Kansas City Southern in 1978

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, October 11, 2018

Sunday, October 15, 1978, was a big day for me. I flew from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City and began work on what was the biggest story of my 34-year-old life. It was my chance to crack open the pages of Trains magazine for the first time, and my subject was Kansas City Southern. The railroad had never been rich but fell upon bad times in the early 1970s. Earnings that should have been reinvested in the track went instead to diversify into other businesses (quite successfully, it turned out). In the spring of 1972, the railroad pretty much fell apart in the spring rains. Then commenced a rebuilding program masterminded by Katy’s former chief engineer and by then KCS Lines’ new president, Tom Carter. By 1976 unit coal trains were running down the spine of the railroad from Kansas City to Texas and staying on the tracks. The near death and then rebirth of Kansas City Southern was the story I set out to document. My first stop, nearest the KC airport, was the northern tip of the railroad, West Wye Tower, where operator Jack Jones was really excited to see me

Why am I telling you this? Because during two weeks of reporting I took 421 black and white photographs (photography was not my strong suite, but by god I was diligent). In the decades that followed the negatives somehow escaped the trash can, where all my other railroad photos seemed to end up. Two years ago I delivered them to my friend Nathan Bailey, who lives in my hometown of Sulphur Springs, Tex., and forgot all about them. But Nathan did not. Over a period of months he meticulously scanned and edited the images and posted them on his Flickr page. You can find them here.

Frankly, I’m stunned by this collection. Taken together, they are a documentary of the railroad as it then existed. It was somewhere on the path from fallen apart to a state of good repair. Speaking of fallen apart, dig the Gravette, Okla., depot, its front bay windows encased in protective plastic but still staffed by a full-time agent. You’ll see the bosses (Carter and Bill Deramus), the worker bees, the trains, the stations (I was a station fanatic even then) and the track. Bear in mind that Carter then had a rule in effect that when two trains met, only one could be moving. That KCS was still a work in progress can be seen from the last image, taken south of Heavener, Okla., at last light; note the populations of new (long) and old (shorter) ties in front of the train.

So thank you, Nathan. I think you’ll enjoy paging through this collection. Just so you’ll know, Dave Morgan bought the 10,000-word story, serialized it over two issues of the magazine (August and September 1979) and launched my 40-year association with Trains. As for Tom Carter, we became friends and still try to stay in touch, he from his lakeside home in Hideaway, Tex.—Fred W. Frailey

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