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COLT's small crew keeps big operation on the move

A day in the life of Columbia's short line railroad viewed through the cab of the locomotive.
Friday, May 21, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:53 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 21, 2010
A COLT Railroad engine awaits the day's shipments on Thursday, May 13. COLT Railroad is a city owned entity that moves freight in and around Columbia and the surrounding communities.

COLUMBIA – It’s 6:30 on a Thursday morning and nobody at the Columbia Terminal Railroad office is excited about the rain. Someone at a computer pulls up the radar image for Columbia, and the entire state is awash in green and yellow. It's going to be a wet morning.

Eric Gooding sits slouched in a metal folding chair with two pairs of shoes at his feet. He looks tired. He's waiting to find out if he'll be maintaining track or working on the train today. If it's maintenance, he'll choose the lace-up work boots. If he's on the train crew, it will be the black-and-yellow rubber galoshes.

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Matthew Sabath knows he will be driving the locomotive, and he sits at his desk looking over the paperwork to see where the cars are, and where they're going.

At 10 minutes till 7, railroad operations supervisor David Sprague comes out of his office with a clipboard.

"Put on your jeep boots, your driving boots, whatever," he tells Gooding.

Galoshes it is. Gooding will be the brakeman today. He'll follow the train to each stop on its way to Centralia, throwing track switches and securing the cars along the way.

Mike Long already has his rain boots on. He has been fighting a head cold and doesn't look excited to start the day. As conductor, he'll be riding in the locomotive, directing Sabath and Gooding from the ground at each stop.

There’s a clap of thunder and the rush of a renewed downpour on the roof.

Sabath, Long and Gooding each pull on oversize Water and Light Department rain slickers and head out into the wet, gray morning. They pile into a red Jeep Cherokee and head up Route B to the locomotive.

Today, three guys will deliver 18 loaded rail cars to customers on the Columbia Terminal Railroad, commonly called the COLT. The train doesn’t run every day, but between running freight, maintaining the equipment and keeping 21 miles of track free and clear, it’s a daily operation that some of Columbia’s industrial heavy hitters say they couldn’t survive without. It happens in plain sight, but could easily go unnoticed.

All aboard

It takes a few minutes to start a locomotive. Sabath climbs into the cab and flips several switches, then walks the gangway along the side of the engine, checking behind panels in the exterior to make sure water hasn't seeped into the engine.

At the back of the locomotive, he climbs a ladder to the top and removes the buckets placed over exhaust pipes to keep rain out. He descends and walks the engine's perimeter, making sure everything is as it should be before finally priming the engine and turning the ignition.

The locomotive comes to life with a whoosh that sounds like something between a washing machine and a jet engine.

The cab shakes and rocks as Sabath takes his seat in the engineer's chair. He makes some notes on a clipboard and checks in over the radio with Gooding and Long, who are getting things ready on the ground.

The city owns two locomotives, and both are more than 50 years old. Today, Sabath is driving Unit #2001, a 1,750-horsepower Electo-Motive Diesel built in 1954.

"For what we're doing, she does good," he says.

The locomotive is parked at the terminal warehouse at 6501 Brown Station Road. The facility is roughly the size of 1 1/2 football fields and serves as the city’s depot.

Sabath backs up to the warehouse to pick up several empty "gondolas" — short covered cars used to transport spools of sheet metal. The tracks lead right into the building, and Long talks him in over the radio.

With the cars connected, the train heads out onto the main tracks. The first crossing is Brown Station Road. Sabath blows the whistle four times. A black sports car darts across the tracks.

"I've got to contend with that all the time," Sabath says. "He saw me coming. He was trying to play ‘Dukes of Hazard.’”

The operation

Norfolk Southern operates the railroad that passes through Centralia, 21 miles northeast of Columbia. It used to operate the branch that connects to Columbia as well but discontinued the service in 1987. The city stepped in and bought the operation, and Columbia has been in the railroad business ever since.

"They've got more work than they can do," says Water and Light Engineering Supervisor Christian Johanningmeier.

Johanningmeier says the rail serves eight customers directly and four through the terminal warehouse. Columbia Municipal Power Plant receives coal directly and accounts for 25 percent of the Columbia Terminal's traffic — more in the summer months when air conditioners demand higher production.

