6

Sippin’ at Tim’s: Good intentions gone bad

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’m sure all of you (okay, a few of you) wish there were a place you could go after work and order a beer or wine or other drink while right beside you, one train after another rushes by. I found such a place: Tim’s Riverside Restaurant & Crab House. You sit at open-air tables or the outside bar. On one side of you is the broad Potomac River south of Washington, D.C., the Maryland shore barely visible a mile away. On the other, no more than 100 feet distant, is the double-track ...
6

Crossing western America by train

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
It’s been almost 40 years since I’ve ridden Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which means it’s been at least 35 years too long. The Builder epitomizes the long-distance train. It is Amtrak’s most-ridden train, and also the one gathering the most revenue (more than even the much-longer Auto Train). If there is an All-American Train, it is probably this one. I choose to board the Portland, Ore., section, No. 28, a four-car stub (two coaches, a sleeper, and a Sightseer lounge). At Spokane, Wash....
1

Canadian National tells customers: “We love you”

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Canadian National’s efficiency is the envy of the railroad world. Last year, in the middle of a bruising recession, CN once again posted the lowest operating ratio (67 percent) in the business, meaning that only 67 percent of its operating revenue was eaten up by operating expenses. This is a real tribute to the operations team assembled by president and CEO Hunter Harrison.              But as I wrote last August in a prof...
0

Just another crappy day on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
How many things can go wrong in one day on a railroad? If we’re speaking of Amtrak’s Baltimore Division, from Wilmington, Del., to Washington, D.C., as it existed one-third of a century ago, the answer is ... a lot. From 6 a.m. on April 6, 1977, to 6 a.m. on April 7 are the 24 hours in question. I’ve just read the typewritten log kept that day by the assistant chief dispatchers. Shall we get started?   Back then, dozens of Conrail freight trains shared the corridor with Amtra...
2

Further confessions of a train chaser

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Sometimes I am too smart for my own good. Let me tell you about today. I am in Selma, N.C., where the CSX New Jersey-to-Florida “A Line” crosses a Norfolk Southern branch. Two things to know about Selma: It has a beautifully restored union station immortalized by J. Parker Lamb in a 1960s black-and-white photograph. And it is where Amtrak trains from Raleigh, N.C., curve gracefully past that station to go from NS to CSX stewardship.   Now, the plan. The northbound Silver Star ...
2

Rail traffic bounces back (and stays back)

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
The economists who officially date the start and finish of recessions know when The Big One began. That would be December 2007, when the previous economic expansion topped out. But the group, called the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, says it’s still too soon to declare that recession over. While they dither, I’ve got news: The nation’s railroads are back in business, big time.   Latest data, covering the week ending Saturday, Apri...
6

Why you maybe don't want to work for the railroad

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
If you occupy a position of authority on a Class 1 or regional railroad, read this. If you’re thinking of becoming a railroader, read this, a case study about how front-line supervisors treat their employees and would-be employees.   Our tale begins as a seasoned train dispatcher with an unblemished record prepares to leave his home to drive more than 1,000 miles for what he has been told is a pro-forma interview to dispatch trains for a regional railroad. Let’s call him Mik...
5

The ticking time bomb on a commuter railroad

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I take a friend the other day to watch the afternoon parade of commuter trains leaving Washington, D.C. We’re in Alexandria, Va., as a Manassas-bound Virginia Railway Express train comes in and a crowd pushes its way aboard. I’m at the front of the train, on a little hillside, and can clearly see inside the locomotive cab. There sits a young man with a job I envy him for having. Engineers on this line pull down $100K a year, have their daytimes and weekends free, and always go home...
2

Confessions of a train chaser

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
When people ask what I do for fun, I say I chase trains. They usually think this is a figure of speech — that I watch or photograph trains. Nope. Nothing beats a good chase. The other day I chased a train hundreds of miles. Unfortunately, it was a lot of effort for very little fun. I guess I should tell you the story.I had ridden Amtrak’s Auto Train to Sanford, Fla., my speedy red Jaguar resting at the rear of the train in one of the auto carriers. The minute Old Red pops off the ramp in Sanford...
5

Ode to an unsung train

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
What’s the matter with you, America? There's a Morning Sun book about everything, but no “Amtrak’s Auto Train, In Color!” Where's the buzz about Auto Train on the online forums? Why is this not the most talked-about train in the land? The Auto Train is not just an Amtrak train; it’s an experience, even to someone who merely watches it pass in the night — especially to someone who merely watches it pass in the night. I once asked Lou Whitley, an Auto Train engineer these many years betw...
7

