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A Day on the Joint Line

Castle Rock to Pueblo

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History of the Joint Line

One of the subjects I am going to include in this particular report is about the various crossover (or, more specifically, former crossovers) along the Joint Line. In order for that subject to make more sense, here is some history on the Joint Line.

The Joint Line wasn't originally built as a Joint Line (meaning jointly operated) at all. In fact, the first track was laid by the Denver & Rio Grande in 1870 (completed in 1872) when the railroad built a narrow gauge line south from Denver to Pueblo (in hopes of continuing on to El Paso, TX). The second track wasn't started until 1885 (completed in 1887), built by the D&RG's rival, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. The Santa Fe built their line north from Pueblo, and it was standard gauge. The tracks didn't stray more than a mile or so from one another, the D&RG having the slightly more favorable grade. When the Santa Fe built their line, they discovered that there would be three places at which they'd have to cross over the D&RG line in order to follow their plan. Those three locations were at Crews, Spruce and Sedalia. At these locations, the Santa Fe tracks were built up and over the D&RG line.

It was around this time that the D&RG realized that narrow gauge wasn't the future of railroading in North America, despite the vast network of narrow gauge lines it had through mining country in the Rockies. D&RG added a third rail in 1888, making their line a dual gauge line, capable of supporting both narrow gauge and standard gauge traffic. The line only lasted as dual gauge for two years and in 1890, the narrow gauge was removed. A third, far less known rail line was built between Denver and Pueblo in this same timeframe. The C&S (CB&Q) had their own line much farther to the east, more on the plains.

Not a whole lot changed with the three lines over the next 28 years, the three railroads competing with one another from Denver, through Colorado Springs and into Pueblo. World War 1, however, changed everything. The United States Railway Administration took over control of the railroads in 1918 in order to better support the war effort. The USRA looked at the two lines between Denver and Pueblo and decided they could be operated far more efficiently if the two railroads cooperated and sent all the southbound trains on one track and all the northbound trains on the other track. This would eliminate the need for sidings (for the most part) and trains wouldn't have to worry about meets and dispatching could be much faster.

Thus, the Joint Line was born! The C&S (CB&Q) line on the plains was abandoned and the C&S was granted trackaged rights over the Santa Fe (and, by virtue of the Joint Line, the D&RG). In order to make things simplier from an operational standpoint, the bridges where the Santa Fe crossed over the D&RG were ripped out and the tracks were connected, "straighting out" the lines, and keeping the southbound track always to the west of the northbound track.

Consequently, while trains were travelling between Denver and Pueblo, they would sometimes be on track that was owned and maintained by Rio Grande, and at other times they would be on track that was owned and maintained by Santa Fe. Ownership changed at the location of the former crossovers. So Rio Grande owned the southbound track (Main 1) from Littleton to Sedalia and Spruce to Crews. Santa Fe owned the southbound track from Sedalia to Spruce and Crews to Bragdon. One of the extremely confusing consequences of this were mileposts! The railroads continued to use their own mileposts on their respective tracks. Rio Grande mileposts started at Denver at MP 0 and counted up to MP 118 at Pueblo. Santa Fe mileposts started at MP 633 (at Tapp) and counted up to MP 732 at Denver!

So when a southbound train was proceeding from Denver to Pueblo, they would see MP 22, 23, 24 through Sedalia, and then MP 712, 711, 710 south of Sedalia. Finally, in the 1990s, Union Pacific and BNSF decided to correct this confusion and renumbered both tracks from Denver to Pueblo, starting at MP 0 in Denver counting up to MP 108 at Bragdon.

Castle Rock to Palmer Lake

While I spend a lot of time shooting in the Denver area and on the Moffat, I try to get south on the Joint Line at least a couple of times each year. Most of the time when I set out, I always tell myself that I am going to try to spend some time shooting south of Palmer Lake. However, I will inevitably come across a BNSF coal train somewhere between Littleton and Sedalia and start chasing it. BNSF tends to slightly underpower their southbound coal loads on the Joint Line, and often they don't go much faster than 12-15 MPH on the climb up the Palmer Divide. As a result, I spend the day shooting that train and by the time I reach Palmer Lake, it is time to turn around and head for home.

