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A New Way to Run a Railroad


This ad from the 1970s (spotted on NRR’s “Vintage Ads” siding) shows big business working toward improving service to its customers:

Southern Railroad cargo-tracking ad from 1970s

The 70s were not a good time for railroads. But the Southern was certainly still a huge and powerful corporation. And we’ve heard so often about how evil corporations exist to screw people.

How does that narrative square with this ad copy (signed by Southern’s Chairman):

For just about any part of the country, the railroad is still the best transportation system anyone has ever come up with. And our computer system for tracing freight cars solves one of the major problems of the railroad: knowing where every car is at every moment.

I’m not satisfied, however. A study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology on our railroad convinced me that we can have something we railroads need: greater reliability. And we’re out to get it.

Now, reliability is a very complex subject. But, to boil it all down, reliability is really a question of turning away from the old railroader’s goal of getting the entire train to the switching yard on time, and turning toward the new railroader’s goal: to get the one car with the customer’s shipment to his loading dock within a consistently predictable tine-span every time.

It’s possible to do, and we’re going to do it. Because we want you to be able to set your watch by us.

As this copy characterizes things, railroading used to be about making the trains run on time. And over 40 years ago, the Southern realized that there was something more important than the trains. It’s the cargo. Customers do not care about the train, they just want their goods on time and in good condition.

I could come up with many parallels in the world of transportation and logistics. This ad touts an ability to track a freight car within ten seconds. Today, UPS lets me see where my package is at every step of it’s journey, instantly, from my phone.

And there are still more parallels thorughout the world of commerce. The business world is no longer about running businesses, it is about serving the customer.

How is that evil?