Rails in Colorado's San Luis Valley

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NOTE: This page was current as of 2002.  For more recent events and status, see this page.

The remote San Luis Valley of Colorado is host to some interesting railroad activity. This high, flat valley seems enigmatic-- the mountain ranges which border it on all sides belie its 8,000-foot elevation. The sandy soil is quite good for crops, especially potatoes and barley, and the mineral perlite is mined in quantity near Antonito. Timber from near South Fork supported a busy lumber industry until late 2000. The Denver & Rio Grande Railway penetrated this region in the 1870s, and the tracks are still active today, albeit under new ownership.   This page looks at things as they stood prior to Union Pacific's sale of the operation to the San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad in July 2003.

The pattern of operations remained consistent from the mid-eighties up through the sale. Most weekday nights a train left Pueblo (symbol MPUAA) , traveled through Walsenburg, over La Veta pass, and arrived in Alamosa in the early morning.

July 20, 2001 leaving Alamosa westbound July 20, 2001 There the road power was broken up into two local trains, each in the charge of one or more locomotives. The southbound train took empties (covered and open hoppers) to Antonito, returning later with loads of perlite and scoria. The other switched the agricultural and other industries to the west, including handling interchange traffic with the San Luis Central, a tiny granger road operating around Monte Vista and Center.

Switching Monte Vista, May 1999 The local trains often took a caboose with them, for help on backup moves (though there were exceptions). These are what gave the operations special charm in an era when cabooses were nearly extinct.

Road power waiting in downtown Alamosa Road power waiting in downtown 

The surplus road power was left in downtown Alamosa until the return trip. Since anywhere from four to six engines were the norm for the inbound train, one could find a brace of two to four units idling (and easily accessible) in Alamosa, most weekdays.

4 units/ 31 loads EB from Ft Garland Into La Veta
 pass EB, Feb 1996 At the end of the day, the locals returned to Alamosa, the outgoing train was made up, the road power reassembled, and the train (symbol MAAPU) returned to Pueblo in the evening and night hours. One caboose was left either in the downtown yard or the East yard at Alamosa. The second caboose, if one, made the trip to Pueblo, returning on the next MPUAA.

The lumber mill in South Fork deserves special mention. Until late 2000, it shipped carloads of wood chips in high-sided gondolas, which were loaded right next to US160 in South Fork. It was an interesting operation to watch. Additionally, it was located directly across from the still-standing water tank. I procrastinated about getting photos of the operation, and now it has been dismantled... Fortunately we took one photo in 1982, when oddball AT&SF high-sided gons were still in use.  After that,, one could sometimes see tank cars spotted in this location, carrying magnesium chloride for delivery to the Colorado highway department for use as road de-icer.

One recent addition to valley operations (2001?) wass based in the west yard in Alamosa. Logs were brought in via truck from near Chama, then loaded onto bulkhead flatcars equipped with log racks for shipment out of the valley.

The locomotives were exclusively four-axle types, usually something in the GP40 family. Until the early '80s, GP9s were stationed in Alamosa. GP30s made the trip on occasion, up until their retirement. Southern Pacific GP40Ms were typical, mixed with assorted Union Pacific GP40s and the occasional Rio Grande or Cotton Belt geep. Here are some of the locomotives I've photographed in the valley.

GP30 in May 1999 - GP40 in May 1999 - Ex-CR GP40 in Aug 1997 - GP40M in Aug 1996 - GP40M in May 1999 - GP40M in July 2001 - GP40M in Feb 1996 - GP40M in May 2002 - GP40-2 in March 2003 - GP40-2 in March 2003 -

Notes about locomotives:
~ The SP GP40Ms were the first units to receive the merger-inspired Speed Lettering herald. You can see the experimentation in herald size represented on various units here. Number 7107 was the very first loco delivered with it, and has the smaller version. In the road power shot above, compare the logos on #7131 and #7129 at opposite ends of the consist.
~ #7129, also the small version, was used on the Ski Train extensively during the 1993 season.
~ #7124 haunted the valley and other Pueblo-originating jobs since at least 1994.
~ Rio Grande #3002, one of only four GP30s to receive the billboard Grande herald, was retired very shortly after this photo was taken.
~ Rio Grande #3072 lasted about one year after this photo before being retired.

The real stars of the show in the valley were the cabooses. I was fortunate to get shots of three different ones, though later the pool dwindled to two. Usually,  No. 01423 was usually the one left in Alamosa overnight, and was typically taken on the Antonito local. No. 01522 would travel back and forth from Pueblo.  But there were always exceptions.

Caboose 01522 was from Rio Grande's last order, being a wide-vision cab with the cupola centered rather than offset towards one end. One side had been tagged, and the other side carried an editorial comment under the Action Road herald to the effect that it's the best railroad in the world...

In Alamosa, May 1999 - On AAPUM east of 
Ft. Garland, Feb 1996 - W of Alamosa, July 2001 - Showing graffiti - Pushing cars into Monte
 Vista, May 1999

A nice variety of rolling stock can be found in the valley. The San Luis Central uses second-hand mechanical reefers extensively, as well as a smorgasbord of covered hoppers for barley and such. The logging operation featured bulkhead flats with log racks. Scoria is shipped in open hoppers, and perlite typically goes in covered hoppers. Throw in the occasional tank car and M-O-W unit, and you always have something interesting to watch. Here are a few examples.

Scoria hopper, May 2002 - Mechanical reefer, May 2002 - Mechanical reefer, May 2002 - Log rack flatcar, May 2002 - JRSX Tanks at Poole Chemical, March 2003 - SHPX and GATX Tanks at Poole Chemical, March 2003 - JRSX Tank at Poole Chemical, March 2003 - WP perlite hopper at La Jara, March 2003 - UP perlite hopper at La Jara, March 2003 - CNW perlite hopper at La Jara, March 2003

Since the creation of the San Luis & Rio Grande, operations have only expanded, and today there is also a wonderful passenger operation that covers the entire valley's rail lines.  See here for more details.

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