An objective of President Abraham Lincoln, who never lived to witness its completion, the First Transcontinental Railroad in the United States was finished in 1869.
Replacing slower and more dangerous wagon trains and stagecoach lines, the transcontinental railroad is regarded by many as the greatest technological achievement of the 19th century.
Nearly 150 years later, while not romanticized as they once were, railroads still carry their weight in terms of economic significance in the nation and in Oklahoma.
“In some communities where the train used to come through and deliver commodities to the station or pick up and drop off passengers, they were a stronger tie probably, historically,” says Joe Sloan, a spokesman for the Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF Railway. “Now, when they are moving through their communities, these trains replace about 250 to 300 trucks on the road, depending on what they are hauling.
“So they are still moving material for communities, but they are not going to see it the way maybe historically they did, where people were down by the tracks and would see things coming in and out of their towns. It has definitely changed. But people are still aware of the railroads. We feel they are very important.”
BNSF is demonstrating as much.
Since 2013, BNSF, short for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, has poured $630 million in capital investments into Oklahoma, Sloan says. In 2018, the company expects to invest about $110 million in its network in the state and roughly $3.3 billion in its capital across its system.
The largest component of the plan will be to replace and maintain BNSF’s core network and related assets to ensure BNSF continues to operate a safe and reliable network. In addition, the plan includes investing in expansion and efficiency projects, continuing implementation of positive train control, and acquiring new freight cars and other equipment.
In 2017, BNSF injected roughly $95 million in Oklahoma for capital projects. The $77 million dedicated the company’s Cherokee Rail Yard expansion was the largest Tulsa-area investment of that year, according to a report by the state Commerce Department.
The Tulsa World, which is part of BH Media Group, and BNSF both are subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway.
“Tulsa’s history as a manufacturing center and continued dominance in that industry are a direct result of the strong logistical assets we have in the region — whether rail, highway, port or air,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum says in a statement. “Investments such as those being made by BNSF across the state are crucial to our continued success economically, as countless businesses rely upon rail to move products in and out of the region.
“Tulsa’s position in the heart of the U.S. makes it an ideal center for the distribution of goods and materials, and we feel grateful to have partners like BNSF investing so heavily in their facilities and lines.”
In Tulsa, BNSF operates a terminal and diesel shop in Cherokee Yard, which runs parallel to Interstate 244 in the southwest section of the city, Sloan says. Three shifts made up of 60 to 70 employees per shift (excluding road crews) perform maintenance and mechanical duties there. In the “hump yard,” cars roll by gravity onto their destination tracks.
“As trains come in, they take them apart and put them back together for different customers based on where they are headed,” Sloan says. “A train that’s headed to Chicago would be what we call classified, or sorted, in that yard. It all just depends on what those customer demands are and also where our operations are able to move trains.
“Tulsa is an important hub for us. That big project the last couple of years was to put in a bypass track. Before, all traffic had to pass through the yard.”
As the state’s chief freight rail transporter, BNSF links Oklahoma’s agricultural industry to markets across the globe.
Every year BNSF, which operates in 28 states and three Canadian provinces, shuttles more than 25,000 carloads of wheat, soybeans, corn and other agricultural products from Oklahoma to facilities around the country for domestic use and to ports for export abroad. As a conduit in intermodal transportation (truck trailers and containers), the company delivers a wide variety of consumer products, packaged goods, paper products, mail, clothes, appliances, electronics, and automobiles to Oklahoma retailers and businesses.
It also moves Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming and Montana to provide energy that helps power the Oklahoma economy, as well as lumber and other building materials from the Northwest and the Southeast to satisfy construction demands throughout the state.
In Claremore, about 75 carloads — a total of about 7,500 tons — of feed ingredients are shipped via BNSF to Stillwater Milling Company, Manager Alan Schroeder says. Rail transport represents 10 to 20 percent of the company’s shipping; the rest is over-the-road.
“They can move more product and the rates are cheaper, especially for things coming from a distance,” Schroeder said of the railway.
For the past 51 years, Pixley Lumber in Claremore has rented about eight acres from BNSF or one of its predecessors, says Paul Pixley, owner of Pixley Lumber.
Annually, more than 10,000 tons of lumber products are shipped to Pixley Lumber, representing about 25 percent of its inbound shipments, he said.
“It’s extremely important to us,” Pixley said of the railway. “The freight we receive by rail car is typically from a much further distance than from trucks. Most of the lumber products we bring in by rail come in from the Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Northern California and from British Columbia in Canada.
“If I were to bring the same product in by truckload, the freight would be prohibitive. Generally speaking, the further away the product is, the cheaper it is by rail.”
At least 1,220 employees support BNSF’s rail network in Oklahoma, earning a combined payroll of more than $97 million, the company says.
“We’re actually at some of our peak volumes in history,” Sloan says. “Demand is cyclical. A few years back, we had a bunch of engines parked in Oklahoma City and Tulsa just because volume was down. Now we’re using every locomotive we can. It just depends on the economy and customer demand.”