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18

Recommended: “21st Century Limited”

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Novelist Kevin Baker’s report on the present state of the American passenger train, in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine that goes on sale next week, begins thusly: “We start in darkness. After fighting our way through the dingy, low-ceilinged, crowded waiting room that serves as New York City’s current Pennsylvania Station, we pull out through a graffitied tunnel that follows one of the oldest roadbeds in America. Freight trains once clattered along open tracks here, s...
83

Help Mr. Big save the Auto Train

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
The alienation of Auto Train passengers continues unabated. It’s now the only long-distance train (other than the Cardinal, which has neither kitchen nor dining car) on which you cannot be served a grilled flat iron steak, accompanied by a baked potato. This is what Amtrak calls its “signature steak.” Now on the Auto Train you get a cheaper hunk of meat that’s been braised for hours to shed its shoe-leather toughness and then is plopped atop mashed potatoes, which are pro...
50

The tough new rules of oil by rail?

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Railroads came to Washington this week to make the case at the White House against what could be tough new rules being drawn up by the U.S. Department of Transportation for handling crude oil. The proposals, which have not yet been made public, may involve slowing crude oil trains to a top speed of 30 mph, requiring such trains to never be left unattended, and ordering them equipped with electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes. The news service Politico revealed the June 10 meeting in ...
58

Why your next trip will induce heartburn

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’ve said before that any train I’m on can be as late as you like. I believe my exact words were “more train-riding pleasure for the same low price.” Well, forget that. I’ve changed my mind. Even idiots like me have their limit, and mine has been breached. Any train more than an hour and a half behind its schedule is a bummer to me. Unfortunately, present trends suggest I am going to be bummed out quite often in months to come. First, for me, there was the eastbou...
51

Joe Szabo's yada yada yada problem

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Google invaded my turf of Washington, D.C., this week with its self-driving car. DC traffic is the ultimate test of automated driving. If Google’s sensor-topped creation can navigate the tortuous traffic of this town, it can succeed anywhere. Google’s Chris Urmson, director of this project, told Politico’s Jessica Meyers: “We still have lots of problems to solve. But thousands of situations on city streets that would have stumped us two years ago can now be navigated auto...
11

Freight cars fly two miles!

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
It’s just incredible, the power of a Midwest thunderstorm these days. Why, just this week storm winds were reportedly the cause of one BNSF Railway freight train being blown off the tracks at the east end of the Waynoka, Okla., yard and derailing another passing train as well. But we have a news bulletin that beats all others. Topeka, Kan., television station WIBW reports that strong storm winds picked up 52 empty freight cars from Union Pacific tracks and carried and scattered them over ...
25

Bouncing through The Great State

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
When last you heard from me, Mark the Amtrak red cap in Chicago had met my four-hours-late Lake Shore Limited and hustled me onto the Texas Eagle, which was being held for our tardy train. Also held were all the other westbound streamliners trains that afternoon. Good hustle! I was impressed. But what about the rest of my way to Texas? The Texas Eagle is almost unique among Amtrak trains, most of which are close to mirror images of trains established long before Amtrak came into being in 1971. ...
17

This is how it all ends

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
I left you with these questions: Would the Lake Shore Limited reach Chicago before the connectingTexas Eagle leaves, and if not, would the Eagle wait? We do get, more or less, a perfect shot from South Bend, "more or less" meaning we cross over at 45 mph between main tracks a lot, but the Chicago East and Chicago West dispatchers keep the Norfolk Southern trains out of our way. A perfect shot will get us to Union Station, I figure, at 1:45 p.m., which is also the Eagle's departure time. This ha...
2

Lake Shore Limited races the clock

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
When last you heard from me, the Lake Shore Limited had left Toledo more than two hours late, and the pregnant question was whether I would have gourmet pork belly for lunch at Blackbird or settle for a tuna sandwich from a Chicago Union Station newsstand. For pork belly, the train would need to get to Chicago by 11:45 a.m., two hours before departure of the Texas Eagle. As train 49 left Elkhart, it was clear to me we would need to run without any delay to make that 11:45 deadline. Could we? My...
10

Bad dreams and late trains

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
I had That Dream again last night. In That Dream, it is late in the school semester and I have not bothered attending the biology/geometry/chemistry class I had enrolled in. Now the final examination is coming up and I will not be able to answer a single question. Disaster looms. Panic and depression set in. Then the Lake Shore Limited goes over a rough turnout, I briefly awaken, and come back to reality. I will never have to take another school test as long as I live, I tell myself. I go back ...
27

Will Fred ever grow up?

