La Plata Division – Fantasy Ops

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Option 1: Fantasy BNSF Scenario

What if…

Rewind the calendar to early 1996, and let’s fantasize a bit.
It’s not quite a year since the BNSF system has been formed by merging the AT&SF and the BN systems (including component railroads).  UP has absorbed the C&NW.  Now, Phil Anschutz has approached the UP board with a proposal to sell the Southern Pacific Lines (SPL) System to Union Pacific– a huge merger to rival the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. So far, this is what actually happened.

Now, suppose, when the proposal went before the Surface Transportation Board, the BNSF directors balked at the idea. This gives UP unfair competitive advantage in Colorado and Utah, they say. We oppose this merger unless SPL agrees to spin off the D&RGW system and the SP’s Donner Pass route, and we will purchase it for X million.  Now it’s a stare-down between UP’s Dick Davidson and BNSF’s Robert Krebs. Davidson has no love of the Rio Grande– it’s been a thorn in the side of the UP since its founding, and the two railroads have been at war for decades. He would like nothing better to squash the D&RGW, or control it (and thereby marginalize it). On the other hand, its EBIT is fairly small, and its operating profile is risky.  Anschutz has a sentimental attachment to the Grande, it being his first railroad to own, but smells an opportunity to recoup some cash in the deal. Krebs sees an opportunity to add some stable contracts to his railroad’s portfolio, as well as a solid connection to central California from the east– at least, more solid than a simple trackage-rights arrangement.

Davidson thinks it over. The SP line is a valuable asset and he doesn’t want to part with it. But the Rio Grande is in need of serious upgrading, plus there’s the anticipated expense of rebuilding the Kansas Pacific to take the Colorado coal to market. He makes a counter-proposal: Sell the D&RGW to the BNSF, and grant trackage rights from Salt Lake to Stockton in exchange for UP rights from Salt Lake to Denver and Pueblo (laughing up his sleeve at that last part).
Since BNSF has an eastern connection at Pueblo, Davidson demands that the D&RGW trackage rights arrangement over the decrepit Missouri Pacific Towner line be terminated. That way he can abandon that line as well.

Krebs and the board think about it, and decide to accept the counter-offer. Anschutz pockets a couple hundred million. The bewildered STB signs off on the agreement, and in September 1996 a massive reshuffling of legal documents and railroad assets occurs. All the wandering Rio Grande locomotives return to home rails, even the ones wearing SP colors (which pleases Krebs, who’s an SP alum).

Now, a tri-weekly freight with UP power travels BNSF’s Moffat line, and a similar operation cycles to Pueblo. BNSF takes over the Colorado and Utah coal operations, using a mix of heritage DC locomotives, BN SD70MAC’s, and as time goes on, more AC power from both GE and EMD. BNSF establishes TOFC service between Denver and Stockton, and double-stack service via the Tennessee Pass route. The citizens of Avon and Minturn sigh as the railroad continues to operate and blow horns at night near expensive ski condos.

Likely? Probably not.  After all, this is not what happened.  But it *could* have. In some ways I think this would have been a better outcome for all involved. But I doubt anyone even suggested it.

So, let’s have some fun!  In the BNSF scenario, my railroad has an incredibly colorful mix of power. The rainbow includes Warbonnets of both yellow/blue and silver/red varieties, Cascade Green, “Executive” green SD70MAC’s, BNSF Orange in Heritage 1 and Heritage 2 schemes (later the “Wedge”scheme as well), Oakway blue/white, and an occasional Rio Grande black/gold unit.
The periodic UP train passes through with its Armour Yellow locomotives, and Amtrak and the Ski Train maintain their presence as well.

Operations are predominantly coal, but we have a daily piggyback train each way, one or more freights, daily Amtrak, seasonal Ski Train trips (Phil insisted it keep operating), and odd UP freights. The TOFC ramp at North Yard is retired in favor of BNSF’s adjacent, larger facility.


A westbound piggyback train with a mix of heritage power ascends the Big 10 Loops. Warbonnet SD40-2 5038 is on the point.
lpd atsf5038 An hour later, the same train as above is far up South Boulder Canyon as the lead unit pops out of tunnel 27.
LPD Oakway 9090 More typical traffic on the Moffat is exemplified by this empty coal train, following the intermodal up the mountain. The Oakway SD60 leads a mix of BN and D&RGW power (BN C30-7, D&RGW tunnel motor, BN SD70MAC). 120 empty Bethgons trail behind– or on my model version, 24 Walthers cars.
LPD BNSF 4926 wp eb A Stockton-to-Denver freight is about to dive into the Moffat Tunnel, behind three General Electric C44-9W units.
ATSF235-EB Here in a scene from 1998, a STODEN climbs past Hideaway Park with a mixture of warbonnets and H2 power. The scene is accurate for the “real” world as well as the fantasy scenario.
LMX8507-EB LMX leased B39-8 No. 8507 leads a pair of SD40-2’s down the front range in 1998. This period had a pleasantly colorful mix of power, before everything became standardized orange…

