Over the years I’ve photographed coal trains at a number of locations around Colorado. From the 1970s onward, coal trains were the dominant type found, especially after the UP/SP merger of 1996– after which UP re-routed most manifest freight between Denver and Salt Lake onto the Overland route in Wyoming.
Coal trains also dominated traffic on the Joint Line, moving that inexpensive Powder River Basin coal to customers in Texas and elsewhere. Surprisingly, I have not managed to photograph many of these.
Coal, in fact, was such a dominant commodity on the rails that when the market dried up overnight in the mid-20-teens, some lines lost nearly all of their traffic. This applies especially to the Moffat Sub on the UP, where once there were a half-dozen large mines loading every day. Now it’s down to two or three, and they ship mostly to the export market.
Given that modern-day dearth, I think it appropriate that I resurrect my collection of coal train photos and post them here. I never thought I would see the day when a shipment of black diamonds would be remarkable, but here we are…
A new day dawned in mid-1995: AC-traction locomotives arrived in force, and immediately went to work on coal trains. Suddenly, vast fleets of DC-traction locomotives were largely displaced from drag service. The process was slower on BN (soon to be BNSF) but even there the SD70MACs quickly became commonplace.
Union Pacific merged with Southern Pacific on 9/11/1996– an ominous date. The new combined UP had enormous teething pains, mostly having to do with getting trains into and out of terminals. Despite that, UP kept moving coal out of the mountains of Colorado. SPL brought its hundreds of AC4400s into the marriage, and UP had its own group– as well as EMD’s competing model, the SD90/43MAC.
|AC4400 No. 305 leads an eastbound coal load down the mountain at Crescent, 1/04/1997. It’s now after the UP merger, and the SPL motors are hard at work for the new owner.|
|And here’s an example of the great innovation of the AC generation: Distributed Power. It is a technique of remote-controlling helper locomotives, so that no crew is required. SP had it working by 1996, and now nearly every coal train was using it. Here, No, 272 and a mate are mid-train at Crescent.|
|Jumping forward nearly two years: UP has finally solved many of its traffic problems caused by the merger, and the UP and SP fleets are becoming blended by now. Here, a pair of mid-train remotes are pushing a westbound empty through Pinecliffe on 12/26/1998.|
|August 14, 1999, and the SP AC’s are still hard at work. This pair (with No. 326 leading) are just seconds from entering the Moffat Tunnel, leading a long string of PSCX hoppers.|
|Here’s a look at the flank of EMD’s big AC model, the SD9043MAC. UP had a few hundred of these units, a model that was supposedly upgradeable to a 6,000 HP prime mover. That technology was never successful, as it turned out. Meanwhile, here this rear-end set of remotes loops under the Colo. 93 bridge with more loads of coal. In the background you can see an empty CSUX train already moving out of Rocky siding, powered by five SPL AC4400s running 2+1+2. (9/04/1999)|
|Crescent, Colorado offers spectacular vistas of the Continental Divide. On October 9, 2000, an eastbound coal train led by SP No. 274 rounds the namesake curve. There are not many places where such sights are available…|
|Same train, different end. The rear remotes are hanging onto the back of about 105 loaded steel hoppers. Look carefully and you can see the heat shimmers coming off of the dynamic brakes above the locomotives.|
|December 28, 2000, a pair of first-gen AC4400s lead an eastbound coal load at Fraser, CO. The train is at the toe of the 2% grade leading up to the Moffat Tunnel, and the locomotives are starting to work harder. By the time the last of the train was on the grade, its speed was down to a crawl. CNW No. 8808 is leading.
What you have here is a C&NW and an SP unit on a UP coal train on the D&RGW tracks that were built by the DNW&P (D&SL). Yes, mergers and acquisitions are on display here.
|August 14, 2001 (17 years after spouse and I rode the Rio Grande Zephyr), a 2+2+2 PSCX train rolls down through Coal Creek Canyon. Each pair was an SP AC4400 and a UP SD9043MAC. All units are beginning to show some wear.|
|February 10th, 2002 finds me standing atop the water tunnel’s face, as a loaded coal train rumbled up the grade and into the tunnel. On the point was Southern Pacific AC4400 No. 252, and two mates. Wintertime conditions meant the train had three units on the point (3+2+2). By the way, this photo appears in my book.|
|The same train as above, with SP No. 163 and UP SD9043MAC No. 8243 cut in mid-train and pushing for all they’re worth. By now, with most of the train on the lesser 1.1% grade in the tunnel, speed has picked up from about 10 mph to closer to 20 mph.|
|June 2003: an eastbound empty coal train of aluminum hoppers, led by SD90MAC No. 8533 (note: not a 9043MAC) and C60AC No. 7026 cruised through No Name in Glenwood Canyon at a good clip. The short train was easily handled by the two 6,000 HP locomotives.|
|The coal has to come from somewhere. Here is the loadout for the West Elk mine in Somerset, Colorado as it appeared in June 2003. The loading train is just finishing up the job and pulling away for its run down the North Fork branch to Grand Junction and points beyond.|
|May 9th, 2004: A typical BNSF coal train rumbles down the Joint Line south of Colorado Springs. It’s a 2+2 setup, all SD70MACs in the Corporate scheme, although some of them were actually acquired post-merger.|
|November 8, 2004: We went up to the west end of Crescent, and caught this coal train exiting tunnel 19. It’s led by a repainted SP unit. The train was slowing and stopped short of the switch, where it waited for quite some time before proceeding. I chatted a bit with the conductor.|
|Quite some time later, we had walked back to the car and driven down to the Blue Mountain subdivision, where I shot the same train from atop the hogback. This is looking down at the famous Big 10 loops. Most of the train is visible; it consists of steel cars of various heritage.|
|December 29, 2004: Here is a westbound empty of UP aluminum gons. On the front are at least six units, although only the first three are online. This is approaching Vasquez Road in the town of Winter Park, just downhill from West Portal. UP AC4400 No. 6455 is the leader.|
Okay, time to go warm up your coffee or make a pit stop. We will carry on starting in the year 2005!
