RAILFANNING THE HIGH DESERT
Exploring the Rails Along the Colorado - Utah Border
The routes of the former D&RGW pass through a number of remote, all-but-inaccessible, spectacular, beautiful places. It had long been an ambition of mine to get to some of these areas in western Colorado and eastern Utah. An opportunity presented itself to me in late April 2014, so I planned a one-man excursion to the area. The Plan was to camp in the back of our Nissan SUV and spend each day scouting around with my new Nikon D3100 SLR camera. The targets were: Ruby Canyon, the North Fork subdivision, and the main line along the Colorado River east of Grand Junction—all the way to Hot Sulphur Springs, if possible.
The Plan evolved and fluctuated right up to departure, when I discovered that there were several free campgrounds administered by the BLM located on the heights looking down into Ruby Canyon. Finally! A place to park—legally— and right at one of my target destinations. Enter the aforementioned evolution of The Plan. I also learned that the local train to Moab Salt (the “Potash Local” operating out of Grand Junction) would be running during my stay. Now, the Plan for the first full day became to photograph said train in Ruby, and follow it out to Moab. This would be an all-day commitment, I knew. Other parts of The Plan began quietly dying off, adjusting. Well, departure day arrived; I loaded up the car with everything I thought I might need for three days of solo “camping” and headed north into Colorado.
Arriving at the Rabbit Valley exit on I-70, I discovered that Google Earth had not adequately prepared me for the site. Reality was far better! Rabbit Valley is a network of roads and camping areas spreading for miles between the interstate and the river, atop the Uncompaghre uplift. The roads were not great, but not terrible either (except for the one wrong turn I made), and they led me from the highway past the most amazing sandstone features, cutting through the green, sandy hills (very green at this time, a huge and pleasant surprise), and are reasonably well marked. I got to the campground at the Knowles Canyon overlook just ahead of the arrival of Amtrak train No. 5, the westbound California Zephyr—of course I had been checking the train status on my mobile device! Several dozen photos later, I knew this was going to be a good trip.
An evening rainstorm did nothing to dampen my spirits, as it merely expanded the photographic opportunities. I even saw an eastbound freight roll eastward at dusk, and as I squirmed into the sleeping bag I made plans for the following day.
Next morning, after a pot of coffee that I shared with a neighbor across the road, I headed north-east on the dirt and gravel roads towards the Salt Creek overlook. This spot looks down on the east end of Ruby, right where the rails enter the defile. As things turned out, after four-wheeling through the mud I arrived at the overlook just as the Potash local was rumbling by. I missed the photo op in the Salt Creek drainage by two minutes but got a number of images as the train passed Ruby siding and journeyed on its way through the canyon. Today it had six—count ‘em, six—locomotives and a single empty covered hopper car. I’ve seen some unbalanced-looking local trains before, but this one took the cake.
The overlook is at the extreme end of the BLM road system there, with no way out other than backtracking all the way to the Rabbit Valley exit some miles to the west. Originally I had wanted to photograph Amtrak No. 6 from there, followed by the Potash train, but a late Zephyr meant the Potash train had departed Grand Junction ahead of it. If I waited for Amtrak I would probably not be able to catch up with the local before Moab. The Plan was therefore altered to jettison the Amtrak photo op, and I headed back west on the twisty roads to try to catch the local somewhere in the desert.
I chose well. As things turned out I caught up with the local to the west of Cisco, where the tracks cross under the interstate and parallel its route on the north side. Passing it at fairly close proximity I noticed that the power consisted of four faded C44AC’s and a pair of freshly-painted GP40-series 4-axle units. For a few years now the Department of Energy has been undertaking a massive cleanup of uranium tailings near Moab and railing the stuff up to an engineered holding site north of Brendel, and I had been told that the local would often drop off some power for that use at Brendel each week. That probably explained the 17,600 horsepower on the front of this train. As things turned out, that was exactly what was going on. After studying my photos I also confirmed what I suspected: only the two lead units were running; the other four were running dead in consist.
Somewhere around Whitehouse or Elba sidings the train passed Amtrak, out of sight in the hills north of the highway. I heard it on the scanner but somehow they evaded my sight.
