By Mike Kroll

Clearly the Galesburg area has endured more than its fair share of economic bad news, but we have not been alone. Earlier this week our neighbors to the west received some bad news as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad finally announced the December 31 date for the closure of the locomotive shops in Burlington. While this will mean the loss of 39 more jobs on top of 351 jobs already eliminated in the Burlington BNSF shop since January 2003 it is simultaneously good news for Galesburg. According to Steve Forsberg of BNSF all 39 Burlington employees have been offered the opportunity to keep their job by moving to Galesburg.

Forsberg explained that the locomotive maintenance shop here will be expanded to help service the BNSF's growing locomotive fleet. "Galesburg was the logical choice for this expansion. We currently have about 100 employees in the Galesburg shop, up from 39 back in March [2004]. Our company has experienced remarkable growth in cargo volume this year, approximately equivalent to three years of typical growth. Galesburg is our second busiest yard in the system with huge numbers of locomotives and it just makes sense to position maintenance there. We would hope that 100 percent of those Burlington workers will accept transfer to Galesburg so our company can continue to benefit from their training and experience."

The BNSF fleet of diesel locomotives consists largely of two two "brands," General Electric and General Motors Electo-Motive. The railroad has contracted with GE to supervise much of the maintenance in the Galesburg shop, for that brand of locomotive, while the employees themselves work for BNSF. But both "brands" of locomotive will be maintained here and Forsberg says that employment levels will adjust to accommodate freight volumes and the numbers of locomotives necessary to move that freight. The company already owns 5,000 locomotives and is adding hundreds more to handle the increased volumes of freight.

While the BNSF is one of the nation's biggest transporters of bulk cargoes like coal, corn, grain and paper increasingly intermodal containers are becoming the company's bread and butter. "Where once railroads and the trucking industry were once fierce competitors today we are partners due to the advent of intermodal containerization," said Forsberg. "The volume of intermodal freight has been growing at an increasing rate. Railroads have always excelled at moving large volumes of freight over long distances and these intermodal containers permit greater speed and efficiency." A container is loaded and taken by truck to a BNSF intermodal facility where in moves across country by rail to be delivered on a truck to its final destination. The substitution of a container ship on one end or the other and rail becomes a major cog in international shipments.

"Today the BNSF maintains four large intermodal facilities in the Chicago area," explained Forsberg. "In addition to facilities in Cicero, Corwith, and Willow Springs we also have our new Logistics Park Chicago just north of Joliet. Traffic from all of these sites goes right through Galesburg. Today intermodal is the largest segment of our business and still growing." The Logistics Park Chicago just opened in 2002 and consists of more than 380 acres adjacent to a 1,100 industrial park and serves this entire region. Much of the BNSF volume increases are tied to intermodal freight either destined for or originating from these Chicago facilities. The BNSF also maintains large intermodal facilities in St. Louis and Kansas City while operating a more modest facility in East Peoria. The competing Union Pacific railroad also has four intermodal facilities in the Chicago area including its newest, the large "Global III" intermodal facility in Rochelle.

To accommodate this growth the BNSF continues to hire thousands of new employees system-wide. Forsberg said that 2,300 conductors alone have been hired in 2004 and the company anticipates a continuation of this growth in the near term. While he would not say how many additional BNSF jobs may yet come to Galesburg Forsberg likened railroading to "the largest relay race in the real world. Train crews never cover the entire trip, they operate the train for a leg at a time before handing it off to the next crew. We are constantly shuffling employees systemwide to accommodate the varying crew needs as well as the related track and equipment maintenance. I'm sure that as our business continues to grow so will employment opportunities in the Galesburg area."