Love in the time of Hunter (an allegory)

Posted 4 days ago by Fred Frailey
Karen noticed the change in Eric in late April. His normally cheerful, funny personality turned dark, sarcastic, bitter. He used to spend hours on weekends at the Starbucks near their brownstone in Brooklyn, happily engaged in the Times Sunday Magazine crossword puzzle or the latest issue of The Nation and Mother Jones. Now Eric snapped at the friendly young woman at the counter when she asked him to repeat his order for a double butterscotch latte. Even the Sunday crossword lost its appeal. "It...

Supremacy in the West

Posted one month ago by Fred Frailey
CSX is struggling, driverless trucks are on the horizon, and the railroad world seems in disarray. Let’s talk about something that works: railroading in the West. Let’s talk about BNSF Railway and Union Pacific. We have here two magnificent companies, each well run and hugely profitable. Their differences are what interest me. Why, for instance, has BNSF’s business over time been growing and Union Pacific’s shrinking? And why, despite this, does Union Pacific consistentl...

Shrink the Water Level Route?

Posted one month ago by Fred Frailey
CSX has been studying the feasibility of single-tracking its route from Chicago to Selkirk (Albany), N.Y. But is it feasible, people are asking? Wouldn’t the railroad grind to a halt? Some of you have already said as much in comments to an earlier blog. I decided to find out. A couple of years ago I built a simulation model for CXS between Buffalo and Selkirk using interactive Train Dispatcher 3 software. I’ve just employed this platform to run the trains actually operated over the ...

The CSX follies

Posted one month ago by Fred Frailey
First, what I know. Then, what I think. I asked a railroader with excellent access to the details of CSX operations how he would rank the current disarray, on a scale of 1 to 10, a 10 being the equivalent of Union Pacific’s historic 1997 meltdown. His reply: “A 5 heading toward 7. A slow railroad dies faster than a fast one does.” And I agree.  Metrics continue to head down, and now there’s the pileup of a train descending Sand Patch grade near Cumberland, Md. You w...

Great ball of fire!

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
Steam locomotive 844 and I entered this world months apart in 1944. The last steam locomotive built for Union Pacific, it never left that railroad’s active roster. Instead, it has served for half a century as UP’s good-will ambassador. With its 80-inch driving wheels, it is a magnificent machine that impresses people of all ages. Yesterday, Cathie and I rode behind the 844 from Denver to Cheyenne and back aboard the train the Denver Post and UP sponsor to celebrate Frontier Days in C...

CSX is about to look like CN

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
In recent weeks, Hunter Harrison-led CSX Transportation has terminated all nine of its division superintendents (called managers) and their assistants, among many other field personnel, according to multiple sources close to the company. None has been replaced. The firings appear to be part of a broad realignment of the transportation structure of CSX. When the smoke clears, the railroad will cease to have divisions but be managed from as few as two regional headquarters. A couple of sub-region...

Fred has a brand new gig

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
The news has been my life. I became a reporter for my dad’s little daily newspaper in Sulphur Springs, Texas, at the age of 16 in 1960. At the time, I expected to be a newspaperman until I died, just like my dad. But life is full of strange turns we can’t predict. At age 27, I left a Chicago newspaper and became a magazine writer. What’s the difference? The best way I can describe it (I think Trains editor Jim Wrinn, an old newspaper hand, would agree) is that newspapers are m...

Railroading in a fiery furnace

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
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 o...

The meaning of "My Life With Trains"

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
Jim McClellan’s testament—My Life With Trains: Memoir of a Railroader—is out and being distributed by Indiana University Press. I can safely say that it is the railroad publishing event of the year. But I am biased, because I had a hand in its final stages of production after Jim’s death last autumn and read it cover to cover, several times. I was taken by the comments made to friends about My Life With Trains by Jim Blaze, Conrail’s final corporate strategist (and...

The myth of intermodal growth

Posted 3 months ago by Fred Frailey
It has been said so many times that it has become mantra: The future for railroads is intermodal. Bye-bye coal, bye-bye crude oil, bye-bye carload traffic (CSX carload volume is off 20 percent from 2000). All that doesn’t matter, the mantra goes, because we have intermodal, and intermodal is the growth engine that will save us. That promise was Norfolk Southern’s chief line of defense in 2016 when Canadian Pacific tried to nudge it into a merger. But it appears to me that all this...

Auto-Train reborn!

