Southern Pacific Lines in Colorado
1988-1996


Southern Pacific Lines was formed in 1988 when Rio Grande Industries, holding company for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, purchased the Southern Pacific Railroad and the St. Louis Southwestern ("Cotton Belt").  For the first years the company struggled to find an identity and a common operational scheme, but by 1992 it had been decided to use the name Southern Pacific as the public name for the three railroads.  SPL turned out to be a short-lived entity, as it would be merged with the Union Pacific Railroad in 1996 and lose its identity in the process.  But it was an interesting eight years, full of change and uncertainty, and it was interesting to watch from trackside.  (See my book [chapter 7] for a full discussion of this period.

Initially, change came slowly in Colorado, as operations remained relatively unchanged and independent.  For example, the Railblazer, Rio Grande's hotshot overnight piggyback train between Salt Lake and Denver, continued its daily runs.  Coal trains were operated with solid sets of DRGW power.  The main route to find much of an influx of SP or SSW locomotives was on the Royal Gorge Route, on through trains.


Southern Pacific was officially purchased on October 13, 1988.  Christmas Eve morning, some two months later, found my cousin and me at Tunnel One on the Moffat route (a favorite location at the time, as you will see).  We were there to catch the Railblazer as it neared Denver.  Right on time, it snaked down from Plain and through the tunnel.

This day it was in the care of GP40 No. 3077 and GP40-2 No. 3116.
 Usually the train was heavy with FrontRunner single-platform piggyback cars, but today there were a number of 89-footers in the consist.
 Here you can see the entire train as it crosses the bridge over Colo. 72 in Coal Creek Canyon.

 We heard a westbound approaching and decided to catch it on the uphill side of the tunnel (railroad west).  Shortly a manifest train made its appearance...

 ... led by GP40-2 No. 3130.  This is the highest-numbered GP40-2, and the last delivered, in 1982.
Third unit in the consist is a SP SD40T-2, No. 8550.  It's a sign of things to come.
The fourth and fifth units were GP40s in the small Rio Grande scheme.  No. 3051 was the first GP40 delivered, so this train contains the first and the last, as it were.  (This doesn't count the ex-Conrail GP40s, by the way, one of which is second in the consist).  The train was a fun mix of cars, including a number of tank cars of anhydrous ammonia.

 Based on this morning's observations, one would hardly know a merger had taken place.  After all, I had seen SP power on the line clear back in 1984.


I made a couple of business trips to Denver in following years.  During the first, in November 1990, I took just a few photos in downtown Denver.

Late in the afternoon of November 20, 1990, I found a string of Rio Grande six-axle power parked on the west side of the yard, ready to do business.  SD50 No. 5506 is followed by SD40T-2 No. 5348 and another tunnel motor.  Also note the silver outfit car to the left, No. X-3274.  The former diner-lounge MOUNT PRINCETON, it once served on the crack Exposition Flyer train, among others, and is about eighty years old at time of photo. Here it's assigned to the wrecker  train, with derrick 029.
SW-1000 No. 141 was kicking cars near the tower in North Yard.  It has a second-hand D&RGW Thrall gondola and a D&RGW two-bay hopper on the drawbar.

 

The second trip featured an early-morning outing to the tunnel 1 area.  It didn't look like much had changed.  I did not know that the Railblazer had since been discontinued, but I was hoping to catch an eastbound coal load.  During the 1980s, train lengths had increased from around 73 cars to around 105, and this necessitated the regular practice of mid-train (swing) helpers in addition to rear helpers.  On November 20, 1991, I was trackside as one such monster train rolled by.

The lead unit was tunnel motor (SD40T-2) No. 5347.  The head end consisted of four 6-axle locomotives, two tunnel motors bracketing two SD50s.
 This is the second locomotive in the consist, SD50 No. 5507.
Fourth unit was SD40T-2 No. 5395.  You can see the back of SD50 No. 5506 entering the tunnel.
After what seemed like a long time of rumbling and squealing by the heavy train on the heavy grade, the swing helper came into view.  It had three units...
 ... including tunnel motor No. 5365 and SD50 No. 5517.
Shortly thereafter, the rear helper came into view.  Yet another pair of tunnel motors anchored the tail end.  If you're counting, this adds up to nine six-axle units on this train, or 29,000 horsepower and who-knows-how-many amps of dynamic braking power!
Updated  As soon as the train receded into the tunnel, I jogged through behind it, in time to catch the swings as they rounded the curves on the opposite side of the valley.  (Note: I do NOT sanction such activities!)  The third unit looks like another SD50.

 

The following month we were in town for the holidays, and I went out with my brother and nephews to the same place, and saw nearly the same train.  December 30, 1991 was nearing the end of DRGW dominance on the Moffat route, and within just a few months, scenes such as this would become rare indeed.

