Railroad Companies: Crossing Tracks, Crossing Centuries

Railroad Companies: Crossing Tracks, Crossing Centuries

railroad companies

This Ain’t Your Great-Grandfather’s Railroad

So, you’re stuck at a railroad crossing in Aberdeen. It happens to everyone. But don’t get mad. Get informed about what put that train there and its place in the Hub City. Trains are, after all, necessary because “fundamentally, we connect Aberdeen to markets around the world,” says Amy McBeth, Regional Director of Public Affairs for BNSF. As we will see, it’s a pretty good point. So, sit back and relax (and shift into Park).

A Business That Moves

Founded as a stop on the east-west line of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad, Aberdeen grew to be a central location for trains in northeastern South Dakota. A hub city for sure, early maps show rail lines from all directions converging on and crossing through Aberdeen like spokes on a wheel. Many of the trains on those spokes were passenger trains. The railroad was central to Aberdeen’s daily life for decades. A hundred years ago, about 700 people worked for railroad companies here, nearly 5% of the city’s population.

One of the railroads operating in Aberdeen was the Great Northern Railway, an ancestor of today’s BNSF, which is now the only railroad serving the Hub City. Stuck at a crossing, we might see cars sporting other railroad logos, but it’s a BNSF train being pulled by a BNSF locomotive operated by a BNSF crew. Just as any single train could be an amalgamation of rail cars from various railroad companies, each current company contains the DNA of many forebears—and maybe none more so than BNSF.

About 700 railroads operate in America today. BNSF is one of the largest—which is perhaps not surprising because it is the result of the mergers of some 390 railroad companies over 170 years. Its earliest predecessor, the Aurora Branch Railroad, a six-mile line near Chicago, was established in 1849 (becoming the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy a few years later). The other chief branch of the family tree launched in 1869 with the birth of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. After a century of many mergers, a combination of five railroads in 1990 created the Burlington Northern, and the final union occurred in 1995 when the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroads became the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, later branded as BNSF Railway. In 2010, Warren Buffet stepped in, and BNSF became a Berkshire Hathaway company.

As a freight railroad, BNSF does host and operate passenger service in a few cities. Not in Aberdeen, though. The Hub City, like the rest of South Dakota, has been without passenger rail service since 1969.

Shuttling the Goods

Wherever you’re stopped by a train, it’s either going to or coming from the railyard (sometimes seemingly doing both, going forward and backing up as you watch and wait while unseen coupling and decoupling occurs down the track). The yard is where it happens. Over time, the railroad footprint in town has consolidated as the railroad companies have. Only one depot of the several that once graced Aberdeen still has railroad activity, and that only in a small part, but the railyard still covers a significant part of town. Starting at Main Street and stretching west, “Our yard is approximately two miles long,” Amy says. “In it, we have 13 tracks that we regularly switch on, where we’re building trains or taking cars out of arriving trains.” 

You might be able to guess what’s on most of the cars passing in front of you. “The type of commodities hauled in and around Aberdeen are mostly agricultural products and industrial products,” says Amy. While she couldn’t offer specifics for Aberdeen, she described a state-level trade surplus, “Overall, we ship about 149,000 carloads of agricultural products from South Dakota each year and about 4,300 carloads of industrial products. For commodities shipped into South Dakota by rail, we ship about 15,000 carloads of industrial products, 13,000 carloads of coal, and 9,000 carloads of ag products each year.” That’s over 150,000 out and about 35,000 in.

With four cars “exported” for each one “imported,” the math demands that what goes out must come back—so it can go out again. The answer is that some entering trains may be empty. Amy explains, “We have found it efficient to run ‘shuttle’ trains: a train where all the cars come from one origination, such as a particular grain elevator, and go to a single destination.” So, we might be stopped by a shuttle train in which all cars are full or all empty. The other basic system is the manifest train, which will include cars with various types of freight that are not all going to the same destination, and some cars may be transferred to other trains at certain points.

Aberdeen averages eight trains a day, processing maybe hundreds of cars per day. “It’s a 24/7/365 business,” Amy sums up—and anyone living in a range of the railyard can attest to hearing the rolling thunder of building trains in the middle of the night.

You’d have to look fast while you’re stuck at a crossing to see the train’s crew. There are only two on a typical train: the engineer, who operates the train, and the conductor, who builds the train, inspects it, manages the safe movement, and does the paperwork. “The most visible job to the public is the train crew, an engineer and conductor operating a train through town,” Amy notes, “but it takes many jobs unseen by the public to run a railroad.”

