Saturday, February 23, 2019

Opinion: How I Would Fix Amtrak

Amtrak's California Zephyr; running several hours late, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Lets be honest, the current Amtrak long distance train system has struggled to work for a long time. Since the system was founded in the early 70's, Amtrak has struggled to increase ridership and turn a profit in long distance train service. The long distance trains have also struggled to retain decent on time service, and recent cutbacks in dining car services on certain trains have sparked debate among travelers and rail-fans alike.

A classic streamliner scene on the Milwaukee Road in the mid-20th century.

A lot of the current operations of Amtrak's long distance trains follow the methods and style of the classic American long distance streamlined trains of the mid-20th century. Its hard not to see the appeal of this era of rail travel, lightweight passenger cars fitted with luxurious interiors, fine dinning services, and other luxuries designed to pull ridership back to the rails and away from the new airline and automobiles. This era still has a strong pull in the American psyche, such as Alton Brown discussing his first experiences eating a shrimp cocktail while riding a late streamliner era passenger train in his TV show "Good Eats", or the cinematic attempt making innuendos with the trains in the classic Hitchcock film North By Northwest.

Not only did the railroads compete with luxury as its weapon of choice, so did their competition in the sky. Airlines tried to bask in luxury in that era, putting kitchens into their airplanes that could dish out meals that rivaled those on the railroads (such as explained in this video). Meanwhile the car companies advertised the rising interstate system as a personal form of freedom, without the restraints of rail or air travel.

To railfans its hard not to see trains such as the 1950's Super Chief or the California Zephyr as the peak of American rail travel. The streamlined steam locomotives and bulldog nosed diesels certainly help the mystique, and I know I would love to have a full replica of some iconic named passenger trains in HO scale to run on model train layouts!

This is 2019. Airlines serve bags of peanuts to passengers in cheap seats that are painful to anyone over 4-foot 2-inches. The interstate system is complete, and long distance car travel is routine. And here is Amtrak, straddling the line between the 1950's passenger trains of old while trying to match the modern era of economy and low cost of their competition. In a strange way, Amtrak's service seems like a watered down version of the streamliners that came before, too cheap to be considered luxury and too expensive to be considered economic. Is it any wonder then that in 40+ years of operation Amtrak has still yet to find a working method for long distance trains?

Meanwhile, in city's across the nation short distance train travel is returning in force. In Salt Lake City, I am lucky to have easy access to the TRAX and Frontrunner systems, and similar streetcar-light rail-commuter train systems are popping up in metropolitan areas across the nation. America is falling in love again with these short distance trains in their local area; cheap and economic, and easily accessible to the masses.

That is what makes the recent Wall Street Journal article about Amtrak considering re-inventing its long distance trains so intriguing. I see it as taking a page out of what commuter rail is doing and bringing it to Amtrak's intercity model.

For example, lets say I want to travel from Salt Lake City to Denver via train. Does the current California Zephyr really service my needs? I'd first have to get on a 3:30 am train in Salt Lake City, in a neighborhood that has limited parking options and is infamous in the area for its homeless population. If I could park off site then ride TRAX in that would be preferable, but TRAX isn't running at night when Amtrak makes its Salt Lake stop.

Then I'd travel most of the scenic former Rio Grande in Utah in darkness. At least it will be morning when I hit the Utah-Colorado border on the train, and I would be able to enjoy the Moffat Route in daylight, although I think it would be hard to shake that I missed half the scenery already. The arrival at 7:10 pm in Denver is sort of a more normal arrival hour and it will be at the refurbished Union Station; but much of the same troubles repeat on the return route with a return to Salt Lake City being about 11:00 pm at night.

Simply put, its not convenient hours and not competitive to similar airline service. The appeal of using Amtrak to travel outside of Salt Lake City is not very strong. Not to mention, its completely limited to the California Zephyr route... Oakland, Reno, Denver and Chicago are about the only major cities I can reach via the CZ without taking connecting trains or bus routes. I have had far more trips to Los Angeles for somewhat regular visits to Disneyland and treks up to Seattle to visit my family than I have ever had to Oakland or Reno (I have never been to Denver or Chicago). The point being, the California Zephyr not only has the wrong departure times, it also has the wrong destinations...

And that is why the proposal to run shorter daylight trains on more direct routes between cities Amtrak is looking at is so tempting. Its a sacrifice of the last vestiges of luxury for sure, but it could be the full embrace of economy and ease of access that Amtrak sorely needs. Trains Magazine contributor Fred Frailey has discussed the issue in a recent blog post called Amtrak's Great Debate begins, addressing both the legal and planning hurdles the changes could face; while also showcasing the potential. Frankly, it is time for this "Great Debate" to start and I am excited at the possibility of a 'new' Amtrak.