"During the winter we'll maybe run up to Centralia two times a week," he says. "But during the summer, when we're busier, maybe five times a week."

Traffic peaked in 2005 when the COLT moved just more than 2,400 cars. That number was down to 1,217 in 2009. The railroad has a steady customer base, but its demands have been less lately.

Johanningmeier says that despite the slow in traffic, the railroad managed to cover its costs in 2009. “Once traffic started dropping off, we stopped spending money as best we could,” he says. “We had an employee retire and we'll leave that position open until the traffic comes up.”

From his perch in the locomotive, Sabath says the COLT’s customers have been more dependent on the railroad since the recession because of rising fuel costs.

“It gives the client the option to get the best rate for their commodity,” he says. “If they didn’t have that option, they’d be captive to whatever the trucking industry rates are at the time.”

Tom Ogden is the plant manager at J.M. Eagle, one of the COLT’s original customers. He says access to rail service isn't a luxury for his operation but a necessity.

"We're pretty dependent on the railroad,"Ogden says. "If we didn't have the railroad, I suspect we'd have a very difficult time maintaining our operation in this location."

J.M. Eagle is the largest plastic pipe manufacturer in the world and has 23 factories across the United States. The Columbia factory receives cars full of plastic resin — the essential ingredient in the manufacture of plastic pipes for sewer and water lines.

Ogden says the plant can employ 85 people when business is good. Forty-one people work there now.

"We're like all other manufacturers trying to return from the downturn," he says. "Our industry is tied quite closely to housing starts."

Next door to J.M. Eagle, Honeywell produces industrial lubricants used in the manufacture of PVC products. Plant Manager James Heller says his company has fared a little better in the economy. His plant employs 32 people — four fewer than their 2008 peak.

He says the railroad saves his plant money because it can receive larger shipments than it could get by truck.

“The rail car service is very valuable to us,” he says. “Whenever you can get materials in bulk, there’s an incentive to do it.”

Honeywell has been in Columbia for more than 20 years. Like like J.M. Eagle, the company is an original customer of the railroad. Heller says the relationship remains strong.

“The service they provide is very valuable to our business,” he says. “They have a real customer focus, and they are a real pleasure to work with.”

The train bug

The COLT cars pass through the farthest fringes of the city, past farm fields and newish looking housing developments populated with small trees, pickups and above-ground swimming pools. Someone waves from the side of the tracks; Sabath blows the horn.

Sabath says driving a train fulfills a childhood dream. "I always wanted to work for the railroad. There's something about trains that fascinate you as a kid. Seeing a train go by, waving at the engineer."

Sabath says he occasionally encounters train enthusiasts who linger along the tracks to watch the transit crew do its work. He calls them “train nuts.”

"We get those every once in awhile," he says, "but I don't have a leg to stand on because I do that some as well."

Sabath lived in Trenton for a couple of years and worked as a truck driver. He says he used to watch trains in nearby La Plata, a tiny town in north-central Missouri where Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway runs 70 to 80 trains per day.

“It’s one of my favorite places to go,” he says.

Sabath started working for Columbia's short line railroad in 2003. Before that, he worked for a short line in Fenton that serviced a Daimler Chrysler plant. He's 35.

During his seven years with COLT, he’s been able to buy a house and start a family.

“I consider myself fortunate to be here,” he says. “I’ve basically started to grow roots here in Columbia.”

The windshield wipers in Sabath's locomotive are powered by an air compressor, and the blades make a pssh-pssh-pssh-pssh sound as it heads north. The rain isn't letting up.

Back at the depot

Columbia bought the terminal warehouse in February for $2.5 million, after the previous operator defaulted on its contract. A third-party operator built the 83,000-square-foot warehouse in 2003, and it serves as a depot where crews and machinery load and unload freight from trains. The operation is substantial.

A 30-ton overhead crane lifts freight from trains that pull directly into the building, and 15 loading docks allow trucks to pull right up to the building to haul it out.

ADS Logistics used to run the warehouse as well as similar facilities across the country. But its strong ties to the auto industry caused financial trouble in 2009.

David Dick worked for ADS but stayed on to work for the city after ADS sold out. He's one of only two people who work at the warehouse; he oversees the operation. He says business has been down since the recession.

