Inside Willow Springs Gantry Cranes.

A ground crew watches as an overhead crane lowers another truck trailer onto a bed at the BNSF Intermodal Facility or Inside Willow Springs Willow Springs.
Matt Van Hattem.


On this sultry summer evening, you can feel the heat rising from the asphalt beneath you.

But your attention is drawn to something else, to two men in high-visibility vests who—without saying a word to each other—lift a 40-foot truck trailer into the air and place it squarely on top of a nearby railroad


From the small control room welded to the underside of a tall overhead crane.

The driver watches the subtle hand signals of his partner, standing directly beneath the swaying trailer, as it slowly descends towards him. While watching the trailer leave, the groundskeeper signals to his partner and the crane operator turns the trailer a little. It looks perfect on the narrow rear car. The groundskeeper confirms that the trailer is in place and secures it to the apartment.

Well done. But while this beautiful choreography was taking place, a small truck drove under the crane, past the groundskeeper, and unhitched another identical-looking 40-foot trailer.

And so it goes at Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s Willow Springs Intermodal Facility in Hodgkins, Illinois, where a trailer is lifted onto or off a bed every 80 seconds.

The pier lies in a wide valley on the west bank of the Des Plaines River, 17 miles southwest of Chicago. It stretches for just over two miles but is only a third of a mile wide.

On an average day in 2001, 950 trucks delivered their trailers to Willow Springs, and just as many trucks drove off with their trailers in tow.

In 2005.

Willow Springs was BNSF’s second-largest intermodal station with 770,000 elevators.

BNSF Willow Springs Yard
The Willow Springs terminal is more than two miles long and can accommodate 3,000 trailers.
Matt Van Hattem Inside Willow Springs
Willow Springs is an important terminal for BNSF Railway, as it is right next door to the busy sorting facility for one of its major customers, United Parcel Service.

At a time when most freight trains have no more than two or three locomotives, it is not unusual to see four, six, or more locomotives hauling powerful trainloads of gray UPS trailers through BNSF’s Transcon. 40 percent of the lifting operations performed at this terminal are for UPS.
Another 40 percent of the shipyard’s revenue comes from less-than-truckload carriers such as Yellow Freight and Roadway – these carriers alone contributed more than 7 percent of the facility’s total daily lifting volume in 2002.

The remaining 20 percent of the volume comes from cargo ships like J.B. Hunt and Schneider National as well as USA mail and refrigerated shipments.

But regardless of who foots the bill, the mission is the same. Make sure the parade of incoming trailer trains is unloaded as quickly as possible so that it can be turned around, loaded, and departed on time.

Manage the trains

Sounds easy enough, right? What if.

“The trains are basically the same week after week,” said Alan Copeland, senior manager of hub operations at Inside Willow Springs “but there’s always something different. There’s always something going on that prevents us from building that train on that line every week, even if it was built there last week, or it was built there yesterday. Something happens and we have to change the plan.

How many trains are we talking about here? In 2002.

The terminal handled an average of 24 intermodal trains per day – 12 inbound and 12 outbound. By the end of the week, the number increased to 30 trains due to increasing traffic.

Although most of the trains that use the facility are owned by BNSF, the two Eastern Railroads also operate the facility, primarily to supply UPS with their own UPS trailers. Five days a week, a CSX train comes from North Bergen, New Jersey; Counterpart Q110 returns to the east. On Thursdays, Q158, which runs once a week, departs late morning.

Norfolk Southern operates a transfer to BNSF’s Willow Springs facility five days a week, arriving in the morning. BNSF extended the eastbound Z-LACNYC train to the NS-Ashland Avenue Yard in Chicago to speed up the transfer process. At other times, trailers for East Streets travel through the city.

The busiest times at the terminal are Thursday and Friday mornings between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. when seven UPS trailer trains travel to Inside Willow Springs during the day. For the railway equipment to be used on Western trains, the trailers must be unloaded quickly .

BNSF trains with a WSP symbol actually originate in Chicago at Corwith Yard, the location of the locomotive terminal that supplies the allocated power for the Willow Springs trains.

Coming from the east, the locomotives whiz past the station on one of the two main tracks or an adjacent runway – often with a section of double-stacked containers – and then return to Willow Springs to pick up the loaded flatcars.

Willow Springs Garden Engine.


BNSF GP35 #2579 is drilling a flatcar section on the east side of the Willow Springs yard.

Matt Van Hattem.

Incoming trains can leave their cargo on one of the three sidings parallel to the station. Once the locomotive has the flat cars ready and departed, a shunter assigned to the east side of the station quickly spots the flat cars on an open station track.

The switch is in operation 24 hours a day and resets pads – in railway jargon for detecting empty wagons on the loading tracks – or switches off incorrect orders.
An access road divides the loading tracks in the middle of the site, effectively creating ten separate workplaces.

The loading tracks are each around 1,500 meters long. However, some trains are 7,000 feet long, requiring crews to double the size of their trains. There is space for 290 89-foot flat cars, approximately 58 flat cars per track.

With intermodal train schedules designed to take advantage of peak loading and unloading times, flexibility is critical to ensure the five loading tracks can handle the volume.

“On paper, not all moves fit here,” says Copeland. “They all come in at the same time and leave every hour. If the arriving trains are in good condition, the departing trains are usually also in good condition.

BNSF Willow Springs Tower
A dry-erase board in the operations tower helps Willow Springs employees develop daily schedules for incoming and outgoing trains.
Matt Van Hattem
Creativity and coordination
Much of that creativity will come from the operations tower at Willow Springs, where a BNSF train conductor will work with executives from Copeland and Pacific Rail Services — who are responsible for loading and accommodating trailers at the station, as well as outbound trains, in building a computer build a daily loading and unloading plan.

It’s certainly not an ordinary day at the terminal.

Stay on top of tasks that change daily. And even though the terminal might have three hours to build a train one day, that doesn’t mean it won’t only have two hours or less the next day. The only certainty is the scheduled end and departure times of each train.

There are actually only a handful of railway employees. The shipyard’s daily operations fall under the aforementioned Pacific Rail Services. Central Intermodal operates the check-in and check-out gates, while T.R.S. handles trailer repairs at a smaller facility on the east side of the farm.

In-Terminal Services performs on-site repairs and maintenance on the 8 Mi-Jack overhead cranes, 3 Taylor side loaders, and 27-yard hostlers. The side loaders are necessary because the fifth loading lane next to the storage tracks cannot be crossed.

At Willow Springs, 99 percent of the units handled are trailers.

“The only stacking we do regularly is 28-foot UPS containers,” says Copeland, “and we ship them to Denver, Dallas and North Bergen, New Jersey.”

“Corwith is 85 to 90 percent containers,” says Copeland from downtown Chicago, which once housed Santa Fe’s popular Super-C trailer trains. “We make the trailers, they make the containers.”

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