San Luis Valley in Transition

Out with the Old, In with the New...

(Page 1)

Colorado's San Luis Valley has been continuously served by rail since 1877, when the Rio Grande built its narrow-gauge line over La Veta Pass.  Since then, many changes have taken place, with the entry of standard-gauge rail in 1899, the gradual withering of NG branches, the divestment of the NG line west of Antonito in 1969, and finally the merger of the Rio Grande with the Southern Pacific in 1988.  Between that time and 1996, SPL operated the remaining track in the valley, which was laid out in a large Y-shape  One arm went to Antonito and the Perlite and scoria operations; the other arm to Monte Vista to interchange with the San Luis Central, and extending as far as South Fork.  The trunk line ran east from Alamosa over La Veta Pass and ultimately to Pueblo.

In 1996, Union Pacific acquired Southern Pacific Lines.  Never happy with the light traffic native to the Alamosa Sub, UP sought for a way to spin off the operation.  In early 2003, they finally found a buyer in the form of  RailAmerica, a shortline  operator with a proven "track" record.  The transfer was delayed several times due to environmental issues, i.e. disputes over whose responsibility it was to clean up some old hazardous materials, but the transfer was finally effected June 28, 2003.

Meanwhile, when the sale was being rumored, I decided it was now or never to get a last look at Rio Grande power in the valley.  UP had been using a mix of locomotives that included several Rio Grande GP40-2s.  Accordingly, at 2:45 AM on March 7th, my daughter and I piled into the car and left Farmington for Alamosa, to record the day's action on film for posterity.

The usual daily operation was something like this: sometime after midnight, the inbound train would leave Pueblo, typically arriving in Alamosa around 6:00 AM.  The local crews would take over and make up trains for Antonito and/or Monte Vista, using units from the road power consist.  After the runs out and back, the outbound train would be made up, the road power reassembled, and the train would depart in late afternoon. 

Our plan was to be in Alamosa when the inbound train arrived.  We showed up in town around dawn, but there was no sign of the train.  We poked around the yard for a little while as the sun came up, waiting for something to happen.

This is a look to the east, with the rising sun silhouetting a parked hopper (second picture below).
Another silhouette shot, from a different set of cars (the ones in the right of the above image).
This is a shot of a rarity in the year 2003: a Rio Grande covered hopper.  It was sitting by itself in the east end of the downtown yard.
And here's a look in the opposite direction from the first two shots, looking west at the downtown yard and the mountains beyond.  It was a pretty empty place at that time, and it looks a lot different now.  The track on the left had been used in recent years to load log-rack cars.  Now it's gone.

After waiting for a while, I decided to gamble that the train hadn't already arrived and been split up for the twin locals, and we headed east to intercept it.  Nothing but empty tracks.  East of Fort Garland, we took Trinchera Ranch road to get on the south side of the tracks (better light for photos). Still nothing.  Following the gravel roads to the east, we ended up by Mortimer, a railroad location that exists only on maps now.  Still nothing.  Where was the train?  It was nearly 10:00.  After wandering around in the snow for a while, we decided to head further up the pass for one last look before we gave up.  Backtracking to the highway, we headed east on US 160 again.  Just as we got to where the railroad diverges from the highway at Wagon Creek, lo and behold, headlights!  The inbound train was creeping down the pass at 10 mph.  Time to get to work.

The sun was on the wrong side, but I commenced shooting anyway.  The snowy landscape was a wonderful backdrop for the train.
 There were five units on the head end-- three Cotton Belt GP40Ms and two Rio Grande GP40-2s.  They were leading... six cars.  Frankly, it looked a little ridiculous, all that power for six empties.  But I'm not complaining at this point.  Realizing that the light was not going to improve at this spot, we headed west to set up for the curve near Mortimer.
After more waiting for the creeping train, we were rewarded by these views.  Here the power is coming into view.
And here we see the full locomotive consist.  It was a day for majestic scenery as a backdrop for the rail action.
The locomotives are headed into the shade, but now we can see the entire train.

 Given the slow progress, we figured to have plenty of time to get around to the south, so we went back to Trinchera and east on the gravel roads.

Speaking of majestic scenery...  Blanca Peak was dressed in her finest today.
A little further west, with less foreground clutter and trees to obscure the train.
I just couldn't get enough of those mountain backdrops, as the train picked up speed in the broadening valley.  Under normal circumstances photos like this weren't possible, as the train usually passed here in the predawn hours.
One more look at Blanca, with the full power suite and some of the cars.
Here's our first close look, at the Trinchera grade crossing.  One of these days I'll get a hood for my lens...
The lead unit was SSW No. 7286, followed by D&RGW Nos. 3128 and 3121, and SSW Nos. 7282 and 7291.
Looking the other way (west) as the train rumbles past on its way to Fort Garland and points west...

We leapfrogged the train back to Alamosa, stopping for video at the town of Blanca, and beat it back to East Yard in plenty of time.  Here we met up with Ken, who'd come down from Buena Vista.

Here it is arriving at East Yard.
Here's a broadside look at one of Rio Grande's finest.  She's starting to show her age, which is about 29 years at the time of the photo.
After dropping the cars on one of the yard tracks, the power headed over to the main Alamosa yard to change crews and get ready to make up the locals.
Once in the west yard, the crew set about breaking up the road consist.  In the past I'd observed them taking one or two units on the locals and leaving the rest near the old depot, but today they changed things up a bit.  Three units would make the run to Antonito, and the other two would go to Monte Vista.  Here a crewman moves up to the lead unit.
One thing about railroads... the work proceeds at its own pace, and that appears slow to the layman.  We had plenty of time for my daughter to take my portrait.  Who knows when another opportunity would arise that we could do this next to DRGW power?
After cutting off the two trailing SSW units, the front three went west to switch to a parallel track so they could get around them and head back to East Yard.  The mountains were snowcapped in every direction, and the sky was crystalline blue-- an absolutely gorgeous day.
The plate covering the hole left by the removed Mars light on No. 3121 now bears the inscription "Hard Work Will Set You Free".  Socialist railroad humor?

We followed the 3-unit consist back to East Yard, expecting to see some switching.  They cut off one covered hopper and pulled west... and kept going!  They even had the FRED on the coupler.  Now, that's a short train!  Wanting to do the Antonito local, and since it had the Grande power, we prepared to head south (this meant, going to McDonald's for chow first).

Head on down to Antonito


Back to Rail Encounters
Back to the SL&RG Tribute


? 2003, James R. Griffin.  All rights reserved.