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Chasing Amtrak

Denver to Glenwood Springs

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When it comes to many things in life, I am a strong believer in the saying "nothing lasts forever". I think that trains are probably a prime example of this expression. These days, when I head out to shoot trains in the Denver area, I am basically stuck with two choices: UP or BNSF. On some days, it can be difficult to get motivated over AC4400's and SD70MAC's everywhere you look. However, it is the above phrase that gets me out.

When my dad was taking pictures of the Grande week in and week out in the late 1970's and early 1980's, he said he would love to see a UP SD45 on the Moffat. At the time, who could blame him!? Sure, Rio Grande was without a doubt his favorite, but since it was "the norm" back then, a UP SD45 would have been a nice change of pace. Today, a Rio Grande SD45 on the Moffat, while impossible (or higly, highly improbable), would get railfans from every surrounding state flocking to Colorado.

This past winter, I applied the "nothing lasts forever" phrase to the Ski Train. True, it does not appear that the Ski Train is in any immediate threat of disappearing, but railfans in 1975 were sure that the Rio Grande Zephyr would be around for many, many years to come. Of course, it was gone by 1983, just eight years after saying that. Now that the Ski Train has completed its 66th Winter Season, I am trying to concentrate a bit more on another train that could potentially be gone in eight years...the California Zephyr. Now, eight years is just an arbitrary number; I have no inside information. The point is that the future is unpredictable.

Knowing this, I spent this past weekend concentrating my efforts on the California Zephyr on the Moffat. Now, Number 5 (the westbound Zephyr) is relatively easy to catch in the morning. It actually runs on time (or within an hour of on time) more often then not. Number 6, on the other hand, regularly runs three to six hours late (and it is usually worse in the winter months). So, as you might imagine, this past weekend was focused on Number 5. On Saturday, I took my two daughters (3 1/2 years and 6 months) and we went out to Leyden to wait for Number 5.

One of the big problems with going after either Zephyr in eastern (to central) Colorado is that the sun is all wrong almost the entire day. Both trains run away from the sun for a good portion of the day. Knowing this, it is sometimes easier to get shots of Amtrak going away from you, rather than shots of Amtrak coming toward you! After shooting Amtrak leaving Leyden heading west, we also headed west out to Plainview for a shot of the train coming through Rainbow Cut. Once again, the best angle for the time of day was the back side of Amtrak running west through the S-Curve.

As it turns out, there was a westbound coal empty that was holding the main to let Amtrak pass. This suited me just fine as it did two things: First, it put Amtrak on the track closer to me. Second, it added another train to the picture! After shooting Amtrak at Plain, I decided to call it a day. The girls, while they enjoy train chasing, were getting somewhat bored. Add to that the fact that, by the time we got back to Highway 72, Amtrak was already heading through Crescent, and there was no point in continuing west.

This brings us to Sunday morning. With the girls spending the night over at their grandparents house Saturday night (and spending all day Sunday there), I had the day free to chase Amtrak until dinner time. I invited Damian to come along with me, and at 8:30am, we were heading up Floyd Hill on I-70 westbound. At the same time, Amtrak was coming through Leyden heading west, right on time. With that kind of a lead, however, we weren't too worried about beating Amtrak over the divide to Winter Park.

We took I-70 to US-40 and then drove over Berthound Pass down into Winter Park. After parking and a quick hike, we were down along the tracks (where the Ski Train stops to allow its passengers to de-train). As it turns out, we really beat Amtrak! When we got to the tracks, we estimated that Amtrak was in between Rollins and Tolland. We were intrigued to discover that we could tell when Amtrak actually entered the tunnel...not by any signals or scanner, but by the light exhaust that suddenly started being pushed out the west portal. This may have been more of a symptom of the curtain rising at the east end and not Amtrak actually entering (the natural current of air through the tunnel is east to west when the curtain is open), but it was interesting nonetheless.

About 14 minutes after we started observing the [light] exhaust blowing out the west portal, we heard "Number 5 to the conductor, let's go to 54/54" over the scanner. A headlight reflected off the rails and a the sound of an AirChime K5LA horn (the standard horn on Amtrak P42's). Moments later, the head end of AMTK 183 (the lead P42) poked out the west portal of the tunnel. Amtrak passed the still-busy Winter Park resort (people trying to get in the last bit of Spring Skiing before the resort closed to skiers for the summer) as it headed west toward its station top in Fraser.

After Amtrak passed us at Winter Park, we hustled to get back up to the parking lot. It took a little while to get out of the parking lot and back to US-40. Unfortunately, the lot we parked in was somewhat narrow, so it took a few manuvers to get the truck turned around and on the move. By the time we got over to Fraser, Amtrak was already halfway done with its station stop. We pulled in and went up to the platform for a few shots before Amtrak continued west. Once again, Fraser is another example of the difficulty one can have with lighting. While the station-side of Amtrak was well lit for the stop, the front of Amtrak was in the shadows.

