May is always a busy month around here, because it's the last month in the fiscal year at work, there's almost always one last software load of the fiscal year, and I have a pile of vacation build up I need to use before June. So usually the first two weeks of May I'm wherever they've picked as an alpha test site, and the last two weeks are wherever my wife and I are going on vacation. This time, it turned out to be Tampa for work (30-Apr through 9-May), Alaska for vacation(16-29 May). Nothing like covering the country, corner to corner.
At first, I honestly have to say I wasn't that excited about the prospects of going to Tampa, at least from a railfanning aspect. My initial thoughts were that it was so far down the state that traffic would be maybe a daily manifest or two and that would be about it. After all, what sort of rail-hauled commodities could possibly originate in Tampa?
Phosphate, and lots of it. The Bone Valley region immediately west of Tampa (about 20 miles) is one of the larger phosphate sources on earth, and currently provides nearly 75% of the US phosphate supply and 25% of the world supply (as of 2000, per the Florida Department of Environmental Protection). Most of it (90%) is used in inorganic fertilizer for farms, but some also goes to feed the chemical industry as well. The majority is hauled as a white rock in curious little ore-hopper-looking cars from the Bone Valley over a rat's nest of CSXT branches to the Port of Tampa, where it gets transloaded onto large ocean freighters to be distributed worldwide (and around the US). While there are cetainly other commodities hauled out of the Tampa area (like orange juice), phosphate is definitely the key commodity here.
While I could go through every day's experiences, you'd be reading a lot of, "Headed out to Mulberry, caught a train, caught another train, caught another one while following the previous one, poked around looking for more trains, ate lunch, found a train, etc..." Any way you look at it, that's not very interesting. So I'll hit the highlights, cover the interesting days, and hopefully give you an overview of what I saw and how best to see it yourself. Be sure to see the next section as well - I've included more photos of the area that didn't fit into the storyline.
The Bone Valley system is a tangle of branches, and without a decent map it will take a fan probably three or four days to figure out where all the lines go and how the system is actually operated. (Hopefully you'll get something useful out of this trip report, and unlike me, you can start your productive railfanning almost immediately.) For additional background information, have a look at Kentucky86's excellent Tampa Railfanning page (and around the rest of the site for other Florida railfanning bits), and CSX in the Bone Valley. The map seen in Photo #1 is copied from the last site - I attempted to contact the owner, but the email bounced and as such I fear the site might, too, disappear. It's by far the most useful map I've found of the area in terms of railways, and my trip would have been much more difficult without it. I also strongly suggest a DeLorme topo map of the area - while the rail lines aren't perfectly accurate, it will help you navigate the maze of backroads needed to follow the lines through the area.
The entire system is mainly based around the small town (and yard) of Mulberry, FL. I arrived in Tampa late Monday afternoon, and had actual work to do before turning in for the night. As it turned out, the FedEx station I was primarily working at backs up to CSX's Yeoman yard near Brandon. During the morning sort, while not actually working, I'd wander out in the parking lot to see either the yard switcher running around or a phosphate train going in or out of the yard. After the sort, I headed east towards Mulberry on FL-60 and just started wandering around, learning the area. Even with that I had some amount of luck. The first train of the trip was a local job pulled by one of CSX's SD70Ms in the new YN3, "Dark Future" scheme just south of Mulberry near Achan. (Photo #2) From there, I headed up to Plant City and followed 574 back to Tampa, only seeing a couple of orange work train GEs in the process. I couldn't be out long - I needed to be around Tampa to monitor any issues arising and to move my coworkers without rental cars around town.
Wednesday dawned early with my arrival at the station around 0545h. I'd been warned the day before that if I waited much after 0600h, travelling across Tampa would suddenly become a slow, maddening experience, and as I found out later in the week, this was most certainly right. I was staying on the far side of Tampa, near the airport so that my car-challenged co-worker could get to the ramp easily. By Wednesday, though, we'd cured his vehicle problems and we were both free to move as we wanted. With the software passing with flying colors on Tuesday, I sat through the morning sort and shot out the door towards Mulberry about fifteen minutes after the last van left.
Sitting on the south end yard lead in Mulberry were a pair of YN3 SD70Ms with a mixed about to depart for somewhere. The south yard lead crosses FL-60 just before you enter town, and breaks out into a wye just south of the highway. The wye is easily accessed, as local roads run through it. (Not around - through!) I was glad to see 4678 again, as my overhead shot from the day before wasn't the greatest, and seeing the new YN3 units in pairs wasn't a bad bonus, either. Given a few minutes, they completed whatever they were doing (probably a brake test) and headed down the west leg of the wye to enter the line towards Tampa (Photo #3).
There's a local road that leaves Florida 60 right before the wye (and off of it you get to the wye itself), but this road leads somewhere far more important for the Bone Valley railfan - Edison and Welcome Junctions. Most trains moving through the valley go through these two junctions, separated by only a mile with a small yard in between. If you railfan the valley for any period of time you'll find yourself checking through here often. It's also a good place to trade off between a Tampa-bound (westbound) load and an empty eastbound train, as they often meet here. (Photo #4)
Edison connects the northern and southern lines through the valley. The southernmost line serves the New Wales and Agrico mines and connects with the north-south line as it passes through Bradley Junction. The northern line runs through the mine at Nichols, connects to the yard and to the north-south Achan sub at Mulberry, serves a couple of mines between Mulberry and Bartow, and then turns south for Fort Meade and Bowling Green. Hanging off the Achan Sub is a branch out to the Green Bay mine and a disused branch to the Bonnie Mine. Because of the north-south line and Achan sub, trains can follow all sorts of confusing and circuitous routings through the valley.
