Cane Creek Branch Facts
The Cane Creek Branch is 35.77 miles of undulating railway. It comes off the the Utah desert mainline (D&RGW Utah Division, Sub 5, now UP's Green River Subdivision) at Brendel, UT, and follows US 191 south towards Moab. A few miles north of town, the line veers west through the 7050-foot Bootlegger Tunnel, where it continues about five more miles down the Colorado River canyon to Potash. The line has three significant summits - one at about mile 12, and the other two on both sides of Seven Mile. I think the ruling grade is about 1.2%. The only real siding and station on the line (other than at the ends), is Seven Mile, which has both a siding and a spur over to a loading ramp, such as would be used by trucks to dump rock into railcars. The route has three other, less official stations - Arch, at MP 10, Lee, at MP 18, and Emkay around MP 28. The line actually looks pretty boring until you get down past about MP 20 - that's where the scenery really starts to dwarf the train. The entire route has a timetable speed of 30mph, but there are various slow spots, especially in the deep cuts where rocks on the track are an ever-present danger.
To understand why anybody would want to build a mine in such a remote place and in such close proximity to national parks, we need to go back about 300 million years ago, to the middle of the Pennsylvanian Period. (I'm not a geologist, and don't know squat about rocks, but we'll see if we can get this right...) During this period, most of Utah to the north was covered by a sea. The area where Moab sits now was a large, low-lying depression in the Earth's surface, known as the Paradox Basin. However, between this primitive ocean and the present-day Moab region was an uplifted ridge, which essentially isolated the Paradox Basin like a giant, inland lagoon. Periodically, over millions of years, water would flood over and submerge the Basin, and when it evaporated, leave behind deposits of salts, gypsum, and shales. Over time, this layer of salt deposits would be buried under thousands of feet of overlying rock, mainly sandstone deposits from the Permian and Jurassic Periods. This deposit would, aptly enough, be called the Paradox Formation. Salt deposits, under adequate pressure, are plastic and will flow. This movement, and the resulting displacement and faulting of the overlying rock, is responsible for much of the scenery in the region today. This flow is also why the Paradox Formation is thousands of feet thick in places, making for promising extraction prospects.
Potash is the name for a whole class of moderately refined mixes of potassium salts. It primarily consisting of some mix of potassium oxide and potassium chloride depending on application (K20 tends to be agricultural, KCl industrial), but also of other potassium salts and impurities. Primarily, it's used as a fertilizer. As it turns out, just such minerals exist deep underground near Moab, UT, along the banks of the Colorado River and between two national parks. However, in the early 1960s, Texas Gulf Sulfur, Inc., started construction on an underground potash mine about fifteen miles down the Colorado River from Moab, UT, about halfway between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. In order to haul out the products of this endeavour, the Denver & Rio Grande Western brought in Morrison-Knutsen to build a branch from their mainline at Brendel, UT (otherwise known as Crescent Junction), some 38 miles south to the mine.
Since its construction some four decades ago, the mine has undergone numerous changes. The $25 million dollar facility started producing rail traffic in 1965, although the line was completed around 1963. Originally projected to produce 12,000 tons of potash every day (well over a full unit train for the time), the justification for the rail line was obvious. However, to my knowledge, this full capacity was never achieved, or if it was, it was not achieved over a long period. In 1970, due to various factors, the mine was converted from using actual miners excavating the minerals deep in the earth to a system of solution mining. Basically, now they use wells to inject water deep into the Paradox Formation, which dissolves the salts into the water, forming a brine. The briny fluid is then extracted through other wells and pumped it into giant ponds. Since Moab has extremely low humidity and some 300 days of sun every year, these ponds act has giant solar collectors, evaporating off the water and leaving a bed of salt crystals behind. These are then scooped up with large vehicles and hauled off to the plant, where the materials are further refined and separated into the various products. Texas Gulf Sulfur eventually sold out, and today the mine is owned by Intrepid Mining, LLC, and operated as Moab Salt. Today, with the higher price commanded by potash, the mining activity is once again expected to increase.
Cane Creek Branch Railfanning Today
Railfanning the line is easy. Currently, the Potash Local, known officially as Union Pacific's LJC53, runs once a week on Friday out of Grand Junction. Power is typically two six axle units, and can range from junker SD40-2s to the latest UP AC power. Departure times out of Grand Junction range from 0730h to 1100h, but have been on the later end of that range lately. If you see something in the GJ yard with two six-axle motors and some cylindrical hoppers and tank cars, there's a good bet that that's the Potash Local. Once they depart, they typically take 90 minutes to get to Brendel with no delays, but the run down the branch and back takes about five hours and another 90 minutes back to Grand Junction. Throw in a few minutes switching out tankers of fuel at the Brendel yard, and you have a full day for the local.
Atlas Uranium Mill Tailings Cleanup Operations
Sitting between US Highway 191, Utah Highway 279 and the Colorado River just north of Moab is the site of the former Atlas Mineral Corporation's Moab Uranium Mill. (Here on Google Maps...) Founded in the 1950s to mine a nearby rich uranium ore body, the mill closed in 1984 and left some 12 million tons of tailings behind, all mildly radioactive due to all manner of left over radioisotopes. While capped, the threat remained that the pile would be swept into the Colorado by flooding. In 2001, the Department of Energy assumed responsibility for cleaning up the site.
The current plan is to load tailings into special covered railcars on a new spur at the east end of Bootlegger Tunnel. This is just a short haul up the hill to the north of the site. From there, the waste will travel 30 miles north to Brendel (aka Crescent Junction), where it will be unloaded and deposited into an engineered storage cell for permanent disposal. The haul will occur, obviously, over the former Rio Grande Cane Creek Branch. For more information about the transportation plan, see the DOT exemption granted for hauling this stuff.
Regardless, two Whitcomb RS4TCs have been sent west to handle the cleanup - OFHX 1250 and 1258. These were previously used to clean up the Fernald, Ohio, uranium mill. I've read that they are (or at least will be) considered contaminated, so they'll be stored in a fenced area at the end of the branch. (Thanks to CP1400 on RailroadForums.com for that.) At least 1258, and reportedly also 1250, arrived in Grand Junction as of Friday, 19-Apr-2007. Matt and Wayne Darling sent photos of the OFHX 1258 in last week's Potash Local - see here. It was apparently left behind, though, and will likely go out along with 1250 on Friday, 27-Apr-2007's train.
Cane Creek Branch Timetable