PTC or meds for Grandma?

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
If it’s a safer railroad environment you want—as we do—the signs are not good. Let’s start with Positive Train Control (PTC). Not so long after Congress voted in 2008 to mandate it, I admit I was skeptical. I questioned the huge amount of private capital required per life saved and I criticized Congress for not giving railroads a life preserver of their own in the form of tax credits. Well, I’m entitled to change my mind, and I have. We have witnessed terrible trag...

About Amtrak's new leader

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
It’s safe to say that everyone who cares about the future of the American passenger train breathed a sigh of relief today. Welcome to Amtrak, Wick Moorman. When he and I spoke months ago, the just-retired chief executive of Norfolk Southern said the challenge of running (and changing) Amtrak attracted him, but that he had promised his wife he would devote his time to her and their family. So maybe the hero of the day is really Bonnie Moorman. Charles (Wick) Moorman brings some big strengt...

On crew size, I smell a rat

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
I fully realize that it’s an article of faith among the readers of this blog who operate trains that the Federal Railroad Administration’s proposed rule mandating two people on all trains is an urgent safety issue. And maybe it is. The problem I’ve had all along is that the two-person rule is being treated by FRA in such a political manner as to cause me to question the agency’s sincerity. Now the Association of American Railroads, which of course represents the employers...

Amtrak's acting president?

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
An acquaintance of long standing, with a reputation for seldom being wrong, passed on an interesting tidbit just now that I’ll pass on to you. I’ve blogged a couple of times about people who might become (or ought to become) Amtrak’s next president. My colleague Don Phillips wrote a Trains Magazine column on this same subject. The months go by and still no decision, however. The incumbent CEO, Joe Boardman, plans to retire in September. So this is the tidbit whispered in my ea...

What happened to the Sprints?

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
It’s my turn to ask questions. Those of us of a certain age, survivors of the era of full crews, surely recall the spate of trains that blossomed in roughly the early to mid 1980s. Sprints. Slingshots, Texas Special North/South and what-have-you. Santa Fe had a small network of Q-type trains. What bound them together was that they mostly trailer-on-flatcar intermodal trains operated over fairly short distances on extended crew districts with only an engineer and conductor and without the t...

How to revive growth

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Railroad revenue declines are not just in coal and crude oil, but across the board. Take Union Pacific’s second quarter versus 2015: Chemicals, down 5 percent; automotive, down 13 percent; industrial products, down 14 percent; intermodal, down 16 percent; coal, down 27 percent. The whole industry is contracting while the economy is growing.             I spoke the other day with Tom Hoback, the recently retired founder and chief execu...

Amtrak: Connect the dots

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Any time now, Amtrak’s directors will elect a new president and chief executive, to replace Joe Boardman, who is retiring. I’ve talked to people who have been approached by the executive recruiting firm looking for this person. The recruiter is telling people Amtrak wants an experienced railroad manager in the top job. I’ve also blogged my ideas of some good prospects: Ron Batory (Conrail Shared Assets), Wick Moorman (Norfolk Southern), Matt Rose (BNSF), and John Fenton (Patrio...

Old King Coal is back

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
HAS ANYONE NOTICED the surge in coal traffic, particularly from the Powder River Basin? BNSF Railway’s loadings jumped from 3,235 cars per day the week of April 3-9 to 4,525 per day June 12-18, the most recent week reported. That’s an increase of 1,290 cars per day, or 39 percent—or if you will, 10 additional 129-car trains per day. All I can say is, WOW! What a difference 10 weeks make. And it’s not just a BNSF thing, because in percentage terms, Union Pacific’s c...

Bring back Al Perlman

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
I keep looking for a major railroad to break away from the pack. Railroading today is beset with problems, starting with the collapse of its coal franchise, which had been the industry’s number-one commodity. Equally troubling, the carload business in general continues to slowly erode. We could be on the verge of driverless trucks, which would destroy the cost advantage of rail over road, at the very time that the federal government prepares to mandate two-person crews aboard locomotives. ...

Night Journey

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
A real change of pace today. My friend Joe Swanson of Northwestern University sent me this poem, "Night Journey," by Theodore Huebner Roethke [1908-1963], one of our last century's great writers and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. I was so taken by the imagery that he put into these few words that my eyes misted over (blame it on my old age). What better tribute to such good writing than to share it with you.--Fred W. Frailey Night Journey Now as the train bears west, Its ...