On the point is tunnel motor No. 5350.  In a couple of years it would be repainted in the Merger scheme of red-white-and-gray speed lettering.  But that day is still in the future, and it's another monster coal train that it is leading today.  Four units on the head end, two at the swing point, and two more on the rear.
As the train continued to pass, I climbed atop the tunnel portal for the next two shots.   SD50 No. 5512 is the first unit in the swing helper...
... and an unidentified tunnel motor is the second.  My brother got this on video, but for some reason which I cannot explain today I didn't take any more photos of the train.  I guess I was just enjoying the experience. 

 

Time passed, and soon it was nearly a year later.  Returning from another trip to Denver on October 6, 1992, we drove over Fremont Pass and down the Arkansas valley.  Just past Granite I saw a train in the canyon below.  I pulled a U-turn and gave chase, beating it to the flats at Granite and just in time to record the following images.

As the train rounds the curve, we see that it's an intermodal train powered by a trio of Southern Pacific units.  My four-year-old daughter is fascinated by the sight...
My wife and one-year-old girl get a wave from the crew as it roars up the valley.
 For those counting, the power consisted of SD40T-2 No. 8496, SD40M No. 7368, and SD40T-2 No. 8264.

 

The real reason for trains is not to delight railfans (believe it or not), but to serve customers.  This train was a mixture of double-stack well cars carrying containers, and a string of piggyback flats with trailers.  The tunnels on this route had had their clearances increased around 1988 to accommodate the double-stacks.
No cabooses on mainline freights in 1992.  The FRED is hanging on the coupler of the last pig car.

 We loaded up and continued our trip, and at nearly the same place as before we saw another westbound!   I decided to let it go, so there are no photos of it.  It couldn't have been more than ten minutes behind the previous one, hence my getting caught off-guard by it.

It didn't escape my notice that both of these trains were powered entirely by SP units-- no DRGW whatsoever.


In March 1993 we decided to go to Denver and ride the Ski Train.  This was our introduction to what has become nearly an annual pastime, and led to yet another facet of interest in the former Rio Grande.  March 20th found us aboard the train.  I didn't get many photos on the way up, and those I did take were pretty poor.

My wife and I went cross-country skiing, and actually encountered some moose on our trail-- mama and calf.  I got closer than I should have, and she tried to charge me, but the deep snow made her footing poor and I was spared the thrashing I probably deserved.  I'll look for the photos and post them here later.

Back at the ski area, we awaited the return of our train.  Lights appeared in the tunnel, so I waited for whatever was approaching.  Shortly the train emerged...

... led by Cotton Belt SD45T-2 No. 9372.

 

Guess what?  It's on the point of Amtrak's train No. 5, the westbound California Zephyr.  It's running a tad bit late today, which may explain why the SSW unit was added.  Look carefully and you can see the Amtrak colors behind the tunnel motor.
No. 5 rounds the curve past the ski resort, about four hours late.  Notice that all the cars are still in Phase 3 stripes (and that the stripes on the lounge are straight).  This was only a year or so before the Superliner II's with their Phase 4 paint would appear.
Back in Denver after the trip, I walked up and took the portrait of our power for the day-- two fresh GP40Ms, Nos. 7297 and 7129.  The 7129 has on an early version of the merger scheme, the first time I'd personally seen it.  The version eventually chosen had the herald somewhat larger than this.

See here for more photos from that trip.


 

Well, once is never enough, and the following year we booked another ride on the Ski Train.  On the way up to Denver on February 18th, 1994, we passed through Johnson Village (kind-of a suburb of Buena Vista, if you can conceive of that).  The Royal Gorge route / Tennessee Pass line goes through here, and US 24 / 285 crosses the tracks on an overpass.  I had seen a train exiting Brown's Canyon as we drove in, so after getting fuel I walked back to the overpass with the kids to await the train.

 It seemed like it would never get there.  As usual for my rail outings, the weather was straight from Siberia.  This westbound manifest train had a colorful set of locomotives on the front...
 ... led by Cotton Belt GP60 No. 9651 (one of the last delivered so painted).
Second was GP40M No. 7124, in the speed-lettered merger scheme, and looking very sharp.  This locomotive has been a regular out of the Pueblo pool for many years, frequently making the Alamosa run. This was the first time I photographed it.
Third was an SD45, No. 7557, in the "Kodachrome" scheme of the abortive Southern Pacific - Santa Fe merger of the 1980s.  Last was an SP tunnel motor, No. 8491, repainted into the merger scheme.  I must admit that it was a very attractive scheme, especially on a clean unit.

Two days later, we rode the Ski Train.  Our power was Cotton Belt GP40M No. 7276 and SP SD40T-2 (snoot) No. 8355.  The snoot was showing its internal age, for right about tunnel 10 it dropped its load and our speed fell to a crawl.

