strongest growth area ... we are determined to provide a general service to British freight customers, and the single wagon market is much larger than the block train market.' EWS is attacking costs on all sides, and it plans to seek authority from the Health & Safety Executive and Railtrack to introduce radio-controlled unmanned shunting - a practice common in New Zealand, Canada, Germany and elsewhere. It has, incidentally, reached 'handshake agreement' with Railtrack over track access fees.

Burkhardt wants best practice to travel both ways, and he is impressed by the number of trains run in Britain and New Zealand by a single crew member. WC operates about 10 trains a day with a driver only, and planned to run more until unions petitioned the Federal Railroad Administration to prohibit them. While awaiting the FRA's ruling, Burkhardt is incensed that 'the large American railroads have kind words for our efforts in private, and are totally silent in public.'

In Britain the success of EWS 'has used up all surplus wagons', and new ones are needed quickly 'with the cost brought down to international standard ... this will be an interesting and productive effort involving a melding of American, UK and European standards, engineering and material sourcing', says Burkhardt.

With EWS now preferred bidder for Railfreight Distribution, there is the intriguing prospect of exposing the railways of Continental Europe to 'international best practice' in the Wisconsin Central style. Asked whether he saw RfD as a bridgehead into Europe with EWS as an open access operator under EU Directive 91/440, Burkhardt replied that 'we would prefer not to - we don't like open access.' He believes that rail is exposed to more than enough competition from road already. Unfortunately, too many of Europe's railway managers have failed to respond in kind. Some management exchanges might be in order. o