Whatever happened to UP?

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Union Pacific is a profoundly different railroad on many parts of its far-flung system than it was just two decades ago. To show you what I mean, let's look at the numbers--the numbers of trains it operates, to be specific. What you'll see is that the part of Union Pacific that is linked loosely to Texas is doing fine. These would include the three spokes of the LA-El Paso Sunset Route that divide in West Texas and the former Cotton Belt and Missouri Pacific corridors coming from Chicago and pla...

The Wreck of Old Number 2

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
In my dispatch to you yesterday, I wrote that Canadian National Railway is trundling heroic amounts of containers, grain, crude oil, forest products, autos and what-have-you across the prairies, between Edmonton, Alta., and Winnipeg, Man., and that as a result nothing seems to get anywhere in a hurry. It’s like herding rhinoceroses, except that rhinos are more easily herded. Today I intercepted VIA Rail’s eastbound Canadian, and shadowed it for more than 250 miles, from near Watrous,...

Who is screwing whom on CN?

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
You are perhaps used to my tales of riding the Canadian across the mountains, prairies and forests, and all the indignities that Canadian National Railway inflicts upon VIA Rail’s flagship. This time I decided upon a different approach. I flew to Winnipeg, rented a car and drove west 500-plus miles across Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Aboard the Canadian, it seems like chaos out there. Is this really the case? What I discovered may surprise you. But first, the highlight of my day today. I be...

Rail Renaissance, RIP

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Railroad analyst Anthony Hatch coined the term “Railroad Renaissance” to commemorate the industry’s rebirth. How right he was! By 2004 railroads had become red hot, gobbling up market share and expanding capital budgets to increase capacity. Today it’s obvious we’ve come to a turning point. Fully half the Big Six railroads (CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific) appear to have thrown in the towel and no longer pursue business growth. Oh yes, they all talk the talk...

History come alive

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
A couple of decades ago, a friend of mine named John William Schultz set out to chronicle the Burlington Route’s lengthy list of Zephyr streamliners. And chronicle them he did, in a manuscript so massive that no book publisher he approached would undertake the challenge of printing it. This has bothered me over the years, because Bill, as I called him, had written a masterpiece. You can forget the books you own about the Hiawathas, the 400s, the Century, the Chiefs and everything else. Bur...

You say potAto, I say potOto

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
The voice on the other end of the phone was that of the editor of my column in Trains, and she was incredulous. “Fred, how could you do this?” she asked. “Don’t you know what this man did to Wisconsin Central?” The man in question was Hunter Harrison, who had retired several years earlier after a decade at Canadian National, which he had profoundly changed (for the better, I thought). Now he was the hired gun of a hedge fund trying to seize control of Canadian Pacif...

How a failed railroad lives on

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
Here is what has changed in the past generation: No Class I railroad today would tolerate a route like the path that Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad trod through Missouri—386 miles of rotting ties beneath 90-pound rail, with little business to show for it. But once upon a time such sights were common. I’m recalling Rock Island through Nebraska and into Colorado, the Milwaukee Road’s entire western extension, Chicago & North Western’s Cowboy Line across Nebraska and eve...

Let's save Amtrak!

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
What follow is my column in the May issue of Trains. But it occurred to me it also belongs online, and not just for the benefit of non-subscribers. The piece cries for discussion, punch and counter-punch. Already I've gotten some feedback, not all of it warm and cuddly (Oh Fred, one friend writes, how could you mention Rocky Mountaineer, because Peter Armstrong and his people are so immoral?) Stuff like that. What I realized is that I had just done what I like best, which is get people excited/m...

Fred twitches, Durham sizzles

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
I sometimes twitch. Maybe you do, too, so let me explain my twitch. I open the New York Times to this headline: “Durham Dreamed of a Transit Line. Duke University All but Killed It.” Okay, transit line means train, and a daughter of mine went to Duke. Sounds good, let’s read it. The piece begins: “Political leaders in one of the most progressive parts of the South [twitch] have dreamed for two decades about an ambitious plan for a transit line connecting Durham, the home ...

World's most famous railfan

Posted 4 years ago by Fred Frailey
That would not be me or Don or Brian. It would not be Mr. Wrinn or those who piloted the Good Ship Trains before him. You can forget Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, both of whom have tinkered with trains. No, I’m talking about Kim Jong Un, a.k.a. Rocket Man, the Supreme Leader of North Korea. His armored green train with yellow trim is wandering about China this weekend, on its way from the North Korean capital to the China-Vietnam border. From there, he will be driven to Hanoi for a meeting...

