UTA MAGAZINE (FALL 2013): The Tracks of PRogress
Next time a train makes you late, think beyond the inconvenience. In addition to transporting indispensable freight, these rolling behemoths carry a certain allure.
By David Hopkins
When the union pacific trudges through, the entire city pauses. Time moves slowly at the crossing. Graffiti-tagged freight cars present a modern art museum on wheels. Autos edge closer, hoping to hurry the train along. The trains—their noises, their smells, their sheer mass—are a constant in central Arlington, as if its boundaries are more clearly defined by a strange auditory scope than by any streets. Railroads are a conspicuous, often annoying fact of Arlington life. And the city is possibly more affected by them than either Fort Worth or Dallas.
THE ROUTE TO PROSPERITY
In the 1800s Texas desired a southern route to California, what officials would call the 32nd parallel railroad. Politics, financial troubles, and the Civil War delayed plans. After the war several companies combined to create the Texas and Pacific Railway, a federally chartered operation with land compensation from the state. The T&P wanted to run a train from Dallas to Fort Worth with sights on San Diego.
The train needed a midpoint for reloading and refueling. Johnson Station was the obvious choice. A settlement three miles south of present-day downtown Arlington with a cotton plantation, a blacksmith shop, and a post office, it already was on the stagecoach route. Nevertheless, the T&P built its depot north of Johnson Station. Evelyn Barker and Lea Worcester, UT Arlington librarians and Arlington historians, wrote about the tracks moving north for the Images of America series.
“The land was easier to grade,” Barker says. “The train bypassed Johnson Station, but then a lot of people moved up.”
“They moved their buildings north in some cases,” Worcester adds.
Much of Johnson Station relocated, and Arlington was born. Meanwhile, another company was laying track westward. Southern Pacific moved faster, taking potential track away from the T&P. Texas lawmakers announced that if the section between Dallas and Fort Worth wasn’t completed by the end of the 1876 legislative session, they would deny land grants to the T&P.
Panicked Fort Worth citizens showed up with shovels, axes, and sledgehammers to do what they could. City representatives at the Capitol tried to stall adjournment. At 9 a.m. July 19, 1876, without a day to spare, the train passed through Arlington, slowly, tentatively, on wobbly tracks built by farmers. Five years later, the Southern Pacific and T&P lines met in Sierra Blanca in far West Texas, forming the third transcontinental rail.
Arlington’s new train depot, at Center and Main streets, made the town a market mecca for surrounding farms, and downtown grew around it. Shops, banks, and churches emerged outward, as did the school that would become UT Arlington.
As railroads improved, Arlington was no longer a necessary fuel stop, and the mid-century automotive boom killed passenger trains between Fort Worth and Dallas. The city dismantled the depot in the early 1950s. In 1976 T&P merged with Missouri Pacific and was then acquired by Union Pacific, which manages the line today. The train still stops at Arlington’s General Motors Assembly Plant.
A NECESSARY NUISANCE
Never mind that trains grind Cooper Street traffic to a halt. They are a vital cog in the nation’s supply chain.
Logistics cost less in the United States than elsewhere in the world. As one of the most efficient and environmentally friendly modes of surface transportation, railways keep costs down. Steel on steel is more efficient than rubber on concrete.
Though it seems counterintuitive, U.S. rail is also a major influence abroad. College of Business Associate Professor Edmund Prater, a supply chain management expert, says the “land bridge phenomenon” plays a huge role in international trade.
“If you’re shipping goods from China to western Europe, it is actually easier and cheaper to ship to Los Angeles and use the United States as a land bridge,” Dr. Prater says. “That’s what the U.S. is, a land bridge. They take these containers off the ships and load them directly on the railroads. Then they’re hauled all the way across the United States to the East Coast, where they’re put on container ships and sailed over to Europe. That’s much quicker, more efficient.”
The U.S. freight train business is booming. The Association of American Railroads reports that carloads shipped by rail, not including coal, were up 3.3 percent in December compared to last year. This growth is part of a 10-year trend. Lately, more businesses are shipping goods by rail due to high oil prices and increased imports from Asia. The shale oil industry has benefited from the railroad, too, hauling materials to places like North Dakota that lack pipelines.
Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway Co. plans to invest $1 billion this year on locomotives, freight cars, and other equipment. That’s part of a $4.1 billion capital program—a $450 million increase from the previous year. General Electric hired 300 people at a new plant north of Fort Worth to build more locomotives, while Union Pacific is spending $30 million to replace worn-out track between Fort Worth and Dallas.
Kevin Ghassemi ’06 worked for BNSF as a train master, which is like an air traffic controller for the rails. He saw the industry up close.
“I was the one responsible for making sure we had a spot for arriving trains because you only have so much track out in these yards,” he says. “We’re growing pretty much every year.”
Now a national account manager for BNSF, Ghassemi was introduced to the company through UT Arlington’s Goolsby Leadership Academy, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Established with an anonymous $2 million gift in honor of John ’64 and Judy Goolsby, the academy is a cohort-based program that prepares juniors and seniors to become business executives.
A longtime academy supporter, BNSF has established a $500,000 endowed scholarship and a $900,000 endowment to create an early development program that includes freshmen and sophomores. Charles Shewmake ’87, vice president and general counsel for BNSF and a member of the College of Business Advisory Council, values his company’s involvement with the Goolsby Leadership Academy.
“While we spend billions of dollars each year to invest in our physical infrastructure, the top leaders at this company also invest their time in our potential future leaders. Our chief marketing officer and chief financial officer have spent time with UTA students to help them understand our industry and jump-start their careers,” Shewmake says. “The railroad needs a diverse group of leaders, anything from accountants to doctors, from police officers to civil engineers, and computer and financial analysts.”
When he was a Goolsby scholar, Ghassemi thought the railroad was dying. A conversation with a BNSF executive changed his outlook and, eventually, his life. “He told me that railroads ship two-thirds of the nation’s cars. They ship a lot of freight. It’s a lot bigger than you could imagine. Working there for almost seven years now, I know he’s right.”
Ghassemi reflects on his initial misconception.
“I always thought the railroad just kind of got in the way, especially at UTA when the Union Pacific would come through and make me late for class while I sat there waiting in my car. Little did I know that that train is taking 350 to 400 eighteen-wheelers off the road.”
Trains still frustrate the University community and the Arlington motorist. But the next time you’re stopped at a crossing, remember that there would be no Arlington—and no UT Arlington—without them. Think about the role they play in the national and international economy.
CONSIDER THE MYSTIQUE
Railroads conjure thoughts of Wild West mythology and the innocence of Stand by Me—a bygone era when a boy would walk along the tracks because it was the most direct way to get across town. On the borrowed path, he would constantly look behind, afraid that a train might sneak up on him. But that would never happen.
A mile away, the lumbering giant would announce its presence with a low growl. The boy would place a penny on the tracks, but it never flattened like it should. He’d step aside, allowing the bully to have its way. He could feel the locomotive’s power in his stomach, a magnificent shock wave of weight and speed, a warning that said keep your distance.
The train forever reminds us of the larger worlds beyond our town, centers of commerce and steel, extending from coast to coast and points in-between—connected by parallel and perpendicular lines, a grand matrix of business and culture and a certain charm.