I love it someone finally has their head screwed on straight. A hog can cross the country without changing trains, but you can't," carped railroad iconoclast and Chesapeake & Ohio chief Robert Young more than half a century ago. Alas, Young's defective emphasis on passengers over freight sent him to an early grave as even the hogs abandoned the rails in favor of the highway. Young's freight-focused peers palmed their passengers off on government. To its credit, Amtrak is evolving into what Young envisioned passenger service should be. A passenger now may board an Amtrak train in Los Angeles and travel clear to Orlando, Fla., without changing trains. And perhaps this year the same will be true for passengers traveling between New York and Los Angeles. Indeed, Amtrak expects its newest transcontinental train to challenge the 54-hour test-train time the Santa Fe and New York Central accomplished in 1967. As for those hogs, well, they've returned to the rails-albeit now sliced, formed, and frozen in refrigerated freight cars behind 79-mph Amtrak coaches and sleepers. Much of the credit for building Amtrak into a competitive hauler of time-sensitive freight is due to mild-mannered Ed Ellis, Amtrak's vice president-Mail & Express. As a student of the rise, fall, and resurrection of passenger-train carriage of mail and express, Ellis prepared for Amtrak attorneys the factual arguments supporting Amtrak's lawful authority to carry and promote time-sensitive commerce after freight railroads unsuccessfully fought what they then mistakenly saw as competition. He may not have turned swords into plowshares, but he sure has transformed critics into partners. In the 43 months since Ellis departed a marketing post at short line operator RailTex in favor of nurturing mail and express at Amtrak, he's more than doubled to $10.5 million that business line's monthly revenue. TV Guides, the American Medical Association Journal, export chickens, photographic film, candy, time-dated beer, fresh fruits and vegetables, and E-commerce moving for the account of United Parcel Service now are traveling to market the Amtrak way. "We're able to load a freight car three times a month in each direction while the freight railroads barely get one turn per month per car," says Ellis. Scheduled Amtrak service is so reliable and consistent that freight railroads are even feeding it business. "We're now talking with all freight railroads about partnerships," he says. Amtrak and Norfolk Southern are jointly serving freight customers via the NS Triple Crown brand name over Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Increasingly, time-sensitive freight of NS customers is moving via Amtrak between the Northeast and Midwest over track NS acquired from Conrail. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe is feeding UPS trailers to Amtrak's Southwest Chief between Albuquerque and Kansas City. BNSF also hands over to Amtrak at Chicago perishable produce headed to Northeast supermarkets. UPS trailers travel as part of Amtrak's Chicago-St. Louis trains, and trucking giant Roadway Express is feeding Amtrak between Harrisburg, Pa., and St. Louis. When food-giant Heinz needs to restock West Coast grocery shelves, it trucks an array of its 57 brands from Northeast and Midwest plants to Toledo where the freight is handed off to Amtrak for time-definite delivery. Ditto for time-sensitive and perishable foods headed from the Midwest to supermarkets in the Southeast. Wisconsin's Appleton Paper Co. reduced its private truck fleet and canceled contracts with owner-operators in favor of Amtrak delivery of time-sensitive specialty papers. The Kentucky Cardinal between Chicago and Jeffersonville, Ind., carries Oakland-originated foodstuffs for private-label packaging firm Morgan Foods. Former Grand Trunk marketing officer Bob Walker is engaged in a joint venture with Amtrak to move fresh fruits and produce in specially-constructed RoadRailers, while former freight railroad senior officials John Q. Anderson and Art Shoner have a separate joint venture with Amtrak to move frozen and chilled red meat, chicken, fish, and cheese in modern refrigerated boxcars. Ellis predicts Amtrak will double within four years the number of shipping lanes to almost 300 for Mail and Express, operate at least 4,000 RoadRailers and express cars, compete for 10% of the $140 billion time-sensitive freight market dominated by trucks, and quite likely exceed $200 million in annual Mail and Express revenue, putting Amtrak's freight operation on a glide path toward Class I status. Rejoice that a new partnership has been formed between freight railroads and Amtrak to deliver time-sensitive freight where, when, and in the condition it is wanted-less expensively and more reliably than truck. How about that. ------------------ When in doubt, empty your magazine.