How NS became the intermodal champ

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
More than half of the units handled by Norfolk Southern in the first quarter of 2015—51 percent, to be exact—were trailers or containers. That's a first for the Class I railroads. For better or for worse, intermodal is the future of this giant eastern railroad. How it got to this from a standing start, almost, less than 30 years ago is a compelling tale. To quote myself from the cover story in the October 2005 issue of Trains Magazine: “Pre-Conrail [before mid 1999], Norfolk So...

Guess what's Numero Uno?

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
My first up-close-and-personal experience with intermodal was to watch a 150-car Kansas City Southern freight rumble through little Sulphur Springs, Tex., led by six red, yellow, and black F units and three to five truck trailers atop flat cars. That would be 1958, and even that little beginning impressed this kid. We have come a long way. The week ending April 18, for the first time ever, intermodal units on U.S. railroads exceeded all carload types combined, 280,016 to 276,416. The future arr...

The war over electric brakes

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Sometimes it’s helpful to think of modern Class I railroads as collections of separate silos (or maybe moated castles), each jealously guarding its prerogatives. There’s a Track Silo at every headquarters, a Transportation Silo, a Marketing Silo, and a Signal Silo, to name several. They don’t share a lot with each other. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the industry’s chief financial officers had been given primary responsibility for implementing positive tr...

CSX's kettle boils over

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Activist investor Bill Ackman makes a presentation late Monday afternoon at the Ira Sohn Investment Conference in New York, and the buzz going around is that he may reveal a major investment in CSX. That would not surprise me in the least. Ackman's modus operandi is to identify underperforming companies, suggest ways management can do a better job and then go on the attack if he is met by a cold shoulder. I am really interested in learning two things. First, what's his beef with present managem...

CSX has a secret suitor

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
In the February issue of Trains Magazine I (very rashly) predicted that 2015 would bring an “epic battle” for control over CSX, pitting CEO Michael Ward against activist investor Bill Ackman, whose investment firm Pershing Square Capital Management ousted the leadership of Canadian Pacific in 2012. Months went by. Nothing happened. Actually, one thing that happened is that nobody reminded me of my silly prediction, and I appreciate that. Still, as day followed quiet day, I knew the ...

Money, food, and places to go

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Well, 466lex sure knows how to sharpen a rhetorical point. In case you missed it in the dialogue on infrastructure expansion vs. share buybacks as a use for excess cash, here’s what he had to say: “ I have believed for some time that the dramatic exercise of 'pricing power' across the industry for the past ten years is implicitly a “harvesting” strategy. Either “the traffic will bear it” or it will go away. In the east, the 'Intermodal Story' (especially...

More on capital spending

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Readers ask questions about railroad capital budgets and in so doing, reveal what could be misconceptions. The Association of American Railroads says the industry will spend $29 billion in 2015 “to build, maintain and grow the nationwide freight rail network that powers the U.S. economy.” I am told by economists that this is a different definition of capital spending than most chief financial officers would use. But let’s accept it as accurate. Twenty-nine billion bucks is a l...

$10 billion flies out the door

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Here’s an interesting number: $10 billion. You can buy a lot with $10 billion. Let’s see, at $3 million a pop, more than 3,000 brand new locomotives could join your fleet. At $2 million a mile, you could double track 5,000 miles of route. At $200 million each, you could build or rebuild 50 terminals. I bet you could unlock Chicago and make it purr like a happy kitten for $10 billion. Do this three years running and railroad congestion would be a thing of the past. Reliability would s...

Cuisine aboard the Silver Star

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak’s experiment with food service on the New York-Miami Silver Star has gotten me thinking about one of my favorite subjects, eating. Having no diner car on a train that at most you will ride for 28 hours is not such a bad thing, I concluded, particularly if you bump the cost of a roomette down by $125 for more. So I challenged myself to plan a trip. I could do it the easy way and visit KFC or Popeye’s, to board with a box of fried chicken, slaw, and mashed potatoes (as if I lik...

Food service on Amtrak (ouch!!)

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
As an experiment, Amtrak is eliminating the dining car on the New York-Miami Silver Star from July 1 until January 2016. Free meals for sleeping car passengers will cease, but fares for sleeping car space will be lower. I’m all for the test. I’ll tell you what would make it a worthwhile endeavor, and what will doom it to failure. Congress has told Amtrak that subsidies for food service will cease in about four years. That’s the challenge — what does Amtrak do? President ...

