2007 Bismarck/Mandan Convention Report

By John Adams

As I sit writing this report I once again give thanks to the NP group – and to Dave for accepting their scheduling – as I hear that the temperature in Bismarck was a balmy 106 today. Our week in Bismarck on the other hand, was a beautiful 75-80, sunny and incredibly pleasant, as was this year’s FOBNR Convention.

This year we did decide to try something different and hold our convention in loose coordination with one of the predecessor societies, namely the NP Historical Society. In this way we were able to do some things that we might not have been able to do ourselves, and we were also able to observe how a closely related historical society runs their convention. While we won’t plan to do this every year, the concept did seem a success and may be worth repeating some time in the future depending how we can coordinate our interests.

Arrival this year was on a Wednesday afternoon. As we arrived we found that as usual Dave Poplawski had beat us there, set up the Registration Table, but this year also set up his new portable HO layout. This was a loop of track about 100’ in length which allowed people to run some nice HO BN equipment. Not to be outdone, Gary Seymour and I soon set up our N scale 30″x96″ layout, a double oval, and after some initial teething problems with ballast, got 2 N scale trains running. We soon adjourned to the Prime Steer for dinner, arriving back at the Hotel to hear welcoming remarks from Cordell Booke, a local resident and engineer on the line through Bismarck/Mandan. He was able to share with us the overall layout of the area, the traffic patterns and the specifics to watch for while railfanning the area. He and Mark Steenwyk, an engineer from the Kansas City area, also provided some lively insights into work on the present railroad, including their comments about working for the railroad and being a fan at the same time. They also shared in the ongoing discussion about their favorite locomotive to run. They did both agree than anything with working air conditioning was better than anything without, but beyond that they had many differences. SD70ACe’s did share the surprising problem of not being isolated cabs like most of the 70MAC’s, and thus much noisier. Both were hard pressed to say many positives about dispatchers on either line.

After Cordell’s comments we held our annual membership meeting. Here the major item of discussion was the purchase of a large set of timetables, which had been well supported by the membership, and the possible purchase of a very large collection of train orders. We also discussed upcoming conventions, as well as general membership concerns. And of course we discussed how to recruit new members to our group.

Thursday morning we continued registration and had 2 clinics. Wade Griffis gave a clinic on building HO scale freight cars, while I gave one on painting BN & BNSF locomotives. Both seemed to be well received. At that point we enjoyed several different activities for the remainder of the afternoon. The convention program had talked about a ride on a restored trolley line to General Custer’s Headquarters, but the NP group had decided to go out and visit some previous NP hot spots in the area. Unfortunately, it was about this time we heard that there had been a derailment west of Mandan that had shut down the entire division. Several of us at that point decided to try the trolley anyway, while the rest headed out to find good spots, see stopped trains and maybe find the derailment. I can comment on the trolley ride over an abandoned NP branch, which was an interesting experience, particularly learning we were riding in a previous streetcar turned chicken coop and rehabbed back into a trolley, albeit with Toyota power. The members who went on the NP tour seemed to enjoy themselves also.

Thursday evening found the NP and BN groups at the local Rail Museum for a very nice picnic on the lawn. The museum society really did a nice job of providing food and the museum itself was quite nice. After that many of us headed to a local rail museum with an excellent operating HO scale layout with NP and BN themes.

Friday morning we got together early and headed north in 2 buses for tours of two local coal related industries. Our group visited the Dakota SynFuels plant, where the local lignite coal is made into natural gas, Ammonia fertilizers and CO2, which is actually sold to oil drilling companies in Canada. The plant was huge, in fact so big that our tour was actually of the plastic model of the plant. That in itself was the size of an average home, and incredibly detailed. The process, and the efficiency of the plant, was truly amazing. Next, it was off to a coal-fired power plant. Once again we were thankful for the weather, as our tour started on the ground at 78 degrees, and on the 11th floor where we stopped to watch the boiler it was already 112 degrees. It never ceases to amaze the scale at which industry is really set up; the sheer size of everything is quite impressive. After that we had lunch in a park by the rails, then visited an interesting historical site with the NP folks. In 1951 there had been a fatal head on crash of 2 trains on a branch line outside Bismarck, and one of the NP members had really investigated the crash. He also found one of their members, who as a 20-year-old boy had been one of the first people on the scene. The story they jointly told was quite interesting, particularly in light of what we know now. While the accident was blamed on one of the engineers running past a siding, the actual facts suggest that the real cause was probably crew fatigue.

Friday evening we returned to hear our Convention Speaker Rollin Bredenberg, BNSF VP of Service Design & Performance. Rollin had been scheduled to be our speaker in Fort Worth, but missed the meeting and promised to go anywhere we met in the future to make up for oversleeping on that occasion. His trip to Mandan (unfortunately not by private railcar) was well worth it for our group as he had a number of interesting insights. One of the really amazing themes he presented was the amount of growth in the carload traffic sector of the railroad. While Coal and Intermodal get the publicity, the carload traffic has been growing steadily over the last decade and provides a substantial part of the BNSF’s revenue. The challenge he presented was how to move it efficiently and productively. He presented where the railroad’s growth is coming from and what the plans are to increase capacity to move the growing traffic. This includes the noted projects of finishing double tracking the Transcon, as well as providing 3rd and even 4th tracks in Wyoming. He also mentioned the ongoing projects to improve intermodal endpoints (logistic parks), as well as the facilities being built to expedite carload traffic. He answered many questions, commenting on the railroad’s corporate image (he felt the efforts to develop Heritage I and II schemes may have been given more effort that they were worth), the bypass line through eastern Colorado that had been mentioned at last year’s convention (the railroad is all for it if public monies are forthcoming – he felt the real impetus for the plan was the public desire to get the rail tracks out of Denver), and commented on a number of questions about individual projects that the railroad either was or was not going to undertake. His comments as usual for our Convention Speakers were excellent. We finished our evening with another auction and adjourned until Saturday AM.

Saturday AM started with Cordell taking us to Mandan Yard to view activities there and get a sense of what was going to be moving Saturday. By then the derailment to the west had been cleared up (the Steel Gang had been called into the effort and returned to the hotel Friday morning looking pretty exhausted) and there were many trains out there. With a combination of Cordell’s knowledge and a number of scanners we learned of the operating challenges of the area. There was one loaded eastbound coal train stranded on the main west of town without a crew, followed by 2 other loads whose crews were almost out of time and several empties filling sidings. With all these trains out there we were able to get to several good photo locations and get some great shots. We also were able to get a sense of the problems the dispatchers had and how, for better or worse, they solved the problems. Most of us were able to be “Monday morning quarterbacks” and figure how we could have done things better without calling 3 crews whose workdays were 28 miles. But it did give us a great chance to see and photograph the railroad at work.

Then it was time to head out as many of us headed out to return home and prepare for next year’s convention in Lincoln, Nebraska!