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Photo 1
DRGW 3154 leads the eastbound MRODV-01 at Debeque, CO
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Photo 2
Four Utah Ry. helpers returning Helper just above Kyune
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Photo 3
The Saturday morning Dirt Train, lead by 5345
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Photo 4
Shoving today's flats down the siding
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Photo 5
Switching flats for the ECDC facility
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Photo 6
Light power returning to Helper through the fog
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Photo 7
Passing under US 6 and headed for Mounds
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Photo 8
Moving quickly towards Helper at Wellington, UT
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  Trip Report: Helper, UT Trip - Chapter 1
  Friday/Saturday Morning, March 2-3
Getting to Helper and the Dirt Train
  From: Helper, UT Trip
Dates: March 2-5, 2001 Author: Nathan Holmes

Spontaneous trips are more or less one of my trademarks, and this was no exception. The piles of gloom and doom reports I'd been hearing lately concerning the last of the Rio Grande tunnel motors was finally getting to me, and before I became unable to take days off due to work, I decided to make another trip to Helper, UT. I'd actually been trying to get out there since December 15, 2000, and the big D&RGW list get-together more or less set up by Paul Birkholz of Mountain West Rail fame. True to my luck, weather kept me on this side of the Rockies that weekend, but all weather forcasts for the weekend of March 2-5, 2001, looked good. Plus, it didn't hurt that at least a few other list members would also be making the trip - Frank Keller (also from Colorado Springs), a friend of his from California, and maybe a few others.

After quickly finishing up some work Friday morning (including some that suspiciously appeared from nowhere as soon as I announced I was taking off in the afternoon), I jumped in the new truck and headed off for Helper. I was mainly concerning with just getting there, as it's about a 7 hour trip from Colorado Springs if everything goes well, and additionally the only moving Rio Grande power of interest was DRGW 3154 and 5356 on an eastbound manifest. The last trace I'd seen before leaving was Grand Junction, CO, at 11:30ish, so I assumed by the time I got anywhere close to the main line, they'd be long gone on their trip to Denver.

While not of great interest (not to mention not backed with any photos at all), I did meet Amtrak #5 at the east end of Glenwood Canyon. Being that it was around 3 in the afternoon, the only thing surprising was that #5 was nearly on time. The part I couldn't reconcile, though, was the fact that the dispatcher kept talking to #6! Then, when the meet between #5 & #6 was called for one of the sidings (Grizzly, I believe), the light finally went on inside my dense head - with #6 running around two hours late, the Zephyrs would meet in Glenwood Canyon, just like all those photos I've seen from years ago when it was the real CZ! Sure enough, rolling around the corner was #6, powered by three Genesis units and an F40PH in Phase IV paint (404, I believe, though I was busier driving than memorizing unit numbers). Other than that, the line to the west of Glenwoood seemed pretty barren, except for the usual parked coal train here and there. In all fairness to UP, I only remember seeing one, but can't remember for the life of me where exactly (Chacra, maybe?)

Assuming the worst - now there's something I should really learn not to do. As anyone who's ever read one of these trip reports knows, that's not how my luck works. Some days I swear I've got this insane amount of luck when it comes to railfanning - it just really amazes me how well things always seem to work out and how good my gut instinct is at finding not just trains in general, but the right trains. Of course this just could be a sign that I've been at this too long, but we'll ignore that possibility. Either way, it doesn't take much to figure out that 3154/5356 hadn't slipped past me, despite I couldn't see how they were still to the west.

The first place I actually heard radio contact with a DRGW-lead eastbound was just east of Debeque, CO. East of Debeque, I-70 and the former D&RGW main diverge for some miles, which makes it very easy to miss trains through this section. I was just approaching the point where the two come back together (and cross, for that matter), and assumed that the Grandes had slipped past where I couldn't see them. The reasoning behind that was the signal was coming in extremely clearly, which for those of you who don't carry a scanner means the train is typically within 5-10 miles (at least with my hardware and antenna). Of course the scanner crackled out just as the crew gave their position...

Finally, about ten miles down the road, I got the first piece of usable information - I heard them discussing where to meet the westbound Amtrak (#5). The initial thought was that the eastbound DRGW3154 was not going to make it in the hole in time at Tunnel, so the dispatcher was going to take him back to Cameo (apparently he was stopped just a few cars over the west switch - as I understood the broken-up radio conversation, at least). However, the two finally agreed that Tunnel was possible, as #5 was just clearing a meet at Grand Valley. So, without much choice (there isn't much in the way of exits between Debeque and Cameo, aside from two that aren't very useful in terms of railfanning), I decided to head on and see how far he'd gotten past Cameo.

As it turns out, I almost beat him to the crossing by the Cameo generation plant. The only shot I actually got though was one of him departing east, and it was obscured by UP trucks and other equipment. Lousy shot, went to the reject queue when I sorted the photos for the trip. Back to Debeque we go... I was a little concerned, though, after my last experience with Rio Grandes in later afternoon light in Debeque - I'd never found a good place to photograph eastbounds there, but I didn't want to chase him any further back. Light was already starting to fade, and a few clouds on the horizon would quickly start to obscure the sun.

