Engine with a whole lotta hurt

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Never a dull moment at Ellinor, Kan. Ellinor is the place, population zero, west of Emporia where BNSF Railway's Transcon to California separates from the route to Colorado and then down to Albuquerque, N.M. Several decades ago I stood in a farmer's field at Ellinor, watching freights whiz by, and was invaded by 250 chiggers. Well, at least I counted that many before I gave up. The itches they caused made my life hell for four days. Finally, in Perry, Okla., the check-in lady at the Holiday Inn gave me some useful advice: Go to the grocery, buy a jug of Clorox, empty it into hot bath water and get in. A minute later, I was cured. That was Ellinor.

Late Sunday, Tom Hoback and I approached Ellinor, seeing a dim headlight on the LaJunta Subdivision (Colorado line) track. A lot of vehicles with flashing lights stood on the adjacent road. Those appear pretty official, I told Tom. And look, there are people walking on top of the lead engine. You probably guessed it: an engine fire. The volunteer fire department had been there more than an hour. The crew of H-BARKCK (Barstow-Kansas City) had the presence of mind to uncouple the lead locomotive and move it away from the trailing unit and train before shutting it down. By and by, the Emporia switch engines, an SD40-2 and GP38-2, eased up from the yard to couple to the disabled unit and tow it back to town. Then the train's engineer could take the train into Emporia, the single remaining unit running backward, until a second locomotive could be robbed from a following train. Speaking of which, two freights by then were lined up behind the H-BARKCK on the LaJunta Sub.

Our big engine with a whole lotta hurt could be a metaphor for BNSF this spring. We joined the railroad that morning east of Kansas City, at Carrollton, Mo., and I've never seen it so busy on any day of the week. The railroad is clearly still feeling the effects of the disastrous winter, coming at a time when business levels were running at all time highs. The pent-up demand is still being worked off and the railroad remains highly stressed.

Case in point: Monday morning, as we prepared to leave Emporia, the dispatcher asked a westbound train when the crew's time would run out. 11:59, was the reply. "I'll try to push you to Wellington [the crew change point in southern Kansas] by then," she said. Think about that. In eight hours, the train had moved less than 120 miles.

An isolated incident, you say? Unfortunately no. As we meandered through the Flint Hills on Kansas Route 177, we encountered unattended westbound freights tucked away in Cassoday, El Dorado, and Chelsea. I doubt that the train we heard at Emporia made it to Wellington, either. Continuing west, past Wellington on the Panhandle Subdivision toward Amarillo, Tex., the parade of trains continued without letup. This is double track, and the dispatcher was doing a lot of overtakes of slower manifest trains by higher priority intermodal runs, but with all the crossing over between tracks, nothing was moving all that fast.

Since I am not the president of BNSF, I decided not to worry about its troubles but just watch the show, and that's what we're doing. Today's destination: Curtis Hill in northwest Oklahoma and Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle.--Fred W. Frailey

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