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Go West IV: Utah Railways

AboveA Utah Railway train travels into Provo at track speed. All photos are © 2016 by Michael Polk.

On February 4th, 2016 Michael Polk and I found ourselves along the Southern Pacific’s Donner Pass line, near a location called Yuba Pass. After spending an entire day shooting trains along the San Fransisco Bay area the previous day, we got up early and hiked several miles down the pass to shoot freight trains in the snow. Our first train would be a westbound intermodal train, with the last unit being UP’s Southern Pacific Heritage Unit. We moved several thousand feet to the east, on the opposite side of the second tunnel, when we caught our second train. Leading the way was UP AC4400CW #7219 with a missing nose logo and a friendly crew.24825620885_eb555a5a08_o

AboveOur second train over Donner Pass had a GE leader with a missing nose logo.

We decided to venture further east and grab lunch in Truckee, CA. After eating an incredibly delicious lunch Full Belly Deli, we caught the same train yet again, just east of town. We missed several trains during our lunch break and felt rather defeated. However, our luck would turn around briefly, when we caught both Amtrak California Zephyrs within thirty seconds each other at a location called Hinton, just east of Truckee.

After shooting the two passenger trains, we went back to Donner Pass, but missed two more freight trains and decided to hang our hats for the day. We drove northeast and spent the night in Reno, Nevada. On the 5th of February, we would begin our slow journey back to the heartland, shooting shortlines and mainline freights in Nevada, Colorado, and Utah. We still had at least two weeks left of traveling ahead of us.

At Lovelock, Nevada, we shot a high priority westbound Union Pacific train with three units on the point. Notably, a brand new Tier 4 GEVO was trailing and a DPU was on the rear. Note just how weathered the leader is compared to brand new GEVO. Less than five minutes later, the local would fly by our cameras with an SD40-2 running long hood forward. As a Southern fan, I was delighted… But, Mike was less than pleased.

15 miles to the northeast, we would catch two trains at a location called Oreana, just off I-80. The first train would be one of the railroad’s highest in priority: the eastbound salad shooter, which hauls produce freshly picked and shipped from the west. The short train was equipped with two units, with one being a rear DPU. About ten minutes later, we caught a high priority autorack train with an SD70ACe leading the train west. On the rear, another ACe would be acting as the DPU.

BelowOur second train at Oreana, NV was led by an SD70ACe and another trailing on the rear.

24219118233_e01fa4df87_oFurther east, at a location called Rye Patch, Nevada, we caught another westbound intermodal train with a GE AC45CCTE locomotive leading. Why such a strange classification of a General Electric Evolution Series locomotive? Union Pacific chose to have their ES44AC locomotives equipped with CTE software. Likewise, the AC4400CW was originally classified as a C44AC and the AC4400CW-CTE is classed as C44ACCTE. Currently, UP is the only railroad who uses the CTE software. The older model AC4400CW’s (C44AC’s) are being upgraded with the CTE software and reclassified C44ACCTE’s as well.

Simply put, the CTE software is used to reduce the tractive effort of the locomotive when it is used as a DPU in mixed freight type service. The higher tractive effort of the AC units when mid train or on the rear can be too much for the lighter trains. This is not necessarily the case in bulk commodity service though, such as unit coal or grain trains. The UP System Special Instructions cites that units are limited to 110K in tractive effort when in CTE.

Below LeftOur last train of the day had a GE and EMD duo, as seen here


Later in the day, after eating lunch at Winnemucca and a long afternoon drive on I-80, we caught a short manifest train southwest of Argenta, Nevada along the Humboldt River. It would be our last train of the day and we would continue our drive in the dark to Provo, Utah.

The next morning, February 6th, we found ourselves in Heber City, Utah to chase a unique excursion train through the freshly fallen snow. The Heber Valley Railroad operates weekly excursion trains through the Provo Canyon on sixteen miles of track, using historic diesel locomotives to pull the trips. Once upon a time, they operated a small consolidation locomotive on the property, but it has since been out of service for several years now. Today’s locomotive would be an EMD MRS-1 diesel electric with a unique sounding air whistle.

The 1813 was built in 1952 for the US Army Transportation Corps. They were built with multi gauge trucks, as specified by the US government for operations on wide and narrow gauge lines all over the world in case of another world war. Thirteen of the locomotives were built, with serial numbers 15873–15885. At almost $500,000 each in 1952 dollars, more than three times the price of a standard locomotive of the period, these were very expensive locomotives.