Welcome Junction, on the other end of the yard, routes trains to and from Tampa. One leg leads to Valrico Junction, where it joins a line from Plant City and heads into Yeoman Yard and the Port of Tampa. The other branch heads north to Plant City, where it connects with the other main heading into Tampa's Uceta Yard (and also joins the connector heading back to Valrico, if you want to run trains in circles).
After figuring out how to follow the YN3s out of Mulberry, I noticed they stopped at the south end of Nichols awaiting something eastbound. A little further down the road, a mile or so from Edison, CSXT 8009 and 8013 showed up with an empty headed back for the mines. I followed this train back into Mulberry, where it went through town and down the Achan Sub. Not easily followed, I gave up for a bit, grabbed lunch, and headed south to where I'd seen the YN3 SD70M the day before (the bridge over the line on County 640 just west of Florida 37). Sure enough, 8009 and train were headed for the Green Bay mine. I caught them again near the disused junction to the Bonnie Mine (Photo #6)
The rest of Wednesday was relatively unremarkable. A train here, a train there. That night, with a little time left before I had to return to the station, I caught my one and only train heading into the ports at Sutton Junction, just south of Florida 60 along US 41. (Photo #7)
As you can probably tell so far, power in the valley right now is primarily EMD, either the old workhorses (SD40-2s) or the latest and greatest (SD70Ms). CSXT acquired a good number of the EMD SD70M demos and lease units, and these are now being utilized in phosphate service around the region. Consequently, at least for the moment, there are all sorts of different paint schemes running around, including YN3, YN2 (Photo #8), EMD burgandy (Photo #9), and EMD burgandy-grey-silver (Photo #10). The SD70Ms and SD40-2s seem to split the trains about evenly, but they also only run with their own kind - I never saw a mixed consist while I was there.
GE power, while less common, does occassionally show up. I found CSXT 7313, an ex-Conrail Quality unit, leading a loaded phosphate train near Bradley Junction on the morning of 2-May-2002 (Photo #11). The only other GEs I saw in the entire time I was there were to CSXT widecabs in Mulberry coming off the Achan Sub (Photo #11). For someone who doesn't care for the aesthetic characterists of GE power, this was a great change from the gaggles of UP GEs that pull coal through Colorado.
Thursday, the second of May, I did a little railfanning in the valley (as evidenced by the ex-Conrail GE above), and then headed down to Fort Myers to see what I could find on the Seminole Gulf. While I followed the entire line from Arcadia to south Fort Myers, the only sign I saw of anything was in the Ft. Myers yard itself. (Photo #13) Almost the entire roster was there, including a couple of GPs that had turned their last miles years ago, and were now resting under the trees and providing parts (572 and 574). Also of interest was former BN, former Bay Colony Alco 2501, sitting and apparently rusting away. I find it curious that an all-GP7/9/10 railroad would buy an Alco, of all things, but there must have been some reason for it. For those wanting to see the SGLR, the whole yard is pretty easy to photograph, as there's a canal and road that runs along the west side. I just parked and walked the length of the yard, photographing pretty much everything. I didn't want to include everything on this page for fear of running out of room, so I've included most of the roster in chapter 2.
Friday didn't yield much railfanning, as we went over to Cape Canaveral during the day (and no, there weren't any Florida East Coasts in sight). The weekend was spent in Key West, which gave me some time to see Flagler's Folly, the old FEC Key West extension. Completed in 1912 and destroyed in 1935 (by a hurricane), the Key West extension has always fascinated me as an odd railroad to nowhere that ran over a lot of expensive bridges. So much so that I've dedicated an entire photo section to it in chapter 3. From there, the next week was mainly more of the same - out to Mulberry (Photo #14), watch a few trains, and head back to Tampa for work. While it wasn't the most scenic or exciting of all railfanning trips, it was somewhat nice and relaxing to have a captive pool of unit trains nearby, with the occasional local mixed (Photo #15) thrown in. (That local, at Bartow, appeared right in the middle of my daily afternoon conference call with my co-workers. I believe the comment was something along the lines of, "Are those train horns in the background? Oh yeah, this is Nathan we're talking to..." There's nothing like trying to juggle a cell phone and a camera while sprinting across the parking lot.) The Bone Valley is, amongst other things, definitely an interesting operation, and despite my initial doubts, provided quite a time railfanning around Tampa.
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|All the images here are Copyright 2002 Nathan D. Holmes
Note this doesn't mean you can't use them - In fact, I encourage people to use and enjoy them.
I'm placing them under the same license as RailARC images. Please feel free to copy, use, and distribute anything you find here, as long as I'm given credit for its creation.
All shots in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS D30 with a Tamron 28-300mm F3.5-6.3.