Less than two minutes after we got to Fraser, Amtrak gave two blows of the horn and slowly started pulling out of the depot. The next stop would be Granby, roughly 15 miles west. We got back on US-40, which parallels the tracks between Fraser and Tabernash. It didn't take Amtrak long to speed up to 45 MPH on the quick trip over to Tabernash. I took a few "grab" shots of Amtrak out the windshield, but none were shots I really considered to be post-worthy!

At Tabernash, the tracks disappear into Fraser Canyon, while US-40 goes around the canyon on the opposite side of the mountains. We would not see Amtrak again until Granby. This is another section where getting ahead of Amtrak is not much of a problem. Once we were in Granby, we had time to fill up the truck and grab some snacks for the trip ahead. Knowing that we wanted to head for Bond, we wouldn't have much of an opportunity for stop for snacks (or gas) after Granby. Kremmling would be the last chance, but we knew Amtrak would be much harder to catch after Byers Canyon, so Granby it was!

We headed down to the depot just in time to see an eastbound coal load pulling into the siding to meet Amtrak. The dispatcher setup a pretty good meet as the coal load didn't have to wait for long for Amtrak to arrive. Granby is not a particularly busy station stop, particularly in the non-hunting season. On this particularly morning, there was only one passenger on the platform waiting to pick up Amtrak for a trip west. The conductor looked out the window from one of the last cars on the train, talking to the engineer, letting him know when to stop the train so the passenger could board.

It can be difficult staying ahead of Amtrak between Granby and Sulphur as the land is a bit more open and thus Amtrak can move quicker. This is not a place where you want to fall too far behind Amtrak. Fortunately, if that happens, you do have Byers Canyon to help you out should that happen. Amtrak quickly has to slow down at Sulpher for the trip through Byers Canyon. The maximum speed for any train is 20 MPH! The sharpest curves on the main between Denver and Salt Lake (14 degrees!) can be found in Byers Canyon.

We tried to setup for a shot at the west end of Sulphur, but I decided against posting the shots as there was too much clutter in the way. The top of a slide fence and the ATCS (signal control) antennae both got in the way and were very distracting. After getting back to the truck and back on US-40, we were able to catch up to Amtrak at the west end of Byers Canyon.

This next stretch of the chase is where you really don't want to fall behind. Between Flat and Kremmling, Amtrak will have no problem leaving you in the dust if you don't play your cards right. We paralleled Amtrak through Flat (as I wanted to attempt a "blurred" scenery shot, which turned out rather nicely), but then we sped up to get ahead of him. As it turns out, we shouldn't have slowed our pace at Flat, because Amtrak quickly sped up to track speed: 79 MPH.

Even having a bit of a jump on Amtrak out of Flat, we still had no chance of beating him to Kremmling. By the time we were headed south out of Kremmling toward Grand County Road 1, Amtrak was a silver line to the west, getting ready to head into Gore Canyon. The good news was that Gore Canyon should help slow him down enough to allow us to (hopefully) catch up.

At Kremmling, you once again lose sight of the tracks. The tracks head west, right throug the middle of (spectacular) Gore Canyon. You are forced to take Grand County Road 1 (which is mostly unpaved). This road runs on the mesa above Gore Canyon to the south. There is no opportunity to see the tracks again for about eight miles, when the road reappears at "Insperation Point". This spot offers a magnificent view of the west end of the canyon (as well as the tracks). Unfortunately, as we were descending toward Insperation Point, Amtrak highballed Azure, a siding just west of Gore Canyon.

We skipped past Insperation Point and continue west. Once again, the tracks are mostly out of view for the trip between Insperation Point and Yarmony. There is an opportunity to go down to the tracks at Radium, but that is a little bit out of the way if you are planning on continuing west after a train. And with Amtrak, we were not about to take a chance. Plus, the siding of Yarmony had been reopened (after being out of service for 5+ years), so we wanted to get shot from there.

Once we arrived at Yarmony, we had ample time to wait for Amtrak. We checked out the new east end of Yarmony, which was further west than the old east end. This was a good decision as the new east end is just west of the grade crossing so cars will never be blocked by a meet. It is actually quite impressive how much Yarmony has been extended. The siding grew from ~4,500 feet to ~7,700 feet! The extra length is definitely noticeable too. We went down to the west end and climbed up above the tracks to get a shot of Amtrak coming out of Yarmony.

The next stop on the list, if we could do it, was Bond. Bond is the eastern terminus of the "Dotsero Cutoff", which connects the original Denver & Salt Lake line (i.e. the Moffat) with the original Denver & Rio Grande line (i.e. Tennessee Pass). Bond, also known as Orestod - spell Dotsero backward and you'll see where that name came from - is now the location where the Craig Branch leaves the main track behind. As it turns out, getting ahead of Amtrak from State Bridge over to Bond was not difficult.

