Abo, improved


Not long after the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe merger was consummated, a wag told me the "BNSF" reporting mark actually stood for "Big New Santa Fe." Personally, I've never liked that definition (although the classic Santa Fe was always my fave), concerned as I am with unintentionally insulting a fellow rail.

Still, the "Big, New" moniker came to mind last weekend as I was contemplating BNSF's completion of a two-and-a-half year effort which was, at once, both massive and impressive. Moreover, it was finished on time (with some portions ahead of time) and safely, without a single reportable or non-reportable injury amongst railroad employees.
I speak of the Abo Canyon project.
Traffic along this portion of the Southwest Division's "Transcon" already stands at a remarkable 80 trains-per-day average; the completed work should allow the carrier to increase its number of daily movements by over 60%!
The addition of a second main line track was imperative in order to aid fluidity today and prepare the property for tomorrow's tonnage. As with most essential undertakings, the end result came at a price.
Naturally, as a for-profit concern, BNSF didn't want to increase its budget with any unnecessary or tangential activities. Abo Canyon may be beautiful (which it is), containing many environmentally and historically sensitive areas (which it does), but few corporations would volunteer to go the second mile when dealing with special interest groups. With that in mind, Matt Rose and the BNSF should be sincerely appreciated for all they did to work with area ranches and mitigate adverse affects upon historic properties, including ancient Indian artifacts.
Robert Boileau, the BNSF's A.V.P. - Engineering Services, understood and embraced the challenges. The project included "a huge amount of bridge work on the bottom of the canyon," he said, emphasising his continued effort to "minimize [the railroad's] impact to the canyon floor." Regarding the bridges themselves, Boileau said the BNSF matched "the existing span lengths and substructure units that are [already] down in the river." Furthermore, BNSF did not design any permanent fill to be used within the 100-year flood plain. This helped maintain the historic hydrology characteristics of Abo Arroyo.
Even more difficult to manage was the removal, primarily by blasting, of approximately 3.6 million tons (around 1.7 million cubic yards) of rock. The fact this was accomplished without affecting existing main line operations or protected Indian rock art and other archeological sites stands in testament to the railroad's various construction protocols. Boileau noted that his road's crews had "a 30-minute window to get everyone cleared out of the blast zone, conduct the blast, then inspect it." To do this, repeatedly, with no damage or delays is nothing short of remarkable.
Lewis Ruder, BNSF's Senior Manager of Geotechnical Engineering in Albuquerque, praised the former Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway for its orignal work through the Canyon over a century ago. "They picked the best route," he said. "They really knew what they were doing." According to Ruter, some of the recently completed activity emulates the orignal line's standards, both from a design and a construction standpoint. As with the first track through the area, the new route strives to work with - not against - the canyon: it's curves, grades and confines.
In so many ways, this project stands as an example of the way our industry should approach major initiatives: plan today for tomorrow's needs, add infrastructure as the ability presents itself, make an honest attempt to be a good neighbour, spend money wisely but confidently, and proactively involve both public and other private entities as need be.
In the same sense, Wick Moorman and the Norfolk Southern, in breaking ground for their new intermodal facility in McCalla, Alabama, pledged to "be a positive addition" to that community. NS is spending almost 100 million dollars on a half-section of land, creating an operational anchor for the 2 1/2 billion dollar Crescent Corridor project. A recent economic impact statement (which NS commissioned) estimated over 8,600 jobs will be created due to the activity generated by this development.
Local residents raised many concerns during their two years of planning and negotiation with the railroad - and some were fearful of the changes NS' yard might bring. In part due to the advance efforts of the railroad and its political allies, many in McCalla now view the Crescent Corridor as a positive addition to their lives. In reporting yesterday's groundbreaking, The Birmingham News said "there were no protests at [the] event." Considering the possible alternatives, that makes me feel guardedly optimistic.
My sincere congratulations to all those whose brains and brawn were required to successfully finish the activities in Abo Canyon, installing nearly five miles of second main and constructing over half a mile of bridges.
The BNSF has not quite eliminated every bottleneck on the Transcon (Santa Fe's Southern District main). A couple of other constrictions remain in New Mexico alone, including the Pecos River bridge just west of Fort Sumner. Even so, the improvements through Abo Canyon represent the last major hurdle along a route which typifies the strength and vitality of North America's privately owned and operated railroad system.
  • Abo Canyon was/is an engineering marvel.  Back when I was on the SP and we negotiated for trackage rights in exchange for staying out and not opposing the BN/Santa Fe merger proceeding, we got the right to run our Chicago-LA/LB intermodal trains over the Chicago-Topeka portion of the Santa Fe Transcon.  It was said then that the only way SP could be competitive with ATSF would be to run over the Transcon over its entire length.  Sadly, west of Herrington, Kansas, we were on our own track, much of it the former Rock Island Golden West routel.

  • Great writing Garl, you show the best of a person committed with passion to an industry which should be proud of its role in the development and maintenance of the economic life of a nation. Your good counsel to the industry regarding interaction with the community at large is spot on. Some railroads could benefit from being more gracious about their role in maintaining even a modicum of passenger service via Amtrak.

  • The second track between Scholle and Sais was the final, and most expensive, phase of a project, started in the 1970s and under study since before 1960, to provide a second main track on the most restrictive single track segment of the Santa Fe transcontinental freight line. The approximately tewnty miles between Mountainair and Sais had the ruling east-bound grade on single track and relatively widely-spaced sidings. If an east-bound train had engine trouble, it became a bottleneck. Although the benefits of the project were obviously large, the high cost delayed its construction for many years.

  • Thanks Bill.  This is a marvelous piece of railroad engineering, and you are correct about how long it had been wanted by ATSF.  It took the kind of prosperity railroads are experiencing today to make the investment possible.