Monday, March 6, 2017

Debunked Myths: Is Utah Railway Dead?

With our recent coverage of one of the final Utah Railway coal trains and the recent news we broke on our Facebook page that the MK50-3 units on the Utah Railway are soon going to the Kyle Railway (EDIT: On March 14, 2017 after this article was published, four of the MK50-3 units left Utah on a BNSF Provo-Denver freight. The other two were left behind, perhaps to continue work on the Utah Railway); we have been seeing a lot of comments from people out of state who aren't familiar with the modern Utah Railway operations who are readying to play funeral dirges for the line. While the situation on the Utah Railway is changing and adjusting, it is far from dead.

The assumption Utah Railway is dead in the water reminds me of the scene in the famed movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail where a man is passing through a town with a wheel barrow full of bodies asking the villagers to "Bring out their dead." One character brings out an old man and tries to convince everyone that the he is dead, despite him yelling; "I am not dead yet!" throughout the scene. In a sense the Utah Railway, despite showing its age and a few gray hairs, is screaming too: "I am not dead yet!" Although it seems in the digital age of conjecture and speculation, those cries are falling on deaf ears.

Myth One: With the MK50-3 units gone, Utah Railway has no engines left

Status: False

The Utah Railway has always been a road which has picked up second or third hand engines, worked them hard, then traded them off. Before the MK50-3's even came and left the property, Utah Railway had rostered and dropped many engines such as their SD40 units, F45's, ALCO's, and a large fleet of lease units the Utah Railway borrowed in the 1990's. Utah Railway shuffles through power on a cyclical nature every generation. While the MK50-3 units represent half of the Utah Railway's six-axle locomotive fleet, the line still rosters a healthy dose of four axle units. As of early 2017 the line rostered (excluding the six MK50-3 units) the following units:

8 GP38-3 units
3 GP40-3 units
5 SD50S units

While the lack of six axle units beyond the five SD50S units might seem strange, the fleet of GP units is appropriate for the traffic loads Utah Railway is handling (more on what that traffic is later...) Furthermore, Utah Railway doesn't hesitate to borrow engines from Union Pacific or BNSF, regularly using mainline BNSF power to switch trains in Provo Yard. Furthermore, as part of the Genesee and Wyoming corporation, Utah Railway could in theory receive units from other G&W lines depending on traffic needs. 

While the thought of four axle units hauling freight of the Summit seams strange, it should be remembered that the Denver and Rio Grande Western which once ran the same route rostered a large fleet of four axle units itself and ran most of its flagship trains using exclusively 4-axle power. If the four axle power isn't sufficient, again the Utah Railway has easy access to pool with BNSF or UP.

A good look at the modern Utah Railway roster can be found on UC Rail.

Myth Two: With coal traffic collapsed, Utah Railway no longer has any spource of freight traffic

Status: False

BNSF produced this video on the Utah Railway to honor them as their "Shortline of the Year" in 2014. As explained in the opening moments of the film, Utah Railway acts as BNSF's agent in the state of Utah since 1997, connecting BNSF freight to various industries and other shortline roads such as the Salt Lake Garfield and Western, and the Utah Central Railway. Furthermore the video discusses in 2014 how the Utah Railway was seeking to expand in the energy business "beyond coal" and was looking into the expanding crude oil operations in the state.

One of Utah Railway's local freight trains with a cut of crude oil tankers heading north through Salt Lake City in November 2016.

While coal traffic ended on the Utah Railway earlier this year, the Utah Railway still has several commodities to haul. As BNSF's agent in the state of Utah, the Utah Railway hauls freight to various industries across the state. BNSF has a set of regularly manifests which come from Stockton, California; and Denver, Colorado; to the rail yard they share with the Utah Railway in Provo. Utah Railway crews handle those BNSF freights from Provo to Union Pacific's Roper Yard in South Salt Lake City; where the UP crews the trains over the former Western Pacific mainline to points west. BNSF also brings in unit trains of crude oil or copper ore to Provo, which Utah Railway then crews to bring to their final destination. Along Utah Railway's route from Provo to Ogden, the line interchanges with several local railroads, the Salt Lake Garfield and Western, the Savage Bingham and Garfield, and the Utah Central. 

