Amtrak loses patience (finally)

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
About time, I say. During an interview with D.J. Stadtler, Amtrak’s VP operations, for a story to appear in the January issue of Trains, I asked why Amtrak hadn’t taken Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation to court over their mishandling of the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited, “court” of course being the Surface Transportation Board. Congress in 2008 gave Amtrak the right to seek damages for repeated and inordinate delays. Stadtler hemmed and hawed a few second...

Let's quit complaining and fix Chicago

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Untangling the mess in the Railroad Capital of the World is not that difficult. It does not necessarily require a lot of money—you don’t need CREATE’s billions, for instance, although if governments showered the money down (don’t count on it) the railroads would gladly catch it in their caps. What it does require is the attention of railroad CEOs and a willingness to make deals with their counterparts, who they generally detest. So here are four ideas to start the ball r...

Going over Michael Ward's head

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Those who read my All Hunter, All the Time blog last week noticed my puzzlement. I was trying to find a rationale — a script — that would include Canadian Pacific approaching CSX to propose a merger, letting that fact leak out, watching CSX stock rise 10 percent in a plunging market, calling off discussions abruptly, and then going live with analysts and reporters for 90 minutes to explain why nothing happened. It made no sense. What movie is this, I wondered? A Canadian Pacific off...

It's the oil, stupid!

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Who shot BNSF Railway? What’s the disease eating away at Norfolk Southern? Why is Chicago so screwed up? Whose knife is sticking in the back of CSX Transportation? The answer to all four questions is the same, and so obvious I am embarrassed. We have been in denial about oil. Crude by rail has been a fun story to follow and write about. But it also is the root of the service collapse and congestion affecting railroads across the northern half of the country today. It’s not something...

All Hunter, all the time

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
First of all, to the Fraileyskeptics who said Canadian Pacific would get nowhere wooing CSX and that CP’s Hunter Harrison would slink away after being told “no” once: You were right, I was wrong. He did just that: got nowhere, slinked away. Not exactly slinked. Rather, he spent an hour and a half today talking to analysts and reporters about why he gave up the chase and about everything else that was on his mind. My question was never asked, so I’ll ask it now: Mr. Harris...

Mergers: Hunter on the prowl

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Mere days after Canadian Pacific let word get out that it had its eyes on CSX, it’s apparent to railroad insiders that Hunter Harrison is not going to go away. We’re heading into extra innings. Michael Ward, chief executive of CSX, told analysts Wednesday that that a combination of his railroad with CP could be disruptive and cause more congestion, not less. He said regulators would be “very cautious” in considering a Class I marriage. Let me translate that for you: Mr. ...

NS gets that old time Amtrak religion

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’m sorry, I cannot pass off as complete coincidence that Norfolk Southern chief executive Wick Moorman would respond on Monday to a public chastisement by the chairman of the Surface Transportation Board over handling of Amtrak passenger trains, and by Thursday Amtrak trains are zipping into Chicago better than at any time in memory. As I write this, the westbound Capitol Limited (Washington-Chicago) is just over an hour late on one of its best runs in ages. West of South Bend, Ind., it i...

CP says to CSX: Shall we dance?

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
You are entitled to believe that mergers in the railroad industry are driven by broad economic forces. I believe they are driven by the ambitions of men. The news today that Canadian Pacific has approached CSX regarding a merger appears to bear me out. A young chief executive of a successful business is the last person you want to ask to sell. Why should the younger CEO give up the possibility of years of accomplishment and executive bonuses? The answer is that he won't unless backed against a ...

The new normal is highly abnormal

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak’s Capitol Limited (train 29) left South Bend, Ind., yesterday at 11:08 a.m. Thirteen minutes later, the Lake Shore Limited (train 49) followed. Next stop for both trains: Chicago, 84 miles west. The Lake Shore reached Chicago at 4:26 p.m., the Capitol at 5:20 p.m. This fiasco illustrates how precarious our railroad infrastructure is today, at a time of record shipper demand and probably record shipper unhappiness. The tale of what happened to these trains is worth retelling. West o...

You just don't get it

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
The reaction to my blog on letting the Chinese develop our railroad infrastructure (go here) has been uniformly negative. That is the good news. I agree, the Chinese government is a dictatorial regime whose nose you should not want inside your tent, because like the camel it will soon enough occupy the tent. What distresses me is that so few of you understood the intent of the blog. So I will try again. In my opinion, railroads are under-investing in capacity. This is hard for people to underst...

