Chapter 16: The Railroads
Nothing in this country furnishes a better example of how a business may be turned from its function of service than do the railroads. We have a railroad problem, and much learned thought and discussion have been devoted to the solution of that problem. Everyone is dissatisfied with the railways. The public is dissatisfied because both the passenger and freight rates are too high. The railroad employees are dissatisfied because they say their wages are too low and their hours too long. The owners of the railways are dissatisfied because it is claimed that no adequate return is realized upon the money invested. All of the contacts of a properly managed undertaking ought to be satisfactory. If the public, the employees, and the owners do not find themselves better off because of the undertaking, then there must be something very wrong indeed with the manner in which the undertaking is carried through.
I am entirely without any disposition to pose as a railroad authority. There may be railroad authorities, but if the service as rendered by the American railroad to-day is the result of accumulated railway knowledge, then I cannot say that my respect for the usefulness of that knowledge is at all profound. I have not the slightest doubt in the world that the active managers of the railways, the men who really do the work, are entirely capable of conducting the railways of the country to the satisfaction of every one, and I have equally no doubt that these active managers have, by force of a chain of circumstances, all but ceased to manage. And right there is the source of most of the trouble. The men who know railroading have not been allowed to manage railroads.
In a previous chapter on finance were set forth the dangers attendant upon the indiscriminate borrowing of money. It is inevitable that any one who can borrow freely to cover errors of management will borrow rather than correct the errors. Our railway managers have been practically forced to borrow, for since the very inception of the railways they have not been free agents. The guiding hand of the railway has been, not the railroad man, but the banker. When railroad credit was high, more money was to be made out of floating bond issues and speculating in the securities than out of service to the public. A very small fraction of the money earned by the railways has gone back into the rehabilitation of the properties. When by skilled management the net revenue became large enough to pay a considerable dividend upon the stock, then that dividend was used first by the speculators on the inside and controlling the railroad fiscal policy to boom the stock and unload their holdings, and then to float a bond issue on the strength of the credit gained through the earnings. When the earnings dropped or were artificially depressed, then the speculators bought back the stock and in the course of time staged another advance and unloading. There is scarcely a railroad in the United States that has not been through one or more receiverships, due to the fact that the financial interests piled on load after load of securities until the structures grew topheavy and fell over. Then they got in on the receiverships, made money at the expense of gullible security holders, and started the same old pyramiding game all over again.
The natural ally of the banker is the lawyer. Such games as have been played on the railroads have needed expert legal advice. Lawyers, like bankers, know absolutely nothing about business. They imagine that a business is properly conducted if it keeps within the law or if the law can be altered or interpreted to suit the purpose in hand. They live on rules. The bankers took finance out of the hands of the managers. They put in lawyers to see that the railroads violated the law only in legal fashion, and thus grew up immense legal departments. Instead of operating under the rules of common sense and according to circumstances, every railroad had to operate on the advice of counsel. Rules spread through every part of the organization. Then came the avalanche of state and federal regulations, until to-day we find the railways hog-tied in a mass of rules and regulations. With the lawyers and the financiers on the inside and various state commissions on the outside, the railway manager has little chance. That is the trouble with the railways. Business cannot be conducted by law.
We have had the opportunity of demonstrating to ourselves what a freedom from the banker-legal mortmain means, in our experience with the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railway. We bought the railway because its right of way interfered with some of our improvements on the River Rouge. We did not buy it as an investment, or as an adjunct to our industries, or because of its strategic position. The extraordinarily good situation of the railway seems to have become universally apparent only since we bought it. That, however, is beside the point. We bought the railway because it interfered with our plans. Then we had to do something with it. The only thing to do was to run it as a productive enterprise, applying to it exactly the same principles as are applied in every department of our industries. We have as yet made no special efforts of any kind and the railway has not been set up as a demonstration of how every railway should be run. It is true that applying the rule of maximum service at minimum cost has caused the income of the road to exceed the outgo--which, for that road, represents a most unusual condition. It has been represented that the changes we have made--and remember they have been made simply as part of the day's work--are peculiarly revolutionary and quite without application to railway management in general. Personally, it would seem to me that our little line does not differ much from the big lines. In our own work we have always found that, if our principles were right, the area over which they were applied did not matter. The principles that we use in the big Highland Park plant seem to work equally well in every plant that we establish. It has never made any difference with us whether we multiplied what we were doing by five or five hundred. Size is only a matter of the multiplication table, anyway.
The Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railway was organized some twenty-odd years ago and has been reorganized every few years since then. The last reorganization was in 1914. The war and the federal control of the railways interrupted the cycle of reorganization. The road owns 343 miles of track, has 52 miles of branches, and 45 miles of trackage rights over other roads. It goes from Detroit almost due south to Ironton on the Ohio River, thus tapping the West Virginia coal deposits. It crosses most of the large trunk lines and it is a road which, from a general business standpoint, ought to pay. It has paid. It seems to have paid the bankers. In 1913 the net capitalization per mile of road was $105,000. In the next receivership this was cut down to $47,000 per mile. I do not know how much money in all has been raised on the strength of the road. I do know that in the reorganization of 1914 the bondholders were assessed and forced to turn into the treasury nearly five million dollars--which is the amount that we paid for the entire road. We paid sixty cents on the dollar for the outstanding mortgage bonds, although the ruling price just before the time of purchase was between thirty and forty cents on the dollar. We paid a dollar a share for the common stock and five dollars a share for the preferred stock--which seemed to be a fair price considering that no interest had ever been paid upon the bonds and a dividend on the stock was a most remote possibility. The rolling stock of the road consisted of about seventy locomotives, twenty-seven passenger cars, and around twenty-eight hundred freight cars. All of the rolling stock was in extremely bad condition and a good part of it would not run at all. All of the buildings were dirty, unpainted, and generally run down. The roadbed was something more than a streak of rust and something less than a railway. The repair shops were over-manned and under-machined. Practically everything connected with operation was conducted with a maximum of waste. There was, however, an exceedingly ample executive and administration department, and of course a legal department. The legal department alone cost in one month nearly $18,000.
We took over the road in March, 1921. We began to apply industrial principles. There had been an executive office in Detroit. We closed that up and put the administration into the charge of one man and gave him half of the flat-topped desk out in the freight office. The legal department went with the executive offices. There is no reason for so much litigation in connection with railroading. Our people quickly settled all the mass of outstanding claims, some of which had been hanging on for years. As new claims arise, they are settled at once and on the facts, so that the legal expense seldom exceeds $200 a month. All of the unnecessary accounting and red tape were thrown out and the payroll of the road was reduced from 2,700 to 1,650 men. Following our general policy, all titles and offices other than those required by law were abolished. The ordinary railway organization is rigid; a message has to go up through a certain line of authority and no man is expected to do anything without explicit orders from his superior. One morning I went out to the road very early and found a wrecking train with steam up, a crew aboard and all ready to start. It had been "awaiting orders" for half an hour. We went down and cleared the wreck before the orders came through; that was before the idea of personal responsibility had soaked in. It was a little hard to break the "orders" habit; the men at first were afraid to take responsibility. But as we went on, they seemed to like the plan more and more and now no man limits his duties. A man is paid for a day's work of eight hours and he is expected to work during those eight hours. If he is an engineer and finishes a run in four hours then he works at whatever else may be in demand for the next four hours. If a man works more than eight hours he is not paid for overtime--he deducts his overtime from the next working day or saves it up and gets a whole day off with pay. Our eight-hour day is a day of eight hours and not a basis for computing pay.