CSX's brand new thing

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Very seldom does a railroad do something totally new and unprecedented. Well, it's happening now at CSX Transportation. Starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday it rejiggered almost all of its daily manifest trains to run six days a week instead of seven. That's not new, of course. What is without precedent is how CSX is accomplishing it.  Let me give you an example. Train Q410 runs between Waycross, Ga., and Selkirk Yard near Albany, N.Y., starting with its scheduled 10 p.m. depa...

The ski train: One guy's big difference

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Enough, I say, about crude by rail, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Hoosier State, mergers and Electro-Motive. The talk of the town the past few weeks has been the sudden, and by all accounts successful, revival of the ski train out of Denver, under Amtrak’s auspices. Tickets for last Saturday’s train sold out 10 hours after they went online and two hours after first word from the news media, namely National Public Radio. So Amtrak added a second train for Sunday and it, too...

Crude by rail's little secret

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
There’s a line of reasoning that says if an oil pipeline is built, down will go rail volume. The other day I saw a PowerPoint presentation by Taylor Robinson, president of PLG Consulting, that forecasts crude-by-rail volume holding rock-steady between now and 2019, at about 800,000 barrels a day, which equals about 11 trainloads. That puzzled me—what about all those pipelines being built between now and then to siphon away that business? So we agreed to chat this afternoon. This is f...

Hoosier State darts and laurels

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Indiana and the Federal Railroad Administration are reported to have smoked the peace pipe, as to the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State. At issue was whether Indiana had to become a railroad under FRA’s supervision to insure that safety rules are obeyed. As I understand it, the two parties agreed to draw up a memorandum of understanding, thus ending a standoff that threatened to end the life of this state-supported passenger train. The memorandum will spell out each party’s role in...

FRA must hate passenger trains

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
I have gotten from three state government sources some clarification of what the real issue is between the Federal Railroad Administration and the Indiana Department of Transportation, and it is a bit bizarre. By the end of this year, the FRA expects to have rules in effect that require all state governments that subsidize passenger train services to register with the agency as railroads. FRA’s intentions were revealed to state transportation officials on February 17 at a meeting in Washin...

The great "Hoosier State" fiasco

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
I came down from the clouds today after finishing a difficult story assignment to discover two-day-old news: Indiana has thrown the Hoosier State to the boneyard. Quickly, the background: The Hoosier runs between Chicago and Indianapolis on the four days of the week that the Chicago-Washington Cardinal does not. The Cardinal is a long-distance train and part of the national system; the Hoosier State is a short-distance train, and Indiana must underwrite essentially all of its losses. Indiana dec...

It looks like Total War from here

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Allison Martel, who covers railroads for Reuters, flagged for me some comments made by Canadian Pacific chief executive Hunter Harrison this week at a J.P. Morgan conference in New York City. As he has countless times, he answered a question to say that mergers between Class I railroads will happen in years to come, like it or not. As he sees it, just about any combination would work unless it involved direct competitors in the same region. Heard all that from him before? Yup. But then he went ...

Goodbye, Electro-Motive (for now)

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
And then there was one. Is anyone else bothered, or at least made uncomfortable, that this great nation presently has but a single maker of high-horsepower diesel freight locomotives? With Electro-Motive Diesel (a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Caterpillar) sidelined by its inability to produce a product that meets the government’s Tier 4 standard for exhaust emissions, only General Electric is left in the game. And this at a time when the railroad business is going great guns and grabbing...

More thoughts on exploding trains

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
You may have read that the Canadian government is requiring rail shippers of crude to take out insurance against the risk of derailment damage. You can bet that the Marsh & McClellan actuaries are trying to calculate the risk of another OMG incident - a Lac-Megantic or that Amtrak train plowing into the train of crude oil splayed across the right of way. Let's see: A year or so ago in a blog, at someone's suggestion, I plowed through FRA accident stats and concluded we should expect six not...

Maybe the oil barons are right

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
It happened again, and again . . . and again this past week. Three oil trains went on the ground, and in two of those instances the results were awful. In West Virginia, a CSX unit train carrying light sweet crude from North Dakota to Yorktown, Va., derailed 27 loaded cars beside the Kanawha River, and 19 of them either exploded or were involved in the subsequent fire. As I write this, five days later, the fire is still burning and an important CSX artery remains blocked. About all the National...

