I woke up just in time to catch our train exiting the 7 mile long Flathead Tunnel I was horrified to discover that a private done car had been hitching a ride behind the Portland section which now threatened to almost completely block the view out of the back of the train. Nevertheless it was time to eat breakfast and photos out the back or otherwise would have to wait. Therefore we begin our journey today at WHitefish, MT which was a resort town made popular by the Great Northern Railway as a means to draw passenger traffic to its far northern transcontinental route. Whitefish is also the site of a fairly large rail yard and marks the western end of what is today the BNSF Hi-Line Subdivision (page 34 here). Unlike the Hi Lines back east, the GN Hi-Line isn't elevated, but is instead the "highest" east-west main line in the continental United states, located only about 30 miles from the Canadian border.
I highly encourage everyone to view the full set of pictures from this set here because there are a lot of great pics that I simply could not fit in this little web tour.
We begin at Whitefish yard where I am greeted by a pair of BN GP39M rebuilds. In the 1980's the BN and ATSF both sent a large number of their early second generation EMD diesel power through a rebuild program that upgraded the original 567 engines with 645 power assemblies resulting in a uniform 2300hp output. The M in GP39M stands for Morrison-Knudsen, which later became Motive-Power Industries based in Boise. Anyway here we see BN #2825, a former GP30 and 2892, a former GP35. These are some of the last active GP30's and 35's in powered non-heritage service.
Whitefish is still the hub of the Glacier Park area tourist scene with all manner resorts and other attractions despite there being two other stations which are technically closer to the Park's boundaries. Here we see the crowds milling about the train while it makes an extended smoking stop as well as the ornate Great Northern station. Incidentally, the first Train 7 that was heading eastbound since the first round of flooding closed the route had just made its stop here about 30 minutes previously running about 12 hours late. Of course it has the Phase II heritage unit on point so I'm sure the passengers were appeased.
Whitefish can sort of be considered the Altoona of the Great Northern, acting as the spiritual home of the former railroad and its traditions. This is best represented by the bronze statue of the Great Northern mountain goat, although the name is a bit misleading as the species is neither a mountain nor a goat. That odd looking contraption in the background is a preserved example of the fleet of GN built buses that shuttles passengers to and from their final resort destinations.
Also on display at Whitefish is a rare EMD NW3 road switcher concept. The class was basically an NW2 switcher with Blomburg B trucks and a steam heat generator for passenger service under an extended hood. Only 7 were built for the Great Northern, but despite the small fleet size one remains in service today as an industrial switcher in Morrisville, PA.
The done car marring the back of our train was the Bella Vista owned by Rail Ventures. Rail ventures is a charter outfit that rents private cars to groups and includes overnight accommodations and food service. Interestingly enough almost an entire sleeping car was taken up by another tour group taking an around the country Amtrak trip lead by some militant English governess type.
Now just when I thought my one shot at getting some amazing pics of the GN route and Glacier park had been dashed, our train stopped just a few hundred feet outside the Whitefish station and proceeded to set out the Bella Vista onto the Whitefish station track. Apparently the charter was to visit Glacier Park, not see the vast expanse of plain and Big Sky east of it. Well, I sure wasn't going to complain. However I will complain about the 20-30 minutes the setout procedure added to the trip. After a full smoke stop at Whitefish station proper the crew might have at least prepared the Bella Vista for separation by disconnecting the HEP and other ancillary fittings. Amtrak needs to be careful about letting their private car business impact their actual passenger carrying business. Here we see two of the crew restoring the hand through switch to the station track. Not the length of the backup move that needed to be made.
The Hi-Line sub officially starts at EAST WHITEFISH interlocking and it wasn't long before we passed a westbound TOFC train on the long section of 2 Main Tracks that began at Whitefish.
The highball didn't last very long as we were held for a few minutes where the two main tracks shrunk back to one at CONKELLY interlocking for another westbound train to pass. This train was lead by 4 units, including another Warbonnet and SD70MAC #9486.
This section of single track was brought to us by a section of high rock cliffs and a viaduct over the Flathead River.
The next station stop as at Belton, although I think Amtrak calls it Glacier Park. Like I said there are several stations closer to the park, but Whitefish gets most of the tourist traffic. Also note the station improvements probably funded through the recent stimulus.
Someone has a sense of humor as east of Belton we found a short local freight train with a BN caboose and twin SD40-2s #1690 and #1961 waiting for us to pass at the west end of the Belton siding.
This single track section is brought to us by a series of tunnels in the deep Java creek valley.
The two main track start up again at NYACK where we find a pair of light C44-9W's including BNSF #4736.
Just past RED EAGLE we pass a fully loaded coal train heading west with a pair of helpers on the end including another C44-9W (notice a pattern here), #5011.
Well we're back in the single track at PAYOLA, but this section wasn't always single track like the other two, but was instead converted due to a tunnel clearance project. Here we pick up our first hint of re-signaling where some classic GN masts face replacement by a new Darth Vadar mast which will also change the use of *Y* Approach Medium to Y/Y Approach Medium. I believe this is in anticipation of some sort of two main track extension at PINNACLE.
Waiting for us to clear up at PINNACLE was another loaded coal train with no fewer than THREE Warbonnet C44-9W's including #635 and 700 seen here.
