Fred Frailey Blog

The Seldom Willing: A railroad inside my head

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It’s not true what they say of Kansas: That it is flat. Okay, central Kansas is flat, say, from WaKeeney east to Salina. But western Kansas flat? Definitely not. Call it gently rolling. However, western and central Kansas were both definitely empty this Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Empty of cars of Interstate 70, empty of people, and empty of Union Pacific trains. So how does one stay awake while tooling east at a steady 81 mph, hour after tedious hour?

I did it by plotting a novel, the working title of which is “The Seldom Willing.”

I am not new to writing novels. I’m just new to finishing them, never having completed one. My first attempt, some 30 years ago, never got as far as this one, which at least has a title. But I do remember the opening sentence: “Some days you just wake up in the mood for love.” Pretty good, eh? In that opening paragraph, on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve Saturday morning in east central Illinois (read: Champaign), a young train dispatcher is caressing the warm thigh of his comely girlfriend, bringing her to wakefulness in his bed, when the phone rings. It’s the bad habit of railroaders to always answer the home phone, and before even thinking he does, and his morning of idle lovemaking is ruined. The chief dispatcher in on the phone and wants him at work, right now. Trouble is at hand.

The reason this novel never got finished is that the very first sentence is also the very best, and the storytelling goes rapidly downhill from there. I think I have the first six chapters of the manuscript somewhere in our bedroom. I’m not interested in finishing it, or even rereading it, beyond that first sentence, which is—admit it—not bad for starters.

However, “The Seldom Willing” has legs, and I’m not talking about those of the dispatcher’s girlfriend. No, it has a beginning, it has an end, and it has a growing cast of characters who came to life inside my head today on I-70.

It’s a railroad story, set in this century. The railroad is the Kansas Division (well, of course!) of the Central Pacific Railroad. The Kansas Division had its beginning in the 1880s as the South West Kansas Railroad. Its founder, Hoyt T. Gibbon, was a scoundrel who secured a federal land grant and created a company he secretly owned to build the cheapest possible railroad from Kansas City toward Colorado at the highest possible cost, he pocketing the difference. His railroad ran out of steam, so to speak, in eastern Colorado, boxed in by the Santa Fe Railway to the south and the mighty Central Pacific to the north. It finally reached Denver and promptly went broke, acquiring along the way its nickname, The Seldom Willing. It finally is bought at auction by the CP and becomes a sleepy agrarian division of its parent.

Fast forward to 2000. The beloved CEO of CP dies at home, reading that day’s Wall Street Journal (did the Journal bore him to death?). No successor is in place, so the board promotes the VP marketing, Davidson Jackson, for the time being. To make his mark on the railroad, Jackson decides to spin off parts of the underperforming Kansas Division and abandon the rest (steel scrap prices being high).

This puts him in mortal conflict with Sam Spearman, the 85-year-old, skirt-chasing owner of 20 grain elevators along the Kansas Division. Spearman is a World War II veteran who fought alongside Senator Bob Dole, the state’s favorite son, and has political connections in Washington just as good as those of Mary Cousins, CP’s attractive and persuasive political fixer and head lobbyist. Spearman is determined to maintain the rail connections for his grain, Central Pacific’s intentions be damned.

That’s the backdrop. The entertainment value of this novel, and the fun, is the cast of characters who inhabit the Kansas Division. T.B. (T-Bone) Pettigrew is a senior dispatcher from the train order era who erupts in expletives upon learning of things going wrong. Jodie Yarborough is a 5-foot-0 engineer and mother of two who comes to work with the Book of Rules and Holy Bible in her grip and wants Pettigrew fired for taking the Lord’s name in vain. Bobby (Booger) Benson is a young, nose-picking conductor who likes a mid-evening call to work because it means he’ll have a full night’s sleep on the job. Ed Whitfield is the patient, philosophic division superintendent who hangs on past retirement age because he doesn’t want to give the vice president of operations the pleasure of replacing him. And the VPO is Heinz Henry, a Harvard MBA who knows all the numbers and the processes of doing business and think himself worthy of running Central Pacific but never knows where his trains are. And finally, for comic relief (as if you needed more), I present young trainmaster Jerry Jenks, whose ambition is to take every engineer and conductor out of service for rules violations, thus proving to VPO Henry that’s he’s tougher than superintendent Whitfield, who he yearns to replace.

So this is the beginning of “The Seldom Willing.” I think I know where I want it to end up, have some ideas of how to get there, and have faith that these characters I’ve created and others to follow will help get me to the finish line.