For inspiration, why not look at the Western Pacific's Zephyrette; an RDC motorcar service that was meant to be an 'off hours' counterpart to the California Zephyr? Lets take this model to the modern era and see how it works.

First, lets take a modern DMU unit such as the Stadler FLIRT or Siemens Desiro (what can I say, the Europeans build good trains!). Lets outfit it for longer distances, bigger fuel tanks so it can make runs from say Salt Lake to Las Vegas without refueling between terminals. A portion of one car will be a luggage rack for passengers to store their carry on bags. Lets add a small concession bar, so riders can get some cold served sandwiches and some snacks so they can have a small meal or two en-route. No-where near as glamorous as a three course hot meal, but still comparable to similar services seen in airline travel (besides what is to say a passenger couldn't pack their own meal for the train?). Outfit the train with Wi-Fi and maybe some on-board TV screens to entertain the commuters who might not be captivated by the scenery. This train will be staffed with an engineer, a conductor or two who will aid in ticket checking and passenger boarding, and some staff to run the snack bar.

Two trains will be staged at opposite terminals, one in Salt Lake and the other in Las Vegas. Both will depart early in the morning around say 8:00 am or so to coincide with the commuter rush in their respective cities so passengers can use public transportation or off site parking to reach the stations. We can maybe add one additional station stop in the middle of the route (in this case such as Milford or Caliente) so we can do a much needed crew change and provide some service to more rural communities.

Without large dining, luggage, parlor cars, or other classic streamliner trappings; our relatively small DMU is a fast little train, able to zip along the single tracked line between the two cities without fouling sidings for long. This is important to ensure the dispatchers of our host railroad are welcoming to these Amtrak trains darting between their freight traffic. It will likely be late afternoon before the train could arrive at the end of the line, but our passengers have successfully traveled from one city to another! If our Vegas bound passengers want to travel further, perhaps the train could connect with another DMU service that runs the Vegas to Los Angeles route.

Another benefit of using DMU's is it lowers the cost compared to having to maintain or buy a full 11 car train set like the current long distance trains need. This could allow for an increase of train frequency, with maybe two or three DMU trains departing a city terminal daily. Maintenance could be provided by either constructing new repair facilities for the DMU's near the routes, contracting services to local area commuter lines such as Utah's UTA or Los Angeles's Metrolink; or any remaining Amtrak long distance trains using traditional methods could be used to return DMU's to Amtrak's already existing facilities across the country.

Of course this plan has hurdles. Terminals would have to be expanded to handle having several DMU's at a time, in comparison to handling only one or two long distance trains per day. Of course the spending in purchasing the new DMU fleet and arranging to maintain it would be another hurdle. Most importantly, the very laws governing Amtrak and its definition of train service would have to change, allowing for Amtrak to implement these shorter routes without needing funding approval from individual states.

But I think the benefit on a focused model of smaller trains, shorter routes and more frequent service is tempting. Yes, it would be sad to see the departure of the long distance trains; but the continued long distance service has proved to be uneconomical and unsustainable financially year after year. Short routes and short trains could very well be the change Amtrak needs to be more economical and competitive in a modern United States.

I hope this "Great Debate" ushers in positive changes for Amtrak. Its about time this conversation started and I hope it modernizes American rail service for the 21st century!

-Jacob Lyman

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Opinion: Its Time to Preserve the West's Smelting History

Its been a while since I have gone to the blog to write a long form post; but a recent scroll through my Facebook feed brought up something interesting, which I have screenshot-ed in the above photo. I have never been to Superior, Arizona and not studied up much on its history... but the loss of any building related to copper smelting history is something I take notice of.

From what I read about the demolition currently ongoing in Arizona is that the buildings were briefly considered for preservation. However the amount of asbestos, arsenic, lead, and copper contamination was high enough that it was decided for health and safety reasons to demolish the remaining smelter buildings. One cost estimate pegged the cost of demolition at $2 million dollars, the other option to clean and rehabilitate the site and preserve the buildings? A whopping $12 million! (Source)

Non-ferrous metal smelting is a vital piece of our industrial history that is rapidly being lost across the nation and falling through the cracks in terms of preservation. Many artifacts from these smelters have made it to local museums, but nowhere has an entire plant in the western USA been saved and preserved. The experiences a railfan can have walking through the historic yards in Ely, Chama, or Jamestown and experiencing the entire site cannot be replicated with non-ferrous smelters. Yes, there are preserved mines & mills; but the smelter represented a critical link in the metal's process from ore to final product.

As of 2018, only three operational copper smelter's remain in the nation, Rio Tinto's plant at Garfield which serves as a backdrop for my daily commute, and the two smelters in Arizona. The last primary lead smelter in Missouri shut down a few years ago, the local mines now shipping their lead ores overseas.

