Tuesday, August 16, 2011

America's Railroads: Always At Work

I was at dinner at the Village Inn in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Union Pacific's mainline rolls right outside the window.  I was tired from having driven three days from West Virginia enroute towards California, and it was relaxing to sit and just have dinner.
A westbound coal train slowly made it way past, AC4400CW's on the point.  I ate my salad, and car after car of Powder River coal thundered past the window, bound towards the Southwest. 
As the last few cars passed my view, the crossing gates began to lower once more.  Containers headed to Chicago and the massive Global 3 intermodal facility from the Port of Seattle rolled past on their transcontinental trek.
It makes one feel small while driving across America to think that freight such as this is constantly on the move.  To think that the railroad never sleeps.  Coal and grain are always bound to ports, coal is bound to utilities, grain to millers, and containers bound across America with all kinds of manufactured good.  The railroad is truly always at work.  Thank you to America's railroaders for making this possible.

The Modern Railroad

Two Evolution-Series locomotives with Chicago-bound shipping containers roll at the Roanoke, Virginia, signal. They pass a green light on a clear the track.
These modern locomotives, dubbed "world's cleanest locomotives" were designed with six years and $200 million of research and development by the modern railroad industry. At up to 4400 horsepower, these locomotives have no compromises at the draw bar while lowering emissions and increasing fuel efficiency.
The locomotives grind past.  Many sea containers cross the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific as a land bridge in order to avoid Panama Canal congestion. Domestic containers belonging to the railroads and trucking companies are quickly pulled off of the train at the destination and are routed for distribution. Modern trains allow truck trailers to be removed from their chassis to become stacked two high, helping satisfy the world's need for fuel-efficient transportation.
The locomotives throttle up. The cars whine with precision over the steel rail. The train has momentum. This is the modern railroad. America is in motion.

Monday, August 15, 2011

West Virginia: Mining and Railroading- The Story Continues

West Virginia, the Mountain State.  In every hollar, you see the hardwoods, along the roads; you see the evidence of coal.  Trains echo through the mountains, loaded with coal.  Mining is strong here.  It is in the hills, it is in the hearts.
            Small towns have popped up here and there.  They have come and gone.  “Have you gone down to Bluefield,” people ask.  “About to go down there myself.”  Bluefield serves as the spoke of the hub for much of this area.  The heart of the mining, as it has for so many years.
            The trains roll, loaded with coal.  It is a tough job, for the miners and the railroad men, but at least the food stays on the table, and another generation grows up here in West Virginia.  Their story passes on to another generation.  Here in the mountains, the story continues, as it has for generations.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A New York Central GP35 at Cleveland

The year is 1965.  A New York Central GP35 works west out of Cleveland.  There is a cathud as the couplers strike.  The air is noticeably cold from the chill of the lake-effect on this winter day.  The New York Central and rival Pennsylvania Railroad handled much of the traffic moving to and from the Northeast.  New York Central, known as "The Scenic Water Level Route" served much of the urban centers that developed along the great lakes, including towns such as Cleveland, Erie and Buffalo.
This train, behind this GP35, is bound for Chicago.  It has 70 cars in tow.  There is a mix of manufactured goods and commodities bound for Chicago itself and westbound cargo that will be interchanged for railroads headed west.  Railroads such as the Rock Island, the Union Pacific and the Santa Fe.  The New York Central and the City of Cleveland reach much of America with its goods by this rail line, as this GP35 gets ready to pull its train on down the track.

North Platte, NE: Key City for America's Freight Needs

North Platte, Nebraska is a key location on the Union Pacific railroad.  I have had the pleasure of visiting it several times while driving across America.
Trains are always rolling in North Platte.  Always heading east and west.  Towards Cheyenne and Denver to the west and Omaha to the east they roll.  All kinds of cargo, all kinds of trains.
Much of the coal rolling from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming heads east, onwards to points across America.  Freight of manufactured goods and commodities such as grain from the great plains roll west. Crews come and go from the yard office as the trains are dispatched.
Locomotives are repaired and overhauled in the massive shops at North Platte.  Engines need to be inspected and returned to service, but safety is key to this task.
North Platte, Nebraska is a key railroad town.  Key to America's freight needs.

Central Vermont at St. Albans, VT

The Central Vermont was a colorful railroad.  I never got the chance to see its locomotives.  Always showing a sign of its Canadian National ownership, the paint schemes reflected a bit of their own independence in the green and yellow years.  At this era, lash-ups often showed multiple painted engines in brightly painted liveries.

Railroading, Indeed, Has a Bright Future

I enjoy thinking of the history of today's railroads as today's trains roll past.  The tracks, many built by railroads so many years ago, are still very much in use, still key corridors for goods throughout America.
            I see finished automobiles, coal, tractors, containers stacked two high with domestic goods and goods traded from overseas, grain, cement, virtually every kind of freight is carried on today’s railroad.  If you do not think that the railroad of today is key to America, you have not taken a closer look recently.
            Goods such as coal, both for export and for America’s power plants, rely on shipment by rail, as it is not practical to haul the tonnages required by America and the world the long distances necessary by truck.  Grain and many other bulk commodities, as well, rely on shipment by rail over long distances.
            America needs trains.  We can be thankful that America’s railroads continue to invest in their infrastructure to meet the needs of our rail system of tomorrow.  Railroading, indeed, has a bright future.

