Fred Frailey Blog

Birth of a new railroad corridor

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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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  • There is considerably more to the Avard story, Fred.  BN acquired the Frisco in late 1980.  As you point out, sidings were too short and there were any number of problems - to the point where BN was considering abandoning or selling the line to/through Avard and Springfield.  It just didn't fit the traffic profile of BN.  But wait, there's more.  After BN and Santa Fe merged, the former Frisco line southeast from Springfield became a significant part of the combined system, handling Hunt's Quantuum intermodal trains to/from Memphis.  As BNSF coal traffic continued to grow, the line from Springfield to Memphis was upgraded to handle high tonnage, long trains.  And that made the Avard connection worth having for manifest traffic between the west and southeast.

  • Thank you, Professor, for this history lesson (especially for those of us east of the Mississippi who missed out on gems like this). Question: how were operations altered, if at all, when SL-SF was absorbed into BN?

  • It's really FloydaDa.

  • I have always been intrigued by the Frisco.  It certainly turned out to be a pretty valuable piece of railroad.  While not in the category of Transcon or the UP Nebraska main, those lines on the map served pretty important markets.  Nice article Fred, any idea of what it costs to install CTC on 188 miles?

    Ed

  • In 1993, two years before the merger, BN and Santa Fe entered into a haulage agreement for traffic over Avard.  Santa Fe was granted total marketing/pricing authority for movements to/from Memphis and beyond.  Santa Fe and J.B.Hunt moved rapidly to establish the route as a key Transcon intermodal corridor.  (NS-KCS-UP via Meridian and Dallas was/is the main competitive railroad route.  Does anyone have data on the relative market shares?)

    In a fairly recent development (within the past 3 or so years), BNSF and Hunt extended the Avard corridor east to Atlanta (via Birmingham) through an agreement with CSX.  

    From the verge of abandonment in 1993 to CTC in 2013 . . .   Neat story of franchise development.

  • Let's lament the abandonment of much of the Rock Island's Memphis-Tucumcari line, which had it survived could have been an even more direct and competitive route.

  • 466lex: Thanks for the reminder of the BN-Santa Fe haulage agreement.  I had forgotten that little detail.  It has been considered conventional wisdom (and we all know how conventional or wise that usually is) that BN should have gone after MP rather than SLSF.  The Frisco has worked out pretty well for BN, while MP has been a great acquisition for UP.

  • Crankyoldrail:  You're right about Memphis-Tucumcari as far as it appears on a map.  The problem was that the Rock had no traffic base, which was proved when no other railroad picked up that line when the Rock was dismembered.  The Rock would have had to rely on SP for its Tucumcari connection, and the SP didn't have much flowing that way either.  Much of the Rock disappeared as part of the needed rationalization of the railroad industry.  Remember, back in 1980 when some of these things were occurring, intermodal barely existed.  It was considered a "cheap" product that could be low-priced as the rails put excess flatcars and inner city terminals to use.  Schedules were not reliable back then. Intermodal didn't really take off until carriers could guarantee service standards and schedules and the adoption of double-stack changed the economics of the service.  Memphis-Tucumcari was gone before those good things came to pass.

  • I took a look at a 1964 Official Guide and summed the mileages for ATSF - Amarillo then Frisco from Avard to Memphis via Tulsa and Springfield and came up with 857.

    The Rock straight across was 762 miles.  

    The Rock Island line by 1990 was a valuable piece of property, but obviously wasnt in 1980.  My how the industry changed in 10 years.  

    It was theorized a few years ago that there will be few more abandonments of mainline or secondary lines in the industry.  This is a great example of a line which wasnt abandoned and one that was.  

    The industry is filled with lines that probably shouldnt have been abandoned when viewed from 2012, but at the time it made sense.  Perhaps I will start a thread on the main forum to address this issue.

    Ed

  • Thanks for all the good comments, guys. Yes, I did misspell FloydaDa, and no, I don't know what it costs to put CTC on 188 miles of dark railroad, but it's a lot.

    Finally, 466lex says the Avard gateway was on the verge of extinction in 1990. Wrong!!!!!!!! It was on the verge of extinction in 1971, when the transcon traffic of Frisco and Santa Fe flowed through FloydaDa. The Avard gateway became enshrined in 1972 when the Floydada gateway changed. The haulage agreement between BN and ATSF in 1993 came about when the two railroads essentially agreed to let Santa Fe manage the corridor but by then a merger between the two railroads was at least in the works if not already announced. Rail Pundit, is that right?