Canada's Potemkin Village

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
There is a god in Canada, and his benevolent name is Claude. As in Claude Mongeau. In my blog last week, I suggested that the large party (106 people) accompanying Bill and Linda Schafer on their annual Moonlighter trip aboard Via Rail Canada’s eastbound Canadian plead with anyone they know at Canadian National, up to and including CEO Mongeau, for fair handling in meets with freight trains. I had been on the train a week ahead of the Schafers, and it reached Toronto 16 hours late, for no ...

The Canadian as farce

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
On Friday evening, my friend and retired Norfolk Southern luminary Bill Schafer and his wife Linda host a journey of more than 100 friends, strangers, and their spouses aboard Via Rail Canada’s Canadian, a four-night, three-day adventure across the great Dominion, from Vancouver, B.C., to Toronto. This group includes active and retired railroad captains whose names you would recognize. My advice to them: Call ahead to every Canadian National Railway friend you have, up to and including CEO...

Railroad giants of times past

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
What an outpouring of great ideas to my plea (see Tell Me What to Write . . . Please!). In less than two days I've gotten 51 responses. Almost all your ideas are good, many are very good. Some are so damn good I've already written about them. Others are good but are better suited for multi-page feature stories that cannot be written on the fly. Rather, what I need to produce is a 950-wood essay that is my monthly column. So the time comes to choose, and it is in the direction of Jeffrey Blackwo...

Tell me what to write . . . please!

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Oh dear, not again. But it's true. Another column is due to Trains Magazine in days. I have one decent idea. But it occurs to me that I have this great resource to draw ideas from. Namely, all of you. So this is your chance. Tell me what to write about. Use your imaginations. Unclog my jammed brain. Awaken my excitement. Inspire my creative juices.  The winner (if there is one, because let's be honest about the long odds) will have the satisfaction of having moved the arc of history. Well...

One more prediction for 2015

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
I left this out of my earlier piece (see A LOT Is Going On in 2015) because the numbers I was looking for weren’t easy to find. But thanks to Ed Greenberg and others at the Association of American Railroads, it’s time for ready-fire-aim: This year will be a business record-setter for American railroads. The previous peak was 2006, when 29,589,782 cars, containers, and trailers were handled. Last year’s tally was 28,440,592 units. Needed to top the 2006 traffic level would be ...

Farewell to an Amtrak credit card

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
My Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard, issued by Chase Bank, ends with the numbers 3524. Excuse me, make that 7276. No, the final digits are 8338. Wrong again, so let’s try 3895. The fact is I don’t possess a valid AGR MasterCard at the moment. While I was having lunch today my iPhone vibrated. It was Chase Bank emailing a Chase Fraud Alert. Did I really just spend $189.68 this afternoon in Missouri at Tobacco Plus? Not easy to do when you’re in Colorado. Out goes 3895. That&rsquo...

A LOT is going on in 2015

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Okay, my vacation is over, and with it my semi-annual writer’s block. Happy new year to everyone. In the spirit of the season, here are four things to watch for in 2015. Call them predictions, if you insist. The NEC will get a huge $$$ injection. Bill Shuster chairs the U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. The Republican from Altoona, Pa., is about as nonpartisan as you can get. Last summer he got through his committee with no fuss at all a four-year Amtrak reautho...

Amtrak's new look

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
You won’t have the same old Amtrak to kick around anymore, starting as soon as tomorrow. That’s when the first 18 Viewliner baggage cars arrive in Hialeah, Fla., near the Miami Airport, for inspection and acceptance. Hialeah is where the single-level long-distance car fleet is maintained. The baggage cars were built by the Spanish company CAF USA in Elmira Heights, N.Y., and are making their way down the East Coast as I write this. CSX Transportation has the special train P93718 sche...

Cheap crude and oil trains

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Oil producers in North Dakota are feeling the pain today. And so, within the year, might BNSF and Canadian Pacific railways, which carry most North Dakota oil to refineries. The collapse of crude oil prices began last summer and accelerated last week after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries decided not to curtail production. And look what is happening to oil prices in North Dakota: At the peak, in June, prices for North Dakota crude averaged $92 a barrel, reports Plains Marke...

Two Transcons, by the numbers

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Ever wonder what just how many trains are out there at any one time on BNSF Railway’s two transcontinental routes, the ones from Chicago to Los Angeles and Chicago to Seattle? Now you are going to know. Someone sent me snapshots of the trains occupying those two routes on mid-afternoon of a recent day. So let’s begin with the southern Transcon. Are you ready? There were 252 trains roaming that corridor, or about one for every nine miles of that 2,232-mile line. Of these, 44 (17 perc...

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