Central New Mexico ~ 2002

Transcon through Abo Canyon, and the Golden State Route

In July 2002, I had the opportunity to do some solo railfanning around central New Mexico.  There are two transcontinental routes that pass through the area-- the BNSF Chicago-to-Los Angeles (formerly AT&SF) mainline-- the Transcon, and Union Pacific's Golden State Route between Chicago and El Paso (formerly Southern Pacific). The lines actually cross each other at Vaughn, in east-central New Mexico.  I was staying in a tent at Belen while my family was at camp in Mountainair, so I wanted to do some hunting in that general vicinity.

Day One

I had never photographed the Golden State Route north of Alamogordo, so this was my first target.  After dropping off the passengers at Mountainair, I headed south-east for Corona.  After grabbing a snack at the only convenience store in town, I headed out along the side roads near the tracks.  Great views; great access.  Just no trains.  The scanner was picking up nothing but lightning strikes.

I decided to head further south, so I saddled up and headed along U.S. 54 towards Ancho.  I prowled around there for a bit, admiring the double-track grade through ranchland and hills, track totally devoid of rail activity.  Finally I got feeling too conspicuous prowling around this diminutive hamlet (mind you, I was driving a big blue Ford Club Van, lettered for our church!).  So, I went back to the highway and headed south towards Carrizozo.  And immediately passed a train going the other way!

It's hard to turn a Club Van on a dime, but I managed to come about and catch up with this northbound stack train.  Terrible light, too distant.  Not an auspicious start for the trip.
After arriving at Carrizozo, I had some pizza, then looked around to the south end of town.  I was nosing around by the tracks, looking at a cut of parked autoracks, when a southbound (track west) stack train came flying out of town.
No Espee gray in any of these trains-- the route has been assimilated into UP now.  Note the nice rain clouds that kept making photography difficult...
Headed south towards Alamogordo, El Paso, and points west...

I decided that the Golden State would have to wait for another day; it was getting late and I had a long ways to drive back to Belen.  I took a shortcut on NM (SR) 55 from roughly Ancho to Mountainair.  Now, I'm used to living in a big empty state, but this sixty-two miles was the loneliest stretch of highway I have ever driven-- bar none.  There is nothing out there.  I don't recommend it if you're by yourself.

I finally made it back to civilization, such as it was, and went west on US 60.  No trains on the BNSF this evening, either, which was strange.  Finally I climbed over the last ridge and headed down towards the crossing at Deckers, and lo and behold, there was a train exiting the canyon!  Finally.  I parked near the crossing and set up.

First out: a westbound TOFC train.  It wasn't making much speed, so it was easy to get several decent shots.
 The Sandias are visible in the background as the train pulls even.  I'm looking roughly north here.
Another train was not far behind, and I crossed the tracks to take its portrait.  The sun was getting quite low by now.  The notch in the hills beyond is where Abo Canyon splits the highlands, and is how the railroad gets in and out of the valley.

The end of the day was a marked improvement.  I headed for the campground feeling hopeful for the morrow.

Day Two

Today's plan was to hike into Abo Canyon area, east of Belen.  This is the Santa Fe's traditional transcontinental mainline (now BNSF), and it passes through some pretty spectacular terrain.  Most of the transcon route is double-track, but for a few miles in Abo Canyon there's just not enough room, and as a result there's a single-track chokepoint  between Sais and Scholle.  The elevation changes from about  5,450' at Sais to 5,760' at Scholle, climbing 310' in just 5 miles-- a ruling grade of 1.25 percent.  There are seven bridges in this stretch, making for interesting photographic opportunities.

I couldn't find any sensible way in from the west, so I went to the east end of the canyon, where the highway overpass crosses the rails.  I've been in the dry country long enough to know that you always take plenty of water and wear boots, broad-brim hat, long pants, and long sleeves-- even in July.  This is no place to try to get a tan.

I was barely out of the van when this TOFC train crept out of the canyon.
 One of my favorite photos of the whole trip, right here.  I'm sure glad that BNSF removed the powerlines that formerly crossed this scene!
 We're going about 5 mph here.  That was OK, though; more time to enjoy the view.
 ... and here's why the slow speed: a westbound was waiting at the switch just beyond the underpass.  Here's its silhouette.  It was heavy with the new slab-sided white BNSF autorack cars.
After this I began my hike.  The dog and I followed the grade until I found a way to get above it.  And none too soon-- an eastbound stacker makes a pretty picture as it climbs past our location.
 Same place, different train: a westbound manifest with coil cars and the aforementioned autoracks comes down the hill.  Too bad about the backlighting.
 It was a veritable parade this Friday morning.  The fifth train of the morning crosses the 7th Abo Canyon bridge as I photograph it from above.  I enjoyed the ATSF SD40-2 in the middle of the consist.
A sixth train went by as I worked my way down the hill.  Still looking at bridge No. 7 here.
After going around the far side of the left-hand hill in the photo above, I came out at bridge No. 6, situated at the end of a deep cut.  Here's train number seven as it passes the cut.
The train heads across the bridge.  A couple of BN SD40-2's are in the mix today...
 ... and so is an AT&SF GP30, No. 2449.  Very nice to see such a relic still in use.  Also note the GE cabless U-boat just ahead.
I climbed up the hill for a different look, and watched this eastbound stack train as it crossed the bridge.  It was well-powered, making good speed up the steep hill with a long train of containers.

(By the way, there were the most amazing millipedes on top of this hill.  As big around as my pinkie and at least 9" long!)

Here's the revenue portion of the train.  The landscape is really worth seeing in here.  Unfortunately, I hear that BNSF has posted "No Trespassing" at both ends of the canyon, so it's probably not advisable to attempt this hike now.  I was about 1.25 miles below where I'd parked, though I had had to walk in anything but a straight line!
After hiking back (the parade was over, evidently) I drove up towards Mountainair.  About 4 miles short of the town, I stopped to shoot this eastbound.
 This is an SD75M, originally Santa Fe and now sub-lettered BNSF.  Even though I'm basically a Rio Grande fan, I give the best locomotive paint scheme award to the red-and-silver warbonnet of the Santa Fe.
 I turned around and headed back to Belen, and caught this eastbound manifest train just a couple miles from Scholle.
 Back in Belen, I stopped by the old AT&SF depot, adjacent to the yard.  The engine terminal was a very busy place.
 Another GP30, No. 2406, is switching the yard.  Two in one day in 2002 was a pretty good day, I thought.


The following morning I went back to Mountainair to pick up the campers.  The previous evening it had rained buckets.  As I pulled over to shoot a train east of Scholle, the club van sank into the mud on the shoulder.  Deep trouble!  Fortunately there was a ranch gate just behind and below me, so I was able to let gravity work for me and roll/slip/slide down to the relative firmness of the gravel road, and escape.  Otherwise I might still be there...  Ah, the joys of solo railfanning.

The latest word is that BNSF is planning on double-tracking this section of track, a project requiring a great deal of earthwork as well as construction of seven new parallel bridges.  As of November 2005, the environmental and engineering studies were essentially complete, and the railroad was making plans to begin work.  (See here for more details.)  Even with the continuing 40 mph speed restrictions, removing the Abo bottleneck will greatly enhance operations on the Transcon.  All of which makes me glad I got these photos when I did.

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2005, James R. Griffin.  All rights reserved.