The heavy-metal clash as rail cars slam together is like a symphony to Andrew Fox, and he can hear just how well each note is played as trains assemble on the railroad he runs.
On a recent morning, Fox winced only once.
"It can be too hard or too soft. You can just tell when it isn't quite right," said Fox, president of Pacific Harbor Line Inc., which operates inside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, July 03, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Harbor railroad: An article in Wednesday's Business section about Pacific Harbor Line Inc., which operates inside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, referred to the railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe as Burlington Northern.
Even during a global recession that has slowed cargo traffic at the local ports to its lowest level in at least five years, there have been very few sour notes for Pacific Harbor Line. With routes that, end to end, measure only 18 miles combined, it is one of the nation's smallest short line railroads. But it is also one of the most important.
The railroad's job is to break down trains as they arrive and send their cargo containers to the nine terminals at the ports. It also assembles trains that haul freight to much of the nation, connecting to the Union Pacific and BNSF transcontinental rail lines.
"We're like the valet parking for the harbor," Fox quips.
In its 11 years of operation, Pacific Harbor Line has helped propel the harbor to its No. 1 spot; the two ports move more cargo in a year than the combined totals of the nation's next five biggest ports.
This year, Railway Age magazine named Pacific Harbor Line short line railroad of the year for replacing its fleet with diesel-electric locomotives.
In an era when railroads are still often perceived as "dirty players that just produce smog and soot and grit," according to Railway Age Managing Editor Douglas John Bowen, Pacific Harbor Line is forging relationships that the rest of the rail industry needs to emulate.
The magazine dubbed the company "the greenest railroad in America."
With financial help from the Port of Los Angeles and South Coast Air Quality Management District, Pacific Harbor Line has acquired 22 locomotives, each no more than 2 years old and classified as low or ultra low for their diesel emissions.
That's especially unusual for short line railroads. They tend to have older engines, some of which have already been run extensively by major railroads.
"The players in the Los Angeles Basin have all been able to achieve productive consensus where everyone gets something out of it," Bowen said. "That might not seem novel out there, but from our vantage point, it's borderline radical. Wow, people actually cooperating."
That might have something to do with what Pacific Harbor Line was designed to accomplish.
In the mid-1990s there were still three big railroads -- Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and Burlington Northern -- trying to get cargo in and out of the ports in a timely fashion. Union Pacific controlled the switches inside the port, but there were frequent disputes over which line had the right of way.
The ports and the railroads decided that a neutral third body would control the switches. They chose Anacostia & Pacific Co. Inc., one of the many private companies that run the regional and short line railroads that connect communities to main rail lines. Pacific Harbor Line began running in 1998.
Fox got the job of president after he served as a consultant to Anacostia & Pacific, helping the Chicago company beat out several other applicants. Fox had one request: If the company won the contract, he wanted to run the railroad.
"This was going to be a chance to do something that hadn't been done before. It was going to be an opportunity to run your own show, to do things the way you think they ought to be done," Fox said.
From the time he and his brother Justin watched the trains behind their father's metal fabricating business in Berkeley, Fox was hooked. When it was time for him to go to college, the choice between Northwestern University in Illinois and UC Berkeley was easy, he said.
"Chicago is the railroad capital of the world," Fox said.
Serving first on a Southern Pacific railroad survey crew, then as a brakeman and conductor, Fox worked his way up to assistant to the vice president of operations for Southern Pacific. Now he runs one of the 323 short line rail systems in the United States.
Short lines gross $28 million or less in annual revenues, according to David Whorton, manager of communications and data for the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Assn. Anacostia & Pacific is privately owned and doesn't release revenue figures.
"Some of them are more than 100 years old and might be so small that they only have one locomotive, with the president serving as the engineer," Whorton said. But without those lines, Whorton said, thousands of trucks would be needed to do their work.
Twenty-two short line and regional companies are responsible for about 20% of California's track, Whorton said.
Pacific Harbor Line moves "on dock" rail cargo where the rail lines are situated close to the terminals at which the cargo ships are unloaded. That cargo traffic is in less of a slump than the rest of the trade business because it goes all across the country. As a result, the railroad has been able to avoid furloughs among its 140 employees.
At two ports that have struggled against significant opposition to many of their clean air initiatives, including separate federal lawsuits filed by the American Trucking Assn. and the Federal Maritime Commission, Pacific Harbor Line has gone without a protest or a glitch.
"They're a great example," said Arley Baker, a spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles. "Pacific Harbor Line is our first completed clean air action plan success story."