Posted 4 months ago by Fred Frailey
 Just when I thought that Auto-Train Corp. would fade into the sands of time without a proper telling of its short but fascinating history, along comes Doug Riddell. Quite under my radar, Doug researched, wrote, and produced Auto-Train, which has been published by the Richmond Fredericksburg & Potomac Historical Society this spring. To order it, go here. It’s the sort of accurate and readable work we’ve come to expect from Doug over the decades. And it comes with lots of ski...

Clarence Gooden's classy exit

Posted 5 months ago by Fred Frailey
I am going to miss Clarence Gooden. Clarence retired as CSX president in March, in anticipation of Hunter Harrison’s arrival at that railroad. I’ve never actually met the man, although we did spend 28 hours close to one another one time. I guess I should explain. I had been slipped aboard a BNSF Railway-CSX test train run in 2002 from Los Angeles to Little Ferry, N.J., to judge the feasibility of taking a day off United Parcel Service cross-country deliveries. The tale of that advent...

Perils of public transport

Posted 5 months ago by Fred Frailey
How the worm has turned. I’m old enough to remember when public and press alike were as one in their disdain for the disgusting quality of most railroad passenger train service. Nothing has changed except the object of disdain. Now it is the airlines—you could have cut the derision directed toward United Airlines this morning  on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” with a dull knife. The spectacle of Chicago cops bloodily ejecting a gentlemen from his seat (which he had pai...

Remembering Mr. Johnston

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
I'm sitting in my room on the Auto Train, waiting to leave Lorton in Virginia, and struggling to come up with a single word that applies collectively to the chief executives of the seven Class I railroads. The best I can do is "uninspiring." Yes, Hunter Harrison makes good copy for writers such as myself. But these guys all lack something. Call it pride in the companies they captain, in how their railroads are esteemed by the public, in how their fellow employees take their jobs seriously. Gosh,...

What Hunter will do at CSX

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
Hunter Harrison and his partner Paul Hilal, who runs a hedge fund called Mantle Ridge, didn't just decide one day that it would be nice if Harrison ran CSX Transportation. Rather, they studied the company and all its moving parts the way an army's general staff examines a likely battlefield opponent. To hide their intent from CSX, they hired other investment companies to recruit as paid consultants retired or former executives of the railroad, the better to know what makes the railroad tick, whi...

What's on Matt's mind

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
It’s getting late. My assistant Barbara Turner is making noises she’d like to go home. I tell her to leave, but until I do, too, she won’t budge. Something is on my mind. I am not happy. I need to talk to Warren. Soon. The eastern railroads are unstable. Our window to create a viable national rail network seems to be about to close. All of this is Hunter’s fault, as is so often the case. You know, it’s funny how things come around. More than 15 years ago, when Rob ...

The world according to Michael

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
I had an email today from a friend who complained about a certain op-ed columnist for the Wall Street Journal. My friend even wondered if this person’s pen is for sale. I replied that it’s the first duty of any columnist to write with a point of view. Without a point of view, you’re nothing. Sometimes, however, columnists simply get it wrong. I said I happen to like reading this columnist. Maybe, I suggested, he just got it wrong today. That’s a roundabout way of saying ...

Greed versus Goody Two Shoes

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
An insider in these matters says that to understand the strange turn of events at CSX, the big eastern railroad, you need to watch the last five minutes of Scarface. So I did, and OMG. I’ll get back to that in a minute. First, let’s run the numbers. E. Hunter Harrison, who worked wonders at Illinois Central, Canadian National, and Canadian Pacific, in that order, wants to become chief executive officer of CSX. In this he has the support of a hedge fund called Mantle Ridge that is ru...

The great race (conclusion)

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
Several of you have emailed and messaged me to ask how things went. Did I make it to my son's engagement party Saturday night? To them I said yes, everything worked out. But while I did not tell a lie, I did not tell the whole truth--a lie of omission, I guess it's called. This is the whole truth. To recap: VIA Rail's Canadian was definitely not going to reach Toronto today less than 5 hours late, the deadline for making a 4:30 p.m. flight from Pearson International to Washington, D.C. Before t...

The great race (Part II)

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
 Are you like me? Let me retract that question; we all know you are much my better. But like me, do you usually wake up on a train not when it is moving and knocking you about, but when when it is stopped? That was the case again this morning. It was 7:15 and starting to get light and we were somewhere in Ontario. It seemed we'd been stopped quite a while, too. Wherever we were, I figured we were in the time slot of train 111, Canadian National's most important Do Not Disturb intermodal tra...