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
            I am a man in full. I am photographed with presidents. Corporate boards desire my input. Younger women steal glances at me as we pass. I know the secret formula for Classic Coke and possess Michael Ward’s cell phone number. Yet when it comes to a passenger train, I simply turn to putty, a 10-year-old kid again. Right now I am on high alert. Today is the day: my next adventure begins.       &nb...
85

The know-nothings are in charge

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Does anyone feel, as I do, that railroads have lost the message on crude oil by rail to the know-nothings and their best friends, the politicians? So far as I know, in the 150-year-plus history of railroads and crude oil, there has been but one truly horrible accident, last July’s explosion in Lac-Megantic, Que., that killed 47 people. The tragedy is almost incomprehensible in its terror and destructiveness. But this is also true: It came about by a chain of circumstances that would be alm...
12

Inside the house of dreams

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 The last stop in my travels across the prairies with Tom Hoback was Alamosa, Colo., at the passenger car shop of Iowa Pacific Holdings. IPH operates nine U.S. short lines (unless I've lost count) and the Chicago-New Orleans Pullman Rail Journeys service on the rear of Amtrak's City of New Orleans. Most of the short lines have passenger operations, plus IPH is seeking to repl...
22

Fred's lesson in humility

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Let this be a lesson to all: When you visit a short line railroad, in particular a really short line railroad, go to the front door and knock to be let in. Tom Hoback and I learned this the hard way today in Woodward, Okla. I wager that few of you ever knew or now remember that Woodward, astride BNSF Railway's Chicago-Los Angeles Transcon in northwest Oklahoma, was also once trod by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, or Katy. Katy was primarily a railroad running from Kansas City and St. Louis...
23

Engine with a whole lotta hurt

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
Never a dull moment at Ellinor, Kan. Ellinor is the place, population zero, west of Emporia where BNSF Railway's Transcon to California separates from the route to Colorado and then down to Albuquerque, N.M. Several decades ago I stood in a farmer's field at Ellinor, watching freights whiz by, and was invaded by 250 chiggers. Well, at least I counted that many before I gave up. The itches they caused made my life hell for four days. Finally, in Perry, Okla., the check-in lady at the Holiday Inn ...
29

Amtrak up and down and up and down

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
One of the benefits of not punching a clock but instead being a gentlemanly freelance writer is the ability to just get away for a day. I’ve wanted to do a circle trip from  Washington to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and back to Washington. You go up and over the Alleghenies going west via Sand Patch and up and over again in the other direction via Horse Shoe Curve. It's a visit to three busy railroads that barrel you along at 70 mph to 100 mph on the first legs and 135 mph on another. ...
41

Writing about railroads

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
How do you become a good writer? That’s easy. The same way you become a good locomotive engineer or train dispatcher: Do it so many times, always careful to learn from your experiences and mistakes, that you begin to unconsciously develop your own style. Then it gets easier. For those of you reading this blog, writing about railroads is a noble and achievable ambition, because you’re already fascinated by the subject matter. So here is some practical advice from the old man. Never b...
21

The Ed Ellis Story (continued)

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
In case you missed the news, things are happening over at Iowa Pacific Holdings in Chicago. IPH, founded in 2001 by Ed Ellis and a group of his friends and railroad colleagues, operates the Chicago-New Orleans Pullman Rail Journeys and owns 10 short line railroads. What has made Iowa Pacific so fascinating to many of us is that wherever it goes, passenger trains seem to follow. The news is that Ellis and the other owners of IPH have sold an 80 percent interest in the company to Sam Zell’s...
18

Winter's parting insult

Posted 2 years ago by Fred Frailey
For BNSF Railway, the winter just now fitfully fading away in the upper Midwest was one for the record books, or at least the recent record books. I was in North Dakota this week, curious to see if any of the congestion remained. I found very little of that, other than loaded oil trains staged between Minot, N.D., and the Twin Cities because eastern connections weren’t able to take them. But about 10 miles west of Minot I came upon one of the calling cards left behind by the bitter cold: ...
52

North America's finest passenger train

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
In a blog titled Amtrak’s Best Train? We’ve Got a Winner, I wrote that the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle has become the premier U.S. passenger train. And I promised, in the due course of time, a bake-off between it and VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian, which operates between Toronto and Vancouver, B.C. And I cautioned you not to presume which train would emerge on top. Journeys on both trains are fresh on my mind, so here goes. I am going to divide the competition ...
22

