A noble calling: Ron Batory set new standard at FRA

Posted 3 days ago by Bill Stephens
When Ron Batory was sworn in as head of the Federal Railroad Administration on Feb. 28, 2018, it would be an understatement to say that there was a lot on his plate. Seventeen railroads – including most of the busiest commuter lines in the country – were woefully behind with positive train control implementation and were at risk of missing the Dec. 31, 2020 deadline. Plus, several long-simmering issues needed addressing. Among them: An outdated FRA rulemaking system that hindered te...

Sleeping Cars on a Commuter Train?

Posted 7 days ago by George Hamlin
Sans sleeping accommodations, however, as seen on Virginia Railway Express train 338 at Alexandria, Virginia on July 13, 2001.  They are now coaches, of course. As discussed in a previous post (“Strangers in a Strange Land, on Multiple Levels” on February 1, 2021), as intercity passenger service in the U.S. declined during the latter part of the 1960s, a number of former long-haul coaches were converted for service on commuter trains.  The New York Central, for example...

What does it mean for service when long trains get even longer?

Posted 13 days ago by Bill Stephens
When railroads first figured out that operating longer trains was an easy way to make more money, firemen were still tossing wood into the bellies of their 4-4-0 steam locomotives. Since then the development of larger, more powerful locomotives was done with one goal in mind: Pulling more tonnage with a single crew. So today’s Class I railroad trend toward ever longer trains is nothing new. What is new is the zeal with which the Class I railroads are embracing longer, heavier trains that ...

"True" High-Speed Rail

Posted 20 days ago by George Hamlin
(VIA Rail train 17 west of Drummondville, Quebec, March 15, 2009 It seems to be a common practice to bash the U.S. (and apparently by inference, Canada) for being ‘deficient’ in adopting “true” high-speed rail, as opposed to other entities, such as Japan (that’s been going on for decades, now); Europe; China; etc.  The other day I saw a social media post that pictured sleek, shiny high-speed trains from France, Germany, Japan, China and Russia labeled &ldq...

When the trend is not your friend, what does the future look like?

Posted 24 days ago by Bill Stephens
Every month, the Association of American Railroads produces Rail Time Indicators, an always interesting review of railroad traffic trends. This chart in January’s issue caught my eye because it clearly shows how various rail-hauled commodities have fared since 2005. The bottom line: The long-term carload trend is not the railroads’ friend. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed railroads over the years. But the chart, when combined with broader economic data, does put ...

Strangers in a Strange Land, on Multiple Levels

Posted one month ago by George Hamlin
As the private (railroad-operated) intercity passenger train was going through its death throes in the late 1960s, there were occasional beacons of hope.  One was the Great Northern’s adoption of a completely different passenger train livery, based on the striking “Big Sky blue” paint that the railroad adopted as its “facing the world” hue.  While I thought that the classic green and orange paint scheme used on the GN’s passenger equipment previou...

Norfolk Southern digs its way into a volume hole

Posted one month ago by Bill Stephens
What are we to make of Norfolk Southern’s place in railroading’s volume basement? Every Class I railroad lost traffic last year thanks to the economic impact of the pandemic, which took an unprecedented toll on rail volume in March, April, and May. Intermodal has come roaring back, some carload segments have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and let’s just forget about coal. You’d expect these trends to play out roughly the same across the big six Class I systems. And t...

Special Duty and Specialized Duties

Posted one month ago by George Hamlin
By the late 1960s, the U.S. intercity passenger train was in exremis in a variety of ways.  Its traffic base had been decimated by both the Interstate Highway System and the airline industry with its (then) relatively-new jet aircraft.  Heavy losses weighed on many railroads’ finances.  The equipment, including new passenger cars and diesel locomotives acquired in the post-World War II euphoria were wearing out, and needed to be replaced, in many cases. Beyond the acqui...

Changing Travel Plans

Posted 2 months ago by George Hamlin
You’d probably be correct if you guessed that winter weather had something to do with the assorted delays displayed here at New York City’s Penn Station on Tuesday, January 2, 1968.  At one AM that day the temperature was 12 F; by ten PM it had “warmed” to 23 F, according to data on the Weather Underground website.  My year-end holiday break from college was just about over, and I was headed back to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley via Washington, DC, and th...

What I'm looking forward to in 2021

Posted 2 months ago by Malcolm Kenton
One of my favorite ways to experience an overnight train ride, when I travel by sleeper, is to close the curtains to the hallway, turn off all the lights to completely darken the room, and enjoy the nighttime views. Without any lights reflecting off the window, one can see elements of the passing landscape surprisingly well, especially when the moon is out. There’s a particular moody quality to this experience that is not present in daytime viewing and is nearly impossible to cap...

