Railroads bring more than crossing frustrations

07/25/2013 12:00 AM

07/24/2013 10:57 PM

For some Wichitans and Kansans, the miles-long trains operated by the Union Pacific Railroad and the BNSF Railway can be a source of frustration at the grade crossing.

But those trains, many of which are passing through to cities such as Chicago, Kansas City and Dallas, are a small representation of the two Class I railroads’ impact on the metropolitan area – Butler, Harvey, Sedgwick and Sumner counties – and the state.

“Railroads are just kind of quietly operating in the background, in people’s minds,” said Kansas railroad historian Dave Webb.

And while railroads such as the UP and BNSF don’t have the presence they had in many towns and cities across the state 60 or so years ago – largely through freight and passenger depots in even the smallest of towns – they are responsible for moving more wheat, automobiles, raw materials and consumer products than they did in railroading’s heyday.

“Today they carry more freight than they ever did, even than in World War II,” Webb, the assistant director of the Kansas Heritage Center in Dodge City, said. “It’s just that instead of running to every community, they simply maintain main lines, and most of the traffic is long distance.”

According to data provided by UP and BNSF, combined they employ a little more than 5,000 people in the state with an annual, combined payroll of $397.2million.

In the Wichita area, they employ 519.

The Eagle took a look at the kinds of operations that UP and BNSF – the largest railroads operating in Kansas – have in the Wichita area.

‘Our town’s mascot’

Half of the BNSF is the former Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Its ties to the state are deep and more than a century old by virtue of that fact. AT&SF merged with Burlington Northern in 1995, creating the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, later shortened to BNSF.

In Kansas, the Fort Worth, Texas-based railroad employs 3,612 workers with a 2012 payroll of $251.8million. Its biggest Kansas operations are in Topeka – once the headquarters of the AT&SF and also home to a locomotive overhaul shop – and the Argentine yards in the Kansas City area, where it has an intermodal facility, which handles freight that is contained in truck trailers set on rail cars. A lot of those trailers contain products shipped on seagoing vessels.

BNSF’s presence in the four-county Wichita area is biggest in Newton, where it has a large rail yard.

Pam Stevens, interim executive director of the Newton Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, said BNSF is an important employer in the community 30 miles north of Wichita because of its 265 employees and the “high-paying jobs” they hold.

“A lot of those people, their families live in the Newton area, call Newton home,” Stevens said. “That’s our town’s mascot (the Newton Railroaders). We put up with those trains every day, and they are just a part of our heritage.”

BNSF officials said they could not provide details on the company’s annual payroll in Newton or Wellington, where it has a large rail yard and employs 144 people.

Steve Forsberg, a BNSF spokesman in Fort Worth, said Newton and Wellington are expected to remain important operations because of where they are located, which is along important east-west and north-south routes for BNSF.

“Based on where the traffic is flowing they’re important train servicing centers for us, and really the advantage that Kansas has is you’re located along some strategic transportation routes engaged in interstate commerce,” Forsberg said. “From a long-term economic development standpoint, that‘s one of the base-level ingredients for future success.”

“They are a crucial industry historically and currently to our community,” added Mickey Fornaro-Dean, executive director of the Harvey County Economic Development Council.

UP in ICT

Union Pacific originally entered Kansas in 1880 with the consolidation of the Kansas Pacific Railroad into the Omaha, Neb.-based company.

Wichita is one of seven cities in Kansas where UP has rail yards and related facilities. The others are in the Kansas City area, Topeka, Marysville, Salina, Herington, Parsons and Coffeyville.

In Wichita, UP operates the Wichita Service Unit, which has 112 employees and total annual salary of $8.1million.

At the Wichita Service Unit headquarters at 2645 New York – northwest of Interstate 135 and 21st Street North – workers service and repair rail cars, refuel locomotives and move freight cars around the yard by way of remote-controlled locomotives. There are also crews in Wichita who repair and replace track, signals and other safety equipment.

Mark Davis, a UP spokesman in Omaha, said the local service unit is one of 22 such units across UP’s network in 23 states. The Wichita unit is responsible for 1,200 miles of track in Kansas, and parts of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Davis said on average, about nine trains operate through Wichita daily. Among those daily trains are two that carry grain, one that carries automobiles, two “manifest” trains that carry a variety of freight, one that carries rock and another called the “local,” which brings railcars to local industry and “team tracks,” which is a set of tracks leased by several companies that they use to offload their freight or to load their freight onto railcars.

Between 2008 and 2012, the number of Union Pacific railcars originating from Kansas declined 23 percent, the railroad said. During that same period, the number of railcars whose final destination was Kansas also fell by nearly 25 percent.

Davis said that’s mostly a reflection of the local and national economies, which during that period included a recession followed by a slow economic recovery. The reduced traffic may also be the result of effect of drought on Kansas farms, reducing the amount of grain being shipped out of the state, he said.

“We continue to see traffic … ebb and flow with the economy,” he said.

Davis said UP expects to hire between 3,500 and 4,000 workers this year across its entire system. Last year, he said, UP hired 3,900 workers companywide. Total employment at the company is 46,000.

Davis said he didn’t have information on how employment has changed in the Wichita Service Unit, or if some of the positions it plans to add in 2013 include Wichita. As of Wednesday, the company was seeking to fill positions in 12 of its 23 states, not including Kansas.

In terms of UP’s expectations for Kansas, Davis referred to the company’s second quarter 2013 earnings report, released last week. In that report, UP said it had its “best-ever” results in reporting quarterly net income of $1.1billion along with increases in operating revenue and income, up 5 and 9 percent, respectively.

Those financial results were despite a 1 percent decrease in carloadings compared with second quarter 2012, UP said in the release.

Forsberg, of BNSF, said the amount of freight his railroad is moving, has improved since the recession, but has not returned to the levels that BNSF saw before the recession.

“The rail industry and BNSF are still only about at 74, 75 percent of the volumes being moved in the record year of 2006,” Forsberg said.

But Forsberg and others expect the volumes of freight moved to eventually resume their growth.

The Federal Railroad Administration projects that the tons of freight moved by rail will increase 22 percent between 2010 and 2035 as the U.S. population increases. By 2050, that increase is expected to reach a 35 percent, the FRA said.

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