Posted: Jan 16, 2012 12:32 PM by AP
ADDIS, La. (AP) - The rows and columns of multicolored numbers and characters on Errol Troxclair's computer screen seemingly never end.
They are there every day when he arrives at the Addis rail yard where he works as an operations manager for Union Pacific Railroad.
As locomotives, pulling as many as 130 rail cars, come in and out of the rail yard, Troxclair interprets the characters on the computer screen - which are tracking each of the locomotives and rail cars in the yard - making adjustments to ensure that each car carrying hazardous chemicals, industrial building materials or automobile parts gets to the correct North American destination on time.
The railroad company has been a part of his life for 39 years. This year, Union Pacific will celebrate its 150th year in operation.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act on July 1, 1862, creating the original Union Pacific, said Raquel Espinoza, the company's media director.
More than a century-and-a-half later, the company has evolved into one of the nation's largest railroad companies and one of south Louisiana's major economic forces.
Union Pacific maintains 32,000 miles of railroad track in 23 states, including 1,400 miles of track in Louisiana, said Drew Tessier, the company's director of public affairs.
On the west bank of the Mississippi River in particular, large petrochemical plants, including Dow Chemical, Shintech and SNF, rely on the railroad to transport cargo every day, Tessier said.
"We move 200 rail cars in and out every day," said Dow spokeswoman Stacey Chiasson. "Making product is one thing, but to have the capacity to move product in and then off the site is critical."
On one morning this month, Troxclair watched as rail crews arrived at work and performed their daily safety checks while rail cars lined up on the rail yard's 15 tracks and locomotives were dispatched.
On that morning, 72 rail cars were headed to Dow's Plaquemine plant while another engine pulling 54 cars was on its way back from the plant, he said.
Once they arrived at the rail yard, the 54 cars were added to another line of rail cars headed north. But the 81 cars headed north proved to be too heavy for that particular track's 72-car capacity, Troxclair said.
After dividing up the cars, switching some to different locomotives and putting others on a different track, the cargo - several tons of it - was on its way to various far-off locations.
One car Troxclair was tracking was on its way to Salem, Ill., where it would connect to a locomotive operated by Canada National Railway before reaching its final destination in Wisconsin.
Throughout the process, Troxclair and others had to calculate the necessary horsepower, track capacities and load restrictions needed to get that car to its destination.
"It's all about efficiency," he said.
"The railroad is the safest way to move bulk freight. One gallon of diesel fuel can move one ton of freight 500 miles, but everything has to work on time."
Railroad companies maintain their own track, but it's an interconnected system crisscrossing the U.S. and stretching from Canada to Mexico," Tessier said.
If something were to go wrong at the Addis rail yard, it could back up operations several states away, he said.
Technology has played a large role in keeping the railroad industry efficient, Troxclair said.
After being laid off from his job as a butcher in 1973, Troxclair started working for the railroad. At that time, he said, conductors, brakemen and engineers had to manually calculate many of the things that computers do now.
Back then, conductors, engineers and brakemen had to communicate with hand signals to build trains and then move them in and out of the rail yard on time.
"Believe me, everything worked off those hand signals," Troxclair said.
"It was just like holding a conversation."
While Union Pacific has evolved over 150 years, officials said the company has maintained its position as an economic leader in Louisiana and the rest of the nation.
The railroad has spent more than $135 million in capital investments in the state in the past two years, Tessier said.
Additionally, he said, the company hired 125 new employees in 2011 with 150 more set to be hired this year.
"The more trains we have moving, the better the economy," he said.