Railroads have a green advantage, but for how long?

Posted 2 months ago by Bill Stephens
Railroads have long touted the environmental advantages of moving freight on steel wheels that roll on steel rails. Now railroad customers are starting to pay attention. And they’re shifting some traffic from highway to rail to help reach goals for lower emissions.  You may question that greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for climate change. Big business harbors no such doubts, and companies are intensifying efforts to reduce their carbon footprints. Walmart, for example, aims ...

Early Present on Christmas Eve

Posted 2 months ago by George Hamlin
Today, at least if had been a ‘normal’ (i.e. non-Covid) year, had Christmas Eve been on a Monday, I think that it’s likely that most people would have gotten a four-day weekend, and been looking forward to another one a week hence.  (And in the period we’ll be talking about, very few people worked any significant amount of time “at home”.) In 1979, however, being sentenced to work on Christmas Eve day generally meant that this would be commuted to an...

Changing Coloration

Posted 3 months ago by George Hamlin
In the steam era, U.S. railroad equipment was generally painted using one color for passenger equipment (dark green), and another for most freight cars (red).  The typical freight car back then was a boxcar, which was used for lading as diverse as automobiles and other manufactured goods, as well as agricultural products, both packaged and loose, in the form of grains such as wheat.  There were exceptions, of course, with the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Tuscan Red passenger cars,...

Norfolk Southern grabs the carload visibility bull by the horns

Posted 3 months ago by Bill Stephens
The railroad industry owes a debt of gratitude to Norfolk Southern and its vice president of strategic planning, Michael McClellan, for getting the ball rolling on interline tracking of freight cars. The Class I railroads do a decent job providing shippers with car location on their own systems. But roughly half of carload traffic originates on one railroad and terminates on another. Visibility is lost upon interchange, particularly with the short lines that nurture new carload traffic, and thi...

Merger Madness

Posted 3 months ago by George Hamlin
In February, 1987, I made a business trip from my home in Georgia to Monterey, California.  Since there was no nonstop air service between Atlanta and Monterey, I elected to fly in and out of San Jose, California, and rented a car there to get to and from my coastal destination. On the way back, there was time to consider some railfanning before flying back east.  The closest point to Monterey with any significant rail potential was Salinas, located a modest distance to the northe...

The $700 million mystery: Why is CSX interested in regional Pan Am Railways?

Posted 3 months ago by Bill Stephens
I have been scratching my head all week trying to figure out why CSX Transportation wants to acquire New England regional Pan Am Railways. At least I am in good company. Everyone I have talked to – more than a dozen industry analysts, consultants, short line and regional railroad officials, and current and former Class I railroad executives – is puzzled, too. Norfolk Southern disclosed CSX’s interest in Pan Am in a regulatory filing this week. Pan Am is NS’s route into N...

Railroads could have key role in combating pandemic

Posted 3 months ago by Malcolm Kenton
Two days after announcing that they found their experimental COVID-19 vaccine to be 90% effective, the partnership of U.S. firm Pfizer and German firm BioNTech said they are beginning the process of establishing the supply chain logistics that will allow rapid delivery of as  many doses as possible across the U.S. This could start as soon as next month pending U.S. regulatory approval. Other firms developing potential vaccines will need to do the same if and when their candidates are a...

The Hudson River School

Posted 4 months ago by George Hamlin
You’re probably more familiar with the term “Hudson River School” as a reference to 19th Century landscape paintings emphasizing pastoral views depicting the Hudson River Valley in the state of New York.  Aperture’s 1985 book The Hudson River and the Highlands; The Photographs of Robert Glenn Ketchum, provides the following commentary about this, on page 13 of the book’s opening essay, “The Hudson”, by James Thomas Flexner: Hudson River School ...

Impressionable Memories

Posted 4 months ago by George Hamlin
Long ago, in venues that are still there, in many cases, I began to view railroads and trains, and record them in my mind for future reference.  I suspect that some of this collection, the earliest ones, vanished a long time ago; still, there are numerous others that also qualify for the “long time ago” description, and are still subject to memory recall. Obviously, the earliest of the latter category relate to trains and railroads in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the early 1950s, b...

Adventures (and misadventures) on the road

Posted 5 months ago by Bill Stephens
I took an epic road trip last week to explore the Powder River Basin and the BNSF Railway and Union Pacific main lines it still feeds with more than three dozen coal trains per day. These days the combined volume, measured by the average daily train count, has fallen by roughly half since the peak of 2008. So I’m working on a story on what this means for railroads as natural gas remains cheap, more renewable energy projects are coming online, and more coal-fired power plant retirements loo...