The railroad dating game is at hand

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Jack Koraleski, the chief executive of Union Pacific, was 63 this year. So was Michael Ward at CSX. Wick Moorman at Norfolk Southern was 61 and Dave Starling at Kansas City Southern 64. Carl Ice at BNSF was a relatively young 57. What I’m suggesting is that the next year or so could end the merger stalemate that has lasted the past two decades. Like it or not, North America will likely end up with two national systems. Often, the impediment is that a new chief executive wants to make his ...

Should China expand U.S. railroads?

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Michael Ward, the esteemed chief executive of CSX Transportation, when asked about his railroad’s chronic state of congestion, says you don’t build a church for Easter Sunday. Is that his final answer? We are left to conclude that CSX would rather offer substandard service at higher and higher rates than expand capacity to match demand. Oh, he’d expand capacity if a unit of government would pay for it. It seems that while the railroad industry stands in desperate need of people...

For it until they were against it

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Carl Hiaasen is a great comic novelist. I've read them all. His books (Sick Puppy, Lucky You, Basket Case, Strip Tease, among others) poke fun at the inanities of people in his native Florida — their petty crimes, feckless behavior, outrageous acts, crazy blowups and so on and so forth until you are rolling on the floor. But now it seems as if in real life, Carl Hiaasen is a character in what could be one of his own books. In 2012, when Florida East Coast Industries announced All Aboard F...

Foolishness disguised as journalism

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
I subscribe 365 days a year to the New York Times (the real NYT, delivered to my driveway), so I obviously think well of it. Bear that in mind as I lay into the newspaper for a really shoddy job of reporting today, reproduced at the conclusion of this blog, so that you can reach your own conclusion. Start with the headline (which reporter Ron Nixon did not write). It says that BNSF and Canadian Pacific railways are favoring oil trains over grain trains—a serious charge. But nowhere in the...

Amtrak has stalled out, and here's why

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Thanks to all of you who read and responded to my blog The Joe Boardman-David Gunn Summit. I enjoyed all your comments. C.P. Crosby, in particular, made me reflect on something: Why haven’t states that subsidize Amtrak trains lavished more attention on them? To my knowledge, only Washington and Oregon have tried to manage the service, to the tune of buying Talgo trainsets and organizing a unique (and delicious) food menu in the comfortable cafe cars. The train I love to hate, the New York-...

A death in the family

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Carstens Publishing this past week announced it was ceasing publication of its magazines, which include Railfan & Railroad and Railroad Model Craftsman, and putting the titles up for sale. I was saddened by the news, but not surprised. The magazine business has been challenged (to put it mildly) the past 15 years by economic events in general and the internet in particular. More than ever, you either have to have a unique product (I like to think that Trains Magazine is such) or be top dog i...

The Joe Boardman-David Gunn summit

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
In many respects, Joe Boardman couldn’t be less like David Gunn, his predecessor twice removed as president of Amtrak (there was a former Union Pacific vp between them, but he came and went before anyone bothered to ask his name). Boardman is skilled at maneuvering through the political jungles in Washington and getting along, having cut some teeth in the state politics of New York. Gunn is decidedly less adept at handling politicians, witness his blunt termination by the chairman of Amtra...

Outrages on the rails: The real story

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Be on notice: Any rational observer would predict that American railroads are in for a terrible winter a few months hence — that is, if it is a normal, mild winter of the sort we had before last winter. How can I say that in the middle of August? Follow the trail of evidence, please. My correspondent Marcus Ruef lives not so far from me, in Charles Town, W.Va., and two or three times a month needs to go to Chicago on business. He formerly rode Amtrak’s Capitol Limited to Chicago. Th...

Cuff notes* on a rainy day

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
I'm writing this in western Pennsylvania, less than an hour after leaving Pittsburgh. Out my window is a dark day, with rain and mist--not the best way to end a four-day trip across the country. I'd rather it be the other way around, that is, raining across the Sierra Nevada range and sunny in the Alleghenies. The weather makes me wish I were already home, my retriever Jack happily asleep at my feet. I left you two days ago in Denver, and here I am 1,500 or so miles to the east. I should color ...

Last-minute decisions (and the Dining Car From Hell)

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
How would you solve this problem? You've used a jillion Guest Rewards points to book bedrooms on the Coast Starlight from San Jose, Cal., to Los Angeles, the Sunset Limited to New Orleans and the Crescent to Washington, D.C. The Starlight arrives in LA at 9 p.m., the Sunset leaves at 10 p.m., and therein lies the dilemma on the night before departure. Dogged by locomotive failures and other bad luck, the northbound Coast Starlight got to Seattle 12 hours late, causing it to leave toward you almo...

