Railroad shops demolition marks end of an era in Springfield MO

(The following story by Mike Landis appeared on the KY3 News website on July 30, 2010.)

SPRINGFIELD, MO — From the North Kansas Expressway viaduct, you can see the remains of a different era crumbling to the ground.

Rusted train tracks and piles of rubble litter the ground near the rail yards. The debris once made up the economic engine of Springfield: the Frisco Railroad Shops. The car shops, the last remaining large buildings of a once-massive complex, are being torn down. Historians say the facility built train cars, and helped build the city.

“At its height, the railroad had over 4,000 employees working in Springfield,” said John Sellars, curator of the History Museum of Springfield-Greene County.

One of the many employees of the shops complex over the years was Jerry Stewart. He toiled away in the neighboring Diesel Locomotive Shop.

“I went to work there when I got out of the Navy in 1970. Dad worked for the railroad and dad and got me on. I had a lot of hard times there. It was a good place to work, but it was hot and heavy," said Stewart.

Stewart says working for the Frisco Railway was like being a part of a family. That family began to break up during a series of railroad mergers that weren't so kind to the city. In 1980, the Frisco was merged into the Burlington Northern Railroad. The BN slowly began downgrading its newly acquired facilities in Springfield, including the former Frisco headquarters operation. In 1995 the BN merged with the Santa Fe Railway to create the current BNSF.

The Springfield Diesel Shops closed in 1996 as the new company sought to eliminate duplicate operations across its system. Hundreds walked home with a pink slip, while others were offered transfers to other BNSF hubs, such as Topeka, Kan.

The car repair shops chugged on under the auspices of Trinity Railcar until 2008, before it shuttered due to the rough economy and an accompanying decline in rail traffic. BNSF decided there is not a market to lease the shops again, and the vacant buildings have become a liability for the company.

“We're demolishing three car shop buildings that have been up from the 1920s (from what I understand), and should wrap up in the next couple of weeks," said Andy Williams, a spokesman for BNSF, in a telephone interview.

Ironically, more trains than ever are rolling through Springfield these days.

“We still have over 800 employees in Springfield, so Springfield remains a very important and critical part in our rail network,” said Williams.

Furthermore, he said, 3,400 people are employees of the railroad’s “Springfield Division” that extends through the Ozarks on lines to St. Louis, Memphis, Kansas City, and Tulsa.

Still, reminders of the "old days" will soon be found only in pictures and memories.

In response to the demolition of the car shops, Jerry Stewart said, it’s “very sad. Being an old railroader, and [from] a railroad family, you hate to see it die.”

Williams says the train yards themselves, where freight cars are put together to form trains, will remain in operation. The locomotive fueling facility will also continue servicing the many trains that ply the rails through town each day. The railroad says, if the economy improves, it could end up increasing its presence and job numbers in Springfield. However, Williams said, that’s simply a “possibility” and not a set plan.

Friday, July 30, 2010
bentley@ble-t.org

http://www.ble-t.org/pr/news/headline.asp?id=31091

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