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Utah Trip 2006

Fall Colors on Soldier Summit

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DAY 1 - Friday, September 29, 2006

After a short four hours of barely sleeping - mainly due to excitement - the alarm went off and I slapped it before it could wake my wife. Blurry eyed, I looked at the numbers on the clock and saw "2:00" staring back at me. I pulled myself out of bed, got dressed, and did a double check to ensure that I had everything I was going to need. Yup, time for another trip to Utah!

So why the early (okay very early) morning drama? This years Utah Trip came together very fast. Two weeks ago, Damian and I hadn't even talked (seriously) about going in 2006. However, reports of the impending doom of DRGW 5371 (the last surviving Rio Grande unit - which will almost certainly be patched in November) got us talking. Due to a variety of considerations, ranging from work to family, we were not able to leave unit Friday instead of Thursday as we had originally wanted.

Of course, if we left at dawn, it would be four hours before reaching Grand Junction and even later in the day before reaching Helper. Plus, we figured we'd miss the Potash Local - which only runs on Friday's - if we left Friday morning. So, we pushed the departure time up to 3:00am!! Damian's truck, having been freshly serviced with new spark plugs and a fresh oil change, pulled up in front of the house promptly on time. Equipment was loaded and we were on our way.

Things started off just fine. The weather was looking wonderful and, as you'd expect considering the time, traffic was great. Things were going according to plan all the way past Glenwood. We figured we'd be in Grand Junction by 6:30am - plenty of time to scout out the Potash Local. Until De Beque Canyon, however. That would be when the power drop started....

75 MPH quickly turned into 65 MPH....and then 60 MPH....and then 50 MPH. Damian pulled over to the side of I-70 to take a peak under the hood. Not being particularly engine-savvy (I'm much more proficient at software over hardware - hence this website), I spotted the problem straight away. There was an internal combustion engine under the hood that was no doubt the source of all the problems.

While Damian fiddled around with dip sticks and wires, I setup for a few pre-dawn shots. The lack of traffic is rather apparent in the first shot here, which is looking east down the center of westbound lanes of I-70. Damian did not come across anything wrong, so we gave a fate a run and started the engine back up. Power levels were better at first, but quickly leveled off around 50 MPH (and 2,500 RPM's). Oh, did I mention that the less-than-informative engine check light was on for all this.

We limped into Clifton, CO (just east of Grand Junction) at 7:15am, 45 minutes before the local Checker Auto Parts opened. After a 40 minute breakfast at McDonald's, we sat patiently in front of Checker and waited for the doors to open. Once said doors were unlocked, we started our attempt to trouble shoot the problem. Damian remembered that his O2 sensors were getting old and perhaps that was the problem.

The (very helpful) lady at Checker offered a diagnostic tool to talk to the computer in the truck and get the scoop on the problem. Great...two failing O2 sensors, a failing primary air flow sensor, and a random pistol misfire! Having recalled the sprak plug replacement from the day before, a removal and re-steating of all the spark plugs was performed. Plus, $120 was spent on two brand new O2 sensors. Just after 9:00am, we hit the road to see if things were better. Unfortunately, we weren't that lucky.

Okay, back to Checker. To heck with this, let's spend the money to buy six new spark plugs ($15)...oh, and better get new spark plug wires too since one of the wire was destroyed when re-removing one of the spark plugs. Okay, there's another $75. While Damian replaced spark plug wires one-by-one, I replaced all the spark plugs. Shortly after 10:30am, we gave it another go. Hallelujah! The new spark plugs from the prior day were apparently faulty. With new (cheaper) plugs in place, the truck was running like a dream once again. Well, it ran smoothly until the starter began dying the next day, making each start of the engine a coin toss, but thankfully it didn't completely fail on the trip.

Well, with it now being close to 11:00am, there was probably no way we could catch up to the Potash Local, so we dove into the Utah Desert, planning on heading west to the Helper area unless there was something in the desert that caught our eye first. As we approached Sagers, we heard some scanner chatter from up ahead. Amazingly enough, the Potash Local was running late and just met an eastbound coal empty.

We could clearly see the local and we were able to get ahead of it just before Thompson. After worrying whether or not we'd be able to salvage the day a few hours ago, we were quite pleased that we had finally taken our first pictures of the trip, and of the very local we had intended to chase in the first place. The power that would be found on the local was somewhat in question and we weren't sure what to expect. Turns out that there was a C40-8 and an SD40-2 up front. While we were hoping for patched Rio Grande and/or Espee power, we weren't going to complain with the second generation power that we got, even if it was UP.

We headed south from Brendel toward Moab along the Cane Creek Sub. After about a half hour wait, the local completed switching at Brendel and started down the line for its 30+ mile trip to Potash, about ten miles southwest of Moab. I found it very interesting that the C40-8 had baby wings on the nose. It made for some nice shots on the way down the line.

