Contemporary Colorado Coal Trains


Over the past couple of years, I've photographed coal trains at a number of locations around Colorado.  To be sure, one has to look hard to find much besides coal trains in the state, but I've come to love these massive rolling stockpiles of coal.  It turns out that there really is a lot of variety to them; you just have to look closely!  This page has representative photos from a couple of locations in the western part of the state, from the Moffat line, and from the Joint Line.  It seemed like a good time to share the results with everyone, so here they are.

Winter Park sees as much coal train action as anywhere west of Denver.  It's a dramatic place for it, too.  The west portal of the Moffat Tunnel is located at the top of a 2-percent grade that climbs through a wooded valley.  The area receives a lot of snow in wintertime, making possible the enormous Winter Park Ski Resort (and associated condominia).  The Ski Train's route terminated here until 2009, and Amtrak has a station down in Fraser, so there has a significant passenger train presence as well.

Here are views of coal trains on two different days, one at the tunnel and the other a couple of miles downhill at the town of Winter Park.

February 10th, 2002, finds me standing atop the water tunnel's face, as a loaded coal train rumbled up the grade and into the tunnel.  On the point was a Southern Pacific AC4400, No. 252, and two mates.
Nearly all loaded coal trains on this line use remote swing helpers.  Here we have AC4400 No. 163 and UP SD9043MAC No. 8243 cut in mid-train and pushing for all they're worth.  By now, with most of the train on the lesser 1.1% grade in the tunnel, speed has picked up from about 10 mph to closer to 20 mph.  Incidentally, since the SP 100-series AC4400s are not DPU-capable, the 8243 must be the controlling unit in this pair.
The rear help consists of a pair of AC4400s (actually, the UP unit is designated a C44AC, but it's essentially the same hardware).  SP No. 148 is also not rigged for DPU, so the UP unit is the controller in this pair.  Now the train is up to a majestic 25 mph.  Long after it disappeared into the tunnel, a significant amount of noise and vibration could still be detected.  By the way, that made for a total of seven locomotives on this train...


Nearly three years later, December 29th of 2004, we were down in the town of Winter Park, and I was waiting at the grade crossing for an empty coal train that had been following us (on the Ski Train).  It took its time getting past the west switch of Winter Park siding, but it finally showed up.  All yellow power on the point today except for one patched Southern Pacific unit on the back; No. 6455 has the honors.
It's a little hard to get a decent exposure here, especially when the ground is covered in snow, the sky is white like the ground but not sunny, and you're on the wrong side of the shadows anyway.  I guess I should switch to digital for situations like this...  And I wonder, what the payments are on the house visible up there in the background?
A little closer, now.   I guess even UP locomotives get dirty in this service!
Here we have a look at the profit-center portion of the train.  Today it's a mostly-matched set of aluminum gondolas with home-road markings.  Empty, of course, as are all westbound coal trains at Winter Park.


Glenwood Canyon has been a railroad gateway for over a century.  We had the good fortune to be staying with some friends in the canyon east of Glenwood Springs during the summer of '03.  On the morning in late June we sat out on the deck and watched the show as several trains rolled by.

The first train was an eastbound empty coal train of aluminum hoppers, let by SD90MAC No. 8533  (note: not a 9043MAC) and C60AC No. 7026.  It cruised by at a goodly clip, being empty and on the downgrade.  It wasn't a full-length train, but I was still a little surprised not to see more locomotives up front-- usually Union Pacific returns locos on empty trains for its power needs in the Grand Junction area.  Considering we had two 6,000 HP locomotives, though, this train was amply powered for an empty.  (The 8533 was sent back to EMD when its lease expired in March 2006.)
After a short wait, an eastbound load rumbled past, led by a mix of SP and UP power (C44AC No. 6823 and SP AC4400 No. 107-- a non-DPU-equipped unit).  Here the train's coming around the curves into No Name.  I didn't realize at the time that it was twilight for unpatched SP locomotives; most of the AC4400s would begin receiving yellow UP patches and numbers within a very short time.
Here's a black-and-white look.  This was taken with the B&W film that uses the C41 process like most color print film.  Not the greatest product if you're used to high-quality B&W, but it scans up nicely for the Internet...
Being a loaded train, it had the obligatory swing power.  SD9043MAC No. 8065 and C44AC No. 7186.
Finally, the rear power comes along, facing backwards-- SD9043 No. 8091 and a patched C&NW unit, now wearing UP No. 6713.

 (Personally, the DPU arrangement makes for loco configurations that look just plain wrong-- take, for example, when two units are coupled nose-to-nose!  I know it doesn't matter from a mechanical standpoint, but it still bugs me... :-)    )

The following day, we headed over McClure pass and through the Paonia area.  The now-UP operates a branch line that reaches from Grand Junction through Delta and out past Paonia to Somerset.  It's basically a coal-only line (except for a weekly local that server Delta and Montrose).  Since it's basically all downhill from Somerset to Grand Junction, it simplifies train operations: empties uphill, loads downhill, means light locomotive requirements.  In most cases, a pair of AC locomotives on the head end is all that is required.  Of course, this makes it interesting when trains come into East Yard at Grand Junction, since the track eastbound encounters a nearly 1% grade.  Suddenly the two locomotives have to struggle quite a bit to move a train of 105 loaded hoppers.  Being in the cab is quite the experience as you bounce and shake around!  But I digress from the trip report.