Bethlehem Steel during the early 20th century depicted in a post card. From the Library of Congress.

Ferrous smelting has fared a bit better than the non-ferrous smelters in regards to preservation. Several steel mill remains east of the Mississippi have been preserved, cleaned up and redeveloped into the communities. One of the most notable examples of this exists in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, were the former Bethlehem Steel plant has been converted into an event center called SteelStacks. A large portion of the plant is kept as a backdrop for the event center, most notably the massive furnace structure which is over 1000 feet long from one end to the next! The site made its way into the news again this year, as the neighboring Sands Casino began plans to purchase the structure and the city entered in talks with the Casino on how to preserve the 'stacks' for the future (Source). These sites will remain a part of the local history for years to come thanks to the preservation minded outlook of the local area.

However, in terms of Western United States history, the west was not built on steel mills the same way as the east (exceptions existed of course, such as Geneva Steel in Provo and the many small mills that work on scrap metal recycling that still run to this day). The dominant force of smelting in the west's history has always been copper and lead; with the gold and silver trapped in those ore bodies.

What remains of the great copper and lead smelters of the west today? Trips to visit the great smelting sites at Kellog, El Paso, Murray, McGill or Tooele end up either in a grassy field with a lone structure or two; or an area so heavily re-developed not much remains of the old plant. Tailings and slag piles might remain, but these toxic remains tend to be removed or blocked from access due to their environmental risk. One of the few preserved smelter structures in the west is the smokestack that once served the Anaconda, Montana smelter... but now it stands alone; a structure out of context. Again, any similar preservation efforts in the west are often single buildings without the surrounding plant or simply moving artifacts off site prior to demolition of what else remains. 

Bunker Hill Smelter in Kellog, Idaho in the 1970's. (Source)

I should clarify I do not intend to raise this issue as an attack directed on work such as the Superfund program. I believe it is important that areas be cleaned up to improve health and quality of life surrounding the site, and it would be economically unfeasible to preserve historic structures and clean up toxic areas at every single smelter site in the west. However, it is unfortunate that in the effort to clean up these areas that not one or two sites have been able to do such while preserving the historic plant.

This may just be the opinion of a lone amateur railfan, but when the next great smelter closes; be it Garfield or one of the ones in Arizona; and the million dollar price tag between clean up and restoring the buildings for preservation, or to simply demolish them comes up... I hope that the powers that be take the more preservation minded option next time. An entire preserved smelter plant in the western USA could be the next great historical landmark, a reminder of our nation's industrial history both the good and the bad. The preserved site could be a key learning tool in understanding the environmental, economic and cultural aspects of our actions. That is simply a story that can not be told with a bare grassy field.

-Jacob Lyman

Friday, May 11, 2018

Railfanning Disneyland: An Amateur Guide

May 10, 2016; Disneyland Railroad #1 on static display at the New Orleans Square Station.

While thinking of what I could write about the famous Disneyland Railroad, I have to be honest I kind of struggled thinking of what I could say about the history of the route that hasn't been said. The Disneyland Railroad is one of the most famous steam operations currently running, with some estimates suggesting over 6 million+ people ride the railroad each year. Disney trivia buffs can tell the stories of Walt Disney and his Carolwood Pacific; his friendship with animators & railfans such as Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston; the stories of how Walt himself would come to the park to run his trains on the line, etc. As interesting as these stories are, I honestly have nothing new to say to those stories than what has already been stated prior by other authors.

However, one thing I feel is worth discussing is how to actually railfan this famous line and its sister rails in the resort, the Red Car trolley and the Disneyland Monorail. Truth be told, my recent experiences on a family vacation have proven to me that this line is one of the most frustrating and difficult railroads to shoot. There is no finding a peaceful lineside spot to watch the rails with few obstructions, as the realities of the theme park crowds make that near impossible. Not to mention that very few of us have the luxury or desire to devote our complete time in a theme park to railfanning (those hard earned Fastpasses for Space Mountain ensure that much). However, some recent reroutes have opened up the line to some new photo opportunities that are worth discussing and I hope my experience can be useful for future railfans who visit the park. By no means, I am not an expert; so don't be surprised if I missed out on some favorite railfan spot some of the frequently visiting Annual Passholders who frequently visit the park may be aware of which I am not.

May 6, 2018; Monorail Orange glides above park guests at the edge of the resort.

In terms of easy railfanning opportunities, the quickest system to access on the resort is the Disneyland Monorail. While the other lines I mentioned are confined inside the theme parks themselves, the monorail system runs outside the parks and through the public resort areas and alongside the right of way of Harbor Boulevard. As such this is the only system that can be photographed well without purchasing a park ticket. Even better, the segments of the monorail that glide outside the parks are relatively obstruction free in comparison to the cramped spaces in the parks themselves.