(Almost) Home at last

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Well, finally! It's 6:10 p.m., we are still 200-plus miles from Toronto and 16-17 hours late on VIA Rail's Canadian. But at last it looks like winter outside. This is as good as it gets on a train. Outside, the snow is falling pell-mell. The sight is so evocative of Canada that tears well up. A couple of blogs ago I called this trip an adventure. This isn't the first time aboard the Canadian that I've had to make massive changes in my travel plans (massive because they are expensive). But in a ...
8

The news from Somewhere

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
"I have a best case scenario." It's Mickey Keating, the Park car attendant, who has bounded up the steps into the dome. "If we keep moving along nicely, we can make Toronto by 10 tonight." Okay, that's twelve and a half hours late. But Mickey continues: "I'm thinking more like 11 or 11:30. And if we keep waiting half an hour at a time for trains . . ." He leaves that thought hanging. You last heard from me as the Canadian left Winnipeg, on its way east. We were almost ten hours late. As I write...
11

SOS from Canada

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Had breakfast in the dining car this morning with Susan. She boarded VIA Rail's Canadian at Rivers, Man. Hmmm, I said, we were due there about 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon. Four-thirty, Susan replied. What time did we get there, because I must have been asleep? Midnight, Susan said. So you waited at home, I asked? No, she said, in the car; VIA didn't know where its train was. Eight hours in a car, waiting for a train . . . . It's been an adventure. When last you heard from me, the Canadian was...
24

Postcard from Canada

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Backing out of McGregor, Sask. UPDATED 5:30 PM CST I dreamed last night that the ground was uneven when I tried to walk. Then I was in an airplane and discovered we were flying below the level of buildings we approached. We'll crash for sure, I tried to yell. You have the strangest dreams on a train rattling through the night. I'm on day three of a five-day trip aboard VIA Rail's Canadian. I thought some of you might want to live vicariously, so here's an update. The trip is going splendidly...
18

With respect to Matt

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
The relationship between a writer and an editor is an intimate one, almost as intimate sometimes as between a man and a woman. But it’s a different sort of intimacy. We writers and editors argue and fight, yes, but to succeed, we must share the same goal, which is to produce something publishable that stands on its own and achieves its objectives. In my 55 years in this business, I’ve occupied both sides of this relationship, and never have I come across an editor with the profession...
32

Amtrak's best train? We have a winner

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
And it is the Coast Starlight. Simply put, it has everything. The Empire Builder, California Zephyr and Auto Train, my runners-up, each have much to commend them. But the Coast Starlight just overwhelms the opposition and wins on points. Let's start with what's outside the window. On day one going north you leave Los Angeles through the San Fernando Valley and cut through the coastal mountains at Santa Susana, then at Oxnard join the Pacific Ocean for roughly three hours. One of those hours you ...
63

Is this the new 1997?

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
When a railroad makes the front page of the Wall Street Journal, it’s almost never the cause for celebration at corporate headquarters. It means you have screwed up big time. Now it is the turn of BNSF Railway to do the front-page perp walk. For 55 of my 70 years, the problem facing BNSF, namely more business than it can handle, was not on the table for American railroads. It was the other way around. There was way too much capacity, and railroads fought like feral dogs for the scraps the...
53

Confessions of a mall walker

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’ll be frank with you: I am one of those people I used to despise. But it’s cold outside, I need to exercise to keep the pounds I took off last summer from coming back on this winter, and so I go to Tysons Corner Mall in Virginia for 90 minutes every morning before the stores open. So far it is working beautifully. But let’s keep this to ourselves, okay? I told my daughter Liz, the Manhattan sophisticate, who told her friend Lele, who whispered back, “Liz, I don’t ...
77

More on the camera caper

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Those of you who read Trains Magazine may have run across my column in the April issue, wherein I ridicule the moves afoot to put inward-facing cameras in locomotive cabs. Actually, that’s not really correct. I sought to beat the living hell out of the notion that such cameras will prevent accidents, as several camera-hogging U.S. senators claim in the aftermath of Metro-North Railroad’s high-speed accident. What they will do, I said, is help assign blame in the aftermath. But don&rs...
44

Don't fight God

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
The situation facing Canadian grain farmers is almost Biblical. Their 2013 crops of wheat, canola, barley, and other grains was 40 percent greater than that of 2012 and far above average. Moreover, the harvest was a bountiful surprise forecast by almost no one. Now a new year is underway and it seems that the greater part of that harvest remains trapped in grain elevators or, worse yet, unsold and sitting in the granaries of prairie farmers. Canadian farmers and its two major railways, it seems...

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