Thursday, May 08, 2014

BNSF's best days are just ahead

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If recent reports published by Railway Age and others regarding BNSF's clogged network have managed to discourage any shipper or industry-related investor, I have news that might brighten their outlook.

BEK 9388On Saturday, May 3, 2014, while BNSF parent Berkshire Hathaway Inc. was hosting its annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, Neb., I was spending the day watching and photographing what was happening on BNSF’s Lakeside Subdivision between Spokane and Pasco, Wash. It’s too bad there wasn’t a live satellite feed between me and Omaha’s CenturyLink Center to help B-H honcho Warren Buffett and his officials from BNSF deflect some of the questions coming their way about congestion, delays, and capacity improvements, because from what I saw in the field, serious relief for all that backed-up freight is very close at hand.

Along for the ride was my son Sean, who’s majoring in civil engineering at the University of Idaho. Throughout the day, we were either in phone contact or spending time trackside with our friend Roger from Spokane (he being employed in the field of engineering himself), sharing whatever we knew about which trains were coming next.

Here’s what we saw as we progressed west along the Lakeside Sub: grading, switches, and signals in place for a new siding between Fishtrap and Sprague; newly-laid track for a three-mile siding extension between Tokio and Ritzville; grading for three miles of new track that will extend the siding at Lind so that it connects with an existing 14-mile stretch of two main tracks running from Sand west to Cunningham.

That's not to mention other work we did not have time to see, like the extension of two main tracks westward from Cunningham to Hatton, lengthening of the siding at Cactus by four miles, and new track to be laid between Cheney and Babb that will form a 6.5-mile stretch of double-track main line.

That Saturday happened to be a rare day off for Maintenance of Way forces (or, as some train crews call them, “Maintenance In The Way”), so traffic on the Lakeside Sub was moving rather freely. In fact, you want to know how to tell when a 130-mile stretch of CTC railway is operating properly? When it’s got eight or nine trains rolling east, seven or eight rolling west, all at once, with hardly a peep on the radio aside from the routine readouts from defect detectors and bits of chatter between passing crews, everyone flowing smoothly one behind the other or in and out of sidings on signal indication. And nobody calling the dispatcher to ask, “How many are we waiting here for?” Just trains on the move. And lots of them. Period.

OK, so the 40 or so trains that traversed the Lakeside Sub that Saturday was not record-setting for that particular route, nor does it compare with the level of traffic BNSF typically pushes across a given segment of its Los Angeles-Chicago Transcon corridor each day. But consider that the Lakeside handles maybe two-thirds of what BNSF brings into and out of the Northwest each day; the rest runs up north between Spokane and Seattle. And consider also that the Lakeside is, for the moment, largely single-tracked—which is why it only takes one or two hiccups, like a heavy manifest stalled on the 1% grade east of Sprague, or a late-running Amtrak No. 27, to dissolve the momentum of multiple trains across the entire subdivision.

BEK 9423The men and women who hire on to run or dispatch trains for BNSF learn more about railroading in their first year or two of service than I could possibly gather in a lifetime of merely observing from trackside. But this much I can tell you: Having seen this same stretch of railroad 30 years ago when it operated as a one-way route for BNSF predecessor Burlington Northern (trains ran in the opposite direction on a separate Spokane-Pasco route that has long since been abandoned), I find their capability to move more freight here today is nothing short of amazing.

Sure, there are other chokepoints waiting to be dealt with, like the second main track that will someday be laid through the serpentine coulee between Connell and Hatton, and similar expansion to be done across the rest of the Northern Corridor. If trains were rolling so smoothly on a Saturday because track gangs had the day off, imagine how much more traffic the Lakeside Sub and other BNSF routes will soon be able to handle when all that new track is put into service.

And if BNSF finds it has no room left for expanding within its existing route structure, don’t be surprised when it lays new track over some long-forgotten mountain pass, if only to create yet another avenue to widen the way west for grain, oil, and coal, and the way east for containers, lumber, and perishables.

Warren Buffett called it his “all-in bet” when he bought BNSF. Take a closer look at the improvements that are now under way on his railroad and you’ll realize that Buffett is still in the process of placing his wager on the table, and the chips are continuing to stack in his favor. Likewise for anyone else who patiently waits for what I believe is going to be a tremendous turnaround. BNSF has much on the horizon, new areas of business that you’ll soon be reading about, and new trackwork that will be ready in time to carry it.

Top photo by Bruce Kelly: On May 3rd, a BNSF Pasco to Kansas City manifest passed newly-laid track just east of Ritzville, Wash.

Bottom photo by Bruce Kelly: On double track at Sand, Wash., on May 3rd, BNSF coal bound for export through Roberts Bank, B.C., passed empty coal returning from a Centralia, Wash., powerplant.

Bruce Kelly

Railway Age Contributing Editor, Bruce Kelly, has produced photography and writing for rail publications since 1982. He was associate editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine 1988-1996. Since 1997, he has worked in the digital prepress department of a commercial printing company in northern Idaho.