The minimum wage is six dollars a day. There are no extra men. We have cut down in the offices, in the shops, and on the roads. In one shop 20 men are now doing more work than 59 did before. Not long ago one of our track gangs, consisting of a foreman and 15 men, was working beside a parallel road on which was a gang of 40 men doing exactly the same sort of track repairing and ballasting. In five days our gang did two telegraph poles more than the competing gang!
The road is being rehabilitated; nearly the whole track has been reballasted and many miles of new rails have been laid. The locomotives and rolling stock are being overhauled in our own shops and at a very slight expense. We found that the supplies bought previously were of poor quality or unfitted for the use; we are saving money on supplies by buying better qualities and seeing that nothing is wasted. The men seem entirely willing to cooperate in saving. They do not discard that which might be used. We ask a man, "What can you get out of an engine?" and he answers with an economy record. And we are not pouring in great amounts of money. Everything is being done out of earnings. That is our policy. The trains must go through and on time. The time of freight movements has been cut down about two thirds. A car on a siding is not just a car on a siding. It is a great big question mark. Someone has to know why it is there. It used to take 8 or 9 days to get freight through to Philadelphia or New York; now it takes three and a half days. The organization is serving.
All sorts of explanations are put forward, of why a deficit was turned into a surplus. I am told that it is all due to diverting the freight of the Ford industries. If we had diverted all of our business to this road, that would not explain why we manage at so much lower an operating cost than before. We are routing as much as we can of our own business over the road, but only because we there get the best service. For years past we had been trying to send freight over this road because it was conveniently located, but we had never been able to use it to any extent because of the delayed deliveries. We could not count on a shipment to within five or six weeks; that tied up too much money and also broke into our production schedule. There was no reason why the road should not have had a schedule; but it did not. The delays became legal matters to be taken up in due legal course; that is not the way of business. We think that a delay is a criticism of our work and is something at once to be investigated. That is business.
The railroads in general have broken down, and if the former conduct of the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton is any criterion of management in general there is no reason in the world why they should not have broken down. Too many railroads are run, not from the offices of practical men, but from banking offices, and the principles of procedure, the whole outlook, are financial--not transportational, but financial. There has been a breakdown simply because more attention has been paid to railroads as factors in the stock market than as servants of the people. Outworn ideas have been retained, development has been practically stopped, and railroad men with vision have not been set free to grow.
Will a billion dollars solve that sort of trouble? No, a billion dollars will only make the difficulty one billion dollars worse. The purpose of the billion is simply to continue the present methods of railroad management, and it is because of the present methods that we have any railroad difficulties at all.
The mistaken and foolish things we did years ago are just overtaking us. At the beginning of railway transportation in the United States, the people had to be taught its use, just as they had to be taught the use of the telephone. Also, the new railroads had to make business in order to keep themselves solvent. And because railway financing began in one of the rottenest periods of our business history, a number of practices were established as precedents which have influenced railway work ever since. One of the first things the railways did was to throttle all other methods of transportation. There was the beginning of a splendid canal system in this country and a great movement for canalization was at its height. The railroad companies bought out the canal companies and let the canals fill up and choke with weeds and refuse. All over the Eastern and in parts of the Middle Western states are the remains of this network of internal waterways. They are being restored now as rapidly as possible; they are being linked together; various commissions, public and private, have seen the vision of a complete system of waterways serving all parts of the country, and thanks to their efforts, persistence, and faith, progress is being made.
But there was another. This was the system of making the haul as long as possible. Any one who is familiar with the exposures which resulted in the formation of the Interstate Commerce Commission knows what is meant by this. There was a period when rail transport was not regarded as the servant of the traveling, manufacturing, and commercial publics. Business was treated as if it existed for the benefit of the railways. During this period of folly, it was not good railroading to get goods from their shipping point to their destination by the most direct line possible, but to keep them on the road as long as possible, send them around the longest way, give as many connecting lines as possible a piece of the profit, and let the public stand the resulting loss of time and money. That was once counted good railroading. It has not entirely passed out of practice to-day.
