Making The Bad News Good

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, July 31, 2012 No Comment(s)

The big bad news story today is the Postal Service is in danger of being shut down. We have an emotional attachment to this issue, having once labored for the Postal Service. That is, if you count the days when college kids used to pick up handy change by working to back up the pros for the Christmas rush. The trick was to try to stay on the clock for 24 hours straight. That was possible, but rarely achieved because there was always some full-time party pooper who would find us sleeping in the basement around 4 in the morning. He would wake everybody up and make us clock off, but about an hour later the trucks would roll in with bags and bags of new mail, and shortly we would be out on the street with the first delivery.

That usually took a few hours, and each time you worked the same route it got a little faster. Then, if you chose well, which meant a route in your own neighborhood, you could walk home and catch a few hours sleep before you had to check the designated box and start out on the day's afternoon delivery. That took a few hours, and by the time you got back to the office, trucks were lined up bringing the next day's mail for sorting. If you had the right connections, and we did (Dad knew Mr. Loyons, the postmaster) then you could stay on the clock and help with the sorting. That lasted well into the night and was educational. You learned to use modern miracles such as a machine that wrapped string around bundles of mail. When that job was completed, you went into hiding, in the basement, with maybe a dozen other savvy guys – until the party pooper caught you and insisted on clocking everybody off. But 22 out of 24 hours wasn't bad. Especially when you knew what you were doing was important to people.

Alas, today's mail seems not so important. The combination of package delivery services, and the Internet have cut severely into Postal Service revenues, so much so that we face a question of whether this great institution can service, or should? Our vote is that it should, and a possible salvation combines two concepts we have covered in the past. The answer is one word. Trains. And specifically commuter trains. They are making a comeback, all over the country. You can now get from New York to Philadelphia in a little more than an hour. With that speed, the Postal Service could enjoy a new birth, with same-day delivery. That would not compete with the Internet, but it sure would compete with the package delivery companies, and we all know that is a big part of mail today. As state after state, including Florida, began to recognize the value of trains for short- and mid-range trips (say Fort Lauderdale to Orlando) it will be possible to make those trips in a few hours. Going back to the old system of sorting on trains, made infinitely faster by the lights of technology, it should be possible to off load delivery vehicles at various stations (perhaps 20 miles apart), which can reach the destinations before the sun sets.

There is clearly a market for fast delivery. Anybody in business knows that speed counts. Sales people have the urge to get things out immediately, and not worry about the cost. The package delivery services, offering next-day delivery, have proved it for years. Which is why commuter, and the growing number of mid-range trains, connecting cities within a few hundred miles, offer such opportunity. Not only could same-day delivery produce the revenues to make such trains less of money losers, and possibly even profitable in high-traffic markets, they are positioned to serve the areas where most packages and high-priority mail is headed.

This idea of meshing two needed services, fast passenger rail and fast package delivery, is not unrecognized. A proposed inter-city service in the Midwest has factored the idea into its proposed operating plan. And not long ago we had a conversation with an important Tri-Rail figure. It was an informal meeting, so his name should not be used, but when we threw out the idea of using Tri-Rail for same-day package delivery, his response was immediate: "That," he said, "is an interesting idea." Is it interesting enough to save the Postal Service?

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