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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...

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 ...

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...

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...

The railroad that cannot be bought

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
In journalism we call it a slow news day, and at such times we try to think of anything we can write about. I don’t know the term securities analysts use on these occasions, but it obviously was such a day last week for two Canadian analysts, who suggested in separate notes to clients that Canadian Pacific or Canadian National should buy Kansas City Southern. I’m here to tell you it ain’t gonna happen. According to Canada’s Financial Post, one of the sinners is Walter S...

Oil by rail dodges all bullets

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Fireball explosions, dozens of deaths, congressional hearings, emergency orders by regulators, potentially unsafe tank cars, incendiary stories by the score in newspapers . . . none of this has seemed to affect the ardor of crude oil producers and refiners for shipping their product by rail. I'm just back from attending a crude-by-rail meeting in Glendale, Calif., put on by American Business Conferences. I arrived curious how much the negative events of recent months had affected the new-found c...

Auto Train changes: For better or worse?

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
There was quite a dustup Thursday on when webmaster Todd Clark published what he believed to be an internal Amtrak memo about changes coming to the Auto Train in about two weeks. I asked Amtrak for comment and thus far gotten no response. The memo appears authentic, so I'll share its contents. What's afoot is a combination of cost cuts and revenue additions. Gone will be complimentary wine and cheese tasting for sleeping car passengers (saving: $188,000 per year). Removed from t...

The Zephyr stalks a freight train

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Interesting experience on the eastbound California Zephyr today, as I head from Sacramento to Salt Lake City. We leave Sacramento at 11:28 a.m., 19 minutes late, then Roseville 22 minutes late and Colfax (at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range) 24 minutes late. We aren't far from Colfax when we begin to noticeably slow. The conductor comes on the PA to say we're following a freight train for at least a bit. I look at the Union Pacific Roseville Area employee timetable and figure it wil...

The end of the line

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Late this afternoon, photographer Bob Eisthen and I stand on a dirt levee in the Texas border town of Presidio. To our south sits Presidio's larger sister town of Ojinaga in Mexico. To our north, literally beneath our feet, a pair of rails is smothered by the recently built levee, and a few hundred feet further north a timber railroad bridge lies buckled and destroyed by a fire. This is the end, in the U.S., of Arthur Stilwell's dream to build a railroad with the shortest distance between Kansas...

A night on the Auto Train

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
I'm coming to you from the Auto Train, a truly unique train on Amtrak or anywhere else, for that matter. It is passenger railroading on a grand scale. Consider tonight's stats: 2 P40 locomotives, 17 bilevel passenger cars, 29 auto carrier cars (all told 4,035 feet long), 458 passengers with 225 vehicles (which include a few motorcycles), 26 on-board service employees, and an operating crew of four (two engineers, conductor, and assistant conductor). The operating crew will change at Florence, S....

What shall be the new normal?

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
I've had bad luck riding Amtrak recently, but in the process I have come to realize a few things and feel like sharing them with you. Two weeks ago, I was in Chicago. The weather was bitter, below or barely above zero, with gusty winds. Conditions at Fourteenth Street Coach Yard were obviously bad, because nine out of every ten departing trains those two days loaded and left late from Chicago Union Station, sometimes by three to five hours. Let's set aside the reasons this happened. It's fair ...

A man in full

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Jim Young, the retired chairman and former chief executive of Union Pacific, is dead at 61 of pancreatic cancer. It's a vicious disease that is rarely detected before it spreads to other organs; then it is incurable. Through good care and stout heart, Jim was lucky (if you call it that) to live almost two years after his diagnosis. He had given up the CEO job immediately after learning of his illness and retired as chairman of the board nine days before his death. Raised in Omaha and educated a...

The locomotive of my lifetime

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Wish me happy birthday. I begin my eighth decade Wednesday, hopefully aboard the Auto Train. As appropriate for someone of my teetering gait, I sometimes enjoy thinking of the past. I try to sift the few meaningful memories from the far larger ocean of meaningless ones, and some of the former have to do with railroads, such as: In the diesel era, which locomotive class had the most staying power? Which one didn’t let go? Which one will some day start its own eighth decade in measurable num...

The 'city of broad shoulders' gets a whippin'

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Okay, where was I? In A traveling man’s further adventures, I wrote that I flew from Washington, D.C., to Chicago to ride the Pullman Rail Journey train, attached once a week or so to the rear of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans. Pullman is the brainchild of Iowa Pacific Holdings president Ed Ellis, who says its purpose is to recreate the first-class travel experience that the Pullman Company once provided every night of the year. But when I reach Chicago Union Station, all is not well. ...

A traveling man's further adventures

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak in Chicago is on life support. Did I just say that? Actually you could say the same of the entire railroad industry east of the Rockies and north of the Ohio. Trains are moving, but just barely. Today I don't give a hoot about the rest of the railroad industry. I care about getting to New Orleans on Pullman Rail Journey's cars, which will be attached tonight to the back of Amtrak's City of New Orleans, and I arrive at Chicago Union Station supremely confident this is going to be a great d...

We don't need the Keystone XL

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
The U.S. Department of State’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement tells us what a lot of people already suspected: TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline is largely irrelevant to the future of the oil business in the U.S. and Canada. And maybe to the railroad business as well. It did surprise many people, myself included, by concluding that the pipeline would not substantially worsen carbon pollution. But the main point of the report, to me at least, is that whether or n...

Amtrak 29, stop. Right now. Sorry. Stop

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
I don’t usually write about my train travels, but every now and then things happen that are so interesting or unusual that I beg your indulgence. This is one such time. It begins barely a week ago with an email from my buddy Al DiCenso: Would I consider a quick round trip between Washington, D.C., and Chicago, out on the westbound Capitol Limited and back on the eastbound Cardinal? Absolutely. In the space of 15 minutes from receipt of that email, we book space, leaving Monday, January 27...