The specifications for the design was requested, with EMD and GE selected as the two manufacturers. Both companies were given contracts to produce a batch of thirteen locomotives which would be evaluated by the USATC. The company that designed the better locomotive would then produce the rest of the required locomotives for the roster.

Both manufacturers delivered their sample batch in 1952, and after testing the GE locomotives, which were actually produced by ALCO as a subcontractor, were declared the winner, and another batch of 70 locomotives were ordered from GE. No more EMD locomotives were built. As delivered, they were painted in gloss black with white numbering and lettering. They were numbered as 1808–1820 in US Army service. These locomotives, when delivered, were stored for many years and never used for military purposes during wartime. Declared un-needed for wartime operations in about 1970, they were then used on various military bases around the United States, with some serving on the Alaska Railroad. Five locomotives are preserved, with three currently in operating condition. Ironically, there are no ALCO versions of the MRS-1 in operation today.

After shooting the short excursion trip, we found ourselves along the Union Pacific’s former Denver, Rio Grande & Western Utah Division at Colton, Utah. On this day, two brand new CSX GEVOs and a BNSF Dash 9 were running eastward, as they made their way over the Soldier Summit line. Today, this important mainline is part of Union Pacific’s modern day Provo Division and hosts the famous Utah Railway.

Today’s Utah Railway operates over 423 miles of track between Grand Junction, Colorado, and Provo, Utah, of which 45 miles are owned, and the remainder operated under agreements with BNSF Railway and Union Pacific. The company still hauls a significant amount of coal; of the 90,000 carloads hauled each year, over two thirds are coal. The Utah Railway also owns a subsidiary railroad, the Salt Lake City Southern Railroad, serving over 30 customers on over 25 miles of track between Salt Lake City and Draper, Utah.

 BelowCSX power was a very surprising sight on Union Pacific’s Provo Division. We drove 3,000 miles for this?!


The line dates back to the early 1880s, when the predecessors of the D&RGW completed a 3ft narrow gauge line through the Royal Gorge, over Marshall Pass, through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, across the Utah desert, and over Soldier Summit. It was rebuilt to standard gauge in 1890, and has since remained a through line, often serving as parts of larger networks including the Gould transcontinental system, Southern Pacific, and now the Union Pacific. The division also included a number of branch lines

Between Woodside and Green River, in Emery County, we caught the train again off Route 191. After our previous shot in Carbonville, we hung our hats for the day, not expecting to see anymore trains. However, to our surprise, we were traveling to our next destination of Moab, Utah when we saw the train out of the corner of our eyes, prompting a few more pictures. Finally, we would end our chase of the manifest at Crescent Junction, Utah during the fabulous golden hour light.


AboveThe BNSF through train, with CSX power, is seen near Green River, UT in this image. At the same location, well-respected railroad photographer Mr. Mel Patrick once shot the D&RGW’s California Zephyr.

The next day, we would awake early to chase Union Pacific’s weekly Potash Local between Brendel and Moab, Utah. This nearly 38 mile long branch line is known as the “Cane Creek Branch” and was built in 1963 by the Denver & Rio Grande Western. This line was one of the last major branches built in the United States, being constructed to service a large Potash plant near Moab. Today’s power consisted of two EMDs, with the leader being a former Denver, Rio Grande & Western unit and the trailing being a former Southern Pacific GP40M-2. It was a pleasant surprise to see EMD four axels as opposed to the usual General Electric six axel power.

Below Right: Michael Polk photographs the pair of Armor Yellow EMD’s through a thick patch of fog.

24589508100_a7c1d0470b_oThis line has a general track speed of thirty miles per hour until it reaches Bootlegger’s Tunnel north of Moab, where the speed restriction is marked at 10 miles per hour. The line has three significant grades, with one near MP12, and the other two on both sides of Seven Mile. The ruling grade is estimated at just over 1%, with the only real siding and station on the line at Seven Mile.

This train operates only one day per week, which is normally Sunday. The only other real traffic occurs at night, where trains serve an UMTRA radioactive waste site north of Moab. The UMTRA facility focuses on the removal radio active soil that had been effected by Uranium ore-tailings that were dumped there by the former Atlas Minerals Corporation. The site is situated on the west bank of the Colorado River. The site encompasses 480 acres, of which approximately 130 acres is covered by a uranium mill tailings pile.

