At noon on September 2 2016, the Provo, Utah to North Yard, Colorado MRONY, consisting of five locomotives and 115 cars, stalled on the grade at Castilla in Spanish Fork Canyon in Utah. Since the ex-D&RGW main line from Provo to Denver is paramount to the transport of coal to electrical power plants in Utah and California, this was a serious block to traffic. SD70ACe number 8838 was sent out as a helper unit, but one locomotive did nothing to restart the train on its way east, so three more units had to be called from Helper, Utah, to be added mid-train; they didn’t arrive until 7:00 pm, causing a more than seven-hour delay in traffic as the 8838 switched out the train on the main to splice in the three helpers.
This event is not uncommon in the mountain regions of the Union Pacific system. While some may claim that the American economy is on the rise since the 2008 housing market collapse, the condition of the transportation industry says otherwise, and Union Pacific seems to be in some dire straits considering their recent policy of running longer trains with less power in a desperate attempt to cut down on crews and locomotives. In Utah, the problem has manifested itself most on the old Rio Grande routes, which reflecting the Grande’s motto of “Through the Rockies, not around them!” are reasonably steep in order to ascend Soldier Summit in the heart of the Wasatch Range. The Rio Grande had no problem with this landscape, operating under the policy of short, fast freight, running more trains with less cars at a quicker speed over the summit. BNSF, which operates trackage rights on this route, also has no problem (although some BNSF employees may say otherwise). Union Pacific, on the other hand, is struggling.
As another extreme example of the impracticality of this policy elsewhere on the system, on August 3 a grain train from Salt Lake stalled on the grade just west of the Nevada border. A single helper locomotive (ES44AC number 8247) was dispatched from Salt Lake to shove it uphill. Since Distributed Power Units are rarely manned, the extra helper unit cost the UP a crew which could have been saved by simply tacking on the DPU before heading out. And if that wasn’t enough, another westbound train had to wait for the light engine to clear the Shaffter subdivision before proceeding, causing further delay and expense as commodities sat idle both on the stalled train and the manifest in the hole.
August 3, 2016; on the Shaffter Subdivision near Aragonite. A lone helper is on the move to help out a grain train stalled on the grades west from here. I found it near Lake Point, Utah; and chased it out here. Discussions over Facebook confirmed that this was an emergency helper move.(Jacob Lyman photo and description)
A former engineer on the Union Pacific remarked that he observes that the same problem is happening in the Blue Mountains of Oregon and explained that “train delay is directly attributable to train length.” From his perspective as a locomotive operator he added that extra-long trains pose several serious problems: few sidings have the capacity to hold these trains, meaning that meets are impossible and traffic must be restricted to one direction for extended periods of time until they clear the main line; in addition, if a train were to fall into Undesired Emergency (UDE), the crew is obligated to walk the entire length to identify the problem. In his words, “it’s a damned long way for one employee to walk.”
This train didn't stall, but it almost did - by the time it neared Wahsatch Summit it was moving at barely faster than the photographer could walk. While this made it easy to chase the train, it also meant waiting at this location for over an hour as it traveled less than 25 miles in that time. The problem? Three locomotives with over 100 cars aren't enough to maintain a steady speed even on the Echo Canyon's 1.14 percent grade.
Operating crews will use this as an example of the disconnect that exists between the men on the ground and the men in the office, particularly dispatchers. A revealing anecdote from one engineer illustrates this: at one point, an engineman complained that his train had more tonnage than his locomotives could handle. The dispatcher replied “The book says they are rated for (x) amount of tons,” to which the engineer shot back, “Yes, but these engines haven’t learned to read yet!”
The issue, and perhaps one of the contributing factors to UP’s policy, is that every locomotive is rated to pull a certain number of tons, but only at 100% capacity. That may be relevant on level track during the testing phase, but on the road is impossible. In real life, locomotives operate at far below their full capacity due to age, abuse, and environmental factors (wet rail, steep grades, sharp curves, etc.). So while dispatchers go by the manufacturer’s ratings, an operating crew knows to cut an estimated 25-50% from the written statistics in order to play it safe on a run. This concept, however, is impossible for an economist to understand as they try to cut expenses and maximize revenues on paper.
BNSF seems to have copied the Rio Grande's strategy of short, fast freight, such as this one speeding upgrade to the Thistle Tunnels in August 2016. This train has three lead units and one DPU for 22 cars, which allows it to maintain a steady speed going uphill; a typical Union Pacific freight train on this route will have the same number of locomotives for over 50 cars and struggles on this same 2% grade.