Sunday, March 28, 2010 was finally different! As I was reaching Littleton, I heard a southbound coal load getting a warrant at Walnut Street in Denver. Great, the old dilemma. Do I wait for the "guaranteed" southbound, or do I continue south and hope that I catch up to a southbound already on the roll. I decided I was going to continue south and the gamble paid off! I came across BNSF 9969 south leading a coal load just south of Castle Rock along the I-25 Frontage Road...

In the past week, there had been two pretty significant Spring snow storms along the Front Range, and depending on the area, as much as 18 inches of snow had fallen total. The nice thing about Spring snow storms in Colorado is that the snow doesn't last very long! In fact, while the high on Friday had only been about 35F, the high on Sunday was nearly 70F in many places!

I drove down to Tomah Road and hopped off, returning a short ways north along the Frontage Road to setup for the first shot of the day. Another problem that I've had in the past on the Joint Line (as with pretty much any rail line) is that the traffic volume is a crap shoot. Many times, when I make it to the Joint Line, there doesn't seem to be anything running on it. Fortunately, in addition to the great weather, lack of volume was not an issue on the Joint Line on this day!

Over the course of the day, I either saw (or heard, via the scanner) at least 15 trains. It seemed to be a nonstop parade of trains getting warrants both in Denver to come south and in Pueblo to come north. I decided to stick with the coal load that I came across along the I-25 Frontage Road south to Palmer Lake. After shooting the train just north of Larkspur, I had plenty of time to get down to Greenland ahead of the train and setup for a shot.

Greenland is a pretty neat place to shoot trains. You have a good view of Pikes Peak and, if the lighting is good, you can work the peak into one of your shots. There are also many bison in the area, kept on some of the ranches in Greenland and they too can often be worked into some pictures. On this day, though, I decided to work with the big red barn that stands in between the northbound and southbound mains. Morning light tends to be perfect for capturing southbound trains as they appear from behind the barn.

If you are going to shoot the train passing the barn (or really anything from the east side of the tracks), you will be stuck on the east side until after the train has passed. However, for BNSF coal trains, this won't be a problem. After the train has past, head west to Spruce Mountain Road and then turn south toward Palmer Lake. BNSF coal train generally stop in the sag just south of Spruce to allow their traction motors the chance to cool off. This will give you plenty of time to get south to Palmer Lake. I decided to get a shot of the train in the sag and then continuing south toward Palmer Lake.

After the train gets south of Palmer Lake, it becomes rather difficult to shoot until you get to Colorado Springs. It's not impossible to shoot and there are locations like Baptist Road in Monument and the entrance to the Air Force Academy (if the gaurds will let you!) where you can shoot some trains. However, I skipped over these locations this time around.

Crossover at Spruce

The crossover at Spruce was located just a few miles north of Palmer Lake. The Santa Fe main was on the east side of the Rio Grande main south of Spruce, and the Santa Fe track crossed over the Rio Grande track at Spruce, moving to the west side. When the crossover was removed in 1918, the tracks were "straightened" and southbound trains changed from Santa Fe owned track to Rio Grande owned track.

Because the Santa Fe track was gaining some elevation (when moving south) in order to cross over the Rio Grande track, there was a decrease in elevation through an S-curve after the crossover was removed. This decrease in elevation resulted in the creation of what is now known as the sag. See the illustration below:

As you can see, the connection for Main 1 waves a bit as it runs down a short 1% grade. Portions of the infrastructure to run the Santa Fe track over the Rio Grande track is still in place to this day! I got a shot of the BNSF coal load I was chasing as it was dropping into the sag. You can see in the shot that the train is clearly running down a grade as it navigates through an S-curve. Once the head end dropped into the sag, the train stopped to cool off its traction motors. After a few minutes the train starting moving south once again.

In the second shot, you can see the head end of the train coming past the camera while the tail end of the train is still dropping down into the sag. At this point, the end DPUs are pushing up a 1.3% grade, the train entering the sag is going down a 1% grade, and the head end is climbing a 1.3% grade again.

