History suggests rail traffic won’t fully rebound after recession

Posted 6 days ago by Bill Stephens
Class I railroad executives say their aggressive cost-cutting moves today in the face of historically steep traffic declines will pay off in the post-pandemic world, when the economy picks back up and there’s more freight to move. Railroads will emerge from the crisis stronger, more efficient, and ready to grow – or so the thinking goes. I hope they’re right. But the lessons from the Great Recession tell a different story. Some of the traffic that stopped moving during the 200...

As Time Goes By

Posted 10 days ago by George Hamlin
A big anniversary is coming up in a year, which is probably why few people seem to have focused on Amtrak’s 49th birthday on May 1.  For a relative newcomer to the railroad business, Amtrak seems to have developed a significant interest in its history, including the application of its own “heritage” paint schemes on several locomotives prior to the Norfolk Southern’s now more-prominent examples. Another indication is this “history wall”, in honor of ...

You can always spot a kindred spirit

Posted 21 days ago by Dave Lustig
Do you recall exactly when you knew trains were going to be part of your life? I figured it out when my parents and I would go for our Sunday afternoon family rides. I recall one trip in the late 1950’s from our Los Angeles home north to Saugus, Palmdale, Lancaster, and ultimately Mojave. I remember looking out the window with my notebook and pencil – I was maybe nine or ten - and watching the tracks whiz by wondering if I would see a train. And I did; a mixture of Southern Pacific ...


Posted 24 days ago by George Hamlin
Travel often involves waiting for something.  For one thing, it’s often difficult to schedule things precisely; there often are unknowns in the equation, so that most knowledgeable travelers deliberately build in extra time to ensure reliability.  Most would agree that it’s better to arrive at the airport, bus stop, port of embarkation or railroad station somewhat ahead of the scheduled time, for example, than to show up a minute after your transportation has departed, ...

Hunter’s prediction for the Norfolk Southern locomotive fleet comes true

Posted 24 days ago by Bill Stephens
Back in the closing days of 2015, Canadian Pacific CEO E. Hunter Harrison was in hot pursuit of a merger with Norfolk Southern, partly so he could implement his Precision Scheduled Railroading operating model on one of the big eastern systems. We know how that turned out. NS said no repeatedly, CP gave up early in 2016, and a year later Harrison wound up running CSX Transportation. Little remembered from the NS merger battle, perhaps, is this nugget: Harrison said NS was using way too many loc...

How to Keep Track of All Those Books?

Posted one month ago by Steve Glischinski
With many people working from home or otherwise having time on their hands these days, no doubt many railroad fans are delving back into their library of books. I know I have, and over the years I have amassed a fairly large collection. I’ve got them organized on shelves, alphabetically by railroad, then if not specific to a railroad, alphabetical by subject matter. Still, over the years I’ve managed to actually buy two copies of a books not remembering I already had them, and I was ...

Fanning in the age of Coronavirus

Posted one month ago by Dave Lustig
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably realized you’re not doing as much train watching since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. Lockdowns, distancing, and mandatory face masks are the new normal in many parts of our nation.   While this inconvenience is certainly not important compared to our health, on a personal level, it’s something most of think about. And miss. We’re also so done cleaning our equipment and sorting our photos and...

Absolutely, Positively

Posted one month ago by George Hamlin
FedEx; no mistaking the strong graphics on the sides of the trailers in Norfolk Southern’s intermodal train 211 (northern New Jersey to Atlanta) on Sunday, March 29, 2020, at Audley, Virginia, the north end of what was previously known as the Berryville siding on the NS H-line. The siding (which 211 is not taking) ends just south of Main Street in Berryville, the modest seat of Clarke County.  A decade ago, you weren’t likely to have seen this company’s trailers on th...

Will pandemic have long-term consequences for passenger rail?

Posted one month ago by Bill Stephens
The coronavirus pandemic is, above all, a human tragedy. The unprecedented economic impact of COVID-19 seems to worsen by the day and is spilling over into the railroad world in a big way.  Freight railroads will respond to the downturn like they always have: Move what traffic there is to move, and otherwise hunker down by cutting costs and reducing the workforce as volume declines. When the recovery comes, they’ll bounce back. It may not be so simple this time around for passenger,...

Finding opportunity in this crisis

Posted one month ago by Malcolm Kenton
As I and everyone I know endure this pandemic together, I keep reminding myself that every crisis presents opportunities — in this case, opportunities abound for positive long-term changes in our lives and in how our economy and society function. Before I get into that, though, I want to take a moment to echo our editor Jim Wrinn in expressing my deepest gratitude and encouragement to all the front-line workers in the railroad and rail transit industries who are keeping trains running to t...