The great race

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
VIA Rail's Canadian, from Vancouver to Toronto over four nights and three and perhaps four days, is as close to the Wild West as you ever expect to get in Twenty-First Century railroading. It is an adventure every time, and you never know what will happen next. I of all people should know not to ride this train when I have anything of importance happening the day of arrival, or even the day after arrival. Yes, but here I am anyway, engaged in a great race I appear to be losing, badly. I had pla...

Look out, Old Mackie's back!

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
Like Mack The Knife, Hunter Harrison is back and on the prowl again. He severed his ties to Canadian Pacific six months early and walked away from more than $100 million he would have gotten for standing still a bit longer. Word on the street is that he and investor Paul Hilal have their eyes on CSX—Hilal to engineer a proxy fight for control of the company (if need be) and Harrison to run the show. Myself, I’m making no predictions. I didn’t cover myself with glory a year ago...

The challenge of driverless trucks

Posted 8 months ago by Fred Frailey
Some of you don't see my columns in Trains Magazine. But even if you do, it’s not a format that can accommodate give-and-take between readers or between you and me. So I am reproducing my February 2017 essay here and inviting your comments. Fred What should the railroad industry do when technology threatens to upend it? This is the question of the hour, and it concerns not some new way to run trains, but a new way to run trucks, without drivers. Not all of you share my concern, but I pu...

Who will be our next Ike?

Posted 8 months ago by Fred Frailey
            Our 48,000 miles of interstate highways constitute the crown jewel of this nation’s infrastructure, bigger in their impact on our lives than even our world-class freight railroads. Without the interstate network, created by act of Congress six decades ago this June, our economy would today be a fraction of its present size. But I am tired of hearing arguments that say if we can build an interstate highway network, high-spee...

Amtrak's Mr. Fixit

Posted 9 months ago by Fred Frailey
I’m a plumber, Amtrak’s new president and chief executive said at the outset of a conversation this week with writers for Trains Magazine. Wick Moorman began by noting that he didn’t take the top job last September 1 with an eye toward staying very long. He’s vague on how long his short tenure will be—I’m going to guess 12 to 18 months. But he wants to accomplish a few things before he leaves, and one of them is to fix the railroad’s plumbing. By that, ...

The case of William Rockefeller

Posted 9 months ago by Fred Frailey
You hear about the herd of horses that stampeded off a cliff? Their owner sued God for failing to fence the cliff. No? Okay, that never happened. But the nearest thing to it did this week. William Rockefeller, the former Metro-North Railroad engineer whose commuter train careened around a curve and derailed while he dozed off, has sued the railroad and its parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, seeking $10 million for injuries, lost wages and suffering. His claim: It’s all Met...

6 reasons to give thanks

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
1. The election is over. You loved The Donald. Or you loved Hillary. Or you loved neither nominee. Admit it: It was stressful. You may now exhale. 2. Wick is here. I liked Joe Boardman. He did many good things in his eight years as head of Amtrak. But the company now needs a railroader at the top to help make it more focused. Wick Moorman has it within him to accomplish this. 3. Brian is here. After eight years of a steady diet of Phillips and Frailey on the opinion pages of Trains Magazine, w...

FEC's new owner

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
Fortress Investments has Florida East Coast Railway on the block—no surprise there. The modus operandi of companies like this is go in, get out the money, and move on, and it has been nine years since Fortress went in. As I understand it, Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company, is not for sale. FECI owns All Aboard Florida, or Brightline, the new passenger train service set to launch next year, initially between Miami and West Palm Beach (and ultimately Orlando). So who wants t...

The Next New Thing?

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
Edited 9: 15 a.m. November 18 In the late 1990s, Rob Krebs of Burlington Northern Santa Fe proposed to his former colleague Mike Haverty of Kansas City Southern that the two railroads publish a joint rate for traffic to and from Mexico via the Laredo gateway that would blunt the competitive advantages of BNSF rival Union Pacific. The proposal didn't fly because its terms didn't pass the smell test. This week, the wheel completed its full circle. The two railroads announced a joint intermodal s...

Rose to DOT: We'll sue and win

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
The executive chairman of BNSF Railway has a message for Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and whoever replaces him next January in the new Donald Trump Administration. His message: If the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration pushes through a rule requiring two people on moving trains, then his railroad will sue to invalidate the rule—and prevail in court. In a conversation with Trains Magazine today, Matt Rose says the railroad industry is in an untena...

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