Palmer Lake to Crews

While the Joint Line was originally truly directional running (one track for each direction) between Denver and Pueblo (Bragdon), that changed somewhat in 1971. The town of Colorado Springs was created by Rio Grande (General Palmer). Consequently, the city started to grow around the railroad. When the Santa Fe came through further east, they didn't have the ideal land selection that Rio Grande had. This resulted in lots of grade crossings along the Santa Fe track, and lots of train horns in town.

For years, the city of Colorado Springs had been trying to find a way to get rid of the Santa Fe main through the city. In 1971, Santa Fe finally agree, and 32 miles of track was removed between Palmer Lake and Crews. At the time, traffic levels were not that high as the coal boom in the Powder River Basin hadn't happened yet. A single track seemed capable of supporting all the traffic. Roughly 28 miles of Santa Fe main was removed between Palmer Lake and Kelker, and about 4 miles of Rio Grande main was removed between Kelker and Crews. Siding we built (or expanded) at Monument, Academy, Colorado Springs and Kelker.

ABS (Automatic Block Signals) had been used on both mains, but with only one track now available for trains running in both directions, CTC was installed between Palmer Lake and Crews. While Rio Grande owned and maintained the majority of the single track main, Santa Fe actually dispatched trains over the single track CTC. I haven't ever heard exactly why this was the case, but I would speculate it was part of the agreement between the two railroads when the Santa Fe track was removed.

I hopped on I-25 in Monument and continued down to Colorado Springs, taking the Bijou exit and heading over the Rio Grande depot. The depot is still intact and there are several private businesses now located inside. Both UP and BNSF run yard jobs out of the Springs, so both typically keep power on hand for the local. Union Pacific's power is parked just north of the depot, and on this day the power was a patch Cototn Belt GP40-2. Recently painted Rio Grande caboose 01513 was on hand as well. These day's cabeese are referred to as "shoving platforms" and the doors are typically bolted or welded shut. They are used only for their platforms upon which crew members can stand without having to hang on to the ladder of a railcar.

A northbound coal empty was notified by the dispatcher that they would be going into the siding at Colorado Springs to wait for one south. My southbound was up at Academy meeting a northbound that I never actually saw, only heard.

The sidings of Monument, Academy and Colorado Springs are all long enough to support any trains the dispatcher might send them. Kelker, however, is less than a mile long, so it doesn't see too many meets. Where Kelker lacks in length, Colorado Springs makes up for it! The Springs siding is almost 4 miles in length and has a crossover at Cimarron and crossover at Bijou. For many years, there has been occassional talk of a second main track being added again between Palmer Lake and Crews. BNSF is usually the railroad to suggest this idea as they run far more trains in a 24 hour period then UP does. In fact, in the 10 hours I was out along the Joint Line, I didn't see a single UP train! If a second main was added, it was likely run parallel to the existing main track, but I wouldn't hold my breath on that one. It would be extremely expensive and while it might be a great pipe dream, I doubt the ROI (Return On Investment) will ever allow it.

At Kelker, ownership of the single track (running south) changes from Rio Grande to Santa Fe (now UP to BNSF). The Rio Grande track was removed between Kelker and Crews because it was decided the Santa Fe track was the better of the two tracks.

Crews to Pueblo

The part of the Joint Line that I get to least frequently is definitely between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. On this day, however, I was happy that it was only noon and I was already at Crews, shooting a southbound that was diverging on to the southbound main. However, after shooting the southbound at Crews, I did take a break from trains to highball down to the Pueblo Motor Sports Park. If you are interested in ATV's, dirt bikes, or racing, you'll love this place! A buddy of mine was in an endurance race on the road course there, so I stopped by to get a few shots.

After an hour or so of shooting the race, I noticed a northbound in the distance. It was a manifest that was being led by a BNSF H1 Dash-9 and a Canadian National SD75I! I figured that deserved a chase, so off I went! They had a good jump on me, and I didn't get far enough ahead of them to shoot them until I got back to Crews. The train stopped at Crews to wait on a coal load, so I setup for a shot about a mile north of Crews on the single track mainline.

Northbounds are always difficult to shoot on the Joint Line (well, anywhere in the northern hemisphere for that matter!) as the train was backlit. That did, however, allow for a nice roster shot of the SD75I as the train passed.

