GUERNSEY – Burlington Northern, the Santa Fe and Berkshire Hathaway are the parent organizations of BNSF Railway Company which is the largest freight railroad network in America. The company has an excess of over 40,000 employees and owns more than 32,000 miles of track in 28 states.
There is a large BNSF terminal located in Guernsey with 20 tracks running in and out of the town. With the crippled trucking industry taking major hits due to the industry itself, brokerages that have invaded the trucking empire and now the coronavirus, the rail industry is alive and well and although trains are now diesel, they are picking up steam in spite of the global pandemic.
There have been many changes in the rail industry including ongoing experiments this year to switch to a natural gas fuel source which would further eliminate the dependence on oil.
According to Trains.com, writer Chris Guss said in a September 2019 article, “CNGMotive unveiled the industry’s first compressed natural gas tender. Tender GCNX No. 5001 was built new at Kasgro for CNGMotive and features 28 separate CNG storage tanks in two groups giving the tender a storage capacity equal to 4,600 gallons of diesel fuel, also known as diesel gallon equivalent.”
Chad Hansen, born in Battle Creek, Mich., and currently a resident of Wheatland, is the terminal manager at BNSF in Guernsey and has been with the company for 23 years. He mentions that unlike most kids who grow up playing with trains and dreaming about being an engineer, he wasn’t one of those kids.
“It wasn’t something that I looked at,” Hansen said. “Although, my grandfather worked for the Grand Trunk Railroad in Michigan, which was my initial interest in the railroad and I kind of knew a little bit about it through him.”
Hansen served in the military. After his service had finished, he moved to the Gillett area, where the railroad was hiring, starting a career that followed in his grandfather’s footsteps.
“I started as a conductor, a locomotive engineer and eventually started in the management side of things,” Hansen said. “My grandfather was a brakeman, a conductor who would go from Battle Creek, Michigan to Chicago.”
Hansen started as a conductor and after several months of training, he began overseeing the operations of the trains, setting out the cars and doing the problem solving while the train was in route.
“There is quite a bit of training that goes into it,” Hansen said. “I believe our training program now is somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 weeks. There is some classroom involved in that and then there is actual training on an actual train where you are on board with current conductors and engineers.”
When posed the question whether the railroad industry was dying, Hansen mentioned that if you looked around your house or around town, you’d be hard pressed to find something that wasn’t at one time touched by the rail industry in its delivery of that product.
“Most everything that comes from overseas,” Hansen said, “ends up on a train before it goes to a truck to a distribution center. All the grain, and while we are here, we do a lot of coal that provides energy across the nation. There are very few products that don’t move via the railroad. Especially in our country where we have such a good network from one end of the country to the other.”
He mentioned all the national railroads have also found a way to work together to share track and maintain their agreements with each other. Although there is competition, they have learned to depend on one another even to the point of sharing track between competing companies.
Another thing that many will read about is the derailments and the safety aspects to railroads.
“Typically, what I like to say is that the railroad is a very safe industry, however it’s very unforgiving,” Hansen said. “When we do have something go wrong, or as it shouldn’t go, it can be very unforgiving when that happens. Because as you know, there is a lot of tonnage and that equipment is very big and it always wins if it comes in contact with human flesh or an automobile. The rules that we have set up allow us to be able to work safely.”
Hansen also said the workers and the company is well prepared for all scenarios. If something would happen, they have teams of people that can go quickly into action to rectify the situation and eliminate cost and downtime.
One of the great challenges for rail companies is something nobody can control – the weather along with traffic.
“Mainly the biggest challenge, especially in the midst of adverse weather is the maneuvering of the trains in the yard,” he said. “Getting cars to the correct mine can also sometime be a challenge and then of course if the train gets there and there is not an open spot and has to be diverted to other mines so we can continue with the flow of traffic.”
As a terminal manager Hansen oversees the operations within the terminal as far as the yardmasters and the trainmasters and the switch crews, not to mention all the many trains that come and go through the trainyard at Guernsey. He also has to know the plan for each train, whether they are to be inspected, fueled, passed through, powered and also has to make sure there is a crew in place for each situation.
Concerning the coronavirus, Hansen said, “Things are definitely different. We are still considered essential so we are working, but we are doing things different like practicing social distancing, a lot of antiseptic wipes, and we are trying to keep things as clean as we can. It’s adjusting to this new world.”
The company has had to furlough some employees due to a small decline in business, due to the pandemic, and Hansen said that there has been a reduction in the coal traffic.
Overall, and compared to other companies, the rail industry seems to be just clicking down the tracks full steam ahead. They have realized that as the railroad moves, so moves the country. It’s a deliberate and steady industry, realizing that steady and consistent are the keys to getting all of America… “back on track.”