Those Swingin' Helpers

Heavy coal trains on the Grande were usually assisted by a helper, cut in about three-fourths of the way back at what is called the Swing Point.  This is the point in a train where the helper is pushing as many cars as it is pulling, usually about 74 cars back on a 105-car train.  Accordingly, this was called the swing helper.

Swing helpers were used mainly on three challenging routes: between between Phippsburg and Denver, on Tennessee Pass, and on Soldier Summit in Utah.   The Phippsburg trains had to contend with several steep pushes, especially the shove up to the west portal of Moffat, and the helpers were usually left on the train to provide dynamic braking on the descent into Denver.  On Tennessee Pass, swing helpers were sometimes added into the consist as far west as Glenwood Springs. These helpers would usually cut out of the train once over the pass, often hooking onto a westbound train to help with braking down the 3% grade.   On Soldier, helpers were added at Helper (of all places) and cut out either at Colton or the summit itself.

In the image at right, a swing helper consisting of SD40T-2's #5376 and 5373 is passing through tunnel 29, with the eastbound PSCX unit train on 11/22/1994.

This shot shows the  swing helper on a coal train at tunnel 1 (12/30/1991). The SD50 - SD40T-2 pair are in full dynamic braking.  SD50 No. 5512 is seven years old; the unidentified late-model tunnel motor is probably 11 years old here.

Here we see a 3-unit swing helper just  east of Plainview siding on 11/20/1991. With the four units on the head end and the two-unit rear helper, there was a total of nine locomotives on this train!  Even with full dynamic braking by the locomotives, the coal hoppers were making a lot of brake smoke.

On 6/29/95, a swing helper really puts the shoulder into an eastbound CTRN coal train as it starts up the grade in Glenwood Canyon. The four-unit set consisted of one each SD50, SD40T-2, SD40R, and SD45T-2 -- quite a mix.


Union Pacific now operates all of these Rio Grande locations.  Because most helpers are now remote control (Distributed power, or DPU), helpers usually stay with trains over long distances.  In ex-Rio Grande territory, UP uses a remote swing helper, keeping up the tradition.  It only makes sense, after all.