As we passed through Somerset, there was a coal train just finishing its loading process.  I pulled over and photographed it as it began rolling away from the mine loadout.  This is the loadout for the West Elk mine.
The train's progress was extremely slow coming down the valley, giving me ample time to get lost on side roads and photograph the Bowie loadout sans trains.  Even so, I found my way back to the highway in plenty of time to catch the front end of the train as it curved under the highway.  Here it's just past Bowie and headed towards the underpass, led by a pair of AC4400s, Nos. 138 and 158.
Here's a B&W close-up of the cab of No. 138 as it nears the bridge.  Sometimes there's nothing like a nice, sharp monochrome photo for details, right?  Truth is, the camera I was using for B&W had a fixed-length telephoto lens on it and this was my only option!  Oh well, I still like it.  The SP 100-series AC4400s are right at home on this branch, since no remote helpers are required.


On a trip down I-25 on May 9, 2004, we passed a southbound BNSF coal train near Fountain, on the Joint Line.  We got ahead of it and I pulled off at a grade crossing south of the Nixon powerplant.

Here's a telephoto look, with Cheyenne Mountain in the background.  We're on the southbound track, which is the one owned by the AT&SF prior to the BNSF merger.
As the train approaches at about 60 mph, we see two SD70s on the head end, still in the BN corporate cream scheme.  No. 9779 leads No. 9464.
Here I'm standing on the shoulder of the ballast as the train rushes by.  This is a thrilling (meaning, scary) experience, and probably not all that safe.  After all, if the train chose this moment to go on the ground, or throw a chunk of coal, I would have no chance at all.
OK, let me explain: the train is actually going away from me in this photo!  Honestly, I'm not crazy enough to attempt his with an oncoming train.  Not nice to the engineers, for one thing...  There was another pair of SD70s on the rear end, also in the green-and-cream scheme.  No. 9592 is Tail-end Charlie today.


On November 8th, 2004, we went for an afternoon hike at Crescent, which is located west of Denver on the Moffat line.  On this date in 1981 my parents and I had been aboard the Rio Grande Zephyr, returning from Glenwood Springs.  Twenty-three years later, less one day, my father passed away, and this outing was in his memory.

There's a grade crossing that provides access to this remote location, and we hiked west along the track to a point just east of tunnel 19.  On the scanner I heard an eastbound train coming down the mountain, so we set up on the cut beyond Crescent's west switch and waited.

The train was very slow in coming.  Something had broken a dragging-equipment board down at Plain siding, so the dispatcher instructed this train to pull up short of Crescent and wait.  Here it is, finally emerging from tunnel 19 at about 5 mph.  The sun was mostly behind the ridge by now, leaving the track in shadow.
The train was led by a good-looking set of UP C44AC locomotives, albeit rather grimy.  No. 6316, actually the repainted Southern Pacific No. 271, has wings (and the lightning stripe on the side) ...
... and No.  5870 is a flag unit.  In an age of aluminum-body unit trains, the train itself was a pleasing mix of older steel hoppers with many different roads represented: UP, BN, D&RGW, MoPac, C&NW, and perhaps others.
Here the lead unit enters the cut.  Notice the new slide-detection fence to the left.  This is a fairly recent installation at this location.  Fences protect both sides of the cut, although the one on the left is much taller.
Here's a look as the train comes to a stop.  You can see my shadow up on the opposite wall, along with my wife and daughter (that's her head in the lower left).  The flag image is quite striking up-close, and seems to be an actual photo (digitized) rather than an artistic rendering.  UP began applying this scheme shortly after 9-11.
Here you can see the signal at the west end of Crescent.  We're looking roughly NNE here.  The high yellow light is for the main track.  You can also see more of the slide-detection fence, which projects over the track.
The conductor had time to kill, and is having a smoke (keeping the cig outside the cab, though-- considerate fellow).  I chatted with him and mentioned that their approach was pretty slow.  He said that, with the order to hold at Crescent, there was no real rush to get there.
Look closely and you'll see some electrical humor here: someone has written "E = I R" in the grime on the electrical cabinet.  For those who don't know, this is the equation for Ohm's Law, basic to all things electrical.
The light began to fail, so we headed back to the car.  As we were midway around the curve, the train started moving, and I got this sequence of photos as it rolled by.  Here the train comes into view...
... and here it's curving past us on the main track.  There was a major rail-replacement project on this line during the summer of 2004, and new hardware was in evidence everywhere.  The sun was nearly down by this point.
A few minutes later, the tail end hove into view.  It was a pair of ex-SP AC4400s, wearing yellow patches.  I didn't get the number of the first one, but the trailer is now wearing No. 6390.  In the time it took the train to pass, the sun went below the horizon.
Twilight is long in the Rockies, and we had time to beat the train back down the mountain.  We went up Blue Mountain road and found a spot where you can overlook the plains and the Big 10 curves.  Here the same train is stretched out around the curve, and nearly the entire train is visible.  The light was very dim for ASA100 film by now, but through the wonders of Photoshop I was able to make this image acceptable.

Back to the North Fork sub, on Aug 17, 2005 we saw three loaded trains, each with a pair of SP AC4400s for power.  This is the usual locomotive situation here.  By this point in time, most had received patches with UP numbers, but we spotted three that had so far evaded being renumbered.

First train was a few miles east of Delta, alongside Colo. 92.  Two patched ex-Espee units had a full set of steel hoppers of mixed heritage.
 This is the third train, just finishing loading from the West Elk mine up at Somerset.  (The second train had been at Bowie, but I couldn't stop for a photo.)  Here's a pair of unpatched AC4400s, Nos. 144 and 140.
 I crossed the track for a different angle.   The train was slowly creeping at this point.
 Here's an overview, showing more of the train and the valley.  More steel hoppers, loaded to the gills...  The tail end of the train is about a mile up the valley, at the West Elk loadout (it had just completed loading when we got there a couple of minutes later).


Coal trains come in many shapes and sizes in Colorado.  The state has much to offer in the way of scenic opportunities for the railfan, as we all know.  I hope you enjoyed these glimpses, and go out and experience it yourself.

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