Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Today's Train of Thought- Look for the Union Label, September 2nd, 2014

Today's Train of Thought takes us to the Steel City and features a railway that's been operating relatively unchanged since the time of industrial barons such as Andrew Carnegie. In fact, industrialists like Carnegie sought the protect their interests in steelmaking by outright owning the rail lines or barge companies that fed his steel mills in and around Pittsburgh. Not only was it important to ship out the final product by rail, coal that powered the blast furnaces as well as the raw ore had to be brought in by rail or barge- in some cases, Carnegie would outright buy already-existing railroads or rail lines under construction for the right of way for his new steel-hauling railroads, serving the newly-formed US Steel.

Since 1907, the affiliated Bessemer & Lake Erie handled shipments of incoming iron ore on Lake Erie while the Union Railroad operated as a sprawling switching outfit throughout Allegheny County, carrying some of the heaviest loads in the world at the time. When dieselization came, parent company US Steel opted for end-cab EMD switchers- something the Union Railroad has stuck with since then [even though the last end-cab switcher made by EMD was in 1987- NANESB].

Although the Union has occasionally borrowed bigger 6-axle power from (then) sister roads such as the Bessemer & Lake Erie or Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range and evaluated Gensets from Progress Rail or Brookville Locomotive Works in recent years, the 1970s-built MP15DC roadswitchers are the norm for most Union Railroad jobs. Interestingly, the URR didn't order any of these MP15s new from EMD. Instead, the majority of them were purchased secondhand from Class 1 lines or transferred to the Union from other US Steel lines such as the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern, B&LE, Birmingham Southern or DM&IR which traditionally relied on bigger power. By 1988, however, all US Steel [NYSE- X] railways were reorganized under the umbrella of Transtar, Inc- as well as some of the barge and navigation companies. In 2001, the Canadian National ended up purchasing the DM&IR from Transtar and Great Lakes Transportation to fill in a pivotal missing gap on its Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific line between the twin ports of Duluth, MN and Superior, WI and the CN mainline across the Canadian prairie. Also included in the deal was the Bessemer & Lake Erie as well as Great Lakes shipping companies Pittsburgh and Conneaut Dock and Great Lakes Fleet, Inc. Interestingly, the CN continues to operate the B&LE with minimal changes apparent from the US Steel days since the Bessemer has no rail link with the Canadian National.

In 2009, the CN once again purchased a strategically important Transtar property when they acquired the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern, giving the Class 1 a much-coveted bypass around congestion in Chicago. At the end of 2011, the Birmingham Southern was sold to Kansas-based shortline operator WATCo which left the Union RR as the last original US Steel railway under the Transtar umbrella.

Interestingly, the railway runs pretty much as intended when it was established in the 1890s- serving the US Steel Mon Valley Works, the continuous slab casting at the US Steel Edgar Thompson Works, the rolling mills and finishing lines at the US Steel Irvin Works and the US Steel Clariton works which produces coke for the blast furnace ironmaking process. Traffic includes coke, ore, steel coils, coal, slag and ore.

Here, railpictures.net contributor Robert Pisani caught Union Railroad MP15DC #21 and four other MP15s storming through the Bull Run section of Duquesne, PA- said to contain the only street crossing on the whole Union Railroad- with a general freight on a sweltering August 2nd, 2010 with a mixed freight bound for the Clariton facility. The front door is open to provide some relief for the crew as the five 1500 HP switchers fight the grade. As hot as it may be that day, the crew is probably grateful they aren't running the 'Hot slab train' which shuttles trainloads of hot steel between mills on specially modified flatcars. The slabs reportedly leave the mill at temperatures near 1300 degrees farenheit.

Most of the locomotives in the Union fleet are blue with white lettering, although the #21 and the third unit have the edges painted a bright yellow, presumably for better in-plant visibility. Some URR locomotives are also painted green or a bright yellow.

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