The wreck of Old 54 (Part I)

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
(The following account is dedicated to the memory of my friend Harold K. Vollrath, a railroader's railroader who died this month at age 92. Harold, or HKV to those who saw his initials on train orders, was dispatching the L&A Division the early morning that this collision occurred but was not involved in the mystery leading up to it. To Harold fell the job of collecting information, notifying everyone and ordering out the derricks and cleanup crews.) For me, the tale begins at the breakfast...

The scoop on my favorite train

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Train name: VIA Rail Canada's Canadian. Length of route: 2,775 miles (give or take). Duration of trip: 82 hours (in theory). Car count leaving Vancouver August 11, 2015: 25 cars, including 14 regular sleepers and 1 Prestige class sleeper. Lounge and dining cars: 7 cars, including four dome lounges, two diners and 1 Panarama glass-roofed lounge. Passengers leaving Vancouver: 372, including 111 in the two coaches, 253 in regular sleepers and 8 in the Prestige car. On-board service staff: 32,...

The making of engineers and conductors

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
A month ago, in The Agony of Changing Amtrak, I mentioned the frustrations of New Haven-based Amtrak engineer Joe McMahon. Fed up with the incompetence he witnessed around him, by union and management employees alike, he tried to interest Amtrak officers in a more rigorous and OJT-intensive training program for train and engine people. Top management showed some interest, but in meetings with lower-level folks it became apparent to McMahon that he had run up against the Not Invented Here wall. N...

Whatever happened to service?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
  The quarterly earnings call with analysts in July was something of an embarrassment for David Starling, chief executive of Kansas City Southern Railway. I mean, what excuse matters when carloadings fall 6 percent versus a year earlier and you still have huge delays for lack of crews to move less traffic? The problem centered on KCS lines in Mexico, where hiring and qualification of new train service employees apparently fell far behind the attrition rate. Customers of high-value cargos f...

Is it the air in Britain?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
At my age, it’s hard for my eyebrows to go up in alarm. But they really started flickering upon reading a dispatch from It seems a man, Robin Lee, 45, was arrested for charging his cell phone on a London Overground train. Say what? And we think Amtrak is screwed up. . . . London Overground is a relatively new name for a network of suburban rail lines radiating from London. The unfortunate Mr. Lee casually plugged his iPhone into an outlet aboard a train from Hackney Wic...

Politically correct railfans

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Jack runs a company that sells supplies to competitive swimmers. He advertises in Jill’s magazine, which is devoted to competitive swimming. And Bart is a competitive swimmer. On Facebook one day, Jack says that Bart is a alcohol-swilling has-been of a swimmer. Bill and Bob are admirers of Bart and subscribers to Jill’s magazine. They are angered by Jack’s remark and pressure Jill not to accept Jack’s advertising. Jill asks, what in the dickens do I have to do with this?...

Free speech is not divisible

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
This is something I do not want to write, because a lot of unpleasantness proceeds it. Begin with the derailment of Amtrak train 188 at Frankford Junction, Pa., in May. We know a lot about that multi-fatality accident but we really do not know why it happened. Add to that an online comment by a small advertiser to Trains Magazine that was disparaging of the engineer of train 188, to the effect that he was a “foamer,” which as we all know is a railfan first and foremost. The advertis...

The agony of changing Amtrak

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Why is change so hard to bring about in life? The status quo is like a dead weight that defies being moved. You see this all the time in the railroad business. But you see it up close and personal at Amtrak. At every level, our national passenger train corporation cries out for change, for reform. Let’s start with the Northeast Corridor. The position Amtrak is in becomes ever more untenable. It’s responsible for the NEC’s maintenance and improvement, yet every year the politic...

Railroads without coal

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Lehigh Valley. Lackawanna. Reading. Jersey Central. And let’s not forget the Old Woman, the New York, Ontario & Western. What did they have in common? Why, coal, of course. They were the kings and queens of anthracite, and when the fortunes of this hard, high-carbon substance waned in the Twentieth Century, so did the futures of each of these railroads, never to recover. All went bankrupt. Today, you’d almost think bituminous coal is suffering the same fate. Among the seven Clas...

The idiocy of locomotive cameras

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
When a company supported by the public trough is caught up in a disaster, the urge to do something dramatic—anything, so as not to just stand there—is understandably strong. So it is that Amtrak has bowed to two U.S. Senate scolds and the National Transportation Safety Board and said it will install inward-facing cameras in the cabs of its 70 new electric locomotives used in the Northeast Corridor. Said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.): “Inward-facing cameras, with the rig...

