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Friday, June 17, 2016

16-06-17a PHOTOS: Plan Brazos

In late May and June, 2016, Texas was subjected to a record setting amount of rainfall that caused the Brazos river, just west of Houston, to rise to a level of 53'. While the flooding snarled rail traffic in the area for the typical reasons like downed trees and washouts, at the former Southern Pacific Glidden Sub bridge over the Brazos River, just east of the railroad town of Rosenburg, a far more serious defect developed about 10 days prior to my. The support pier between the easternmost truss and the approach trestle was undermined by water scour and dropped down about 4 feet, rendering the bridge impassible.

Now at first I was worried that the bridge's extended outage would result in a trip ruining bustitution. However, I should have had more faith in Amtrak because when Plan A isn't available, it's time for Plan B! That's right, instead of a ruined trip I was treated to that that wonderful Amtrak event, a rare mileage detour. Instead of rolling into Houston on the Glidden Sub as I had the year before, my train would be rerouted at the famous Tower 17 south on the BNSF Galveston Sub to the town of Alvin, before then heading north on the BNSF Mykawa Sub to T&NO Jct where the line would change into the UP Houston West Best Sub that would then deliver us to Tower 26 where we would then make a backup move into the Houston Amtrak station.

You can find all the photos from this incredibly rare train movement here. Just goes to show that riding Amtrak can really turn delays into lemonade juicy railfan stories.

Movements from the eastbound Glidden Sub to the southbound Galveston Sub are not typically needed so the only direct connection available at TOWER 17 interlocking is west to north. This, and having to travel over BNSF, prompted Union Pacific to detour its freight off the Sunset Route at Flatonia, TX. On the other hand, long backup movements are just a regular part of doing business on LD Amtrak trains. Here we see a Diverging Clear signal displayed westbound at TOWER 17 for a route onto the northbound BNSF Galveston Sub.

TOWER 17 was the site of Texas's last active classic interlocking tower. The tower was closed about 10 years ago, but it and its Taylor Model 2 interlocking machine were preserved in a local railfan park.

Passing the diamond in the other direction. The multiple relay huts is due to the joint ownership and maintenance of the interlocking and its diamond crossing.

These KCS ES44AC's #4680 and #4859 distracted me sufficiently so that I missed out on more photos of TOWER 17. However, in its stead I managed to capture the local BNSF crew base.

KCS SD70ACe #4027 was providing tail end power as the unit train of covered hoppers waited in the siding for us to pass by.

Despite the 1980's vintage ATSF signaling being in relatively good knick, a replacement programme was under way because I guess anything with moving parts is bad.

Sometimes it seems that all of Texas is a highway construction zone. Here some sort of ramp or frontage road is bring added to Interstate 69.

This southbound unit grain train had passed over the diamond at TOWER 17 ahead of us, but we had the last laugh as we passed it on the Manvel siding (even limited to the freight train speed of 50mph). Unlike the popular belief, freight dispatchers do a pretty good job of routing Amtrak trains through freight traffic. Engines are BNSF ES44C4 #6803 and SD70ACe #8598.

What I assume is some sort of old feed mill in Alvin.

Because of Houston's notoriously bad air quality, genset style switchers are typically assigned here by the big Class 1 railroads. Here we see a pair of National Railway Equipment 3GS21B-DE's, #1245 and #1287, shifting cars near Alvin.

PHOTOS 16-06-17: Sunwet Limited

While not the sort of disaster that took up weeks or months of headlines, East Texas received quite a bit of rain in early June 2016, driving some rivers to record highs and causing rail congestion due to washouts and wet spots. The Sunset Route was no exception and about 10 days before by trip went off, a 50 foot high Brazos river severely undermined one of the supports of a rail bridge in Rosenburg, TX forcing detours for all involved.

While this sort of situation can result in massive delays or outright cancellations, I managed to luck out with a rare mileage detour and, ironically, decreased congestion as competing freight trains were either parked or sent on even longer detours. What delays there were stemmed from Union Pacific's decision to throw all available M of W forces at the temporarily empty Glidden Sub to complete the outstanding track work in the absence of freight traffic.

You can see all the photos I took between Luling, TX and Rosenburg here

While the water level had dropped considerably across the region, vintage truss bridges like this 1902 example over the San Marcos River, are still vulnerable to extreme flood events. On this bridge UP had rebuilt the approach trestles, but the original trusses and supports remain.