"Most of what we do here is just steady business," he says. "Our busiest time was between 2003 and 2008. That's when the economy was doing well and people were buying things and building houses. In 2009, it all dried up."

The cavernous warehouse is far from full, but there's quite a bit of material on the floor, including stacks of lumber, recycled plastics, rubber mats and dozens of spools of sheet metal.

The overhead crane zips around, effortlessly arranging spools, each of which weighs 22,000 pounds. The sheet metal is for Waterloo Industries — a company in Sedalia that makes toolboxes. Dick’s only co-worker walks the floor with a hand on his tool belt, controlling the crane with a remote control.

The ability to ship and receive for customers not located along the route means Columbia can market the railroad locally and regionally. When the city bought the warehouse, City Manager Bill Watkins said at the time that he thought it would be a money maker for Columbia.

Sabath thinks the warehouse will be a boon for the railroad as well.

“When they do good, we do good,” he says.

 

Connection to the world

When the train gets to Centralia, Gooding is waiting in the red Jeep next to the tracks. Long pulls his bright yellow hood over his head and climbs out of the locomotive's cab.

Long calls the shots over the radio, and Gooding pulls a track switch that steers the locomotive onto a side track where Sabath will leave the empty cars for Norfolk Southern. Then Long talks everyone through a series of forward and backward maneuvers to get the locomotive onto the siding that holds Columbia’s 18 cars.

More thunder, more rain.

Sabath backs the locomotive up to the waiting cars with practiced concentration as Long's crackling voice calls the distance over the radio. "Three cars, three ... two cars, two ... one car, one."

Sabath slows the locomotive and watches in the side mirror. "Thirty feet ... 20 feet ... 10 feet," Long says over the radio. The locomotive comes to a crawl and then stops.

"That'll do," Long says.

Long watches as the car connects to the locomotive at the knuckle — the mass of steel that joins rail cars to one another. A steel pin drops through the connected pieces, then Long connects the air brake hose couplings and climbs back into the cab for the ride back to Columbia.

But something's wrong — there's no pressure in the air brakes. Sabath checks his gauges and tries again to charge the brake system. Nothing.

Long gets on the radio and asks Gooding if he closed the air valve on the last car. "Yeah, I think so," says Gooding. "But if you're not moving, I may have missed it."

Long sighs. He’ll have to walk the full length of the 18 cars to check the air valve that keeps the brake system closed. He steps out of the cab.

Train brakes are powered by compressed air. If the air pressure in the line is high enough, the brakes will disengage, but an absence of air pressure leaves the brakes applied. If the valve on the last car is open, the brakes won't disengage and the train won't move.

A few minutes later Long calls over the radio, "Yep." The valve was open.

End of the line

The crew heads back to Columbia, 18 cars in tow. Johanningmeier says the COLT serves eight customers directly, including the power plant, but today the train is delivering directly to only three: J.M. Eagle, Honeywell and the warehouse terminal.

It’s now late morning, and the rain has finally let up. The sun even makes an appearance.

At the Honeywell/J.M. Eagle spur, Gooding is again waiting next to the track. Long climbs out and talks everyone through the long series of stops and starts required to get individual cars separated from the train and delivered to the waiting customers.

At 11 a.m., Sabath backs the remaining cars into the warehouse, then parks the locomotive on the spur of track where the day began. He cuts the engine, and the train goes suddenly silent — a stark contrast to a long, noisy morning.

Sabath makes some notes on his clipboard and Long climbs back on top of the locomotive to put the buckets over the exhaust pipes.

Long says he enjoys railroad work. “It’s nice just being outside,” he says. “It’s always something different.”

Long has been with the Columbia Terminal since November and says it’s been a good fit. “It’s a close-knit group of guys. You enjoy who you’re working with and who you’re working for.”

Long says Sprague is a good boss. “He’ll swing that spike hammer just as many times as you do,” he says.

Back at the office, Sprague is preparing for a planning meeting. He thinks traffic on the railroad will rebound as the economy recovers.

“The future is promising, especially with the terminal,” he says. “The main area of growth will be out of the terminal and the new commodities it lets the city handle.”

As for the work itself, Sprague isn’t sentimental. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he says. “All of the romance is pretty much gone.”


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