Orders for more than 1,000 cars poured into the offices of the new Kansas and Oklahoma Railroad on Monday night as the railroad began its first week of operation.
"Orders far exceeded our expectations," said Ed McKechnie, a spokesman for K&O;'s parent company, Watco, which is based in Pittsburg and operates the Southern Kansas Oklahoma Railroad in southeast Kansas.
For the dispatchers and managers of the new railroad, it meant a scramble to move cars that caused Watco President and CEO, Rick Webb, to be out on a train switching cars at 3 a.m. Tuesday.
For the 72 people who regularly work on the line formerly operated by the Central Kansas Railway, most of whom took a pay cut to work for the new railroad, it means job security, even though at a lower pay rate.
K&O; employees are earning about 7 percent less per hour than they made in similar jobs on the CKR, according to Walter Keenen, personnel director for Watco.
K&O;, a non-union business, is paying a starting wage of $8.50 an hour for laborers and up to $14.32 for transportation specialists, a category that includes engineers and conductors.
That scale is below both the CKR's wages and union scales paid by the Class I railroads and the Kyle Railroad, which operates in northern Kansas.
Overtime pay might help the employees recoup some of the lost pay, at least in the short term, as K&O; begins operation and gears up for the transportation demand of the end of wheat harvest and the fall harvest coming in about 60 to 80 days.
Initial demand for service is very encouraging that growth will come, McKechnie said. He estimates the work force will grow to 90 by next year.
"We do have a policy against layoffs as well," McKechnie said. "So we tend to take care of temporary spikes in demand with overtime and hire with sustained growth."
The initial demand spike has come as elevators spread the word that they are getting rail cars.
"I don't have a lot of time to empty out my elevators," said Mel Klein, who manages Mid States Farmers Co-op in Rush Center. "If I can get rail service, I'll use it."
Klein was one of the many central Kansas elevator managers who had given up on rail service after disappointments in the past several years.
K&O; is counting on customers like Klein to build a business that will allow them not only to retain employees but to make more money to put back into the system and into wages.
Watco employees' pay is based on skill level and personal performance, so employees can move quickly up the pay scale if they learn fast and work hard.
McKechnie said the company had more than 400 applicants for about 80 jobs, eight of which have not been filled.