Goodbye, Electro-Motive (for now)

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
And then there was one. Is anyone else bothered, or at least made uncomfortable, that this great nation presently has but a single maker of high-horsepower diesel freight locomotives? With Electro-Motive Diesel (a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Caterpillar) sidelined by its inability to produce a product that meets the government’s Tier 4 standard for exhaust emissions, only General Electric is left in the game. And this at a time when the railroad business is going great guns and grabbing...

More thoughts on exploding trains

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
You may have read that the Canadian government is requiring rail shippers of crude to take out insurance against the risk of derailment damage. You can bet that the Marsh & McClellan actuaries are trying to calculate the risk of another OMG incident - a Lac-Megantic or that Amtrak train plowing into the train of crude oil splayed across the right of way. Let's see: A year or so ago in a blog, at someone's suggestion, I plowed through FRA accident stats and concluded we should expect six not...

Maybe the oil barons are right

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
It happened again, and again . . . and again this past week. Three oil trains went on the ground, and in two of those instances the results were awful. In West Virginia, a CSX unit train carrying light sweet crude from North Dakota to Yorktown, Va., derailed 27 loaded cars beside the Kanawha River, and 19 of them either exploded or were involved in the subsequent fire. As I write this, five days later, the fire is still burning and an important CSX artery remains blocked. About all the National...

Canada's Potemkin Village

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
There is a god in Canada, and his benevolent name is Claude. As in Claude Mongeau. In my blog last week, I suggested that the large party (106 people) accompanying Bill and Linda Schafer on their annual Moonlighter trip aboard Via Rail Canada’s eastbound Canadian plead with anyone they know at Canadian National, up to and including CEO Mongeau, for fair handling in meets with freight trains. I had been on the train a week ahead of the Schafers, and it reached Toronto 16 hours late, for no ...

The Canadian as farce

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
On Friday evening, my friend and retired Norfolk Southern luminary Bill Schafer and his wife Linda host a journey of more than 100 friends, strangers, and their spouses aboard Via Rail Canada’s Canadian, a four-night, three-day adventure across the great Dominion, from Vancouver, B.C., to Toronto. This group includes active and retired railroad captains whose names you would recognize. My advice to them: Call ahead to every Canadian National Railway friend you have, up to and including CEO...

Railroad giants of times past

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
What an outpouring of great ideas to my plea (see Tell Me What to Write . . . Please!). In less than two days I've gotten 51 responses. Almost all your ideas are good, many are very good. Some are so damn good I've already written about them. Others are good but are better suited for multi-page feature stories that cannot be written on the fly. Rather, what I need to produce is a 950-wood essay that is my monthly column. So the time comes to choose, and it is in the direction of Jeffrey Blackwo...

Tell me what to write . . . please!

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Oh dear, not again. But it's true. Another column is due to Trains Magazine in days. I have one decent idea. But it occurs to me that I have this great resource to draw ideas from. Namely, all of you. So this is your chance. Tell me what to write about. Use your imaginations. Unclog my jammed brain. Awaken my excitement. Inspire my creative juices.  The winner (if there is one, because let's be honest about the long odds) will have the satisfaction of having moved the arc of history. Well...

One more prediction for 2015

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
I left this out of my earlier piece (see A LOT Is Going On in 2015) because the numbers I was looking for weren’t easy to find. But thanks to Ed Greenberg and others at the Association of American Railroads, it’s time for ready-fire-aim: This year will be a business record-setter for American railroads. The previous peak was 2006, when 29,589,782 cars, containers, and trailers were handled. Last year’s tally was 28,440,592 units. Needed to top the 2006 traffic level would be ...

Farewell to an Amtrak credit card

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
My Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard, issued by Chase Bank, ends with the numbers 3524. Excuse me, make that 7276. No, the final digits are 8338. Wrong again, so let’s try 3895. The fact is I don’t possess a valid AGR MasterCard at the moment. While I was having lunch today my iPhone vibrated. It was Chase Bank emailing a Chase Fraud Alert. Did I really just spend $189.68 this afternoon in Missouri at Tobacco Plus? Not easy to do when you’re in Colorado. Out goes 3895. That&rsquo...

A LOT is going on in 2015

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Okay, my vacation is over, and with it my semi-annual writer’s block. Happy new year to everyone. In the spirit of the season, here are four things to watch for in 2015. Call them predictions, if you insist. The NEC will get a huge $$$ injection. Bill Shuster chairs the U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure. The Republican from Altoona, Pa., is about as nonpartisan as you can get. Last summer he got through his committee with no fuss at all a four-year Amtrak reautho...

