Destination: Trains

David Hanke ’12 was like a lot of kids who grew up obsessed with train sets and toy locomotives. He just never grew out of it.

He tried other things—majored in history at Lafayette College, rowed crew, started a fraternity, and was involved with a campus chapter of the TED speaking circuit. But for a kid from Manhattan, there seemed little that could match the exoticism of a life on the lines.

“I wanted nothing but to work for a railroad,” says Hanke.

Five years out of school, Hanke is now the superintendent of the San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad, a so-called shortline that runs for 154 miles on a remote spit of southern Colorado near the New Mexico border. The line traffics freight for only a handful of companies, hauling products like fertilizer, grain, potatoes, and perlite—the tiny white minerals commonly seen in bags of potting soil—back and forth between industrial plants and an interchange point with the mighty Union Pacific, the largest railroad in the country.

That would seem to make the SLRG a rather small cog in a vast logistics apparatus keeping the nation’s economy humming. But rarely had we stopped to consider the preciousness of the supply chain until the pandemic upended it.

Factory outbreaks, labor shortages, transportation backlogs, and almost every other hurdle imaginable made getting things from automobiles to electronics to furniture a serious struggle in 2021. But don’t look at us, Hanke says. His line miraculously navigated through the pandemic and its aftermath without disruption.

Mount Blanca from the valley floor

Fortunately, Hanke says, his customers tend to be consistent and stable, “the kind of operation that railroads like.” His second-biggest client, for instance, is Molson Coors, the brewing giant, which ships about 20 cars of barley off his line per week from a giant grain elevator to its brewery in Golden, Colorado. An entire year’s worth of barley is harvested in the fall only to be shipped out, bit by bit, week by week, until the supply runs out or the demand wavers. And beer demand rarely wavers.

Hanke was seeking such stability after starting his career operating a more hectic line outside Pittsburgh for Norfolk Southern.

“We used to refer to the month of December as ‘UPS season,’” Hanke says. “If you caused a delay to a train that had UPS trailers on it, you’d never hear the end of it. That’s the side of railroading that is more sensitive to time delays and backlogs. I’m very much on the calmer side of it now.”

Hanke says he started working for Norfolk Southern largely because of the promise of being transferred to other parts of the country. “They said, ‘You could be moved at any minute across any of 23 states,’” Hanke says. “I said, Cool!”

A big mudslide on a line with Hanke, far right, “walking up the creek without a paddle,” he says.

In 2018, that meant picking up and moving to Alamosa, Colorado, a small college town four hours south of Denver featuring majestic views of the Rockies. It’s a quiet place but the locals are friendly. “When I tell people I’m from Manhattan, they’re like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Hanke says.

He’s confined to a desk most days, sorting out logistics problems for customers who don’t even know they have problems. He found out recently that one local customer was shipping rail cars of product to Winnipeg, Canada, where a client routinely bought a few truckloads—destined for Colorado.

“If you don’t realize where your products come from and where your supply chains go, they’ll go across the country and even across borders and you don’t even realize it sometimes,” Hanke says. “In a crazy world, you might go full circle.”

Every so often Hanke does have to surprise his workers in the field to make sure they are following regulations. It’s during those visits, when he rides in the locomotive cab, that he most feels like a kid again.

“It’s rough and difficult and some days are hell,” Hanke says. “But you do get to do something that affects a lot of people. And if you do it right, you are the backbone of the local economy.”

—Zach Schonbrun ’05