    Fred

  • Rail Pundit does not know the precise date that BN and Santa Fe began serious merger dfiscussions.  He does know, however, that the BN board was pressuring BN CEO Gerald Grinstein to "do something" about succession planning.  Jerry had made a few fits and starts, but had not yet identified the person to succeed him.  By merging (acquiring) the Santa Fe, BN also got Rob Krebs, at the time one of the most focused executives in the industry.  As for the Avard connection, it makes sense that the haulage agreement allowed Santa Fe to control pricing among other things.  It was Santa Fe traffic that "saved" the Avard-Springfield line, not anything BN brought to the table.  And, as previously commented on, the whole thing came together because of the coal traffic flowing to the Springfield-Memphis line, which then was upgraded significantly to the point where it could handle Santa Fe intermodal trains relatively easily.  We're talking going from 65 cars to 130 in unit coal trains with commensurate increases in tonnage.  Hope this helps.

  • Getting a bit more specific, Rail Pundit does not think the BN-Santa Fe merger had been announced prior to the two railroads' haulage agreement covering the the Avard connection.  The merger was consummated in September 1995, and the haulage agreement  was negotiated in 1993, two years earlier, as 466lex points out.  Close, but probably unrelated.  Mergers of multibillion dollar enterprises rarely succeed or fail over what in this case was a relatively small piece of the total merged company.

  • Rail Pundit and others:

    The conventional wisdom that MP should have gone to BN is an interesting one, obviously the MP was stronger railroad than Frisco...but perhaps that strength kept it out of BN's hands.  With the massive capexenditures for the PRB coal business, could they have afforded MP?  I think Frisco offered BN an outlet for long distance coal and that was to Memphis, Birmingham, and beyond....at a price they could afford.

    MP, many have argued was not only the best regional in 1980, but also in the team picture for the best railroad (along with Southern?) at that time.  However, the route from Kansas City to Memphis would have been inefficient.

    Could you elaborate on the JBH/Santa Fe "saving" the Avard - Springfield line?  Was it that dried up of traffic?  

    Has Memphis overtaken St. Louis as a major river crossing for rail traffic?  How much of that is due to the growth of FedEx and resulting distribution center?  Or is it simply a matter of the growth of the Southeast and the inefficiencies of St. Louis and New Orleans?

    As it stands now, two minor lines owned by Frisco and Illinois Central (Meridian line) have become critical colors on the map.

    Ed

  • MP173:  You deomonstratge wisdom in your assessment of why BN would have gone after the Frisco and not the MP.  Here's a factor you didn't mention: BN's Lou Menk had come off the Frisco and was quite friendly with the people running it.  Comfort level can play a part in deciding whether to do or not do a merger.  Also, acquiring the Frisco alleviated a BN perceived problem of where the next generation of BN executives would come from.  That view was perhaps unfair to some very good railroaders who had come frm the GN, NP, and CB&Q, but it was a commonly held view.  Frisco people pretty much took over the BN, but within a couple of years had moved on or out and BN executives were back in charge.

    BN had trouble enough coming up with the money to develop the PRB, so the MP very well may have been too much for it to chew on.  Culturally, MP and BN probably would not have been a good fit.  As Rail Pundit likes to say, mergers involve more than lines on a map.

  • MP 173

    With regard to Memphis I do not have acesss to car counts vs. St. Louis. I do know that BNSF has an excellent double track main through town with only one railroad crossing at grade, the old IC passenger line into the depot. To the best of my knowledge it is used only twice a day. The IC freight line is grade separated. UP, NS and CSX all lie north of BNSF so conflicts are minimal.

    BNSF has a single track bridge over the river while UP is right along side on former RI double track bridge. UP seems to run more or less directly to NS & CSX yards and it looks like BNSF could too. BN has its big new intermodal terminal immediately adjacent to US 78, and NS just opened a new IM terminal at Rossville TN, about 30 miles out within the past few months.

    In my opinion rail activity at Memphis has nothing to do with FedEx. FedEx does have an LTL division and may do a bit of IM, but their contribution to rail traffic is miniscule at best.

    I live in Holly Springs MS on the BNSF line between Memphis and Birmingham and it seems busy with coal, stack trains, auto rack trains, and manifest trains. I know it is CTC in this area.

    Mac

Birth of a new railroad corridor