During the thirty mile trip from Brendel down to Potash, the scenery undergoes a very dramtic change. As the tracks descend in elevation, they approach the Colorado River. In the file few miles of the journey, the tracks are near the level of the Colorado and traverse another amazing canyon carved out by the Colorado. The canyon certainly has a similar feel to Ruby Canyon, although the walls are not nearly as high. We followed the train the rest of the way to Potash and observed a few switching moves before retreating north back toward the main.

According to Julie, Amtrak's "automated agent", Amtrak 5 (the westbound California Zephyr) was running on time this evening and we wanted to get back to the main before it showed up. By the time we reached I-70, it was now after 4:00pm as we started east toward Cisco. One siding that we had yet to find in the desert was Agate, so it seemed like a good choice for Amtrak.

We found a road that left Cisco to the east, but before we could reach the siding itself, we heard Amtrak on the approach and setup right where we were, about a mile and a half west of the siding of Agate. No complaints, though, as the lighting was just perfect for the westbound as the sun was starting to get low in the western sky. (Webmaster's Note: Chasing Amtrak in the desert is drastically different from chasing in the Colorado mountains. Amtrak is limited by very little, easily making 75-80 MPH across the desert at times.)

We left our perch to pursue Amtrak, wondering if that was a possibility due to the 5-10 MPH we were making along the dirt road trying to make our way back to Cisco. However, we also knew that Amtrak would be making a station stop - if only a brief one - at the depot in Green River. We hoped that the time needed to slow down, stop, and accelerate again would allow us to catch if not pass Amtrak.

As we pased the depot on I-70, Amtrak was already pulling again, leaving the siding on a clear signal. Just west of Green River, I-70 was left behind us as we took the US-6 exit toward Price and Soldier Summit. At this point, the sun was shining directly on the side of Amtrak as it travelled compass north along US-6 between the sidings of Sphinx and Desert.

We decided to take advantage of our speed and Amtrak's speed and I gave my best attempt at some pacing shots. I have successfully taken some of these shots from a moving vehicle before, but at slightly slower speeds. When moving at 65 MPH and shooting at 1/60th of a second, a lot of your attempts are going to come out blurry! However, we had about five miles to give it our best shot (pun intended) and try I did.

In between the sidings of Desert and Vista, US-6 crosses over the tracks and they move from the east side to the west side of the road. We discovered upon the approach to bridge to cross us over that the bridge was undergoing resurfacing. The westbound lane of the bridge was completely blocked and could not be travelled on. The solution to controlling traffic was the most unique I have ever seen. Rather than pay several flagmen to man posts on the bridge day and night, a temporary stoplight was erected in the middle of the desert! Of course, the light turned red shortly before we arrived, allowing Amtrak to slip out of a grasp a bit.

Once the rather curious obstacle of the stoplight had been passed, we had wide open road to try to catch Amtrak. Even though we were stopped by the light, we were fortunately enough to be at the front of the line, so there was no (immediate) risk of being caught behind somebody desiring to go as close to the minimum speed as possible! (Webmaster's Note: US-6 is one of the most dangerous highways in the country. I recommend that you obey the speed limit and keep your headlights on at all times for visibility.)

Another advantage given to us is the climb that Amtrak has to make up from the siding of Grassy to the siding of Cedar. The speed on the tracks drops to 40 MPH and allowed us to once again overtake Amtrak. A dirt road off of US-6 led us down to the west switch of Cedar where we see Amtrak for the last time in the rapidly-fading afternoon light. The half moon high above the southern horizon would turn out to be very advantageous later too, as we intended to spend a fair amount of time doing some night photography in the desert.

With the climb to Cedar complete, Amtrak continued on toward Price and Helper at track speed, again reaching speeds of near-80 MPH at times. Between the journey back to US-6 on the dirt roads and the then-increasing traffic found on US-6, we decided to write off any attempt at catching up to Amtrak again. We headed toward Price and Helper, all the time talking about where a good spot for camping for the night might be.

By the time we reached Helper and had some dinner, it was well past sunset and the time for some night shots had arrived! Unlike last year, I remembered one of the key components to photography in general and night photography in particular: my tripod! Yup, last year I "left home without it". Four years ago, I managed to leave home without my batteries, not realizing it until Grand Junction.

This year though, all the equipment was securely packed away. We went over the yard at Helper and found 5371 tucked away on the engine tracks near the silver equipment shed. Seemed like it might make for a good subject for night shots, and I think it was. I'll let you decide for yourself! Thinking back on all the railroad that I never had a chance to see (MoPac, Western Pacific, Katy, Milwaukee, Chessie...the list goes on), it was almost surreal standing before the last unpatched Rio Grande unit in existense.