May 6, 2018 Monorail Blue glides along the edge of Disneyland Park after exiting the esplanade.

The line has three operating Mark VII monorails which are known by the color of their paint scheme, Red, Blue & Orange. The units are powered via a third rail (or is it second rail?) that runs along the monorail track. There is also at least one diesel powered tug on the line which is used in maintenance and to rescue stranded trains in the event of an electric power failure. The line has two train sets at a time running with the third kept in the rail shop backstage. During my most recent trip for example, only Blue and Orange were operating on the line.

May 6, 2018; shots of Monorail Orange traveling through the esplanade.

Those who wish to ride the monorail system should know the line has two stops; one inside Disneyland Park and the other in the Downtown Disney shopping district. The track also passes through Disney's California Adventure and the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa but makes no stops at either location. The gauge and system used at the Disneyland Monorail is unique to the line, based on the ALWEG designs from the 1950's (the sister Walt Disney World Monorail in Florida should be noted as the basis for Bombardier's INNOVIA system, which is in use in Las Vegas, Newark, San Paulo Brazil and Riyadh Saudia Arabia).

May 9, 2018; a Red Car Trolley traveling along the Hollywoodland facades.

The newest rail system in the Disneyland Resort is the Red Car Trolley in Disney's California Adventure park. A historical leaning railfan should be able to recognize this system is inspired by Los Angeles's famous Pacific Electric interurban system; the demise of which inspired the plot for Disney-Amblin's animated-live action hybrid film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." The Disney version is an electric street running system with four stations.

May 9, 2018; The Red Car about to depart from the station near the park entrance at Disney's California Adventure.

The most onerous aspect of railfanning the Red Car is the fact that theme park streets are very crowded. It takes some patience waiting for crowds to split long enough to get an unobstructed view of the trolley system in action. Fortunately, the entire right of way of the line can be followed via walking along Buena Vista Street and Hollywoodland; except a small portion which is "backstage" on the property. Keep an eye out for regular shows to were singing newsboys will ride along the Red Car from the backstage area to a performance area near the park entrance.

Of course I should mention one of the best part of the Red Car system... the set of Wig Wag crossing signals that follows the line! I have no idea if these are authentic or replica pieces, but it is still pretty fun to watch the Wig Wags in action.

It is worth mentioning that Disney also some a 'fallen flag' railroads! The "Jolly Trolley" was another streetcar system that looped around the Toontown area of Disneyland. The tracks remain and one of the trolleys is kept on static display in the land, but the system has not been used since 2003. The other is the mine train ride system that is best known as "Mine Train through Nature's Wonderland." This small system traveled through the western themed Fronteirland as part of a scenic attraction. It was eventually replaced with the highspeed rollercoaster, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (again a rollercoaster and not quite a proper railroad despite the fun train theme!) One of these old mine trains used to be on display in the park; weathered to look like an abandoned locomotive, however it has since been removed. Perhaps the most famous shortlived Disney railroad was the Viewliner, which was based on GE's revolutionary Aerotrain (Union Pacific would use an actual Aerotrain set between Los Angeles and Las Vegas as part of its "City of Las Vegas" train, and ATSF would use one between Los Angeles and San Diego) The Viewliner was retired when it was replaced with the early Monorail system.

May 7, 2018; Ernest S. Marsh former Raritan River Sand Co. #10; a rebuilt Baldwin which is now a 2-4-0 pulls an excursion train along the newly laid reroute alongside the Rivers of America

Now lets discuss the main attraction itself... The Disneyland Railroad and its five 3' gauge steam engines. Each engine has a unique name, the first four named after historic presidents of the ATSF and the : 
  • #1 C.K. Holliday; RETLAW, 1955
  • #2 E.P. Ripley; RETLAW, 1955
  • #3 Fred Gurley; Baldwin, 1894
  • #4 Ernest S. Marsh; Baldwin, 1925
  • #5 Ward Kimball; Baldwin 1902
#1 & #2 were built by Disney under the name of his private company "RETLAW" (Walter spelled backwards). RETLAW managed the Disneyland Railroad, the short-lived Viewliner, and the Monorail, in their early years separately from the main Disney company to ensure Walt could easily access his trains and retained ownership over them. #3 and #5 are both Baldwin built Forney locomotives which have been heavily modified with pilot wheels. #4 was also heavily modified, with the addition of pilot wheels. The line has also been visited by two other locomotives; the operational "Marie E." a 0-4-0T and the inoperative "Chloe" a 0-4-2T owned by the Orange Empire Railway Museum.

