On the Road | Belen, New Mexico: The Land of Enchantment and 10,000-foot Trains

Tags: Rail

Map showing location of Belen, New Mexico

BNSF Railway's Belen, N.M., rail yard serves as a regional maintenance and fueling facility for trains up to 10,000 feet long. Inbound Logistics Senior Writer Joseph O'Reilly offers a behind-the-scenes look.

You don't come upon Belen, New Mexico by chance. It takes purpose. For me, that purpose happened by chance.

I had randomly finished reading three books about New Mexico's rich history: Hampton Side's Blood and Thunder, an account of frontiersman Kit Carson's life and U.S. Manifest Destiny; Billy the Kid, a biography of the famous outlaw by Michael Wallis; and Tony Horowitz's A Voyage Long and Strange, a travel narrative that touches on Spanish exploration of the Southwest. Apparently, the impulse to explore New Mexico was my own manifest destiny.

I was also planning a circuitous ski trip, visiting a friend in Tucson, Ariz., before greeting the slopes in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Then an idea sprang. I contacted Jim Rogers, manager of media relations for BNSF Railway, to see if I could set up a visit at a facility in its Southwest division. I was expecting Phoenix or Albuquerque.

Belen was a revelation.

Driving across New Mexico's sweeping semiarid plains, the crisp February air and the barrenness of the terrain ostensibly freeze and expose every minute detail you can imagine: Chihuahuan desert and red-rock mesas; prickly pears, yucca, and agave; the sweet, pungent smell of sagebrush; AM and FM static; a not-so-wily coyote along the roadside; and his luckier adversary skirting across Highway 26 with an audible "beep, beep."

Very quickly, you come to expect and appreciate the sublime in the Land of Enchantment.

Moving north along I-25 into the heart of New Mexico, highway signage offers another reality. Subtle and austere clues to the state's vibrant and sometimes volatile history, and its part in President James K. Polk's vision of Manifest Destiny, materialize. The Santa Fe Trail, Fort Union, Fort Sumner, the Laguna, Acoma, and Isleta Indian reservations all share a puddled and muddled tale. Place names such as Silver City and Truth or Consequences tell a story of pioneer adventure, past and present—the former an old mining town and popular haunt of Billy the Kid, the latter a modern-day spa retreat for pampered adults. That's the truth.

There is yet another narrative that twists its way in and out of the canyons that build as you drive north toward Albuquerque. Periodically, glimpses of single and double-stacked intermodal containers, sandwiched between locomotives, on seemingly endless trains, flash in and out of view. Follow these flickering tracks long enough and you pass through Belen, a sleepy railroad community nestled in the valley of the Rio Grande River and in the shadow of the copper-colored Manzano Mountains.

Finding a New Star

The original settlement, christened Belén (Spanish for Bethlehem), resembles little of its namesake—cheap accommodations are plentiful. A quick exit off I-25 takes you through a commercial strip splashed with neon lights and signs for budget motels and fast food.

The bedroom community of nearly 7,000, 32 miles south of Albuquerque, is commonly referred to as "Hub City," commemorating the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, which first laid tracks through the area in the late 1800s.

In 1908, the Belen Cutoff was created as a bypass between Texico (on the Texas-New Mexico border) and Dalies, southwest of Albuquerque, instead of a more northerly passage. The new route from Chicago to Belen shortened the distance by only six miles, but it reduced the average grade from 158feet per mile through Raton Pass (on the New Mexico-Colorado border) to 66feet per mile. At the time it was a considerable engineering feat, improving operational consistency, velocity, and throughput.

Today, Belen and the railroad remain inseparable. The city is home to BNSF's largest inspection yard on the southern transcontinental corridor (Southern Transcon), linking Southern California and Chicago. Heading north on Main Street, take any right-hand turn and you'll find track. Equally telling, the railroad is the second-largest private sector employer in town after Walmart.

The BNSF facility, which extends about 14,000 feet end to end, is positioned geographically north to south, with the main lines connecting to the yard from the east and west—like a diagonally challenged, backward "Z". It runs parallel to Main Street seven blocks adrift, and lies between the town and the Rio Grande. Four tracks in each direction converge into one lead at both of the yard's ends. With up to 90 trains a day moving both east and west through the system, it's little wonder Belen has the largest signal mast in BNSF's Southwest Division.

"We are the NASCAR pit stop for trains," says Bob Gomes, general director of transportation at the Belen rail yard.

Gomes, whose passion for the tracks is only matched by his love of the links, has worked in various positions at BNSF Railway over the years.