Splendor in the Grass

Posted one month ago by George Hamlin
No, this has nothing to do with Wordsworth’s poetry, nor to a 1960’s movie starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood that used the same title.  Instead, think the Canadian Prairies, and a search for some of the few remaining wooden grain elevators along Canadian Pacific’s Aldersyde Subdivision, between Calgary and Lethbridge, Alberta, on June 11, 2005.  Early on, it had been a somewhat frustrating exercise.  I’d caught up with a southbound, behind one of ...

The autonomous barbarians are at the gate

Posted 2 months ago by Bill Stephens
Update, March 19: Starsky Robotics, one of the companies spotlighted in the "60 Minutes" report, has shut down. Read here to see why the company founder says the technology just isn't ready ... yet.  The CBS News show “60 Minutes” on Sunday night aired a segment on autonomous trucks. The report was startling not because of the topic but because it showed a truck navigating highways with no one in the cab. In this case, a picture (or video) is indeed worth a thousand words. Se...

Did You Get 'the' Shot?

Posted 2 months ago by George Hamlin
I suspect that most rail photographers have heard this question while out in the field, chasing, etc.  It usually occurs regarding a geographic location that you visited were while photographing railroad activities, in particular a specific train, piece of equipment, lighting conditions, etc. The implication is that the person interrogating you already has the scene in their mind’s eye, because they, and probably many other people have taken photos at other times there, and therefo...

Finding the will to make a giant leap

Posted 2 months ago by Malcolm Kenton
What will it take for the U.S. political climate to become favorable to the kind of massive federal outlay that is needed to truly bring our passenger train and rail transit systems into the 21st century, so that we can start to catch up with Western Europe, China and Japan? At this moment, with the stock market tanking, coronavirus fears gripping much of the public’s attention, and an administration and Senate that vary between indifference and hostility to rail investment, it’s har...

CN’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad start to the year

Posted 2 months ago by Bill Stephens
It would be hard to imagine a worse start to the year for Canadian National, whose volume is down 16% due to a string of events that’s mostly odd, unrelated, and unrelenting. CN is taking it on the chin, as no other North American railroad has seen its volume fall by more than 10% this year and rival Canadian Pacific’s traffic is up 10%. First, there was Mother Nature. Winter arrived in January with eight days of deep cold in Western Canada, forcing CN to restrict train length. Then...

How Many More Sunsets?

Posted 2 months ago by George Hamlin
No, I don’t have any better idea than you.  While I suspect that this former Norfolk & Western CPL (color position light) signal at Waynesboro, Virginia is on the proverbial “borrowed time” (and I’ve heard the rumors on the nearby outposts of the railfan grapevine (electronic version) that this year will be the last for the remaining CPLs on the former Shenandoah Line between Front Royal, Virginia, and Roanoke), I’m not aware of any official announcem...

Midway through the 1960s

Posted 3 months ago by George Hamlin
(Photo by George W. Hamlin) The decade of the 1960s was bracketed, essentially, in U.S. railroading by a pair of “loss” events:  the demise of mainline steam at the outset of the time period, followed by the elimination, for all practical purposes, of the private, railroad-owned and operated passenger train in the first half of 1971.  To be sure, the ‘60s also were a time of political upheaval; a return to U.S. involvement in an overseas war; and significant cultur...

1309’s difficult past – and prosperous future

Posted 3 months ago by John Hankey
I have been a little shocked, and greatly dismayed. I am deep into my sixth decade of serious work in railroad preservation, and have never seen the kinds of unwarranted criticism, vitriol, and downright nastiness directed towards the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad and its project to return former C&O 2-6-6-2 No, 1309 to service. The railroad does not deserve it. WMSR recently announced a campaign to raise the final few hundred thousand dollars needed to get the locomotive into operation....

Financial engineers at the throttle

Posted 3 months ago by Bill Stephens
Railroads employ locomotive engineers, civil engineers, and financial engineers. The first two make the railroad work. And the third? Well, to varying degrees they’ve got their hands on the throttle at the four U.S. Class I railroads that are embracing Precision Scheduled Railroading. Consider that CSX Transportation, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific each spent more buying back shares last year than they spent to maintain and expand their networks. In some cases a...

Details and Detailing

Posted 3 months ago by George Hamlin
In my mid-October 2019 blog, “Red, White and Green”, I featured the photography of my friend Mel Lawrence.  While Mel is probably better-known for his extensive and evocative airliner photography from the 1950s and 60s, he also was a railfan, and photographed trains, equipment, structures and other railroad scenes, as well. Sadly, in October 2019 Mel passed away, a few days subsequent to his 82nd birthday.  Since he was active in the slide trading/selling communities, I ...

Warp and Woof

Posted 4 months ago by George Hamlin
The website dictionary.com defines this idiom as follows:  The essential foundation or base of any structure or organization; from weaving, in which the warp — the threads that run lengthwise — and the woof — the threads that run across — make up the fabric: “The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are the warp and woof of the American nation.” Using the technique of weaving, it’s possible to construct works th...

CRRC remains a threat to railcar suppliers

Posted 4 months ago by Bill Stephens
CRRC, the Chinese railcar and locomotive manufacturer, remains a threat to the North American rail supply industry despite a new ban on federal spending for railcars built by companies owned or controlled by the Chinese government. CRRC's corporate parent is a state-owned enterprise that has used subsidies from Beijing to help it win nearly $3 billion in federal and state contracts to supply nearly 750 cars for transit projects in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. “They have...

Seeing through the dust

Posted 4 months ago by Malcolm Kenton
We connoisseurs of train travel have certain expectations of the passenger train operators we patronize. Most of us probably have an ideal in our head for the type of train we’re planning to ride and are at least subconsciously measuring our actual experience against this archetype. However, when it comes to train travel in the United States in the early 21st Century, most of us have learned to come with subdued expectations. To compare Amtrak with the Orient Express, for example, is a foo...

Going-Away Shot

Posted 4 months ago by George Hamlin
Disclaimer:  not everyone likes them.  Admittedly, if what you’re most interested in is a view of the front of the leading locomotive, you’re out of luck.  On the other hand, if you want to get a sense of where a train is heading, this pose is for you.  And, as a bonus, with a modest amount of planning, you can get that coming-at-you wedge and take a going away shot.  Case in point, looking at Amtrak’s Texas Chief arriving Joliet, Illinois, nearing...

How will you remember 2019?

Posted 4 months ago by Justin Franz
Years from now, how will we look back at railroading in 2019?  Will it be remembered as the year that Precision Scheduled Railroading took hold on Class I railroads across America? Or the year when railroads finally got their act together on Positive Train Control? Or the year when railroading took its first significant steps toward automation? Looking back at the last 12 months, it could very well be any of those things and, honestly, it might be hard to know for sure right now.  Wh...

European railroads see climate change as an opportunity

Posted 5 months ago by Bill Stephens
Railroads across the pond see a huge opportunity to gain freight and passenger volume as part of a European Green Deal that aims to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last month the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies, their version of our Association of American Railroads, argued that boosting rail’s share of the freight market to 30% by 2030, up from 17% today, would go a long way toward making transportation carbon-free by 2050.  Already, the CE...

Not in the Public Timetable

Posted 5 months ago by George Hamlin
While I made a number of trips to Monroe, Virginia, the Southern Railway’s division-point yard north of Lynchburg, during my college years, the dismal-looking afternoon of January 23, 1969 was the only time that I either saw or photographed this train, number 21.  It and northbound counterpart 22 were the mail-and-express runs on the Washington-Atlanta main line, with 21 departing Washington, DC’s Union station in the early afternoon, while 22 left Monroe early in the mornin...

The Neighbo(u)rhood Has Changed

Posted 5 months ago by George Hamlin
According to its current proprietor, the Toronto Railway Historical Association (TRHA), “A switcher type locomotive, CP Rail 7020 (class DS10-b, serial 72855) looks like she was 'ridden hard and put away wet' ".  (Background/historical information was taken from the group’s excellent webpage, http://www.trha.ca/locomotives.html). Delivered in October 1944, the 7020 was both a “war baby”, and, by birth, a Yank.  Built by Alco in Schenectady, New York, this m...

Being somewhere, even if only for a minute

Posted 6 months ago by Malcolm Kenton
One of my favorite aspects of train travel is that, when looking out a train window — or even better, in a dome, on an open platform or at an open Dutch door — you feel like you’re in a place rather than just passing through. This is especially true when an on-board narrator or written route guide informs you about what you are seeing. I was reminded of this when, in the middle of a two-week business trip to Oklahoma City this month, I rented a car to drive from there to the Oz...

F-units aren't Forever?

Posted 6 months ago by George Hamlin
Since their regular-service advent in the 1940s, one could have been forgiven for thinking that the statement above might not have been true.  Those of us that can be classified as “Boomers” (in the non-railroad sense of this word) grew up with them and their ubiquity; for us, they have always been part of the North American railroad/railway landscape, so it would have been a waste of time to contemplate that this might turn out to be correct at some point in our lifespans. ...

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