Visionary railroading in 2014

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, July 29, 2014

My friend Keel Middleton is a veteran BNSF Railway engineer, working out of Wellington, Kan., on the 311-mile, mostly double-track district west to Amarillo, Tex., on the Chicago-Los Angeles Transcon. Keel has seen business levels at highs and at lows, but never so high as last Friday. You should take what he witnessed as a tribute (railroad business is growing far faster than the economy) and a warning (be careful what you wish for).

Keel is called for 5:05 p.m. to take a 114-car empty unit sand train east to Wellington. While waiting for his train (U-SNJOLO), Keel observes four other eastbound trains arrive, change crews and leave. Two westbound trains do the same. Leaving Amarillo, U-SNJOLO runs around a manifest train stopped on the other main track.

Then Keel’s train starts rolling, and so begins the parade of westbound freights. Ten trains go by, then 20, then 30, and even 40. By the time Keel gets home to Wellington, with 25 minutes of on-duty time to spare, he meets 42 westbounds, not to mention two trains tied down and a third approaching Avard, Okla., from the BNSF line from Tulsa, Okla.

Let’s see, that’s 52 trains, if you count every one he laid eyes on. In all his years with the railroad, Keel has never witnessed a procession like this. Of the 42 westbound trains encountered between Amarillo and Wellington, nine are highest-priority Z trains, five are lesser-priority Q trains, and eight are fellow intermodal trains destined for California ports (S trains). So roughly half of the trains have higher priority — the Z trains total priority. But you have to wonder whether they could ever exercise that priority. If eastbound traffic was anywhere near so frenetic, it would require nimble dispatching to ever route faster trains around the slower ones, because the other main track necessary for overtakes would always be occupied.

So here we are again, rangers. Railroads have lots of capacity until suddenly they don’t. BNSF Railway got hit by a 2x4 between the eyes last year, as traffic surged. This year it is spending prodigiously to expand its network to handle that business. The rest of the industry appears to be having its own BNSF Railway Moment this year, in terms of business growth. The picture that emerges is that of a railroad network in North America that is topping off and even spilling over.

There are two paths forward. One is to conserve capital dollars, reward the shareholders after a century of patience waiting for rewards during the era of heavy regulation and manage capacity by price—that is, don’t add capacity but raise rates to manage what capacity you have. The other course is to build a bigger railroad.

But that second course is hugely expensive, as it always has been. Railroads with visionary leadership summon the courage to do this when the reward seems commensurate. Witness Union Pacific triple-tracking the key 100 miles east of North Platte, Neb., BNSF double-tracking the Transcon from New Mexico to Kansas and (looking back) Pennsylvania Railroad electrifying the Northeast Corridor in the 1930s.

So thank you, Keel Middleton, for setting up my sermon. And the rest of you, tell me, what would a visionary railroader do in 2014? — Fred W. Frailey

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