December 26, 2016: a cut of swing helpers highball through Spring Glen, Utah (south of Helper). These helpers had just left Martin Yard and are on their way to the Savage coal load out to be cut into the loaded coal train at the load out.
Don't let the paint fool you! This engine never worked in revenue service as Nickel Plate 324 nor is it the original Nickel Plate 324. In fact this engine worked in revenue service as Utah Railway 306. After retirement, Utah Railway 306 was bought by famed steam restoration leader Doyle McCormack. The original Nickel Plate 324 was one of the engines which inspired Doyle's interest in railroads as a child and he chose to use Utah 306 to recreate that. This engine enjoys a posh retirement in Portland, Oregon; working from the same engine house as the famed SP 4449. Doyle keeps it in operating condition.
(First photo credit to Josh Bernhard, second and third photo credit to Matt Liverani) Utah's preserved Utah Railway ALCO unit is the Utah Railway 401. This RSD-15 unit started its life on the ATSF railroad, and when it arrived on the Utah Railway it had only a few small changes to its Blue Bonnet paint scheme before entering service on the Utah. After its retirement, the engine was donated to the NRHS where it got a second life working for Broken Arrow in Tooele County. In 1998 this engine joined the Utah State Railroad Museum collection.
The Utah Railway would serve as a vital part of the coal hauling system in central Utah for nearly a century from that point forward. Their steam locomotives shared track with the Denver and Rio Grande Western's trains. When the diesel era came, the Utah Railway adopted ALCO as their primary engine supplier, contrasting with the EMD ruled lines elsewhere in Utah. As the days of the ALCO's on Soldier Summit came to an end, the Utah Railway became known for its eclectic diesel roster of unique locomotives. In the late 20th century the line adopted a distinct red and gray paint scheme which had been designed by a local model railroad enthusiast. A collection of secondhand EMD power replaced the ALCO's. Their neighbor on Soldier Summit the fabled DRGW, was merged into the Southern Pacific, and later the Union Pacific.
Over this century of change the Utah Railway was still doing what it had been doing for 100+ years; hauling coal. Coal was the lifeblood of the line; and Utah Railway coal trains were a frequent sight on Soldier Summit. However time slowly began to erode the apparent lack of changes on the Utah Railway. The UP-SP merger forced the railroad to join BNSF in a joint business venture to run local freights through the Wasatch Front. Coal was no longer the sole commodity on the Utah Railway, as beginning in the late 1990's the Utah Railway was hauling everything from lumber, copper, rocket parts, sulfuric acid, crude oil, and more. The 2002 purchase of the Utah Railway by the larger Genesee & Wyoming brand was another major change on the line. Slowly the unique red and gray Utah Railway locomotives began to disappear for months on end, and then return to Utah painted in the corporate G&W orange and black paint scheme.
Then the unthinkable began to happen: Utah Railway's coal market began to dry up. Changing fortunes in the mining industry, environmental legislation shutting down coal power plants, and economic pressures began shuttering the remaining coal mines in Utah Railway's coal country. The end of coal shipments from the Wildcat load out in Spring of 2015, the last coal loadout accessed exclusively by the Utah Railway, reduced the railroad to only serving the Savage loadout on the UP line (Wildcat remains in use for occasional oil trains). Utah Railway was reduced to running one train out of Savage once a week to then transfer it over to the Union Pacific in Provo for the final leg of its journey to the IPP power plant near Delta, Utah. Then at the end of 2016 rumors began to circulate that the Utah Railway was going to lose their coal hauling contract with Savage. Those rumors were confirmed as the year came to a close and it was announced that the last Utah Railway coal trains would be running in December 2016 and January 2017. This news came as a shock to the railfan community, and railfans world wide mourned the loss of the venerable Utah Railway coal trains.
With this news the members of the Utah Rail Enthusiasts Facebook group and of the Desert Empire Project began to make plans to chase the last Utah Railway coal train of 2016 on December 26, 2016. I had never photographed a Utah Railway coal train before, so I eagerly joined the trip to get the opportunity while I still could. Josh Bernard took the opportunity to film more footage for the documentary Trackside and the two of us traveled together to chase the train.
With the temperatures well below freezing most of the day, we started of by passing through Provo Yard at dusk. A flotilla of BNSF engines sat at the ready in the yard while UP power hummed away in the distance. A few Utah Railway engines sat in the yard, including one of the MK50-3 units (as it would turn out the other five MK50-3 units were out at Martin, four of them preparing for the coal train we were going to chase). Around 7:00 am, at the far end of the yard, the coal train we were waiting to see pulled up into Ironton to officially switch out the Union Pacific crew with a fresh Utah Railway crew. It was still rather dark, so we decided to start heading up Spanish Fork Canyon to find some trains in the morning light.
Sunrise at Martin Yard. Track once full of coal hoppers is now loaded with oil tankers and covered hoppers full of sand for fracking.
