The Last Runs of Rio Grande’s Fabled F9 Trio on the Ski Train
Many railfans know of the D&RGW F9 set, the last three “covered wagons” operated by the railroad. They were made famous primarily as the designated power for the railroad’s Rio Grande Zephyr passenger train, itself a vestige of the defunct California Zephyr. F units– diesels built by GM’s Electro-Motive Division (EMD) starting in the 1940s, were the series of mass-produced locomotives that proved that diesels were more cost-effective than steam, and essentially killed it off. The final edition in the series was the F9, built around 1955, with 1,750 horsepower per locomotive. Rio Grande ordered a total of six: two cab units and four cabless boosters, or “B” units. By the early 1970s, through attrition, retirements, and wrecks, only three F units were left of any kind on the D&RGW– its three youngest, F9’s 5771 (cab unit), and B units 5762 and 5763.
Aesthetically pleasant, these three were tapped for assignment pulling the RGZ, which was inaugurated when the D&RGW refused to join Amtrak at its creation. For the next dozen years they served faithfully in that service, until the eventual cancellation of the Zephyr caused the F9’s to become surplus. Nearly 30 years old by now, and with far less power than contemporary front-line locomotives, the beloved trio was shuffled off into work-train service, grinding over Tennessee Pass with heavy loads of slag for most of 1983. But– there was to be one last season of respectability in store for them before retirement.
For the winter season of 1984, the D&RGW opted to assign the F9’s to the Ski Train, a twice-weekly round trip between Denver and Winter Park. Since the Ski Train’s cars were painted in the same Aspen Gold and Silver scheme, the train regained a flashy appearance long missing.
At this time I was living in Boulder, finishing up my degree, and was able to photograph the train on a few occasions. Then, in March, my father (bless him!) decided to give me my graduation present early: a beautiful Minolta SLR camera. Guess what I shot with my first rolls of film? Yes. The Ski Train. I photographed it on two successive weekends, the last two of the season, at Coal Creek Canyon. The camera only had a fixed focal length 50mm lens so there was no telephoto action. Despite that I got some decent and pleasing shots. I am including them all below, even the distant ones. You can always click on them and get maximum resolution.
|March 31st, 1984 was a chilly, bleak, gloomy day. Perfect for capturing views of the Ski Train— which is just coming into view after leaving Clay siding. It’s two-thirds of a mile away here, as the crow flies.
Note the camcorder gear of another railfan who was standing on the hill with us.
|A minute later, it’s cut the distance in half, after crossing Blue Mountain Road.|
|Just a bit closer now, rounding the curve leading into the mouth of Coal Creek Canyon…|
|Now the train is directly across the canyon from us, curving across the fill towards the highway underpass.|
|Crossing the bridge now (directly under the rear of the lead unit). You can see the intermediate signal with its red aspect, although a pole there is obscuring part of it… The train will be momentarily hidden behind the hill we’re standing on, until it reappears in the cut behind us.|
|And there she is! F9 No. 5771, arguably the most famous F unit and the last running on a private Class 1 passenger train. You can see the replacement pilot, which many hated but I always thought gave this unit character.|
|Some of the cars in the train. On the left are two of the ex-Northern Pacific 1910-vintage coaches. On the right is one of the Pullman-Standard combines the served on the Prospector for many years and the Rio Grande Zephyr after that.|
|A quick swivel to the right and we see the head end, working up the hill towards Tunnel One. Actually, this view exactly replicates the erstwhile Rio Grande Zephyr in terms of equipment.|
|And here’s the full train.|
|One last look at the train, as the power reaches the entrance to the tunnel.|
|For perspective, when your grocery budget for two people was $35 per week, it was crazy extravagant to shoot ten frames of film on a single train! Sometimes we forget that the pre-digital camera days carried with them a lot more expense.
Eight days later we were back, on the opposite side of the valley. It is hard to believe from the photos that the dates were that close together, but such is springtime on the Front Range. It was Sunday afternoon and I wanted another shot at the train with the good camera. Little did I know how lucky I was, that it would be running on April 8th– and that this was the last run of the season. More importantly, it was the very last run (ever) of the F9 set on the Ski Train, or any other passenger train. SEE HERE FOR A VIDEO OF THIS TRAIN EARLIER IN THE DAY.
|First look: the train is rolling out of Tunnel One and down the hill into Coal Creek Canyon– same location as the last two photos above. What a difference a week makes!|
|Now the train is rounding the curve over the overpass, approaching our perch on the small cut visible in the fourth photo above.
This is also precisely when I forgot to advance the film in the camera.
|Aaaand this is what happens when you press the shutter and nothing happens! A panicky flick of the thumb and a quick sight readjustment, and you get… half of a locomotive. However, over the years I’ve been quite happy with getting this rare close-up top view of F9 No. 5771. You can see all kids of details, grime, etc. that you’d normally miss.|
|Back in control now, I swivel to the left and catch the leader, the steam generator car, and 1.25 of the B units. It looks like it’s Nos. 5763 and 5762 in order, but that’s not definitive. From this angle you can see the cooling coils on the roof as well as the stack spark arrestors.|
|One of my best, and most fortunate, photos ever. Incidentally, this image is HUGE.|
|And here’s my last-ever look at the heavyweight Ski Train— and everyone’s last-ever look at that train with F units for power.|
The F unit era, which started in 1940 on the Rio Grande, was over in 1984. Admittedly it had been artificially prolonged a dozen years by the existence of the RGZ, but it was a done deal now. The F9’s worked a few more months around the system on various work trains, but by summer’s end they were deadlined forever. Happily, two of the three were preserved for display at the Colorado Railroad Museum, thanks to some last-second sleight-of-hand by Rio Grande alumni in the last hours before the merger with Union Pacific. At least we can go there and admire the last remainders of the times when locomotives were stylish and slick.