An officer of freight railroad CSX Transportation gave Sen. Charles E. Schumer one of his company's hats. The New York Democrat thought quickly and declined to put it on.
"I don't want to put this on until people are happy with the service," Schumer said.
Many businesses that use trains to import raw materials or export finished products aren't happy with the state of freight service in Buffalo, which, since the breakup of Conrail earlier this year, has been supplied by two companies: CSX and Norfolk Southern.
Enough of them made enough noise that Schumer made a quick trip to the city Friday to assure them he is working on the problem.
"Since the breakup . . . we have had huge trouble," he said, referring to the situation as a "hardening of the transportation arteries."
Schumer and other local officials spoke just down the Buffalo River from the CP Draw, a span that carries rail traffic across the river. After the Conrail breakup, ownership of the bridge went to CRX, a situation which has caused some problems for Norfolk Southern.
Norfolk Southern trains are allowed to use the bridge, but CRX trains have priority. Norfolk Southern owns another nearby bridge, but that lift bridge has been permanently left in the 'up' position, and the cost of fixing it is somewhere between $6 million and $14 million.
But Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband said his company generally has no problem getting its trains across the CRX span. The bigger problem, he said, is the generally poor rail infrastructure his company inherited.
That's why Norfolk Southern earlier this month committed $13 million to rebuilding the Bison Rail Yard in Sloan. "That should give us the capacity we need currently, as well as take care of future growth," Husband said.
CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said his company has worked with Norfolk Southern. "This is about everybody being after the same thing: a strong, vibrant economy in this region," he said.
Meanwhile, a number of companies have reported troubles. According to Schumer, the Ford plant in Woodlawn had to stop one of its shifts. Other manufacturers who have been hurt, he said, include Dunlop, Occidental Chemical, Dupont and General Mills.
"Our Buffalo plant has been experiencing great difficulty," said Jerry Mominee, distribution technical coordinator for General Mills. "It's cost us, since the breakup of Conrail, approximately $250,000 through the end of August."
Schumer said he will ask the federal Surface Transportation Board to find ways to help rail freight move through the area more smoothly. And he will ask the U.S. Coast Guard to look into the possibility of reopening the nonfunctioning rail bridge over the Buffalo River.
Both Sullivan and Husband said their companies are not satisfied with the level of service they've provided in Buffalo since the breakup and are working hard to change it for the better.