Magnificent machines

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
I'm not talking about locomotives, but something possessed by every mammal: Our hearts. These little, simple mechanisms go to work not long after we are conceived and never stop functioning until the instant we leave this realm. Take good care of them, and they will take good care of you, making you feel, even in old age,invincible, indestructible. But sometimes our hearts fail to work correctly, and then you lose confidence that you are well anchored to life. In other words, we know intuitively...

When Lou saved a Zephyr

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
In his long railroad carrier, Louis Menk ran four big railroads: Frisco, Burlington, Northern Pacific, and the newly created (in 1970) Burlington Northern. He was unafraid to make momentous decisions and comfortable with his opinions. One oft-repeated opinion he voiced to me late in his life was this: “You couldn’t make money then, can’t make money now and won’t make money ever on intercity passenger trains. That’s all there is to it.” At the Frisco, Menk sou...

Making do with less

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
The four big U.S. railroads share the same problem this spring: the urgent need to resize themselves to match the business they have. Coal is an obvious problem. The collapse of this traffic has been swift and unrelenting. Let me give you some numbers. Union Pacific in November of 2014 loaded 28 unit coal trains a day in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. Last month it averaged but 12 trains a day. Rival BNSF Railway loaded 46 trains a day in the PRB in November of 2014, but last month, a mere 2...

Inside the mind of Michael Ward

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Sometimes you wonder why you ever wanted the job. What a fix your company is in today. And it’s not just about CSX Transportation. You could as easily be Lantz Fritz or Jim Squires or the chief executive of any other U.S. Class I railroad. We’re all running enterprises that are in a world of hurt—running on fumes, even. The bottom has fallen out of your businesses. What in the heck are you going to do? You have done all the easy things. You laid up locomotives (and gosh does i...

Why your fried chicken ate Brazilian corn

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Get this: It’s now cheaper for a hog farmer or chicken raiser in North Carolina to buy corn grown in places like Brazil or Argentina than in the U.S. Midwest. A host of reasons account for this anomaly, but not the least of them is the price charged by American railroads. The strange occurrence will be seen more frequently in 2016. First of all, the world is awash today with commodities of all kinds, from really hard stuff like iron ore to greasy goo like crude oil to crunchy things like,...

Advice for the NEXT rail merger

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’ve been working on a book, a tiny piece of which involves examining the failed attempt by Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Canadian National railways to merge. That was in 1999-2000. And the more I lift the dead leaves off that failed enterprise, the more startled I became. The parallels between Canadian Pacific+Norfolk Southern in 2015-2016 and BNSF+CN in 1999-2000 are striking. Granted, BNSF+CN was a friendly affair between those two railroads, whereas CP+NS is quite the opposite. But...

Hunter's grand plan revealed

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Mr. Harrison’s office, Irma speaking. How can I help you? Irm, this is Jim Squires at Norfolk Southern. May I speak with Hunter? Sir, my name is not Irm. Mr. Harrison says he has nothing to say to you. You have hurt his feelings. But Joyce . . . Irma . . . Irma, I want to speak to him. My board of directors now says we need to talk, Hunter and I, like adults. Mr. Harrison says . . . just a minute . . . what did you say, Mr. Harrison? . . . he says you need to spend some time with you...

What if Donald wins? Hillary?

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
It's not too soon to be thinking about how railroads will be affected by the election of our next president. Let's start by imagining President Donald Trump. Every U.S. chief executive since the creation of Amtrak in 1971 has done no better than to give the passenger train company lip service. Most (I'm tempted to say all) Republican presidents sought to end its federal subsidy, which would have led to its demise. I can see a President Trump possibly making one big difference in the other direct...

60 minutes in the life of EHH

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
“Hunter Harrison here, Michael. How are things in Jacksonville? And when are you going to come down to Plantation and see my horses? . . . Whatdaya mean, you’re pissed at me? . . . Yeah, I told the Journal about our offer to buy CSX, and yeah, I know the Journal said I offered $20 billion and you heard me offer you a lot less. Michael, this is the real world and I just wanted to apply some public pressure. But if you’ll come to the table we can get the deal to $20 billion. I ca...

Requiem for the Tidewater Turn

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
In the larger picture of coal’s demise as a source of electric power (and railroad tonnage), what happened this week in Northeast Texas carries little meaning. But it means a lot to me and to a circle of my friends, including Nathan Bailey. So let me explain. When I grew up in the little town of Sulphur Springs, what is now called Kansas City Southern Railway’s Greenville Subdivision, between Shreveport, La., and Dallas, was in a world of hurt. Two freight trains a day each way beca...

Ever feel you're being stalked?

