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The challenge of driverless trucks

Posted 5 days ago by Fred Frailey
Some of you don't see my columns in Trains Magazine. But even if you do, it’s not a format that can accommodate give-and-take between readers or between you and me. So I am reproducing my February 2017 essay here and inviting your comments. Fred What should the railroad industry do when technology threatens to upend it? This is the question of the hour, and it concerns not some new way to run trains, but a new way to run trucks, without drivers. Not all of you share my concern, but I pu...

Who will be our next Ike?

Posted 20 days ago by Fred Frailey
            Our 48,000 miles of interstate highways constitute the crown jewel of this nation’s infrastructure, bigger in their impact on our lives than even our world-class freight railroads. Without the interstate network, created by act of Congress six decades ago this June, our economy would today be a fraction of its present size. But I am tired of hearing arguments that say if we can build an interstate highway network, high-spee...

Amtrak's Mr. Fixit

Posted one month ago by Fred Frailey
I’m a plumber, Amtrak’s new president and chief executive said at the outset of a conversation this week with writers for Trains Magazine. Wick Moorman began by noting that he didn’t take the top job last September 1 with an eye toward staying very long. He’s vague on how long his short tenure will be—I’m going to guess 12 to 18 months. But he wants to accomplish a few things before he leaves, and one of them is to fix the railroad’s plumbing. By that, ...

The case of William Rockefeller

Posted one month ago by Fred Frailey
You hear about the herd of horses that stampeded off a cliff? Their owner sued God for failing to fence the cliff. No? Okay, that never happened. But the nearest thing to it did this week. William Rockefeller, the former Metro-North Railroad engineer whose commuter train careened around a curve and derailed while he dozed off, has sued the railroad and its parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, seeking $10 million for injuries, lost wages and suffering. His claim: It’s all Met...

6 reasons to give thanks

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
1. The election is over. You loved The Donald. Or you loved Hillary. Or you loved neither nominee. Admit it: It was stressful. You may now exhale. 2. Wick is here. I liked Joe Boardman. He did many good things in his eight years as head of Amtrak. But the company now needs a railroader at the top to help make it more focused. Wick Moorman has it within him to accomplish this. 3. Brian is here. After eight years of a steady diet of Phillips and Frailey on the opinion pages of Trains Magazine, w...

FEC's new owner

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
Fortress Investments has Florida East Coast Railway on the block—no surprise there. The modus operandi of companies like this is go in, get out the money, and move on, and it has been nine years since Fortress went in. As I understand it, Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company, is not for sale. FECI owns All Aboard Florida, or Brightline, the new passenger train service set to launch next year, initially between Miami and West Palm Beach (and ultimately Orlando). So who wants t...

The Next New Thing?

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
Edited 9: 15 a.m. November 18 In the late 1990s, Rob Krebs of Burlington Northern Santa Fe proposed to his former colleague Mike Haverty of Kansas City Southern that the two railroads publish a joint rate for traffic to and from Mexico via the Laredo gateway that would blunt the competitive advantages of BNSF rival Union Pacific. The proposal didn't fly because its terms didn't pass the smell test. This week, the wheel completed its full circle. The two railroads announced a joint intermodal s...

Rose to DOT: We'll sue and win

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
The executive chairman of BNSF Railway has a message for Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and whoever replaces him next January in the new Donald Trump Administration. His message: If the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration pushes through a rule requiring two people on moving trains, then his railroad will sue to invalidate the rule—and prevail in court. In a conversation with Trains Magazine today, Matt Rose says the railroad industry is in an untena...

Shrink or grow? The answer . . .

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
The TV audience for NFL games was down noticeably this season. Nobody really professes to know why, but the television networks are worried, the National Football League less so. The NFL’s attitude is let’s wait and see what happens—in other words, do nothing. I’m telling you this because it’s an apt analogy for what’s happening in the railroad business these days. Business has been down pretty much across the board, including intermodal, the past year. But th...

Passports on the Cal Zephyr

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
I am a news junkie, and salute Bloomberg News for a great beat this morning: The grand poobahs of Silicon Valley—the founders and CEOs and CFOs and financiers of the tech businesses centered near Palo Alto—are so upset at the result of the presidential election that they are plotting a secessionist movement. That’s right, create the Republic of California. I’m all for it. Oregon, too (citizens of Portland are seeking a vote on succession). Been good to know you and all th...