Amtrak's Great Debate begins

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak is headed in a major new direction. The Wall Street Journal reported today that the company will reveal as early as next month its plan to redesign the route structure outside of the Northeast Corridor, with emphasis on the fast-growing South and West. The idea is to run trains between big city pairs in these regions during the times of day that people travel—in other words, during daylight. This comes with a problem for many of you: Many if not most of the long-distance trains alon...

Good PSR, bad PSR

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
When you strip away all the wrapping paper, Precision Scheduled Railroading is all about using assets smarter. A railroad’s assets include its tracks, locomotives, cars and of course its employees. If you make greater use of assets, you don’t need as many of any of them and your costs go down smartly, even dramatically. PSR is customer-neutral, in that its purpose is not to improve or degrade customer service. But at least in theory, a railroad that executes PSR well should find itse...

The week of broken trains

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
There’s no way to put a pretty face on the passenger train news this past week (although at the end of this piece I will try). On Tuesday, California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, applied the brakes to that state’s San Francisco-to-San Diego bullet train. He’s not ditching it, he later explained, but wants to finish the 119-mile Central Valley part that’s already under construction, from Madera (between Merced and Fresno) to just north of Bakersfield, and then take ...

Introducing Amstak

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
We need a new business model for the passenger train, and I’m here to provide it. Let’s start with an interesting fact: There are at least 23,000 origin-destination pairs for intermodal trains in North America. Therein lies our opportunity. Over too much red wine during dinner on the Canadian last night, my tablemates and I began speculating. Our train’s schedule has been lengthened by a day, during this decade, and still we run late. (How late? Leaving Winnipeg this afternoon...

My new life in Young, Sask.

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
Last updated 945 a.m. Monday February 3, 2019 I’m coming to you from Young, Sask., population 240 since I became its newest resident an hour ago. I emigrated to Young from the United States aboard VIA Rail #2, the Canadian. I don’t know how long my tent will be pitched here but I know it’s damn cold, roughly minus 15 Fahrenheit. I do not much like Young, Sask., but I hope to soon qualify for permanent residency due to the length of stay. This trip, which began in Vancouver mo...

For the Metroliner, 50 candles

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
Half a century ago today, high speed rail as we know it in this country was born. The Metroliner made its first round trip between New York and Washington over Penn Central. The Metroliner was father of the Acela and grandfather of whatever Amtrak will call its successor when it enters service in 2021. A first-class seat in the club car cost $19.90. The occasion—at first, a single round trip, to be increased as more cars came from Budd Manufacturing—made page 93 of the next day&rsquo...

Programmed for failure

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
The mining giant Rio Tinto, after almost $1 billion and ten years, has automated its 1,050-mile railroad across Western Australia. Trains of 28,000 tons run from a dozen mines to four seaports with nobody aboard. Think: Robot Railroad. I mention this because we like to think America has the best freight railroads. What we have is a railroad network that is probably more prone to breaking down than any in the industrialized world. The problem is that we have way too many failures—pull-apart...

The mystery of Silverdale

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
I am always amazed at how rapidly nature reclaims an abandoned railroad. In no time at all—mere years, not decades—the hump of a right of way and all its other architecture (except perhaps intact bridges) just vanishes. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I veered west from U.S. Highway 69 on the former Katy (now Union Pacific) at Atoka, Okla., confidently expecting to find traces of the Oklahoma, Ada & Atoka, part of the Midland Valley (Muskogee Lines) network of regiona...

Meet the Grinch

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
             The reviews have been. . . well, not complimentary. Says Pete Hansen in Railroad History: “A cynic, wrote Oscar Wilde, knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. He might have been describing the author of this book.” Kevin Keefe’s Classic Trains blog is more charitable: “I’m not a transportation economist, so I’m not qualified to go hammer and tongs after O’Toole’...

Wanna buy your own dining car?

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
Okay, folks, this is our chance. Amtrak has put its boneyard up for sale—scores of dining cars, baggage cars, Santa Fe high-level cars and other odds and ends it no longer needs. You’ll find the shopping list here -- look for Sales of Equipment - Railcars. Imagine the surprise on the Little Lady’s face on Christmas morning when trucks and cranes pull up with that new kitchen and dining room you promised her. You can look down upon your neighbors from your very own high-level c...

