Rx for the homebound: a new Fred Frailey book

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, May 7, 2020

A new book by veteran rail reporter and columnist Fred Frailey ranges far beyond his native Texas.
Sometime in January of 1988, Trains magazine’s production editor, Nancy Bartol, handed me the lineup — we called it the dope sheet — for the May 1988 issue. Listed there for pages 26–45 was something quite exciting: “River Wars,” the first installment of a two-part story by Fred W. Frailey.

I had admired Frailey the writer ever since I first encountered his auspicious August 1979 debut in Trains. Reading his Kansas City Southern saga, I thought, “This is magazine journalism of the highest order.” Now, just a few years later, this green associate editor was going to edit him. I didn’t know Fred yet, but something told me this would be fun.

It was. “River Wars” was classic Frailey, a long but crackling account of the war the Cotton Belt and MoPac waged for more than a century along 168 miles of shared track south from East St. Louis, Ill., much of it in sight of the mighty Mississippi, as well as along the Missouri River between St. Louis and Kansas City. 

This was Fred at his best. The man can put you in the middle of the action: “Over the Mississippi River at 12:40 p.m. comes UP’s train CHDAZ, 33 cars and 2862 tons of piggyback business from Chicago hell-bent for ramping in Dallas by breakfast the next morning. But in crossing the 82-year-old bridge linking Thebes, Ill., with Illmo, Mo., CHAZ leaves UP rails to enter those of its rival. And just beyond Illmo is Ancell, the end of two main tracks, where a red home signal halts the UP hotshot. CHDAZ sits . . . and sits . . . and sits, unable to advance even 3 miles to the north siding switch at Quarry. Close to an hour later appears the reason: the 22-car northbound Sprint, TXESQ, a train so sacred to Cotton Belt that even the Second Coming would be told to wait its turn.” 

Frailey's two-part 'River Wars' series in May and June 1988 Trains, one of his many landmark articles, chronicled a longstanding Missouri Pacific-Cotton Belt rivalry.
I love that paragraph. It’s dense with facts, but each one is essential to telling the larger story. What unspooled over the following several pages was another 10,000 words (not including sidebars!), a lot for a reader to digest, even for Trains in those days. But with Fred it didn’t matter. Once he had you hooked, you were with him all the way. 

All this came back to me this week when I settled in to read Fred’s latest book, Last Train to Texas, an anthology of some of his columns and blogs and other ephemera from Trains, published by Indiana University Press. It’s a terrific read, a collection of short, snappy essays that mirror Fred’s ceaseless curiosity about not only the business of railroading, but more importantly its people.

Regular readers of Trains might be tempted to conclude they’ve already read Fred’s book, made up as it is mostly of his columns. But they’d be wrong. Curated by Fred and his editors to cover as much ground as possible, the stories emerge fresh in the new context, a bit like how remastered Beatles or Miles Davis collections sound even after countless listenings.

And don’t let the title fool you. Fred touches on his beloved home state from time to time, like when he writes about his adventures with photographer Bob Eisthen along the old Kansas City, Mexico & Orient, or of his memory of a grievous Louisiana & Arkansas wreck near his home town of Sulphur Springs. But in this book, Texas the place has more to do with Frailey’s state of mind: endlessly expansive.

Fred Frailey has been reporting and commenting on railroads since the 1970s.
There are heroes in this book. One is Rob Krebs, the relentless executive whom, in Frailey’s view, made the BNSF merger work. Another is Jim McClellan, the cerebral Norfolk Southern strategist who became, in the words of writer Rush Loving, the “Forrest Gump” of railroading. Fred speaks for some of the rest of us in praising Stan Kistler, one of the loveliest men ever to point a camera at a train. And there are the occasional clowns, like infamous BN Vice President “Pisser” Bill Thompson, or the bumbling Canadian National dispatcher who nearly ruins Fred’s trip aboard VIA’s Canadian

Although the bulk of these pieces were written after 2000, Fred is never out of earshot of earlier echoes. His prose reflects a deep appreciation of railroad history, whether it’s his first encounter with a short stretch of original New York Central four-track main line (he calls it “That Commodore Vanderbilt Feeling”) or his admiration for the California Zephyr, a train “beloved by one and all.” 

Fred and I became fast friends after “River Wars,” and I was tickled to see a couple of my own adventures with him make the cut. One of them, a tale about a missing notebook out on the Union Pacific in Nebraska, shows Fred is never afraid to laugh at himself. Thanks to his resourcefulness, the anecdote has a happy ending. But you’ll have to read that for yourself.

Another section chronicles some of his adventures along the BNSF Transcon, specifically the Clovis Subdivision in eastern New Mexico, which he and I covered in 2006. Remember that little dance hall in the ghost town of Yeso, Fred, where I banged out some blues on an old, guano-covered upright piano? Great memories. 

Three years ago, I used this space to write about a few railroad books I pick up from time to time simply because they are so damned readable, because they transcend all the facts and figures railfans seem to crave. Including Fred on the list was a given, so I threw in his earlier masterpiece Twilight of the Great Trains. If I did the list again today, I’d have to revise it to include Last Train to Texas. This week it’s helping me stay happy at home. 

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