Bond was once a scheduled station stop for the Rio Grande Zephyr. Supplies such as food and water were filled at Bond and new train orders were given to the crew on the head end of the train. In days long gone, Bond was a relatively busy yard and a regular crew change point for trains. Today, it is little more than a siding with a few yard tracks, primarily used for long-term storage of "surplus" cars. There is, however, a work train tied down (without power) in the yard.

This is no longer a stop that Amtrak makes on its journey west. It is instead merely a "check point" on the journey, and Amtrak doesn't even throttle back as it passes through the yard. It was a bit of a maze finding our way back to the highway from Bond. The extra time cost us because west of Bond is another spot where the tracks and the road do not run parallel to one another. In fact, the nice paved highway that you are on heads towards Phippsburg, Yampa, and Steamboat Springs (i.e. the Craig Branch). We didn't want to be on the Craig Branch, so we had to take the "Burns" turnoff to continue west. This takes you a little off course, and gives Amtrak more than enough time to get ahead of you.

Once on the road to Burns (another dirt road), we heard Amtrak hit the detector at MP 136.7. I check the milepost sign along the tracks as we drive west: MP 134. Amtrak is about three miles ahead of us and probably moving along at close to the same speed as us. We know that we won't have a chance at catching him before the next siding of Dell.

The tracks at Dell are not visible from the road, but the canyon that the tracks are in is visible. The canyon looks like a crescent moon as you drive above it. Just before the canyon came into sight, we heard "Amtrak 5, Dell". We knew we were a little bit behind, but we weren't too concerned because we still had the advantage...or so we thought. We figured that we would have time to setup for a shot at the west end of Range; the lighting there would be perfect for the time of day.

As it turns out, we caught up to the back end of Number 5 just in time to hear "Amtrak 5, Range". This presented a major problem because the east end of Range marks a location where Amtrak can speed up to about 50 MPH for most of the rest of the journey to Dotsero. We were able to keep up with Amtrak as they started to accelerate, parallel to the tracks at Range, but after leaving Range, we started to fall behind some. With each curve that we went around west of Range, we could see the blinking FRED on the back of Amtrak disappear around the next curve.

This was a good lesson for us (as this was the first time we'd ever chased Amtrak through here...freight trains are a much different story) and next time we'll have to plan to get ahead of Amtrak earlier in the day. Granted we setoff of this day with the intention of "pacing" Amtrak as much as possible between Winter Park and as far west as we could go! After reaching Dotsero, the tables were turned once again. Now, we were back on I-70 and heading west into Glenwood Canyon. Glenwood Canyon is, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular canyons that have tracks running through it. Unfortunately, now that I-70 is four lanes, there is no place (with the exception of exits / rest stops) to stop in the canyon for shots. Add to that the fact that the tracks run along the south wall of the canyon (OUT of the sun), and shooting can be very difficult.

With no shots looking particularly appealing from the rest stops, we decided to just head down to Glenwood Springs to get some good shots of the train coming in for its station stop. Amtrak 5 and 6 usually meet somewhere around Dell or Range IF they are both running on time. We never did see Number 6 on this day as it was running three hours late!

Amtrak 5 pulled into the depot at Glenwood Springs at 1:51pm, technically two minutes early! Glenwood Springs is one of (if not THE) busiest minor stop for the California Zephyr between Chicago and Emeryville. I consider major stops to be Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, etc. Of the small town stops, Glenwood Springs usually has a very impressive turnout. Number 5 typically has a lot of passenger to drop off whereas Number 6 typically has a lot of passengers to pick up!

After a 15 minute stop, dropping off several passenger, the doors were closed up and once again Amtrak was on the move west. This was, unfortunately, the last location that would be able to shoot Amtrak. We both had dinner commitments at 5:30pm that we had to be back in Denver for. We did hang around the depot long enough to wait for the eastbound MRONY-08. The train had been waiting on the siding in Glenwood for Amtrak to complete its stop before they could continue east. The crew was told by the dispatcher (long before our arrival) to go ahead and go into town in Glenwood to grab a bite to eat. After Amtrak left, we spotted the crew hiking back down the siding to their train.

After the crew reached their train, they toned the dispatcher and received a green signal to head east into Glenwood Canyon. They departed shortly before 3pm, about 40 minutes ahead of Amtrak 6. They had made it to Dotsero by the time Amtrak 6 reached Glenwood for its station stop. The MRONY had a nice power setup: An SD70M Phase III (with the "notch" nose), an SD70M Phase II (flared radiators), and an original SD70M, all elephant style.

Once we left the MRONY at Dotsero (without a photo opportunity as we were on I-70), we highballed it back to Denver so we could both be on time (and not make our wives mad!). As always, we had fun heading east between Dotsero and Minturn along what's left of the west end of Tennessee Pass. There were some hoppers tied down on the main track around Gypsum. The ties were looking VERY shabby all along the main track. Will Tennessee Pass ever reopen? Probably not. After all, nothing lasts forever...


I hope you enjoyed this lengthy report and the pictures included therein. If you have any questions, or just a comment about this report, please feel free to Click Here to send a comment to the Webmaster (Kevin). Your comments are always appreciated!

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