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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.