The re-signaling is still in evidence at ESSEX which marks the west end of the Essex yard which hosts a couple of plow cars and the track laying train being used for that track extension to the west.
Essex is also another Amtrak station, again closer to the park, but with only minimal facilities.
At this point we begin our ultimate assault on the continental divide and we know we're getting close when we encounter the first of what were original 12 snow sheds that protect the tracks from established avalanche runs.
The line shrinks back to a single track to cross the high viaduct over the Java Creek.
The snowsheds resume in earnest after we go back to two main tracks at JAVA EAST. Here we see shed 10.5.
Snowshed 7 which curves back around.
Snowshed 5 as seen from the inside of snowshed 4.
Snowshed 4 is the last remaining snowshed, but we can see the concrete wall where Snowshed 3 used to be. In this long shot taken from around the bend we can see Showsheds 5, 4 and the remains of 3.
At this point track #1 was out of service for some MoW work, but there didn't seem to be any major backup of traffic waiting to get by as we had passed most of it west of the Java Creek.
Unlike tunnels 2 and 3 which had to be single tracked for clearance reasons, tunnel 1 was simply bypassed as single tracking the steep western slope was not an option. The GN lines numbering things sequentially and yes, this is the first tunnel heading westbound on their main line. The great plains don't tend to have many natural features that require tunneling.
HBD-DED in the foreground with mountains in the background at the BLACKTAIL siding.
Great Northern signal masts are still in service on this part of the line.
We're getting close now. MARIAS is a controlled point near the summit of the grade that allows for helper units to be cut off and reverse direction back down the grade. While track #2 has a simple siding to help with this, track two had a wye that was later converted into a full balloon loop track which begins at the hand operated switch located at the MARIAS signal. While you can't see it well from the back of the train, the loop and former wye are obvious from above. I should also mention that all that white stiff around the tracks are piles of snow and that these photos were taken in JUNE. It was record snowfalls that causes the flooding that terminated the Empire Builder for much of the spring and summer.
Well here's the money shot, the BNSF Northern Transcon's crossing of the continental divide at the Marias Pass at an elevation of 5216 feet above sea level in the town of summit, Montana. This is the lowest crossing of the Rocky Mountains north of New Mexico and allows the BNSF to move more freight with less power than the competing Union Pacific routes. The pass was actually by a GN railroad engineer in conjunction with a Blackfoot Indian guide and had been previously unknown to western settlers. The railroad was then built first with the road that became US2 following later.
From a railroad signaling point of view the GN summit isn't super special in terms of interlockings or track configuration, but there is this iconic cantilever mast at SUMMIT interlocking which is not only somewhat out of place on the GN, but also features US&S N-3 signal units and has been retrofitted with a large access staircase to make the maintainer's lives easier during the winter. I believe there are also some raptor nests on the structure as well. SUMMIT interlocking marks the east end of the double track territory.
Mountains and mountain lakes at BISON WEST as we drift down the east slope and yes, I do believe that is a beaver lodge.
Milepost 1142 and Calf Robe mountain as we run along the southern edge of Glacier Park. Get out and see it while you can because in 20 years those glaciers will be all gone thanks to global warming.
We're well into summer, but it looks like spring is just starting to sprung here.
Glacier Park is a seasonal stop on the line with the trains stopping in Browning during the winter months. This is the eastern version of Whitefish with lodges and resorts serving tourists in the area, but it is still not as popular as the former. The signal at EAST GLACIER interlocking has already been pulled up for an opposing move and the bridge over a local waterway has been fitted with wind screens to prevent container trains from having their loads blown over.
EAST GLACIER interlocking with the mountains at the southeastern corner of the park visible in the background. Unfortunately this was about all the blue sky I was to see on this part of the trip. Oh well, I guess it gives me a reason to go back and do it again...via Portland of course.
Viaduct over the Two Medicine River Bridge. All the water here will wind up in the Gulf of Mexico.
The two main tracks start up again at GRIZZLY where we find a pair of...what else, C44-9W's including BNSF 4398 on the front of a unit grain train that was the cause for the signal to be cleared back at WEST GLACIER.
Not that it makes a huge difference, but we finally get a little diversity with a pair of reverse elephant style ES44AC helpers including BNSF #6026 pushing on the rear.
Here comes the sun....briefly. what says Montana more than a pair of dirt wheel tracks heading up and over a hill with snow covered mountains in the background.
The rockies fade very quickly ino rolling foothills...then quickly again into flat plains.
The wildflowers are out in the fields surrounding this Montana ranchhouse.
More signs of re-signaling replacing the GN era masts and hardware probably for that waste of time PTC mandate. While being used for electrical power only, a form of pole-line still stands to deliver the juice to the remote intermediate signals and interlockings.
Browning is the other seasonal stop, this time open only during the winter months when East Glacier Park is closed. You can see how all the stations on the line have received platform and ADA upgrades.
Well it was just about time for lunch as we passed Browning so that will be a good place to cut things for the week. Next time we'll pick up with the soaring peaks of Glacier Park far in the distance at Shelby, MT and finish up the Hi-Line Sub to Havre, MT before continuing on over the Milk River and Glasgow subs all the way to the North Dakota border. I leave you with this photo of cool looking silo framed by the Glacier Park peaks.
Please be sure to check out the other photos in the set. There are about 350 of them and many are the equals to the ones I posted here.