Winfield Railroad Thoughts

October 13, 2011

Life in Winfield

by Michael Smith

One of the main attractions of Winfield is our location on the Metra rail line within commuting distance of downtown Chicago. On the other hand, living near a busy, active rail line (for many folks) can seem like a curse. I don’t know about you, but for me the crossing gates are down almost every time I am driving through Winfield. You may not realize this, but the rail line that bisects our town is one of the most active in the country (measured in what railroaders call “train density”—number of trains in a 24 hour period). I don’t have access to railroad company train statistics, but it would not surprise me if 120 freight trains pass by here each day—about 5 every hour. And that’s not including the 56 Metra commuter trains that come through town every weekday.

The Union Pacific Railroad Company, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, is one of the last major U.S. railroad companies remaining west of the Mississippi River. It has 32,000 route miles in 23 western states, and employs 43,500 people. Another big one, BNSF, is based in Ft. Worth, Texas. There is also the giant Canadian National, which took over the former Illinois Central, with operations in the U.S. Railroad history is fascinating. Over the past 30 years or so, the number of railroad companies has dropped as smaller lines merged with each other or were gobbled up by larger ones. The tracks running through Winfield used to be owned by the Chicago and North Western, a company UP acquired 16 years ago.

Railroad consolidations have been a part of my family’s personal history as well. My dad used to be a claims agent in Chicago for the former New York Central Railroad Company. In 1958, that company merged with the old Pennsylvania Railroad to become Penn Central, one of the former eastern railroad giants that subsequently went bankrupt. When that merger happened, my father moved his family west to the San Francisco Bay Area. Because of his connections in the rail industry, I was able to get summer jobs during college working for the old Southern Pacific Railroad (now also part of the UP) as a “yard clerk” in California rail yards. Then, when I finished law school way back in 1971, I began working on the legal staff of the old Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco. In 1986 after the parent companies of Southern Pacific and the Chicago-based Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway merged I and my young family came back to Chicago. So railroads and their corporate gyrations have definitely been a major influence in my life since the beginning. Even though I am now retired, I still cannot get away from railroads—I get to watch the passing trains through town every day.

It’s true the steam locomotives vanished back in the 1950’s, and the cabooses went away in the 1970’s. But I am always amazed that railroad operations have not really changed much since I was first exposed working in the rail yards almost 50 years ago. With the important exception of the computerization of records and controls (railroads were among the first big companies to utilize computers in their operations), the technology and techniques that railroads use to move freight has stayed pretty much the same since the beginning. It’s basically an old technology, but railroads can move one ton of freight more efficiently than any other form of transportation; it just takes longer to get there.

One of the things I like to do while sitting at the railroad crossing waiting for a freight train to pass through town is to see what is moving. Rail cars are owned either by private shippers or by railroad companies, and each one bears a unique initial and number. Many older cars (and they last for years and years) still bear the names of railroad companies that no longer exist. On rare occasions, one sees special movements of exotic things. A few months back, we saw what looked at first like airplane wings, but on further examination it turned out they were huge (really huge!) windmill blades. There are really three basic types of freight trains that pass through our Village: (1) intermodal trains (ocean shipping containers and/or truck trailer vans mounted on long flat cars), (2) unit trains (with the same kind of equipment throughout, usually for bulk commodities like coal, grain, automobiles, or perishable produce), and (3) manifest trains (mixed freight in all kinds of rail cars).

There’s something else that strikes me in particular these days while I am watching the freight trains pass, and it is the explosion of graffiti on the rail cars. When I was out walking the tracks in the rail yards in California back in the 1960’s, I almost never saw graffiti on the equipment. Now it appears on almost every single car! It would be interesting to know more about how and why this has happened.

Whether your interest is in railroad history, railroad technology, or just looking at strange graffiti art, I hope you enjoy your next sojourn at the Winfield Road rail crossing. Use the time you are waiting for the gates to go up to think about where all these rail cars and commodities have been and where they are going. They have been rolling back and forth over long distances for a long time.

About Positive on Winfield

Positive on Winfield is a blog with articles on local issues, local events, and local interests in Winfield, IL. Positive on Winfield is the blog website of the local civic action group, Winfield United for a Better Community.

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