Visionary railroading in 2014

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
My friend Keel Middleton is a veteran BNSF Railway engineer, working out of Wellington, Kan., on the 311-mile, mostly double-track district west to Amarillo, Tex., on the Chicago-Los Angeles Transcon. Keel has seen business levels at highs and at lows, but never so high as last Friday. You should take what he witnessed as a tribute (railroad business is growing far faster than the economy) and a warning (be careful what you wish for). Keel is called for 5:05 p.m. to take a 114-car empty unit sa...

What to do when you run over two women

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
The Darwin Award, as you know, is bestowed by us on people whose behavior around trains is simply suicidal. Charles Darwin hypothesized that species become stronger by ridding themselves of their weaker (or dumber) elements. This leads us to today’s lesson in life. On July 10, an Indiana Rail Road unit coal train, 100 cars loaded, began crossing a long bridge, the Shuffle Creek trestle, near Bloomington, Ind. Its engineer discovered two people, 30-something women, in its midsection. There...

The demise of crude by rail is greatly exaggerated

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Some of my correspondents — smart people, all — have gotten a case of the jitters regarding crude oil by rail. They point to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, the keeper of statistics for Bakken shale production, which says rail’s market share of oil leaving the state fell from a peak of about 75 percent last November to 60 percent in May. They quote the respected Sandy Fielden of energy-information company RBN Energy as saying pipelines are grabbing more of the oil going fr...

Master conductors - really?

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Be careful what you wish for, I would advise the railroad industry. If you think railroads have service issues now, watch them multiply if members of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union (SMART) ratify the BNSF Railway agreement, which I hope they do. We are justifiably proud of North America’s freight railroads. Their infrastructure has never been stronger. At the same time, they remain competitive with other modes of transport through rigorous cost control, and thinning ...

Look out: CSX is in virgin territory

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’ve been reporting a story for Trains Magazine about the railroad mess we call Chicago, and one of the worst sinners is CSX Transportation. What bothered me was this: The railroad during April-June was still 4.7 percent shy of its traffic volume in the last peak year of 2006. So why is its whole northern tier a mess and Chicago a quagmire? The railroad’s second-quarter conference call with analysts provided some insight. Traffic across the northern tier, according to Chief Operatio...

Why can't Bakken oil be made safer?

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Readers of this blog got to know columnist Sara Foss of the Schenectady Daily Gazette on June 19 in Why You May Yet Read by Candlelight. I was hard on Sara because she asked the wrong question (can crude by rail ever be totally safe?) of the wrong person (an environmentalist nitwit). Well, guess what? Sara is back, asking more questions. But this time, she’s asking the right question on an important public policy matter. Let’s visit that topic. The Wall Street Journal reported this ...

The passenger train as you know it is dying

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
About a decade ago the Editor of Trains Magazine asked if I would like to write a monthly column. Before answering no, not yet, I tried to think of provocative ideas. Two came immediately to mind. One I called “Why Doesn’t Dick Davidson Know It’s Time to Go?” The chief executive of Union Pacific had presided over two meltdowns, and my thesis was that someone else should have a chance to mess things up. The other idea I called “The Long Distance Train Is Dead (But Do...

Our railroads are a MESS

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
I don’t recall ever seeing so much of the railroad industry in such disarray. Examples are everywhere you look. Tens of thousands of new vehicles sit on lots in Detroit and Toledo, waiting for rail cars to take them to dealers. Canadian National and Canadian Pacific strain under their government’s edict to move grain to ports faster. BNSF Railway is so far behind delivering Powder River Basin coal to its customers that stockpiles at some locations are down to a few days. Chicago is a...

We have new Darwin Awards nominees

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Readers of this blog were introduced almost three years ago to Florida East Coast Railway engineer David Shelley. In that episode, his southbound intermodal train rounded a curve near Boca Raton at 57 mph to find a car parked on a crossing, its driver oblivious to the approaching train and its whistle while she spoke on a cell phone. His train whammed into the car. “We just knew it was going to be a mess,” David said later. Fortunately, the woman not only survived the collision but w...

Why you may yet read by candlelight

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
The debate over the safety of handling crude oil by rail has become frustrating and almost pointless. Yes, tank cars that carry oil could be made more crashworthy, that is, if the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration would get off its duff and tell tank car owners what changes it wants. A year after the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Que., that killed 47 people, we’re still waiting. Yes, there are a couple of other measures that would make a marginal difference. But if you&rs...

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