May 7, 2018; two Disneyland Railroad employees at the station at Main Street.

As I was saying earlier... this line is frustrating to railfan due to the amount of trackside obstructions and the weird angles on the circular route that make it tricky to find good lighting (in addition to the fact that chances are any trip to Disneyland is going to not be 100% about trains and instead focused on the countless other attractions to see and do in the park!) Not to mention nearly a quarter of the line is inaccessible for a trackside view since the train is passing the Grand Canyon and Primeval World displays. Oftentimes the best view of the train is as it is approaching one of the line's four stations.

Disneyland Railroad #5 the Ward Kimball approaches the New Orleans Square Station on May 7, 2018. As far as stack talk goes, this old Forney based Baldwin was one of my favorite sounding engines on the trip as it had to turn its little wheels at a quick pace to keep up speed on the reltively slow but busy line.

My personal pick for the best station to watch the trains is the New Orleans Square station. Operationally, this is where the realities of working steam engines can be best viewed by a casual onlooker. A water tower is here, were the trains regularly stop to take on fresh water to re-fill the tender. A trackside vent is placed at the end of the station platform, so a blowdown can be performed at the station while taking on water. The vent moves the hot steam to an outlet behind the station building, safely away from the throngs of packed park guests.

May 10, 2016; the New Orleans Square Station is backdropped via this beautiful wood station which served as the park's original Fronteirland Station. It is based on a station set built for a Disney film and recycled on Ward Kimball's Grizzly Flat Railroad. The station structure is normally off limits to guests, however the platform was accessible during a special display through-out 2016 while the line was temporarily out of operation.

Also New Orleans Square has a great environment to keep one busy between train watching in the area. Live jazz music can usually be heard from street performers; and several eateries nearby sell the park's Mint Julep (a non-alcoholic lemonade-mint concoction named after the bourbon cocktail from the Deep South) and the famed Monte Cristo sandwich. The classic wood style depot is a great backdrop, and the exit platforms of the station are a good place to wait for the trains.

I know this is not train related, but can I just talk about how amazing the Monte Cristo sandwiches are? Meat & cheese in a sweet doughy bread; deep fried and covered in powdered sugar? Its like a scone with a panini buried inside. Its a rich meal, so I recommend ordering one set of sandwiches and splitting it with someone else; since half the plate is enough to fill up one adult. Then take the short walk from the restaurant to get back to train watching at the nearby station!

Now the Star Wars Galaxy's Edge expansion and the rerouted train route have opened up a few new opportunities to see the train, which while not perfect; are some of the funner places to watch the trains roll by. The back patio of the Hungry Bear Restaurant and the trail leading to the future Star Wars expansion have a good view of the tracks as they snake above the rivers. Its here where I like to think of Disneyland as a "large scale" model railroad layout, as the small artificial hills with their forced perspective tricks are not to dissimilar to many a setup I have seen in 1:87 scale. It kind of reminds me of the Durango & Silverton's crawl above the Animas River... just a lot smaller and with a lot more handrails surrounding the train tracks; and music and narration blasting out of every speaker on the train into my ear! A well timed trip on the Mark Twain paddleboat might offer a chance to see the trains up close on the new river front area.

Some of the views of and from the new train route through the Rivers of America. The Star Wars Galaxy's Edge expansion in the distance will be partially obscured once the new trees grow in.

A few of the other opportunities to train watch in the park that I have found interesting include the new red rock section alongside the back end of the Big Thunder Trail (new additions from the Star Wars expansion. Keep an eye out for a Union Pacific marked barrel and a small RPO stand replica while riding the train through here). Another spot is near "it's a small world" which is near the engine house for the train and includes the line's only grade crossing. While its can't be reached to photograph (unless on the train itself), listen closely for the train to give a the distinct long-long-short-long signal on its whistle while its crossing the road. 

It should be worth noting that all the viewing areas on paths near the Star Wars expansion are currently pretty peaceful and calm. However I doubt this will last after 2019 when the new expansion opens and crowds will be rushing into the Star Wars areas.

Of course, those who want a closer experience to the Disneyland Railroad than just riding the regular excursion cars and or watching it from the trackside have a few options at hand. One is trying to get a tender ride on one of the steam engines (#1, #2 and I think #4 all have seats for tender rides, while the two Forney based engines do not).  I had the fortune to have the opportunity to ride in the tender of the C.K. Holliday in 2005. My Disney trip this year though I tried twice to get a seat on the tender, but I was out of luck in both my attempts and couldn't get that coveted riding position. Seats are also available in caboose's when they are running. The line runs a parlor car, the Lilly Belle; a refurbished RETLAW coach from the original days of the railroad which is also a coveted riding opportunity not normally available to park guests. The best bet to get onto any of the special seats on the railroad is via asking at the Main Street Station at the front of the park, however as I previously said guests should be aware its sometimes tricky to have the timing work out right to get on-board the special seats. Despite the 'Mickey Mouse' nature of the whole operation, the Disneyland Railroad is indeed a real working steam railroad and the nature of such makes it tricky to arrange opportunities for tender rides or other special seating on every trip in the park.

