Freight trains: dinosaurs on rails. Too slow, too old, employing too many people. So inefficient that as flatcars and boxcars and coal hoppers were uncoupled and reattached to trains heading elsewhere in switching yards, railroads routinely lost track of them.
But not anymore. The more than 20,000 freight trains that are in motion at any one time across the country are packed with goods. Freight railroads are making money, and the trains are about as high-tech as anything that moves on earth.
And a quiet revolution made it so. The old freight-railroad companies led the way in business computerization. Although employment in the industry dropped from a million people 40 years ago to 200,000 now, the rail-freight carriers are actually handling more business than they did in World War II.
Those were the last of railroading's glory years, romanticized in movies and the basements of hobbyists, who construct elaborate model-train layouts. Back then, railroad companies were saddled with running iconic but money-losing passenger trains. That all ended with the coming of the government-supported, nationwide Amtrak service, and the freight carriers got down to business, making money.
Computers ride with the engineer in just about every freight train cab. Transponders on the sides of 1.5 million railcars identify each car and its contents as it rumbles past detectors along the rails. Computers read these transponders and send detailed reports to shippers and customers alike, telling them exactly where their pig iron or oranges or load of cattle are at the moment.
And in one of the ironies of the rail-freight business, thanks to something called intermodal shipping, a single cargo moves by ship, truck and train. So the loaded trailers of thousands of trucks - the railroads' main competitor for long-distance freight hauling - ride piggyback, sometimes stacked two layers high, on trains that still blow their lonesome whistles as they roll across America.
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.