BNSF Action near Gallup

Railfanning the Transcon


On September 11, 2010,  I took a day trip to Gallup, NM to photograph the rail action in the area.  This trip was somewhat of a tribute (and apology) to Jim Thomas, an acquaintance who passed away in December 2009.  I had intended to make this trip with him but never got it done prior to his passing.  So, Jim, here's to you, buddy.

Gallup has been a division point on the AT&SF transcontinental main line for a very long time.  It's a railroad town, to be sure.  These days, BNSF runs a hundred or so trains through here every day.  For a railfan, it's shooting fish in a barrel.  Fortunately, the landscape east and west of town ranks high on the scenic scale, and the old Route 66 gives close access to many trackside locations.

The main downside to this area these days is the increasing monotony of the rail traffic.  Now that BNSF has matured for 15 years, the variety of paint schemes has dwindled dramatically, as have the actual locomotive models.  Nearly all power is in GE's C44DC family, increasingly ES44DC's in the New Image scheme.  Trains are primarily intermodal, mostly stackers, to the point where a freight is something to be chased for miles, and a coal train is something to get really excited about!  (Quite a contrast to the UP lines in Colorado, where anything not coal warrants dozens of photos...)

First I visited the east side of town, and points beyond. 

As I arrived, an eastbound freight was doing some switching at the east end of the yard.  It had a quartet of GE's on the point.  They pulled east a quarter mile, then pushed back, then repeated the process.  I couldn't see what they were picking up, but shortly the train was reassembled.

Note that there is a single New Image unit in the consist, two H2's, and an H1. This was unusual in the wedge-dominated landscape I saw most of the day.

The trailing unit, C44-9W No. 1037, was the only H1 unit I saw this day.  Note the air conditioner unit behind the cab.  I've seen plenty of Warbonnet units with their AC units replaced by orange ones; now I know where one of the silver ones went!
An eastbound intermodal train had been changing crews downtown.  I headed east and waited for it at Wingate. It showed up at 10:05 AM.

I managed to capture the red sandstone cliffs in the background-- these stretch east of Gallup for many miles, and are strikingly beautiful  One of my favorite shots for the day.  No. 7830 is a new ES44DC from General Electric.

Here's an art shot as the train passed, showing the Fire Rocks in the background.  The train had a typical block of double-stack cars up front; the rear half eas piggyback trailers.

As it passed me, the train began slowing, and came to a stop with the tail end only a half-mile beyond me.  I had heard the word "Amtrak" on the scanner and figured it probably had something to do with this.

Here the train is stopped on the superelevated curve just west of County Road 27 (Perea Road). In the distance to the east was another waiting train, also on the south track, facing this one. Somebody was going to have to move...

The logical explanation was that the dispatcher was clearing the north track so Amtrak could run around these guys.

Here's the other train, 7874 West, waiting at Perea.  There's a crossover between the two, which is why they were positioned thus.  This was a doublestack train with a block of auto racks on the rear.
And here's the reason for all the maneuvers.  Amtrak train No. 4, the eastbound Southwest Chief, splits the signals at Perea at 79 mph.  It is amazing how little noise this train made.  I was 100 feet away and could barely hear it.  Something to keep in mind.

I am told that BNSF is "addicted to Amtrak's on-time bonus".  They certainly treated the train as top priority in this case.

As soon as Amtrak cleared, 7830 East throttled up and moved out, crossed over to the north iron, and went on its way.

I told you the scenery was good out here.  It had been a wet year and things were surprisingly green for September.

With the 7830 out of the way, it was 7874 West's turn. Here they are crossing Perea Road.  This train had one H2 C44-9W sandwiched between a pair of ES44DC's.
Here are some of the racks on the end of the train.  I'm a fan of auto racks, and there was quite a variety here, including a couple of old BN racks. Others included Norfolk Southern (in two schemes), Ferromex, UP, CN, and possibly others.
Headed back towards Gallup, I encountered 7469 East again, which had finished switching and was out on the road.  I was standing in the tall sunflowers holding the camera over my head to get this, and even so I couldn't clear the foreground clutter.  Oh well, the flowers were pretty anyway...

Back in town, I tried without much success to find a good vantage to view the service areas.  It is difficult to find such a place without becoming a target of either the glaanies or of the rent-a-cops.  The old depot has good parking and a distant view of the area, but not very good photographic opportunities.

While maneuvering to find a good vantage to shoot a parked eastbound freight, the gates came down and I got trapped in traffic.  Worst luck of the whole day-- the consist included a Union Pacific SD70M (phase I).  By the time the train got past us, I knew I'd never be able to catch it, so I turned west instead.

Backlit, with foreground clutter, while stuck in traffic... sometimes, you just have to take what life hands you.  Here, UP's SD70M No. 4530 is working off mileage on the BNSF transcon.  It's the second of three units on an eastbound freight.  This unit was delivered in November 2001.
After a fruitless wait by a grade crossing some eight miles west of Gallup, I got on I-40 west, headed for SR 118.  This exit turned out to be closed for construction, trapping me on the highway all the way to Arizona!  Of course, about one mile before the next exit, I passed an eastbound stack train.  The tracks had diverged too far for a rolling photo, and there was nowhere to stop...
I had given up on the train, when a 2-unit rear DPU helper hove into view.  By now the highway and tracks had converged, allowing me this over-the-shoulder shot out the passenger window.  At a combined relative speed of about 130 MPH, I was pretty happy with the result!  Keep in mind that you are looking at the rear of the train, not the front.
After a turnaround at the first exit, at Lupton, AZ, I was able to catch the rear of the train before it hit Gallup.  Here the same DPU pair as above are rolling along at about 65 MPH.  It's my only pacing shot of this essay.
At West Gallup I caught the head end, as they were slowing for the yard.  ES44DC 7867 was leading two sisters and a C44-9W in H2.
Here the 7867 East met a westbound, with C44-9W's 5088 and 5218 up front.  This train also had a pair of ES44's on the rear, which was an unusual balance of power, so to speak.

On the Transcon, barring something highly unusual, you will see a LOT of trains in a short time. If you have a few hours to spare, you can get your fill of railfanning in a hurry. Even though the variety wasn't much, the beautiful setting and the intensely-active operations are plenty to hold your interest.

A final observation, related to the date I took these photos, September 11th:  If the goal of Al Qaeda was to halt American commerce, the traffic levels here indicate that they have failed.  Miserably.


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  2010, James R. Griffin.  All rights reserved.