Radford, Virginia: Standing in History

It is not often that you get to stand in the footsteps of history.  I make an effort to do this as much as I can.  When I see the brick walls that say, “Cigars, 5 Cents,” I take an extra effort to stop and think.
            I wonder for a moment as I pause.  For instance, in the town of Radford, Virginia, where the town’s Main Street runs alongside the former Norfolk & Western mainline.  As today’s Norfolk Southern rolls by, I envision the days as they were in a simpler time.
            It is not that hard to do.  The sound of the train horn echoes in my ear, and I think of the train rolling onto Roanoke, and think of how trains built Virginia and America so many years ago.  The coal hoppers roll by, and I think of a railroad that works in the way it was intended to so many years ago.
            The cars roll past, one by one, each pounding the crossing with their payload of coal.  This is America’s railroad system at work, whether in cities large or small, whatever they haul, railroads work for America.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Coal Trains in Roanoke, I love it here

The coal trains roll past the green signal.  Every morning on the way to breakfast, I look towards the tracks and see if a train is coming.  This morning, a loaded coal train from Bluefield with ES44AC's heads towards Lamberts Point with one hundred plus Top Gon hoppers of West Virgnia Coal.  The rails echo as the Honda Civic drives past the heavy train.  Another load of coal, another day of railroading, another day in Roanoke.  I love it here.

Chicago & North Western Early Impression When Traveling through Iowa

The crossing gates went down.  Tim and I had just passed through Boone.  On the horizon, we saw three Chicago & North Western GP38-2's pulling a fifty car train of grain empties towards the elevators of central Iowa.  We pulled up to the gates, I got out my camera and, horn blazing, Chicago & North Western made one of its earliest impressions on me.

Maintenance of Way

The trains do not roll today. However briefly, they do not roll. The railroad is not stopped, not permanently, however, it stands, paused. The trains catch their breath.

The track gang is at work. The sparks fly. No trains run today. The welded rail must be repaired. Down the track, red blocks protect the path of eight diligent workers who work at a fervent pace.

Fervent, yet safe, everything is done safely. On the truck door is a box marked "Trauma Kit." No need to remind one that this is dangerous work. These workers are skilled at what they do. Skilled and cautious, for it is not just their life that they hold but the life of their friends and colleagues, and, in the end, the lives of all who work on the railroad once the track is fixed.

This is maintenance of way. These workers are some of railroading's unsung heroes. Today they work in the mud and wind of a recently passed storm. Yet they stand proud. Out of four trucks they work. Always keeping a safe distance from the shower of the welder's sparks. Always alert. All so the railroad will run safely once again.

Much of America's 140,000 miles of railroad track lays in remote, hard to reach areas, such as mountain passes and deserts.  Frequently track needs to be replaced in tunnels and over bridges.  Especially on single track, it is vital to get trains running after replacing rails or cross ties, as industries at the end of the line are not be able to receive vital supplies that can only be shipped by rail car, such as coal, grain, or steel.

Train stations are also pose a challenge.  By their nature, train stations often pose challenges in accessing equipment and rail lines that need maintenance.  Workers do not want to put passengers in harms way.  Many passenger trains run on high-voltage electric current, which, at times must be disabled in order to work on the track.  The worker always must be mindful of this danger as well as the danger of oncoming trains on parallel tracks.

When we see the delay at the station due to repairs, the need to take a bus detour, sometimes we forget that our safety is in these worker's hands. It is in these repairs that the railroad stays strong, because of those strong workers who repair the right of way.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Seattle and Some of My First Railfanning

Along the Seattle waterfront, Burlington Northern trains ran from Interbay to Balmer Yard.  I sat on concrete pilings on the wharf and watched the SD40-2's run light off of the intermodal trains.  When the sun began to set, the evening would cool, but my enthusiasm to watch trains would heat up, as the double-stack trains began to run from the hub center.  Woodchip trains from British Columbia headed south with the 8100 units bound for Tacoma and the paper mills.  This was some of my first railfanning along the Burlington Northern.

Double-Stacks on the Heartland Corridor in Roanoke, VA

I hear a Rumbling from my vantage while signing prints at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke.  A coal train has waited outside the window for about ten minutes.  Now I look up and a trio of Dash-9 locomotives pass.  Double-stacked containers follow the lead.

These containers spell progress.  Tunnels were raised along the route through West Virginia's Appalachians to make a significantly shorter route from Chicago to Norfolk, through towns such as Bellevue, OH; Kenova, WV and Roanoke, VA.  I witness this progress as these containers pass, carrying goods from domestic markets and from abroad.  This is progress on the modern railroad.  This is The Heartland Corridor of Norfolk Southern.

