A RADIO FREE OZARKS EXCLUSIVE
UNION PACIFIC VP CHARLES R. MOUNT ANNOUNCES NEW ‘FREIGHT TRAIN ROUNDABOUT’ TO BE BUILT SOUTH OF CONWAY
MOUNT: ROUNDABOUT ABOUT TO BE MOUNTED AROUND ROUND MOUNTAIN
By Dr. Fred Potato
Radio Free Ozarks Editor
March 24th, 2022
Union Pacific Vice President Charles R. Mount detailed plans for a new railroad right-of-way to be built just south of Conway as part of an ambitious plan to create a new turnaround circle for Union Pacific freight trains operating under the auspices of the company’s North Little Rock rail yard.
As the featured speaker at the Faulkner County Rotarians monthly luncheon last week at the Ramada Inn in Conway, Mount gave a short presentation on the layout and rationale for the proposed rail circle, and noted how it was inspired by the many street intersection roundabouts found inside Conway’s city limits.
“Union Pacific has worked with our international and stateside partners to develop a new AI technology standard to automate most of our railcar loading and unloading processes, for the really repetitive tasks like loading coal cars and loading the cargo containers,” Mount began after his introduction. “As we implement this technology we expect to see major labor savings that we can pass on to our customers and executives by limiting increases in shipping costs. This pilot program is being run out of our North Little Rock rail yard and will really be ramping up over the next couple of years as the AI technology matures.
“But aw hell, there’s a catch. The AI sensor packages have to be retrofitted to each and every rail car and shipping container, and that’s not cheap. Turns out it is cheaper to fit one end of each rail car and container and have our overall AI management system in Omaha keep each rail car and train oriented correctly. Outfitting both ends of each rail car is prohibitively expensive.
“Long story short, we need the ability to turn these freight trains around quickly and easily, so the fully-loaded shipping containers coming into the country can be turned the same way when we send them back to China empty. Same for the coal cars getting loaded at the Powder River Terminals in Wyoming and unloaded at the power plants, to allow highly automated operations with robotic AI technology. I do love me some coal.
“This project has been laid out for a few years now,” Mount continued, “but funding was a concern until very recently. With the passage of the new Biden infrastructure plan in Washington there’s scratch in there specifically for improving the country’s freight rail infrastructure, and we have a very high chance of breaking ground in 2023.” Mount did not provide a projected cost during his 15-minute presentation, but a handout provided to attendees listed an amount of $180 million, taken from a cost estimate prepared in 2018.
“We knew in the North Little Rock planning and engineering office that this issue was coming. We were kicking around ideas as far back as 2017. One of our senior civil engineers lives in Conway. At one of our design meetings he said, jokingly, ‘How about a roundabout, but for trains?’ He said he had already driven through nine roundabouts leaving Conway that morning. I guess he counts them. But his off-the-wall idea, a new type of roundabout near the Roundabout Capital of the South, is now the official plan. We thought he’d be thrilled at the train roundabout idea, but he’s been sort of quiet about it.”
Mount concluded his presentation by projecting a map of the new roundabout layout, which was shown circling Round Mountain and tying in to the existing UP rail line in two locations, one south of Conway and one further south, near Mayflower. Mount ticked off its features and considerations. “This shows [that] with new trackage and an Arkansas River crossing we can tie to the Little Rock & Western rail line near Bigelow, as we aim to eventually operate parallel trackage along the Arkansas River Valley to Fort Smith. We have the right of first refusal on the LRWN line purchase.
“And as you can also see, this roundabout will align into our proposed future western rail bypass around Conway, tying in near Gleason, eventually upgrading the entire line for the double-stack intermodal containers. But not anytime soon. I would not say the western bypass is a priority just yet. Our engineers and brakemen all love riding the trains through Conway, passing by Toad Suck Square, waving to the residents at all the grade crossings, and blowing the horn. And the tunnel through Cadron Ridge – how (expletive) cool is that? No, I would expect our freight trains will be rolling through good old Conway for the foreseeable future. Choo Choo!”