|Passing through the Paonia area on 7/28/2005, I was quite pleasantly surprised to find two unpatched SP units, Nos. 144 and 140, loading at West Elk (Somerset). These were some of the last AC4400’s in original paint and number. The West Elk loadout is about a mile up the canyon from here, where the tail end of the train is.|
|December 30, 2006: All of Union Pacific’s lines in Colorado are shut down due to a massive blizzard on the plains. Because of that, trains could not enter Denver. This eastbound coal train was tied down at Pinecliffe at dusk. We had been scheduled to ride the Ski Train but it was also cancelled; here we were returning from Eldora (a poor substitute, but at least the kids could ski…)|
|Basic Union Pacific C44AC, right? Look again. This is the former SP No. 370, leading an eastbound coal train at Hot Sulphur Springs on 8/9/2007.
Incidentally, the river to the left was home to a family of otters at that time.
|September 1, 2008: Glenwood Springs was an active place for adding remotes to eastbound coal loads. This train has patched AC4400 No. 6374 on the rear. Yes, folks, it’s moving towards our right in the picture. (Former SP No. 328).|
|April 15, 2010: An inbound coal empty is passing Escalante on the North Fork. At that time the branch was still a busy place for coal trains; this one met an outbound load at Roubideau a few miles east.
This train was extra-power-heavy because one of the units wouldn’t load up before leaving Grand Junction. They tacked on a pair of units to the front end, and the much-delayed train was making good speed at this point.
|During the 20-teens, my travel to Colorado areas where coal trains operate dropped off significantly. During the same time the coal market began to dry up, as many utilities began conversion to natural gas and other sources. Until coal mining companies began signing overseas contracts, the whole business was at serious risk, and even then it was greatly diminished. However, a few trains continued to rumble out of the mountains, or along the Front Range. I bagged a few of them.|
|July 31, 2011: Joint line coal trains. Here two BNSF trains are passing in opposite directions along Santa Fe avenue in south Denver. The southbound train has a pair of SD70MACs for power. The northbounder had an SD70ACE, SD70MAC, and a FerroMex GEVO on the front, and two other GEVOs on the rear. But my photos are pretty terrible…|
|April 12, 2014: a hike in the tunnel district netted a couple of coal trains. Here an eastbound load is rolling towards the bore of tunnel 20.
This was shortly after I finally got a decent DSLR…
|Same afternoon as above; this westbound empty, running 2+1, is coming out of tunnel 19. Here’s a look down into a CTRN aluminum hopper. You can see the bracing, and also see roughly the stained outline of the usual coal loading.
UP 6357 is the former SP 304.
|April 28, 2014: another load of North Fork coal is moving east through the Grand Junction yard. By this point there was a precipitous decline in coal shipping; only a train or so per day was coming off the branch; sometimes only one or two per week. But the bluffs in the background are timeless and it was great to see some railroad action.|
|Funny story about this photo. We had ridden the Winter Park Express and were killing time in the afternoon. I decided to try to get some photos of the new UP structures across from the boarding platform. I crossed the tracks… and discovered that the wind had made a deceptively-level surface beyond. A few steps and suddenly I sank in up to my hips. Right at that moment, I heard horns, and saw this coal train approaching. I was only about 20 feet past the right-of-way– safe enough but still rather uncomfortable. I made the best of it and shot video and dozens of close-ups.|
|The train was running 2+4+1, a hefty mid-train set. Here it’s curving past the lodges and approaching the tunnel.
February 18, 2018.
|The tail-end remote was GEVO No. 8175, remarkably clean considering the conditions. I think it’s a fitting image to end this essay, too.|
|Not quite the end yet! Here, a northbound BNSF train of empties tops the climb to Palmer Divide on October 7th 2019. It’s curving around the park by the lake with SD70ACe No. 9281 and a Citirail leaser on the point. A mile or so behind, a three-unit remote team was shoving the train over the hump.|
Who knows. It’s possible that in a couple of decades these trains will be completely gone. Personally I doubt it. At any rate, it was an interesting four decades to witness these massive, heavy trains dominating rail traffic.