In Aberdeen, there are three basic groups of employees: transportation or yard workers, which includes the on-board crew as well as those who work in the yard to sort the cars and freight, the mechanical crew deals with rail cars and equipment, and the engineering crew inspects and repairs track. Today, there are about 125 BNSF employees in Aberdeen.

The one in charge is the trainmaster, who is responsible for seeing that trains carry the right freight to the right places. In Aberdeen, that’s Joey Holzer, who has worked at BNSF for nearly 12 years, previously as a conductor. His grandfather also worked for the railroad in Aberdeen, which is something that’s not uncommon, Amy says, because “Railroading is a lifestyle.” Several multi-generational railroad families work in Aberdeen, sometimes fathers and sons, brothers, or, like Joey, employees with a grandfather retired from BNSF.

Stuck In Traffic

Depending on when you got stopped by the train, you may or may not have seen the locomotive. While the industry took off in the nineteenth century, there’s no more chug-chug, choo-choo, or puffs of black smoke. Today’s railroad is fully modern. Amy quotes the BNSF CEO’s comment, “The only thing that’s still the same about the railroad from the old days is steel wheels on steel rail.” She adds, “The locomotive is a massive computer running down the tracks.” And it receives an amazing amount of data to improve performance and especially safety.

When it comes to safety and accidents, Amy says, “Typically the cause is either something with equipment, track or human error. The question is how can we attack the causes of incidents to make things safer for everyone?” One answer is taking 35 million data readings every day on the equipment traveling on the lines. “We have matched technology for each broad cause of the incident,” she notes. 

Equipment detectors—some of which are built into the tracks—can see if components of rail cars are not in the right position, detect heat, or heart defects in wheels or bearings. Special railcars take measurements of the track using infrared, ultrasound, and sonar technologies to “see” the inside of the rails, detect flaws, and measure tie density. To prevent human error, BNSF has implemented Positive Train Control, a federally mandated and extremely sophisticated system to track train movements and stop the train in certain circumstances in the event of human failure to respond. Collecting this data and leveraging it has helped BNSF prevent derailments and other problems. 

By now, it can seem like old technology, but obviously trains don’t run on coal anymore. “In fact, it’s the most environmentally-friendly form of transportation,” Amy asserts. “A train can move a ton of freight 500 miles on a gallon of diesel. It would take 280 semis to transport the same amount.” That’s another thing to remember when you’re stopped by a train: imagine hundreds more semis on the roads. 

Not surprisingly, a company that can look back a century and a half doesn’t look just a few years ahead. A business that old has seen customers and products come and go. As Amy says, “For years, coal was a major commodity, and we built the infrastructure for it, but coal will go away. Now ethanol is relatively new. We wouldn’t have foreseen it a few decades ago. What will be the next thing we don’t know about now?”

As it thinks ahead, BNSF works today with communities to ensure they have strong railroad connections. It’s a win-win arrangement, promoting economic development, especially for smaller rural areas, and continuing business for the railroad. “There’s a multiplier effect: We employ people who serve customers here who hire local people, too,” Amy says. Further, “Local businesses can exist, and grow because they have access to rail service.” As an example, she points to the new AGP soybean plant in Aberdeen, for whom rail service is critical. BNSF referred to it in its national public relations as a large investment by this customer.

In another way of supporting customer communities, the company gives back philanthropically where its employees “live, work, and play.” In Aberdeen, the BNSF Foundation has made more than $100,000 in donations in recent years to the Boys & Girls Club, Storybook Land, the YMCA, Safe Harbor, and the K.O. Lee Aberdeen Public Library.

One more thing to remember when stuck at a train crossing, is, as Amy says, “Almost everything we consume was at some point was moved by train.” Most of the things you see in your car, or through the windshield, or that you own likely traveled on a train on its way to you. Even the t-shirt you’re wearing probably traveled from China in a container ship to a port in California, then was moved by truck to a local railyard and shipped by rail to Chicago or Kansas City. Then it was trucked to a box store near you. 

It’s a lot to think about. Good thing that the train still has a few minutes to go. // –Patrick Gallagher

Boxcar Bushels

The average railcar can hold about 3,200 bushels of wheat, about 350,000 bushels in a 110-car grain train. South Dakota farms produce an average of about 55 bushels per acre (it varies). That grain train could carry the harvest of about 6,000 acres of farmland, which is about four times the size of the average South Dakota farm.