Rail Pundit, we'll not forget you

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
Edited 9:30 pm, November 11 For several years, it’s been a poorly kept secret that a frequent responder to my blogs was my friend and fellow journalist Larry Kaufman. His handle was Rail Pundit. OMG, but he could raise hell! I would read his posts taking one after another of you to task for  your alleged stupidities and think, geez, should I step in? One time I did intervene after Larry and another participant got really hot and personal with each other. Off list, I emailed them and ...

A busy day at Rigby Yard, 1981

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
Stories of Dave Fink in the days when he ran the former Boston & Maine and Maine Central for majority owner Tim Mellon could fill a book, and probably should. Let’s just say the man was direct, in your face, and unafraid of a fight—you punch him, expect to be flattened in the counterattack. A bit like Donald Trump, maybe, and Dave made a lot of enemies. I’ve always thought you had to have a certain amount of those characteristics to survive in running a big New England rail...

A Canadian diary, in a nutshell

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
In my blog describing VIA Rail Canada’s new Prestige service on its Canadian between Toronto and Montreal, I told you everything about Prestige-class service and nothing about the trip itself. So here it is, fast and dirty. We got the usual handling on VIA #2, the eastbound Canadian. That is, we took the siding for 95 percent of the opposing freight trains we met. This has always been standard practice. So the variable becomes this: Is Canadian National having a relatively good day, its f...

My wacko day (and night)

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
I write in my column in the December issue of Trains (soon to arrive in your mailbox) that I look upon every trip by train as an adventure. I’ve just had another adventure, one worth sharing. It began when I booked a trip from New York City to Jacksonville, Fla., on the Silver Star. As you know, any extended trip on the Star is by definition an adventure, because it now lacks a dining car and therefore fresh food. My strategy on food became twofold. First, I didn’t really leave Goth...

The lowdown on Prestige

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
Half a dozen years ago, the folks at Via Rail Canada asked what was needed to attract the 1 percent crowd to their flagship, the Toronto-to-Vancouver Canadian. That is, the 1 percent of us with the most money, who can have about any travel experience they want. Back then, they weren’t getting these people. Well then, they decided, let’s create something that will cost the big bucks but will leave people thinking they got something really impressive in exchange. Thus was born, in 2014...

Jim McClellan, in his own words

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
“Frailey? McClellan here!” Those words, spoken over a telephone every couple of weeks, were my signal to put aside whatever I was doing and indulge myself for 20 or 30 minutes in the wit and wisdom of Jim McClellan. Of this man, Rush Loving wrote in The Men Who Loved Trains: “Ambling from job to job, often by misadventure and sometimes even by getting fired, McClellan had happened into the center of every major event in the railroad industry. ‘I call myself the Forrest Gu...

For God so loved cows

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
In my youth in Hopkins County, Texas, which proclaimed itself then the dairy capital of America, cattle were sacred. Ever so often a farmer’s fence would go down and milk cows would placidly chew grass on the Cotton Belt’s right of way, until struck by a passing train. In the inevitable lawsuit, those aging milk providers would be mysteriously transformed into prize breeding cattle that would still be working for the benefit of the children of Texas but for Cotton Belt’s neglig...

PTC or meds for Grandma?

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
If it’s a safer railroad environment you want—as we do—the signs are not good. Let’s start with Positive Train Control (PTC). Not so long after Congress voted in 2008 to mandate it, I admit I was skeptical. I questioned the huge amount of private capital required per life saved and I criticized Congress for not giving railroads a life preserver of their own in the form of tax credits. Well, I’m entitled to change my mind, and I have. We have witnessed terrible trag...

About Amtrak's new leader

Posted 5 months ago by Fred Frailey
It’s safe to say that everyone who cares about the future of the American passenger train breathed a sigh of relief today. Welcome to Amtrak, Wick Moorman. When he and I spoke months ago, the just-retired chief executive of Norfolk Southern said the challenge of running (and changing) Amtrak attracted him, but that he had promised his wife he would devote his time to her and their family. So maybe the hero of the day is really Bonnie Moorman. Charles (Wick) Moorman brings some big strengt...

On crew size, I smell a rat

Posted 5 months ago by Fred Frailey
I fully realize that it’s an article of faith among the readers of this blog who operate trains that the Federal Railroad Administration’s proposed rule mandating two people on all trains is an urgent safety issue. And maybe it is. The problem I’ve had all along is that the two-person rule is being treated by FRA in such a political manner as to cause me to question the agency’s sincerity. Now the Association of American Railroads, which of course represents the employers...

Amtrak's acting president?

