Trailer hitches on the Transcon: A report

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, February 18, 2011

Carrollton, Mo., is not even a wide spot along BNSF Railway’s Transcon, that heavily traveled path between Chicago and California. But you turn off Interstate 70 and go 30 miles out of your way to reach this small community today, for two reasons. The first is personal. Passing the stone courthouse on the city square, you go two blocks on West Benton Street and pause beside the simple wooden house on the corner. Here your father was born 101 years ago. Your father’s father then was building a new bridge across the Missouri River for the Santa Fe Railway 40 miles away, and this is where your grandmother came to give birth. Two years ago, the house was vacant. A year ago it was occupied, with childrens’ toys in the front yard; you liked that. Today there’s a car in the driveway. You promise to come back some day, screw up your courage, and knock on the door.
 
The second reason is personal, too, in a way. If you want to watch trains on the Transcon anywhere east of, say, Avard or Waynoka, Okla., this is the place to go for the big numbers. From W.B. Junction on the west edge of town to C.A. Junction 30 miles to the west, you will see on the typical day 50 freights belonging to BNSF, another eight or so from tenant railroad Union Pacific, 16 from partner Norfolk Southern (you’re sorry, but you will always call this part of NS the Wabash), and Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. That’s 76 in the average 24-hour period.
 
To explain the presence of NS, more than a century ago Santa Fe and Wabash combined their parallel lines between Carrollton and Camden, Mo. Today, 13 of those 30 miles, from C.A. at Camden to Hardin, Mo., remain triple track, the southernmost track being the one owned by NS (but dispatched by BNSF).
 
Averages are averages, and of course no 24-hour period is quite the same, nor is any hour or two within those 24 necessarily representative. Today you will see almost nothing but surprises during the two hours you spend on county roads casually making your way west, from W.B. to C.A.
 
The first surprise is one of the shortest Z trains you’ve ever seen: four big 4,400-hp General Electric locomotives and maybe 900 feet of train. It turns out to be Z-LACNYC, from LA to New Jersey, in concert with NS from Chicago.
 
On its block is another eastbound train, composed of nothing but empty intermodal flatcars with trailer hitches. Get that, trailer hitches? Nowadays we’re years into the container era, and a train of empty trailer cars is supposed to be as rare today as smallpox, but here it is. Even stranger, half an hour behind that comes another train of Conestoga wagons, a second train of empty trailer-hitch flats. This one, you later learn, came out of storage last night in Purcell, Okla. The first train is headed for Willow Springs, Ill., where BNSF originates its fleet of Z and Q trains to shoot across the Transcon. The second will end up in Cicero, not far away, home of Seattle-bound shooters.
 
This sends a powerful message: Business is good on BNSF these days, to be repositioning two sets of trailer cars for the weekend. (The fact is, BNSF is in a hiring frenzy of train-service employees in the Midwest.)
 
The other surprise is yet another short Z train, this a three-day-a-week United Parcel Service train from Kansas City to Chicago. Z-KCKWSP is not much longer than Z-LACNYC. You also spot a westbound UP doublestack container train and an eastbound BNSF empty grain train (from Memphis, Tenn., of all places). The defect detector close to the Missouri River bridge at Sibley is reporting a fleet of eastbounds coming toward you, but you must move on. By sundown, you intend to be in Fremont, Neb., ready for a new day on another great transcontinental railroad. — Fred W. Frailey

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