Train Town: A railroad economy and its impacts

Low hums mixed in with the occasional horn blows powering through the  night are familiar to anyone living in northern Arizona. These locomotives power thousands of containers full of goods all across the United States and are essential for timely delivery. Individuals working for the railroad industry often find Flagstaff to be a conveniently located stop over town, positioned perfectly for their traveling needs. 

Benjamin Wilemon, external corporate communications manager for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), clarified the type of traffic Flagstaff tends to see on average. 

“We carry numerous types of freight, however the manifest details are generally kept private,” Wilemon said. “I can tell you that we operate under a common carrier obligation, which means a railroad company is required to provide transportation to all parties upon reasonable request, including for hazardous materials.”

BNSF is a 170-year-old freight company that specializes in the transportation of consumer goods in the U.S. and parts of Canada, per the BNSF website. Since the company’s inception, BNSF has acquired over 400 separate railroad lines resulting in the possession of thousands of miles in railroad track spanning large swathes of the continental U.S., totaling 32,500 miles. For 2020 alone, BNSF generated over 20 billion dollars in revenue, down from a high of 23 million in 2019. Its website also states over 36,000 people are currently employed with the company. In 2019, over 10 million separate car loads were recorded as being shipped and delivered at numerous locations in the U.S. 

In an article published by The Lumberjack, the president and CEO of Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona said more than 20,000 passengers arrived and departed from Flagstaff in 2016. Flagstaff plays a critical role in this network of railways. Wilemon said the train tracks going through Flagstaff are what is known as the Southern Transcon, the main delivery route from all ports in California that head to Chicago and any town or city in between. Wilemon also said as of the last quarterly train count on a 24-hour period, an average of 74 trains are passing through downtown Flagstaff bound either for eastern cities or back to California. 

The nearest stopping point from Flagstaff for the BNSF trains is located roughly 50 miles east in the town of Winslow, per a BNSF report. With a population of around 9,300 at the last census count, Winslow is strategically located for logistical ease. However, many individuals reside in Flagstaff and commute regularly between train swaps in Winslow and home. 

Although train travel and transport is important to the northern Arizona region, issues have arisen in the past, mostly due to noise. As reported in a 2020 Flagstaff City Council report,  the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued guidance in 1994 requiring trains to sound their horns as a warning for at least 15 seconds but not exceeding 20 seconds. In 2005, federal law related to the FRA regulations changed to enact quiet zones, or portions of railway designated as areas of dense population where a train horn may be a nuisance for residents. Flagstaff adopted these policies of quiet zones throughout the downtown area in an attempt to limit the amount of horn related noise going through town, due to the intense amount of railway traffic coming through Flagstaff on a nonstop, 24/7 basis. 

Along with a bustling freight economy, Flagstaff is also home to a daily passenger train service provided by Amtrak. As mentioned on the Amtrak website, the Southwest Chief is an everyday train departing from both Chicago and Los Angeles running routes through Flagstaff, Albuquerque and Kansas City. Many residents of Flagstaff use this route to travel regionally, either into Southern California or into New Mexico. 

Junior Victoria Chavez frequently travels along the Southwest Chief in order to get home in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Chavez said having the train makes for a more affordable and convenient route home. 

“[Not driving] is honestly super convenient when I am just heading home for three or four days,” Chavez said. “When I am riding the train I can use the travel time to complete homework and study rather than doing it when I am at home. Keeping miles off of my car is also super nice because it saves me gas money and keeps my vehicle better preserved.” 

Chavez said a number of her friends back home use the train systems to get around. When college time came around, taking the train remained the same for many of them. 

“If anybody comes to visit me from home I always recommend they just take the Amtrak,” Chavez said. “The station is only about a mile from my house and everything in Flagstaff is so centrally located. Saving space on parking and not having the hassle of driving usually winds up in a super easy trip.”

In the northern Arizona area also lies the Grand Canyon Railway, famous for its tourism and dramatic sweeping views of the nearby Grand Canyon. As mentioned on its website, the Grand Canyon Railway was built in the late 1800s to transport ore from the Anita Mines roughly 45 miles north of Williams. After being a mine transport for decades and eventually shutting down in 1968 due to lack of demand, the railway opened back up to serve tourists in the area in hopes of providing an unusual way to view the Grand Canyon. It is estimated over 50,000 cars were kept out of the national park by having visitors ride on the train rather than enter the national park, preventing overcrowding along with keeping vehicles out of the area. 

Trains and Flagstaff are often considered synonymous to many familiar with the area. Freight and travel through the Southern Transcon route of BNSF and partnerships with Amtrak provide goods and commodities to millions in the American heartland while providing income to many in the small town of Flagstaff. Tourism in the Grand Canyon and Williams area provide a need for the Grand Canyon Railway as well, maintaining the history and aura of a once predominant mining line in the Southwest. Flagstaff has proven its worth among the individuals who call railway work their profession. 

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