In addition Utah Railway's trackage rights through Utah are extensive. While the Utah Railway rarely uses their trackage rights all the way to Grand Junction, Colorado, they extensively use the routes from Provo to Ogden. Along the way they have access to the former Union Pacific mainline currently in use by UTA, the former Denver and Rio Grande Garfield Branch, the industrial parks west of Salt Lake City via the former Los Angeles and Salt Lake/Western Pacific tracks, access into Ogden's 21st Street Yard, and routes over the former Southern Pacific Railroad line to Little Mountain on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. Utah Railway has full access to the Wasatch Front, able to reach the majority of customers in the area.

Furthermore, the Utah Railway maintains its routes over the former Denver and Rio Grande mainline it shares with UP, BNSF, and Amtrak. This allows them access to a crude oil load out near Wellington, Utah. The Utah Railway also maintains a portion of their line south-west of Martin which goes to the former Wildcat coal load out, which has been converted to loading crude oil trains.

These multiple points of access means Utah Railway is hauling a diverse amount of cargo goods right now, a few examples of freight Utah Railway might be seen hauling:

Sulfuric Acid
Copper Anodes
Rocket Components
Low Level Nuclear Waste
General Goods and Raw Materials
Crude Oil 

In a way the 1997 union of the Utah Railway as a partner with BNSF has prepared the Utah Railway to survive; even thrive, in a post-coal economy.

The HUTAHJ running on the 19th of December last year. Filmed by Josh Bernhard.

Myth Three: Utah Railway won't run over Soldier Summit anymore

Status: Partially false; expect some changes

As mentioned previously, the Utah Railway is finding new business in the oil industry growing in central Utah. While many people have jumped to the conclusion Utah Railway isn't running freight over the former Denver and Rio Grande since they stopped hauling coal, that is far from the truth. Two or three times a week the Utah Railway will send out the HUTAHJ over the former DRGW mainline, primarily to transfer crude oil tankers and hopper cars full of sand which are used in fracking. In addition, the HUTAHJ can also be seen transferring sulfuric acid from Kennecott down to Carbon County. The Utah Railway still runs trains on occasion from Martin to Wildcat to load oil tankers. In addition the unused portions of the Utah Railway line are being used as rental space for rail car storage, requiring the Utah Railway to head out and drop off cars from time to time. The HUTAHJ train will keep Utah Railway in Carbon County for the foreseeable future.

The Martin engine house as seen on December 26, 2016.

The situation in Carbon County though, isn't nearly as vibrant as it was ten years ago or so. So yes, the Utah Railway has cut back its work force in the area. Only two permanent employees are still stationed in Martin, Utah; the rest of the Utah Railway work traveling to the area from their bases of operation in the Wasatch Front. The Martin engine house, a classic relic of the steam era; is still in use. However, due to its age and location far away from the main Utah Railway operations, Martin is not currently the most strategic location for an engine house in the modern Utah Railway system. Despite that, it seems it will remain in use for the time being. The HUTAHJ still comes to Martin Yard on a frequent basis, giving hope that the area will still be in use for a long time to come.

Myth Four: There are hardly any original Utah Railway painted locomotives still in service.
Status: True

The difference between the classic Utah Railway paint scheme and the G&W orange and black is demonstrated in these two photos from September 11, 2016.

The departure of the MK50-3 units from the Utah Railway is part of a long process of assimilation into the Genesee and Wyoming corporation that has been going on since the Utah Railway was bought out by the G&W in 2002. Five of the MK50-3 units wore the classic Utah Railway paint scheme at the time they were sent to the Kyle Railroad. The sixth MK50-3, 5005, was the first Utah Railway unit to be painted in G&W orange and black as of 2003. Since then, G&W has converted all of the GP units to their corporate scheme; and has also painted two of the five SD50S units into that scheme. With the MK50-3 units gone, only three SD50S units will remain to represent the pre-G&W paint scheme. If anybody wishes to photograph the classic Utah Railway paint scheme on home rails, now is the time.

I hope you enjoyed this update on the current status of the Utah Railway, and I hope it clarified some of the misinformation about the Utah Railway that is currently making the rounds in railfan circles right now! Until next time,

-Jacob Lyman

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