Disneyland Railroad #3 Fred Gurley and the Lilly Belle bask in the morning sun while on static display during May 2016 at Main Street while the railroad was closed for construction.

A famous and more regular way though to get to see the Disneyland locomotives up close though is at the annual Fullerton Railroad Days. Over the last few years Disney has been sending one engine to display at the depot during the special event, giving railfans the chance to get up close to the engines outside of their park habitat. Another opportunity to experience the railroad in unique ways includes The Grand Circle Tour a reserved train with rides in the Lilly Belle parlor car. I know of some people who have been able to get in and tour the enginehouse itself, however if that was via a tour event or just special connections I have not been able to verify how they did it. The enginhouse is interesting, since its a two story building with the steam trains on the bottom floor and the aforementioned monorail on top! A brief glimpse of the enginehouse can be seen after departing Toontown and looking to the left of the tracks while on the train ride itself. A far easier to see look at the trains is currently in the Main Street Opera House, with a Disney train dedicated pre-show prior to the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction.

I hope my little guide and thoughts on railfanning the rails through the Disneyland Resort are useful. I am not some sort of local railfan with an Annual Pass who can drop by Disney regularly to scout for the best photo spots, but instead an out of state guy who gets the chance to drop by every two years or so; in case anybody else has some better insights on how to railfan the route please let me know in the comments. Until then, I hope future railfans on vacation get a chance to have a "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" of a time while railfanning this uniquely American narrow gauge line!

-Jacob Lyman

*Note: While the Disneyland Railroad does not have an easily accessible behind the scenes tour currently, the sister operation the Walt Disney World Railroad at the Magic Kingdom in Florida has a lengthy "Behind the Steam" tour which I have heard great things about.

*Note two: I have excluded both Casey Jr. Circus (which is actually a proto-rollercoaster flat ride thing); and the horse-drawn trolley cars that run up Main Street from this list. I figure both could have qualified for this article, but I figured they were not going to draw as much attention from railfans as the other lines and photographing them is rather self explanatory while in the park. I also guess every roller coaster in the park could qualify as a "train" but no, I am not going to go there today!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Milfordfest 2017!

The ILXG3X 24 rolls south of Bloom, Utah on the 25th; with three locomotives elephant style on point and a "BYU-Wedge" on the first well car.

Over a year ago we went to Milford as a large railfan group; and this year we decided to repeat the venture with a longer overnight trip! The central portions of the historic Los Angeles and Salt Lake route in south-west Utah are some of the least frequented areas for railfans on the Union Pacific system, and it is always a pleasure to join friends and trek out into the high desert looking for train action.

See that concrete curve going through the grass? That is part of the remnants of the Lynndyl Roundhouse. One of the largest steam era division yard shop facilities on the LA&SL; trains north of Lynndyl ran with coal and those south ran with oil. The variety of steamers coming in and out kept the shops busy. Diesels rendered the shops useless, and the crew change point was eliminated in Lynndyl.

Our first day had our group meeting in different points across the desert; keeping an eye out for any incoming trains. We ended up finally all together at last in Delta, Utah; a small town (with a few interesting local museums worth checking out if you happen to be in the area). Two stack trains traveling opposite directions met in the center siding in town.

 The ZC1G1-23 rolls into the siding at Delta (November 24) with the ISCLB-24 holding the main. The meet was well timed, with the two trains pulling into opposite ends of the siding at the same time.

Almost as soon as the Z-train pulled through the siding, the ISCLB-24 began to throttle up; continuing its trip west. The ISCLB-24 is a regular train which runs from Salt Lake to Long Beach nearly every day. With the holiday rush, it takes high priority on the rails due to the UPS or FedEx trailers it often carries.

We headed down south and found a nice spot south of Bloom, Utah. There our group set up and as the sun set, watched the trains traveling through the desert. Other than the highway and the nearby limestone plant, there were few other signs of civilization. In-between trains, the area is nearly silent with the occasional jack-rabbit jumping through. 

 An ILXG3X-21 interrupts the quiet desert, with two UP units and a trailing CSX unit on point.

A desert sunset as seen from our perch south of Bloom.

