Kansas City Southern in 1978

Posted 5 days ago by Fred Frailey
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). ...

Mr. Armstrong's fine train

Posted 16 days ago by Fred Frailey
I’m just back from railing from Banff, Alta., to Vancouver, B.C., aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. . . my first such trip in 23 years. Then, it was eight or nine Silver Leaf coaches and a single Gold Leaf bilevel first-class car. This time, it was two coaches and five packed Gold Leaf cars. From the rail trip alone, I figure that Armstrong Group grossed a minimum of $600,000. Usually (but not this time) there’s a section of roughly equal length out of Jasper, Alta., that joins the Banff...

Why does the dog bark?

Posted 20 days ago by Fred Frailey
As our Rocky Mountaineer passed a house along Lake Shuswap (a beautiful part of the British Columbia interior), a woman of late middle age could be seen waving enthusiastically at our train. Our car attendant Amanda explained that she greets every Rocky Mountaineer in this manner. This became so evident to the crew that eventually they learned her name, which is Doris. Ultimately Doris became a passenger of the train, deepening her attachment to the Rocky Mountaineer. During her trip, Doris exp...

Union Pacific’s PSR moment

Posted 26 days ago by Fred Frailey
Union Pacific is the ideal lab rat for Precision Scheduled Railroading, practiced by the late Hunter Harrison on four Class I railroads, with great rewards for shareholders and mixed results for customers. UP, which will begin recasting itself October 1, is ideal for the role because it has too many employees, too many unproductive route miles, and too many expensive toys. Plus, it is less interested in increasing market share than in maximizing freight rates, which makes right-sizing the railro...

The Empire Builder dilemma

Posted one month ago by Fred Frailey
We all know about “taking the Fifth.” It’s our right under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution not to be compelled to testify against ourselves. In other words, a court cannot force us to admit to driving 60 mph in a 45-mph zone (or something worse). That amendment has another, less-well-known clause, which says government cannot take away our property without just compensation. Lawyers know this as the “Takings Clause.” The Fifth came to mind the other day...

Tell me a story

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
Time for a change. Put aside Amtrak, Richard Anderson, Hunter Harrison and operating ratios. Let’s consider railroad literature. I enjoy good writing and good storytelling, one reason being that there is so little of it. All the better if the narrative is accompanied by arresting photography. But first, tell me a story. As years go on, I find myself returning to the same books again and again. If you can find Archie Robertson’s 1945 groundbreaker Slow Train to Yesterday for less than...

The perfect day, until . . .

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
Saturday was one of those days you want to treasure. It was the second time Cathie and I had experienced the Cheyenne Frontier Days train sponsored by Union Pacific and the Denver Post. Thanks to a friend who buys tickets every year, we had seats in the dome car Columbine from Denver to Wyoming’s capital. From a year earlier, I knew that the place to be was in the baggage car three cars forward, where a bluegrass band played country and Texas swing, and you could lean out the open doors, e...

The next Southwest Chief

Posted 2 months ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak is struggling to find a fix for the dilemma facing the Chicago-to-Los Angeles Southwest Chief. From Trinidad, Colo., to west of Lamy, N.M., 200-plus miles, it is by law solely responsible for maintenance of a 79-mph railroad, because BNSF Railway several years ago ended all freight service over this route it continues to own. The costs are significant: $3 million a year in normalized maintenance and $50 million in due course in capital needs, including positive train control over portions...

Commuters in the crosshairs

Posted 4 months ago by Fred Frailey
A handful of commuter-train railroads, chief among them New jersey Transit, may face a painful choice come January 1: Either cancel some or all trains or face crippling fines for operating in defiance of a law requiring their trains be protected by positive train control, or PTC. This could occur should they fail to qualify for a two-year extension to meet the PTC deadline. Jersey Transit’s predicament is dire. To qualify for an extension of the December 31 deadline for having PTC fully o...

My big, bad new Amtrak

Posted 5 months ago by Fred Frailey
Richard Anderson wants Amtrak’s national network to better serve markets (i.e., not reach big cities in the dead of night) and to recover more of the costs. As a group, the long-distance trains, by Amtrak's accounting, racked up operating losses of $500 million in the fiscal year ending last September. You can almost bet he’s looking at ways to reshuffle the deck. I’ve been doing just that myself, and challenge you to do so, as well. The challenge is this: How would you rearra...

