The year ahead

Posted by Justin Franz
on Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Empire Builder at Whitefish, Montana. Photo by Justin Franz.
Late December is often a time to look at the year that has passed, but also turn an eye to the future. The last 12 months have been fascinating in the world of railroading, but 2018 could be even more interesting. Here are the stories that I’ll be keeping an eye on with interest in 2018.

Life After Hunter: The fate of CSX Transportation was probably going to make anyone’s 2018 storylines list before CEO E. Hunter Harrison’s shocking death on Dec. 16. Now, there is even more uncertainty at the railroad’s headquarters in Jacksonville. Can Harrison’s heir, Jim Foote, who went from acting CEO to CEO on Dec. 22, fully implement the late leader’s dream of “precision railroading?” Can he please frustrated customers who complained about declining service? And can he rebuild morale among front-line employees who were less than thrilled with the changes Harrison made?

Passenger Rail Safety: The Bronx, New York in 2013. Chicago in 2014. Philadelphia in 2015. Hoboken, N.J., in 2016. And now DuPont, Wash., in 2017. High-profile passenger train derailments have given the industry a black eye in recent years, despite the fact that the number of actual accidents continues to decline. What can the industry do to prevent these high-profile and at times fatal mistakes?

Automated Trains: Last summer, my editors told me to go out and write about automated trains. At the time, I thought it was the stuff of science fantasy. Six months later, I’m not so sure. In October, the Australians successfully ran a driverless freight train and one of the top rail researches in the nation says “Driverless freight trains are feasible within 10 years” (See my story in the January 2018 issue for more). What will happen next?

Government and Railroads: On the campaign trail, Donald Trump vowed to rebuild America’s “crumbling” infrastructure, but as president he has yet to deliver on that promise. But after signing the largest tax reform in more than a generation into law, Trump challenged the Democrats to work with him on infrastructure legislation next. What will be in it for rail? Meanwhile, Congress has given the industry until Dec. 31, 2018, to install positive train control. Can they meet that deadline or will Congress extend it again? And what other regulations could be implemented or rolled back? The Federal Railroad Administration has been considering a crew size rule for the last few years. Will we finally have an answer in 2018?

Bonus!: Government regulation, wrecks and automated trains are all pretty heavy topics, and most of us didn’t build an interest in railroading by reading FRA rules and stock market reports. For fun, I’ll be keeping an eye on some of the steam restorations underway across the country, and not just the behemoth in Cheyenne. In Ely, Nevada, the Nevada Northern is working on not one but two 2-8-0s, Nos. 81 and 93. Ely is already a steam enthusiast's dream and having three live steamers will make it even more heavenly. In my home state of Maine, the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. and Museum is putting the finishing touches on Bridgton & Harrison 2-4-4T No. 7, a smart looking two-footer that is sure to please. Also in Maine, the folks at the New England Steam Corporation are continuing to work on Maine Central 4-6-2 No. 470. Although that project is still a few years away from completion, I cannot wait for the day when No. 470 leads a train on the old Rockland Branch (forget No. 4014 on Sherman Hill, No. 470 on the causeway at Wiscasset will be the steam-powered moment of the decade to this Mainer). Back in the mountains, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic is working on Denver & Rio Grande Western ten-wheeler No. 168. Not only will the 4-6-0 look great climbing Cumbres Pass, it’ll have an authentic San Juan Express consist to go behind it.

As you can see, the next year could be a fascinating one and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

On a more personal note, to those who regularly read this blog or my stories on Trains News Wire or in the magazine: Thank You. You questions, comments and feedback are always welcome. Have a happy and healthy New Year.

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