Posted 5 months ago by Fred Frailey
An acquaintance of long standing, with a reputation for seldom being wrong, passed on an interesting tidbit just now that I’ll pass on to you. I’ve blogged a couple of times about people who might become (or ought to become) Amtrak’s next president. My colleague Don Phillips wrote a Trains Magazine column on this same subject. The months go by and still no decision, however. The incumbent CEO, Joe Boardman, plans to retire in September. So this is the tidbit whispered in my ea...

What happened to the Sprints?

Posted 5 months ago by Fred Frailey
It’s my turn to ask questions. Those of us of a certain age, survivors of the era of full crews, surely recall the spate of trains that blossomed in roughly the early to mid 1980s. Sprints. Slingshots, Texas Special North/South and what-have-you. Santa Fe had a small network of Q-type trains. What bound them together was that they mostly trailer-on-flatcar intermodal trains operated over fairly short distances on extended crew districts with only an engineer and conductor and without the t...

How to revive growth

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
Railroad revenue declines are not just in coal and crude oil, but across the board. Take Union Pacific’s second quarter versus 2015: Chemicals, down 5 percent; automotive, down 13 percent; industrial products, down 14 percent; intermodal, down 16 percent; coal, down 27 percent. The whole industry is contracting while the economy is growing.             I spoke the other day with Tom Hoback, the recently retired founder and chief execu...

Amtrak: Connect the dots

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
Any time now, Amtrak’s directors will elect a new president and chief executive, to replace Joe Boardman, who is retiring. I’ve talked to people who have been approached by the executive recruiting firm looking for this person. The recruiter is telling people Amtrak wants an experienced railroad manager in the top job. I’ve also blogged my ideas of some good prospects: Ron Batory (Conrail Shared Assets), Wick Moorman (Norfolk Southern), Matt Rose (BNSF), and John Fenton (Patrio...

Old King Coal is back

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
HAS ANYONE NOTICED the surge in coal traffic, particularly from the Powder River Basin? BNSF Railway’s loadings jumped from 3,235 cars per day the week of April 3-9 to 4,525 per day June 12-18, the most recent week reported. That’s an increase of 1,290 cars per day, or 39 percent—or if you will, 10 additional 129-car trains per day. All I can say is, WOW! What a difference 10 weeks make. And it’s not just a BNSF thing, because in percentage terms, Union Pacific’s c...

Bring back Al Perlman

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
I keep looking for a major railroad to break away from the pack. Railroading today is beset with problems, starting with the collapse of its coal franchise, which had been the industry’s number-one commodity. Equally troubling, the carload business in general continues to slowly erode. We could be on the verge of driverless trucks, which would destroy the cost advantage of rail over road, at the very time that the federal government prepares to mandate two-person crews aboard locomotives. ...

Night Journey

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
A real change of pace today. My friend Joe Swanson of Northwestern University sent me this poem, "Night Journey," by Theodore Huebner Roethke [1908-1963], one of our last century's great writers and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. I was so taken by the imagery that he put into these few words that my eyes misted over (blame it on my old age). What better tribute to such good writing than to share it with you.--Fred W. Frailey Night Journey Now as the train bears west, Its ...

Magnificent machines

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
I'm not talking about locomotives, but something possessed by every mammal: Our hearts. These little, simple mechanisms go to work not long after we are conceived and never stop functioning until the instant we leave this realm. Take good care of them, and they will take good care of you, making you feel, even in old age,invincible, indestructible. But sometimes our hearts fail to work correctly, and then you lose confidence that you are well anchored to life. In other words, we know intuitively...

When Lou saved a Zephyr

Posted 8 months ago by Fred Frailey
In his long railroad carrier, Louis Menk ran four big railroads: Frisco, Burlington, Northern Pacific, and the newly created (in 1970) Burlington Northern. He was unafraid to make momentous decisions and comfortable with his opinions. One oft-repeated opinion he voiced to me late in his life was this: “You couldn’t make money then, can’t make money now and won’t make money ever on intercity passenger trains. That’s all there is to it.” At the Frisco, Menk sou...

Making do with less

Posted 8 months ago by Fred Frailey
The four big U.S. railroads share the same problem this spring: the urgent need to resize themselves to match the business they have. Coal is an obvious problem. The collapse of this traffic has been swift and unrelenting. Let me give you some numbers. Union Pacific in November of 2014 loaded 28 unit coal trains a day in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Last month it averaged but 12 trains a day. Rival BNSF Railway loaded 46 trains a day in the PRB in November of 2014, but last month, a mere 2...

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