Mr. Big to the rescue! (Day 8)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What I'm about to say I cannot prove, but I feel in my bones it's so. And what my bones are saying is that last year someone, a Mr. Big, got to the Class I railroad chief executives and said something like this: "Guys, we've got to talk the talk and walk the walk with Amtrak trains. People are turning to railroads for travel, and the late Amtrak trains we're running are about to become a bad political issue. We have enough bad political issues as it is. So pitch in." Mr. Big has a name, of course, and my guess is that it's my fellow Chevy Chase Club golf stud Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads.
 
Okay, maybe it wasn't Ed. But somebody whispered something to someone, in particular to Michael Ward and Jim Young, the CEOs of CSX and Union Pacific, respectively. Their dispatchers had mishandled Amtrak trains for years. If there's no Mr. Big, how else do you explain these facts: The Missouri Mules (now called River Runners), between Kansas City and St. Louis, were on time 16 percent of the time in June 2008 but 90 percent in June 2009. The Sunset Limited's numbers were 19 percent in June 2008 and 80 percent in June 2009. The Texas Eagle, 2 percent and 88 percent; the Coast Starlight, 58 percent and 90 percent. These trains all run over UP tracks. Similar miracles were wrought on CSX.
 
These things don't just happen, and you can't tell me it's just because there are fewer freight trains during this recession to muck up Amtrak.
 
Today, on Day 8, I shadowed River Runner train 314, the morning train from Kansas City. The question I wanted to answer was: What goes on out there? You may know that west of Jefferson City, Mo., UP runs almost all of its westbound freights (roughly 25 a day) via Sedalia, Mo., the route Amtrak uses, and most of its eastbounds via the River Subdivision.
 
So eastbound 314 really swims against the tide, and an hour before it reached Dresden, Mo., the Sedalia Sub dispatcher was definitely on the case, cajoling two westbound freights on AAR Channel 24 to get out of its way.
 
The first train, a local, informed the ’spatch that it was longer than he thought. "Uh oh, this is going to be close," replied The Man in Omaha. But the second freight, with auto parts and finished autos, slipped into Dresden's siding behind the local with room to clear, and the worst signal that 314 got was an advance approach. (The three-way meet is pictured above.) A dozen minutes later, 314 left Sedalia on time.
 
At the next siding, Smithton, Mo., 314 took the hole for an empty coal train of at least 1,000 cars (it sure seemed that way), losing maybe 10 minutes. (That's the pusher you see going away in the lower photo.) I thought the dispatcher made the right decision. Already he was telling a fourth westbound that it would wait for 314 at Dow, Mo., 16 miles west of Smithton, and informing a fifth train just then leaving Jeff City that it would clear the Amtrak train at the last siding, Centertown, Mo. As I veered away from Union Pacific at Jeff City, I heard 314's conductor give the highball, dead on time.
 
Look, normally I wouldn't be telling you all this. It's the way railroads are supposed to be run. But Union Pacific ran Amtrak trains just like another freight train for so long that I feel I owe it to you to report that the order of the day has changed. Whoever you are, Mr. Big, thanks for what you've done.
 
This is the last of my chronicles about finding my way home from Colorado. Tonight I'm in Indianapolis, and tomorrow it's a 600-mile slog along Interstate 70 to reach Virginia. I've faced adversity; learning, for example, what happens when automobile transmissions quit working. I've talked to interesting people, watched a lot of things go right on American railroads and very little go wrong and had that one out-of-body experience. Thanks for letting me share it all with you.
 
Fred W. Frailey

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