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...
3

Why Matt Rose should hate Fred Frailey

Posted 9 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 9 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 9 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 9 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 9 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 9 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 9 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 9 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 9 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 9 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 9 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 9 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 9 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 9 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...
6

Who were the 10 best railroad CEO’s? (Part 2)

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
In the first installment, I told you about the question posed to the Lexington Group in Transportation History by Jim McClellan and David DeBoer. They described the challenges facing railroad leaders in the past half century, grouping those challenges under four headings: new markets and distribution systems; technology and productivity; finance; and industry structure and public policy. The best CEOs made breakthrough contributions to the industry in at least one of those areas. So who would th...
1

Who were the 10 best railroad CEOs? (Part 1)

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Who indeed? At the recent meeting of the Lexington Group in Transportation History, Jim McClellan and David DeBoer grabbed this braintwister and wrestled it to the ground. They each recited their own list of winners (they agreed on five names and went separate ways on the other five).   I called this a braintwister, because how do you even go about this task? No slouches in the brains department, Jim (retired as Norfolk Southern’s corporate strategist) and David (retired as presiden...
8

Test your Amtrak smarts

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Almost buried in a tiny corner of Amtrak.com is a treasure trove of financial and operations information about our passenger train railroad. Do this: Go to the bottom of Amtrak’s home page and click on Inside Amtrak, then Other Reports, and finally Monthly Performance Reports. I chose the most recent month, July 2009.Maybe you don’t want to slog through those 85 pages. In that case, let me entertain you with a 10-question quiz. Answers follow.1. Which long-distance train carried the most people ...
1

In O. Winston Link country

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Vesuvius is the mountain in Italy that popped its top in 79 AD and buried Pompeii in volcanic ash. There’s a Vesuvius in Virginia, too, nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, and it had an eruption as well.The second eruption of Vesuvius occurred at a B&B about 15 years ago. The soon-to-be-former art director of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine popped his top at an editorial planning session. Criticized about some aspects of his recent redesign of the magazine, he flipped us The Bird and...
10

Amtrak's big little secret

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Buried deep within the language of the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act of 2008, passed by Congress and signed by President Bush 11 months ago, is some startling language that could affect Amtrak service four years from now. It boils down to this: By Oct. 13, 2013, any train or route of less than 750 miles outside of the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor must be state-funded, or it will not be operated.   Did you know that? I didn’t, until told by Stephen Gardner, ...
6

World's stupidest train crew

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Over time, I’ve probably read 10,001 railroad accident reports. Virtually all come down to mechanical failure, the elements, or one person’s poor judgment or incompetence. Very, very few involve the stupidity of an entire five-person train crew. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the doozy of them all. Come with me down memory lane and relive the Night of the Big Sleep.We’re on the Rock Island Lines in Oklahoma, on the Memphis, Tenn.-Tucumcari, N.M., route. Extra 1301 West leaves the crew-c...
1

Frontiersmen of the Powder River Basin

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
It's safe for me to say that Powder River Basin coal from eastern Wyoming changed the face of American railroading. The revenues from hauling this coal kept several Midwest railroads solvent. More important, that coal revenue financed the rebuilding and upgrading of railroad infrastructure in the western two-thirds of the country.   Today you can easily forget that all this didn't just happen. People made it happen, people like Lou Menk, the chairman of Burlington Northern ...
0

Hell in a very narrow place

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
I ran into Paul Kingma by serendipity, at Penny’s Diner in Bill, Wyo. Bill is where Union Pacific recrews its empty coal trains and sends them off to the Orin Subdivision mines to be loaded. Then the loaded trains are recrewed again before heading south to South Morrill, Neb. Paul (that’s him, on the left) said he is a Union Pacific engineer, so we spoke about the big derailment six miles to the south. A loaded BNSF Railway coal train, CNAMCCM, from North Antelope Mine, had dumped 34 of its 130 ...
2

Amtrak scenery doesn't get better than this

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Someone gave my wife a book called 1,001 Things You Must Do Before You Die. Come to think of it, maybe I gave it to her. But that’s too many things to do. I’d be lucky to finish ten of them. So I will make it easy for all of you. Here is the one thing to do before you sign in at the Big Celestial Roundhouse: Experience Amtrak between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, Cal. When you’ve done it once, you’ll want to do so another 1,001 times. I’ve spent all of today, almost 14 hours, riding up an...
1

Chime whistles in the choir loft

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
At church last Sunday, the recessional hymn was a golden oldie: “The Church’s One Foundation.” I had sung it a hundred times growing up. I whispered to my wife, “This is really taking me back.” Indeed it did. By the time we were halfway into the first verse, I was pretty wiped out, tears welling up in my eyes and my voice unable to continue singing. Suddenly I was not in an Episcopal sanctuary in 2009 but carried back to the choir loft of the First Presbyterian Church of Sulphur Springs, Texas. ...
3

Brain surgery on the main line

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
My column in the September issue about the calamities that befall trains on the North End Subdivision of CSX (“Where Bad Things Happen to Good Trains,” page 14) provoked a lot of responses. My favorite concerns the really bad night on BNSF Railway’s double-track Chicago-Galesburg line recently.   Union Pacific enjoys trackage rights for some of its intermodal trains over BNSF between Chicago and Kansas City. UP recrews its trains midway, at Fort Madison, Iowa. Our story begins with UP int...
5

The making of a railroad executive

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
From Rollin Bredenberg comes a note. “Did I ever show you this?” he asks. Attached is a story that appeared 48 years ago in the San Antonio Express & News. The accompanying photograph shows 16-year-old Rollin beside Southern Pacific’s San Antonio Division superintendent. Rollin looks just the same today, by the way. He’s just added 48 years of age to that enthusiastic face.   The son of a dairy farmer, Rollin grew up near Lacoste, Texas, west of San Antonio. In his subteen years ...

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy