2018 Aurora (Illinois) Convention Report
by John Adams
June 6-9 saw a number of FOBNR members enjoying another great convention in West Suburban Chicago. Arrival and check-in at the convention hotel in Aurora began Wednesday afternoon. On arrival, everyone was looking forward to watching trains on the triple-track Racetrack, but unfortunately we found a parked vehicle train on the near track blocking the view of the other lines. Fortunately, the train moved on as we got ready to walk across the parking lot to dinner at the Roundhouse Restaurant built in the original CB&Q roundhouse.
After an excellent meal we walked back to the meeting room at the hotel and heard a fascinating presentation from Leo Philipp regaling us with stories of his work in Aurora on the BN during the 1970’s. His major premise was that if you wanted to work hard and make a good living you could work in Aurora. He remembered all the local jobs that used to run out of Aurora and Eola and the number of industries served. Unfortunately, he also remembered how at times management seemed disinterested in obtaining or even maintaining shippers, refusing to provide simple support for the local shippers and hastening their switch to trucks. He was able to tell the challenges of serving these industries in the era before deregulation.
Mel Finzer then was able to use his talents for flying and taking pictures simultaneously to show us many of the localities that Leo had described, often comparing the past with the present. His aerial shots really added a great amount of detail and understanding to Leo’s comments.
Thursday morning we awoke to hear the first Metra commuter train of the morning “idling” almost under our windows. Train watching from your hotel room was great, and allowed us to see a number of trains, including several unit sand trains.
After a hearty breakfast, we then headed to Logistics Park in Elwood, Illinois near Joliet to visit the vast BNSF international container and auto facility. John Clarke, the Manager of Hub Operations, first gave us a few remarks about the facility and then we loaded on a school bus to tour the area. He pointed out that this 638 acre facility was the major Chicago area international container facility, working with mainly 20’ and 40’ containers, with a few 45’ containers on occasion. The facility handles roughly 6000 to 8000 containers each day, a fact that was substantiated by the constant flow of trucks in and out of the gate. The addition of 9 new loading cranes, each straddling 6 tracks with parking between each track has enabled them to handle a record of 14,000 lifts on one day. In total they have 34 cranes and 5 side loaders. The loading tracks are 8,000’ long, allowing multiple trains to be handled at the same time, with a total of 918 strip track car spots. These new loaders have the ability to turn a container 180 degrees to assure they will all be facing the same direction to be loaded on their road chassis The cranes have multiple cameras, and while the operators presently sit on cabs on top of the loaders, it is very possible to man these remotely The precision in lifting and placing these containers, and the speed at which it was done, was truly amazing John also pointed out that they no longer have huge volumes of empty containers to ship back west, as a large building on the north side of the facility is now used to load empty containers with grain to ship back to the West Coast and on to Asia Thus, you will also see westbound container trains only loaded one container high due to the added weight of the grain. We also toured the vehicle part of the facility, where an average of 130 autoracks per day disgorge several thousand cars daily, and about 20 autoracks daily are loaded to go to the rest of the system. Here they have 4 tracks than can handle 36 cars per track. He also showed the perfect system to end door dings in a parking lot, as all the new autos are parked pointed the same direction with their driver side wheel on the left line. Now if we could just get everyone to do that!
After that we headed for the eastern portion of the Transcon to watch a number of container trains move past us quite quickly, and then headed for lunch. Some people opted to find different locations to watch trains in the afternoon, while some of us visited a number of excellent west suburban hobby shops. After finding dinner at different places, we met Thursday evening for the membership and Board meetings.
At these meetings the Board members were able to receive input from the members attending the convention, and then discuss how we could implement those suggestions and answer any concerns. At the Board meeting we re-elected the officers for another year and discussed some financial issues to maximize our financial health. We spent a large amount of the meeting discussing alternatives for the 2019 Convention. At the present we are planning for Kansas City in 2019 and possibly Vancouver, Washington for 2020. We also talked about our archives, as the amount of material we have recently added to the archives has overwhelmed our previous in-home storage and we are faced with renting a facility to store the material.