Here you can see that the crew has been into the hood-- note the open door.  The stack that had been  belching puffs of black smoke earlier was clean as we crept into the east end of Crescent siding.  I'm not certain whether it was just idling smoothly now or had simply died.

 Fortunately, there was an eastbound manifest in the hole at Pinecliffe.  The dispatcher instructed them to cut their lead two locomotives and come rescue us.  Finally they pulled into the west end of Crescent as we limped in from the east, and the units were coupled onto the point of our train.  The Ansco announcer got on the PA and said, "Now, if we'll all just say, 'I think I can, I think I can...', we'll be on our way!"  We made pretty good time after this.

As soon as the train got to Winter Park, the borrowed units were cut off and run around the train.  Once it cleared the main, the helpers zipped back into the Moffat Tunnel to rejoin their original train.

Coming home that afternoon, whatever problems were going on must have been resolved, as the train was back down to its original two locomotives.  Here they're passing the site of old Tunnel 28 below Pinecliffe.

 

By now it had been a couple of years since I'd seen a Rio Grande unit, and was beginning to wonder what had become of them.  They had certainly been scattered over the SPL system by this time, but were not gone by any means.  I would see several in this year, as it turned out.  See this page for more in-depth coverage of the year 1994.


At the end of the year we took another Ski Train trip, which I won't much go into here.  It had a pair of SP GP60s for power, however.

By 1995, the combined system was slowly becoming more homogeneous.  See here for a glimpse of SP activities elsewhere in the world (Tucson) during March.    Early one morning, I saw DRGW SD50 No. 5507 in a consist, though it was too dark for photos to turn out.  It was a long ways from home.

In June/July we paid a visit to Glenwood Springs.  Rather than duplicate my other page on that, I'll just give a representative portrait of one westbound autorack train we saw.  In the early merger days William Holtmann had decreed that Rio Grande units would lead trains whenever possible.  That was no longer the case in 1995.  Of course, he'd been retired for a couple of years by this point.  This particular train is led by a repainted SP SD40T-2 that is beginning to show the usual road grime.

Here, in one of my favorite photos, the train-- led by what looks like No. 8568-- passes the depot on the main.  The engineer was just taking the power out of dynamic braking and throttling up for the flatter grades west of here.  We were standing on the pedestrian overpass, right over I-70, and I was having a conniption about the Rio Grande geep in the consist.  My wife, bless her, got this passage on video-- at least, until the camcorder battery quit.  That's our silver Ford Ranger visible directly over the tunnel motor's radiators, by the way.
 Interesting acoustics in Glenwood Springs.  When a train hits its horns, it echoes as if it were in a city surrounded by skyscrapers instead of mountains.  Well, there are a few buildings that front the track, plus the canyon walls, I suppose...  We can see that our power is an SP SD40T-2 (8568, see above) -- DRGW GP40 No. 3141 -- SP GP60 No. 9721. 

 

In the summer of 1995, Burlington Northern merged with the Santa Fe Railway to form BNSF.  This move put SPL at a serious competitive disadvantage, and caused Phil Anschutz to seek a merger of his Southern Pacific system with that of Union Pacific.  Intent to merge was announced in September 1995.

On February 26, 1996, a mix of power from the BNSF member roads head a short freight train northbound through Fountain, just south of Colorado Springs, on the Joint Line.
 Later that day, we encountered the daily outbound train on the Alamosa sub, just as it hit Fort Garland.  We turned around and gave chase, and caught at a grade crossing a couple of miles east.  Four SP geeps are leading it today-- two cruddy-looking ones in the middle.
The lead unit was a pretty-looking GP40M.
Here the power heads east into a gathering winter storm on La Veta Pass.  There were 31 cars on the train, including a Rio Grande caboose.  Nice surprise!

 

1996 was the swan song for the revamped Southern Pacific, as the merger with Union pacific was consummated on September 11th.  See here and here for more on my last pre-merger look at the SPL.  It didn't take long for UP to make its presence felt, especially in terms of traffic patterns.  See here for more details on that.  The character of the old Rio Grande, diluted under the SPL system, nearly vanished under UP.

But the eight-year interval between the mergers was an interesting and colorful one.  Enormous changes transpired on the Colorado rail system, and one never knew what to expect next.

One chilly morning in mid-October 1996, we were staying at the La Quinta in Colorado Springs on Fillmore St.  I heard train horns and ran down towards the tracks behind the motel; my camera was locked in the car and I didn't have time to grab it.  Too bad, because it was a northbound manifest train with eleven units on it-- nine SP and two D&RGW (Nos. 5390 and 5411).  As the train rumbled past, the sensory experience was engraved in my memory.  Some things are not easily reduced to film.


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