Norfolk Southern has furloughed 130 employees in Roanoke and one rail union says the workers have only a “slim” chance of being recalled to work. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, said he was “shocked and deeply disappointed to hear about Norfolk Southern’s plans right after Labor Day” and that “this decision shows a blatant disregard for Roanoke’s role in helping to build the railroad in our region.” Why is he surprised? Why is anyone surprised? Rasoul’s heart is in the right place, but it’s a vital organ that Norfolk Southern — or should we say, Atlanta Southern?— does not possess.
For what it’s worth, Rasoul’s language isn’t all that different from that used by a Republican congressman in Pennsylvania, where Norfolk Southern also furloughed about 100 workers in Altoona. “It is deeply disappointing that Norfolk Southern has chosen to reduce its workforce in central Pennsylvania – especially as this announcement comes just one day after our nation paused to celebrate the value of American workers,” said U.S. Rep. John Joyce. Rasoul said that he vented his displeasure to the Norfolk Southern official who broke the news to him. So did Matt Pacifico, the Republican mayor of Altoona: “I feel company officials were not forthcoming when asked about future layoffs during last week’s visit to Altoona with members of the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee.”
The railroad not forthcoming? Imagine that! Again, why is anyone surprised?
Both Roanoke and Altoona are sentimental about railroads for historic reasons, but here’s a news flash: The railroad is not sentimental about us. This is a lesson we should have learned a long time ago.
Truth be told, of course, few corporations are sentimental about anything. That’s the essential criticism of capitalism: Corporate executives don’t work for their employees or their communities; they work for the shareholders. Rasoul said he was unhappy about the cuts because Norfolk Southern isn’t in financial distress. The company just reported earnings of $722 million in the second quarter —up from $710 million in the same period last year. Doesn’t really matter. The shareholders always want more, whether they are mega-rich Wall Street investors or ordinary workers with a 401k full of mutual funds. If the company feels it no longer needs those workers in Roanoke or Altoona, well, they’re gone. Just like that. This is simply how things work. If the railroad were still headquartered here, things might — might —be different. Corporate executives would have to face their fellow business leaders at the Shenandoah Club, the country club, on some community board. But the railroad isn’t headquartered here and hasn’t been since 1982, a year now almost four decades in the rear view mirror. That world is long gone. The railroad isn’t even really headquartered in Virginia anymore. In March, the company broke ground for its new headquarters in Atlanta. For some years now, the railroad has had nearly three times as many employees in Atlanta than in Norfolk, anyway. Roanoke? Last year, Norfolk Southern says it averaged 26,662 employees. Let’s subtract the 230 just furloughed. That’s 26,432. After these furloughs, Norfolk Southern will employ about 920 people in Roanoke. That’s precisely 3.48% of the company’s workforce. Let’s repeat what we said above: We may feel sentimental about the railroad. We name our hockey team the Rail Yard Dawgs. We turn out by the thousands to see the beloved 611 steam engine. But with just 3.48% of its workforce here, the railroad has no reason to feel anything about us. We are just a dot on the map, a line on the corporate ledger — one that can be easily erased. We should stop pining for what is really the corporate equivalent of an ex that moved out long ago.
A company with 920 workers is still an important employer, of course. But in today’s economy, it’s still one that can disappear pretty darn quickly. We need a less sentimental and more business-like appreciation of Norfolk Southern. Big picture: With each passing year, there is less and less to tether the railroad to Roanoke. Let’s remember how we got here — or rather, how the railroad got here. Roanoke was a staging ground for coal trains from Appalachia. Coal, though, is on a terminal decline. Coal only accounts for 15% of the railroad’s value, according to Forbes magazine. Coal exports are up, but domestic coal traffic is down as American companies shift to other forms of energy — cheaper forms of energy. More coal-fired plants have closed under President Trump than under Barack Obama’s first term. The “war on coal” is now being waged by the free market.
Don’t count on those coal exports continuing to stay up, either — China and India may be burning more coal now, but they’re also both heavily investing in renewable energy. A report by a Japanese energy institute last year reported that by 2050 China will dramatically cut its use of coal and increase the use of everything else. In 2016, coal accounted for almost 42% of China’s energy; by next year it will be down to 35%, by 2050 it will be under 17%. Don’t count on politicians to save American coal; don’t count on the Chinese, either. The Green New Deal that liberals love and conservatives love to hate? It’s already happening — in China. Forbes, that great tribune of American capitalism, reported in June that “China is set to become the world’s renewable energy superpower.” Here’s the passage that ought to get the attention of every American politician, no matter where they are on the ideological spectrum: “China also has a clear lead in terms of the underlying technology, with well over 150,000 renewable energy patents as of 2016, 29% of the global total. The next closest country is the U.S., which had a little over 100,000 patents . . .”
So what’s that mean for us as a nation? We’re getting out-hustled at something that used to be an American strength — innovation. What’s it mean for us in Roanoke? A lot fewer coal trains. Roanoke needs to prepare itself —both economically and emotionally — for the day when the railroad is gone completely. The tracks will remain and trains will still come through. And there may even be a need for some employees — but not 920 of them. Once that would have been unthinkable, both for them and us. Today, though, we ought to think about it, because surely someone in Atlanta someday will ask the question: Do we really need Roanoke? We ought to know already what Atlanta’s answer to that question is likely to be.