A NEW ERA IN LAND TRANSPORT WAS INAUGURATED IN 1830 when the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company began revenue service on the Shiny Irons using a steam powered locomotive to move cargo.
One hundred years ago, American Class 1 railroads earned $3.6 billion dollars hauling lading (lading is the cargo a rail car carries) over 400,000 miles of track. Today, those same Irons stretch over only 161,000 miles, but the revenue generated totals a tidy $77.7 billion. By far the largest single commodity shipped on the Irons is coal, mostly destined for electric generation. Other commodities can be recognized by the rail cars carrying them such as automobiles, carried in specialty cars called autoracks, and consumer goods packed in the ubiquitous containers laden on the backs of well cars. Covered hoppers carry grain and other bulk commodities, tank cars transport oil, fuel alcohol, corn syrup and other liquids. The Irons have transported the sublime and the ridiculous, each packed carefully into rail cars common and quite uncommon, each and every shipment noted on a Bill of Lading….
Well, almost… every… shipment….
From the beginning of revenue service, there were shippers who just didn’t want to pay the freight. This could be for various reasons, including simple stinginess, however, it is usually for even less virtuous motives. From the first spike driven, the Irons offered the opportunity to travel long distances at great speed, turning weeks and even months into mere days. Those whose cargoes were acceptable loaded their goods on the train… those whose cargoes were shady loaded them under the train. In Laredo,Texas, the arrival of the Rio Grande and Pecos Railroad in 1882, and the 1888 completion of a Mexican National Railway line connecting los dos Laredos with Mexico City heralded a new dawn of smuggling, as entrepreneurs hid goods on trains bound into Mexico to avoid high Mexican tariffs. In the ensuing years, the transport of covert cargoes has only increased in both quantity and concealment. Though the odd smuggler will do so to avoid paying the freight charge, that is the exception. The Irons are, frankly, so efficient that freight dues are a very small part of the cost of a product, and the handling and shipping expertise available to those whose freight is “above (floor)board” is well worth the cost.
More often, the smuggler is shipping on the sly because the cargo in question cannot be shipped legally at any price. Tax stamped goods such as cigarettes and alcohol, illegal drugs, guns, stolen goods of all types, all command very high profits when moved from areas of low cost to areas of high demand, and, again, the Irons move goods very well. The Volstead Act of 1919, enacted to carry out the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, made the transport and sale of alcoholic beverages very profitable, and, as related in this 1922 article, the Shiny Irons were surreptitiously drafted to the task.
The railroads are carrying whisky in many parts of the United States; it is safe to say that the higher ofﬁcials know nothing about it. You have only to talk to a bootlegger for a few minutes to get his opinion of the perﬁdy of the railroads in hauling liquor. There is one well-known whisky runner in Florida who by some means got hold of a rail car oil tank, such as is used by the big oil companies. He had a hatchway cut out of the top of the tank and he upholstered the inside with stuffed burlap. In this tank he could carry $60,000 worth of whisky, in bottles, when they were properly packed. There wasn’t a more gaudily painted, land-going oil tanker in the United States than his. He devised the name of a ﬁctitious oil company and had it painted in brilliant letters on the sides of his craft. He “greased” himself a route along the lower Atlantic Coast, and became famous among bootleggers, North and South, for the size of his earnings. He’s still running at this writing.
These outrageous efforts were more the exception in the alcohol smuggling industry, as small manufacturers and distributors took over in the latter days of Prohibition and on into today. Other goods have replaced booze as the major “non-revenue” shipment on the Irons. Cigarettes are a very high-profit commodity, however, the government is many times the major beneficent of this wealth. Shipping cigarettes from a low-tax state or country to a high-tax one can net a nice chunk of change for the bootlegger. A box car load of cigarettes successfully smuggled can net a million dollars for the enterprising shipper, however this takes a degree of audacity rare even in the criminal world. Enterprising crooks in Slovakia found a novel way to use the Irons to move butts to highly taxed Ukrainian smokers… they dug a tunnel and built a rail line in it! Tens of millions of contraband cigs, as well as illegal drugs, untaxed alcohol, and refugees, traversed the Covert Irons before Slovak law enforcers discovered the operation!
More common are high-profit items such as illegal drugs. Smugglers are reluctant to include drugs as part of the lading due to numerous high-tech inspections that cargoes are subject to in today’s troubled world. Low volume, very high profit shipments of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana can be hidden in numerous places on a train. Many times the smugglers will board the train at a rail yard and secret the drug package in a surreptitious location, marking it with coded graffiti to alert the people on the other end of the line to pick up the shipment. Sometimes the train will be stopped in a remote location by creating a real or simulated emergency condition, causing the train crew to stop long enough for the drugs to be loaded. When smuggled from a “producing” area, the drugs are usually of very high purity, and a relatively small package of a few pounds can be easily concealed. The high value per volume of the drugs means that after being diluted for sale, this small package can be worth millions of dollars. In the U.S., most of these shipments originate in Mexico, Central America and South America and with dozens of trains crossing into the U.S. every day, chances of discovery are low. Moreover, the relatively anonymous nature of the shipment means that, particularly for the “shipper”, chances of capture are even lower. For the pick up crew, the anonymity vanishes, however, the logistics of tracking the shipment require watching it literally every mile, as the retrieval team can jump on board the train at many points and toss the package to waiting subcontractors. For a train which may be going thousands of miles, and contraband which may be destined for anywhere along the route, it is not feasible. Desperate lawmakers have attempted to put pressure on the railroads to stop the flood, but there is precious little the railroads can do.
