ONE of the world's longest railways has been getting a lot shorter. And it is being run by fewer people as a tough-minded railroader, nicknamed ``the slasher'' by employees, tries to make trains competitive with trucks for carrying freight. In 1941, when 17-year-old Ronald Lawless joined Canadian National Railways as a customs clerk, trains carried more than 70 percent of freight in Canada; trucks handled less than 30 percent. Today those numbers are reversed and the railways are in second place. But Mr. Lawless, now president and chief executive of the railway, thinks he can reverse the trend.
``The railway is an idea whose time has come on this continent,'' Lawless says. ``If the train had never been invented, we would have to invent it today to meet the transportation needs of the 21st century.'' He believes the environmental awareness of the late 20th century could help trains.
``A locomotive uses a great deal less fuel per ton of freight than a transport truck does, so that emissions are at least that much less,'' Lawless says.
Road transport produces as much as 10 times the emissions of rail, according to a study by Canada's Departments of Transport and Environment. Another government analysis shows freight trains use 815 Btus (British Thermal Units, a measurement of energy) to carry one ton of bulk cargo one mile while a transport trailer uses 2,772. Air cargo uses 33,494 Btus to do the same job.
But the numbers show that shippers prefer trucks to trains. Many railroads now use both.
What Canadian National Railways (CN) has been trying to do is use freight trains to carry goods long distances and then distribute them by truck at the other end. It has done this by copying the airline ``hub and spoke'' system, with the main line freight service supplying major centers.
The ``slasher'' has been ruthless with the romantic image of the railway. The caboose at the back of the train has been replaced with computerized electronic sensors. Train tracks are being torn up across the country and tens of thousands of railroaders are without jobs.
``We are not in an industry where you can get a job for life,'' says Lawless. ``If the business is there, the jobs are there.''
The work force at CN has fallen from 51,00 to 38,000 over the past five years. And this month the railway cut at least 2,000 management jobs at its head office here in Montreal. Lawless says trains have lost out to trucks because the railway is too labor intensive.
CN has 21,000 miles of track, the seventh-longest railway in the world. There are plans to rip up 38 percent of the remaining track, leaving 13,000 miles.
The removal of rail lines has actually left two Canadian provinces without rail service. Service was halted in Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island last year. CN still serves the two island provinces, but with trucks.
The cutbacks have paid off. CN, once a money loser and burden to the federal government, made a profit of $205.8 million (Canadian) last year. It had revenues of $4.2 billion, of which 95 percent came from railway operations. CN also has been shedding noncore assets. It has sold a trucking company, a hotel chain, a telecommunications firm, and two small telephone companies.
There is speculation that the government-owned railway may be privatized.
Canadian National was founded in 1923 after the failure of Grand Trunk Railways, a competitor to Canadian Pacific. Building railways had been so profitable that the railways were overbuilt, and the federal government took over several failed lines.
Both CN and Canadian Pacific, a private-sector railway, got out of the passenger train business in the mid 1970s when the federal government formed Via Rail to run passenger service in the country. The two big railways now concentrate on freight.
The two railways have closed down lines where they compete; in the long run they may divide the country into parts served only by Canadian Pacific or CN.
``There may be areas of the country where one or the other railway may not be there,'' Lawless says, ``where one railway could handle the business quite adequately.''