"I started out as pre-med in college and worked for the railroad during the summer," he recalls. Burned out by plans for a career in the medical profession, he started working full-time as a train yard operator. "They had just stopped using Morse code for communication," Gomes says with a glint in his eye. He's not lying.

Nearly four decades removed, Morse code is an anachronism, but not Gomes. He has moved around with BNSF, working in Amarillo, Los Angeles, and now Belen, but his love for the railroad has endured for one simple reason.

"Working with people is the most enjoyable part of my job, they are the ones doing the business. People make the railroad run," he says.

Train Spotting

In the yard, in the flesh, steel dominates the view. Rail cars abound in varying sizes, colors, and types. Single-unit commodity trains share tracks with mixed merchandise trains. A BNSF reefer car covered in graffiti, a flatbed loaded with Sierra Pacific paper products, double-stacked Hub Group containers in articulated well cars, boxcars, centerbeam flat cars, tankers, hoppers, gondolas, and countless other rolling stock species complete the panorama.

Bringing some order to the yard, two pumpkin-orange BNSF locomotives, a 1,000-horsepower switcher locomotive (#3601) and another 3,000-horsepower workhorse (#6705), wait in anticipation, ready to begin assembling a new train.

The Belen facility, like others in the BNSF system, primarily serves as a maintenance and fueling oasis along the transcontinental journey. Trains are inspected every 1,000 miles. Workers refuel locomotives and service equipment, and the railroad uses these stops to switch crews.

The yard features a four-tank fuel farm, each reservoir holding 2.7 million gallons of fuel. At both ends of the facility, brightly colored orange and blue fuel pumps sit track-side, dwarfed by towering white tanks emblazoned with the BNSF logo. It takes approximately 17 minutes to refuel a locomotive, and on any given day the yard will consume 140,000 gallons of fuel.

Off track, a ShuttleLift gantry crane lies ready to spring into action. If there is a time-sensitive shipment coming inbound to Belen and a locomotive brake fails, for example, BNSF can pull a container off the train and transfer the cargo to its Albuquerque intermodal facility for transshipment.

Block and Switch

The linear conformity of the yard's railroad tracks stands in stark contrast to the hodgepodge of equipment littering the area. But this visual anomaly reflects another important function of the Belen facility—mixing and matching trains.

BNSF uses the yard to block swap rail cars, essentially building trains and consolidating loads for final destination—akin to a warehouse crossdock. So a train moving from Barstow, Calif., eastward will stop in Belen for inspection and to shuffle cars and purify loads, says Gomes.

"Generally, there is not enough origin traffic to run end-to-end across the Transcon. So a facility such as Belen is important for consolidating loads and gaining efficiencies and economies of scale," he adds.

Building uniform trains is also critical to improving velocity and capacity throughout the network. Manifest trains, with mixed car types and cargo, are generally rebuilt into single units, with like commodities bound for one location.

"Trains need to be fully loaded with no gaps to run at maximum high-speed. It requires train car consistency. You can't have manifest trains with mixed cars," says Gomes.

The speed with which trains run across the sparsely populated and mostly flat Southwest is remarkable. Reaching 70 miles per hour in the flats, "it's the fastest freight railroad in the world," Gomes notes with pride.

This velocity also lends further credibility to the railroad's belief that intermodal business between West Coast ports and the U.S. interior will continue to grow. With 60 percent of U.S. consumed goods coming through the L.A. basin, New Mexico in general, and Belen specifically, are strategically located for rail volumes moving both east-west and north-south across the Mexican border.

A Modern Marvel

Currently, the majority of freight transiting Belen is carried on intermodal container stack trains. As inbound and outbound volumes warrant, BNSF can run trains on any number of the eight tracks in the yard to flex capacity.

Over the course of a week, traffic is well-balanced from the west and east. "During peak periods in 2006 and 2007, we averaged 92 trains per day through Belen. In 2009, to date, we average 68 trains per day, which is attributed to the weak economy," says Gomes.

A train that leaves Hobart, Calif., at 7 a.m. arrives in Belen at 5 a.m. the next day—22 hours all told. It takes two and a half days to go from Los Angeles to Chicago.

In 2007, BNSF began experimenting with an intermodal 10,000-foot train between Southern California, Clovis, N.M., and Chicago. Since then, the railroad has operated more than 800 extended length trains to gain further economies of scale and accommodate more intermodal customers' freight. The longer units now typically run from Southern California or San Bernardino to Chicago—with inspections in Belen, Kansas City, or Fort Madison, Iowa. The savings accrued by running these trains creates capacity for other intermodal and non-intermodal trains throughout BNSF's network.