Another interesting feature of the Cane Creek Branch is that the tracks exit the 7,000+ foot Bootlegger’s Tunnel at the west end and travel through Arches National Park. The Corona Arch is clearly visible from the right of way, but because of the long hike back to the cut, we were unable to capture the train with the naturally occurring stone arch. Truly, this is one of the most beautiful stretches of railroad in the United States.

BelowThe Potash Local begins to traverse through the scenic red rocks of Southern Utah, before entering Bootlegger’s Tunnel outside Moab.24360954383_2cc76f8990_oDowngrade, we caught the train several times before it arrived at Intrepid Mining’s Potash Plant. We would break for lunch at Subway in Moab while the train was doing some switching work, but returned to find the train climbing the grade back through the park. We ran up the mountainside and set up our cameras, slightly out of breath. After the train exited the park and traveled through Bootlegger’s Tunnel, we caught it several times outside of Moab, as it made its way back to the mainline at Brendel.

The lead locomotive on the return trip is Union Pacific #1482, a GP40M-2 that was acquired by the Southern Pacific Railroad from the B&O. It was originally built in March of 1969 and was eventually acquired by and rebuilt by the SP, who eventually were taken over by Union Pacific in 1996. The second locomotive, Union Pacific #1363, was originally built by EMD for the DRGW in December of 1972. The locomotive originally was equipped with a nose light that has since been removed. It was acquired by Union Pacific in 1989.

24987813855_fd9fbe1590_oAboveThe Potash Local at Arches National Park.

After our final shot a few miles south of Crescent Junction, we would drive all evening back to Provo, where we would spend the night in a hotel before shooting the Utah Railway the next morning. We would arise early, around 4AM on February 8th, to scout the line and chase the train from Provo to Helper, Utah. On our way, we also saw a Union Pacific train struggling up the grade east. At Carbonville, we got our first daylight glimpse of the Utah Railway’s empty coal drag to Helper.

Near Wellington, we observed the train at the coal tipple, being loaded for the journey back west. The Utah Railway Company was incorporated on January 24, 1912, with the name of Utah Coal Railway, shortened to Utah Railway in May of the same year. It was founded to haul coal from the company’s mines to Provo in reaction to company disappointment in the service and route of the existing Denver and Rio Grande Railroad nearby. It was known for owning the most modern locomotive equipment.

When first built, its large “Santa Fe” (2-10-2) and “Mallet” (2-6-6-2) steam locomotives had automatic stokers, a new invention at the time, and a convenience that drew many firemen from the D&RGW’s Utah Division to the Utah Railway in 1917 when that line opened. In addition, the Utah Railway was the first to equip its air brakes with fourteen-pound tension springs instead of the standard seven-pound springs. The company was one of the earliest coal hauling railroads to employ diesel locomotives, and was early to adopt automation technologies, including the use of flashing rear end devices instead of cabooses.

Today, the Utah Railway is owned and operated by Genesee & Wyoming Inc. under the reporting mark “UTAH.” Primarily a coal-hauling railroad, other commodities transported include aggregates, brick and cement, building materials, chemicals, coal and petroleum products. The UTAH was acquired by Genesee & Wyoming in 2002.

BelowA matching set of UTAH power rolls downgrade on a cold, windy February afternoon.

24813272661_4254c40f67_oG&W has slowly started to repaint their locomotives and for many railfans, it’s a sad sight to see. For me, as a big fan of their paint scheme, I would have gladly taken whatever orange was scattered in the consist. Mike, however, was hoping and praying all week for a completely matching consist.

He would get his wish, when the crew switched out the orange locomotives from the lead power and transferred them to the mid-train helper crew. All of the extra switching movements didn’t make much sense, unless they were taking out the orange power out just for us, because it caused a lot of extra work for the crew. Nonetheless, we were very happy and ready for the chase back to Provo.

The City of Helper was settled in 1881, when the Denver, Rio Grande & Western arrived. The name is derived from the railroad, since helper locomotives were tagged onto the rear of westbound freight trains to make the grade over Solider Summit, the fifth-highest summit or pass on a U.S. transcontinental railroad mainline after Tennessee Pass, Moffat Tunnel, Sherman Hill Summit, and Raton Pass.