Media and the railroads

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
From a friend: “The media reporting (especially CNN, MSNBC, NBC and ABC because CBS has been a bit more cautious talking about things they know nothing about) has been abysmal. Case in point, one reporter saying, ‘The investigators have removed the black box from the first car of the train.’ Uhhh, that would be the locomotive?” Okay, time out. This is a familiar complaint from people who know way more than the lay person about a specialized subject, in this instance rail...

Rules written in blood

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
The rules by which trains operate on American railroads were written in blood. As the rail network developed in the 19th century, every accident was a lesson learned -- and brought a new rule to prevent it from happening again. Today the General Code of Operating Rules is a 167-page collection of lessons learned. But even 185 years of experience haven't yet protected railroads from the danger no rule can banish: simple human error. (For the remainder of this commentary, please go to

Railroads and their money

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
It’s really easy to discover the financial choices made by the Class I railroads. They are laid out for all to see in the annual 10-K reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission ( Make a beeline for the Consolidated Statements of Cash Flows, and see for yourself where the money comes from and where it goes. You’ll come upon some surprises. What follows are from the 10-K filings for 2014. BNSF Railway. This Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary generated $6.6 billi...

How NS became the intermodal champ

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
More than half of the units handled by Norfolk Southern in the first quarter of 2015—51 percent, to be exact—were trailers or containers. That's a first for the Class I railroads. For better or for worse, intermodal is the future of this giant eastern railroad. How it got to this from a standing start, almost, less than 30 years ago is a compelling tale. To quote myself from the cover story in the October 2005 issue of Trains Magazine: “Pre-Conrail [before mid 1999], Norfolk So...

Guess what's Numero Uno?

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
My first up-close-and-personal experience with intermodal was to watch a 150-car Kansas City Southern freight rumble through little Sulphur Springs, Tex., led by six red, yellow, and black F units and three to five truck trailers atop flat cars. That would be 1958, and even that little beginning impressed this kid. We have come a long way. The week ending April 18, for the first time ever, intermodal units on U.S. railroads exceeded all carload types combined, 280,016 to 276,416. The future arr...

The war over electric brakes

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Sometimes it’s helpful to think of modern Class I railroads as collections of separate silos (or maybe moated castles), each jealously guarding its prerogatives. There’s a Track Silo at every headquarters, a Transportation Silo, a Marketing Silo, and a Signal Silo, to name several. They don’t share a lot with each other. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the industry’s chief financial officers had been given primary responsibility for implementing positive tr...

CSX's kettle boils over

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Activist investor Bill Ackman makes a presentation late Monday afternoon at the Ira Sohn Investment Conference in New York, and the buzz going around is that he may reveal a major investment in CSX. That would not surprise me in the least. Ackman's modus operandi is to identify underperforming companies, suggest ways management can do a better job and then go on the attack if he is met by a cold shoulder. I am really interested in learning two things. First, what's his beef with present managem...

CSX has a secret suitor

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
In the February issue of Trains Magazine I (very rashly) predicted that 2015 would bring an “epic battle” for control over CSX, pitting CEO Michael Ward against activist investor Bill Ackman, whose investment firm Pershing Square Capital Management ousted the leadership of Canadian Pacific in 2012. Months went by. Nothing happened. Actually, one thing that happened is that nobody reminded me of my silly prediction, and I appreciate that. Still, as day followed quiet day, I knew the ...

Money, food, and places to go

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Well, 466lex sure knows how to sharpen a rhetorical point. In case you missed it in the dialogue on infrastructure expansion vs. share buybacks as a use for excess cash, here’s what he had to say: “ I have believed for some time that the dramatic exercise of 'pricing power' across the industry for the past ten years is implicitly a “harvesting” strategy. Either “the traffic will bear it” or it will go away. In the east, the 'Intermodal Story' (especially...

More on capital spending

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Readers ask questions about railroad capital budgets and in so doing, reveal what could be misconceptions. The Association of American Railroads says the industry will spend $29 billion in 2015 “to build, maintain and grow the nationwide freight rail network that powers the U.S. economy.” I am told by economists that this is a different definition of capital spending than most chief financial officers would use. But let’s accept it as accurate. Twenty-nine billion bucks is a l...

