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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Farming is huge in this part of the country - transportation also. Kansas City is a major hub. Being in the middle means traffic from east to west - trucks and the railroad - and north to south - barges along the Missouri River.

We get directions now from NPR's Kansas City-based correspondent, Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Kansas City is a city of intersections. The Kansas and Missouri rivers converge here as do three interstate highways and seven railroads. Kansas City is the nation's second busiest rail hub behind Chicago. And it's actually the first in terms of tonnage. The largest train yard here is run by the old Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, now known just by its initials BNSF.

Ms. SUSAN ALAVIER(ph) (Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway): This is the tall tower. This is the center of the Argentine Yard, which is the largest yard in the BNSF.

BEAUBIEN: Susan Alavier, with BNSF, is standing in the top floor of a three-story tower that looks out over the yard. From here, dispatchers keep tabs on the hundreds of trains that pass through the facility each day. Alavier says her job is to deal with problems and make sure the cars get to their final destinations. Kansas City, Alavier says, is hugely important to BNSF.

Ms. ALAVIER: This is the center of our railroad. Kansas City is a large, large base because we get a lot of traffic, of course, coming off the coast going to the Great Lakes - coming off the Great Lakes going to the coast. We are in between so we're moving a lot of traffic from Mexico all the way up to Canada, and Canada and back. And we are in the middle of it all.

BEAUBIEN: Open-topped coal cars from mines in Montana and Wyoming flow beneath the tower - headed to St. Louis, Memphis, Atlanta. Tanks of ethanol and corn syrup from the Great Plains are on their way to Houston. Shipping containers that originated in Monterey, Mexico chug north to Minneapolis and Winnipeg. And BNSF is just one of the railroads operating here.

Standing next to a train sorting hill known as the hump, Chris Gutierrez, the president of KC SmartPort, a local economic development agency, says four of the seven largest rail carriers in the U.S. pass through Kansas City.

Mr. CHRIS GUTIERREZ (President, KC SmartPort): We have the BNSF, U.P., KCF and Norfolk Southern here, but this is the largest of all of those that are active in the Kansas City market. So it's a great testament to the size of the rail industry that's here.

BEAUBIEN: In 2005, Kansas City Southern Railway bought Transportación Ferroviaria Mexicana, setting up what's known as the NAFTA Railway, running from Mexico through Kansas City to Canada.

Gutierrez says Kansas City is ideally situated as a transportation and shipping hub.

Mr. GUTIERREZ: We have three interstate highways intersecting Kansas City - a significant east-west I-70 as well as two north-south highways. We also have an air cargo facility in Kansas City that's the largest in the six-state area.

BEAUBIEN: Ironically, Kansas City grew in the 1800s because two other transportation lines, the Kansas and the Missouri rivers, linked the Great Plains with the Mississippi. Until recently, river traffic remained important here, particularly on the Missouri. But Gutierrez says that as water levels dropped, the barge traffic has dried up too.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kansas City.

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