2008 Lincoln Convention Report

by Gary Seymour

The convention this year was held in Lincoln, Nebraska. Attendance was down from previous years, perhaps because of the difficulties of airline transportation and the cost of gasoline for those of us who drove. In addition, the extremely heavy rains of early June and the subsequent massive flooding in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Missouri may have inhibited travel. As we were to find out soon enough, the flooding certainly had a major impact on the BNSF Railway.

Arrival and early registration was set for Wednesday afternoon on June 25th. Since I had stayed in Council Bluffs overnight, I decided to go beyond Lincoln to Grand Island that morning and early afternoon in hopes of seeing some BNSF train action before I registered for the convention. What I found in between Grand Island and St Michael, 20 miles west on Nebraska HWY 2, were six loaded coal trains parked and silent. I soon found out why.

After registration, I set up the N-Scale modules that John Adams and I had constructed. Dave Poplawski and John McKenzie had already set up the HO layout. After dinner we returned to the hotel for welcoming remarks from Glenn Beans, a conductor on the Lincoln to Ravenna line, which goes through Grand Island. Glenn was scheduled for a half hour of introductory remarks and ended up staying for an hour and a half. He had a lot of stories and information about the railroad in the area and we kept asking questions. He pointed out that the busy coal line that begins in Alliance and runs through Ravenna and Grand Island to Lincoln is very inefficient due to the fact that the largely single-tracked line is unable to handle effectively the increasing number of coal trains. He counted it an amazing accomplishment if a crew actually made it from Ravenna to Lincoln in one run. More often it would take two or more crews working 12 hour shifts. On top of that, the flooding in Iowa had completely shut down the Creston Sub in Iowa from Ottumwa to Burlington, with numerous washouts and suspected bridge damage. This was forcing trains through Lincoln to arrive from, and depart for, Chicago on detours through the Twin Cities or through Kansas City. This resulted in operating headaches and parked trains waiting for clearance (such as those I saw west of Grand Island).

After Glenn finished answering our questions, we held our annual membership meeting. Familiar topics of discussion were the need for more members and more articles for the Expediter. In addition, there was discussion of future convention sites which would be attractive and convenient to a large number of our members. Whitefish, Kansas City, and Gillette were mentioned, but Seattle seemed to have good backing, especially since it has been several years since we have been there. The key is to have local people or people who know the area to do preliminary scouting and make contacts.

Thursday morning saw registration of several more people before we set off in a carpool caravan to railfan part of the line between Lincoln and Fremont before we headed to Council Bluffs. The weather was gloomy as we began our journey and proceeded to get gloomier. We were able to see one train on the move before we reached the line divergence at Ashland. There we ducked into a tent set up by 4th of July fireworks vendors (who had not yet set out their merchandise) just as the sky opened up and rain fell torrentially. At a small break in the rain, we jumped in our cars and proceeded to drive through Omaha and into Council Bluffs in heavy rain all the way. Our destination was the former Rock Island depot which has been turned into a railroad museum celebrating the five major railroads to which Council Bluffs was once home. There were a number of very interesting displays in the depot-old railroad equipment, newspaper clippings of major events, signs, and other memorabilia. On the second level was a fairly large HO layout in operation. The outdoor equipment included a steam locomotive, boxcar, passenger car and-perhaps the gem of the collection-a very nicely restored RPO.

After lunch we headed south on I29 to US HWY 34. The bridge over the Missouri River is being repaired and this meant little traffic would impede us from parking on the road way at the bridge to take pictures of trains approaching and crossing the adjacent railroad bridge. We then continued down I29 to NE HWY 2 and followed the line to get a few more pictures. We wound up at the hill just north of Firth, NE and caught more trains ascending or descending the grade. This is a very picturesque railfanning location. Two bridges go over the tracks within a mile of each other on local roads. Then it was time to head for the motel and a late supper. It was a long day, but a good time was had by all.