As it turns out, there's a road leading southwest out of Debeque I'd never noticed before. I should really learn to actually use all those maps I carry around someday. The thing is, though, that I never remember them in times of crisis, such as when I have two eastbound Grandes bearing down on me and failing light - not exactly the time I want to be out hunting for new shots. Anyway, for those of you who'd like to know where it is, it appears to come off second street as you continue west (Now I'm relying on the maps - I don't remember firsthand). It eventually dead ends, but will take you down along the track for some ways west of town. I sat there for only seven minutes or so before the sound of hard-working EMDs could be heard in the valley around the corner. Shortly, 3154 and 5356 came into view, along with a trailing SD9043MAC and the rest of MRODV-01. It turned out not the best shot in the world, but with two Grandes on the front it helps make up for the lighting difficulties. (Photo 1)

The rest of the trip into Price for the evening was relatively non-eventful. The only other train I actually saw was a BNSF local headed west out of Grand Junction to serve some unknown customer. I never got as far as Helper itself, since after I'd checked into my hotel (the Best Western in Price), it was starting to snow fairly heavily. I decided to just call it a night and tackle Helper in the morning.

The morning proved interesting - despite weather forecasts of clear skies and mid-50s temperatures, everything was covered with several inches of snow when I woke up. However, unlike Colorado, where the snow comes in horizontally and gets preceeded by a sheet of ice, all the snow was neatly piled on top of the truck. A few seconds with a brush on the windshield was all it - no ice, no snow on the sides. Nice - think I could get used to this! However, the sky was still dreary and overcast, unlike the blue I'd expected. Nonetheless, I figured I'd stop by Helper and then head up the hill to see what was moving.

Helper was exactly what I expected - five tunnel motors neatly sitting around idling. No sign of anything, so I headed out towards the Summit. I did notice on the way past the north end of Helper that the Utah Railway helpers appeared to be gone, and so I had some hope there would be something to see. Fortunately, approaching the summit, the skies cleared significantly. Just north of Kyune, four Utah helpers came into view, so a with a quick pull-off I managed to get my first real photos for the trip. (Photo 2) For reference, the consist was (from nearest to furthest) UTAH 9009, MKEX 9902 (an MK5000C, for those who haven't seen one before), UTAH 9006 & 9007.

It was only seconds after I climbed back in the truck that I heard a track warrant issued to DRGW5345 east at Wellington for permission to operate over the Sunnyside Branch. There was really only one thing this could be - the so-called Dirt Train, a 6-days-a-week run of Salt Lake City trash to the ECDC landfill facility at Sunnyside, usually powered by tunnel motor sets out of Helper. After muttering something I won't repeat here, I quickly headed back where I'd just come from - Price, UT, and points southeast. How they got the trash train hooked up so quickly and down to Wellington I'll never know, but it made me wish I'd stuck around Helper just a bit longer. Most of the line from Price down to Mounds (where the Sunnyside branch connects) is high speed running - 50 to 60 for freights - so I had some concerns whether I'd be able to make it down ahead of him or not. (Especially considering the sun was now out, the roads were getting messy, and I had just run out of windshield washer fluid. A stop for that in Wellington was an absolute must.) Fortunately, the entire branch is limited to 10-20mph, and I hadn't heard him pass through Mounds itself yet.

Now all this would just be too easy, so the weather decided to warm up just enough to get nice thick fog where US 6 and the Sunnyside Branch cross. I actually missed the road out to Sunnyside the first time and as a result had to go over the branch and turn around. Upon coming back across the overpass I looked down to see six headlights looking back at me - DRGW 5345, complete with the nose lights on, cutting through the fog with two other T-2s and a load of trash. No real rush, though - slow speed limits are great! The only problem was my unfamiliarity with the whole branch - I had only been out there once before, and hadn't needed to find a way to take photos because I'd never seen a train.

The only public crossing on the branch is actually just before the fence surrounding the ECDC facility. This conveniently also happened to be beyond the fog bank and out in the sunlight, which also inconveniently made it a mudhole from all the melting snow. Oh well, no big deal, that's what my truck and my boots are for, right? I made it there with way more than enough time to spare, picked out my shot, and waited. Such a rare opportunity - a pure set of Rio Grandes with the nose light one. Didn't want to waste it, so I swear I took a shot about every ten feet as they approached, the best of which wound up as Photo 3.

Dirt Trains mainly consist of containerized trash on flatcars, but also sometimes have a few extra cars tacked on the end. The power (5345/5410/5360) dropped the whole train in the yard, pushed an already-delivered set of loaded flats back into a yard track, then cut the flats from today's train and shoved them in the same siding. At the very last, they coupled on to the non-flatcar loads and pulled them up much deeper into the ECDC facility. (I should mention that ECDC has a set of locomotives for switching all this stuff around within their facility) All this switching made for some interesting photos, such as Photos 4 and 5. As you can see in the previous photos, the thick fog was starting to roll back in and ruin the perfect light and sky. I waited and watched the switching, and got one photo of the light power returning down the branch to Mounds (Photo 6).

Three light RG T-2s is just too good a thing to pass up, however. As luck would have it, the fog had lifted from around Banning and the US 6 overpass, so I decided to catch a few more shots here. (It would appear that the old loadout here is now used for surplus car storage.) After only a few minutes, the three showed up and produced some very nice shots in the sunlight (at 15 mph, I might add!) The downside to this was I managed to tear a quarter-sized hole in my coat when leaping over the gaurdrail. Arg, most frustrating, but fortunately under the arm so it's easily repaired and not terribly visible. At least it yielded some nice photographs (Photo 7), as did the next time I caught him at Wellington (Photo 8). After this, it was back to Helper for some lunch and to see what else was going on in the yard.

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Oh yes, one other thing I should probably mention - all the images here are Copyright 2001 Nathan D. Holmes (maverick@drgw.net)
Note this doesn't mean you can't use them - In fact, I encourage people to use and enjoy them.
I'm placing them under the same license as RailARC images.
All images were taken with an Olympus C-3000 camera, a beautiful piece of machinery.