Friday, November 21, 2008

Auto execs take the train (and love it)

So, it's been a bad week (month? year? decade? two decades?) for GM, Ford and Chrysler. Depending on the time span in question, they are failing financially and politically, not to mention competitively. Should we add environmentally, morally and millenially? As it turns out, with health care, pensions, housing and employment growing ever more problematic for millions of us, there is still some truth to the notion that as GM goes, so go we all.

This past week, the CEOs of the Shrinking Three got spanked in Washington, but still couldn't get paid. Rebuked for flying their separate corporate jets to town at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, the sound of slamming doors had barely stopped ringing in their ears when the door opened one more time so that the House Democratic majority could kick Rep. John Dingell (D-GM) to the curb. The Dear John message was obvious as the Dems replaced Dingell with Henry Waxman (D-CA) as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

In a separate press conference, congressional leaders suggested that the auto companies shouldn't bother to return to Washington without a plan we could believe in. A commentator on CNN suggested that the CEOs might have gotten a better response if they'd rode a bus to D.C.

But it's time for a compromise here. How about if they'd taken the train together from Detroit? Would that be better? Imagine all that time together--the ability to both relax and focus, to plan, even.

Cynicism aside, the execs (Richard Wagoner of GM, Alan Mulally of Ford and Robert Nardelli of Chrysler) are smart and experienced people who lead huge organizations with lots of resources and, even, creativity. Surely, they saw major parts of this crisis coming. And they have groupings within their organizations who have developed and promoted programs and projects that could be part of a creative plan to save the core of the domestic auto industry.

Sixteen hours on a train together discussing the obstacles and challenges might have resulted in the three arriving at Washington's Union Station as something other than puppies due for a whipping. There might have been more "you know, we've been talking," more "we can fix some of this," more "here's an idea I love," more "this is going to be painful, but here's the beginning of a plan for a greener transportation system in the United States and for Detroit manufacturing's role in that system."

Imagine Wagoner, Mulally and Nardelli running off the train yelling excitedly at each other. "You call, Pelosi. Tell her we'll be late, but we'll be there. We gotta find a Kinko's, make 500 copies of this proposal."

"I'll do it," shouts Wagoner. "But make it 1,000 copies. The press will want their own copy."

But the opportunity has passed them by. They came. They saw. They failed. And, anyway, you can't relax on Amtrak. It almost never runs on time or on decent track. Is there even rail service from Detroit to D.C.?

Still, there's always hope. And if they do come up with a plan that Washington can believe in, maybe they'll think to put a better rail system in it.


  1. Great post, Jeff - you should submit that somewhere.

  2. Great image: intellectual creativity on retrofiting explored train-side. Hang on to those movie rights.

  3. Thank you, A.H. Neff (aka Ajax). I still think your piece "For a bailout, press one..." in the Washington Post (
    html) a couple of weeks ago was better.