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Saturday, June 18, 2016

16-06-18 PHOTOS: Desirable Streetcars

New Orleans has come a long way since it was destroyed in 2005. By the time of my visit in 2009, all three of the streetcar lines were back up and running. Six years later a new line had been built to serve the Union Passenger Terminal and another line was under construction to serve the French Quarter.

When I visit New Orleans in 2015, my friend I was staying with lived in the 7th Ward, which was not served by the current streetcar system. However she since moved to Mid-city, only a block from the Carrollton Ave junction on the Canal St line, so this year when I traveled into downtown I could do so in style. You can find the full set of New Orleans streetcar photos here.

We begin at Carrollton Jct with outbound Red car #2014 destined for the City Park branch about a block away from making the turn.

A bit of a jam up soon occurred after I was picked up by Red car #2006, as outbound Red car #2012 met inbound Cemeteries car #2001.

Canal St Line Red Car #2009 traverses the still new junction with the new Loyola Ave - Union Station branch.

#2009 then fight through traffic on Canal St to turn off onto the Loyola Line.

Passengers pouring out of Red car #2006 at Baronne St.

Waterfront Red car #462 passing by Jackson Square.

Friday, June 17, 2016

16-06-17c PHOTOS: Gulf Coast

In the final segment of my 2016 transcontinental Amtrak Long distance trip I travel from the sweatbox city of Beaumont, TX to Lafayette, LA and ultimately New Orleans. The route follows the gulf coast and the narrow spit of land that curves to the south of the Crescent City. Due to catastrophic backlighting I aborted the survey at Lafayette. You can find the full set of photos here.

About 2 hours east of Houston, Beaumont is the last crew change point and smoke stop on the Sunset Limited route. It is also the hottest place I have ever been with a suffocating humidity that defies belief.

The Beaumont station area has fortunately retained its classic searchlight dwarf signals.

Passing through the complex interlocking east of the station was a train led by NS SD70ACe #1160 and containing AC4400's #6150 #5760 and a few TIPX juice cars.

Doublestacks on the end of the same train passing through a high and wide car detector and a pair of signals operated by Kansas City Southern as part of a joint operation scheme.

Vertical lift drawbridge over the Neches River.

Passing a lashup comprised completely of UP SD70M's and SD70ACe's on the Connell siding.

UP SD70M's #4404 and #4213 on the Francis siding. 

The Orange, TX station close to the border of Louisiana. Once again I would like to remind my readers that El Paso, TX (5 photo sets ago) is closer to Orange, CA than this point.

16-06-17b PHOTOS: Beaumont Bayou

Houston generally marks the halfway point on the second day of the westbound Sunset Limited's journey to New Orleans. After the lengthy detour around the out of service Brazos River bridge, we backed into the Houston Station for a shorter than normal smoke stop and prepared to snake our way out of the Houston Terminal complex before striking out eastward towards Beaumont, TX on Union Pacific's Beaumont Sub.

You can view the entire set of photos right here.

Amtrak P42DC's #77 and #182 at Houston's Amtrak station. An Amshack in every sense of the word, Houston's new station may be on the same site as its old one (I assume), but a small change to the layout of Tower 26 east of the station, eliminated the ability of the Sunset Limited to continue on its way without a costly backup move.

Looking back through the old Tower 26 interlocking plant just prior to the backup move. The Sunset Limited just came through the diamonds crossing on Houston Terminal Sub Main Track #2 and will diverge onto the West Belt Sub via the track heading off to the left. This was actually the reverse of the movement the train had to make to get into the station because of the detour!

Tower 26 diamonds as seen from the UP West Belt Sub.

UP ES44AC's #8122, #7766, #7817 and SD70ACe #8912 waiting for us to clear the junction. If you look closely you can see it just received an Approach Restricting signal to proceed. 

SD70ACe #8586 was pushing on the rear.

EAST BELT JCT is yet another diamond crossing with wye connecting tracks, a common feature in the Houston Are. A UP work truck is on hand, possibly to maintain the new signaling installed at some point during the last year. The Sunset Limited takes a circuitous route out of Houston (north at Tower 26, east at East Belt Junction, Northeast at Gulf Coast Jct, then through Wye Jct) to avoid the congestion associated with Englewood and Settegast Yards. In theory the backup move could be avoided if the yard route were available.

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.

16-06-17 VIDEOS: Sunset Detour

Although I did have my GoPro with me on my 2015 Cross Country trip, this would be the first year where I would get to make proper use of it. Still, I didn't have unlimited battery or memory card capacity so I had to make some careful choices about what I would film from the rear of the train using my trusty suction cup mount. First of all, most of the trip is pretty dull consisting of single track railroad through the middle of nowhere or annoyingly slow speed running through urban areas. Second, there was no way in hell that I would fail to film the rare mileage detour portion of the trip. With these two constraints I decided to capture the run in and out of El Paso to the rare mileage as it offered an exciting route at somewhat reasonable speeds with no pesky backing up.

This first video shows the Sunset Limited's descent down the escarpment west of El Paso, into the Big River valley. There is a brief, edited stop at LIZARD interlocking where we wait for the westbound Amtrak Train 1 to pass, before we cross over and continue along the Mexican Border before crossing the Big River on an impressive viaduct. The video ends with our train pulling into the El Past Union Station.

The second video shows Amtrak Train 2, the Sunset Limited, as it departs El Past Union Station, past the now demolished Tower 96, through the downtown grade separation trench and then out into the old El Paso yard. The train passes by a wye junction and the site of the now demolished Tower 47 before passing the Union Pacific engine terminal and continuing to the Alfalfa merchandise freight yard.

Jumping ahead a day, the third video shows the first part of the detour on the BNSF Galveston Sub between the towns of Rosenberg, TX and Alvin, TX. This is normally a freight only line with a maximum speed of 50mph. The line is also in the process of being re-signaled with the 1980's vintage ATSF searchlights being replaced well before their time.

After squealing around the 10mph wye track at Alvin, my Train #2 enters the BNSF Mykawa Sub and proceeds from Alvin to T&NO Jct. Again the speed is 50mph, but upon approaching T&NO Jct, we begin to hit some congestion and speed restrictions and along with this route being generally bland and boring I cut out a few additional segments near the end.

Well that's it for this video post. Next week we continue on the cross country trip, heading from Houston to Beaumont, TX.

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.