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Illinois grain train ships millions of corn bushels
Illinois Correspondent

WAVERLY, Ill. — Jerry German’s been working on the railroad - all the live-long day.

German is of several train engineers at the Johnson Grain Terminal in Waverly, which has been operating since the spring of 2004. Johnson’s train delivers grain to Texas and Mexico along the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe Railroad line.

With 110 cars to fill, German is behind the controls for hours at a time. Amid the sounds of screeching steel wheels and crashing couplers, the train switches and loads grain by using the terminal’s loop-track design.

Most of the items on the massive train engine - including the blaring whistle - are operated with the latest technology and automation.

“Most everything is computerized,” he said. “The scanner scans each car, and it can tell which car it is; how much grain it holds and the ultimate destination.

“Each car holds about 4,000 bushels. It takes 110 cars about eight hours to load.”

The Johnson Grain Terminal has more than eight million bushels of storage.

Each grain bin has underground tunnels. A transport mechanism called a “drag” carries the grain from the bin to a grain leg which elevates the corn to the bulk weigher that weighs the grain before it is loaded into the railroad car.

With constant contact to the grain terminal, German knows what is going on with every step of the operation, including when breakdowns occur.

Despite the many steps, German said everything works like clockwork most of the time. Once the train is loaded, he said the train is switched back onto the Burlington-Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks.

The train first travels to Beardstown and then Galesburg before driving down the west side of the Mississippi River to Hereford, Texas.

“They claim that corn we shelled on Monday, the cows can be eating in a feedlot by Friday,” German explained.

Modern railroading is highly technical and the machinery is massive. The engine that powers the train weighs 415,000 pounds.

“The engine has 7,000 horsepower, and it is a diesel-electric engine. The diesel engine runs the electric motor,” Jerry explained.

More than one engine is required to pull the train to its destinations. Usually the railroad provides four engines.

“It takes three engines to run the train, today we have four,” German said. “Once after Hurricane Katrina, we were only able to have one engine. I couldn’t pull the train so we had to get more engines from Beardstown.”

He said the engines generally start fairly easily in cold weather.

“Once in a while, when we have trouble getting it started, I would swear it was a Chevrolet,” German joked.

While at the Johnson Grain Terminal, the train is operated by employees who have received railroad training. The operators at the grain terminal work only while the train is on Johnson property; railroad staff have control of the train once it leaves the property. When the railroad engineers drop off the train, they are usually transported to Beardstown where they will wait until the train is loaded.

The trains are monitored by satellite while on terminal property.

“The railroad always knows where each engine is,” German said. While sitting in the engine cab, he sees a lot of rail traffic. The tracks average 2-3 trains per day, German added. “Lots of coal and anhydrous go by,” he said.

German, who is also a farmer, gained most of his experience with trains while in military service in Korea.

“I ran an engine in a switching operation in Japan,” he said. “We would get banged up equipment from Korea, then took it to factories. It was a fun job, but didn’t pay much.”

He said the pay and the hours are better at Johnson’s state-of-the-art facility.

For more information about Johnson Grain, call 217-435-2361 or visit online at

This Illinois farm news was published in the November 30, 2005 issue of Farm World.