Archive for Sunday, September 15, 1996


September 15, 1996


From Aunt Maude's fruit cake to Boeing 737s, you never know what you might find on a train traveling the Lawrence tracks.

They snake through town day and night, rarely stopping.

As they snake through town day and night, their midnight clacking has become a part of everyday life.

Most of us take them for granted, but without them we would suffer. What are they?


Everything on board

"A person would be hard pressed to look around their house or look down the street as they drive along, and not see something that was hauled by a train," said Mark Davis, spokesperson for Union Pacific Railroad.

"And Lawrence gets a little bit of everything."

Chemicals on board trains in Lawrence may include liquid petroleum gas, hydrogen ammonia and possibly even some hazardous materials such as Drano, charcoal lighter fluid, finger nail polish remover or other household chemicals.

Many of the trains-- which should be traveling about 40 mph in town and up to 70 mph outside of Lawrence -- are hauling truck trailers. These cars can be full of a variety of materials from department store clothing to a food production company's chicken legs to UPS packages.

"UPS is Burlington Northern Santa Fe's biggest intermodal customer, so a lot of those cars are carrying anything packaged to send by UPS, like Aunt Maude's fruit cake at Christmas," said John Rosacker, research analyst for Kansas Department of Transportation.

Also, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) is proud of its international products on board, from domestic to import automobiles to beer and wine from all over the world.

"As you can imagine, we drop off beer by the train load in Lawrence," BNSF spokesperson Mike Martin joked.

Possibly one of the most unusual commodities traveling the rail line through Kansas are the full main cabins and tail sections of the Boeing 737s. Last week for the first time, Boeing began transporting the planes from Wichita to Seattle via BNSF.

"You can't miss the giant silver tube that looks like a plane traveling on top a flat car," Martin said.

Plastics, paper, newsprint, lumber, grain, flour and more come into Lawrence and are distributed to local companies for sales or manufacturing.

Coal, coal and more coal comes through Lawrence daily. Union Pacific Railroad hauls 130 million tons of coal annually from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and coal fields in Illinois and Utah to utility companies in states in the east and south via Lawrence. The typical coal train is longer than the average train, reaching as many as 140 cars.

While trains carrying coal are single commodity trains, most others haul goods that vary from rail car to rail car.

En route

Trains coming in and out of town on the two separate tracks in North Lawrence are either heading into Kansas City from California, Washington or Oregon or moving on west from a variety of destinations.

"Because Lawrence is in about the middle, traffic comes from the West Coast and goes through Lawrence to Kansas City, where it then goes south to Louisiana or continues on east to St. Louis or heads into Arkansas," said Davis.

Most of the trains traveling through Lawrence are Union Pacific. BNSF's main freight line runs through Kansas City, Ottawa, Emporia and on through the southwest. The line through Lawrence was the passenger route until 1971, when the company stopped its passenger business. Today it carries a minimal amount of freight on that line.

But travelers are still passing through Lawrence on the Southwest Chief, Amtrak's passenger train that comes through Lawrence twice a day in each direction. The train goes from Los Angeles to Chicago daily.

There are only about five BNSF trains a day in Lawrence, while more than 75 Union Pacific trains come to town. On BNSF, one is a weekly coal train and the others are mostly intermodal trains, which are carrying truck trailers. Even though few BNSF trains come into Lawrence, Martin said the area is critical to his company.

"Topeka and Kansas City are extremely important points for BNSF. There are two major rail yards in Kansas City and Topeka has the locomotive shop and is the computer nerve center," he said.

Changing attitudes

Even though the industry is growing and thriving, many see trains as an antiquated method of transportation.

Kansas City is one of the top three largest railroad hubs in the country, giving trains an elevated status in this region. But trains are important everywhere.

"Railroad travel enhances the life of everybody in the United States," said Mike Martin, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesperson.

When the rail line was built through Lawrence in 1875 it brought sweeping changes to the community. Communication and travel were easier and faster and businesses and manufacturers thrived with the addition of the "iron horse."

These days, the only contact "most people have with the railroad is when they are trying to get to the football game or work and a train is in their way," Martin said.

"For many it's an unfavorable opinion or an opinion that the railroad doesn't play a viable role anymore, and that couldn't be further from the truth."

Since deregulation, the additional competition has forced the railroad industry to tighten its belt. This has only led to a strengthening of the railroad industry, Martin said.

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