On Friday we gathered after breakfast and walked across to the Aurora station to catch the 9:30 Metra train to Chicago. We had the front half of the cab car, which allowed us to get good front views, and also to hear the bell, which was surprisingly loud inside the car. On arrival in Chicago we stayed on the train after the rest of the passengers disembarked and were able to ride out to the 14th St service facility. There Clayton Johanson, the BNSF manager for Metra service, was able to provide us with an overview of the suburban service. With a total of 19 locomotives and 191 passenger cars, BNSF is able to run 106 trains a day, 94 of these being revenue trains. These trains transport 60,000 people daily, with the majority from the far west stations from Downers Grove on to Aurora. The newest station at Route 59 between Naperville and Aurora has a parking lot for 5,000 cars and loads over 6,000 riders daily. These trains often run at 4 minute intervals and are also mixed with Amtrak trains on a daily basis. He explained that BNSF sees the suburban service as a positive because it adds freight capacity on the off rush hour times, uses Metra’s help with the infrastructure of the line, adds to safety with PTC installation and is good for public relations. The goal of BNSF is to have 95% of the trains daily arrive within 6 minutes of the schedule.
He explained that the following Monday a new schedule was going to be put in place to coincide with the final implementation of PTC. The schedules had to be adjusted to allow for the time needed for the PTC system to turn trains, particularly the flips not done at Union Station or Aurora. This will also provide more service for the busiest stations and reduce service for the closest stations to the Loop, where the CTA provides parallel service on the Pink Line. He explained how these changes are made, and how plans are made for special events where more than 40,000 extra riders may be transported in a day. He did explain that there are slots for a small number of short intermodal freights into Cicero, but only if they can be truly expedited.
Touring the shops complex itself we were able to see where the power was serviced each day, as well as the indoor shop where more complete service is done on both locomotives and the galley cars. Some of these cars were actually built in the 50’s and pulled by steam in their early days, but with ongoing excellent maintenance should be able to run for decades to come due to their strong construction. He described the plans to enlarge the suburban zone out to possibly Plano, Illinois, but at a cost of $300 million dollars, which is simply not available at this time.
We then got back on our train and headed for Union Station, where we had a short tour of the really diminutive space that Metra really uses in that facility. He explained that this area could be overwhelmed so quickly that at times the escalators into the station have to be turned off to prevent more people coming into the small area until trains can move them out. We also were able to see the dispatcher’s office where Metra operations on the south side of Union Station are organized. We then loaded back onto an outbound train and headed back to Aurora.
Upon arrival in Aurora we found the BSA Venture Crew 57 unloading parts of their modular HO scale model railroad and setting it up to run for us. This was an excellent modular railroad and was set up quite quickly and operated quite well with some excellent BN and BNSF trains. After dinner we met again for a presentation by Rick Burn about the Opheim Branch. This was actually a different kind of story describing how the railroads “colluded” to be able to rationalize their railroads in the era of ICC regulation of the railroads. The negotiations between several railroads, all with their own interests were truly amazing. His presentation gave us a unique look into the operations of railroads in the BN pre-de-regulation days.
After these meetings we were fortunate to have several photo presentations from members and then went off to bed.
On Saturday we headed for the Illinois Railroad Museum near the town of Union in northern Illinois. Driving there in a heavy rainstorm, we were presently surprised when we arrived and the skies cleared to allow us a great morning at the museum. We were able to tour the steam shops, where steam locomotives are rehabilitated, but also where large machine tools were located. We were also able to tour the diesel shops and a number of the storage sheds where their huge collection of locomotives, passenger cars, transit cars, and interurban equipment were housed out of the weather. We were also able to ride on a Chicago streetcar and observe BN 3 leading a passenger train demonstrating RPO operations. We also took our annual group picture on their refurbished BN U30C.
In the afternoon most of us headed toward Flagg Center, the first BN siding northwest of Rochelle, Illinois on the C&I line. While traffic seemed to be somewhat jammed up, we were able to see a number of BNSF freights.
On Saturday night we had our Annual Banquet, with excellent food and an excellent speaker. Dave Hoffman had worked for the CB&Q in the pre-BN era, initially working as a passenger agent and with the mail and express side of the business. On 6/1/69 he joined the Suburban Service Dept., moving on to work for the BN after the 1970 merger. After the merger he served at different times as Division Trainmaster, Suburban Trainmaster and Director of Suburban Activities, retiring in 2003. During this time he oversaw a number of schedule revisions and pointed out how all of these were based on the previous schedules, working to update them to the newest realities on the railroad. He also pointed out some of the specific challenges for the West Suburban service, particularly the fact that the BN actually did not have completely Push-Pull service until 1973, well after the C&NW lines. He also described some of the special trains that the BN ran, including Bicycle Trains to Ottawa, Illinois, where riders unloaded their bikes to ride to Starved Rock State Park. His remarks about the Suburban Service really filled out the information we had received on Friday about the Metra era. We then had our annual auction, raising about $300 for the FOBNR and adjourned to meet again next summer in Kansas City.