by John Adams
For 2019 the FOBNR Convention returned to Kansas City, where we had not been for a number of years. Second only to Chicago, this is indeed a major hub of railroad operations, particularly for the BNSF.
Although the Convention started officially on Wednesday afternoon, we were able to have several pre-convention activities, with operating sessions at two Kansas City area model railroad layouts. While I was not able to attend the Wednesday morning session at Bill Hirts’ HO layout, I did have the pleasure of operating on Joe Kasper’s N-scale BN layout. This was a tremendous experience as Don’s layout operated flawlessly and was an excellent representation of the previous BN lines from Kansas City. The layout was completely signaled and run by CTC, and was very prototypical in operation. Plus, his wife’s cookies were delicious! Attendees who attended Bill Hirts’ Weds AM session were equally impressed.
On Wednesday afternoon we met at the hotel for registration, reacquainting with old friends and meeting some new convention attendees, several of whom had traveled to the convention on Amtrak. We then headed to Jack Stax BBQ for the first of several different styles of Kansas City barbecue. On Wednesday evening Ewan Shortess had assembled a Kansas City Area Railfan Guide and Mark Steenwyk, a current BNSF locomotive engineer was able to present it to us along with his personal insights. We discussed the opportunities to view Santa Fe Junction as well as the Argentine yards. We then headed west (on paper) on the Emporia Sub, discussing several excellent viewing locations. These particularly included Gardner, KS as well as the new Logistics Park Kansas City (LPKC). Mark then gave us a rundown on locations to watch the Topeka Sub and then proceeded to his territory on the Marceline Sub. We then moved to the St. Joseph Sub, unfortunately with some flooding problems as had plagued the railroad for the last several weeks. The Ft Scott Sub was also covered, giving us multiple opportunities to watch trains over the next several days.
On Thursday morning we headed for Johnson County Community College, where the school and BNSF have a joint project to train future BNSF employees. Dr. Terry Harrison, Director of the National Academy of Railroad Sciences, organized our tour and we were able to see the areas where locomotive conductors and engineers are trained as well as signal maintainers. The area where welders are trained was under renovation and upgrading, and we did not see that area. Our tour guides shared with us how the railroad sends new hires, as well as present employees, to the NARS for initial training and annual updates. We were also able to see the locomotive simulators, and a number of us actually got to operate one of the simulators. We also got to see the O scale railroad they use for signal teaching, as well as the areas where they teach some road equipment maintenance. The school is run jointly by the junior college and the BNSF.
After lunch in the college cafeteria, we carpooled out to Gardner, KS to watch the Emporia Sub and were able to watch some of the operations at the Logistics Park Kansas City, where intermodal trains were loading and unloading. We learned the importance of this yard, for if trailers or containers miss their sort times at the UPS and FedEx facilities, the railroad has to pay the transportation costs of that unit. People certainly move with a purpose at that facility.
Arriving back in Overland Park after dinner, we had our membership meeting followed by our annual Board Meeting. At the membership meeting, members were able to hear updates from the board as well as ask any questions they had and provide input. At the board meeting we decided that the 2020 Convention will be in Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA and re-elected the officers for 2019-20. We also wished Larry Stevens well as he ended a number of years as a member of the board and welcomed Ben Hucker, our newest board member. We also reviewed the 2019 budget and maintained our commitment to update the website and continue the excellent Expediters produced by editors Dave Poplawski and Mark Demaline.
Friday morning was an early one, as we headed for a tour of the Topeka Shops. Topeka previously had the business car shops as well as some locomotive repair and a car shops. The business car fleet continues to be based in Topeka, while in recent years the car shop was moved out and Topeka became the solitary locomotive rebuilding site for BNSF. Here the 636 employees work on about 600 locomotives a year, with a goal of 1000 per year. Locomotives receive major rebuilds here on a scheduled basis, plus heavy wreck repairs are centralized to this location. We were able to watch locomotives from both EMD and GE being brought into the facility for major rebuilds. Here they are taken off their trucks and newly rebuilt trucks are slid under the locomotive. The diesel engine, alternator, air compressor and other topside equipment is removed and replaced with rebuilt or new components. After only a few days the locomotives roll out of the facility and go back to work on the railroad. While we were there the EMD line consisted of intermediate horsepower 4-axle locomotives, while 6000 series GE ES44AC locomotives were the major rebuild locomotives on the GE side. The rebuilding process differed somewhat in the EMD locomotive components are much more able to be rebuilt, while the GE’s require more new parts due to their construction techniques.
A number of locomotives were on-site waiting for wreck repairs, some with very major damage. Despite this amount of damage, the Topeka shops have expertise in making new parts, including cabs and hoods, for all types of locomotives. Our tour guides also pointed out the new TR&D facility, which does a great deal of the research and development activities for the BNSF. All of these efforts require a large workforce, and indeed there have been 162 newly hired workers in the last year. All seemed dedicated to their crafts and eager to turn out a product that will have long and successful lives on the railroad. They also seem to have enough work to keep them busy for a long time, as there are another 400 locomotives of all sorts stored in a yard facility on the east edge of Topeka. These span the gamut from locos stored in good order and ready to go back to work on a moment’s notice, to hulks awaiting the scrapper’s torch.