$10 billion flies out the door

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Here’s an interesting number: $10 billion. You can buy a lot with $10 billion. Let’s see, at $3 million a pop, more than 3,000 brand new locomotives could join your fleet. At $2 million a mile, you could double track 5,000 miles of route. At $200 million each, you could build or rebuild 50 terminals. I bet you could unlock Chicago and make it purr like a happy kitten for $10 billion. Do this three years running and railroad congestion would be a thing of the past. Reliability would s...

Cuisine aboard the Silver Star

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak’s experiment with food service on the New York-Miami Silver Star has gotten me thinking about one of my favorite subjects, eating. Having no diner car on a train that at most you will ride for 28 hours is not such a bad thing, I concluded, particularly if you bump the cost of a roomette down by $125 for more. So I challenged myself to plan a trip. I could do it the easy way and visit KFC or Popeye’s, to board with a box of fried chicken, slaw, and mashed potatoes (as if I lik...

Food service on Amtrak (ouch!!)

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
As an experiment, Amtrak is eliminating the dining car on the New York-Miami Silver Star from July 1 until January 2016. Free meals for sleeping car passengers will cease, but fares for sleeping car space will be lower. I’m all for the test. I’ll tell you what would make it a worthwhile endeavor, and what will doom it to failure. Congress has told Amtrak that subsidies for food service will cease in about four years. That’s the challenge — what does Amtrak do? President ...

CSX's brand new thing

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Very seldom does a railroad do something totally new and unprecedented. Well, it's happening now at CSX Transportation. Starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday it rejiggered almost all of its daily manifest trains to run six days a week instead of seven. That's not new, of course. What is without precedent is how CSX is accomplishing it.  Let me give you an example. Train Q410 runs between Waycross, Ga., and Selkirk Yard near Albany, N.Y., starting with its scheduled 10 p.m. depa...

The ski train: One guy's big difference

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Enough, I say, about crude by rail, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Hoosier State, mergers and Electro-Motive. The talk of the town the past few weeks has been the sudden, and by all accounts successful, revival of the ski train out of Denver, under Amtrak’s auspices. Tickets for last Saturday’s train sold out 10 hours after they went online and two hours after first word from the news media, namely National Public Radio. So Amtrak added a second train for Sunday and it, too...

Crude by rail's little secret

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
There’s a line of reasoning that says if an oil pipeline is built, down will go rail volume. The other day I saw a PowerPoint presentation by Taylor Robinson, president of PLG Consulting, that forecasts crude-by-rail volume holding rock-steady between now and 2019, at about 800,000 barrels a day, which equals about 11 trainloads. That puzzled me—what about all those pipelines being built between now and then to siphon away that business? So we agreed to chat this afternoon. This is f...

Hoosier State darts and laurels

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
Indiana and the Federal Railroad Administration are reported to have smoked the peace pipe, as to the Chicago-Indianapolis Hoosier State. At issue was whether Indiana had to become a railroad under FRA’s supervision to insure that safety rules are obeyed. As I understand it, the two parties agreed to draw up a memorandum of understanding, thus ending a standoff that threatened to end the life of this state-supported passenger train. The memorandum will spell out each party’s role in...

FRA must hate passenger trains

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I have gotten from three state government sources some clarification of what the real issue is between the Federal Railroad Administration and the Indiana Department of Transportation, and it is a bit bizarre. By the end of this year, the FRA expects to have rules in effect that require all state governments that subsidize passenger train services to register with the agency as railroads. FRA’s intentions were revealed to state transportation officials on February 17 at a meeting in Washin...

The great "Hoosier State" fiasco

Posted 8 years ago by Fred Frailey
I came down from the clouds today after finishing a difficult story assignment to discover two-day-old news: Indiana has thrown the Hoosier State to the boneyard. Quickly, the background: The Hoosier runs between Chicago and Indianapolis on the four days of the week that the Chicago-Washington Cardinal does not. The Cardinal is a long-distance train and part of the national system; the Hoosier State is a short-distance train, and Indiana must underwrite essentially all of its losses. Indiana dec...

It looks like Total War from here

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Allison Martel, who covers railroads for Reuters, flagged for me some comments made by Canadian Pacific chief executive Hunter Harrison this week at a J.P. Morgan conference in New York City. As he has countless times, he answered a question to say that mergers between Class I railroads will happen in years to come, like it or not. As he sees it, just about any combination would work unless it involved direct competitors in the same region. Heard all that from him before? Yup. But then he went ...

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