There’s a rest area just east of Thompson Springs, offering a decent view of the famous Thompson Hill, and I stopped there to photograph the train’s passage. Afterwards I leapfrogged ahead to Brendel, location of a short siding as well as Crescent Junction, the beginning of the line to Moab—formally, the Cane Creek branch. Brendel also now is the site of a couple of spurs used by the DOE to unload the hazmat cars. When the shortie local arrived, the crew started up the two trailing geeps (they had been running dead-in-consist up to this time), cut off the four lead AC locomotives, and used the geep pair to pick up a tank car from a spur track. Now the train consisted of two locomotives and two cars. It backed down the main to the east, and once clearing the junction switch it began its trip down the Cane Creek branch, startling a herd of pronghorn that were grazing around the tracks. Let me add here that the wind was blowing hard and steady, and that at Brendel I encountered another railfan. He and I would be in each other’s way for the rest of the day, mostly he getting in my shots (not that I’m bitter). The wind made my videos useless, as all you can hear is the rumble across the microphone. Sigh.
I didn’t know much about the Cane Creek branch other than that there is a very deep cut towards the southern end, and that there’s a tunnel under Poison Spider Mesa to cut off a loop of the river in order to reach the potash plant to the west. Rather than bore you with all the details, let’s just say that I now know considerably more about the photographic possibilities along the line. And—that the deep cut is really deep, an impressive bit of engineering.
A little background on the power. If you reference the photos you’ll see UP No. 1510 and 1526. These units are both repaints of Southern Pacific Lines GP40M rebuilds—the former SP 7132 and SSW 7291, respectively. I have run into the 7291 many times over the years around Colorado, so it felt a bit like seeing an old friend again.
I followed the train to the plant and watched them switch for a while. By now it was well past lunchtime and I was in need of fuel, so I abandoned ship and headed into Moab, figuring I could probably catch the train on its return trip. If not, I’d already seen plenty. But as it turned out, as I headed back north through the crazy weekend traffic, I picked up the train just a couple miles north of Bootlegger tunnel. I followed it for a while back north, stopping for a couple more sets of photos, then I decided to head back east to intercept No. 5. But as I approached the intersection of US 191 and I-70, what to my wondering eyes should appear but an eastbound freight rolling through Brendel! That decided it. I was heading for Cisco to wait for this guy.
A couple of miles west of Cisco, alongside old US 6, I found a gentle curve through a low ridge that seemed to offer a good photo op. I got out and set up, and was rewarded with a nice roll-by. The train was a nice set-up of newer front-line power: C45ACCTE No. 7729 (note: GE’s designation for these locos is ES44AC) and SD70M No. 3838 (flared radiator, clean nose), plus a remote helper on the rear, C45ACCTE No 7773. In between were 48 cars of mixed freight. The engineer responded to my wave with a friendly honk.
The train came to a brief halt at Cisco siding (that’s one seriously deserted ghost town, by the way!), and the scanner was indicating Amtrak was out ahead of it somewhere, so I was hopeful that I could beat the freight to the overpass at Westwater. A slow road and a missed turn ensured that I would not get there in time, but a later check of mileage showed that I never had a chance so long as the train kept moving. But at the time I didn’t know this. Meanwhile I heard a call from the dispatcher to “Amtrak One Five Six”. This number jogged my memory, and a quick web search confirmed my suspicion: this was one of the Heritage units! I flew back down the Harley Dome road hoping to beat Amtrak to Westwater. Parking, I grabbed gear and found high ground just east of the bridge. And waited. Nothing. I cursed my luck at missing the heritage unit and shuffled around for a bit, until suddenly the signals at the west switch of the siding lit up. Hurriedly I climbed a rock and readied the camera… and realize that I was hearing the howl of dynamics from… the west! This wasn’t right. But sure enough, coming down the hill to the west was a freight train with two yellow motors on the front. I figured I had caught the manifest after all, until it got closer and I saw that it was actually the Potash Turn, returning to the barn. It must have been right behind the manifest. Well, I photographed it for the umpteenth time and tried to be philosophical about missing Amtrak and the MROGJ (as the freight turned out to be).
As the Potash train disappeared around the curve to my east, I suddenly had a realization: did he take the siding? Quickly reviewing my photos I found that the Potash had indeed gone into the hole. (Westwater is a long siding and the train would easily fit in it while being well out of my sight.) Only one reason to take a siding in this area. I found another high spot and waited for whatever was coming.
Twelve minutes later I heard horns blow for the switch to the east, and a moment later a red-and-black nose came around the corner. It was Amtrak No. 5 with the heritage unit! My patience (and fortuitous observation) had paid off. My position was great for lighting and backdrop, and I shot a long sequence of photos as the unusually-classy train whipped past me and on up the grade to the west. The train also featured a California coach, just behind the trailing locomotive and ahead of the baggage, no doubt being transported out to Cali.
