Unit Trains: CSDU and PSCX

NOTE: Information updated 6/09/2020

From the early 1970s onward, unit coal trains were a fact of life on many American railroads.  A revolutionary concept when first introduced, unit trains shipped a single commodity from a single supplier to a single customer on a single waybill, at a rate discounted below the single-car rate.  For our purposes that means that a mine fulfilled a coal sales agreement to a utility by loading a long string of coal hoppers, which the railroad(s) delivered to the customer.  Sounds obvious, but when you’re not billing each individual car separately, it greatly simplifies the accounting and logistics.  For one thing, there is no switching required en route.

In Colorado there existed a pair of such operations that many of us found interesting– the trains of the Colorado Springs Department of Utilities (reporting mark CSUX) and of Public Service Company of Colorado (reporting mark PSCX).  Each utility owned its own fleet of cars, rather than lease cars from a railroad such as the D&RGW.  Each began its operations in the late 1970s; each usually loaded at the Craig branch mines in northwest Colorado; each original fleet was retired during the Ohs (or whatever one wishes to call the decade beginning in the year 2000).

There were also many differences between the two, and I shall go into that below.  So, here are a few of my photos of these two homegrown Colorado unit train operations.

First up is the CSUX train.  The owner, the C.S.D.P.U. at the time, ordered 85 cars from Ortner in 1979.  These were 5-bay rapid discharge open hoppers, with a capacity around 110 tons.  They were numbered 79000-79084.  Each car had large CSPDU letters on the side, bracketed with a pair of lightning bolts.  The train typically ran with about 73 cars, so there were 12 spares to protect the train.



The original cars: CSDPU lettering.  These shots are from April 8th 1984, and show off the original lettering.

Middle: The CSUX train headed for Colorado Springs winds its way down through Coal Creek Canyon. Look carefully above the lead unit and you can see the middle of the train descending the mountain.

BOTTOM: Going-away shot of the power, with the lead car shown in oblique view.

drgw3111_3117 The 73-car train had a pair of GP40-2’s as rear help, tacked on behind the caboose.
Changes and additions

In the late 1980s two changes came for the CSUX train. The first was a legal change to the initials on the side.  Due to some obscure legal challenge, the owning entity made its official name to be Colorado Springs Department of Utilities and the train was repainted to CSDU (removed the P).  The repainting took some time, but by 1990 it was all done.

The second change was the addition of another 40 cars, enabling 105-car trains to be run.  The new cars were all second-hand; quite a number came from the Colorado & Wyoming railway, and were functionally the same as the existing Ortner cars.  They were gradually repainted to match the older cars.  As it turned out, however, six cars never did receive the large CSDU lettering, merely the reporting marks.  These exceptions were car Nos. 79113 and 79120-79124.

CSUX and FRED On July 20th 1994, the CSDU train rumbles through Tunnel 1 as it descends the Front Range.  The image shows no end lettering on this car, but I suspect that is due to the grime coating everything.  Note the end-of-train device on the coupler.
Moff03 I included this shot just because of its uniqueness.  Same day as above, this run of the CSUX train was led by a trio of experimental AC-traction units borrowed from BN. These were the only AC-powered SD60s built (there was a fourth, but it was not on this train).   They had been testing on the line for a couple of weeks at this point.  Here the train is approaching tunnel one after emerging from thick fog.
EMD 7000 DRGW 5365 The interesting stuff kept coming that day. The swing helper consisted of EMD 7000, an SD70M demonstrator unit, paired with D&RGW tunnel motor 5365.

Note the blue placard on the corner of the Ortner hopper at left.  Some cars had a red one.  Somewhere I have the text; it was applied by the manufacturer.

CSUX79101CSUX79106CSUX79120CSUX-99-Rainbowcut Here are several photos taken on September 4th 1999 of a westbound run.

Top: Car 79101, taken at Blue Mountain crossing. This is one of the second-hand cars. Interestingly, compare its paint with the older car to the right; that one’s yellow paint has faded as compared to 79101.

Second from Top: Car 79106.  Here’s a good look at the tubular internal bracing installed between the bays.  Photo taken at Rainbow Cut (Plain siding) as a loaded train passes by on the main.

Second from Bottom: Car 79120, one of the six which never received CSDU lettering.  Note the oxidized paint; evidently the car was merely given its new number and reporting mark, leaving the original faded black paint.

Bottom: Looking uphill.  These are long hoppers, and 105 of them makes for a verrrry long train.

CSDU Tunnel 1 This is the same train, seen from across Coal Creek Canyon’s mouth as the power enters Tunnel 1, and shows off why so many of us love the Moffat line; the scenery is top notch.

The CSDU Ortner cars were retired in April 2000, after 21 years of hard service.  They were replaced that December by smooth-sided 5-bay aluminum hoppers from Johnstown America, which as of this writing have served nearly as long as the original steel cars did.  However, around the same time, CSDU’s Colorado-First policy went by the wayside and they started using more and more Wyoming coal; after the mid-Ohs the CSUX train was no longer loading on the Craig branch at all.

Bond 2002-11-30Bond 2002-11-30 Through sheer luck I did manage to photograph the new cars coming off the Craig Branch at Bond, Colorado.  These two photos were taken from aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr on November 30th, 2002.

The aluminum cars are still in use as of 2023 and can be seen on the Joint Line, or parked at the Nixon powerplant on most days.

