Scaling Mount Edmonton

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
How do I explain Edmonton and the effect it has on the Canadian? Edmonton stands at the center of Alberta’s booming energy economy and appears to generate a substantial amount of traffic for Canadian National. Although CN’s facilities in Edmonton are spread over miles and miles and appear enormous to me, the railroad always seems overwhelmed. In other words, getting there on any day, either way, is a female dog. Edmonton appears as an anti-magnetic force, pushing back against objects...

Postcard from Goodeve

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
In Texas we have towns with sensible names like Ben Franklin, Dime Box, Cut and Shoot and Pecan Gap. In Saskatchewan we pass Goodeve, Undora, Xena and Allan with an “A.” Englishmen must have built the Canadian National through the province. In any event, it has been quite a morning on the Canadian, out among these towns with odd names. Let me give you the flavor of things. We pull into Melville at 7:15 a.m. in complete darkness to change engineers. We had just passed a westbound man...

The news from Sioux Lookout

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
We left Toronto on VIA Rail’s Canadian at 10:45 Sunday morning, almost 13 hours late, due to the even later arrival of our equipment on our eastbound counterpart. There are roughly 60 of us spread over 13 cars, 30 each sleeping car and coach. VIA put us up at a so-so Toronto hotel (coach passengers included) Saturday night—that is, everyone but yours truly. I asked to go to the Fairmont’s Royal York across the street from Union Station, and my wish was cheerfully granted. May...

The death of diesel

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
Did you read about the public debut of Metrolink’s new Tier 4 diesel locomotive the other day? Made by Caterpillar’s Progress Rail to meet the latest environmental rules, it pulled a special train to be greeted by the public and LA area politicians in Newall, Cal. But the train never got to Newall, its locomotive crapping out repeatedly and finally giving up for good within sight of the station. The failure of Progress Rail’s latest and greatest is a metaphor for the state of ...

The Worst Case Scenario

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
Those of you who have read this blog long enough know of my affection—my love—of Via Rail Canada’s Canadian. (For a sampling of what I've written, go here or here or here.) If I could, I’d ride it once a month and still feel deprived. This despite its chronic (and lately worsening) track record for lateness. My attitude has been that being late gives you more dome car time for the same low price. Of course, I too have my limit, which is somewhere in the 12-hours-late area...

There he goes again!

Posted 10 months ago by Fred Frailey
The senior hypocrite from New York made it to Long Island last week to demand crossing gates or flashing lights at a seldom-used road-rail crossing near Garden City. All it took, in fact, was this photo (posted on the Facebook page of a Rockville Centre attorney) to get Senator Chuck Schumer to Garden City and in front of a microphone. He insists the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration underwrite the cost of so equipping this crossing. Let’s think about it for a moment. The cost of insta...

The senior hypocrite from New York

Posted 11 months ago by Fred Frailey
One thing about Chuck Schumer, the senior U.S. senator from New York: You can’t fault his commitment to railroad safety. But I’ll do so anyway. My colleague Bill Stephens reports on the Trains News Wire that at least one safety expert is publicly calling the senator two-faced. On the one hand, Schumer will go anywhere there is a microphone to promote safe transportation. My own personal tabulation of his pronouncements just this year regarding railroads: January 8: He demands a co...

The beheaded FRA

Posted 11 months ago by Fred Frailey
We know that railroading is a dangerous sport. You can easily get hurt, or worse. In 2017 through August, 2,800 railroaders were injured on duty. At least ten of those employees died, the latest being 48-year-old Jon Beckman, crushed between two cars during a Union Pacific switch-yard derailment on September 22 in Arlington, Tex. Plus, it is worth noting that the two states with the most railroaders injured this year are New York and New Jersey. I mention that last fact because the four U.S. se...

Samson in the temple?

Posted 11 months ago by Fred Frailey
So wrote analyst Anthony Hatch in an email to friends today, on news that CSX is backing away from a $145 million investment to help enlarge Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore and thereby extend double-stack clearances up the Atlantic coast to New York state. That’s another way of saying, as I did to myself: What the heck is going on here? The decision is clearly one made by CSX chief executive Hunter Harrison. Since coming to the railroad in early March, he has largely redesigned its appr...

Silver Service surprises

Posted 11 months ago by Fred Frailey
In the past month I’ve gone up and then down the Atlantic coast twice aboard Amtrak’s Silver Meteor and Silver Star. Nice, predictable trains, you say? I would agree with that first part, but they are not predictable. I’m always surprised by something, and every now and then those surprises are pleasant ones. Let’s get the unpleasant surprise out of the way. Bedroom A in Viewliner sleeping car 62027 has what I would call an unrepairable bathroom door. The southbound Star...

There's such a thing as too much Hunter

Posted one year ago by Fred Frailey
Is anyone else suffering from a depressive condition outlined in this month's edition of the New England Journal of Medicine? It's called Hunter Fatigue. Researchers found that it affects railroaders in general but in particular railroaders or friends of railroads with a low anxiety tolerance. Symptoms include sweating, bed wetting, temper tantrums, vomiting, sexual dysfunction, loss of vision, speech and appetite induced by reading of or talking about the doings of E. Hunter Harrison, c...

Love in the time of Hunter (an allegory)

Posted one year 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 year 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 year 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 year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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...

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