Norfolk Southern grabs the carload visibility bull by the horns

Posted 10 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 11 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 11 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 11 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 11 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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 one year 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...

Here’s the biggest surprise from Class I railroads’ second quarter

Posted one year ago by Bill Stephens
The biggest surprise to come out of the Class I railroads’ second quarter results was not how bad the traffic, revenue, and earnings declines were. Everyone knew they’d be u-g-l-y given how the pandemic torpedoed the economy and sank rail traffic. No, what surprised me most was the way BNSF Railway outperformed the rest of the industry. BNSF’s operating ratio actually improved by 3.5 points to 61.9%. On average, the big six Class I systems saw their operating ratios deteriorat...

Looks Like Fun

Posted one year ago by George Hamlin
I suspect that many railfans have imagined themselves in this pose: hand on the throttle (or horn); window open and arm out on a nice summer day while you enjoy the ride, and the adulation of the lineside fans.  A heritage unit for your chariot? Even better, such as at Boyce, Virginia, on August 7, 2020 as NS intermodal train 228 swiftly passes the former N&W depot while running on what’s known today as the H-line, formerly the Shenandoah Division of the Norfolk & Western....

Cast in Concrete

Posted one year ago by George Hamlin
I’d seen both sides of the bridge over Maryland Route 34, between Shepherdstown, West Virginia and Sharpsburg, Maryland (the location of the U.S. Civil War’s Battle Antietam) many times before I finally did something about it, photographically speaking.  It obviously had been there a long while when I first viewed it about 30 years ago, and, based on numerous subsequent viewings since then, it didn’t look like it was going away any time soon. The interesting thing about t...

One chart shows how railroads adjusted to pandemic traffic levels

Posted one year ago by Bill Stephens
If anything encapsulates the wild ride railroads have been on since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it’s this slide from CSX Transportation’s second quarter earnings call. It’s definitely one of those times when a picture is worth a thousand words if you want to understand how railroads quickly adjusted their operations to dramatic swings in traffic volume. The chart shows, in navy blue, how traffic fell off a cliff in late March, bottomed out in May, and slowly climbed out of th...

CN's JJ Ruest skates toward the future of railroading

Posted one year ago by Bill Stephens
No chief executive lays out his railroad’s long-term strategy better than JJ Ruest of Canadian National. Ruest paraphrases hockey great Wayne Gretzky, saying that CN wants to head where the puck will be rather than where the puck is today. “Where the puck will be next is going to be increasingly toward the consumer economy,” Ruest told investors last month. So Ruest wants to tie CN’s future more closely to the consumer. And that means an increased emphasis on intermodal,...

Tale of Two Generations

Posted one year ago by George Hamlin
Once, they called it the “Little Giant”.  Run by “Super Railroad” proponent John W. Barriger between 1956 and 1964, the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie benefited from the growth of the steel industry in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania region, and when its customers’ industry went tilt, the P&LE  followed it on a downward trajectory. During the early post-World War II era, the P&LE, like most other railroads, began to dieselize in earnest.  Oddly ...

Amtrak is not out to kill the long-distance train

Posted one year ago by Bill Stephens
Some of Amtrak’s most ardent supporters view the railroad’s plan to reduce nearly all long-distance trains to a triweekly schedule as a sign of impending doom. They contend that the cutbacks, effective at the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, are the latest attempt to kill the long-distance network. This is, in my view, an overreaction fed by recent Amtrak missteps. There’s no evidence the triweekly service plan is part of some diabolical plot to end the long distance train ...

Six Decades of TRAINS

Posted one year ago by George Hamlin
I’m well-aware that, as of November 2020, TRAINS will be celebrating its eightieth anniversary.  So why the reference to only six decades? That’s because as of the July 2020 issue, I’ve been reading TRAINS every month for sixty years, continuously.  A birthday gift subscription beginning with the July 1960 issue got things launched, and the process has continued, happily, from my standpoint, ever since then.  In reality, since we were on a lengthy vacation t...

Observations about Opportunities and Regrets

Posted one year ago by George Hamlin
After surviving the “train-off” decade-of-decline in the 1960s, Amtrak’s arrival in 1971 was cause for both concern, and hope.  The former related to the many “last runs” on April 30, 1971, several of which I was able to witness and photograph in Chicago; the latter took some heart from the National Railroad Passenger Corporation’s initial marketing slogan, “Making the Trains Worth Traveling Again”.  Amtrak’s early years have c...

Union Pacific and CSX vie for operating ratio bragging rights

Posted one year ago by Bill Stephens
Lately Union Pacific executives have been touting the railroad’s industry-leading 59% first quarter operating ratio. CSX Transportation, meanwhile, noted that its 58.7% operating ratio set a Class I first quarter record. Wait, you say. How can UP’s operating ratio be an industry best when CSX’s is lower? Well it turns out that the Class I railroads don’t calculate their operating ratios in exactly the same way. So it’s an apples vs. oranges comparison. The operat...

"Look at Those High Cars Roll"

Posted one year ago by George Hamlin
I’m indebted to two people for the quote that is the title of this article:  F.E. Williamson, former President of the New York Central, for uttering it, and railfan author/photographer Lucius Beebe, for recording and immortalizing it in his 1962 book 20th Century. I’ll let Mr. Beebe’s prose explain: Another New York Central president who rode The Century in preference to the fine business car No. 1 which was at his disposal was F.E. Williamson.  …he took ...

Historic Preservation for the Greater Good

Posted one year ago by David Lester
Last week brought the sad news that Norfolk & Western Y6a 2156 would be returning to the National Transportation Museum in St. Louis sometime in the near future. The locomotive has been on loan to the Virginia Museum of Transportation for the past five years, bringing together the “big three” locomotives of the Roanoke Shops again after decades.  While this decision is very disappointing, it is not unfair, underhanded, or disingenuous in any way. The NTM agreed to loan the ...

History suggests rail traffic won’t fully rebound after recession

Posted one year 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...

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