If you have ever
taken the Carl Sandburg train between Chicago and Quincy, Illinois ---
then you have no doubt passed by the BNSF Galesburg, Illinois Hump
Tower (it's on the right side going west, and the left side going
east). Being an strategic railroad switching point, this area is
normally strictly "off limits" to the general public -- however it's
open just one weekend per year for a special VIP tour that is conducted
as part of a fund raiser by the Galesburg Railroad Museum.
One of the largest annual rail-themed events in Illinois is Galesburg
Railroad Days, which is held on the fourth weekend of June every year.
Normally, the Midwest Rail Rangers are pre-occupied that weekend with
Interpretive Guides working both an Amtrak coach charter (arranged by
the 20th Century Railroad Club of Chicago) and also a private dome car
charter (arranged by Zephyr Route Tours) on Trains #381 and #382 to
Galesburg and on to Quincy (and then Hannibal, MO by motorcoach).
Unfortunately, this year (2019), Zephyr Route decided not to operate
its annual "Train to Twain" private car event. However, this did free
up some our docents to have two tables at the Toy & Train Show held
in conjunction with Galesburg Railroad Days. We (Robert & Kandace)
worked the morning shift --- while guides Robert Neil and Dave Poole
worked the afternoon shift.
With free time to enjoy the festivities, we decided to try and get in
on the VIP Galesburg Yard Tour. Robert had done the tour in 2009,
but Kandace had never participated. Tickets were limited to just 64
people (per the agreement with BNSF), so we knew we would have to get
in line early in order to secure our spots on this rare experience ---
especially with thousands of railfans in town for the weekend. Looking
at the website, it said tickets would go on sale at 3:00pm with a
4:00pm departure (the tour would run until 6:30pm). When we arrived to
see how things were looking at 1:45pm there was already about six
people in line. So, we ended up camping out by the table as the
line grew and grew... luckily we knew that we would get a spot by
arriving so early that afternoon. Ticket prices were $20 -- with
all the money going to help fun the Galesburg Railroad Museum.
Our guide for the afternoon was Maury Godsil, a retired fifth
generation railroader, and an official with the Galesburg Railroad
Museum. We had met Maury several times before on private rail
excursions --- and he was instrumental in arranging a book signing that
we had done in 2015 at the Galesburg Public Library for our new
railroad route guidebook between Chicago and Missouri.
Our first stop was at the locomotive shop --- where much to everyone's
delight, there was a Santa Fe "war bonnet" undergoing service work.
What a rare treat and a perfect photo opportunity for the group! Our
second stop was going to the fourth floor of the Hump Tower, which
overlooked the yards.
We learned that Galesburg is the second largest classification
yard in the BNSF system. Box cars and tankers coming into Galesburg
from all over the country are grouped together in the classification,
or rail yard, to ‘make’ freight trains. The resulting freights are
known as merchandise trains.... which carry anything from canned
goods to paper, fertilizer, lumber cars, raw materials, etc.
Galesburg’s classification yard — a 24/7 operation — has eight
receiving tracks and eight departure tracks. In order to see the yard
in one’s mind’s eye, first picture hundreds of train cars with a
spaghetti-like track design in a bowl-type area. The receiving and
departure tracks are on hills, or humps. The 48 classification tracks
are in the bowl formed by the hills on each side.
The rail yard is similar to the ‘hubs’ used by airlines. For instance,
United has its hub at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Planes
from all over the country bring passengers to O’Hare. From there,
riders board planes to fly to their final destinations. The theory for
moving freight is much the same. Products are brought into the
Galesburg classification yard from across the country. Then, rather
than passengers boarding various planes at airports, freight cars
headed for all areas of the U.S. are put together to make trains headed
for the appropriate destinations.
Our guide at the Hump Tower was Jon Taylor, the new Terminal
Superintendent for BNSF. We were told no photos in the tower and
complied... however we did find some pictures on-line that we included
in this report that other people must have taken. After getting
off the elevator, we saw a dark room with plenty of brightly lighted
computers --- it resembled an air traffic control tower. From their
perches high above the tracks, the employees can look out the windows
that surround them and watch the trains, much as air traffic
controllers watch jets landing and taking off at airports. Computer
screens show camera shots giving the employees controlling the movement
of the freight cars a closer look at what is going on.
(The last two photos are courtesy of Railroad Picture Archives.NET since photos inside the tower were not allowed on our tour)
On average, the BNSF Galesburg Hump Tower takes in 19 trains and
outputs 19 trains a day. From the Pacific Northwest and California on
the West Coast, to Texas in the Southwest, Memphis in the South,
Lincoln, Nebraska, and Denver in the West, and Chicago, which allows
freight to be brought here from the East Coast and the Upper Midwest,
Galesburg can accommodate it all. In fact, even freight from Canada
makes its way to west-central Illinois through the railroad’s
operations in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Midwest Rail Rangers is an independent non-profit 501(c)(3)
organization which presents on-board educational programs on the South
Shore Line and on private rail excursions across the Upper
Midwest. Check out our website for more information on how you
can be part of our growing organization. We hope you will enjoy reading our articles about all of
the interesting places you can take the train to -- especially
America's National Parks and many other off-the-beaten path locations.