Trains, ships & Medusa Cement

We noticed when we were in Oak Park and Elmhurst that many trains went by on at-grade tracks. Trains are a key to our prosperity, but they are largely out of sight.

America has the worlds best freight train network, facilitated by the Staggers Act or 1980. This fact comes as a surprise to most people, since American passenger rail is not very good and that is what experience most directly.

You can see the power of freight when you watch a train go by. Today they often carry containers. This is intermodal transport. The containers can be moved by ship, train or truck w/o being unloaded or reloaded.

The intermodal revolution – and it was a revolution – happened in plain sight starting around 1970. Before that time, something moved by ship required unloading and reloading at the port. Something shipped by train required loading, unloading and reloading all along the road. The same for trucks. Each step created delays, damage and “shrinkage,” i.e. stealing. This is the “fell off the back of a truck” idea.

I was in the Longshoreman Union back in the 1970s when I worked at Medusa Cement. We were in that union because we had a dock, although I never worked on ships. Longshoremen were hard workers, but the episodic nature of the much of the work meant they did not need to be very consistent. It was possible to be a good worker AND a drunk. In fact, some of the hardest workers were drunks. There was also a fair amount of fringe benefit or the “falling off the truck” sort. And there was lots of unskilled or semi-skilled work to be done. All this changed in the 1970s. Containers require many fewer workers and most of them need to be skilled at operating heavy machinery, i.e. shaky drunks cannot do well.

My pictures show some of the trains. The first shows how many trucks can be carried on one train and the next (look closely) shows trains going in both directions. In front are bulk hopper cars, in back containers. I have enjoyed watching them go by since I was a little boy and still do. The first photo, however is Medusa’s cement ship – the “Challenger”. It is now owned by St Mary’s, so it is the St. Mary’s Challenger, but I think it is the same boat that my father used to unload. The last photo is a water tower in Oak Park, Illinois. They were more artistic in those days.

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