Lessons From the Performing Arts

Posted 5 months ago by George Hamlin
“Leave them wanting more."  This could be a reference to a group of photographs, including a railfan slide show; it’s almost as nice a compliment from these often hard-to-please audiences as “why didn’t you show any of your bad pictures?” (Answer: I left them at home.) In this case, I’m talking about an individual photograph, however.  Here, Norfolk Southern’s intermodal train 201 is passing the former N&W station at Boyce, Virginia (n...

Greetings from Roomette No. 1 (Updated with post script)

Posted 5 months ago by Bill Stephens
Bound for Chicago and ultimately for a date with BNSF Railway and Union Pacific coal trains in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, I’m aboard Amtrak train 49, the westbound Lake Shore Limited. As I type, we are cruising along CSX Transportation’s historic Water Level Route somewhere east of Utica, N.Y., under the cover of darkness. I boarded Sunday night’s train at Albany Renssalaer, N.Y., where the car attendant greeted me warmly on the platform, grabbed my bags, and escorted ...

Building A World Class Tourist Railroad

Posted 5 months ago by Dave Crosby
There exists, within the heritage railroad community, an unofficial hierarchy of sorts.  Most discussions about America’s greatest recreational railroads invariably centers around such familiar names as the White Pass & Yukon, Durango & Silverton or the Grand Canyon Railway.  This July I had the pleasure of spending some time at another top-tier tourist hauler, the Black Hills Central Railroad. The saga of South Dakota’s Black Hills Central and its fabled &ldqu...

BNSF Railway’s historic choice for its next CEO

Posted 5 months ago by Bill Stephens
When BNSF Railway made history this week by naming Executive Vice President Operations Katie Farmer as its next chief executive – making her the first woman to lead a Class I railroad – perhaps no one was more pleased with the news than Kathryn McQuade. McQuade, now retired, blazed a path for women railroad executives. She was the first woman to be named a chief operating officer at a Class I and served in C-suite positions at both Norfolk Southern and Canadian Pacific.  ...

Situational Awareness

Posted 5 months ago by George Hamlin
Railroad photography often reflects the old adage about flying: hours and hours of sheer boredom, punctuated by moments of stark terror, although “terror” needs to be modified to “moments of significant insight”.  Like hunting or fishing, rail photography often includes long periods of waiting, followed by brief, concerted action, particularly if you want to feature an actual moving train in your shot. This doesn’t have to be “useless” time, ho...

Creative thinking could lessen pandemic’s impact on train riders

Posted 5 months ago by Malcolm Kenton
In my last column (and I apologize for having been away from these virtual pages for the last five months), I discussed the opportunities that the ongoing crisis could present to the U.S. passenger rail industry. For Amtrak and other operators to position themselves for growth on the other side of the pandemic will require outside-the-box thinking in order to maximize cost-effectiveness without turning away the core customer base that is continuing to ride trains during the pandemic.  Less...

Missing trains in lockdown

Posted 6 months ago by Tyler Trahan
I miss trains. I haven’t ridden a train since March 9: my longest withdrawal since 2009 when I began commuting by train. For nearly eleven years, I hadn’t gone more than a few weeks without taking a train to work, working aboard a train as a brakeman and fireman, teaching about trains as an educator at a transportation museum, or covering a story on assignment for Trains. The sights, sounds, and smells of the railroad were a consistent part of my life. I did my best to avoid complace...

A True Restoration

Posted 6 months ago by Dave Crosby
The phrase “restored” is often misapplied to operating steam locomotives.  As engines are brought back to life - particularly those intended for mainline or heritage excursions – concessions are made to modern operating conditions.  Roller bearings may replace plain bearings, updated brake systems are often installed, antiquated appliances are changed out in favor of more modern counterparts and so on. Reliable operation trumps historical accuracy in many instance...

Matched Set

Posted 6 months ago by George Hamlin
Considerable history is on view here, and at least in one case, is not entirely “out of the game” even now.  The facts behind this October 3, 1971 photo (“historic”, in and of itself) at Louisville, Kentucky are that this is a westbound train departing the Kentucky and Indiana Terminal’s Youngtown Yard and heading west on the Southern Railway’s line that ended up in East St. Louis, Illinois.  The K&IT provided yard capacity and terminal switc...

A tale of two railroads: BNSF, Union Pacific and the California intermodal surge

Posted 6 months ago by Bill Stephens
BNSF Railway and Union Pacific are facing the same problem: An unprecedented spike in intermodal traffic that wants to move out of Southern California to Texas, Chicago, and elsewhere in the Midwest. The onslaught of containers and trailers that began in June and continues today followed record declines in April in May due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. No one – truckers, railroads, transportation analysts – saw the spike coming. All at once retailers sough...

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