Iowa Interstate’s New Year’s Eve Coal Train!

Here’s an Iowa Interstate coal train departing Peoria New Year’s Eve 2016.

You wouldn’t know it was an Iowa Interstate train judging by the locomotives leading it – BNSF 6950, NS 9523 and NS 9305 – or the 96 bathtub gondolas, most of which display Norfolk Southern markings.

But that is what it is. Iowa Interstate receives coal trains from Norfolk Southern perhaps three or four times per month. They’re known as “PECR” (PEoria IL to Cedar Rapids IA) and are consigned to Archer Daniels Midland Co’s co-generation facility in Cedar Rapids. The train probably originated at the Shay Mine near Carlinville, though there may be a second Illinois mine supplying ADM’s coal.

Scenes are at Bridge Junction, the “old” (1900) Rock Island depot, the “new” (1967) Rock Island depot on the Tazewell & Peoria Railroad, and The Narrows and San Koty on the Iowa Interstate’s Peoria Subdivision. Since the train was moving at mainline speed (25mph) at the latter, I shot the whole train there.

– David P. Jordan

Slow Orders Gone From BNSF’s Peoria Sub?

BNSF Railway’s Peoria Subdivision is a faster railroad these days.

For about a decade, from 1998 to 2008, BNSF allowed its 52-mile Peoria Subdivision to deteriorate, forcing an increasing number of slow orders east of Edwards (likely due to Spring 1998 flooding), but eventually the entire line. In the last year or so before a much-needed crosstie replacement project commenced in July 2008, BNSF slapped a 10mph restriction along the entire line, with 5mph east of Edwards.

You can imagine the problems created by this deterioration. Motorists at W. Farmington Road huffed impatiently for the ten minutes or so required for a 135-car coal trains to pass. The biggest problem was the inability of train crews to make a roundtrip – a little over 100 miles – within their federally-mandated twelve hours-of-service. That had to be costlier than actually maintaining the line to a decent standard.

The slow orders were especially difficult for the Toledo Peoria & Western Railway, which provided haulage service for BNSF on the Galesburg-Peoria line until June 2011. A roundtrip might require three crews – one to move the train to Gilson Siding, a second to deliver to BNSF at the Galesburg terminal, and a third to deliver the eastbound train to the Tazewell & Peoria Railroad, which was probably left on the New Long Main at Peoria’s far south edge when the second crew ran out of time. Trains were supposed to run three roundtrips a week, but slow orders and a limited crew pool usually cut this to once a week.

In September 2008, BNSF raised track speeds west of Edwards back to 25mph. Additional crosstie replacement took place in the fall of 2009. Since then, the railroad has done additional rehabilitation on various sections of the line, including replacement of the last jointed rail outside of yard limits with continuous welded rail (cwr), installation of heavier cwr (136-lbs.) to replace that laid in the 1970s.

The most recent project included replacement of the crossing at W. Farmington Road. That may have been the last barrier to resume 40mph operations, at least for non-unit trains, which may remain restricted to 25mph through this area. Many other crossings have been completely rebuilt with modern materials.

Anyway, Wednesday’s M-GALPEI (Manifest, Galesburg IL to Peoria IL) departed Galesburg at 9:05 that morning and arrived Peoria at 10:45. Just like the old days, the train took but an hour and forty minutes to run the length of the line. Ironically, the crew sat at Darst Street awaiting instructions from the Tazewell & Peoria Railroad dispatcher for at least twice that time!

Improvements done to the Peoria Sub, particularly the heavier cwr and retirement of jointed rail, points to a bright future. It is believed that as recently as two years ago, BNSF and Norfolk Southern were planning to divert a large volume of carload freight and perhaps even crude oil trains to the Peoria Gateway. Then crude oil prices collapsed in 2015, business dropped off, and embarrasing congestion that angered shippers and made national news had become a thing of the past.

BNSF runs merchandise trains between Galesburg and East Peoria twice a week. Coal trains bound for the Illinois & Midland Railroad number up to ten per week (plus corresponding empties) depending on peak cooling and heating cycles. Unit grain trains loaded in the Northern Plains make seasonal appearances, with some bound for ADM’s Peoria plant, Pacific Ethanol’s Pekin plant, and even ADM’s East Plant in Decatur. So train counts may vary from two to five per day.

Neither cheap oil prices nor a strong US dollar will last forever. Rail tonnage is likely to surge again, probably before 2020, so don’t be surprised if BNSF’s Peoria Sub gets busier in the not-too-distant future.

– David P. Jordan

About Those TP&W Ethanol Trains…

This afternoon I caught TP&W building the next unit ethanol train.