Who will fetch Lance's coffee?

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
Edited November 14, 2018 Union Pacific is hacking away at its management payroll . . . again. Just a few weeks ago it let go many of the 475 exempt employees (out of some 3,500) who were deemed unneeded and also terminated 200 contract workers. Now more of that targeted group is being hustled out of offices. It’s like torture by dripping water—it never seems to stop. One source calls it a “devastation of Union Pacific management.” Don’t say Chief Executive Lance F...

The future of Amtrak food

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’ve been telling everyone who would listen that boxed dinners and breakfasts on the Lake Shore Limited and Capitol Limited are way stations on the road to the solution to Amtrak’s food and beverage problem. The problem is that Amtrak has been losing $90 million a year on F&B—all on its long-distance trains—and is under Congressional order to cease these losses by the end of 2020. It’s clear to me what the future does not hold: Meals cooked in the diner’s...

Hunter's triumph from the grave

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
Hunter’s triumph from the grave   Every big railroad is either following his game plan or under pressure to do so. Will that really change railroading?   In the year since Hunter Harrison’s death, Precision Scheduled Railroading, or PSR, has progressed from crackpot railroading (in the eyes of some railroaders and shippers) to the gold standard. And it happened so fast we are still trying to wrap our arms around what it means for the future of this industry. The fact...

Kansas City Southern in 1978

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
Sunday, October 15, 1978, was a big day for me. I flew from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City and began work on what was the biggest story of my 34-year-old life. It was my chance to crack open the pages of Trains magazine for the first time, and my subject was Kansas City Southern. The railroad had never been rich but fell upon bad times in the early 1970s. Earnings that should have been reinvested in the track went instead to diversify into other businesses (quite successfully, it turned out). ...

Mr. Armstrong's fine train

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’m just back from railing from Banff, Alta., to Vancouver, B.C., aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. . . my first such trip in 23 years. Then, it was eight or nine Silver Leaf coaches and a single Gold Leaf bilevel first-class car. This time, it was two coaches and five packed Gold Leaf cars. From the rail trip alone, I figure that Armstrong Group grossed a minimum of $600,000. Usually (but not this time) there’s a section of roughly equal length out of Jasper, Alta., that joins the Banff...

Why does the dog bark?

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
As our Rocky Mountaineer passed a house along Lake Shuswap (a beautiful part of the British Columbia interior), a woman of late middle age could be seen waving enthusiastically at our train. Our car attendant Amanda explained that she greets every Rocky Mountaineer in this manner. This became so evident to the crew that eventually they learned her name, which is Doris. Ultimately Doris became a passenger of the train, deepening her attachment to the Rocky Mountaineer. During her trip, Doris exp...

Union Pacific’s PSR moment

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
Union Pacific is the ideal lab rat for Precision Scheduled Railroading, practiced by the late Hunter Harrison on four Class I railroads, with great rewards for shareholders and mixed results for customers. UP, which will begin recasting itself October 1, is ideal for the role because it has too many employees, too many unproductive route miles, and too many expensive toys. Plus, it is less interested in increasing market share than in maximizing freight rates, which makes right-sizing the railro...

The Empire Builder dilemma

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
We all know about “taking the Fifth.” It’s our right under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution not to be compelled to testify against ourselves. In other words, a court cannot force us to admit to driving 60 mph in a 45-mph zone (or something worse). That amendment has another, less-well-known clause, which says government cannot take away our property without just compensation. Lawyers know this as the “Takings Clause.” The Fifth came to mind the other day...

Tell me a story

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
Time for a change. Put aside Amtrak, Richard Anderson, Hunter Harrison and operating ratios. Let’s consider railroad literature. I enjoy good writing and good storytelling, one reason being that there is so little of it. All the better if the narrative is accompanied by arresting photography. But first, tell me a story. As years go on, I find myself returning to the same books again and again. If you can find Archie Robertson’s 1945 groundbreaker Slow Train to Yesterday for less than...

The perfect day, until . . .

Posted 5 years ago by Fred Frailey
Saturday was one of those days you want to treasure. It was the second time Cathie and I had experienced the Cheyenne Frontier Days train sponsored by Union Pacific and the Denver Post. Thanks to a friend who buys tickets every year, we had seats in the dome car Columbine from Denver to Wyoming’s capital. From a year earlier, I knew that the place to be was in the baggage car three cars forward, where a bluegrass band played country and Texas swing, and you could lean out the open doors, e...

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