After this rush, I decided to go see what was around the curve. Driving under the tracks and down the road to the east, I found an interesting tandem of equipment on Westwater’s house track: a small Burro crane and an old D&RGW maintenance-of-way flatcar. The burro wore a UP shield, but the flatcar was unbesmirched. There was some sort of track replacement going on with the house track (a section was missing) but nobody was working, it being Sunday. I took photos all around, then drove further down to see what was going on at the ranger station by the river. I had barely gotten parked when I noticed headlights through the trees to the east, coming fast! I hurriedly turned the car and flew back to the overpass so I could get the light at my back, making it with only seconds to spare as a westbound BNSF train hustled by on the fill above me. Splicing the two BNSF ES44’s was a strange-looking gray locomotive with yellow-and-blue dazzle stripes on the nose, lettered for CITIRAIL. Other than that it was a fairly conventional trackage-rights train, without any rear DPU power.
In the space of 45 minutes I went from disappointment to elation. This was turning out to be one of the best railfan days I’d ever had. By now I was really starting to feel the fatigue, and the weather was trending towards chilly. I decided to get a hotel for the night instead of doing more camping. Priceline got me one for $33, so I headed towards Grand Junction. With a reservation in hand no time pressure, I checked out the depot and orbited the railyard until the light gave out. There wasn’t a lot of activity—a single AC4400 was pushing around a string of empty aluminum hoppers, and I thought I’d discovered another westbound freight leaving the yard until it stopped and pushed back into a different track. At least this had some interesting EMD power on it, a “triclops” SD60 and another nice SD70M. But the sun was down and I was tired and hungry. Off I trundled to Pablo’s for a pizza, then crashed at the hotel. I was pretty sure by now that the following day it would be time to head home. The late-winter storm was coming back around and I was feeling pretty satisfied with the way this trip had gone.
Well, come next morning it seemed inexcusable not to make a last run at bagging Amtrak No. 6, assuming it was running on time. It was. I decided that the curve at Palisade was just the place, so I headed east and found a spot right at the I-70 bridge over the Colorado. Headed that way, though, I passed a BNSF freight holding in the siding at Palisade. It was likely waiting for Amtrak to pass, but one never knows unless one has the right channels in one’s scanner, which I did not. Well, after a bit the Amtrak horns sounded for the grade in Palisade, and shortly the Zephyr rounded the curve. Today the power included a resurrected P40 behind the leader. A few minutes later the BNSF train made its appearance, and here was a surprise. The power was the exact same trio as the previous evening’s westbounder. But there was an additional unit, an ancient SD wearing SSRX marks. [From what I can gather, this is a former MILW SD10, rebuilt, and has changed hands several times.] Feeling satisfied, I walked back to the car and headed west on River Road, only to get completely surprised by an eastbound Union Pacific freight! I dove for the narrow shoulder and struggled a little too long with the lens cap. As things turned out, the power on this train was the same SD70M/SD60M power that I had seen switching in the yard the previous evening. All EMD power on a mainline freight—one does not often see this in Colorado, not since the days of the Rio Grande.
The trip was winding down, but I wanted to take one last look in the yard before I left. Pulling into an open area north of the tracks and near the tower, I spotted a pair of geeps switching the east yard. These two repaints turned out to be nothing less than a pair of former Rio Grande GP40-2’s—the 3100 and 3111 (now UP 1350 and 1363). I had last seen the 1363 almost exactly 30 years before, wearing its original black-and-gold paint and working as the rear helper on a CSDPU coal train coming down the Moffat. Time flies, but it was great to see an old acquaintance still working—even if for new masters.
Stalling around due to hearing certain chatter on the scanner, I eventually watched a North Fork coal train creep up from the west, change crews, and creep out onto the siding headed east. This underpowered train was set up as 2+1, including a patched Espee AC4400 running second. After comparing numbers, I discovered that I had seen this exact same trainset in the yard the previous evening, only empty. During the night they had gone out to one of the North Fork mines, loaded, and returned.
The Plan, modified as it was, had worked out magnificently. It was time to call it a day. I got lunch, got underway, and got home with a camera full of images and a head full of memories. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have to do it again sometime.
© 2014, James R. Griffin. All rights reserved.