One ran Tuesday (see bottom of this post), so the next will be after Christmas. What I assume to be the East Peoria Yard crew, used GP50 5010 and SD40-2s 2443 and 2442, to pull a buffer car (from TP&W’s grain car fleet) and 37 ethanol loads from sister Tazewell & Peoria Railroad’s (TZPR) East Peoria to its own, less than two miles away.

Confirmed by a November 15 press release, 96-car ethanol trains (plus a buffer on each end per federal regulations) are built from daily production at Pacific Ethanol Inc’s Pekin facilities. The process begins when the Tazewell & Peoria Railroad’s Pekin Local pulls loaded tank cars and brings them to the East Peoria Yard.

I can’t recall I ever seeing 37 ethanol loads in one Pekin Local, so it would appear TZPR combines two days worth of traffic into a longer cut then releases it to TP&W, which makes frequent transfer runs to its sister’s East Peoria Yard. As unit ethanol trains run weekly, it probably requires three cuts to assemble an entire train, which is done at the TP&W yard.

What is interesting is that 96 carloads of ethanol represents almost all of Pacific Ethanol’s plant capacity, leaving little for other customers. My calculations are based on the 160 million gallon-a-year combined capacity of the wet corn mill (100 MGY) and dry corn mill (60 MGY), divided by an average 29,500 gallon railcar capacity, then divided again by 52 weeks. It’s a better situation factoring a month-long maintenance shutdown. So 48 weeks of production would average 113 carloads each, leaving 19 after each ethanol train is built. Limited operations on holidays would further increase the supply needed for other customers.

I still haven’t confirmed where these trains are going after TP&W delivers them to CSX Transportation at Lafayette, Indiana. Reports of northbound empty ethanol trains in Georgia and Alabama leads me to believe loads are going to Florida. Kinder Morgan’s Tampa facility is a good candidate because this tells us that, “The terminal can handle ethanol unit trains up to 96 cars in length…”

BELOW:TP&W SD40-2s 3441, 3442 and 3443 and GP38-3 2070 drag 12 mixed freight and a 98-car ethanol train (including two buffers) out of East Peoria, Illinois in late-after noon sun, December 20, 2016. Scenes are at the Farmdale Trestle, Washington and Eureka. Entire train at the last two points fills out the rest of the video. 

– David P. Jordan

Outlook for Downstate Illinois Airports – 2017 (Updated!)

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I decided to create a new post to answer an inquiry from a reader.

David, what are your early predictions for end of year airport totals for all central Illinois airports, including MLI?

I’ll offer my thoughts broken down by facility.

BLOOMINGTON/NORMAL (Central Illinois Regional Airport – BMI/CIRA)
CIRA lost its low-fare advantage when AirTran Airways dropped service in June 2012. Declining passenger traffic (down 34.5% since 2011) eased a bit the first half of 2016 since May and June numbers were higher than last year. But the loss of Detroit flights at the end of July decreases options for travelers. This year’s passenger numbers will likely be below 400,000.

The year 2017 offers some hope. Passenger traffic could actually increase slightly. American Eagle starts using 76-seat CRJ900s on its two daily DFW nonstops March 9. The third roundtrip begin in March apparently ended this summer, and won’t return thanks to the use of larger jets. This move might not necessarily increase traffic at CIRA, but spares it the loss of passengers since the same upgrade is coming to Peoria three weeks earlier. CIRA lost out to Peoria on Charlotte service, so I wouldn’t expect such service to be offered here in the forseeable future.

Allegiant Air will likely maintain nonstops to two Florida points: Orlando-Sanford and St. Petersburg/Clearwater. This carrier has suffered bad publicity for aircraft maintenance issues, but a recent order for new A-320NEOs and acquisition of second-hand A-319s and A-320s will allow retirement of the older MD-80s that suffer all-too frequent incidents. I don’t see any new destinations on the horizon,though twice-weekly Punta Gorda flights wouldn’t surprise me. Service to Las Vegas and Phoenix-Mesa would cannabilize the Peoria market rather than increase traffic for the airline.

Delta Air Lines has temporarily suspended 717-200 service to CIRA from Atlanta (probably to add capacity in other markets for the holiday travel season), but resumes January 7. This service initially started January 5, 2016. That Delta seems to be keeping this aircraft in the CIRA market (with temporary exceptions) is a good sign. In addition to Atlanta flights, Delta offers at least a daily nonstop to Minneapolis/St. Paul. A second roundtrip started June 1, but was apparently for the summer season.

