Helper, Utah

Last Bastion of Rio Grande Tunnel Motors

Every Rio Grande fan makes a pilgrimage to Helper, Utah, sooner or later.  For decades Helper was the base for helper locomotives shoving westbound trains over the Wasatch range at Soldier Summit.  In the post-merger world of Union Pacific ownership, Helper's original function has dwindled in importance.  UP's move to using Distributed Power in lieu of manned helpers has reduced the population of locomotives based here.  However, all is not lost.  Utah Railway still uses manned helpers;  UP still has need of power for its locals (especially the "Dirt Train", a trash haul to the waste facility at Sunnyside).  Also, after a couple of years of DPU-only, UP went back to the practice of manned helpers on some trains.   The local UP (ex-D&RGW) staff had been unusually successful at hanging onto D&RGW "tunnel motors" (EMD type SD40T-2). Helper was the last place in the country where full sets of Grande TMs could be found.

Helper is located directly at the base of the westbound grade, which follows the Price River canyon up to Soldier Summit.  This is a tortuous hill, with a grade of 2.4% and tight, winding curves.  Southeast of Helper, the line passes through Price and enters the high desert on its way to Grand Junction and points east.  Formerly the main line of the Rio Grande, the track between Price and Grand Junction is now sparsely used, as UP has rerouted most transcontinental traffic to its main line to the north.  The Dirt Train follows the line as far as Mounds (east of Wellington), thence up the Sunnyside Branch to the dump.  There is also an active coal spur (the CV spur, for "Castle Valley") near Wellington.  Additionally, the Utah Rwy brings in a lot of traffic from its lines west and north of Helper.

Note: Many of these photos were updated and brightened considerably, as of Jan 11, 2008-- marked by *.

My pilgrimmage  took place in November 2001.  The goal was to follow the Dirt Train from Helper to Sunnyside, and be opportunistic about whatever else might present itself.  With my book project just getting underway, I was hopeful of getting a few usable photos.  November 10, 2001, found us waking up in Price and preparing for a day of train-chasing.

The Dirt Train is called before 7:00 AM on most days, though it often takes them a while to get going.  We got to the depot at Helper at about 7:15, just in time to see the crew board the power.  Today it consisted of three tunnel motors, all in D&RGW paint: Nos. 5390, 5401, and 5377.
 The locomotives were not coupled to the train yet; the string of 28 flatcars loaded with trash containers was waiting on the adjacent track, having been left by a road freight from Salt Lake the night previous.
* The crew is ready to get on with the day's work.  The sun was just catching the bluffs behind the town, one of the few times this day that any direct sunlight would appear.
 We went around to the east side of the yard to watch the activities.  Here the crew has moved the power down to the yard lead on the south end (railroad east), in preparation for picking up the dirt train.
Here they're bringing the power back toward the train.  We're looking west-southwest.


This is the only direct sunlight on the power that we would get the entire day.  The hoppers in the foreground were some of the few cars spotted in the yard that day.

 Not wanting to miss any road action, we left the yard and followed a secondary road southward along the line, looking for a good photo op.  Between Helper and Price is a cut through a bluff that looked promising, so I set up and waited.

Before long, the train came into view.
The elongated S-curve made for some pretty decent photo opportunities.  I only wished that I'd gotten to this place before the era of ditch lights-- it's just not authentic Rio Grande.  Oh, well...
This photo made it into the book-- a full-page spread, too.  Evidently the layout designers liked it.
Here the train roars past at speed (estimating from memory, about 40 mph).

Next up was to get ahead of the train and beat it to Mounds, the location where the branch line diverges from the main.  Wes was in contact with us by now, and directed us to the correct turn-off.  Mounds is east of Wellington, which is east of Price, which is east of Helper... you get the idea.


There is a significant grade approaching Mounds from the west.  In this view, the head end is just cresting the hill and is preparing to take the switch for the Sunnyside branch.  The view is to the northwest.
Creeping along at about 10 mph, the train approaches the grade crossing with bell ringing.  There's not a lot of traffic on this particular road, thankfully.
* This photo made it into the book as well.  It was a good day for moody photographs.  It was also a good day for under-exposing slides.  Fortunately, this wasn't one of the underexposed shots! *
Swiveling around as the train passes, we catch reflections from the eastern sky and get a better look at the trailing unit, No. 5377.  I should mention at this point that 28 carloads of garbage really don't smell all that good...