CSUX131 On May 22, 2020, I caught a northbound CSUX empty movement near Woodmen Road in the Springs. Here we see car no. 131.  It’s picked up some minor graffiti, but is still in pretty good shape, other than the 20 years of grime it bears.
CSUX178 Here is car 178.  As expected, these cars now have yellow reflective sill stripes– as do most modern freight cars.  The views from 2002 above predate them.
CSUX206 Car 206.  Also on 5/22/2020.
CSUX229 Car 229.  Basically, they all look pretty much the same.
CSUX239_DetailL Car 239, close-up of the car data on the left end.  I noticed that the front half of this train had the rotary ends mostly facing backward; the rear half had them facing forward.  If the plants use the bottom doors, as I believe they do, the rotary coupler is not important.
CSUX239_DetailR Car 239 again, close-up of the data on the right end.  The COTS stencil reveals these were built in 12/2001.

Notice how the three center ribs are centered over the hopper doors.

CSUX246 Car 246.  This photo shows how the green paint has begun to peel on many of the cars; in some cases it’s nearly completely gone from the side panels.
CSUX 259


Apparently CSDU picked up a few replacement cars, formerly XCLX, around 2018 (as wreck replacements).  This accounts for the red ends on these cars– see below.

These views were taken at Martin Drake (from a very sketchy street!) showing the cars as currently in use. Note that No. 257’s doors are hanging open.

The Martin Drake plant closed around Labor Day 2021; the last CSUX coal train to that plant was on August 4th.  The Nixon plant is scheduled for decommissioning but still operates at this time.

The PSCX / XCLX Trains

Public Service Company of Colorado had far more company-owned coal cars than the CSDU did, mainly because it owned more coal-fired powerplants requiring shipment–Cherokee, Comanche, Arapahoe, Valmont, and Minnequa.

Originally the company utilized Rio Grande cars, but as early as 1972 began purchasing its own equipment.  The first three orders were gondolas built by Darby Car.  These were numbered 001 – 364.  In 1978 and 1979 PSCo ordered cars 365 through 742 from Thrall.  One handy spotting feature where these differ from the Darbys  is the single rib at the ends with two crosspieces whereas the Darbys had twin ribs with two crosspieces.

The last cars ordered were a batch of Bethgons, with their distinctive bathtub shape, and slightly lower height.  These were numbered 742 through 873. (PSCX’s Bethgons were about a foot shorter– vertically– than many other Bethgons.)

All PSCX cars were painted black with one red end (to denote the rotary coupler end), and white lettering.  No herald was used, merely the PSCX reporting marks.

As coal plants were shuttered or converted to natural gas and as the cars aged, the fleet was whittled down and replaced with newer equipment.  From what I see on this website, the steel cars were disposed of as follows:

  • Darby gons 001-364 were sold to EISX in 2006.
  • Thrall gons 365-488 were sold to Keywell in 2007.
  • Thrall gons 489-742 were returned to the lessor in 2001.
  • Bethgons 743-873 were sold in 2007 to IFRX.

Now PSCo is now owned by Xcel Energy ( good-performing stock, I must say).  The remaining coal-fired powerplants such as the ones at Pueblo are served by a fleet of aluminum cars wearing XCLX reporting marks.  For a while these continued to load at Energy/Twentymile on the Craig branch or on the North Fork branch, but now seem to load in Wyoming.

SP 9816 SD70M November 1994: Here is an exceedingly-rare movement. I happened to bag this unusual trio of SP SD70M’s leading a PSCX train through Tolland.  This may have been a one-time trip for these shiny new units, which spent most of their careers in California. (11/22/1994)
DRGW5376_5373 The swing helpers on this train were more conventional. SD40T-2 No. 5373 (on the left) and No. 5376 were spliced into the middle of the train.  The gondola to the right of No. 5376 is a Thrall; the one behind 5373 is a Darby.
Tunnel 29 SP9816 PSCX Same train, further down the mountain at Tunnel 29. The car in the immediate foreground is a Darby; the car ahead of it is a Thrall.  The second car back from the power is a Bethgon.
SP326-WP-9908-3 In this view from August 14, 1999 at West Portal, the PSCX train is powered by SP AC4400s, although technically they are owned by Union Pacific by now. (I did get nearly the whole train on video.)
CCCan3 August 14, 2001: a 2+2+2 PSCX train rolls down through Coal Creek Canyon. Each pair was an SP AC4400 and a UP SD9043MAC.
CCCan6 PSCX378 Here’s a backlit broadside look at Thrall gondola No. 378.  To the right is a Darby gon.
Coal Creek Canyon PSCX SP344 UP8041 In this LARGE image, we see the tail end of the train, complete with a pair of Thrall gons (the last one numbered 41-something).

The replacement aluminum cars were built by Johnstown America, FreightCar America, and Trinity as shown here, and lettered XCLX.  Note that I don’t actually know the bounds of the number series, only that the cars I photographed fall within these ranges.  (I didn’t include all of them; these are representative examples.)  Xcel’s territory is quite a bit larger than PSCo’s was, so their overall pool of cars is (or was) considerably larger.

XCLX060563 These five-bay ribbed hoppers are from FreightCar America and were built in 2006.  Number series 060xxx.
XCLX090014 These second-hand ribbed cars were built by Trinity in 2004.  Numbered in the series 0900xx.  Numbers and reporting marks applied via an adhesive patch to cover the original marks.
XCLX090346 These flat-sided cars were built by Johnstown America in 2001.  I suspect they are also second-hand; note the red patches under the lettering.  Numbered in the series 0902xx-0903xx.

If you can locate it, the December 1999 issue of CTC Board Magazine had a couple of great articles on Rio Grande helper operations. Both the PSCX and CSUX trains feature prominently in the photography, and the text was illuminating.