Railroading in a fiery furnace

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, June 22, 2017

About 4 o’clock Tuesday afternoon, Tom Hoback and I drove across the Colorado River from Topock, Ariz., and entered California a few miles south of Needles. I glanced at the temperature readout on our rental car. It said 134 degrees. That day’s Los Angeles Times had reported that the highest recorded temperature anywhere, ever, was in California’s own Death Valley, in 1917. Then it was 136 degrees. That’s how close we came to becoming living history. When I’d step outside, my exposed skin felt like it was being sandblasted. I could stand it about one minute. The wonder is that the tires on our car didn’t melt.

I’ll tell you something else that was smokin’ in the Southwest this week. It was BNSF Railway. We followed the railroad Sunday from Cajon to Needles, on to Winslow on Monday, back to Needles on Tuesday and back to Cajon on Wednesday. Every day but Tuesday, wherever we were, was chock-a-block trains. The projected train count Wednesday (not a peak day) between Barstow and Needles was 85. That’s as busy as the railroad had been in 2004, before the Great Recession, and far above the average train count for post-recession  2009 (64) and 2012 (71).

You’re entitled to ask what is going on. Aren’t the railroads only starting to recover from what amounts to an industrial-goods recession that began in 2015 and lasted a full year? Isn’t intermodal volume stalled out, or at least pretending to be? Isn’t rival Union Pacific the giant of the West? The answers to all these questions is yes. But . . .

The adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach may be the most unfriendly locales on the face of this earth to the transportation modes. But gosh, the volumes remain staggering, and BNSF appears to be walking away with the lion’s share of the boat business. In reporting its intermodal loadings, the railroad declines to break out international from domestic business, one reason being that so much of what comes into Southern California in 40-foot ocean containers gets broken up at nearby warehouses and repacked in 53-foot domestic boxes that then get put on trains. So do you count that as domestic or international business? Nevertheless, Union Pacific does report domestic and international intermodal business separately, and in the last decade it has lost about one third of its international volume. Based on what we saw in the Southwest, most or all of that migrated to BNSF—one “boat train” after another slithered across the desert.

And based on my casual observation, BNSF may have walked away with some of Union Pacific finished automobile traffic. We saw a lot of auto rack trains and auto rack cuts of general freight trains that I wasn’t used to seeing in years past, and one hears rumors as well.

Matt Rose, the executive chairman of BNSF, told an investment conference the other week that his railroad is not poaching Union Pacific’s business. Yeah, sure. But something sure as hell is happening to cause those trains to appear at streetcar frequency. In last year’s slump, BNSF carried 5 percent fewer loads, but UP 7 percent fewer. So far this year, BNSF’s business is up 6 percent from a year ago, UP’s half as much. Draw your own conclusion.

I’ll also leave you with the story of our journey across the Needles Subdivision from its namesake town to Barstow on Wednesday. Engineering had the south track out of service at mid morning between Ash Hill and Ludlow (Ash Hill is where the tracks separate, leading to all those gorgeous photos of trains spread all over the desert landscape). Westbounds shot out of Needles at about 20-minute intervals, and eastbounds from Barstow at least as frequently. The eastbounds included the priority trains, except for a train of empty ethanol tanks that led the pack.

So as Tom and I watched this unfold on my ATSF Monitor software (which reveals train locations and the lineups of signals and switches), the plan the dispatcher put in place was this: Stack up the westbounds at Ash Hill (the start of single track that morning) and points east on the north track until the parade of eastbounds got by. But leave the north track open between East Siberia and West Amboy for Z-LACWSP8 (Los Angeles-Willow Springs IL), the hottest thing on wheels that morning (think UPS, UPS, UPS and more UPS), to zap around the empty ethanol train, which was halted at West Amboy.

Then . . . wouldn’t you know, just as the pressure of opposing trains built to a climax and the plan started to unfold, Z-LACWSP8 tripped a hotbox detector 212 axles back. At 10 o’clock, it came to a halt right at the East Siberia crossover and conductor Jose Ortega alighted. Fort Worth was asking every five minutes for updates. Let me just say Mr. Ortega got some transportation assistance and was at axle 212 in no time. But it took him 30 minutes to inspect axles temps, hand brake positions, brake rigging on the offending car and those on each side for several car lengths and then recheck them to conclude that nothing was wrong. Remember, if he certified the train as safe and it derailed a mile later, Mr. Ortega would be looking for another line of work. Meanwhile the eastbounds stacked up behind Z-LACWSP8 like Chevies at a stoplight. And of course westbounds could not get on the single track until the eastbounds cleared. The ethanol train in front of Z-LACWSP8 got a signal and went on its way, unpassed.

One train after another got on the radio to say it had two or three or four hours of time left to work, and only one patch (relief) crew had been called at Barstow. “If you ran us like a Z train, we’d make Needles,” one conductor said, to which the dispatcher replied, “If I could run you like a Z train I wouldn’t be sweating so much right now.”

At 10:45 a.m., conductor Ortega was back on his General Electric horse. Eventually the train began to crawl forward. But for the longest time nothing else moved. That's how a jackpot behaves; nothing happens quickly. Tom and I could get out of the car (it was only 107 by then on Wednesday) and see seven or eight or nine or ten trains at once, depending upon how we interpreted the distant lines of equipment on the sweeping curves. Realistically it would be mid afternoon before the mess was dissolved. And as we got off of Historic U.S. 66 and onto Interstate 40 at Ludlow, here came the next alpha dog, Z-WSPLAC9 (again, think UPS, UPS, UPS and more UPS), out of Hobart Yard in LA 90 minutes behind its unfortunate brother, the 8 section. Somehow it would have to pass all those trains in front of it. I cannot imagine how.

You can interpret what I’ve just told you two ways. One is OMG, what a screwed up railroad. I interpret it as the sweet smell of success. Stuff happens. You deal with it. The train crews and the dispatcher and Mr. Ortega and those who got him to axle 212 and back to the GE horse all worked it out. BNSF Railway these days is a mighty machine. It creaks and squeals at the pressure points like Ash Hill, but it works. Better that than an empty railroad.—Fred W. Frailey

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