One of the great changes in our economic life to which this railroad policy contributed was the centralization of certain activities, not because centralization was necessary, nor because it contributed to the well-being of the people, but because, among other things, it made double business for the railroads. Take two staples--meat and grain. If you look at the maps which the packing houses put out, and see where the cattle are drawn from; and then if you consider that the cattle, when converted into food, are hauled again by the same railways right back to the place where they came from, you will get some sidelight on the transportation problem and the price of meat. Take also grain. Every reader of advertisements knows where the great flour mills of the country are located. And they probably know also that these great mills are not located in the sections where the grain of the United States is raised. There are staggering quantities of grain, thousands of trainloads, hauled uselessly long distances, and then in the form of flour hauled back again long distances to the states and sections where the grain was raised--a burdening of the railroads which is of no benefit to the communities where the grain originated, nor to any one else except the monopolistic mills and the railroads. The railroads can always do a big business without helping the business of the country at all; they can always be engaged in just such useless hauling. On meat and grain and perhaps on cotton, too, the transportation burden could be reduced by more than half, by the preparation of the product for use before it is shipped. If a coal community mined coal in Pennsylvania, and then sent it by railway to Michigan or Wisconsin to be screened, and then hauled it back again to Pennsylvania for use, it would not be much sillier than the hauling of Texas beef alive to Chicago, there to be killed, and then shipped back dead to Texas; or the hauling of Kansas grain to Minnesota, there to be ground in the mills and hauled back again as flour. It is good business for the railroads, but it is bad business for business. One angle of the transportation problem to which too few men are paying attention is this useless hauling of material. If the problem were tackled from the point of ridding the railroads of their useless hauls, we might discover that we are in better shape than we think to take care of the legitimate transportation business of the country. In commodities like coal it is necessary that they be hauled from where they are to where they are needed. The same is true of the raw materials of industry--they must be hauled from the place where nature has stored them to the place where there are people ready to work them. And as these raw materials are not often found assembled in one section, a considerable amount of transportation to a central assembling place is necessary. The coal comes from one section, the copper from another, the iron from another, the wood from another--they must all be brought together.
But wherever it is possible a policy of decentralization ought to be adopted. We need, instead of mammoth flour mills, a multitude of smaller mills distributed through all the sections where grain is grown. Wherever it is possible, the section that produces the raw material ought to produce also the finished product. Grain should be ground to flour where it is grown. A hog-growing country should not export hogs, but pork, hams, and bacon. The cotton mills ought to be near the cotton fields. This is not a revolutionary idea. In a sense it is a reactionary one. It does not suggest anything new; it suggests something that is very old. This is the way the country did things before we fell into the habit of carting everything around a few thousand miles and adding the cartage to the consumer's bill. Our communities ought to be more complete in themselves. They ought not to be unnecessarily dependent on railway transportation. Out of what they produce they should supply their own needs and ship the surplus. And how can they do this unless they have the means of taking their raw materials, like grain and cattle, and changing them into finished products? If private enterprise does not yield these means, the cooperation of farmers can. The chief injustice sustained by the farmer to-day is that, being the greatest producer, he is prevented from being also the greatest merchandiser, because he is compelled to sell to those who put his products into merchantable form. If he could change his grain into flour, his cattle into beef, and his hogs into hams and bacon, not only would he receive the fuller profit of his product, but he would render his near-by communities more independent of railway exigencies, and thereby improve the transportation system by relieving it of the burden of his unfinished product. The thing is not only reasonable and practicable, but it is becoming absolutely necessary. More than that, it is being done in many places. But it will not register its full effect on the transportation situation and upon the cost of living until it is done more widely and in more kinds of materials.
It is one of nature's compensations to withdraw prosperity from the business which does not serve.
We have found that on the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton we could, following our universal policy, reduce our rates and get more business. We made some cuts, but the Interstate Commerce Commission refused to allow them! Under such conditions why discuss the railroads as a business? Or as a service?