With the Montrose Local turned and headed back to Grand Junction at about 1330h, I finally managed to head back towards GJ and eventually Utah. Seeing at it was already well after noon, I really had no hopes of catching either the Potash Local or the returning Friday Dirt Train. After all, the Potash turn was usually back at Brendel (where the Cane Creek Branch joins the mainline) at latest by 1500h, and the Dirt Train is usually headed back between 1500-1600h. So, I put on a little driving music, reset the scanner to the mainline frequencies, and headed west.
Not quite as regular as clockwork, I met the Potash turn just east of Thompson at nearly 1530h. Based on the radio chatter, it sounds like it took quite a white back at Brendel switching out tankers of fuel for the local truck stop. As has been typical lately, the turn was powered by a pair of UP SD40-2s. Even though these could be considered on the endangered list in their own right, there are still a lot more of them than there are Rio Grandes floating around. I'm sure I'll regret not shooting them someday, just as I regret not shooting the solid sets of CNW Dash-8s and the gaggles of BN SD40-2s that used to run the Chicago-Minneapolis route. That's the odd thing about railfanning, at least for me; I tend to go after the rare and unusual today, missing out on what will be rare and unusual tomorrow - at least until tomorrow becomes today and the whole vicious cycle repeats. So, got it - pass on one pair of snoot-nosed UP SD40-2s.
Everything between Brendel and Mounds might as well have been part of Tennessee Pass - absolutely dead quiet. Miles and miles of desolate desert railway with dark signals and only the occasional string of stored cars to break the long stretches. An hour and some odd minutes later, though, just as I passed the road down to Mounds, I heard the afternoon Dirt Train call in to clear up his Sunnyside Branch warrant. First thought: Hot damn, he's running late, I can still catch him on the way back to Helper. Second thought: Crap, I just shot past the road at 70 MPH, and there's too much traffic to turn it around. Third thought: There's a gigantic coal-hauling semi about to pull out in front of me. AAAGGH!
Fortunately, I realized that it was probably smarter to go up to Wellington and work back down Wellington Canyon than to try to catch up with him from the back. Also, probably driven either by my colorful language or sheer force of will, the truck managed enough speed up the hill to pass the offending tractor-trailer. A few clouds were starting to set in a bit by the time I actually got down into Wellington Canyon, but the light still wasn't that bad. I set up my shot on a hill I'd had my eye on for several trips and waited. The wait wasn't to be long, though, for as soon as I reached the top three headlights appeared in the distance. It didn't take long and the four motors were accelerating past me (Photo #32) - the track speed goes up near this curve, and I'm sure the crew was anxious to get back to Helper and tie up for the night.
I did manage to beat them back to Helper, but only because the dispatcher held them at Maxwell while a westbound cleared up through the yard. As soon as they had the train cut off and tied down, Rio Grande 5401, 5371, 5377, and 5390 were parked back at the engine shed for the night. (Photo #33) This left only one question - where was 5349? A week before I'd arrived, Union Pacific had dropped DRGW 5349 off at Helper for some unknown reason. For the first time in nearly 18 months, Helper, UT, was once again home to more than the basic four tunnel motors that seem to have taken up permanent residence there.
My excitement about possibly seeing all four operate together was suddenly starting to fade - perhaps 5349 had been whisked away again as quickly as it had come; I hadn't checked the trace since Thursday. There was always the possibility it got put into helper service, but that seemed unlikely until I remembered hearing that a big GE had suffered a crankcase explosion earlier in the day. I was still quite a ways out from Helper, but I managed to make out that much on the radio. Still, on the off chance that it had gone up the hill, I should check...
Twenty minutes later I was pleasantly surprised that, sure enough, sitting on the house track at Soldier Summit was 5349. It was just sitting there, all by itself, with nobody around. Apparently it had been tacked on some train earlier in the day that needed a little extra shove and was subsequently dropped at the Summit. I couldn't resist walking up to it and getting photos from all around. 5349 was the last surviving T-2 still in Rio Grande paint that I don't have photos of, and consequently I was very pleased that it was the unit chosen to add to the Helper fleet. (I learned later that a few minutes after I walked back to the truck and headed back to Helper, an eastbound light power move stopped to collect the unit. Sometimes my luck in timing amazes even me.)
