Kansas is not flat

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, January 6, 2012

I grant that what you see of the Sunflower State from 35,000 feet looks flat, but don’t be fooled. And even in the dead of winter, when the wheat fields show only stubble, there is a subtle beauty to the rolling topography along what I grew up calling the Union Pacific's Kansas Division. In my time at the University of Kansas, I never rode or drove that way, but it seemed that every town from Junction City to Sharon Springs near the Colorado border sent one of its sons to my fraternity. So towns like Salina, WaKeeney, Ellsworth, Russell, Oakley, and Ellis became familiar names to me years and even decades before I reached them.

West of Topeka., Kan., the Kansas Division has never loomed large within Union Pacific. In pre-Amtrak times, passenger trains like the City of St. Louis and Portland Rose outnumbered the freights. In fact, west of Ellis all the freight business between there and Denver could usually fit on a daily mixed train.

The coming of Amtrak made the Kansas Division irrelevant. With the passenger trains gone, down came the automatic block signals. A train a day was pretty much what you saw. I kept expecting UP to lease or sell Salina-Denver to a short-line railroad, and maybe that was in the future. But the purchase of Southern Pacific in 1996 gave new life to the route. Most of the coal mined in western Colorado was destined for points south and east of Kansas City. Automobiles destined for Colorado could come this way, and the unit grain train era began in earnest.

So for the first time in decades, Union Pacific began spending money on the Kansas Division, rebuilding bridges, laying welded rail, replacing rotten ties, and even reinstalling a signal system of sorts. Today the route is more populated by trains than at any time in the past century, usually about ten a day, plus locals. While the trains are still dispatched by track warrant control, in which the dispatcher issues verbal authority to operate from point to point, power siding switches and signals are in place every 15 to 25 miles to facilitate train meets.

You probably don’t relish driving 750 miles in a single day. But on the first day of 2012 that’s what I did, and the experience was made bearable by following this railroad and listening to the dispatcher herd his trains. Business was not brisk on this holiday Sunday, so I kept imagining that over every rise the Portland Rose or mixed trains 369 or 370 would pop into view. (That’s an old game of mine that worked only one time, when I reinvented the Kansas City Southern of the 1950s in my mind, then rounded a curve in Arkansas and was stunned to come face-to-face with the snout of a preserved KCS F-unit locomotive.)

One of the delights of the great railroad revival of the past decade is to see the new life in a line like this. To be technical, UP calls this its KP Line, for Kansas Pacific, that being its original name, completed as a land-grant railroad only a year after the First Transcontinental Railroad. Today it is part of UP’s Denver and Salina service units. But the Kansas Division it shall forever remain to me, and I invite you to follow in my footsteps across Kansas some pleasant spring or summer day.  Satisfaction guaranteed. — Fred W. Frailey

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