Rails play central role in region’s commerce | nnbw.com

Rails play central role in region’s commerce

Rob Varnon
A Southern Pacific train roles through the Truckee River canyon near Reno.
Rob Varnon |

What’s new is old here in the Truckee Meadows as the railroad line that transformed a river crossing hotel into the city of Reno and eventually gave birth to Sparks is at it again playing a major role transforming the region.

In 1868, the then Central Pacific laid tracks into the Truckee Meadows where Myron Lake operated a river crossing and hotel. Lake and the railroad came to an agreement over the land and laid out a city that would grow into Reno around the station.

It was a defining moment as the Historical Team at renohistory.org, notes the rails did more than just create a town. It kicked off decades of enterprise.

“The railroad was the force that not only allowed Reno to benefit economically from transportation and commerce rather than mining (as with other northern Nevada railroad towns) but it also fed the city’s lucrative “sinful industries” — divorce and gaming, in particular — and helped them prosper by bringing people from all over the country…”

“If you look down there at the industrial parks, they all have a rail spur.”Andy MacKayNevada Franchised Auto Dealers Association

Today, it’s the freight line of the railroad that’s having its day playing a key role in the shaping of this city.

“If you look down there at the industrial parks, they all have a rail spur,” said Andy MacKay, executive director of the Nevada Franchised Auto Dealers Association, discussing the contributions of the railroad to the warehousing and other industries of northern Nevada.

MacKay knows a thing or two about transportation, having served on the Nevada Transportation Authority for a decade, including eight as its chairman.

The rails of the Union Pacific, which now owns the line through the region, have allowed an expansion of warehousing and even the growing manufacturing sector.

Union Pacific said on its Web site that in 2014, more than 80,000 railcars carrying goods terminated their journeys in Nevada and more than 34,000 railcars took freight and materials out. More recent statistics were not immediately available.

The railroad echoed MacKay in its facts about its Nevada network, that northern Nevada was a particular important market for warehousing.

The rails tie the region to the other states and global trade. Union Pacific’s tracks include a stretch in Vegas, but the majority of its 1,193 miles of rail run across northern Nevada, coming out of the Sierras, bringing goods to and from the nation’s fifth busiest container terminal, the Port of Oakland, and Asian markets. To the east, the rails ultimately connect up to other lines that stretch to the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey, or hook up with lines from the north from Canada, or lines from the south up from the Gulf.

In Sparks, the rails tie into the local and regional trucking industry, where haulers load materials and products into trucks for distribution.

In a bit of irony, cars and trucks, things that have long been seen as competitors to the rails for travel and freight, are themselves brought in large numbers to the region by rail.

You can see dozens of railcars full of automobiles roll into the Sparks Rail Yard. The sheer weight and value of these trains of cars is astounding, according to MacKay.

It’s visual evidence of the rails’ importance, but it’s not the only evidence.

MacKay noted the ability to bring in autos in bulk through the mountains, ultimately makes pricing of vehicles in Nevada competitive.

While trucks make the important final delivery of vehicles to lots, MacKay said moving the cars in bulk by train through the mountains ultimately saves money by saving on that transportation cost, which is a cost the car buyer doesn’t have to absorb.

Beyond new cars and saving buyers some money, the rails help generate jobs. There are more than 500 Union Pacific railroad workers in the state and with the contracts for power, parts and other support and services, the railroad claims more than 2,600 other jobs are connected to its activities.

This is not to say there aren’t challenges for the railroad in the 21st century. In it’s fourth quarter earnings report, Union Pacific noted five of its core businesses were down compared to a year ago, with only automobiles showing an uptick of 1 percent.

Lance Fritz, Union Pacific chairman, president and chief executive officer, in his discussion with analysts in January, said a number of economic headwinds were affecting overall business, even as fuel costs declined.

Specifically, a strong dollar is hampering U.S. exporters, as the price of American goods increases, creating a drag on demand abroad. Energy markets and commodity prices have also taken a bite out of shipments.

To face these challenges the Union Pacific, like other railroads, is investing in efficiency and productivity. Better, more advanced engines haul the cars at higher speeds while new signalization and investments in safety have reduced accidents.

In the end, the old steam engines that first puffed into the Truckee Meadows more than 100 years ago might be gone, but the new diesel engines have ably taken their place and are still running on what can be called the tracks of change.