Meanwhile, down at Helper, a coal load (UP 6618 west) out of Castle Valley was headed into Helper to pick up manned Utah helpers. Don't let the power fool you - despite the fact it's powered by large UP AC motive power, this train is 100% Utah Railway. While I was out there, five of the Utah's six very unique MK5000Cs were out of commission due to broken crankshafts and the resultant engine damage that comes with that. I believe that the Utah was using run-through UP power to help it through its power crunch, as this is the usual IPPX train that I normally see powered by 4-5 Utahs. Regardless, there was some amount of bitter irony watching a UP-powered coal train drag to a stop and have six manned helpers inserted (Photo #36) while the old Rio Grandes sat quietly over by the engine shed. It was still good, though, to watch six second generation diesels (two SD40-2s, three Aussie SD50s, and one ex-ATSF SD45) blast out of Helper. Those things sound at least twice as big as an SD90MAC, and while I don't envy the crews that have to ride them up the hill, it's a great sound as you're standing trackside. With that, the sun was dropping over the mesas and my stomach was reminding me that it wanted a little attention after I'd ignored it through breakfast and lunch. So I went back, checked into the local Price River National 9, grabbed the biggest hunk of beef on a bun that I could from A&W across the road, and retired for the night to review the day and catch some sleep.
Saturday dawned way too early, that's all I'm going to say. Finally, a day I could sleep in, and what do I do? Get up an hour before I usually do to chase a train full of garbage across the desert. Makes sense, right? Based on who had reported in as coming to Helper, I expected a full foaming contingent to be waiting upon my arrival to the yard - Robert Harmen and David from Grand Junction; Jim Belmont, Steve Seguine, and Dave Gayer from the Salt Lake area; Kevin Morgan of DRGW.ws fame, and myself. Of those, only Jim's group of three was sitting there in the blue VW Bug when I pulled in. Who knew - maybe they were all out in the desert already set up and waiting. Still, just as I arrived they were pulling the power off the engine track (Photo #37) and preparing to get underway. Mark up another one to impeccable, yet completely accidental timing.
It was going to be a beautiful morning to get a few shots down south of Wellington canyon. Rather than wait around, I said goodbye to Jim, Steve, and Dave, and hit the road in an effort to get set up well ahead of the train and stake out my spot before anyone else got any bright ideas. Just south of Wash, I did see that Robert and David were setting up high on one of the hillsides. I intended to return back to near my spot from the previous afternoon, so I didn't stop to talk. The spot in question is near MP607, I believe, and is a hill with two cuts through it - the one the modern mainline uses, and the one the old main used to use. The whole thing is on a sweeping curve with short trestles at both ends of the cut. I parked by the east/south end and lugged the two cameras up to the top of the hill.
I was a bit concerned initially, as some high clouds were slowly rolling through my sunlight, but by the time 5390 east came around the curve it was no longer an issue. My favorite photo of the trip comes in with Photo #38 - the Saturday morning Dirt Train in what can only be called perfect light. The parting shot wasn't bad either (Photo #39). Note the old alignment visible off to the right in #39 - several of these realignments are visible out in the desert south of Wellington, including several long-missing bridges. Oh yes, and if you like the still photos, you'll love the video - Photo #40.
After a brief stop at Mounds to let the train clear the grade crossing, the pursuit was back on. Up, down, around, and over the hills towards the Grassy Creek trestle. Helper had suffered quite a rain and hailstorm on Thursday night, as evidenced by all the leaves on the ground around town. What I hadn't connected with it, though, is that Grassy Creek might actually be a creek, rather than just a dry streambed. The road and stream cross under the railway at the same point, which usually isn't a problem because it's just a dry wash. That reality that it now wasn't came into perfect focus when Jim's blue bug came to a rather abrupt stop in front of me. I looked up to see not only water in the streambed, but deep ruts through mud on the other side. Oh goody, just what I wanted... I stopped, dropped it into 4WD, went around Jim and hit the mud running, hoping it would carry me through without problems. Like any big truck, the Yukon is okay only as long as you're still moving. Once you stop moving, you start sinking, and from that point, you're screwed.
There was a lot of spinning and sliding, and the tires were chewing out mud left and right, but I did make it through. (Photo #41) The SLC group had abandoned the Bug and crossed on foot to get their shots. Knowing that the train was only making 15 up the branch, but those guys would never make it through or around in time, I cleared as much junk from the back seat as I could and went back for them. My only comment to them was, "If something crawls out from under the seat, just throw it in the back with the rest." Now for the bad news. Jim was out of film, and his film was in the car on the other side of the mudhole. So I backed up, put it back in four-wheel drive, and floored it. Aside from hitting it a little hard and the wave of mud that rose up and over the truck, everything came out fine for both trips through the mud. And Steve, if you're out there reading this, I'm sorry you had to be a front seat passenger to my driving, especially out muddin'. As I mentioned later - SUVs as God intended them be used.
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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 Sigma 28-80mm f3.5-5.6 lens or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.