My favorite feature on the Grande tunnel motors would have be the shortened fuel tank. I think that really gave them all some character that allowed them stand out from their Southern Pacific counterparts. That along with the lightly scorched paint beneath the dynamic break intakes truly make it Grande. In November, 5371 is due for a triennial (yep, once every three years) inspection. There is a bit more to this inspection then the standard 90-day inspection. In fact, there is significantly more to it that neither Helper nor Roper are capable of performing the inspection. General opinion is that 5371 will leave Helper - probably for the last time - over Soldier Summit to Roper. Then up to Ogden and east on the Overland straight into North Platte, NE. Such was the fate of both 5401 and 5390 before 5371. Interestingly, the last Rio Grande unit shares the same last two numbers as the last Rio Grande F-unit, 5771. I rather doubt, unfortunately, that 5371 will be quite so lucky as 5771.

After leaving 5371 behind (and hoping that there would be a Dirt Train in the morning to see and hear 5371 throttle up for one last time), we headed out into the dark desert to find a suitable camping location. We finally settled on the east switch of Mounds. We parked about 25 feet away from the dirt road (about 150 feet away from the tracks) and setup camp. This would where we would get our second series of night shots. For those of you that have never camped relatively close to some tracks, don't be surprised if you give yourself a heart attack at one point during the night. Just before falling asleep - that half awake, half asleep realm - an eastbound came by. In my dazed state, I convinced myself that we were somehow on the tracks and prepared to kiss it all goodbye!

DAY 2 - Saturday, September 30, 2006

Well, after a nice 4-ish hours of sleep, it was time to get up and at it right around 5 o'clock. This was the time of the fourth train passing since midnight (quite a busy five hours for the Green River Subdivision these days). Upon waking up, we setup for a half hour shot at the east switch of Mounds. This was the longest attempt at an exposure that I've ever tried with my [Digital] Rebel XT, and I couldn't have been more pleased with the results. Wellington, being about ten miles to the north, provided the perfect backlight for a nice silouhette of the signal. I was rather surprised at how dark it was even at 6am when the shot completed. There was just barely some light appearing in the eastern sky.

Right around this time, we heard UP 4398 west making its way toward Cedar and figured it was probably the MNYRO. We broke camp and went straight into Price for some much-needed breakfast. After the four hour night, Damian and I had been up for about 24 of the past 28 hours. Oh well, we can always sleep next week! The train was indeed the MNYRO and it stopped in Helper for a crew change. Once we were done with breakfast, it was a short wait before the MNYRO was ready to continue west over Soldier Summit.

A bit of information gathering on 5371 revealed that it would not be going east on a Dirt Train (LPJ45, to be exact) today, so we had nothing better to do then give chase to the morning manifest. We headed up Price River Canyon easily getting ahead of the slow-moving Roper train as needed. With only three units on the point and a 2%-2.5% grade, there was nothing fast about the process.

It was about 7:30am at this point and the sun had not made it very high in the sky yet, but the colors in the trees in the canyon were amplified by the backlighting. Our first some of the day on the way up to the summit was just west of Castle Gate. You could really tell the train was working from the exhaust of all three units on the train.

Our intention was to chase the MNYRO as far west as we could until we heard something more interesting coming east. We didn't make it very far before we heard something that we considered to be more interesting on the scanner! An eastbound Utah Railway coal empty was just coming up on the summit at Soldier Summit, preparing to head down the eastern slope to fill its 98 car train with coal. Now I enjoy the MNYRO and the MRONY, but I simply don't have the option of seeing any Utah Railway here in Colorado.

So the decision was made and we left the MNYRO just east of Kyune. The coal train was light and relatively fast, so we couldn't beat it to the summit itself. We stopped about halfway between Colton and Summit and waited. Coming down the grade on the east side of the summit, coal empties can actually reach speeds as high as 50 MPH. Such was the case with this Utah empty, passing swiftly by on Main Two on its way east.

After meeting - as it were - the MNYRO at Colton, the coal empty had to slow down as the grade (and the curves) increased. We easily got ahead of the train and setup for a second shot from the overpass near the west end of Kyune. At this point, we were still unsure where the train would be loading. Rumor has it that the number of trains being loaded at Wildcat (the sole remaining mine on Utah Railway's own tracks) has dwindled and more were being loaded off the UP main on CV Spur (Savage Mine) between Price and Wellington.

Our answer was given to us quickly at Utah Railway Junction as the train did not diverge off Main Two and onto Utah Railways mainline toward Martin. The train continued east on clear signals through Helper and toward Price.

With nothing else currently on the horizon, we continued with the chase east through Price (well, the train went through Price, we went around it on US-6). I had always wanted to grab a shot from the US-6 overpass near the east end of Price and this was the perfect opportunity to do so, with fall colors giving a nice backdrop within the city limits.

At this point, it was nearly 10:00am and it was time for a break to check on the finances. Have to keep a close eye on those darn things, so we weaved around Price a bit looking for a wireless hub that would allow us to connect to the web. During this time of important research, a westbound unit auto track train came zipping through and stopped at Helper. The train was empty and there was no indication precisely where it came from. Knowing that the Moffat


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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