Predicting oil train accidents

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’ve been wondering, as you may have: How many serious incidents involving unit oil trains should you expect? The goal may be none, obviously, but we know a lot about railway accidents, and statistics provide answers. Something I read on the RBN Energy web site, in which a subscriber did his own probability analysis, sent me to the Federal Railroad Administration’s accident database. There, I wasn’t able to replicate what this fellow did, but came up with my own answer to the q...

Rails get real about the dangers of crude

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
On January 4, I wrote that railroad executives ought to be running scared, for three reasons: They don’t know why trains of oil from North Dakota are exploding in derailments, they risk losing important new business on account of this, and most of all, because these disasters, one of which killed 47 innocent people, undermine trust in railroads, and trust is almost like virginity, once lost, never regained. To that last reason, forget crude oil—once John Q. Public regards you as the ...

Awaiting the revolution

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Last year, BNSF Railway’s Matt Rose startled the industry by revealing that his company would test locomotives fueled by liquefied natural gas (LNG), with the possibility of full-scale implementation of this new (for railroads) fuel source starting as soon as the end of 2014. At the time, I called this development “bigger than the shift from steam.” Since then, we’ve been waiting. BNSF’s tests have already begun, using locomotives reconfigured by Electro Motive Die...

Simple pleasures remembered

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
I  miss and wish I could recreate in my life today the excitement I felt as a sixth grader at the sight or even the sound of a train. Come with me back almost 60 years, to Sulphur Springs, a town of 9,000 or so in northeast Texas that was lucky to be visited by the Dallas branches of both Kansas City Southern and Cotton Belt. I grew up there, and the best day of the week was Saturday. After lunch I’d bike to the KCS station, about half a mile from our house, to wait out the two freigh...

The great camera caper

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Mr. Frailey, you seem quite vexed today. What is the matter? The damn politicians, is what puts me out of sorts. Up theirs! Sir! I don’t know what “up theirs” means but it seems ugly. Get control of yourself. What is going on? What is going on, my friend, is that we had a railway accident that was preventable, and the politicians have intervened to superimpose a solution that does not in any way prevent such an accident from happening again. In other words, business as usual ...

The trouble with writing about train travel

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
The writer Paul Theroux started something with The Great Train Bazaar, the tale of his adventures in 1972, spanning the globe by rail. I found the book only moderately interesting, and his later rail-travel books pretty tedious, the exception being the account of traveling through central Argentina in utter misery on a steam-hauled narrow-gauge train beset by a dust storm, in The Old Patagonian Express. Since then, others have mined this genre. One well-praised book (by others, not by me) had it...

Let's beat up on lawyers

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Both of my wives (god bless each, in turn) are lawyers, so I realize they are folks society needs, just like journalists, members of Congress, and morticians, who often are also targets of disdain. But sometimes your mouth is open in unbelievable wonder at the audacity of the legal profession. The Desert Dispatch, of Barstow, Calif., provides the text for today’s sermon, and I thank Bill Baird’s Tortoise Tattler (go here to sign up for his weekday feed and here for the original stor...

Fear at headquarters

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
The folks who run the big freight railroads are a frightened lot these days. If they are not, they ought to be. Three times in six months, unit crude oil trains have derailed and cars of oil exploded. Forty-seven people are dead . . . so far. The railroad executives are frightened (or, again, should be) for three reasons. First, you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken. All three trains originated in North Dakota, two from separate terminals served by BNSF Railway and one from a ...

CSX cracks open a new line of business

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
I couldn’t believe my ears. Washington, D.C., radio station WTOP reports that CSX Transportation has shot from 0 to 100 percent market share in a product vital to the enjoyments of foodies like me: oyster shells. It seems that nearby Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population has gone into sharp decline because of overfishing and disease. Meanwhile, the beds of shells that oyster larva attach to in the early weeks of life have been covered over by silt. To the rescue, CSX. In a partnership ...

More on the Great PTC Train Wreck

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Last week I wrote about the problem that has brought a big piece of the costly process of installing Positive Train Control (PTC being collision-avoidance technology) on 60,000 miles of railroad to a grinding halt. That problem is the conflict between the mandated deadline of completing PTC by the end of 2015 and an obscure section of the National Historic Preservation Act requiring that no radio installation license be granted by the Federal Communications Commission until Indian nations have i...

The cloud over crude oil by rail

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
I salute the Association of American Railroads for getting out in front of the issue of tank car safety today with recommendations for retrofitting most cars that haul hazardous materials, particularly crude oil. A spate of accidents involving spillage and explosion of crude oil call into question the ability of railroads to safety transport this stuff. My reading of the AAR’s recommendations to a government agency leads me to believe the rail industry is meeting this issue head-on, and pe...

Amtrak's fiscal report card for 2013

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Like the federal government, Amtrak works on a fiscal year ending September 30, and on its web site it recently posted its financial and operational results, which I’d like to share with you. Top line. Revenues versus fiscal 2012 were up $115 million, or 4 percent. But expenses rose $143 million, although that was only a 3.5 percent increase. The loss on continuing operations, $1.2 billion, was $28 million greater than a year earlier. Nonoperational income and expenses were $39 million to...

There goes Positive Train Control

Posted 3 years ago by Fred Frailey
Where is the National Transportation Safety Board when we need it? A critical collision has occurred in the railroad industry. It seems that the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 has broadsided the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. For weeks now, I’ve been vacillating between spells of laughter and fits of outrage, trying to decide what to think about the mess the government has gotten itself into now with Positive Train Control, the extremely expensive technology that Congress...

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