"The 10,000-foot units take 2.5 trains out of the mix per week," says Gomes, "which saves $30,000 a week in crew labor."

Building and maintaining longer trains requires a great deal of planning and execution. A large chunk of track is necessary to stage and load equipment. To simplify the process, BNSF breaks the train into smaller sections on different tracks, loads each unit, then stages the complete train for movement.

When these mega trains began running through Belen, workers were inspecting cars and refueling locomotives at a 12,000-foot rail siding 10 miles east of town to allow for more space. But it became too costly in terms of time (six hours for inspections) and the expense of transporting workers offsite. BNSF now serves the trains inside the Belen yard.

With successful rollout of its 10,000-foot train configurations, BNSF is looking to squeeze even greater efficiencies through changes in power configuration—for example using distributed power, intermediately placed locomotives (three locomotives in the front, two in the middle, and two at the rear) remotely controlled by the lead engine. The railroad is also exploring other origin locations to run trains from.

Not one to rest on its locomotives, BNSF is engineering even longer trains. On July 10, 2009, BNSF tested its first 12,000-foot train, nearly 2.3 miles in length, from Southern California to Clovis. The record-busting haul carried 458 units and 11,256 tons more than 1,100 route miles.

Full Steam Ahead

Building monster trains is one thing. Making sure they can transit New Mexico's devilish canyons is another.

BNSF is currently working on several projects throughout the Southern Transcon, and in New Mexico specifically, to double- and triple-track lines. In 2008, the railroad announced a $2.45-billion capital commitment program that includes network upgrades to capacity-choking bottlenecks such as Abo Canyon, which lies due southeast from Belen. The existing route snakes around 500-foot-high bluffs, through cuts 150 feet deep, and over 70 foot-high bridges. BNSF is in the process of constructing a second mainline through this canyon to ease congestion and increase throughput.

Supplementary tracks on either side of the pass stage trains for passage through the canyon. Gomes likens it to a flagman directing one-way road construction traffic. "Moving through tight canyons, there is often only a single track for bi-directional traffic. It's a problem right now, but double track will fix that," he says.

Greater track redundancy and the continuing manifestation of longer trains place Belen in the middle of a ballooning transportation artery and on the precipice of an economic development boom. The challenge for railroads, and economic development interests as well, is keeping investment out of urban areas but in proximity to major markets. Albuquerque is the largest and fastest-growing city in New Mexico; it's also geographically isolated from any megapolitan area. So, the city has become an important intermodal feeder and terminus for BNSF's Transcon.

But Albuquerque can't grow north or east because of the Indian reservations, says Gomes. It can grow south, and Belen has become increasingly attractive. "The price of dirt is going way up," he notes.

Blazing New Trails

Motoring north from Belen along 1-25 past Albuquerque, you leave the Rio Grande behind and enter into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Outside Santa Fe, climbing through Ponderosa, Juniper, and Piñon forested mountains, leads to Glorieta Pass—site of a famous Civil War battle that checked Confederate incursion farther west. Then, skirting the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, you approach the Colorado border and Raton Pass, the same route of the Santa Fe Trail—the original interstate system—and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad's first transcontinental line.

Dropping down from the pass into the Purgatoire River Valley across the state line, vistas open up to the eastern plains. BNSF track reappears, meandering east and west of I-25 along Colorado's Front Range and well beyond.

Take out a map or follow your GPS north, west, east, or south and you will inevitably cross tracks again with BNSF and countless other railroads.

Along the way, you'll find more Belens. They may be few and far between the megalopoli stretching across the contiguous United States, but their importance in the domestic transportation mix is front and center, and growing.

In small ways I discovered that what passes day-to-day in Belen—routine inspections, crew changes, block swapping cars, and 10,000-foot trains—spins gears in Albuquerque, between California and Chicago, across the United States, North America, and supply chains the world over.

I write a lot about the railroad. Intermodalism is a hot topic these days, what with sustainability, capacity, and economy sweeping the consciousness of shippers and service providers alike.

My visit with BNSF confirmed an impression that has been building for some time—some might argue decades. History is repeating itself. The archaic railroad is back in vogue. Turn of the 20th century transportation is on a turntable ready to lock into 21st-century demand.

Sleepy railroad communities are stirring. Crossroads are sprouting, growing, and branching off, connecting to an array of towns and yards, coastal and inland ports, terminals, intermodal facilities, hub cities, and rail-served manufacturing and distribution centers.

Like any healthy, well-rooted organism, the railroad and its network of partners and infrastructure help nourish each other—attracting, hosting, and feeding more transportation and manufacturing development, industry and people, innovation and expansion.

It's happening in places like Belen.