Living the life

Posted 5 months ago by Fred Frailey
I’m fascinated by on online piece this week in the New York Times about a gentleman named Mario Salcedo, a onetime business executive who burned out after 21 years of roaming the world. For the past two decades he’s made his permanent home aboard cruise ships. A resident of Royal Caribbean Cruises boats, he has lived 7,330 nights at sea. . . so far. The crew of Enchantment of the Seas calls him Super Mario. Writes Lance Oppenheim, who with his film crew spent five days with Salcedo,...

Meals on wheels. Oh my!

Posted 5 months ago by Fred Frailey
Nothing should surprise us anymore. Yet you’d have thought that Little Green Men had landed at the Richard J. Daley Center and planted their Martian flag on the Chicago Picasso. No more dining cars! Soon, no more long-distance trains! The world is ending! It calls to mind a magazine writer, Thomas Frank, who has a habit of starting his long articles by saying, “If such-and-such is true, then. . .” and launching into his thesis. I usually say to myself, “No, Tom, such-and-...

Mr. Anderson’s awkward start

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
Richard H. Anderson has been sole CEO of Amtrak for three months. He’s a skilled airline guy who heads a public utility that has been largely rudderless since Graham Claytor retired a quarter century ago. He must be feeling as if he stepped into a time warp. Anderson goes to see his fellow CEOs at two Class I host railroads. They are dismissive. One tells him bluntly that Amtrak has a “broken business model.” The other simply calls Anderson’s company a “nuisance.&rd...

Room H

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
You’ll find me tonight on the southbound Silver Meteor, bound from Philly to Jax. It’s been a busy day. I started in Toronto, flew to Dulles Airport outside Washington, Ubered to Union Station, Acelaed to Baltimore for lunch with a friend, Acelaed again to Philadelphia and changed directions to go south on the Meteor. What a super room I have. I’d never explored a Viewliner sleeping car’s handicapped room, called Room H. It is awesome. I could sleep spread-eagled on the ...

Father and daughters

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
“Dad, why are we going so slowly?” That’s my daughter Barbara, head of academics at a Seattle girls school. “Because we’re in a siding,” I reply. “What’s a siding?” That’s the fun of a father-daughters vacation. I expected them to be curious about the intricacies of railroad operations as the three of us crossed Canada for four days and nights. After all, that’s their father’s obsession. But it’s obvious that if Bar...

Inside a CN meltdown

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
The chief executive of Canadian National Railway is reported to have lost his job over scenes such as I witnessed today, Canadian National was growing, but its ability to handle that growth fell behind across the Canadian prairies—too few tracks, too few people, or maybe poor management of both. In any event, what ensued this winter was a meltdown. And not one meltdown, but an unending series that simply sapped the railroad of its resources, and its vitality. Maybe you think I exaaggerate...

Guess who treats Amtrak best?

Posted 6 months ago by Fred Frailey
From Day One, the bane of Amtrak’s existence has been the freight train. (Ha! You thought I was going to say the U.S. Congress. That, too.) I’ve written about freight train delays to passenger trains until I’m sick of it. Congress mandates that Amtrak trains have priority, to a point. Amtrak has sued host railroads, to little effect And still, the problem persists, as of course it will—freight train-passenger train conflict is inherent in the private-public arrangement un...

Surviving in the face of adversity

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
Railroad financial results look awesome, better than ever. But the reality of this business is deceiving. The business is shrinking, or at best treading water, and in a booming economy. Non-coal carloads are down almost 13 percent from their peak in 2006, coal loadings roughly 40 percent. And market share versus trucks? In a presentation for clients of Stifel Capital Markets, the analytic firm of Transportation & Logistics Advisors put it this way: Rail carload volume today would be 40 to 75...

How to really fix the NEC

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
Lost in the fight between President Trump and U.S. Senate minority leader Schumer over fixing Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor—the blood between them now so bad that whatever one of them wants, the other opposes—is the fact that a credible solution to the steady deterioration of this asset lies in front of us. In theory, at least, this solution would not cost taxpayers anything. So you have to wonder: Why can’t this idea get a public airing? That idea is for Congress to order...

Isn't CSX fascinating?

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
Obliterate it, and the railroad world would be boring indeed. In two decades, we have gone from the uninspiring leadership of John Snow to the railroad’s revival under Snow’s successor Michael Ward, to Ward’s own ultimate bewilderment on how to move the company forward, to Ward’s being thrust aside to let Hunter Harrison work his magic, to Harrison’s death after nine months of chaos at the company, to Jim Foote’s ascension to a job he frankly wasn’t prep...