On a final Delta note, Rivian Automotive’s intent to purchase the former Mitsubishi auto assembly plant at Normal, Illinois could prompt restoration of Detroit service. Rivian has offices in Detroit, and as operations are ramped up, perhaps as a result Delta will see a need to restore a link with that hub.

CHAMPAIGN/URBANA (University of Illinois-Willard Airport, CMI)
A new marketing campaign begin in 2015 to increase service and lure another carrier or two has yet to yield fruit. Unless carriers decide that the Central Illinois region is best served by a PIA-CMI axis and not a PIA-BMI one, I can’t see much happening here. Retirement of Embraer 145s, some of which received maintenance here, will likely bring changes. But I don’t expect these in 2017.

DECATUR (Decatur Airport, DEC)
Air Choice One should continue to offer Essential Air Service to Chicago-O’Hare and St. Louis during 2017. I believe the contract was renewed early this year, but for how long I don’t know. One wonders why passengers can’t just use BMI, CMI, SPI or even PIA for their travel accommodations.

MOLINE/QUAD CITIES (Quad City International Airport, MLI)
This facility, like CIRA, has taken a big hit since losing AirTran Airways service. Peak traffic came in 2007 when 966,142 passengers flew through MLI. In 2015, only 730,292 passengers used MLI, a decline of 24.4%, though over a greater period than CIRA. Fortunately, the decline has eased, and is only down 7.9% since 2011.

I’d not be surprised to see MLI see an increase in traffic during 2017. American Eagle begins twice-daily CR900 DFW service on January 9-10. MLI, like CIRA, lost its first chance for expanded service when American Eagle picked PIA and Cedar Rapids, Iowa (CID) for new Charlotte nonstops. Depending on how well these markets perform, I’d expect MLI to be added in time, but not likely next year.

As for the others, Allegiant Air offers nonstops to Las Vegas, Orlando-Sanford, Phoenix-Mesa, Punta Gorda and St. Petersburg/Clearwater. The carrier has recently been adding larger cities to its network, but I don’t expect this to be done at the expense of facilities like MLI. Someday, nonstop international points will be added from MLI, but perhaps not in 2017.

Delta Connection maintains nonstops to three hubs – Atlanta, Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul, and I don’t expect that to change. At least the Atlanta market gets larger regional jets. United Express offers service to its Chicago (O’Hare) and Denver hubs. Service to the latter is down to just one daily roundtrip

PEORIA (Gen. Wayne A Downing Peoria International Airport, PIA)
Allegiant Air’s plans to offer flights to the Caribbean and Mexico is believed the reason for construction of new Federal Inspection Service (FIS) facilities at a number of smaller commercial airports around the Midwest. Peoria’s facility opened in late-May. I don’t expect international service to begin in 2017, but it wouldn’t surprise me if preparations to start service, predicated on funding for five full-time FIS employees, were under way by year’s end.

International status keeps PIA’s stature above its other central Illinois contempories. But better air service and competitive fares have driven passenger traffic to record levels four years in a row.

Earlier this year, Allegiant Air apparently asked PIA to poll travelers’ preferences for three destinations: Los Angeles, Destin (Florida) and Myrtle Beach. Cedar Rapids and Des Moines have Los Angeles service, but distance and gate availability are likely reasons Peoria and Moline aren’t served from southern California.

I’ve not heard about load factors on American Eagle’s new Charlotte flights, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t doing well. Assuming that’s the case, then AA is giving Delta Air Lines/Delta Connection a run for its money as it pertains to competitive connections via Atlanta and Charlotte. Traffic through PIA is likely to be stimulated as a result, and probably means PIA will at least crack 600,000 passengers in 2016, and sets the stage for good numbers (if not a record) in 2017.

Now that American Eagle is beginning two-class service to DFW on February 16, I expect Delta Connection, if it senses the need, to phase in larger regional jets in the Peoria market, perhaps before the end of 2017.

It is hoped the airport authority can persuade United Express to restore Peoria-Denver nonstops. That regional partners to American Airlines and Delta Air Lines offer service to three hubs, but United only one, is a clear competitive disadvantage.

SPRINGFIELD (Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, SPI)
Allegiant Air flights to Orlando-Sanford and Punta Gorda, and American Eagle’s DFW nonstops, have given SPI traffic gains the past few years. Officials have been lobbying for a third DFW roundtrip and service to Las Vegas.

Will SPI get more service in 2017? Hard to say, since Allegiant Air seems more interested in larger markets. American Eagle is more likely to switch to CRJ900s on its DFW flights than add a third frequency.

