Few today may realize how the rail industry and its many parts impact everyday life. But just as railroads helped shape America as we know it, they remain an integral component of the machine that powers national and local economies.
"You walk into a mall and just about everything you touch may have come through the rail system," said Leif Smith, general director of transportation for BNSF's California Division. "A lot of people don't understand that this country could not function a day without rail service."
Rail yards in Colton and San Bernardino, Calif., operated by Union Pacific and BNSF, respectively, serve as major hubs where goods from just about anywhere in the country are sorted and carried to another stop on the way to their final destinations. Both corporations have seen business drop with the recession. Smith says business at the San Bernardino yard dropped about 14 percent when comparing 2009 to 2008. UP's net corporate income was $1.9 billion in 2009 as opposed to $2.3 billion in 2008, said UP spokesman Aaron Hunt.
Railroad historian Glen Icanberry of Redlands compares both yards to a post office.
"They take trains in, sort the cars out and put them in blocks of cars and then put them back on as whole trains," said Icanberry, a retired railroad worker, member of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society and director of the San Bernardino History and Railroad Museum at the Santa Fe Depot. He added that over the years the main change at both yards is far fewer employees due to more efficient work practices and new technology that eliminated the need for more bodies.
The yards have also transitioned from both freight and passenger transport to just freight, Icanberry said. The automobile and airplane replaced passenger rail as the preferred mode of travel, which gradually eroded its market share. BNSF and UP still operate passenger services in portions of the country, said officials at both companies.
At the San Bernardino yard, there once existed a line of shops filled with workers who repaired, maintained and built steam locomotives, Icanberry said. The advent of diesel locomotives killed off steam engines in the 1950s. As a result, he said, the shops were torn out and are now used to store cargo containers and train parts.
Today, the San Bernardino yard is an intermodal facility, meaning it uses multiple forms of transportation, such as trucks and trains. Each day, about 1,000 employees process hundreds of containers filled with goods brought in by truck and train. Those containers are sorted and then leave the facility, Smith said. The average train that leaves the San Bernardino yard is about 8,000 feet long, usually hauling anywhere from 4,500 to 7,000 tons of weight, said BNSF terminal manager Joe Dickerson. Anywhere from three to six locomotives are strategically placed at the front, middle or rear of the train to maximize fuel efficiency, Smith said.
UP spokeswoman Lupe Valdez said the Colton yard is not an intermodal facility, so it's devoid of freight trucks. It only processes train cars stocked with just about anything, including flour, cement, wood or giant turbines used to generate power at wind farms.
Today, heavy maintenance, repairs and overhauls of diesel locomotives are performed at the Colton yard. But that wasn't the case years ago.
"The changes for us have been more structural," Valdez said. "For us it's been the consolidation. As opposed to getting out of maintenance, we brought it here. The yard has also gotten longer as train lengths have grown over the years."
While the San Bernardino yard ships trains out as far as New York, N.Y., Valdez said the Colton yard only ships along the "Sunset Branch," a famous rail line between Southern California and Texas.
"Historically, (Sunset Branch) has been an important part of the railroad industry," Valdez said.