I've Been Working on the Railroad

Des Moines Union Railway outbuilding, now owned by Norfolk Southern. Situated at SW 11th and MLK, near old spurs and yard lines that are, themselves, overgrown. 

Des Moines has a wealth of railroad history, including national lines, regional lines, local lines; wide gauge, narrow gauge; trolley, interurban, freight and passenger. If one considers Des Moines' prime railroad location, it's a wonder the city never grew up - but then it's not much of a leap of logic either. Railways tend to own land for eternity, passing it down from merger to merger, until it's in the hands of some company a thousand miles away. When this happens, prime downtown real estate remains undeveloped and often quite dilapidated. Railroads only maintain property that is being used and municipalities have very little jurisdiction. It is both a blessing and the curse Des Moines has had to bear.

As a hub of activity, trains hauling coal, aggregate, wheat, corn, cattle, and nearly everything else imaginable, filed in from Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and funneled into Chicago. Granted, there were many, many lines, some skipping Des Moines entirely, but being so central to the other lines lead a number of Rail companies to buy up property and stake out in the city. Much of the Martin Luther King Jr Expressway through the south side of downtown was rail-owned, and much of what remains was only recently purchased from the rail companies.

There are currently high-level discussions at the City Council about bringing back heavy rail traffic through Des Moines, and thereby reducing semi-truck traffic by 22,000 transports. Plans are to build a hub near SE 14th and Scott St. near the new Des Moines Parks and Recreation building. Four railroads would be represented including Iowa Interstate (IAIS), Norfolk Southern (NS), Union Pacific (UP) and BNSF (a.k.a. Burlington Northern Sante Fe). Each of these railway companies, excluding Iowa Interstate, are Class I conglomerations of various older rail systems, some of which also had history in Des Moines. Currently, BNSF is only represented in Des Moines by a few co-owned and operated stretches of rail, while IAIS has some siding around the old Des Moines Union Railway Company yard south of downtown. Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern both keep regular sized yards in Des Moines, albeit on the fringes.

Current Des Moines Rail yards:

Shortline (UP, ex-CRI&P), Hull Ave (UP, ex-C&NW) and Glake (NS, ex-CB&Q)