True, there’s some filling in to do, a fictional route map to create and all of that. But folks, this didn’t exist six hours ago. If Interstate 70 across Missouri and Illinois and western Indiana is as devoid of interest tomorrow as the western two-thirds of Kansas was today, the book could be written by the time I get to Indianapolis.

In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions and, especially, ideas for people to bring to life on this railroad I’m calling The Seldom Willing.—Fred W. Frailey

  • I'll buy one if you'll autograph it for me.


  • Sorry, Fred. It's no "End of the Line."

  • Fred, You must include recreational trail interests as supporting abandonment of "underperforming" portions of the CP system. Could even be fodder for comic relief. Trailnuts knowledge of railroads usually is. :)

  • If the author is Fred W. Frailey, I'd buy a copy.  But not if its that Fred Frailey guy...

  • I think bu13814 is from Seattle's East Side. Anyway, Fred, there aren't enough good railroad novels written anymore. I hope this one makes it to print.

  • I don;t know if my friend and fellow railfan, Davion Jackson, 13 years old, would approve of that scoundrel Davidson Jackson.  I'll have to check with his mother (my favorirte trainside model) the next time I'm in the Mile High City.

  • How about a know-it-all foamer, camera in-hand whose late night photo shoots includes multiple stobes that blind train crews just before they approach a series of interlockings in town so they can't make out the aspects.  Too close to home? Nah.

    Better slow down when you hit the Indiana border.  1. There should be a few more trains to see. 2.  State troopers take a dimmer view of 81 per while daydreaming of a novel.

  • 1. Heinz Henry hires a Conrail-trained Wall Street stooge to make sure Jackson gets fed an ever-worsening price on scrap steel, apparently making it impossible to abandon the lines without losing money, & causing CP stock to tumble.

    2. Missouri Pacific bands with the STB to attempt to obtain the to-be-abandoned trackage, citing Jackson's contempt for on-line communities.

    3. Jerry Jenks constantly battles the unions, disregarding the plain fact trains cannot run without crews.

    4. Yarborough catches Spearman in abandoned cabooses, getting "customer service" of his own.

    5. Cousins pushes for an AAR/NTSB safety loan to upgrade the KD, and eliminate 4 grade crossings. Jackson turns out to be more devious than thought, framing Cousins for having an illicit affair with Spearman while both were married, threatening her status on Capital Hill.

    6. Pettigrew's temperament is an outgrowth of his homelife: the wife dying of cancer, & his helplessness to prevent it.

    7. Online communities unite to fight Jackson, knowing failure will bankrupt them all.

    8. Jackson has NO IDEA the board already has 3 possible permanent people in mind, and so has no idea he has less than 30 days to do his deeds, before he gets replaced as pro-tem CEO, as well as VP marketing, because it was his lack of aptitude and experience which caused the KD's problems in the first place.

  • Good Luck!

    I liked bn13814's idea of having recreational trail activists, and radical environmentalists who decry the consumerism of our era while driving Toyota Priuses drinking Fair Trade lattes! Got a lot of these types in the Adirondacks trying to tear up the Tahawus Branch and Adirondack Scenic Railroad.

    They might support tearing up the Kansas Division’s rails as a way to restore the high prairie back to the days of the roaming Buffalo.

    Once again good luck and god speed!

  • Thanks to all of you who shared your reactions and ideas. RRnut: Illinois rather than Indiana was swarming with cops on I-70, and I was a good boy.

    One of you wrote privately that the parent railroad of the Seldom Willing looked a lot like Union Pacific. Not true! Not meant that way at all. UP, Santa Fe and Rock Island had two lines each across Kansas, and Missouri Pacific a 7th, and maybe I'm forgetting an 8th railroad. In fact, I should have written that the SW Kansas Railroad was squeezed on the south by Santa Fe and the north by Union Pacific. If you insist on a prototype, think of the Rock Island's lines through Kansas, or a combination of Rock's and MoPac's.

    Besides, this tale rests on its plot and its character development. Toward that end, I appreciate the input I have gotten and welcome more. I like the idea of adding addled railfans and bike-path-loving environmentalists. Not that I dislike enviros, because I am one, too, devoutly wishing for fewer trucks on Interstate 70.


  • Fred W. - I loved reading the possible scenarios posted.  Don't forget though, the 4 requisites of a successful novel - religion, royalty, sex & mystery, as presented in this very short novel, by a very young boy.  "Holy Moley! cried the Princess, pregnant again. I wonder who done it?

    Sincerely Fred, I do hope that you can complete it and get it into print and as "overall" said, please autograph it for me.  God speed and keep the shiny side up.

  • I like the idea of having a "You think you know it all railfan character" in the novel.  I have a suggestion for the abandonment of the rail line.  As an alternative, you could have the CP put the excess track up for sale to a short line operator.      