Friday, June 27th, was a beautiful day. We were scheduled for two tours-Hobson Yard in Lincoln in the morning and the car shops at Havelock in the afternoon. When we arrived at Hobson Yard, we were greeted by our banquet speaker, Lincoln Terminal Superintendent, R. Mark Athey. He gave us information on the layout of the yard, its function on the railroad, and an update on yard operations as they were impacted by the Iowa and Mississippi River flooding. We were then divided into two groups. Superintendent Athey took one group on a quick tour of the terminal office facilities and then to the control tower for a very detailed explanation of the highly computerized functions and the jobs being done in this nerve center of the yard. We had an excellent view of the yard from this vantage point and were allowed to go onto the deck surrounding the control tower to hear the sounds and take in the sights of the yard. Terminal manager, Timothy Wright, took another group on a tour around the yard in a company van, explaining the use of the tracks at various points and the details of operation. We stopped at various points to take pictures of locomotives and equipment around the yard. One of the groups also met our welcoming guest, Glenn Beans, as he came into the yard from his run from Ravenna with the “Vomit Bonnet” as the lead unit. Our tour guides then switched groups. Both of them were very accommodating and happy to answer all our questions. We had such a good time that we were running late on our scheduled tour to begin at 1:30 PM at the Havelock Car Shops. It was close, but we arrived with about five minutes to spare. Our tour guide here was Randy Gleason, who said this was the first time he had ever conducted a tour. You would not have known this, however, if he had not told you. Randy was very personable, knowledgeable and relaxed as he took us through the shops. Havelock repairs BNSF cars that have been damaged in derailments, collisions, or other mishaps. If privately owned cars are damaged on the BNSF, they can make those repairs too, if the owner requests it. Randy took us through several of the buildings and showed us machine shop operations, body repair, wheel set change outs, car rebuilding, transfer table operations, and other features of the shops that keep the BNSF cars on the railroad. When asked how many cars they have to scrap because of excessive damage, he proudly replied, “very few”. After the tour we returned to the convention motel for the Board of directors meeting and the member slide/video show.

Saturday morning we headed back up US HWY 6 toward Ashland to do some more railfanning and to eventually wind up at Fremont, NE to ride the Fremont and Elkhorn Valley RR. Not much was moving on the railroad at this point, but we started to follow the back roads along the tracks after we got to Ashland, in the hopes of catching some train action. The only train we were able to catch for pictures was at Yutan, NE. Southeast of Fremont, we came upon evidence of Mother Nature’s power. We knew that a horrific storm had gone through the area on Friday afternoon and had then struck Omaha and Council Bluffs with 60-80 mph straight-line winds and hail. Most of the fields of corn southeast of Fremont had their stalks broken off and laid flat about a foot off of the ground. Sheet metal pieces from corn cribs and other metal buildings were scattered about. The news media reported 18-20,000 acres of corn were destroyed, Omaha had its worst incidents of power outages in its history and two teenagers were killed by a falling tree in Council Bluffs. At the time all of this was happening, we were touring the Havelock shops in beautiful weather. Saturday afternoon was taken up with a leisurely ride, in an old Milwaukee Road orange and maroon coach, on the Fremont and Elkhorn Valley RR. The countryside was green and growing and we scared up several deer along the tracks, to the delight of the children on board.

Finally, on Saturday evening, we attended our annual banquet and heard from our guest speaker, R. Mark Athey, the Lincoln Terminal Superintendent. His presentation included a number of subjects about the BNSF in general, the railroad in Nebraska, and the impact of the Midwest flooding on the BNSF and Lincoln operations in particular. In general BNSF information he pointed out, among other things that:

  • The electric power generated for one of ten homes in the US comes from coal hauled by BNSF.
  • BNSF is the largest grain-hauling railroad in the US, transporting nearly a million carloads per year.
  • A BNSF intermodal train moves the equivalent of what 280 trucks could move, and can move 760 miles per day-200 miles more than single-driver truck service.
  • BNSF is the largest transporter of aircraft parts by rail in the US.
  • BNSF transports enough lumber each year to build 500,000 homes; enough newsprint to print one billion Sunday newspapers, and enough lube oil to fill 1.6 billion quarts of motor oil.

He then went on to point out that BNSF has 4,800 Nebraska employees, a payroll of $270 million, operates over 1500 miles of track, handles over 2.9 million cars per year, and pays over $25 million in taxes. Not surprisingly, the largest shipments directly from Nebraska are agricultural products. The largest shipments into and through Nebraska are coal loads.

Mr. Athey said Hobson Yard in Lincoln normally has a daily inventory of about 1100 cars. Due to the severe flooding in Iowa and along the Mississippi, Lincoln operations were considerably impacted. At the time of the convention, there was no word on when BNSF expected to have the Creston Sub open for business. Thus, the re-routing of trains via Kansas City and the Twin Cities was resulting in backups along the Nebraska lines. Many trains had to be parked for some time before being given clearance to move short distances. Modest-use lines were seeing increased traffic. Every day was a major challenge to move trains in and out of Lincoln in a manner and pace that maximized efficiency and minimized the chance that the Lincoln yard and Nebraska lines would reach a state of gridlock. The daily inventory of Hobson Yard exceeded 1300 cars due to the adverse conditions, but up until that point, he and his team had been able to keep one jump ahead of the situation and continue operating. He was pleased to say that BNSF considered itself the best-run railroad in the country. He expressed confidence that it would remain so and be able to continue to meet the current challenges and those encountered in the future. A question and answer session followed his presentation. Once again, our convention speaker was informative, personable and very accommodating.

We then took a few minutes to hold our annual auction which raised over $40 for the FOBNR. It was an enjoyable evening and a great way to end the convention.

See you next year in Seattle!