With the coal train coming up in the day's schedule; a group of Utah Railway employees were out in the yard working on clearing the switches coming in and out of the engine house. Between clearing the switches and getting the engines ready to depart; the Utah Railway employees at Martin had a full day of work ahead of them.
At Kyune we finally found the Utah Railway coal train moving downgrade on its approach into Helper. The locomotives on point and as the train's DPU units are Union Pacific power. There are a variety of rumors as to why Utah Railway was using UP power instead of their own locomotives. Some suggest that UP had power restrictions on the Utah Railway due to maintenance problems with Utah's aging fleet of six axle locomotives. Other rumors suggest it is simply due to the fact Utah Railway doesn't own enough six axle units to man an entire coal train. Either way, Utah Railway has still been using their own power to man the mid train helpers on these coal trains as well as to run the new oil trains leaving the region.
With its load of empty hoppers; the coal train passed one of the most venerable landmarks in central Utah: Castle Gate, a rock formation with two stone walls forming a natural gateway. This location has been a landmark along the rail line for years. Sadly, a large chunk of Castle Gate was destroyed many years ago by UDOT as part of a highway expansion project. The remaining parts of Castle Gate though are still a highly photogenic location to catch passing trains.
Just south of the Castle Gate rock formation was the Castle Gate Power Plant. This former Utah Power and Light plant was one of the oldest coal fired power plants in Utah. With stricter environmental rules enacted over the last few years, the plant's current operator PacificCorp/Rocky Mountain Power; decided to mothball the old plant. As of right now work crews are demolishing the plant. The crumbling steel walls of the power plant with demolition crews working around it is another sign of changing fortunes in Utah's coal country.
When the coal train arrived in at the Savage load out, our railfan group broke up a bit as we searched for any action in the surrounding area. At Wellington, Utah, we found a Union Pacific coal train which had originated at West Elk in Colorado and had been left idle in a siding over the Christmas holiday. Many UP trains had stopped for the holiday, and rumors circulated that a large portion of UP employees had called "sick leave" for December 25... Either way, the West Elk train was left in the siding for the day; and we never saw it move during our time there.
UP 6699 was left on point on the West Elk coal train tied down near Wellington, Utah.
UP 6333 had a bit of a banged up side near the cab; suggesting it was victim of a sideswipe accident of some kind.
The Utah Railway coal train was bound to take a few hours to load, so we set about trying to find ways to entertain ourselves while waiting for our coal train to leave. The Provo Subdivision has become increasingly quiet since the UP-SP merger over 20 years ago, and railfanning there sometimes means waiting hours between trains. The slow start up again from the holiday surely wasn't helping our luck on this trip either!
This Vanderbuilt tender located on private property south of Helper was once used on one of Utah Railway's steam trains. To my knowledge, no other parts of Utah Railway's steam trains were preserved.
After returning from Wellington Josh and I found that the helper set for today's train had been moved out of the engine house at Martin and linked together. The engines on all the helpers were roaring as Utah Railway crew checked them for their upcoming departure.
In rural parts of the former DRGW, there are still No Trespassing signs marking the land as owned by the DRGW.
Waiting for the coal train to depart gave us a few hours of downtime. One of the things we did to keep ourselves entertained was to visit the outdoor displays of the Western Mining and Railroad Museum. Josh has been to this museum before, but this is the first time I have visited there. The indoor displays were closed but we walked around the outdoor displays. The DRGW spreader was particularly impressive; and with the snow covering the ground, it was easy to imagine that spreader was ready for the call of action at any moment. Many of the devices on display were equipment from old mines through out Utah.
This narrow gauge electric locomotive represents the common machines used in underground mining operations. These locomotives could have spent years of work underground hauling mine cars.
This mucker on narrow gauge track was used to clear mud out of a Lead/Silver mine near Park City, Utah.
This DRGW spreader is arguably the highlight of the museum collection in Helper. The wood bodied car indicates the spreader is an older machine but the EMD MU cable mounts suggest that this spreader survived in work well into the diesel era.
Hours passed between the coal train reaching the coal load out and when the swing helpers were finally called for the train. The cut of Utah Railway locomotives left the yard in Martin, then highballed straight down the main. Josh and I nearly missed the helpers departing; but we found them near Spring Glen and followed them down to the load out.
At Spring Glen, Utah; MK50-3 Utah Railway 5004, is at point on the light power move. These locomotives will be added to the coal train being loaded at Wellington to help the train make it over the pass.
Utah Railway 2001 was dead in consist with the helpers to be transported back up to Utah Railway's yards in Provo and Midvale. 2001 was built as DRGW 3032 and it was very exciting to see a former Grande locomotive rolling about on this route. It also seemed fitting that one of the locomotives to participate on Utah Railway's final coal train scheduled for the year would have come from the DRGW.
