Thursday, March 31, 2016

The day Rollin Bredenberg (and I) changed the course of railroading

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The day Rollin Bredenberg (and I) changed the course of railroading

April 2016 will be remembered decades from now as the month when Rollin Bredenberg retired as V.P., Capacity Planning & Operations Research at BNSF Railway.

BredenbergRollinRollin’s contributions to the rail industry have earned respect and praise from the highest corporate offices, as well as from historically minded railway enthusiasts. Rollin says, “My planned last day in the office is 4/1/16,” but he’ll continue lending his unique insights well beyond that date for the benefit of BNSF.

During his college years in the 1960s, Rollin worked the summer months as a brakeman for Southern Pacific Railroad in Texas. His sharp comprehension of the geography, mechanics, and business of railroading elevated him to General Manager of SP’s Eastern Region in 1982 and then G.M of the Western Region in 1984. In the early 1990s, he was in charge of a special SP team dedicated to expanding business across the U.S.-Mexico border, a position where his fluent Spanish gained the confidence of Mexican railway officials and their shippers.

Rollin joined Santa Fe Railway in 1994, shortly before its merger with Burlington Northern Railroad. He became BNSF’s V.P. of Service Design & Performance in 1999, then V.P. of Capacity Planning & Operations Research in 2011. For evidence of Rollin’s guiding hand in the successful state of BNSF compared to other railroads right now, simply take note of the billions of dollars invested annually toward carefully-placed segments of new main track and sidings on both the Northern and Southern corridors, as well as changes to operations that have maximized traffic flow through areas where assets were previously being underutilized or overloaded. During a phone conversation some time ago, when asked whether his prior years at SP (which later merged with Union Pacific) have given him an upper hand in knowing the ground game at BNSF’s chief Western rival, his response was something to the tune of, “absolutely.”

Perhaps unbeknownst to many of the readers of Railway Age, Rollin Bredenberg possesses a deep, almost spiritual passion for railroading itself. His intuitive sense of the business has been every bit as important as the numerical, nuts and bolts grasp of it all. Over the years, when time and opportunity permitted, Rollin quietly inserted himself into the comings and goings of steam excursions that happened to be traveling across his company’s property. Acting as both a volunteer crew member and corporate liaison, Rollin became the eyes and ears of the host railway in order to ensure the steam trains and their passengers received swift, safe handling while also minimizing the adverse impact of those special trains to ordinary freight operations.

It was under such circumstances that I first spoke with Rollin, back on July 20, 2000. BNSF was running an Employee Appreciation Special throughout the Northwest, powered by legendary Southern Pacific 4-8-4 steam locomotive 4449. On that sunny July morning, the EAS was preparing to depart Spokane, Wash., for Pasco. There were two possible routes the special could take on its way out of Spokane, so it was imperative I find out which one in order to position myself properly for photographs.

I recognized Rollin (having seen him years before on a prior 4449 trip) standing near the train at Spokane’s Yardley terminal and promptly introduced myself. I asked him if he knew which way the train would be leaving town, via the “high side” or the “low side.” He answered with a question of his own: “What’s the difference?” This was, after all, the first time the 4449 had been anywhere near Spokane since its nationwide Freedom Train tour of 1975-76. And for Rollin, learning the nuance about a pair of grade-separated main tracks on the outskirts of a mid-sized Northwest city had been far less critical during the first few years after the BNSF merger than the construction of a refueling facility at nearby Hauser Yard and the addition of new sidings and double track in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.

Rollin BredebbergThe high side, I explained, was the route normally used by westbounds heading to Pasco. It lifted trains gracefully out of Spokane on the high-flying Latah Creek Bridge, in full view of Interstate 90, then aimed them southwest into Marshall Canyon on a relatively fast alignment with just a couple miles of 0.8% ascending grade tapering off to 0.4% or less. The low side, used mainly by eastbounds approaching Spokane, would have sent the steam special out of town on a 1.0% descending grade, bottoming out on the valley floor, then immediately digging in for a slow but manageable climb into Marshall Canyon on grades reaching 1.2%. The low side would produce a more dramatic show of 4449 struggling uphill for railfans waiting in the canyon, while the high side would give this historic steam engine and its consist of BNSF double-decked passenger cars maximum public exposure.

Problem was, a surfacing gang had been working on the high side much of the week leading up to the steam train’s departure, forcing westbounds to either wait it out or tackle the low side, often with a manned helper added to the rear. So there was reason to question which way the steam special would run.

After our conversation, Rollin stepped away to make a phone call. Then he turned, gave me a thumbs up, and headed off to board the train. Within minutes, the dispatcher could be heard on the radio asking the surfacing gang to clear up between switches on the main at Overlook, just a few miles west of Spokane. The special would be taking the high side after all, running through the siding at Overlook to get around the work gang and charging around the broad curve at Marshall, where dozens of folks were waiting on the overpass with cameras in hand.

Since that summer day in 2000, Rollin has continued to be an incredible source of insight into the operations and upcoming plans at BNSF. He even took time during the busy Christmas week of 2015 to talk about the state of the industry, about BNSF’s outlook for 2016, and about his upcoming retirement. The main topic of that conversation, however, was Canadian Pacific’s bid for Norfolk Southern, and how CP’s management and performance differed from BNSF.

Rollin said, “When [Warren] Buffett bought us, he liked how Matt [Rose] was running this railroad.” Rollin noted the value of investing heavily into the physical plant. “Our Northern route looks more like our Southern transcon than it ever did.” And he emphasized the advantage of having a multi-faceted corridor with optional routing via partners like Montana Rail Link. “We can actually run Z trains through Glendive and Laurel [Montana] and make schedule like we do running them through Havre. Redundancy is valuable for keeping business fluid. No excuses need to be made to customers when you can re-route.”

Rollin Bredenberg 2When asked for final comment on the eve of his retirement, Rollin said, “I really don’t have any last words except that I have the same passion for my family that I have had for the railroad. I would not have been able to spend the last couple of decades going strong were it not for my wife Diane. Now that we have ten grandchildren I do not have time to do the things we need to do and still go to work every day. Diane does not get to retire, so now it is my turn to support her activities with a wonderful family.”

Bruce E. Kelly, Contributing Editor

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.

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