Passenger traffic and air service levels in the coming year are predicated on fuel prices. If these rise significantly, expect cutbacks in frequency, and perhaps routes. That and increasing low-fare competition at Minneapolis/St. Paul may cause Delta [Connection] to reduce service to downstate Illinois markets, particularly CIRA (MLI and PIA have a better chance of retention).

  • In summary, BMI’s passenger traffic may have stabilized. Higher traffic is possible in 2017.
  • CMI wants new service but probably won’t get it in 2017.
  • DEC will not see any changes in Air Choice One’s EAS service to ORD and STL
  • MLI’s passenger traffic has stabilized, and higher traffic is likely in 2017.
  • PIA won’t post a record in 2016, but traffic should be higher in 2017 thanks to Atlanta vs. Charlotte competition. Larger jets to DFW will help as well.
  • SPI should remain stable, but new service in 2017 may be elusive.

UPDATE (Dec. 29, 2016): The Wall Street Journal posted this article November 18 about renewed interest by United Air Lines in small cities. CFO Andrew Levy was quoted as saying, “The only places with reasonable fares are smaller cities…That’s where the money is.” The airline may add up to 20 small cities to its network, possibly those routes out of Chicago-O’Hare that the airline does not compete with rival American Airlines (actually regional partner American Eagle).

So the obvious question: Are CIRA and CMI possible additions to the United Express network in 2017? United Express served CIRA from 2000 to 2008. The carrier served CMI nearly a quarter century ago. Given its more recent history in CiRA, I’d give that city the upper hand, but CMI’s distance from existing points served by the airline might be in its favor.

– David P. Jordan

Buyer For Mitsubishi Plant?

I got this question on another post, and decided to create a new one with my answer.

As background, I’m sure everyone has seen the news that Rivian Automotive is in talks with Maynard’s Industries to acquire the former Mitsubishi Motors auto assembly plant at Normal, Illinois.

QUESTION: Not to hijack this video but what do you think the pending sale of the old Mitsubishi plant could mean to NS traffic now that another auto company is the potential buyer?

MY ANSWER: It is difficult to tell at this point, because Rivian Automotive has yet to introduce an actual car. Until it does so, and production begins, we know nothing of the company’s plans for distribution to customers.

Rivian could model its distribution network after Tesla, which has small dealerships where perhaps one or two models are on display as a sample for potential buyers. The company builds a car when the customer orders it. This keeps costs low and inventory levels minimal. Unfortunately, it also means volume doesn’t justify rail transportation.

At least not yet. The former NUMMI plant in Fremont, California was served by Union Pacific, and auto loading facilities appear to be in place. The company is adding more models and even projected sales volume of 500,000 vehicles in 2020! Consider the company sold only about 35,000 in 2014 (vs. 22,450 in 2013).

As for Rivian Automotive, a Google search yields a shady past in Florida under a different name (Avera Motors), but the company has an R&D facility in the Detroit area and something out in San Francisco.

Rivian plans to develop and manufacture “high tech” vehicles, whatever that means. The internet provides very little information on the company apart from corporate-speak and carefully polished quotes. The founders could well have good intentions and produce a vehicle which proves popular. Or they could take the money and run to the next state they believe can be fooled. 😛

Taking the optimistic view, a high volume of Rivian autos produced at the Normal plant would presumably be shipped to customers in California and Texas and perhaps select export markets in Europe. That could require rail transportation, depending on the company’s distribution and dealership network. Inbound components will arrive by truck, as Rivian is unlikely to depart from Just-In-Time inventory practices.

Norfolk Southern would probably handle shipments direct from the plant, though there’s always the chance Rivian will use auto terminals in the Chicago and St. Louis areas, or trucks to destination (no doubt in the beginning).

There are rumors, usually spread by train crews and/or railfans who apparently receive daily press releases direct from Norfolk Southern’s Board of Directors that say the Bloomington District will be abandoned, leased or sold to a shortline now that Mitsubishi has closed. But Mitsubishi’s annual production volume had been far less than 100,000 cars for its last decade. Weekday contributions to Norfolk Southern was usually 12-15 cars per day, not the 30-40 per day in the early 2000s.

The Bloomington District benefits from a diverse traffic base heavy with grain, ethanol (thanks to the Bloomer Line connection at Gibson City) and interchange at Peoria (including grain and coal trains interchanged with the Iowa Interstate). Operations are likely profitable without automotive business. Any lease or sale will likely force opposition from the Bloomer Line, Iowa Interstate, the Keokuk Junction Railway, and possibly Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which owns three local shortlines.