With the helpers now at Savage; our crew of railfans reassembled to watch the train be built on the wye. It was a race against the clock for us, as we hoped to see the train depart early enough to reach the canyon before sun down. The helpers pulled of onto the wye while the rest of the train opened up a cut in the loaded coal cars to allow the helpers to slide into the middle. It was as if the Utah Railway workers were performing a coordinated dance with thousands of tons of steel and coal. The helpers slid into place and air hoses were connected. We were ready to watch the train depart when the air test results began to come over the scanner. There was a failure in the system, the train hadn't built up enough pressure in the air tanks due to the cold air. We sat and waited hopping the second test would produce better results. Even from our position on the opposite end of the wye we could hear the hiss of air as the second test started. Over the scanner we heard the announcement that the second test had the PSI needed; and the train was soon off! Our group of railfans rushed into our respective cars, and the chase was on!
Our next stop to catch the Utah Railway coal train was halfway between Price and Helper. Again, the UP engines were still on point of the coal train.
However the fact this train was a Utah Railway train was well on display with the set of seven locomotives in the middle. Although the 2001 was dead in transit the other six engines were hard at work to help the train make its uphill climb. Five of the engines still wore the classic Utah Railway paint scheme, a welcome sight for our group of railfans.
The Utah Railway helpers sure attracted a lot of attention from our crew. Besides Josh and I, other railfans who were out there on this chase at various points in the day were Matt Paulson, Spencer Peterson, Chaice Moyes, Sean Paul Anderberg, Aaron Pederson, and Jeff Hardenbrook.
The DPU's were our last catch at Book Cliffs as they pushed the train towards its coming assault with the canyon.
Sadly, it seems the small delay in the train was enough to push its arrival into the canyon during sunset. The mountains surrounding the Nolan Tunnels cast the train in deep blue shadow. From our vantage point near a highway turnoff high up in the mountain, we watched the train crawl like a giant snake along the grade.
Although the blue shadow of the setting sun was detrimental to our attempts to take pictures at Nolan; all of us enjoyed the view from high above the track. The sharp curves and steep grades of the route were easily visible from our vantage point, and it felt like we were not observing a real railroad in action; but instead observing the fantasy setting of a model railroad in somebody's basement. This is part of the magic allure which has kept the Rio Grande's routes in the conscious mind of so many railfans world wide.
Our Utah Railway helpers before hitting the tunnel portal.
Fortunately by the time we pulled further up the mountain into Colton, we found a little bit more light for us to work with for our final shots of the train. A van owned by the crew transport company PTI sat at the crossing to relieve the Utah Railway crew which had been with the train since the morning when Josh and I found it first at Ironton. A fresh crew would take it back to Provo, to then exchange it with the Union Pacific. The train showed up after a short wait, and the last rays of light caught it kicking up snow in the vast field surround the train.
We seemed to be watching the crew change in reverence and awe. For many of us this would be our last opportunity to chase a Utah Railway coal train. While rumors suggested that a few more coal trains would run into January; many of us had work or school conflicts which would prevent us from being on the summit for that final train. In my case, this was my first time being up on this world famous route to railfan. While I have passed through several times in my car on trips to Moab or Durango this was my first experience chasing a train up here. I wish that the experience had not come at such a somber moment in railroading history as the Utah Railway prepared to wrap up their long history of hauling coal.
Of course if one thing remains constant in the world of railroads, it is rumors and changes. We left thinking this train on December 26th would be the final coal train; yet it didn't take us long to hear that there were a few more trains scheduled in January to meet Utah Railway's contract. Although the contract expired at the end of 2016, it seems a requirement to haul a certain tonnage amount of coal might have the Utah run a few coal trains in 2017. The coal train we chased on the 24th might not have been "the last coal train on the Utah Railway" if those rumors prove to be true; yet it was officially the last train to run under the dates set in the contract. Of course we had other rumors to contemplate while we chased the train. Some say that BNSF is preparing a new plan to route coal from the Powder River basin out onto the old DRGW route and into Provo. According to this rumor, the BNSF coal loads will be picked up in Provo to be transferred to Ogden by none other than the Utah Railway. Many of us hope this rumor has a grain of truth to it, as the thought of the Utah Railway forever losing coal traffic is a hard idea to swallow. Until that rumor becomes fact though; it seems as if the end of Utah Railway coal trains came during the cold winter days at the end of 2016; and on the start of a new year in 2017.
Note; as of publishing this article it is still uncertain how many coal trains Utah Railway might need to run to fulfill the tonnage requirement in their contract. Rumors pointed that a train would run on January 9th, but recent reports suggest that train has been struck from the schedule. If our train on the 25th was the third to last or second to last coal train for the Utah Railway; has yet to be seen. We here at the D.E.P will be keeping track of any news as this situation unfolds.
UPDATE January 12, 2017: Recent reports report one more train to run under the contract to meet the tonnage requirements on January 16, 2017.
Information on the history of the Utah Railway can be found on UtahRails.Net
Footage of the Utah Railway coal train chase and some footage from our train chase in Milford a few months ago can be seen in the trailer for the documentary project; Trackside: The Story of Railroad Photographers, which has been filmed by Josh during these railfan trips we have been taking.