  • Well you sure have primed the pump.

    I do remember sitting in the Chief Dispatcher's office for the very first time as a young probationary dispatcher. He told me I was turned in and we needed to listen to tapes together. Oh... bad thoughts were going through in my mind.  What had I done that could have gotten me turned in?  Did I break a rule?  Put someone in danger?  My mind was racing with how I could have made a mistake...  Turns out while flagging a train at a stop indication I was speaking too quickly and started running the words together.  I stumbled on the verbiage, stopped, muttered, 'Jesus Christ' (with the mic still open) and then started the flagging all over again.

    After listening to myself, all the Chief Dispatcher said was that since I had been turned he was now obligated to have me listen to it... And last he had checked his rule book and General Orders the Ten Commandments were still not found in the General Code of Operating Rules.  And that was the last ever spoken if the incident.

  • Mr. Frailey

    Sometime as a plot device authors will create a supporting character that represents themselves, one that can make insightful observations, ask important questions of other characters, and tie various characters, locations, and storyline together. A reporter would be a good choice, because unlike other characters his job allows him to move between various people and locations.

    I think that given your experience as newspaper reporter, such a character in your novel could build upon your own experiences and enhance the book.

    As for your beloved CP president he probably had high blood pressure and heart condition, and shouldn’t have been reading the opinion section of the Journal. I know personally it’s not good for my blood pressure, and I’m only thirty.

    There of course the Film Noir set up with the voice over narration setting forth the storyline, like Philip Marlowe, “It was a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets”…  

    I don’t read many novels, the ones I do are mostly paper back science fiction, but a few years ago I read “The Yiddish Policemen's Union” by Michael Chabon, which like your story is set in an “alternative reality” of our present day.

    It was a well written book and made its reality believable, the idea of a post-war Jewish city-state in Alaska, you will have to the same with your Central Pacific Railroad.

    I thought that the action thriller film “Unstoppable” did a really good job at creating the fictitious yet believable Pennsylvanian regional railroad.

    It did well I thought at portraying the differences and conflict between the unionized blue color workers and management, the differences in generation, and the conflict between the middle management that is running the railroad, and the upper management that is running the finances.

    I also like how the movie could give you the back story of the two main characters without lingering on long scenes with family or obviously overt and long dialog to that purpose.

    I was also suggest the book should only as long as it needs to be, if it’s a short 200 instead 400 or 800 pages, that’s fine so long as it’s a good engaging yarn. The important thing is getting down on paper.

    It’s funny how physical activity or driving can stimulate creative thinking, I always done a lot of repetitive physical labor at my day jobs and part of my mind is always at work thinking up new editorials or a science fiction story I been imagining for over ten years.

    The hard part is what’s so easy and sounds so great in my mind often becomes very hard and difficult to get out when I actually sit down to do it at my desk.

    I admittedly have never read any of your books, but I just bought “Zephyrs, Chiefs & Other Orphans: The First Five Years of Amtrak” which given your blogs and articles I expect will be a very good and informative read.

    Good Luck!

  • Great railroad novels I have read:

    One Way to Eldorado by Hollister Noble, Doubleday 1954.  It was also published as a book club edition!,   A modern 1950s train robbery in the High Sierras on the Great Western Ry.  Has simularities to the SP, UP, WP and ATSF, all rolled into one.  Extremely well written about railroad operations and the trials and tribulations of running a mountain railroad.

    The Big Ivy by James McCague, Crown Publishers 1955.  About two boys growing up in a small Indiana town on the Indiana Valley Railroad and their railroad careers on into manhood.  Takes place in the 1890s.  Jem Gandie makes a record run over the road.  The locomotive, no. 696, was displayed at the St. Louis World Fair, thus the story ends in the early 1900s.

    Fiddle Hill by James McCague, Crown Publishers 1960.   About the merger of two railroads in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-20th Century and the effect it has on the railroaders in the area.  The railroads are the Pacific Midland and Mountain Central.  The beginning starts in the steam era.  The "crack mail train" is the Pacific Fast Mail (brass models anyone?)

    Ralph in the Roundhouse: Or Bound to become a Railroad Man by Allen Chapman, Grosset & Dunlap 1906, was the first of a series of railroad novels for boys.  Takes place in the Pacific Northwest on the Great Northern.

    A new novel will be most welcomed Fred!  I would have used the Kansas Pacific as if it had not become part of Union Pacific.  But it IS your novel so highball it so we can read ASAP!

    The classics can be found at abe books and all are real good reads!

The Seldom Willing: A railroad inside my head