“What do you mean, don’t bother? We got a fully loaded train of coal, here in Wyoming, ready to bring it back to Texas for power generation, and you’re telling me don’t bother? Even if the value of the cargo is slipping by the minute, which is not my problem, the biggest issue here is how the hell am I supposed to get home if we don’t move these hundred-eighty cars of coal?”
The caller on the other end of the line tried to offer in a conciliatory tone. “Now, Roundhouse, I wasn’t going to strand you there in Wyoming just because they said, stop what you are doing. The problem is our buyers in Texas have multiple fuel options they can use in their power generating plants. With oil and gas so cheap they have opted not to buy this load of coal, so we need to hold you up while I try to find another buyer.”
Roundhouse was a huge man who had worked the railroads all his life. It had been his passion to be a train engineer for as long as he could remember. His hands were so huge that a quarter would easily slide through the center of his wedding ring. When he had married Mildred, she said that he could follow his dream and found a ring that would fit, not bind. They had spent their lives in Cut ‘N Shoot, Texas, raising three girls, who were all the apple of his eye. They all successfully wrapped him around their fingers. It actually pained him to see his beloved railroad being hammered by a heartless commodity market-driven world.
He had been called Roundhouse for so long, almost no one remembered his real name, Timothy Standour. Until direct deposit came into his life, his small town bank gave him trouble cashing his payroll check because it didn’t say, payable to Roundhouse. He was well-liked and respected for being a solid family man who looked out for his girls.
The dispatcher continued, “It doesn’t help that the public is putting pressure on coal burning power generating plants to do something more environmentally friendly. With cheaper fuel alternatives, the buyers are playing their politically correct environment cards and taking their business elsewhere. You need to sit tight until I can find a place to sell this load.”
Roundhouse, now seething with anger, questioned, “So how long, Henry? Will it be twenty minutes, a few days, or 10:00 o’clock next summer?”
Now becoming annoyed himself, Henry tersely offered, “It won’t be 10:00 o’clock next summer.”
Roundhouse then stated, “I don’t understand. It takes days to get here, days to load up, and days to get back, but it sounds like we didn’t have a legitimate buyer locked into a contract before we started rolling this train. If we had a legitimate contract in place, then let me go deliver it and let the lawyers fight it out. If we didn’t have a contract, then give me the name of the bonehead who has me stranded here, at risk of missing my granddaughter’s birthday party!”
The dispatcher sighed and explained, “Commodity pricing works both ways, old friend. If the price of coal had doubled overnight, we would be putting the screws to them, and if they wouldn’t accept the new higher price our contract would allow us to sell that load of coal on the open market for more profits. The contract was only agreed to by the buyers to contain a condition that if pricing fell they could decline to pay the negotiated price, and we would again sell on the open market.
“Trouble is everyone is seeing the same thing. The price of coal is still dropping due to oversupply, and frankly the buyers are waiting to see if the price will fall further. You need to wait until we can find a buyer, even if they are located in Europe. If that happens, you will get to move, but not back to Texas. The train would route to a depot on the West coast to load a freighter. I’m sorry, old friend, but this one is beyond our ability to control.”
Roundhouse yelled, “Oversupply? Who are you kidding, anyway? My train is the only one scheduled in or out of here for weeks. From what I’m seeing, there can’t possibly be an oversupply, because almost nothing from this state is being loaded out. I’ve talked to all the rail coordinators. They are asking me to turn out the lights in the coal mining pits after I leave because no one is ordering. I’m no genius at economics, but let me ask you this, how can there be an oversupply when no one is mining anything?”
Henry calmly offered, “The supply damage has already been done, and people have simply quit buying. That signal was the cue to the producers to stop mining and furlough everyone. Which is what will happen as soon as you get back, Roundhouse.”
The harsh statement quickly pulled Roundhouse up short. It never even crossed his mind that his job would be a casualty, as well, in the commodity price wars. He felt very hollow and lonely now that the weighty statement had been made about the life style he cared so much about.
After a few sobering minutes of reflection by both men, Henry quietly consoled, “Me too, old friend. I am fairly sure I won’t be here when you get back. In fact, I was let go yesterday, but I wouldn’t go until I got you home safe and sound. Based on how things are going around here, I may not make it down to your granddaughter’s birthday. Please wish her a happy birthday for me.”
It took a lot to pull Roundhouse up short in a conversation, but that was exactly what had happened. His eyes filled up with tears, but he refused to let them overrun as he quietly replied, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know how bad it was. Forgive me for getting so angry at you, when they have already dismissed you. Thanks for trying to get me back home. I’ll wait here for your call, my friend.”
Henry could only nod his head and then silently disconnected from the call.
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