We backtracked up the gravel road and caught the train crossing a fill that's a mile or so beyond the junction.  Given the situation with the light, I decided to try for some silhouette shots.  May as well-- there was no light for anything else!

Here's a look at the lead unit, No. 5390, with some very strange clouds behind it.  There was intermittent virga, most of which was gone by the time I got this shot.
You guessed it: another shot that made the book.  It's one of my favorites, though I'm pretty fond of most of these images.
A closer look at No. 5390, as the Book Cliffs come into view ahead of the locomotive.  This unit had been modified somewhat after the SP merger (removed nose light, moved the horn back, etc.) but at least the paint was original.
It looks pretty flat, but actually the branch has a steeper grade than the mainline west of Helper!  Grades approach 3% on the way to Sunnyside.  This photo is looking northeast.

We headed up to Sunnyside to observe the action.  This being a Saturday, the train was to drop its cars in the yard and return light (i.e. locomotives by themselves).  I shot a lot of film that turned out too dark to be usable, and shot a lot of video only to discover later that the tape had broken.  C'est la railfanning...

* We haven't seen much of No. 5401, the middle unit in the consist.  Here's a broadside view.  This is the newest of the three locomotives, belonging to the last batch ordered by the Rio Grande in 1980.  Nos. 5377 and 5390 arrived in 1977 and 1978, respectively.
* After cutting off the cars, the power went east so as to get onto a parallel track.  No. 5390 is still in the lead.


* ECDC Environmental, a subsidiary of Allied Waste Industries, operates the waste facility at Sunnyside.  They operate an SD9 locomotive, No. 4355, originally a Southern Pacific unit.  Yes, the light is terrible from this side.  No, it wasn't any better from the other side, not that I could have gotten over to that side anyway, dern the fences...
* Heading west, the crew has moved to the other end of the consist, and No. 5377 is now the lead unit.  The crew was very friendly, and even gave us a couple of unsolicited runbys.

We decided not to chase the light power back to town, instead driving directly back to Helper to see what was going on.  As we got there, the area around the depot was busy indeed.  A westbound coal train was stopped on the main, and was in the process of cutting in a helper. Several of these photos made it into the book.

* Through the break in the train we discovered a fourth Rio Grande tunnel motor, No. 5371, parked by itself next to the engine shed.
Here the helper set has moved through the crossover and picked up the rear end of the train, and is now moving forward to couple onto the front half.
The conductor guides the engineer to a smooth junction with the rest of the train.  Of course, "smooth" is a relative term when it comes to railroads...
Here's the front-end of the same train.  We had left town and headed up the canyon; we're a few miles past Castle Gate.  Three UP C44AC units have the honors, but given the presence of Utah helpers I'm assuming that it's actually a Utah train (they often borrow UP power).
On that grade, it takes a long time for a loaded coal train to pass.  Here the helper comes into view, blasting diesel exhaust skyward.
A look at the complete helper set reveals four of Utah's MK5000 diesels and two of its SD40 family.  The MK5000s are unique in that they use Caterpillar prime movers.  They sound like motorgraders on steroids-- serious steroids!  They hurt the ears from across the canyon; I can't imagine what it must be like for the crews onboard.  The train is passing through one of the Nolan tunnels.
Exiting the Nolan Tunnels on the uphill side, we see three of the MK5000s.

It being lunchtime and with a couple of hungry (and tired) kids aboard, we headed back to town to get lunch.  The afternoon was spent in a fruitless chase after a BNSF train that we never did see, even though we went clear to the top of the mountain.  Afterwards, we came back to Helper and took some final shots. 

There's a good overlook west of downtown that shows the yards.  Here I've managed to catch the four D&RGW units in town (and exclude the pesky UP power that kept moving past).  One can almost imagine that it's 1981 rather than 2001.  Actually, the city wouldn't have looked much different back then, anyway.
Helper is about tunnel motors now, and tunnel motors are about... tunnel radiators.  Here we can see the radiators and the low-mounted intakes on two of the Grande units.  Notice you can see through to the other side.


Even when this was first written (May 2004), Helper remained a holdout for tunnel motors.  It was more rare to see pure sets of them, though, since there were only six remaining un-repainted and un-patched TMs left.  Helper managed to hang on to most of the remaining units until the very end.  The last one running, No. 5371, was also the last Rio Grande locomotive to operate in original paint.  It held out until August 2006, when it received its UP patch. 

Thanks to the D&RGW alumni that run Helper's operations, we had these last glimpses of Grande power hauling tonnage on home rails.

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2004, James R. Griffin.  All rights reserved.