Option 2: Free-Lancing

So, you may be aware of Eric Brooman’s free-lance model railroad, the Utah Belt.  Among many others I have always had a deep admiration of his imagination and his modeling skill– so much that, one day, I decided to paint a locomotive in Eric’s colors.  Well, you know how that goes.  Before you knew it I was on the way to establishing a fleet of my own.  And in all that free mental time waiting for paint to dry, I had plenty of time to think about how this would work.  Here’s the scenario:

Let’s say that the Utah Belt did in fact exist. Well, running into central Utah it would necessarily connect with the D&RGW.  the UB being predominantly a north-south route and the Grande being an east-west bridge route, there would be plenty of reason for the two lines to establish a friendly relationship.  Symbiotic, if you will.  And in that world, UB power would occasionally show up on Rio Grande tracks.

At this time I haven’t sourced decals to to the UB “New Image” lettering, which means I’m restricted to older power, such as SD40-2’s.  Therefore, using UB visitors on the layout is a better fit for the Rio Grande post-1972, up into the 1990s SP era.

Having a friendly western connection with reach into the Gulf market means more opportunity for intermodal traffic, especially containers.  The Moffat is limited to single-stack wells so it would never be a big moneymaker, but I’ve gotten myself a small fleet of well cars nonetheless.

LPD-UB-Wells Here a westbound UB stack train is climbing the Big 10 curves, with a pair of SD40-2’s and a GP50 for power.
LPD-UB3142 Here’s one of the SD40-2’s, No. 3142. It’s an Athearn blue-box that I stripped and relettered, detailed to UB standards and added DCC.
LPD-UB3111 Here’s my first UB project. It is a Bachmann unit that came with onboard DCC; I stripped, detailed, and repainted the shell. Note that both of these units have received a fair amount of weathering.
LPD-UB3142-Hideaway UB 3142, SD40-2, leads a train up the hill from Fraser in this shot.  The unit has been recently washed (i.e. not weathered yet!) Note the SP-style headlight package.

Option 2a: BNSF / UB Merger

Honestly, an independent Class One on a north-south axis in today’s world seems about as likely as… well, an independent KCS– especially considering the existence of the KCS.  I think it’s likely that the UB would have been folded into BNSF at some point.  At least, I’m allowing for the possibility. Therefore, one scenario I have shows trains with BNSF and UB power running together across the Moffat, utilizing the inherited trackage rights.


Here a BNSF container-repositioning movement, including a couple of UB units (actually, one UB, one now a GRLX unit) climbs up through Fireclay. Considering it’s now the second decade of the new century, this is all second-string power, appropriate for such a low-priority train.

Any excuse to have a GP60M leading a train on the La Plata Division! (See Rule no. 1)

Option 3: Griffin Railway Leasing Company, GRLX

This one’s kind of a blend of actual practice and the UB scenario, only further into the future and less in-your-face about it.  In this case, the GRLX company has picked up some retiring units from various sources including UB, and these units are now utilized by Union Pacific and BNSF for second-line duties such as yard switching and local trains. At this time I’ve acquired one former UB GP50 and one former LMX B39-8.  Both DCC.

GRLX3507 GRLX8507 Here a couple of GRLX units are leading an extra MGJNY freight through Winter Park. The leader is an Athearn blue-box GP50 that I gave the usual UB treatment, with these modifications: 1) the low-nose lights have been removed; 2) Class lights plated over; 3) FRA yellow sill stripes added, 4) GRLX lettering applied over the Utah Belt heralds.  The trailing unit is actually the same LMX unit as shown above, but now re-lettered for a new owner.  This is exactly what the real SLRG used for power for a number of years, by the way.
LPD-Yard-Fantasy Here, a mix of UP, GRLX, and UB units are idling in North Yard while a BNSF train rolls into town in the background.

Option 4: D&RGW Merged With the UB Instead of SP

Hey, it’s fantasy, right!  Unfortunately I’ll never have enough UB power or rolling stock to make this a convincing reality on my layout, but it would be awfully fun.  And, as mentioned, the systems would have been a good fit– and would fulfill General Palmer’s original Denver-to-El Paso dream!  That could go either way with the branding, but there could be a fun post-merger period with lots of units from both roads showing up on trains.

Now, if I were Eric Brooman, I would have the UB purchasing the SP in the 1980s, beating the Rio Grande to the punch, and thereby basically throwing the Grande out into the cold…

LPD-UB3111-Moffat Here a UB SD40-2, No. 3111, is embedded in a D&RGW freight– much as SP units showed up working off miles back before the merger. The train is either coming out of the Moffat Tunnel, or entering; take your pick!

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