We moved from Bedford, Ind., to Kansas City, Mo., when I was six. Yogi Berra, famed baseball player, coach, and manager, when giving directions to his house once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The truth behind the saying was that he lived on a loop, so it didn’t matter which way you went. Unlike directions to Yogi’s home, few proverbial forks in the road of life work out the same either way. Where we are now has been profoundly affected by an undefinable quantity of forks, each decision at which has steered each of us on our own path in life. My path followed the Kansas City Southern.
My family ultimately landed at a home on the east side of Swope Park, which just happened to be about a half-mile from the KCS’ landmark concrete arch bridge over Gregory Boulevard. In the carefree days of childhood and an era before lawsuits and litigation caused railroads to police their rights-of-way, Swope Park along the KCS became the land of adventure. My brothers, neighborhood friends, and I all regularly headed to the wooded edge of the park to explore, hunt with our pellet guns, fish, build campfires, and generally enjoy those sunny days. Hopefully, by now, the golfers have forgiven our flag-throwing shenanigans. The KCS was always nearby, woven into our memories in those wonderful years.
When the railroad interest really took hold around 1972, there became a new primary reason to wander down to the edge of Swope Park. The afternoon train (there was generally only one) was usually a monstrous conglomeration of every freight car KCS could find at Knoche Yard and tie together for a trip south. On the head end of the all-EMD road freights were SD40s and F-units, the latter of which were loud enough to send us down the hill to Gregory on our bikes in plenty of time to catch them grinding up the long half-percent grade from Blue Valley (milepost 9) to Grandview (milepost 23).
Three SD40-2s power a southbound coal train destined for an Oklahoma Gas & Electric plant on May 21, 1980, not long after the right-of-way was spectacularly cleared on the Kansas City mainline. A brakeman can be seen 14 cars back as this train was having trouble on the hill. Right next to the brakeman is milepost 15, which is measured from a location near the “gooseneck” on the northwest side of downtown Kansas City. The main portion of the Knoche Yard complex lies between mileposts 2.5 and 5.1.
By the mid-1970s, KCS was a struggling entity, with enough deferred maintenance to slow trains and an aging fleet of equipment beginning to show signs of the financial struggle the railroad was in. But then came Powder River coal — a river of it flowing through Kansas City via the connection with Burlington Northern. Much of this coal was destined for Midwestern power plants, and many of them happened to be accessible via the KCS. This windfall was the railroad’s salvation in that era. Welded rail replaced jointed track, new ties and ballast replaced pounded infrastructure, and brand-new SD40-2s arrived. The KCS came back to life.
Meanwhile, my brother Lon got his driver’s license and we suddenly had access to railroads all over Kansas City. The KCS drifted into the background while we sought exotic twin-engine Union Pacific power, Santa Fe fast freights en masse, the Missouri Pacific fleet streaking into Lee’s Summit on Kansas City’s southeast side, and paint schemes as varied as the rainbow. In Kansas City, it was pick your color, any color; pick your power, any power.
As we ran all over town, though, the KCS was always in the picture — often literally. Then something unique happened. In a matter of what seemed only weeks in 1980, the entire KCS right-of-way was cleared down to the ground. For 50 feet on either side of the tracks, where every tree was cut, all brush was removed, and the railroad was opened up like never before, at least in my young memory. Why it was cleared I never quite ascertained. One version claimed the city pushed them to clear the brush, another that crewmen wanted a better view of the train as they snaked up out of Kansas City, but whatever the reason, the result was new photographic possibilities. I focused the camera on the KCS again.
Coal was the salvation of the KCS in the mid-1970s, funneled off the Burlington Northern via Murray Yard on the north side of the Missouri River in North Kansas City. Here a BN U30C splices BN and KCS SD40-2s hauling coal to the Kansas City Power & Light power plant at La Cygne, Kan. Behind the train is the General Motors Leeds assembly plant, served by the Missouri Pacific. This shot is off the shoulder of I-435 near the stadiums that house the Chiefs and Royals on January 17, 1983. Small trees are already growing up along the right-of-way.
Yogi Berra also once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.” As I pushed railroad photography to the forefront, my skills were slowly developed in the sport of chasing trains. There were two distinct and often conflicting goals — one was to enjoy the companionship of other fans while storming about hunting down trains to photograph, and the other was to “get the shot.” Often the best adventures are ones unlooked for; they come out of nowhere, unfold in front of our eyes, and then recede into memory, often with an associated expense. If we’re alert, we manage to get the camera pointed in the right direction and get the shot.
By the same token, a company like KCS alters itself over time to adapt to markets, competition, and other forces. In the 1970s, it would have been impossible to predict what the KCS would look like four decades later, and most of us thought that it would eventually fall to a merger, and it looked like BN at the time. Instead, BN got busy with the Frisco, then the Santa Fe, and the KCS just kept on being the KCS. As Yogi so aptly put it, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
As the 1970s became the 1980s, and the next decade passed, the KCS again found its way into the viewfinders. The red paint scheme at the early edge of my photography became the familiar white paint with large red letters, and that disappeared under new gray paint with red letters and yellow chevrons on the nose. The new red, yellow, and black “Retro Belle” style appeared in 2007, trumping all other modern KCS paint schemes, and that livery alone pulled me back in.
On November 3, 2012, ES44AC 4690 works as a DPU on a southbound grain train pounding up the grade toward Rich Mountain at Howard, Ark. The “Retro Belle” paint scheme goes well with fall colors, and this train is disappearing into the trees that obscure most of the right-of-way on the Rich Mountain grade.
By that time the Kansas City Southern was a much different railroad from that of my youth. The traditional core route from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico had been expanded on several fronts. In 1993, the KCS added a 31-mile shortline with the addition of the Graysonia, Nashville & Ashdown, which connected at Ashdown, Ark. Much more significantly, on January 11, 1994, the KCS took over the 1,212-mile regional MidSouth Railroad, with an east-west mainline from Shreveport, La., through Meridian, Miss., to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and via trackage rights into Birmingham. A major portion of this route is known as the “Meridian Speedway,” a joint venture with Norfolk Southern.
In 1997, KCS acquired the Santa Fe-controlled Gateway Western, a 408-mile route across Missouri and western Illinois with a tumultuous past — KCS was the sixth owner since 1972. It connected Kansas City with East St. Louis, Ill. That same year, KCS and a Mexican partner began operation of Transportación Ferroviaria Mexicana (TFM), a result of the privatization of Mexico’s railroads. In 2005, KCS bought out its partner, resulting in KCS becoming the sole operator.
In 2001, Kansas City Southern bought 87.5 miles of former Southern Pacific right-of-way between Victoria and Rosenberg, Texas, which was still under railroad ownership even though the tracks had been pulled up many years previous. With the goal of bypassing a more circuitous UP trackage rights route that connected to its Mexican lines, KCS cleared and rebuilt the line and put it in service in 2009. KCS also owns an interest in the Texas-Mexican Railway and the Panama Canal Railway.
In less than two decades KCS expanded from its traditional core to a much larger system, a shift that significantly impacted railroad operations. From the “TOLMAK” states (the name of a KCS business car that was an acronym for Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas) KCS expanded into Illinois, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, and via haulage rights, trackage rights, or lease arrangements into Alabama, Iowa, and Nebraska. Trackage in the U.S. totals over 3,200 miles. South of the border, the railroad expanded into 17 of the 31 Mexican states with a system in Mexico totaling over 2,600 miles…
Read the rest of this article in the November 2017 issue of Railfan & Railroad!