Birth of a new railroad corridor

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, October 22, 2012

Most of you have never heard of Avard. It’s in northwest Oklahoma, just shy of that state’s panhandle. I’ve been there many times. Worst of all is to arrive by dirt road to discover, as I always seem to do, that your fuel tank is on the far-south side of empty. The town could once boast of a two hotels, a bank, grain elevator, and livestock auction lot. Prosperity ended in the 1930s, thanks to the Dust Bowl and a couple of tornadoes. Its population in 2000: a mere 26. By my estimate, it’s even less today.

Avard’s railroad bona fide was its connection between the Frisco and Santa Fe railroads. For decades it didn’t mean a lot. Avard was an interchange, but so what? A Frisco local out of Enid, Okla., made a turn Mondays through Saturdays, and I suspect not that many cars were exchanged between the two railroads. Both had closed their depots in Avard by the early 1960s. Just imagine how boring the job of agent must have been.

The story gets interesting in 1959. Frisco and Santa Fe inaugurated the train QLA between Birmingham and Southern California via Springfield, Mo. Later came the QSF from the southeast to Oakland, along with their less-urgent eastbound counterparts. Trains 435 and 437 (and 30 and 36 eastbound) were really onto something. These two regions became the growth engines of the American economy, and Frisco and Santa Fe ran probably the first interline trains between them.

Frisco did not want to short-haul itself. So it set the interchange in Floydata, Tex., reached by going through Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Quanah, Tex., and then over its subsidiary Quanah, Acme & Pacific to Floydata, Tex., and then across two Santa Fe branch lines, to reach the Transcon just west of Amarillo, Tex. Whew. (For an hilarious account on one trip, read “Jenk & Menk” in the Spring 2007 issue of Classic Trains.)

Because the Frisco poured heart and soul into this awkward service, it worked well enough for more than a decade. Then the Santa Fe suggested a shift to the Avard gateway. Operationally stronger than the Frisco, Santa Fe probably wanted more control.. Anyway, it offered Frisco an attractive division of rates, and the change occurred in August 1972. The QA&P eventually withered and was abandoned. And little Avard finally got its moment of glory.

The weak part of the Avard routing has always been the Avard-Tulsa, Okla., leg, 188 miles. Frisco upgraded the track structure, which had supported just two trains a day, but this route still lacks long sidings and centralized traffic control, two essential ingredients of a high-profile railroad corridor. And over time this one-time branch line grew to see 20 trains a day, to the point that BNSF Railway had to reroute some trains via Kansas City to keep the route fluid.

Thank you for walking this far into the weeds with me. The latest word is that Avard-Tulsa will get CTC in 2013. Signaling a dark railroad is expensive. Still, about time that BNSF gives the Avard gateway the attention and capital it deserves. This becomes yet one more sign that the Class I railroad network is strong and ready for whatever its customers desire. — Fred W. Frailey

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