Railfanning in St. Louis – Love the Problem


It’s not every day that we send employees out in the field for research, and certainly less so to go out and watch trains. But we are UNCOMN and we love solving uncommon problems.

Love the Problem is our second Core Value and it always has been, including back when we were Aegis Strategies.

On May 15, 2018, we sent a team out to be railfans for a day.

What is a railfan you ask? According to Webster:

Railfan │ noun

one whose hobby is railroads or model railroads; a railroad enthusiast.

And what railfans do is called railfanning.

Our goal was to spend a day railfanning, watching train movements at key places, to get a better understanding for how the region’s rail system operates, and apply our knowledge from the field to the prototype Discrete Event Simulation Model we developed for the St. Louis Regional Freightway.

That morning, we found ourselves headed towards the St. Louis Riverfront in our 10-passenger van packed with our yellow hard hats, bright safety vests, cameras, drone, and other equipment, and guided by UNCOMN’s very own Railfan and Systems Engineer – Mr. Paul Cooper.

But our day of railfanning was meant to be more than just a fun outing. As Cooper explained,

“To understand the data about trains we first had to understand how they operate. The purpose of our field work was to help our data scientists understand the business behind the data so we could gain a unique perspective on how to translate the real word into a digital format for decision making.”

We hit four stops that day – Valley Junction, America’s Central Port, Merchant’s Bridge, and Lennox Tower.

Cooper narrated our tour and we learned about basic rail operations and industry terms while our pilot captured a bird’s eye view of rail, truck and barge movements with his high-tech drone. At America’s Central Port, we even got a guided tour of their transfer facility and witnessed first hand the transfer of corn from trucks to barges.

Below are a few highlights from our day of railfanning:


This rail yard at Valley Junction is a busy point in the network. Railcars filled with many different types of commodities are assembled to make a single, larger 100-car train.


The total St. Louis region’s port system spans 70 of 855 miles of the Mississippi River and carries one-third of the river’s total freight. Within a 15-mile stretch, the region has access to 15 barge transfer facilities that handle agricultural and fertilizer products and over 150 barges a day when operating at full capacity. It’s no wonder that the region has gained recognition as the Ag Coast of America.


Experts at America’s Central Port discuss the facility’s operations and explain how grain shipments are transferred at the facility from truck to a barge.


To learn more about UNCOMN’s work with the St. Louis Regional Freightway, check out our Case Study: Performance-based planning & analytics needed to enhance St. Louis Freightway capabilities.