Helper began to develop as a population center. By 1887 the D&RGW had built twenty some homes, with more built later in the year. The railroad planned to make Helper a freight terminal after the rail lines were changed from narrow to standard gauge. The changeover process began in 1889 and was completed in 1891. In 1892, Helper was designated the division point between the eastern and western D&RGW terminals in Grand Junction, Colorado, and Ogden, Utah, respectively, and a new depot, hotel, and other buildings were constructed.

The town has experienced growth and change throughout its 130+ year history, with coal production having increased during World War II and continuing strong through the 1960s, although with significant periods of uncertainty and temporary decline. Not all of the communities surrounding Helper were able to weather these difficult periods of economic instability, and the town is within a few miles of a large number of former coal mining settlements that were abandoned between the 1930s and 1970s, and are now ghost towns. These towns include Castle Gate, Coal City, Consumers, National, Peerless, Rains, Royal, and Standardville.

Today, Union Pacific still has a large presence in Helper, as evident by the many locomotives and cars idling in the yard. Amtrak’s California Zephyrs stop here, and a frequent flow of daily freight trains are still prominent in town. After catching the train several times between Helper and Soldier Summit, the train stopped for a crew change. This location is at the peak of the hill. The locomotive leading the train today is an MK5000C and is a 5,000HP North American diesel-electric locomotive developed by MK Rail. At the time of its introduction in 1994, the MK5000C was the most powerful single prime mover diesel-electric locomotive ever made, a title it would hold for only for one year until GE Transportation Systems released its competing 6,000HP AC6000CW model in 1995. The MK5000C appears similar to many 1990s era EMD products, having a fuel tank and long hood that appear very similar to EMD designs. Internally, however, the original designs for the MK5000C shares very little in common with any EMD product.

In the early 1990s MK Rail, a long time locomotive remanufacturer, announced its plan to compete directly with EMD and GE by beginning its own high-horsepower locomotive program, starting with a 5,000HP-DC drive locomotive, with plans of continuing on with the construction of 5,500HP and 6000HP-AC drive locomotives in the future. In response to the MKRail program, GE announced the GE AC6000CW, and EMD announced the 5,000HP SD80MAC, and later the 6,000HP SD90MAC.

A total of 6 examples were built, three in August 1994 for demonstration on the SP, and another three in August 1995 for demonstration on the UP. Due to termination of the MK Rail high horsepower program, neither of the railroad companies purchased the model, and the units were returned after one year of demonstrations. Production was stopped after the sale of MK Rail in 1996, and 3 more partially built units sat in storage until 2001 when their frames were scrapped by MK Rail successor MotivePower Industries.

BelowMK50-3 #5004 slowly picks up speed as it leads the train over Soldier Summit, shortly after a crew change.

24279755703_d8d4ee941f_oIn 2001 The Utah Railway tested and later acquired all 6 units from Wabtec, the owner of MotivePower Industries. However, after one year of operation, all units were out of service due to problems with the main bearings on the Cat 3612 diesel engine and Kato main alternator. The units were returned to Wabtec and had the Cat 3612 and Kato main alternator removed and replaced with an EMD AR11 main alternator.

At the same time, the engine blocks were replaced by EMD 3500HP 16-645F3B diesel engines from 5 retired Union Pacific EMD SD50 and 1 retired Union Pacific EMD GP50 locomotives. The 6 units were reclassified with the designation MK50-3 and are now back in service with the Utah Railway.

Downgrade, we would catch the train several times as it made its way back to Provo. For a full disclaimer, some of the audio was dubbed in this portion of the video because of the horrible wind noise we suffered throughout the evening. Even with a windscreen, it made the audio recorded from this segment very rough and I felt the need to dub it out.

After catching the train at grade level, we shot it just east of Thistle, before the train enters the tunnel off Highway 89. We had to hike down the edge of a steep hill in deep snow to grab this shot. After the train cleared, Mike was struggling the climb back up the hill. After finally getting back to the car from the bitter cold, we drove straight to Provo where we caught the train at track speed one final time. You can watch the full video below.

About Delay In Block Productions

Delay in Block productions is a video production company company specialized in high-definition railroad photos and videos.

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