A Southern Pacific era cantilever mast lives on at the west end of the Harwood siding located at MP 144 on the Glidden Sub. Mileposts run from Houston. 

A trio of UP SD70M's (#5075, #3973 and #4881) were sitting on the Harwood siding at the head of a merchandise freight trains. 

We passed some BNSF run-through traffic at Waelder, TX with ES44C4 #6724 and C44-9W #4017.

Traffic was stacked up on the siding at Flatonia, TX as UP freight trains transferred to the Cuero Sub to bypass the bridge at Rosenburg. Seen here are two 8000-series SD70ACe's, a 3400-series SD40N and SD70M #4879.

The old Southern Pacific interlocking tower at Flatonia has been preserved downtown.

At Engle, dark storm clouds were looming. Probably the last thing this part of Texas needed.

UP MoW insepction car EC-5 was sound with AC4400 #5817 on the Engle siding.

A trio of excavators prepare to lift a fully assembled palate switch for the Schulenburg, TX team track. Crossings were not working so my train had to proceed slowly, stopping every minute or so for a crewmember to stop highway traffic so the train could proceed.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

16-06-16b PHOTOS: West Texas Intermediates

I've mentioned before that Orange, CA is closer to El Paso than Orange, TX. On the Sunset Limited one doesn't to sleep in Texas and then wakes up, still in Texas. Texas takes a full 24 hours to cross and all while that space has to filled with something, in practice a good half of it it is filled with essentially nothing. West Texas is simply mile after mile of scrubland, dotted with mesas, that has been fenced off and organized into "ranches" where the primary economic activity appears to be maintaining fences, shooting things and prepping for the end times. Aside from never having to drive to a shooting range, the best thing the region has to offer is a 75mph speed limit on two lane roads.

Since this year my Train 2 was running to the normal schedule instead of two hours ahead, I had 2 hours less daylight to photograph the UP Valentine Sub and by the time we reached Alpine, TX it was time to pack it in. Nevertheless, I was still able to get enough content for a reasonable photo set, but if you want to appreciate the full John Ford-esque beauty (or starkness) you can see the full set of pictures here.

We start shortly outside of El Paso where the tracks are lined by miles of nut tree (I assume almonds, but they could have also been pecans or something else) groves. Nuts are very water intensive, so what better place than a desert to plant them! Despite regional water shortages, last year when I passed through the groves had actually been flooded similar to a rice paddy. And people wonder why the Big River is so easy to cross these days.

The line is punctuated by frequent small bridges over dry river beds that can quickly become raging torrents during during rain events. When it isn't raining the bridges are used by off road vehicles to cross the tracks. This area, east of Tornillo, was one of the few not fenced in as a ranch so it was attracting quite a bit of public land use.

 This strange structure at McNary is what I have to believe is an illegal immigrant detector, making use of various sensors to detect if anyone is hitching a ride on the train.

The western part of the line actually runs quite a distance from the parallel US 90 or I-10, further increasing the sense of isolation.

Sun position was becoming a problem as we passed UP SD70M #5105 and another UP SD70ACe in the Sierra Blanca siding. 

UP ES44AC #8087 sits all by itself on a dump siding in Sierra Blanca.

After diverging over the 50mph high speed turnout at Sierra Blanca, we crossed under Interstate 10 and continued on past Southern Pacific vintage signals before meeting a stored string of seemingly new TOFC containers on the Hot Wells siding.

We also passed a couple of MoW bugs stored on the Hot Wells team track.

16-06-16a PHOTOS: The Big River Pass

At Deming, NM I decided to take an hour off for lunch and was able to just make it back as the eastbound Sunset Limited began the descent down into El Paso, TX. This involved crossing the unimaginatively named "Big River" before making an extended smoke stop, the first since Tuscon. While last year I struggled to get good photos with the private car in the way, this year there were no such impediments and I was able to document the entire El Paso terminal area, coming and going.

You can catch all the photos in this set here.

Lunch was slightly delayed so I was only able to make it back for the east end of the brand new Union Pacific Santa Teresa Yard, which was built on hundreds of acres of desert just west of El Pasto. The new yard coincided with the double track capacity expansion project on the Sunset Route to ease the flow of goods from the Port of LA to the interior of the country. The new yard contains not one, but TWO 7 track fast fuel pads to efficiently gas up trains as they cross the country.

Hanging out on a yard track were UP AC4400 #5714 and ES44AC #5298 couple to a pair of cars.