Crossing the Line

Sitting at a crossing, you’ll see all kinds of artwork on train cars that weren’t there when they rolled off the assembly line. The railroad isn’t a fan. “It’s not romantic,” BNSF’s Amy McBeth insists about the graffiti. “It’s dangerous and illegal. It’s trespassing and vandalism.” There’s risk involved too. She warns, “You don’t know when a train might move.” 

The railroad is no more excited about riding the rails and hoboes, people who’ve been stowing away on trains for about as long as there have been trains. “It was dangerous back in the day, and it is now,” Amy explains. “Current stowaways are often evading law enforcement. If we have reports of one, we’ll work with law enforcement.” Ironically, we think of hoboes as tramps or bums, but the term originally meant a migrant worker, such as someone who worked on the railroad in one place until the work was done, then moved to another place to work—at least eventually. In time, the words and their meanings merged.

Crossing Over

Okay, trains are cool, but can we time our travel so we’re not stuck at crossings? BNSF’s Amy McBeth commiserates, but “Freight trains don’t operate on a set schedule. We try to be mindful to limit the impact of our operations on the communities that grew up and around the railroad tracks”—but their trains are always going to run into some community’s rush hour. She adds, however, “Like the interstates, where vehicle traffic can occur without interruption, the best option is an overpass or underpass so that both trains and motor vehicles can operate at all times.” And there’s the answer to avoiding train delays.

For something so central as driving in Aberdeen, it’s hard to believe the Second Street overpass is only 60 years old. Built in 1959, the idea first surfaced much earlier. In 1935, the state filed a plan for an overpass and one for an underpass on Main Street, both envisioning a pedestrian tunnel, but they didn’t go far.

Twenty years later, things boiled up, and a Second Street overpass was put to a city vote in September 1956. In a public meeting at the Municipal Building before the vote, most people were supportive, some noting that failure to build the overpass might result in Highway 281 being rerouted west of town and the city losing business from travelers. A wry newspaper reported that some Northsiders were late for the meeting. “Guess why?” the headline smirked—because of a train. 

As the Daily News reported, “Aberdeen’s dream of 30 years became a reality when 68 percent of the voters approved the erection of an overpass on Second Street by favoring a $220,000 bond issue for the city’s share of expenses” (federal funds covered the rest of the million-dollar project). The structure still took three years to build, although, not because it included an innovative heating system to melt snow and ice. The July 1959 dedication drew Gov. Ralph Herseth, many state dignitaries, and a crowd of citizens. The Daily News reported one speaker’s quip that “the crowd was almost as large as the ones that are held captive by freight trains at the Main Street crossing.” After the Governor cut a ribbon, a parade of cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians crossed the overpass.

Forty years later, the state elected to build a bypass west of Aberdeen for Highway 281, which included a railroad overpass. The 1950s concern about losing traffic and business to a 281-bypass seemed to have faded, and the west overpass opened in 2002.

Listening to the Tracks

For more than a century, trains—as real objects or symbols—have inspired an amazing array of music, from deeply spiritual to challengingly allegorical to mysteriously insightful to simply hokey. Here are a bunch of them (in alphabetical order). 

“The Ballad of Casey Jones, or, The Brave Engineer” Composer Eddie Newton, lyricist Wallace Saunders, T. Lawrence Seibert

“The Ballad of John Henry” 

“Chattanooga Choo” by Harry Warren (music) and Mack Gordon (words)

“Choo Ch’boogie” by Louis Jordan

“City of New Orleans” by Steve Goodman

“Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne

“Down There by the Train” by Tom Waits

“Downbound Train” by Bruce Springsteen

“Downtown Train” by Tom Waits

“Fast Train” by Solomon Burke

“Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash

“Homeward Bound” by Simon & Garfunkel

“I Don’t Want to Ride the Rails No More” by Vince Gill

“I Heard that Lonesome Whistle” by Johnny Cash

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” 

“Land of Hope and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen

“Last Train to Clarksville” by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

“Long Train Running” by the Doobie Brothers 

“Love Train” by The O’Jays

“Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight & the Pips

“The Midnight Special” 

“On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Johnny Mercer

“Orange Blossom Special” by Ervin T. Rouse

“Peace Train” by Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam

“People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield

“Rock Island Line” by Johnny Cash

“Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum

“Southern Pacific” by Neil Young

“Stop that Train” by Bob Marley and the Wailers

“Take the ‘A’ Train” composter Billy Strayhorn, lyricist Joya Sherrill

“(This Train Is) Bound for Glory” 

“Train of Love” by Johnny Cash

“Train Song” by Tom Waits

“Tucson Train” by Bruce Springsteen

“Wabash Cannonball” by J. A. Roff