North Fork Action

Railfanning in Western Colorado


Union Pacific's North Fork subdivision in Colorado is a lively little line for such an isolated branch.  Originally part of the Denver & Rio Grande (Western), the portions between Montrose and Grand Junction were built in 1882 as narrow gauge and were part of the railroad's main line across Colorado.  The eastern spur to Somerset was built later, in 1902, also narrow gauge, although all these sections were converted to standard gauge by 1906.  The Somerset branch was built to reach coal deposits, and coal has been the mainstay of the line ever since.

From the 1990s forward, the North Fork has seen increasing coal tonnage, to the point where Union Pacific commenced a major capital project to beef up the line.  Rails were replaced and some sidings extended to handle the ever-growing coal traffic.  In 2006 a new bypass was built at Delta which realigned the main track with the Somerset line, eliminating a tight 120-degree turn on the downtown wye .  Now, coal trains sail through Delta with nary a pause.

The sub does host a once-a-week local freight train.  This train leaves Grand Junction every Friday morning, and typically returns either Saturday or Sunday (lately it has been Sunday).  The train switches the grain elevator at Delta as well as various online customers, notably at least two building products dealers and a pulpwood shipping customer in Montrose.  The local is the only traffic on the tracks between Delta and Montrose.  The train is typically powered by a pair of GP40-series locomotives or something similar (6-axle power is prohibited on the Montrose line), and can consist of up to 40-odd cars.

I have photographed trains on the line a few times in the past decade, but in April 2010 we decided to make a special visit just to follow the local across the line.  Arriving a day early gave us time to sample the coal traffic as well, plus time to scout out a couple of locations.

Day One- April 15, 2010

We had the afternoon to play with, and heard an eastbound receiving a track warrant from Grand Junction at about 3:30, so I decided to head to the Escalante bridge for photos.  It turned out to be a pretty long wait-- the train was slow getting out of town.  We roamed around the flats along the river bottom, and saw a few interesting sights.

I couldn't decide on a caption for this photo.  The top finalists included:
  • "Drinking will kill you."
  • "Always pack sufficient water when hiking in the desert."
  • "Now, that's one seriously dehydrated deer..."

When our dog found this, she was probably thinking, "Woohoo!  All the bones in the world are right here!"


Finally, at 5:48 PM, the train made its appearance, with a quartet of UP GE's on the point.  The late time made the sun angle problematic for photos without a lens hood, so I apologize for the lens flare here...
Now heading past the boat "ramp", the light is better and the train looks nice...
There were about 100 of these aluminum hoppers in the train, mixed between about 4 different reporting marks.
After the train passed, we headed back towards Roubideau siding.  The train beat us there, but they had to stop to align the switch for the siding.  A westbound coal load was on its way, and our train took the siding for the meet.  I thought the backlighting was an appropriate time for black-and-white.

Switches on North Fork sidings are aligned manually, so each crew must ensure of proper setting when they reach them.

Here the power is past the midpoint of the siding, moving along at perhaps 20 mph.  I really liked the distance perspective of the ridges in the background.

Incidentally, forget your French phonetics when pronouncing this location.  The dispatchers and train crews say it "Roo-bee-doo".  I was looking for Frank Sinatra to start singing "Roo-bee-doobeedoo..."

Very soon, the westbound showed up, with a pair of AC4400's on the front, 100 cars of coal in aluminum hoppers behind...
... and this lone ex- SP AC4400 remoted on the rear.   Using remotes is a fairly recent practice on the North Fork, and is used primarily for train control (2 units can handle it for power, but braking is an issue).


Day Two- April 16, 2010

The primary goal of this day was to follow the local, whose departure from Grand Junction could be any time after 6:30 AM.  As things turned out, they didn't actually get out of town until about 9:00 AM, so we had time for a decent breakfast.  We headed for Bridgeport, which is reached by a decent but winding gravel road.  For those who haven't been there, Bridgeport is the second siding east of Grand Junction, has a talking detector (MP 30.1), and is about a rail mile east of Bridgeport tunnel, the only tunnel on the branch.  The tracks are on the east side of the river, up against the cliffs for the most part.  There is a small ridge right alongside the tracks to the west which blocks most of your intermediate view in that direction, so we climbed it and hiked down to a decent overlook.  This ridge is completely covered in volcanic rock of varying shades.