Entering the yard from the east was a westbound train powered by UP ES44AC #7370, SD70ACe #8376 and an unidentified former Southern Pacific C40-8W I just wasn't able to get in frame. Note the low cost LED signal lamps using a limited number of LEDs for that classy grainy look.

A pair of UP AC4400's, #6765 and #5795, in the super rare "Kissing Lincolns" configuration.  

How much power does one train need? Well this Union pacific jobber needed six units, ES44AC #8068, SD70ACe #8497, SD70M #4295 and #5231, SD40N #1735 and not-quite so leet GP40-2 #1377. #5231 was actually the last engine delivered of UP's monster 1453 unit order of SP70M's in 2000.

Starting down the grade into El Paso. You can see the escarpment created by the erosion from the Big River.

S-curves and rock cuts on the way down.

At the Lizard crossover we were held to allow our opposite, Amtrak Train 1, the westbound Sunset Limited, to pass. It was being powered by P42DC's #192 and #186. I was also surprised to see heritage baggage car #1241 following right behind as I had assumed they had all been retired by now. This will likely be my last shot of a heritage baggage car in service.

16-06-16 PHOTOS: Gasden Purchase

The Gasden Purchase was the last territorial expansion of the contiguous United States. It was carried out by the Pierce administration back in 1853 as part of an effort to build a transcontinental railroad and expand slavery into the west. Needless to say the civil war intervened and the transcontinental railroad was constructed on a more northerly alignment in 1869. It would be 11 years later when the Southern pacific would compete its route from LA to El Paso, with that particular railroad eventually stretching to New Orleans.

In 1895, the Southern Pacific began operation of the Sunset Limited, making it the oldest continually operated named train in the United States. It's path, from New Orleans to Los Angeles via the Gasden OPurchase, became informally known as the Sunset Route. Last year I attempted to photograph this route, but unfortunately Dan Aykroyd's private car busted my attempt. This year my view was unobstructed and you can view the full set of photos here.

In 2015 Amtrak was running the eastbound Sunset Limited 2 hours ahead of its usual schedule to accomidate Union Pacific track work. This year it was back on the normal 10pm departure which meant that I got two hours of additional sunlight in the morning and two less in the evening. I woke up as the train was stopped at the Maricopa, AZ station (which is the closest Amtrak gets to Phoenix) where, for some reason, former CBQ California Zephyr observation car #375 is on display. WRONG ROUTE MORONS!

Here we see passengers hanging out on the Tuscon station platform for an extended smoke break. The train was a good 20 or so minutes early into Tuscon so the break was a bit longer than normal. SP 2-6-0 Mogul #1673 was on display, but was unfortunately stuck behind several layers of terrorist grade fence.

My perch for this part of this trip was Amtrak Superliner I sleeping car #32016, which was destined for Chicago on the Texas Eagle. 

Here we see the Tuscon Amtrak Station platform with the baggage ramps and refueling truck. It appears that in the resent past the station used an island platform configuration with a passenger/baggage tunnel, however the tracks were re-aligned and passengers no longer use the ramp.

Here UP AC4400 #6630 and SD70M #4233 are flat switching doublestack well cars at the west end of Tuscon Yard.

Over at the engine pit UP SD70M #4126 was coupled to ES44AC #7977.

Stack train lashup at Tuscon Yard with UP ES44AC #8266, SD70ACe #8437 and second ES44AC #7930.

UP SD70ACe #8534 was attached to the rear on DPU duty.

Flat switching yard power lead by remote controlable UP GP39-2 #1211, SD40N #1699 and AC4400 #7286.

Surviving Southern Pacific cantilever signal at 36TH ST interlocking at the east end of the Tuscon yard.

Don't let the headlight food you. UP SD70ACe #8482 is actually a DPU pushing on the rear of a merchandise train.

The Sunset Limited offers some unique scenery like saguaro cacti which, contrary to popular belief, are only located in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and northern Mexico. This example is located in the hills south of Saguaro National Park. Pro tip, don't hug cacti. They can defend themselves somehow.

Prickly pear cacti are also common in this area, with some of the patches growing quite large.

The famous Cienega Creek viaduct where track 1 flies over track 2. Between Vail, AZ and Benson, AZ the two main tracks split and take different routes through the Rincon Mountains. The current track 2 was the original alignment, while track 1 was a later, low grade alignment.