After shooting the manifest, I decided to go after the coal load that they had just met. The coal load was a BNSF train that had originated at the Eagle Butte mine in Wyoming, but the second unit was a UP AC4400CW that BNSF was leasing. Earlier in the day, I had spotted a dirt road that led to the south end of Bragdon. Bragdon marks the end of the Joint Line (the UP main goes to UP's yard and the BNSF main goes to BNSF's yard), and BNSF has a siding by the same name at that location. The siding is only 5,300 feet long, so there aren't many meets there, but the south end falls just before a bridge that runs over I-25. I'm guessing this is the reason the siding has never been extended, as a new bridge would have to built over the highway.

After getting a shot there, I headed into Pueblo to see what action I could find there. Pueblo is a very interesting area for trains. The BNSF main comes into town on the west and the UP main comes into town on the east. The UP main curves to the west (at Pueblo Junction) and then to the north and into the yard. So southbounds on the Joint Line will actually terminate to the north in UP's yard! Likewise, northbounds will depart UP's yard to the south.

Pueblo Junction is a very impressive place with two wye's at the interchange. The interchange includes the following: UP's main to the north, UP/BNSF mains to the west (to their yards), BNSF's main to the east on the Pueblo Sub and BNSF's main to the south on the Spanish Peaks Sub. BNSF trains heading south come from the west and continue east on the Pueblo Sub. UP trains coming from the north head west to the yard, or east toward the Pueblo Sub. All trains coming from the south come up the Spanish Peaks Sub and either turn west to the yards or north to the Joint Line.

After seeing a few trains head south through Pueblo Junction, I heard the dispatcher giving a warrant to a northbound that was coming up on from the south on the Spanish Peaks Sub. I found my way to the north end of Salt Creek Junction on the US-50 overpass and setup for a shot of the empty.

As mentioned before, the empty went through Pueblo Junction and continue north on UP's main toward Bragdon and the Joint Line. It was starting to get late in the afternoon, so I decided it was time to head for home and chase this empty on the way.

I have seen (and shot) many pictures over the years from Bragdon looking north along Main 1. However, I wanted a different perspective this time, so I found my way to the north end of Bragdon and was able to shoot the BNSF coal empty coming north toward the Joint Line on Main 2. Once the train was on the Joint Line, there wasn't much chance of catching up to it again until Crews. Northbounds can really fly at 40-50 MPH and it is only 24 miles from Bragdon to Crews.

At Crews, the train stopped to wait for a southbound manifest. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get a shot of the southbound I liked, so I didn't post any on my website. After meeting the southbound, my northbound coal empty had clear signals north onto the single track main through Colorado Springs and up to Monument. There, it went into the siding for two southbounds.

The first southbound was yet another BNSF coal load and the second was BNSF's Denver to Pueblo manifest. I shot both of them at Palmer Lake and then continued north toward home. This was about the only lull in traffic as I didn't see another train running in either direction between Palmer Lake and Littleton. I lost the light at Sedalia though and after the day I had, I didn't have anything to complain about!

Crossover at Crews

When look at the crossover at Crews, it is pretty clear that Rio Grande got there first! There track runs straight as arrow from north of Crews south through the town of Fountain. The Santa Fe track, on the other hand, is kind of all over the place! As with the crossover at Spruce, you can still see evidence of the original crossover, including some of the cement structure itself.

You can see this in the image above. The dark blue track represents the new track that was built to connect the southbound track and the light blue track represents the short connector track built to connect the northbound track.

When the crossover here was removed, most of the Rio Grande track remained. It was severed right under the old crossover and a minor dog leg was put in the track to connect it to the new southbound track running down to connect to the Santa Fe track. From the south, the Rio Grande track hit a short connector track joining the Santa Fe main.

The shot I've included here shows a southbound coal load just coming through the dog leg that connects the old Rio Grande main and the old Santa Fe main. You can also clearly see the dirt embankment in the upper right corner of the photo, showing the location where the Santa Fe track started descending to the north. In the distance, you can tell where the old Santa Fe main would have joined with what is now the Main 2 connector track.

Wrapping It Up!

I hope you enjoyed the tour of the south end of the Joint Line and perhaps even learned a little bit about the history of the line in the process. The pictures included above do not represent all of the pictures I shot from the day. If you'd like to see all of them, simply click here and you will go to the photo gallery.

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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