Archive for Friday, July 14, 2006

Railroad lines carrying more and longer cargo across Kansas

July 14, 2006

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— Several factors have combined to bring more and longer trains to Kansas in recent years, and railway officials say that is not likely to change anytime soon.

The primary reasons train traffic has increased are rapid growth in intermodal transportation, more demand for some products and Kansas' location, railroad officials say.

Intermodal shipping, in which goods are carried so that they can be transferred between different types of carriers on a single trip, has led to more railcars being used to haul truck trailers, for example.

"We're setting new volume records for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is rapid growth in the intermodal sector," said Steve Forsberg, a spokesman for Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF Railway Co.

Forsberg said the intermodal sector has become the fastest-growing part of the transportation industry, increasing at an annual rate of more than 13 percent.

And Kansas sees more of those trains because it is on a route that runs between Chicago and Los Angeles, he said. The transcon route carries 1,400 trains every 24 hours, with the longest up to 8,000 feet, he said.

"We carried 5.3 million truck trailers by train in 2005, and the majority of those moved through Kansas," Forsberg said, noting that Lowell, Ark.-based trucking company J.B. Hunt is BNSF's largest customer.

Union Pacific Corp. also has been handling record volumes every quarter for the last three years, said company spokesman Mark Davis.

The fastest growth area for the Omaha, Neb.-based company is also intermodal traffic, but agricultural volumes are also up significantly, Davis said, because of growth in ethanol production and low-sulfur coal moving out of Wyoming's Southern Powder River basin.

"Industrial products such as lumber, bricks, steel, automobiles and auto parts sort of ebb and flow with the economy," Davis said. "But over the last three years, everything has been steadily up."

The number of Union Pacific trains moving through Kansas has increased, and trains are also slightly longer, averaging 78 cars compared with 72 a year ago, he said.

Many rail lines are scrambling to grow fast enough to meet the increased demand, Forsberg said. BNSF has added more than 1,000 miles of track since 1995, including 32 miles in Kansas, he said.

The increase in traffic has led to more jobs, Forsberg said, with BNSF seeing a net growth of 3,500 employees in the last three years.

All that traffic has some cities, including Wichita and Olathe, considering building overpasses and underpasses to help smooth the flow of train and automobile traffic.

"Kansas has been very proactive in handling the growth," Forsberg aid. "We have more than a dozen projects under way in Kansas. That's five times as many as California, which has 10 times the population."

Forsberg and Davis both said intermodal transportation is good for trucking companies because it significantly reduces fuel costs and improves morale of drivers, who generally have shorter trips.

Taking trucks off the roads also reduces traffic congestion and highway maintenance, Forsberg said.

"I got a call from a woman in Olathe upset about waiting for a train," he said. "I reminded her that if it weren't for that train, there would be 300 more trucks on the road moving that freight."

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