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 8 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 8 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 8 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 8 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 8 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 8 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 8 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 8 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...
3

Why Matt Rose should hate Fred Frailey

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
In the course of the next few years, if things go okay, BNSF Railway should close the remaining single-track gaps in its magnificent Chicago-Los Angeles Transcon. There are three short gaps (including Abo Canyon) in New Mexico and one in Oklahoma. Paired track in eastern Kansas makes the stretch between Emporia and Mulvane the same as double track. It will be a great day for Matt Rose, El Jefe of BNSF, and I will celebrate with him … except that there will remain one more stretch of sing...
3

The face we show visiting railfans

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
My column in the December 2009 Trains about encounters with police when watching or photographing trains produced no sadder response than the letter I got from a British man. In late 2007, Peter Elliott was standing on the Arizona side of the Colorado River at Topock, beside BNSF Railway’s magnificent bridge. “I was on public property,” he writes, “and had followed a sign saying ‘to the beach.’ ” He is correct in saying this bridge has probably been photographed a million times (that's Joe M...
2

The Misery Index: A look behind the numbers

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Just the other week I reported on another noticeable step-up in rail traffic--yet another sign that we’re ever-so-slowly climbing out of this year’s painful slump (see “What Happened to the Railroad Recovery?” Nov. 20). But that recovery, slender as it is, has not been uniform. I was reminded of that today while looking at a matrix of furloughs of BNSF Railway train-service employees.   The number of laid-off employees began 2009 at a very modest 105, and peaked in the first half o...
6

Photographers welcome! (Amtrak, take note)

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I invite you to compare Amtrak’s legalistic rules on photography with the policy of Virgin Trains, which operates passenger trains over much of Great Britain.First of all, I dare you to find Amtrak’s policy on photography. Okay, that’s a joke because it took me 15 minutes. Here’s what you do: Go to Amtrak.com, click on Plan and then Policies, and prepare to spend a while figuring out what it says. I can help you on that, too. What it says is that unless you’re a ticketed passenger, you cannot ta...
16

Should BNSF pay this trespasser $5,668,351.87?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Hear ye, hear ye! Come now the plaintiffs, Helen and Jerry Gable, to the Circuit Court of Lee County, Miss., in Tupelo, to pick the fat pockets of BNSF Railway and several of its employees. Their legal representative, Roy O. Parker & Associates, also of Tupelo, alleges that on the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2006, Helen is “exercising due care” as she stands on the tracks of BNSF’s Memphis, Tenn.-Birmingham, Ala., line on the outskirts of Tupelo taking photographs of her niece’s daughter, ...
3

Because there's more to our lives than trains

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’ve been away from home in 2009 more than any year in my life. Each time I return, I am first knocked over by our two big dogs. But the instant they’ve finished, I know I will hear the meow of Abigail the cat. The meows will continue with increasing frequency and intensity until I scoop her into my arms and give her an affection catch-up. Forgive me for not writing about railroads today. On Monday, Abigail quit eating, and on Thanksgiving, beside the heat register in my youngest daugh...
1

The shape of railroading to come

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Writing about the welcome but anemic recovery in rail freight volumes a few days ago (see “What Happened to the Railroad Recovery?”) got me to thinking. What’s a reasonable expectation going forward? And do railroads really need to get back to 2007 traffic levels soon to thrive and do well?I am not in the predictions business these days. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, the magazine I edited last year, said on its June 2008 cover: “Stocks: The Worst Is Over.” The worst wasn’t over, by a long shot. ...
0

What happened to the railroad recovery?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
In mid August, after a severe traffic slump brought about by the worst recession in decades, railroad carloadings showed new signs of life, rising about 6 percent. And that bump-up in business held steady — too steady, it turned out.   If the economy is coming out of its long funk, rail carloadings should have continued the rise begun three months ago. But they did not, hovering between 610,000 and 615,000 units (including trailers and containers) week after frustrating week. &nb...
6

The seduction of Warren Buffett

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’ve been puzzled by the buyout of Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Warren Buffet has said many times that railroads make lousy long-term investments. “It [railroading] will never be a fabulous business,” he said once again last year. “It’s too capital intensive.” Then the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway turns around and makes the biggest investment of his life by buying the 77 percent of BNSF (parent of BNSF Railway) that Berkshire doesn’t already own. What’s gives here?   I th...
1

My all-time favorite rail photo

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
The world is at war. Our nation has just emerged from the Great Depression and is fighting for its survival as a free people. Yet, life still goes on. Santa Fe’s twice-weekly, all-Pullman Super Chief, headed from Chicago to Los Angeles, is stopped for servicing at Albuquerque, N.M. Water and diesel fuel from tank cars are being pumped into the bowels of the twin locomotives. Passengers step out for a break; some walk up to the head end. Everyone wears a hat. The engineer approaches to take this ...
3

Two wonders of the railroad world

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Talk about awesome. Talk about vertigo. I’m at the side of a dirt road in Iowa, looking straight up. And what I see is weathered spider steel on the right and massive concrete superstructure on the left. Engineering wonders, a century apart. Either one is enough to take your breath away. And here they are, side by side, reaching toward the sky. This is what I’d set out to see this morning, only much better than I’d imagined.I was in Omaha for the Missouri Pacific Historical Society’s annual meet...
5

Where to build high-speed rail

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I don’t harbor much hope that our $13 billion commitment to high speed rail ($8 billion now and $1 billion each of the next five years) will be spent rationally. The Federal Railroad Administration is analyzing applications for more than $50 billion in projects. Because there will be more losers than winners, political log-rolling is almost guaranteed.But wouldn’t it be nice to put the money to work where it would do the most good? In that regard, Eugene Skoropowski has a great idea. Skoropowski...
2

Why your next Amtrak train will be on time (or else)

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Imagine that you’re the VP-operations for a big U.S. railroad. One day your office door opens and standing there is the person you least like to see, the VP-law. He or she sits down uninvited, right in front of your face, and says, shape up, Bunky, or we’ll be paying Amtrak instead of the other way around.What am I talking about? I’m talking about the sensational improvement in on-time performance by Amtrak trains over the past two years. My sources at Amtrak cannot recall the time its trains di...
4

Who were the 10 best railroad CEOs? (My turn)

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
In Part 1, you read the challenge put to the Lexington Group in Transportation History: Name the men who really got it right in railroading the past half century. In Part 2, you read the picks of the moderators of this discussion, David DeBoer and Jim McClellan. Now it’s my turn.Once again, the rules: Nobody is eligible who left the railroad scene before 1960, or who still runs a railroad.I think Dave and Jim did an outstanding job framing the environment in which railroading existed in the past...

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