The downfall of Luc Jobin

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
Imagine yourself as chief executive of the most dynamic company in your industry. Thanks to your initiatives and some good luck, customers flock to you, whereas your competitors languish. Profits are up, though due to reinvestment in your infrastructure, not as much as investors expected. And yes, it’s true that you are behind in delivering the goods to your customers. How should your board of directors react to these mixed circumstances? You, of course, are Luc Jobin, the CEO of Canadian...

Bon voyage, Moonlighters

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
At 8:30 sharp tonight, VIA Rail’s Canadian should be leaving Pacific Central Station in Vancouver with scores of happy and celebratory passengers in its sleepers—the Moonlighters. That’s the name Bill and Linda Schafer gave their merry band of train lovers who join them every year, these sojourns beginning about the time Bill retired from Norfolk Southern a decade or so ago. (You don’t need an invitation from Bill to ride, but you do need a ticket.) Anyway, Moonlighters d...

Au revoir, Amtrak! It's official

Posted 7 months ago by Fred Frailey
Hello, my name is Richard Anderson. I am president and chief executive officer of Amtrak. It is now clear that we are likely to face different scenarios where positive train control (PTC) is not yet operational by the end of the year. First, there will be carriers that have made sufficient progress to apply to FRA for an alternative PTC implementation schedule under the law. In these instances, Amtrak’s equipment will be ready for PTC operation, but additional work, testing or approvals ar...

Amtrak in crisis

Posted 8 months ago by Fred Frailey
We are in uncharted country. In its 47 years, Amtrak has been to the wall often. But those instances were political or funding dramas. This is different. Now the public is entitled to ask: Is it safe to board an Amtrak train? In December it was Tacoma. A train runs right off the rails doing 50 mph over the speed limit on a 30-mph curve. Safety violations were egregious. In January a train carrying Republican members of Congress hits a garbage truck at a gated crossing in rural Virginia. Again, ...

Who what when where why?

Posted 8 months ago by Fred Frailey
Did any of you notice, as I instantly did this morning, that none of the stories in our nation’s Big Three newspapers addressed the central question about the collision of a special Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress and a garbage truck, in Crozet, Va., just west of Charlottesville? I was taught that any good news story should answer five questions, the most important of which is the last: Why? Why did that truck get into the crosshairs of the Amtrak train? Nine reporters...

Will you still love me tomorrow?

Posted 8 months ago by Fred Frailey
The news from Canada today is that oil producers are at loggerheads with Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways. Pipeline capacity to preferred destinations on the U.S. Gulf coast is almost nonexistent, and producers want the two railroads to haul their product at favorable rates. The railroads insist the oil companies either put some skin in the game—commit to long term contracts—or pay the publicly posted carload rates. This the shippers are refusing to do. You may wonder...

Confirming Batory, funding Gateway

Posted 9 months ago by Fred Frailey
Thank you all for your responses to my blogs about the kidnapped nomination of Ronald Batory to run the Federal Railroad Administration. From the tone of some of your notes, there seems to be an assumption that I am opposed to the Gateway Project. This is because some of you seem to accept that we have a choice between confirming the FRA nominee or funding Gateway. That’s a false premise. Gateway Project would build two new tracks beneath the Hudson River, replace the ancient two-track li...

Free Ron Batory!!!

Posted 9 months ago by Fred Frailey
Foolishness by the senators from New York and New Jersey continues. Six months ago, these four Democrats—Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Bob Menendez and Cory Booker of New Jersey—put a “hold” on the confirmation vote for Ronald Batory to run the Federal Railroad Administration. Bear in mind that Batory, a career railroad officer, is the only person actually qualified to hold this job since the early days of the agency. The reason for the hold, you w...

The legacy of Hunter Harrison

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
We would all agree that he was a genius at breaking down railroad operations to its simple components and running trains economically. Hunter Harrison learned railroading at the knee of a brilliant, profane Texan, William (Pisser Bill) Thompson, who was on his way to becoming VP-operations of the Frisco in the late 1960s when Hunter encountered him at Tennessee Yard in Memphis. “Young man,” said Thompson, spreading his arm toward a sea of freight cars, “what do you see out ther...

Canadian arrival: Please be late

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
Updated 9 a.m. Dec. 7 In the fading light of an overcast December afternoon, the Canadian twists and turns in harmony with the North Thompson River, 30 miles away still from Kamloops, B.C., where we should have arrived at 11 last night. An hour from now, at 4:45 p.m., it will be dark. I prepared for my westward trip across Canada with certain assumptions. One was that VIA Rail No. 1, would take me past certain places during the eight-hour period of daylight and other locales at night. The othe...

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