Amtrak's real competition on the Northeast Corridor

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’m headed from Washington to New York this weekend on an Amtrak Acela. My friends Richard Simon and Nancy Ross, a married couple who practice optometry in downtown Washington, are going to New York, too. They could well afford the Acela, but instead, they’re taking a bus.  “We’ll save $350,” she told Richard. They’ll actually save more than that. I paid $270 for my round trip on Acela. They’ll pay $50 each for a round trip on the bus, saving $440 over the Acela price. Do you begin to see A...
3

An insomniac’s nighttime adventure

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
What do you do when you can’t sleep? If you were me last night, you got up at 3:30 and watched trains. Okay, it helped that I was overnighting 40 miles south of Richmond, Va., alongside the CSX mainline to Florida. There’s not much else to do in Stony Creek.A call to Julie, the automated agent, revealed Amtrak’s northbound Silver Meteor to be about an hour late. When I booted up my laptop to ATCS Monitor, the software that gives you a dispatcher’s view of a railroad, there was the ...
3

The commuter train that leaves Acelas in the dust

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak’s Acela high speed trains cover the 40.3 miles between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore in a brisk 29 to 33 minutes at speeds of up to 125 mph. But MARC, the Maryland commuter-rail agency, has some Acelas beat. One of its trains, No. 406, gets from D.C. to Baltimore in 32 minutes and did it today in just 31, at an average speed of 78 mph. This has to be the fastest commuter train in the world on the fastest commuter railroad in the world.        &...
0

Bring on the dancing girls! Business is booming!

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Have you noticed your sleep being disturbed more often these last few days by the dulcet sounds of locomotive whistles in the night? I thought so. Now comes proof: The railroad business is finally showing signs of life again. It’s worth a celebration if the latest big up-tick continues. Data made available today by ASI/Transmatch reveals that last week (ending Feb. 27) saw the second-highest level of carloadings since the recession began in late 2008: 631,867 carloads and intermodal units, ...
10

A radical idea: Take the lead out of Amtrak!

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I awoke the other day aboard the northbound Coast Starlight and raised the bedroom shade. We were stopped in Klamath Falls, Ore. I got dressed, brushed my teeth, went to the diner, and ordered breakfast. We were still in Klamath Falls. I ate bacon and eggs and leisurely drank a second cup of coffee. Still there. So I got off the train and walked around 10 minutes, until the engineer whistled the five-minute warning.             You’ve...
6

What brought mighty CSX to its knees

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Readers of the TRAINS News Wire know that two severe blizzards, on Feb. 6 and again on Feb. 10, played havoc with railroads on the East Coast. Less well known is that Amtrak service between Washington, D.C., and Savannah, Ga., was suspended for a week, and CSX freight trains on this corridor were either canceled (mostly) or ran hours or even days late.   The trouble centered on the 114-mile RF&P Subdivision of CSX, between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va. One source told me...
8

Aboard the last streamliner

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Fifty-five years ago this spring, Canadian Pacific introduced its new transcontinental train, the Budd-built Canadian, operating between Montreal and Toronto in the East and Vancouver on the Pacific Coast. It was the proud accomplishment of N. R. (Buck) Crump, CP’s president during the mid-Twentieth Century. Legend has it that within six months, Crump realized that even the newest and finest streamliner in the world would never come close to paying its way, and Canadian Pacific rapidly beg...
4

As good as a cab ride

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I had some time on my hands in the Oakland, Calif., area the other day. Actually, I had a lot of time to kill. So I decided to take a round trip from Oakland to San Jose on Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains. And when I got to San Jose, I extended that round trip another 48 miles, to downtown San Francisco and back, on the Caltrain commuter line. That’s when things got interesting.   Caltrain is a busy railroad, operating 45 scheduled trains each way on weekdays (fewer on weekends). Its...
1

China's busiest passenger route

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Every night in Beijing, starting at 9:15 p.m., seven sleeping-car trains leave for Shanghai on five-minute headways. The same scene is enacted at the other end, 914 miles away. Riding one of these trains is a great experience, if you don’t mind sleeping with one to three strangers who don’t speak your language. More than that, I wanted to see what lies between these two great Chinese cities, so I took the first of two daylight bullet trains from Beijing: D29 — a 10-hour, 50-minute experi...
2

By bullet train in the People’s Republic

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I don’t hold myself out as an expert on China or of Chinese railways. But finding myself in Beijing this week, what better to do than start my learning curve by experiencing that nation’s burgeoning railroad system? So I spent a day between the Chinese capital and Shenyang, 437 miles to the northeast and itself one of China’s 10 largest cities.   As you may know, the Chinese do nothing by half measure. China is well on its way to becoming the high speed rail capital of the world. H...
6