Amtrak's new look

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
You won’t have the same old Amtrak to kick around anymore, starting as soon as tomorrow. That’s when the first 18 Viewliner baggage cars arrive in Hialeah, Fla., near the Miami Airport, for inspection and acceptance. Hialeah is where the single-level long-distance car fleet is maintained. The baggage cars were built by the Spanish company CAF USA in Elmira Heights, N.Y., and are making their way down the East Coast as I write this. CSX Transportation has the special train P93718 sche...

Cheap crude and oil trains

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Oil producers in North Dakota are feeling the pain today. And so, within the year, might BNSF and Canadian Pacific railways, which carry most North Dakota oil to refineries. The collapse of crude oil prices began last summer and accelerated last week after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries decided not to curtail production. And look what is happening to oil prices in North Dakota: At the peak, in June, prices for North Dakota crude averaged $92 a barrel, reports Plains Marke...

Two Transcons, by the numbers

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Ever wonder what just how many trains are out there at any one time on BNSF Railway’s two transcontinental routes, the ones from Chicago to Los Angeles and Chicago to Seattle? Now you are going to know. Someone sent me snapshots of the trains occupying those two routes on mid-afternoon of a recent day. So let’s begin with the southern Transcon. Are you ready? There were 252 trains roaming that corridor, or about one for every nine miles of that 2,232-mile line. Of these, 44 (17 perc...

The oil party hasn't ended

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
One thing I’ve learned about crude oil on railroads is that the long term is the middle of next month. What’s here today can be gone before you know it. Decisions made in Riyadh yesterday or events in the Ukraine today can turn the economics of oil transportation on its head tomorrow. With that said, I’ve been looking . . . and looking . . . for signs that this new line of business has topped off. All I come up with is evidence that the business, if anything, is booming. Let&...

A new look at Chicago

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Independent railroad analyst Anthony Hatch reports some interesting news came out of the RailTrends conference he put on last week in New York City, in conjunction with Progressive Railroading magazine. Tony says that BNSF Railway, Canadian Pacific Railway and unnamed others had created a Chicago Policy Study Committee of retired operating executives. The group is to report back early in 2015 with recommendations for improving traffic flow through (or maybe around) Chicago. Says Tony: “Thi...

Those misleading Amtrak numbers

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
The Wall Street Journal really needs to assign a reporter to railroads. Since Trains Magazine contributor Dan Machalaba left the paper in 2008, nobody on the staff seems to have gotten his or her hands around this industry. A pity, because the story in yesterday’s Journal concerning Amtrak’s financial results could have been a lot more informative. Amtrak had given the Journal an early look at its press release, which said that the corporation’s federally funded operating loss...

Rob Krebs on mergers, then and now

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
If ever there was a passionate advocate for a national, coast-to-coast U.S. railroad, it would be Robert Krebs. In the January 2001 issue of Trains, I wrote this upon his retirement as chief executive of Burlington Northern Santa Fe: “This he believes: Without a national reach, no railroad will ever realize its full potential, and the industry will remain an unattractive alternative to most shippers. Short of that ideal, no railroad will hold its own destiny in its hands.” The previo...

Amtrak loses patience (finally)

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
About time, I say. During an interview with D.J. Stadtler, Amtrak’s VP operations, for a story to appear in the January issue of Trains, I asked why Amtrak hadn’t taken Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation to court over their mishandling of the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited, “court” of course being the Surface Transportation Board. Congress in 2008 gave Amtrak the right to seek damages for repeated and inordinate delays. Stadtler hemmed and hawed a few second...

Let's quit complaining and fix Chicago

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Untangling the mess in the Railroad Capital of the World is not that difficult. It does not necessarily require a lot of money—you don’t need CREATE’s billions, for instance, although if governments showered the money down (don’t count on it) the railroads would gladly catch it in their caps. What it does require is the attention of railroad CEOs and a willingness to make deals with their counterparts, who they generally detest. So here are four ideas to start the ball r...

Going over Michael Ward's head

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Those who read my All Hunter, All the Time blog last week noticed my puzzlement. I was trying to find a rationale — a script — that would include Canadian Pacific approaching CSX to propose a merger, letting that fact leak out, watching CSX stock rise 10 percent in a plunging market, calling off discussions abruptly, and then going live with analysts and reporters for 90 minutes to explain why nothing happened. It made no sense. What movie is this, I wondered? A Canadian Pacific off...

It's the oil, stupid!