First sighting: the train exits Bridgeport tunnel.  This tunnel is shorter than most you'll find, although it's sufficient for anything that runs on this branch.  Crews say that they always feel like ducking when approaching the portal...
The local today has a pair of SP alumni for power, and thirty cars entrained behind.
This place is scenic, I tell you.  The river was quite high from spring runoff.
Here you get an appreciation of our viewing perch.  We were careful of our step, believe me!

UP 1534 is the former SP 7299, a common sight in Colorado for years.  UP 1373 is a complete repaint, formerly SP 7601. This unit was originally SP 3198, one of three GP40P-2 s that SP used in commuter service in San Francisco. It is 3' 6" longer than a standard GP40 and has a squared-end long hood where the steam generator was located.

The train has the usual grain hoppers up front for the elevator at Delta, thirteen pulpwood gons at the rear, and a mix of tanks, flats, and a boxcar in the middle.

Here the train is passing the west switch of Bridgeport.  There's also a trestle over a small wash right about where the engines are, but you can't really see it in the photo.

Going away view of the entire train.  Note the two MP gondolas on the tail.  These are headed for Montrose for scrap-collection.
Roo-bee-doobeedoo...  I really wanted to photograph the train crossing the river on the twin-span truss bridge west of Roubideau, but it took us too long to hike back from our spot at Bridgeport, and the train beat us by several minutes.  All I could get was some quick shots from the hillside above Roubideau creek.

We headed over to Delta proper from here to watch the switching.  The train pulled up short of the switch to the Montrose branch and dropped the entire train save for the four empty covered hoppers on the head end.

The crew brought the four empties up to the grain elevator spur and dropped them on the main.
Here the crew has gone into the spur and pulled out the waiting loads.  They then backed onto the empties, pulled them forward and pushed them onto the elevator spur and dropped them there.  They then pushed the loads back down the main to where they had left the rest of the train.
Here's a close-up of the long hood of the GP40P-2, during the switching at the elevator.  Note the strange flared radiators and the lengthened boxy hood.  There were only three of these built for Southern Pacific, and only two remain in service on the UP.
After reassembling the train, the crew align the switch for the Montrose branch.  All the track in the foreground is the new bypass track built in 2006.  The original main track is the one leading to our left.  Formerly, the line to Somerset/Paonia came off the tail track to the wye.  The track between the elevator and the wye has been torn out (not sure if the wye is still in place or not).
Here the train proceeds onto the Montrose branch.
And here, the power is crossing over the Uncompaghre River in Delta.  All the rivers were flowing strongly from snowmelt.
They faked us out here.  Rather than heading south, the train first did a bunch of switching in Delta.  Here they dropped all the tank cars and the grain loads.  They rebuilt with only a lone covered hopper, a BNSF box, a centerbeam flatcar load, the pulpwood gons, and the two MP gons.

Then, they pulled up to the Stockyards restaurant and stopped for lunch.  Only the engineer remained with the train.

We got impatient, and I heard a coal train leaving Roubideau so we went back down by the Wendy's and watched this eastbounder roll through town.

We were starting to run out of time and the local was still parked for lunch, so we headed to Montrose to visit the Russell Stover factory store.  Afterwards, we came back north to see if they'd moved yet.  We ended up locating the train in downtown Olathe, purely by guess and luck.

The train had been parked in the center of town, possibly switching out the BNSF box (not sure where they left it, but it had been with them when they left Montrose).
Going-away shot, and we can see some of the historic structures in Olathe, as well as the agricultural shipping boxes stacked beyond the tracks.
A few miles southeast, the train is approaching Montrose.
Crossing Jay Jay road, the train is moving at track speed (20 MPH) but would shortly come to a sudden halt by the east switch of the lumber dealer here.  Given the abruptness, I wondered if the switch were misaligned.

The area provides incredibly scenic backdrops for photographing the action.

Unfortunately, our schedule didn't permit us to wait any longer, so we missed them switching the pulpwood spur.  That track had about nine loaded cars, plus a pair of gondolas full of metal scrap.  Judging by the piles of chips, they're a very active shipper.

There's a lot to see on the North Fork.  The scenery never ends in the canyon west of Delta, and there is a pleasant mix of sights to the east.  There is a dramatic horseshoe curve climb just east of Austin (though we were unable to find a good vantage point for photos), and the mine loadouts are all easily photographed.  It's never too long a wait for a train, especially if you don't mind driving a little.  The weekly local to Montrose offers something different than the routine coal trains.  And, there is history everywhere.  These tracks have been here for 130 years, and many old structures are still to be found.  I'll be back.


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2010, James R. Griffin.  All rights reserved.