Cuff notes* on a rainy day

Posted 3 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 3 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 3 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 3 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 3 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 3 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 3 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 3 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 3 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 3 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 3 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 3 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...

Recommended: “21st Century Limited”

Posted 3 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...

Help Mr. Big save the Auto Train

Posted 3 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...

The tough new rules of oil by rail?

Posted 3 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 ...

Why your next trip will induce heartburn

Posted 3 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...

Joe Szabo's yada yada yada problem

Posted 3 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...

Freight cars fly two miles!

Posted 3 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 ...

Bouncing through The Great State

Posted 3 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. ...

This is how it all ends

Posted 3 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...

Lake Shore Limited races the clock

Posted 3 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...

Bad dreams and late trains

Posted 3 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 ...

Will Fred ever grow up?

Posted 3 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...

The know-nothings are in charge

Posted 3 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...

Inside the house of dreams

Posted 3 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...

Fred's lesson in humility

Posted 3 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...

Engine with a whole lotta hurt

Posted 3 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 ...

Amtrak up and down and up and down

Posted 3 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. ...

Writing about railroads

Posted 3 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...

The Ed Ellis Story (continued)

Posted 3 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...

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