A sale would likely prompt shippers such as Caterpillar, (whose Aurora and East Peoria plants, when business was good, routed machinery to NS-served ports in Virginia and Georgia, becoming a dedicated weekly train at Good Yard in Normal). Heartland Coop (which operates a Des Moines elevator which loads 85-car grain trains routed via IAIS to the NS at Peoria), Archer Daniels Midland (whose Cedar Rapids plant receives Illinois coal routed NS-Peoria-IAIS) and Roquette America (Keokuk, Iowa, which sends some 900 carloads of corn germ annually to ADM in Decatur routed KJRY-TZPR-NS) to join the fight.

The only viable alternative is for NS to lease the Bloomington District to a willing shortline (Watco, Omnitrax, RJ Corman, Genesee & Wyoming, etc.) but maintain haulage rights (flat per car rate) between the interchange (presumably Bement), the Bloomer Line at Gibson City and the Tazewell & Peoria Railroad at East Peoria. That way, existing contracts and single-line service now in place can continue uninterrupted. The addition of another carrier in present routings would normally increase the cost of rail transportation. A haulage deal as described above would prevent that, most likely satisfying all affected parties.

But since it appears the Mitsubishi plant is going to get a buyer that will resume auto production in the not-too-distant future, Norfolk Southern may put on hold plans to sell or lease portions or all of its Bloomington District.

– David P. Jordan

Could Magnetation LLC Asset Sale Benefit the TP&W?

More potential good news on the job front.

Magnetation LLC, which pioneered a process to recover discarded ore for use in steel-making, closed its Reynolds, Indiana pellet processing plant in October, along with the last of its three ore processing plants in its home state of Minnesota. It was announced yesterday that ERP Iron Ore LLC, a subsidiary of ERP Compliant Fuels had struck a deal to acquire Magnetation’s assets, and there was potential for restarting operations.

The Toledo, Peoria & Western Railway had high hopes for an ore pellet processing plant that opened at Reynolds, Indiana in 2014. The railroad, a subsdiary of Darien, Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc., hoped to capture both inbound hematite ore and outbound pellets for this plant. CSX, however, won the contract since it had direct access and lower rates.

The TP&W did, however, haul bentonite clay, received from BNSF at Peoria, to a transload site at Reynolds so material could be trucked the final leg. Direct access to the plant by TP&W is possible, and construction of a spur could begin at the new owner’s discretion (some grading took place in late-summer 2014).

Prior arrangements to ship hematite ore out of Minnesota could simply resume under new ownership. From June 2014 through September 2016, 120-car trains were routed BNSF-Chicago-CSXT. Outbound pellets were shipped to AK Steel (until recently, a part owner of the Reynolds plant) in Middletown, Ohio via CSXT. But ERP Iron Ore LLC will likely have to find a new market for its products.

If Mexico or other export markets, TP&W has a chance to capture a significant new source of business, handing off trains to connections such as BNSF (at Peoria), Canadian National (at Gilman) or Union Pacific (most likely at Watseka, but Chenoa or a Peoria area interchange is possible).

I managed to capture some CSX action both in and out of the Reynolds plant. Enjoy!

– David P. Jordan

Keokuk Junction Railway Freight Train

After the Keokuk Junction Railway runs its Santa Train the first Saturday in December, you can bet the next westbound freight to leave Mapleton will have the Peoria, IL-based shortline’s world famous A-B-A set of F-units on the point.

That was my motivation to get up a little earlier Monday morning. I was rewarded with a successful chase from Mapleton to the Spoon River.

Pioneer Railroad Equipment Co. Ltd. (PREX) locomotives 1750, 1761, 1752, 2032 and 2003 led 55 cars. The first twenty were normal traffic (two loads/18 empties) and the other 35 were storage cars. Regarding loads, the first car was loaded with lube oil bound for a BNSF-served customer in Keokuk, Iowa. The second was loaded with soybean flour for ADM’s dog food ingredients plant in Bushnell.

Scenes are at Reed City Road (W. of Mapleton), Breeds Road (just E. of Breeds), Canton, between Canton and Cuba, Smithfield and the Spoon River Bridge.

– David P. Jordan

Keokuk Junction Railway Runs 9th Annual Santa Train Saturday!

The Keokuk Junction Railway operated its ninth annual Santa Train on Saturday, December 3, 2016.

The Pioneer Railcorp-owned shortline used its world-famous A-B-A F-unit set (PREX FP-9A 1750, F-9B1761 & FP-9A 1752) to pull Santa Claus riding in caboose PREX 3 to stops in Mapleton, Glasford, Breeds, Rawalts (crew lunch break), Canton, Cuba and Smithfield in Illinois (and scenic locations in between).

Video lasts 17 minutes. Enjoy!

– David P. Jordan