A Google search of “smuggling” and “railroad” returns many references to the Underground Railroad, the mid-19th Century network of people and trails used to help escaped slaves move from the American Southeast north and eventually to Canada. Not at all a “railroad”, the Underground seldom used the Shiny Irons, as it was too public and the risk of capture too great. An estimated 100,000 people followed the Underground to freedom. With heartbreaking irony, the railroad today IS moving people in secret. Mostly fleeing from economic hardship and war-ravaged countries, millions of people find themselves on the rails trying to find a better life. Refugees, many of them children, flee gang violence in Central and South America. Moving north toward the United States, many find their journey includes a terrifying five-day ride on “El Tren de la Muerte” or “The Death Train”. Hanging from ladders and platforms, or riding on the roof of the train, the fortunate will arrive in the north of Mexico. The unfortunate will not. For those who survive, a two-day walk across the Mexican desert will, many times, herald another train ride, this time across the U.S. southern border to Texas, Arizona or California. For a fee, the “coyotaje” will smuggle the immigrant across the border, often on the rails. Locked into boxcars or autoracks, the refugees trust to luck to avoid the x-ray scanners and other devices used by border enforcement agents to detect drug and human smuggling, trust to luck that the train will stop before their strength is exhausted, and trust to luck that, when the train does stop, someone will let them out. Many, many times, this does not happen. Botched human trafficking results in tragedy often enough to barely be news. The Irons see their share; reports from 1985, and from 2002, testify to the heartless nature of human trafficking.
To combat smuggling of all types, the railroads have installed hi-tech scanning systems which can “look inside” rail cars and cargo containers, allowing inspection teams a clear view of the contents of a rail car, even as the train continues to move.
Using scanning technologies as mundane as x-ray, and technologies seemingly from Star Trek, such as muon detector tomography, the railroads up the ante in the battle with smugglers. Trained imaging teams posted at border crossings scan the cars of the passing train, alert for anomalies which indicate something which shouldn’t be there. If the imaging team spots something suspicious, the train is ordered to stop and a more detailed inspection is carried out. The age-old struggle to ship cargo and stop contraband has entered the space age, even on the oldest of powered transport. Moving into the future, the railroad industry will continue to make every effort to keep the cargo safe, legal, and moving…
and that’ll keep the rails shiny!! Thank you for joining us!
Stay Off The TRACKS!!!
pIn an earlier post, The Shiny Irons stressed the urgent need for vigilance at grade crossings (the intersection of a road and a railroad track is called a “grade crossing”). We noted that the difference in weight between a standard full-sized family sedan and an “average” freight train is the same as the difference between a family sedan and a can of pop… and the sedan, if struck by the train, will fare no better than the can of pop run over by the car.
Reports over the last few years have shown a decline in the number of fatalities at grade crossings, however, the latest data from 2016 is disheartening. Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit public safety organization, offers safety education to the public;
Ever stopped to consider the dangers involved with crossing highway-rail grade intersections or trespassing on railroad property? At Operation Lifesaver, we have.
Operation Lifesaver reports that, while the number of vehicle-train collisions fell 2.4% in 2016, the number of fatalities rose a sobering 13.7%. Additionally, the number of deaths due to trespassing on train tracks rose 12.8%. These are chilling numbers in any case, and especially so considering these deaths are entirely preventable. Most grade crossings in the U.S. are marked with at least a “crossbuck”, the familiar x-shaped sign saying “railroad crossing”. Many more are marked with the crossbuck and a set of red flashing lights and warning bell. About 35% have access controlled by a gate which drops across the traffic lane in front of oncoming traffic. Yet BNSF Railroad’s 2014 statistics show that 52% of grade crossing collisions occurred at crossings with active warning devices!!! For your own safety, be on the lookout for grade crossings!
Do not EVER drive around a gated crossing.
Do not EVER cross a grade crossing when a traffic control signal is active.
Stop, look and listen at grade crossings without active traffic control signals.
Operation Lifesaver’s data show that deaths from trespassing on train tracks rose to 511 from 453; trespass injuries grew to 483 from 415. Again, these are totally preventable. The train tracks are private property, and are a dangerous place to be. In October, 2011, three teenagers died on the tracks while taking a “selfie” with an oncoming train in the background. One of the parents pleads in Union Pacific Railroad’s “Inside Track” online magazine’s report;
“No one should have to go through this and I hope people will seriously think about the campaign’s rail safety message and share it with their loved ones.”
In March of this year, another teen died on the tracks during a photo shoot for a modeling portfolio. The train tracks were to be the backdrop.
According to authorities, [she] was having photos taken with the train tracks as her backdrop. She began moving away from a train coming down the tracks when she was struck by another train coming in the opposite direction, on another set of tracks.
Union Pacific released two animated YouTube videos urging people to take selfies away from railroad tracks as part of a railroad safety campaign launch in August 2016.
The Irons are an indelible part of our culture, and we are very familiar, perhaps too familiar with the sights and sounds of the tracks. It is, nonetheless a very dangerous place, where things happen very quickly, where things are very large and very heavy. The Shiny Irons are not a playground, they are not a backdrop, and they are not a hiking path. The only place you can be hit by a train is on the tracks! Stay alert at grade crossings! If you are not at a grade crossing, STAY OFF THE TRACKS!
Play a Train Song
Sights, sounds and smells of old time railroading, Johnny Horton sings “Coal Smoke, Valve Oil and Steam”
from “Done Rovin’ “