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Who shot BNSF Railway? What’s the disease eating away at Norfolk Southern? Why is Chicago so screwed up? Whose knife is sticking in the back of CSX Transportation? The answer to all four questions is the same, and so obvious I am embarrassed. We have been in denial about oil. Crude by rail has been a fun story to follow and write about. But it also is the root of the service collapse and congestion affecting railroads across the northern half of the country today. It’s not something...

All Hunter, all the time

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
First of all, to the Fraileyskeptics who said Canadian Pacific would get nowhere wooing CSX and that CP’s Hunter Harrison would slink away after being told “no” once: You were right, I was wrong. He did just that: got nowhere, slinked away. Not exactly slinked. Rather, he spent an hour and a half today talking to analysts and reporters about why he gave up the chase and about everything else that was on his mind. My question was never asked, so I’ll ask it now: Mr. Harris...

Mergers: Hunter on the prowl

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Mere days after Canadian Pacific let word get out that it had its eyes on CSX, it’s apparent to railroad insiders that Hunter Harrison is not going to go away. We’re heading into extra innings. Michael Ward, chief executive of CSX, told analysts Wednesday that that a combination of his railroad with CP could be disruptive and cause more congestion, not less. He said regulators would be “very cautious” in considering a Class I marriage. Let me translate that for you: Mr. ...

NS gets that old time Amtrak religion

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
I’m sorry, I cannot pass off as complete coincidence that Norfolk Southern chief executive Wick Moorman would respond on Monday to a public chastisement by the chairman of the Surface Transportation Board over handling of Amtrak passenger trains, and by Thursday Amtrak trains are zipping into Chicago better than at any time in memory. As I write this, the westbound Capitol Limited (Washington-Chicago) is just over an hour late on one of its best runs in ages. West of South Bend, Ind., it i...

CP says to CSX: Shall we dance?

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
You are entitled to believe that mergers in the railroad industry are driven by broad economic forces. I believe they are driven by the ambitions of men. The news today that Canadian Pacific has approached CSX regarding a merger appears to bear me out. A young chief executive of a successful business is the last person you want to ask to sell. Why should the younger CEO give up the possibility of years of accomplishment and executive bonuses? The answer is that he won't unless backed against a ...

The new normal is highly abnormal

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Amtrak’s Capitol Limited (train 29) left South Bend, Ind., yesterday at 11:08 a.m. Thirteen minutes later, the Lake Shore Limited (train 49) followed. Next stop for both trains: Chicago, 84 miles west. The Lake Shore reached Chicago at 4:26 p.m., the Capitol at 5:20 p.m. This fiasco illustrates how precarious our railroad infrastructure is today, at a time of record shipper demand and probably record shipper unhappiness. The tale of what happened to these trains is worth retelling. West o...

You just don't get it

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
The reaction to my blog on letting the Chinese develop our railroad infrastructure (go here) has been uniformly negative. That is the good news. I agree, the Chinese government is a dictatorial regime whose nose you should not want inside your tent, because like the camel it will soon enough occupy the tent. What distresses me is that so few of you understood the intent of the blog. So I will try again. In my opinion, railroads are under-investing in capacity. This is hard for people to underst...

The railroad dating game is at hand

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Jack Koraleski, the chief executive of Union Pacific, was 63 this year. So was Michael Ward at CSX. Wick Moorman at Norfolk Southern was 61 and Dave Starling at Kansas City Southern 64. Carl Ice at BNSF was a relatively young 57. What I’m suggesting is that the next year or so could end the merger stalemate that has lasted the past two decades. Like it or not, North America will likely end up with two national systems. Often, the impediment is that a new chief executive wants to make his ...

Should China expand U.S. railroads?

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Michael Ward, the esteemed chief executive of CSX Transportation, when asked about his railroad’s chronic state of congestion, says you don’t build a church for Easter Sunday. Is that his final answer? We are left to conclude that CSX would rather offer substandard service at higher and higher rates than expand capacity to match demand. Oh, he’d expand capacity if a unit of government would pay for it. It seems that while the railroad industry stands in desperate need of people...

For it until they were against it

Posted 9 years ago by Fred Frailey
Carl Hiaasen is a great comic novelist. I've read them all. His books (Sick Puppy, Lucky You, Basket Case, Strip Tease, among others) poke fun at the inanities of people in his native Florida — their petty crimes, feckless behavior, outrageous acts, crazy blowups and so on and so forth until you are rolling on the floor. But now it seems as if in real life, Carl Hiaasen is a character in what could be one of his own books. In 2012, when Florida East Coast Industries announced All Aboard F...

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