Prior to the Union Pacific's acquisition of the Western Pacific in the 1980's; the Los Angeles and Salt Lake was UP's only route to California (and even after the WP merger remained the UP's only route to the Los Angeles area until the 1996 merger with the Southern Pacific). High deserts, and long distances meant that the LA&SL had to work hard to remain competitive against the shorter SP Sunset Route and the Santa Fe mainline; for lucrative traffic between Los Angeles and Chicago. The desert meant that water was in short supply, and many of the early diesels on the Union Pacific began to work the desert line almost as soon as they arrived on property. CTC signalling, long unit trains, lengthy sidings, and containerization all joined forces with the diesels to make the LA&SL routes a pioneer in modernization. In the present day, it is common to see over one mile long stack trains on the LA&SL; traveling at full freight speed through empty landscapes. 

At night, in the dark desert sky it is easy to see thousands of stars above. Trains continue to move through at night under the star light, with the new LED signal system installed over the last few years lighting the way for them. 

An ILXG3X 24 approaches the southern end of the siding at Lund, Utah.

The next morning (the 25th) we ventured out to the ghost town of Lund. The junction of the Caliente Subdivision and the branch to Cedar City was once UP's gateway to Utah's national parks. Trains full of vacationers from across the country would travel through here to see the beauties in Zion, Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks, and the Grand Canyon. Visiting coaches from lines as far east as the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central joined the UP consists in the summer time National Parks specials; where they passed through Lund on their way to the balloon track yard in Cedar City.

C40-8's, SD60M's, and Gensets are among the many pieces of old motive power stored at Lund.

Now, Lund is a few empty buildings watched over by the local ranchers. UP uses the spacious yard for locomotive storage. The area became infamous a few months back when a group of vandals tagged one of the SD60M units in storage there. The "Rail Beast" caused quite the stir, and the unit was almost immediately dragged out of the desert storage line and sent back east to have a visit with the paint booth in Jenks. The unit though has already become part of local railfan legend, and the orange paint stained rails reminded us we were at the site of the units infamous creation. 

I never photographed the real "Rail Beast" but the unit's claim to fame in the local railfan sphere was forever immortalized in plastic in this model on display at the Intermountain Train Show a few weeks back (model made by Dave England).

Also at Lund, this awesome trackside sign with a reminder of the long gone Amtrak Desert Wind which once traveled this route!

Back up north near Read, Utah; was our next train watching spot. We got a chuckle out of the ironic sight of a coal train rolling past the Milford area's array of wind, solar, and thermal power complexes. Coal has seen a small upswing in traffic on the rails recently, however it is still a shadow of its former-self in the Utah market compared to the strong demand of coal many years ago. The days of DRGW or Utah Railway trains "running through" the LASL with black diamonds are sadly long gone.

The MSCWC-24  at Read, Utah crawls on its journey westward.

As our day wound to a close, we returned to the hill near Bloom we had visited the day before. As we watched the final trains roll through the daylight hours, we talked about the hobby. Everything from the trains we had seen in the day, to our dreams for the model railroads we would love to someday have; kept us entertained while the last freights ran through the dwindling daylight hours. We tried to follow a speedy stack train out of Bloom back up north, but it ran well ahead of us and we lost it at Delta. Finally our group split at Lynndyl, ending our trip.

The ISCLB-25 going through a cut near Bloom.

The ZLAG1-24 at Bloom.

Over 100 years of service, and the "Pedro" still holds a unique place in America's railroading system. Not as favored by western railfans as the Overland, the Sunset Route, or the Northern Transcon; the Los Angeles and Salt Lake's desert portion still languishes in obscurity. The LASL is a true hidden gem. Empty desert flats, with towering mountains on their edge, all serve as a strange and scenic backdrop for the railroad. In places such as Milford, the railroading blood still goes deep; with crewmen from the yards in Salt Lake and Las Vegas meeting together in small town diners between runs. 

Where the SD70ACe and the GEVO now rule, is the faint echo and memory of the days when FEF's, ALCO PA's, and EMD E7's charged the desert with their passenger trains in tow. Its always a pleasure to get out there and see how little railroading has changed in the desert.

-Jacob Lyman

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Pride of the Nevada Northern - Dirt!

No, I'm not talking about the stuff you walk on or curse for having to constantly keep out of your vehicle.  I am talking about the "unofficial" official mascot of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.  For a few years now, the shop cat known as Dirt has wandered through the shops greeting visitors and shop crew alike.  Unlike some of the shop cats that have wandered these hallowed grounds in the past, Dirt is very personable and loves attention from whomever will give it to him.

I went down to the shops on October 15, 2017 to check on the status of the rebuild of engine 93 (more on that at another time).  While talking with the shop crew about the current progress, Dirt came out for a visit.  This wasn't my first encounter with him, and I know it certainly won't be my last.  You touch him once, you are a friend for life!