Railfans as seen from the locomotive cab

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
My column in the February TRAINS (“7 Ways to Become a Better Railfan”) prompted a lot of responses, but none more interesting than the one from a Union Pacific engineer. Doug Smith was a railfan as a kid, enjoyed a career in the military, and then at midlife, became a railroader. The crux of his point of view: railfanning is a hobby, railroading is a way of life, and the two have a hard time meeting each other.   But let’s let Doug speak, in his own voice. Here’s an edited version ...
4

The follies of men: Two disasters wrapped in mystery

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’ve been delving into my stash of the government’s railroad accident reports. Most of them are mundane. By that, I mean they clearly document common safety shortcomings, such as trains striking maintenance of way equipment, forgetting orders to meet other trains, running into the rear of other trains, and on and on. Almost always the investigations clearly document what went wrong and why.   But every so often, investigators concluded that they don’t know why sometime terrible hap...
2

Things I don't miss

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Alco PA graveyards   These photos are a downer. In 1970 I came upon most of Santa Fe’s PA fleet on some spur tracks in a southwest suburb of Chicago, awaiting the torch. They weren’t protected by a fence or anything, so I climbed aboard one. Sat in the engineer’s seat. Played with the levers. Looked out the windshield over that flat snout and imagined I was doing 90 through western Illinois. Then I got off, snapped a few photos, and left them to fate.   Dirty, sad, failed pass...
12

Things I miss

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Country depots   You have to be of a certain age to understand this, but I’ve walked into 1,001 of them unannounced, and was never treated discourteously. I think of myself as an introvert, but never did I fear opening a depot door and walking in. Those men (and a few women) were perhaps bored and welcomed someone interested in what they did. Back then I was a relentless collector of train orders, and more than a few country agents climbed into lofts with me to find ancient treasure...
8

Toby sez you’re dumb as a board. Do you agree?

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Anyone named Toby I immediately like. Toby Kolstad is a columnist for Progressive Railroading magazine, which makes me like him more, because I write a column, too, for another magazine. We columnists should stick together — you know, one for all, all for one.              But really, Toby, what you wrote as a commentary for the money-management firm of Gerson Lehrman Group makes me question my allegiances to Tobys and all for o...
10

The monster that ate Southern California

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Union Pacific just thought it was testing acceleration, braking, drawbar stress, radio continuity, and all of that when it dispatched that 3½-mile-long intermodal train from Dallas a week ago, en route to Long Beach, Calif. Good guess, guys, but no! What it was really testing, it turns out, was public opinion, and the results are in: People don’t like long trains, or at least think they don’t. What people really don’t like is change.   At 18,061 feet, it was almost the longest U.S...
4

The real train from hell

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Last week, Amtrak’s California Zephyr made it onto NBC Nightly News by arriving at Chicago Union Station 19 hours late. Anchor Brian Williams called that blizzard-whipped edition of the Zephyr “the trip from hell.” It’s a good thing for Amtrak that NBC News doesn’t have a Denver bureau, because the real trip you never want to take was that of the California Zephyr going the other direction, toward Emeryville, Calif.   The story you are about to read is told entirely through updates i...
4

Union Pacific's winners and losers

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
The 1996 merger of Southern Pacific into Union Pacific mothballed the Tennessee Pass line from near Glenwood Springs to Pueblo, Colo., and caused tracks east of Pueblo almost to Kansas City to be torn up or shortlined.   But that same merger brought two other destitute routes back to life. One was the historic Texas & Pacific line west of Fort Worth, part of the all-but-forgotten second transcontinental railroad. The T&P went from one train a day each way to as many as a do...
0

The real seduction of Warren Buffett

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
In an essay of almost this same name two months ago, I suggested the scenario that led to the acquisition by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe stock it did not already own.  Now comes the filing of proxy documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission by BNSF, and what really happened becomes clear. The proxy material contains a chronology of events leading to the merger agreement. But it also leaves out a couple of important events. So I wi...
2

500 miles, 11 hours, 67 trains

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
We’re told the nation is in the grips of a terrible recession. Unemployment affects more than one in ten workers. Banks remain troubled. And so on and so on. I’m having trouble buying that idea, because I just crossed the state of Nebraska beside the Union Pacific Railroad, and baby, there’s no recession to be found along the Platte River. Union Pacific’s Overland Route west from Omaha, the mother of all western rail lines, is one of the 1,001 things you must experience in your lifeti...

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