The unsettled summer

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, July 11, 2011


I pick up my friend Tom at the Denver airport, and early the next day we head east from Cheyenne, on U.S. 30. The object of our attention the next two days is Union Pacific, first its Central Corridor across Nebraska, and then the Sedalia Subdivision through western Missouri.

Every so often, foul weather tests the mettle of the railroads. Remember the Mississippi River flooding of 1993? East-west railroad commerce was almost cut off for several weeks. Last winter it was Canadian Pacific’s turn to be humbled. Blizzards in Rogers Pass were followed by fierce snowstorms above Lake Superior, just one after another until almost nothing could move.
We’re still seeing the fallout from those storms. First the lower Mississippi flooded from the meltoff; railroads largely dodged that bullet. Not so, farther north. Levees on the Missouri River broke, flooding BNSF Railway’s Lincoln-Kansas City coal corridor for perhaps two months. Off-and-on flooding between Fargo and Minot, N.D., closed BNSF’s 30+ train-a-day Northern Transcon for days at a time. UP had issues on its Falls City Sub in eastern Kansas and elsewhere.

The result for the two western rail giants: frantic track-raising and levee-building, and when that fails, reroutes en masse, sometimes on each other’s railroad. It’s an unsettled summer, and that’s kind of how we feel, making our way east.
For example, we see our share of mixed-consist manifest trains — in fact, considerably more than I expect. And once the South Morrill Sub joins the Central Corridor at O’Fallons, Neb., just west of North Platte, there is no shortage of coal trains going to and from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. But intermodal trains? Almost none. I know a few are detouring across Western Kansas. The rest must be sneaking past under cover of night.
From U.S. 30 at Grand Island, Neb., we turned south to Kansas City and began making our way along the Sedalia Sub, where we meet with surprises. The Sedalia, which goes from KC through its namesake town to Jefferson City, Mo., is normally a one-way railroad for all westbound trains, the exceptions being Amtrak’s twice-daily Missouri River Runner, which operate both ways on the subdivision. Eastbound freights hew to the River Subdivision (alongside the Missouri) from KC to Jeff City.

Surprise No. 1: The first two trains we find, at Pleasant Hill, Mo., are both eastbound freights. Is the River Sub closed? We never find out. But the result is congestion, as the dispatcher squeezes trains at the rate of maybe 40 a day over a subdivision built for half that number. Some sidings, for instance, are more than 20 miles apart. Needless to say, my attitude is: bring on the trains! The more the merrier!
Surprise No. 2: There’s no eastbound Missouri River Runner this afternoon. Tom calls Amtrak to see if the 4 p.m. train from Kansas City is running on time, and learns that busses are taking its place. The agent blames flooding, but we later learn that at the request of Union Pacific, Amtrak substituted buses for the morning train from St. Louis and that trainset’s afternoon return. It’s easy to understand why. Part the waters for two Amtrak trains this busy afternoon (they usually meet at California, Mo.), and the Sedalia Sub would probably freeze up. As it is, there’s a train in practically every siding we pass.

I wish I could tell you the name of the second-trick train dispatcher, who deserves recognition. He sounds maybe 25 years old, but keeps trains moving with the aplomb of a 30-year veteran. “I want to be sure you understand what we’re doing,” he tells a set of westbound light engines and an eastbound local freight that will share the siding at Dresden, Mo. When an eastbound coal train passes, the light engines are to back out at the east switch and continue west. Every step of this process is explained, repeated, and acknowledged by each train. Nothing fazes this guy. Practically every radio conversation ends with his thanking the train crew or maintenance supervisor. If I were those people, I’d jump through fire to please this dispatcher.

As trainwatching trips go, I rate this a B. The show on the Sedalia Subdivision is worth the price of admission, that's for sure. But the Central Corridor (also known as the Overland Route) is not back to its pre-recession glory. Well, that gives us a reason to go back, doesn't it?

But our adventures are not over. Next I'll tell you about the oddest little railroad in Illinois, one that began life in 15 years ago just 400 feet long. — Fred W. Frailey

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