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
That uncomfortable feeling must be going through the mind of Norfolk Southern chief executive Jim Squires. Until two weeks ago, the prevailing assumption had been that the stalker, Canadian Pacific, would mount a proxy contest to elect its directors to the NS board and thereby hasten a friendly merger between the two railroads. Then CP abruptly changed direction. In an interview with me on February 3, CP chief executive Hunter Harrison raised two issues that he claimed would keep his company fr...

Is Hunter too old to run NS?

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Hunter Harrison raised the issue in an interview we did yesterday: He fears winning a proxy battle for control of Norfolk Southern’s board of directors and not being able to go there as its chief executive. You can read the Trains News Wire story here. Now that Harrison has brought the subject out of the realm of email and blog debates and fully into public view, let’s examine it. What Canadian Pacific Railway has proposed is to buy Norfolk Southern. NS directors have rejected three...

3 Amtrak trains in jeopardy

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Some friends of mine in the railroad business now question the viability of CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern as going concerns. One such person awoke the other night with brain spasms. Holy moly, he thought, veering in and out of sleep, Virginia and West Virginia in 2016 are beginning to look a lot like Pennsylvania in 1960. Back then, Pennsylvania railroading was defined by the movement of coal. Anthracite was dying, and Erie, Lackawanna, Lehigh Valley, Jersey Central, and Delaware &...

What would Hunter do at NS?

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
There exists on this blog a great deal of anger about and ignorance of Ma Harrison’s boy Hunter. You are entitled to your opinions—and lord knows I let you freely express them—but most of you talking the loudest don’t know jack about the man’s strengths (and are clueless about his weaknesses). The people who really know the man are those who have worked for him. They've see it all up close. I’ve spoken the past two days with three such people. I put this to t...

The Canadian Pacific derailment

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Hunter Harrison and Keith Creel got a lot of attention this week during Canadian Pacific’s quarterly call with analysts. The upshot is a speculation that Calgary-based CP may be backing away from its proposal to buy Virginia-based Norfolk Southern. That may well be the case. I have never felt confident that the U.S. Surface Transportation Board will approve this merger (or any other one involving the Big Six railroads). It’s fair to say that nobody running a Class I railroad wants a...

The party's over

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Jack and I left Grand Island at 6:30, fully an hour before the sun appeared behind us over the Platte River valley of Nebraska. West we went on U.S. 30, past Alda, Wood River, and Gibbon. Through Kearney, Odessa, and Elm Creek. Then Overton and Lexington. These are towns along the busiest freight train corridor in North America, maybe the world, triple-tracked for the 100 miles from Gibbon to North Platte. We saw snow-covered farm fields, herds of cattle, occasional cars and trucks. What we did ...

Newell Winford Derryberry

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
When I came of age in the 1960s, his was a name on the cover of Missouri Pacific timetables, that railroad’s superintendent of transportation. In the mid 1950s (preteen for me), I think we met while he was chief dispatcher of Texas & Pacific’s Western Division. Only much later in our lives, when I wrote a feature story in Trains about the revival of the Texas & Pacific route across West Texas (“Union Pacific’s Desert Bloom,” August 2002), did we finally get ...

4 who could run Amtrak

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
When I put out the call for your ideas on who should lead Amtrak after Joe Boardman’s retirement next September, you made me proud. Lots of good responses. But one in particular struck me. John Heffner wishes for someone of the caliber of Herb Kelliher, the legendary president of Southwest Airlines. Heffner continues: “The ideal candidate would be someone with a passion for passenger trains, a railroad operating executive who could go toe-to-toe with the host railroads when necessary...

A plan for Mr. Squires

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
It is becoming apparent that the chief executive of besieged Norfolk Southern wants just to wait out invader Canadian Pacific. If you clam up and do nothing, the thinking goes, CP and its leader, Hunter Harrison, will either become discouraged and go away or be soundly defeated in a shareholder vote for directors next spring. I say this because the plan Squires put forth when CP first made an offer to merge the two railroads is so feeble as to be laughable. Squires’ plan had two parts. Fir...

After Joe Boardman, who?

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
My first reaction upon reading Joe Boardman’s plan to retire as chief executive of Amtrak next September was that my fellow Trains columnist, Don Phillips, will need to find new topics to write about—Joe and Don were not a marriage made in heaven. Then I reread the Boardman’s statement, which ends this way: “The Board has asked me to work closely with them in the selection of the new CEO. I am confident that the time I have given the Board they can achieve the goal of sel...

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