- Matt Liverani

This is how I was greeted by Dirt on my shop visit today.

Dirt strikes a pose!

After I had spent a few minutes petting Dirt, he let me
know he wasn't quite done with me

Now the right side...

Under the chin, and done...

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Stadler Rail Breaks Ground for Factory in Utah

A Stadler FLIRT is on display with a red carpet, on the mainline of the Salt Lake Garfield & Western railway.

Stadler Rail is a Swiss manufacturing firm, which has been looking to expand into the U.S. rail market. Two years ago the firm began leasing space in the Utah Transit Authority's Warm Springs shops to begin assembly of Stadler FLIRT; units which would be used in Texas on the currently under construction TexRail project. Meanwhile Stadler began looking for permanent locations to house a factory. In the past few days the first FLIRT to have been assembled in Salt Lake City rolled out of Warm Springs; with part of it shipped to Atlanta to be displayed as part of a convention. 

On October 12, I noticed on my way into Salt Lake City the other half of the FLIRT unit was resting on a siding of the Salt Lake Garfield and Western line. It was being cleaned by a work crew there, and I drove up nearby to look at the new unit. I was intrigued to see the new commuter rail unit on the SLGW, it looked at home on the line which is one of the last remnants of Utah's long gone electric-interurban rail system. What I wasn't aware of at the time, is that within 24 hours Stadler was going to be staking out a new home on the SLGW line...

A few shots showing the Stadler FLIRT unit on the SLGW on October 12th. It was coupled to a few flat cars via an adapter coupler unit. A small work crew was using a high pressure hose to wash the unit, making it look shiny and clean. This model of the FLIRT is actually diesel powered, allowing it to travel on lines that lack electric wiring.

So when I returned to Salt Lake City the next day (October 13, 2017) I was a bit intrigued to see that the TexRail unit had been moved a few blocks west on the SLGW line, with a parking lot of cars surrounding it. A big white tent rose nearby, with people in formal attire milling around it. Fortunately, I was wearing business casual already for my work shift later in the day so I wouldn't quite stick out like a sore thumb among all the people in suits ... so I decided it wouldn't be to hard to drop into this press event and ask if I could get a close look at the locomotive. I pulled up into a temporary parking stall. Near it was a few stalls which were reserved for dignitaries, with one near where I parked labeled for the Salt Lake Major. I asked around and once I heard from Stadler employees they'd be fine with me walking up to the locomotive, I eagerly walked my way to the shiny new FLIRT.

I joked to myself I was the first "foamer" to be going inside one of these new FLIRT units so I snapped a lot of detail shots as I walked around and inside it. I figured those in Texas in Ft. Worth and Dallas will want a good look at what they will soon be able to ride around their town!

 A close up view of one of the train set's trucks.

Both sides carry the TexRail logo, one side has the American flag and the other has the flag of the Lone Star state.

The passenger interior, the train set is able to be walked through from one end to another. The blue seats looked crisp and new, a far cry from how they will probably look after years of commuter service are put on this train set.

There is a hallway which leads from the passenger cabin to the cab for the operator. I wondered if these cabinets contained the diesel engine and other electronics needed to operate the train, although I couldn't see how to open them to get a peak inside them.

A few shots of the various operator's controls.

Station map for the TexRail system.

Since one half of the train set was sent on display back east, it gave an opportunity to observe the trucks up close without a train above it.

A nice look at an adapter coupler attached to the LRV allowing it to connect with freight rail couplers.

I had actually arrived at what I believe was the tail end of the event, as the crowds were dying down and most of the dignitaries had seemed to have left. As such I wasn't really sure what the event was for other than to show off the new unit which was built in Warm Springs. The ceremonial shovels and hard hats on the site though indicated it was a ground breaking ceremony; and the news broke later in the day that Stadler had announced its permanent U.S. based factory was going to be here in Salt Lake City alongside the storied SLGW railway! The new factory is going to bring 1000 jobs to Utah, as the Swiss trains will be built here to satisfy the "Made in America" requirements most commuter rails have. Other than the TexRail contract, Stadler has future contracts with Caltrain coming up which will help keep their new SLC factory busy. 

The Stadler factory site is also near underdevelopment facilities for Amazon and UPS, making the SLGW's connection to the west end of the city even more important. I am glad to have literally stumbled into this advent by circumstance, and excited to see how Stadler's presence in the Beehive state will affect the storied SLGW line.  Above all I can't wait until someday I am railfanning out of state and run across a Stadler unit and seeing it with pride knowing it was "Made in Utah."

-Jacob Lyman

Railway Age: Stadler US settling in Salt Lake City
Salt Lake Tribune: Stadler breaks ground on railcar manufacturing plant expected to employ 1,000 in west Salt Lake City