After more railfanning in the afternoon, we headed back to Overland Park where Ewan Shortess gave a presentation on the traffic patterns in the Kansas City area. Ewan had interned with the railroad and after completing college he was hired and is now a trainmaster in the KC area. With this job he manages both the mainline crews as well as “pilot” crews which we think of as hostlers. He pointed out that KC is the junction of 3 BNSF divisions, the Chicago Division east of KC, the Kansas Division west of Argentine and the Heartland Division which includes much of the previous BN side north and south from KC. While greater than 50% of the traffic through KC is intermodal, most on the Southern Transcon route, there is also coal going to Red Rock, OK and Lawrence, KS and grain trains heading for west Texas and Mexico. He also answered a number of questions, including the future of Murray Yard in North KC. A yard that seemed to be destined for closure, this has become an important staging yard for many trains, and its importance during the recent flooding was again proved.
On Saturday morning we were able to sleep in a little, as we had a short drive to Argentine Yards. After meeting there, we loaded on a school bus to take a tour of the yards. We spent a good part of the first part of the tour at the “hump tower”, which is actually no longer a tower but is a low building with the computers which run the hump yard. The visual functions of the previous tower have been taken over by cameras, and the assignment of bowl tracks has been completely computerized. When a car enters the yard the computer assigns it a track, lines the route and sends a message to a computer terminal at the crest of the hump which cars to make the cut at. The computer then measures the wind, rolling resistance, temperature and automatically sets the retarders to slow the car or cars to the correct coupling speed. This process is so accurate that when there actually is a misroute or a car that doesn’t run far enough into the bowl, the one person on duty actually has to write a report on why the error occurred. They also showed us the symbols on the computer screen to indicate when the trim crew is pulling a cut of cars out of the east end of the bowl to start making up a train.
After thanking the signal maintainer who was actually monitoring the hump for taking his time to explain all this to us, we loaded back into the bus and traveled to the LMIT facility where maintenance of all the locomotives between Chicago and Belen, NM and all of Texas if performed. This facility is one of three on the BNSF, the others being in Barstow California and Alliance Nebraska. Argentine and Barstow are obviously heavily GE, while Alliance maintains most of the EMD fleet. The facility has the capacity for 48 units, but they would like to expand to 72. This facility also does light wreck repairs, while sending the more heavily damaged locomotives to Topeka. In the high bay part of the facility they can change out complete prime movers, alternators, radiators and the like. In the low bay section they are able to service smaller portions of the locomotives. This facility does both scheduled maintenance as well as repair work on the locomotives moving through KC.
Our next stop was the DMS, the pit stop for all the locomotives coming through the area. Here they receive a locomotive from the yards and have a 4 hour window to get it back ready to leave on an outbound. At present they are averaging 2.9 hours to fuel, sand and clean a locomotive, with all units set up to be the lead locomotive if necessary. Much of this work is done from overhead cranes over the 3 tracks, which facilitate the sanding and cleaning. Their desire in this area is not for more work space, but for a smoother flow of getting locomotives in from the arrival area and back to the departure area ready to be made into an outbound consist. This may take the form of a flyover to work around other yard tracks and mains. The amounts of fuel oil and sand used in this facility are truly amazing, as are the efforts of the 735 people who work at the 2 different shops. With a goal of servicing 9,000 units annually, this is indeed a major facility.
Saturday afternoon was another opportunity to watch trains or visit hobby shops in the area. A number of us went to Santa Fe Junction and were able to watch the traffic flow through this area. Mark Steenwyk also invited us to his home to see his Milwaukee Beer Line swithing layout. While many of us like to see trains running at speed on our home layouts, Mark pointed out that this is what he does all day at work, so at home he just wants to do slow speed switching. His layout serves this purpose extremely well!
On Saturday evening we had our banquet and listened to a presentation by Josh Pope, one of the terminal managers for the Argentine facility. He had an interesting personal history of working up from a machinist in the diesel shops to enter the management ranks and work with the daily efforts to move trains through a very congested area. In particular at the banquet he gave a great overview of the problems BNSF and other railroads in the Midwest had with the spring flooding this year. One of the highlights of his presentation was the replacement of a bridge over the Platte River on the Omaha Sub that was replaced in the middle of a flood in 29 days! He also showed a video of the process of throwing, literally, tons and tons of rip rap into a torrent of rushing water until some started to stick and provide a new roadbed to replace missing tracks. He was also able to document the detours that had to be used to move freight during this time, using as an example the rerouting of Boeing fuselages from Wichita all the way to Amarillo, Texas to start their trip back to Washington State. The efforts to move trains with very few routes really available and at the same time to work to repair damage even before the flood waters went down, were truly amazing.
After a question and answer session, we held the annual convention auction, this year raising over $180 to benefit the FOBNR. We then ended the convention, thanking Ben and Mark for their efforts to organize this year’s convention and looking forward to next June in the Pacific Northwest!