In some cases, crews have become creative to get around the demand for long trains with less power. Steve Creer, a now-retired engineer and conductor who started with the D&RGW and worked through the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific mergers, was called to Elko to run a train measuring at 8,950 feet. Trains running east of Elko cannot exceed 9,000 feet due to the length of passing sidings on that stretch. However, the Manager of Yard Operations approached and informed him that he was required to pick up ten cars, which surpassed the limit by almost 450 feet. Mr. Creer protested, knowing that he was scheduled to meet two 12,000 foot westbound trains; the manager shrugged him off. Even after the dispatcher in Omaha confirmed that the train could not exceed 9,000 feet under any circumstances the Elko managers insisted that the ten cars be added.
“A conductor is an overpaid liar because he has the educated pencil,” Creer remarked. He opened up the computer system and marked that he had picked up the cars without actually doing so, then forced the MYO to enter the train as having departed Elko, again without actually doing so. Steve then returned to his own computer and set the ten cars out at a short maintenance siding a mile from town, told the MYO to put the cars on the next short train (for real that time), loaded up his own train, and headed for Ogden. Management was happy, the operating crew was happy, and nobody noticed that the cars had been recorded as added, moved, and set out in the impossibly short time of less than five minutes. Without this sort of trickery, incomprehensible delay would have been the result.
September 10, 2016; Schon Norris, James Belmont, and I were with each other railfanning the area south of North Yard in Salt Lake City, when two "Monster Trains" arrived in opposite directions simultaneously, the MWCNP, and the MNPWC (shown in the picture). The eastbound MWCNP barely fit the yard, while the westbound MNPWC was so large the lead locomotives and freight cars where outside the southern yard portal, where they blocked several grade crossings for an extended period of time. To complicate matters worse, these two trains switch and drop off loads in the yard, meaning the crews had to work a tricky balancing act between the two monsters to get their jobs done.
However the greatest issue of these monster trains soon became apparent as the minutes passed. The MNPWC blocked off the grade crossings in the area, causing frustration for the commuters and pedestrians in the area. To the shock of Schon, James, and I; many pedestrians began to blatantly trespass, crossing over the couplings on many of the cars on the MNPWC. We witnessed a man with a bike crossing over the coupler, and shortly there after we also saw a family with several children crossing over. At this time the MNPWC was making switching moves to try and drop off cars in the yard, and in some-cases these trespassers avoided being caught between cars on a moving train by a few seconds. Another danger was the active tracks surrounding this train, with two active Frontrunner commuter rail tracks on one side, and an open mainline to the other (with an approaching hot ZDVSC coming down on it). It was a very stressful thing for Schon, James, and I to watch; and it illustrated how the absurd length of these trains can frustrate pedestrians and inspire some awful stupidity. (Jacob Lyman photo and description)
It has been suggested that this is simply a remnant of Union Pacific’s bitter and emotional rivalry with the Denver & Rio Grande Western. One railroader remarked that “The Rio Grande was a chief competitor to the UP and they did what the UP couldn't do - ran a fast freight line on single track through the Rockies. Even though the heyday of this was 30+ years ago, I'm certain that sting still hurt some senior folk in Omaha many years later.” Assuming this idea is true, a jealous Union Pacific is trying to prove that they can do better than the Rio Grande. So far it seems that they aren’t.
Some hope that these stalled trains will be a learning experience for the Union Pacific. As mentioned, BNSF already has already figured out the ideal operating system, running 25-50 cars with the same number of locomotives that UP puts on a 50-150 car train. BNSF trains often arrive in Provo from Denver four to five hours earlier than initially scheduled, whereas UP trains on the same route will often be late by an equal amount. The idea is that UP managers will recognize the fallacy of their current paradigm and pull some of the hundreds of locomotives stored dead in Ogden and elsewhere to push their freight through more effectively. Only time will tell if they wise up.
DISCLAIMER: I do not represent Union Pacific, BNSF, or any other railroad company. This article is based on observation of true events and the judgement of people knowledgeable on the subject; I welcome any further insights into this phenomenon.
Spencer Peterson, who witnessed the stalled MRONY and photographed the process of the three helper locomotives being switched in to the train at Castilla.
Jacob Lyman, who photographed the light move to Wendover on August 3, and provided further insights into the event from discussions he had with railroad employees.
Steve Creer, a former D&RGW engineer from Provo, Utah, who worked a short time for the UP after the merger. He shared many of the laughable interactions between operating crews and dispatchers.
Matt Paulson, James Belmont, and others who provided commentary through the Rails Through the Wasatch, Utah Rail Enthusiasts and Fans of the Union Pacific Railroad Facebook groups. Some names, particularly those of current railroad employees, have been withheld due to privacy concerns.