Driving West Across Nebraska to California

A summer rain fell towards the I-29 interchange at Omaha.  Mom and I headed west towards California.  Railroads always seemed to pull us to the East Coast, but life always seemed to pull us back to California.  As the rain fell, I thought of Nebraska Ahead.
The southward hook of freeway towards Lincoln and the hope that the rain would clear up or at least maintain a light pace.  The clouds did not look ominous.  Beyond lay North Platte and Union Pacific's massive hub that brings trains from all corners of the West.
I thought of California, still several days away and the West that we had to cross.  The wide open prairies that roll away from I-80 and ease into distant mountains of Wyoming, leading into the salt flats and open deserts of Utah and Nevada.  Again, we headed west.

Bluefield, WV- Rich in Coal, Rich in History

Bluefield, WV stands rich in history.  Here I stand amongst this history.  As today’s Norfolk Southern trains carry coal from the Blue Ridge towards the shoals at Norfolk, I retrace the history of yesterday’s Norfolk & Western and this town that that railroading and coal mining helped to build.
You can see it in the faces of the locals and in the peeling signs upon the brick that Bluefield supported the mines, and, in its core still supports the coal heritage of this region.  Coal has been key to our past, is key to our present and will be key to our future.
I talk about the good old times and about the Bluefield of today.  How the mountains are beautiful and to be respected.  How the mountains built this city and so much of this region.  In a deeper look, these mountains helped build much of America.
This is a region rich in coal, but, because of that mineral, it is rich in history and culture, as well.  I talk amongst the locals and get a sense of the history, of what it was like when Y6B and Class A locomotives came to the yard to tie up and get much needed water and coal to take trains onward from this region.  Coal built this town at the junction of Virginia and West Virginia, a town which once had the highest population of millionaires in the country.
The wealth of coal barons and the rise of speculation in the area added to this rise of fortunes, but as well, Bluefield’s perch high in the Appalachians made the town naturally cooler than much of the surrounding valleys.  Bluefield was, as well, nestled in a prime location between the rich coal fields and the city of Roanoke, seventy miles to the east, which was developing into a key rail hub on the Norfolk & Western and Virginian railroads for moving coal to points north, south and east.  Coal could be effectively moved to the northwest and west on the Norfolk & Western, as well.
This key location helped the coal of the Blue Ridge develop America and its growing need for fuel.  In a sense, the availability of railroads in the region helped America continue to industrialize.  As the steel centers, factories and shipyards developed along the Seaboard, in the Northeast and Midwest, so grew the demand for coal.  Thanks to the mines, miners, railroads and railroad workers of this region, America was able to effectively industrialize.

Green Collar Job-Locomotive Building

The locomotive of the future is here today, and with it a growing green collar job-locomotive building. Evolution Series Diesel-Electrics, "The World's Cleanest Locomotives" roll out of General Electric's Erie, Pennsylvania plant. Built by American workers, these locomotives are the product of five years and $250 million of research and development by the modern railroad industry.
GE Transportation, which built 907 " World's Cleanest Locomotives" in 2007 employs 5,000 workers at Erie. The company has orders for hundreds more.
The infrastructure of transportation is tied to America. Transportation jobs, by their nature, cannot be outsourced. The future of this transportation lies in locomotives, which can, on average, pull a ton of freight over 400 miles. Although locomotives can be built overseas, General Electric has chosen to keep its plant in the United States.
Locomotives have evolved due to more stringent standards of the EPA. Locomotives had no emission standards prior to 2000. The EPA mandated emissions be lowered to 500 parts per million by 2007 and 15 parts per million by 2012. This is done in two ways-
1. By remanufacturing existing locomotives.
2. By purchasing new locomotives.
Railroads have already stepped up to the 2007 standard. Much of the locomotive rebuilding done was done in the United States. Many of the locomotives purchased came from General Electric and were built at Erie by US workers. The industry researches and prepares to build its next "Cleanest Locomotives." America's green collar workers build today's locomotives now and will build the next generation of locomotives tomorrow.

Sapp Brothers Truck Stop, Cheyenne, WY

We pulled into Sapp Brother's truck stop in Cheyenne, WY.  The gates were down on I-80 even though the day was clear as a bell.  Mom and I went in and asked the lady behind the register what had happened and apparently a tanker truck had gone off of the road.
We had Diet Coke and I had a slice of apple pie and sat there for about a half-hour, figuring that the waitress would tell the truckers and us when the road would open again.  In the background, I heard a trucker say, “Man, this ain’t no good, I gotta get to Iowa by tomorrow, I can’t be sittin’ here like this.”  We sat there minding our business. 
Finally, fifteen minutes later, I went up to the waitress and asked, “Do you have any idea when the road will be open?”
She said, “Oh, its been open for twenty minutes now.”
“Ugh.”  That’s traveling across America for you.