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Midwest Rail Rangers on TrainWeb: BNSF Galesburg Shop & Hump Tower Tour

Midwest Rail Rangers - BNSF Galesburg Shop & Hump Tower Tour

A Article by the Midwest Rail Rangers, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization presenting onboard educational programs on the South Shore Line and private rail excursions across the Midwest


Robert Tabern - President, Midwest Rail Rangers &
Kandace Tabern - Educational Officer, Midwest Rail Rangers

Published: July 1, 2019


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.


Galesburg Railroad Days


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The 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.