Trip Report

Colorado’s Morning Glory

Story Behind the Image

The morning of March 9th, 2020 started early. I was over a week into my photography adventure across the Western United States. The previous day was a mammoth 18-hour day, which started in Canon City, Colorado and ended along the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. I was tired, catching a few hours of sleep in my Glenwood Springs hotel room when the phone rang.

Rock slide issues in Byers Canyon had the Moffat Route shut down overnight. The slides had delayed several trains which were supposed to sneak though the Rocky Mountains under the cover of darkness. With the new information, I quickly packed my gear while still half asleep, grabbed a hotel-lobby coffee and took off on the hour and half drive towards Kremmling.

As I made the drive, the sound of country music and radio traffic filled my truck. Most of the radio traffic was scratchy, a common problem when you are in the mountains and the railroad action is far away. Unsure of what had transpired along the railroad during my hour and half drive from Glenwood Springs, I arrived near Azure, Colorado right after sunrise.

I was trying to figure out a plan of action as I slowly rolled along the rugged dirt roads near Gore Canyon. I feared that I had arrived too late, when all of the sudden, the radio traffic became crystal clear. “BNSF 5686 East, highball Radium out.” I had arrived just in time. After being stopped all night, the railroad was open and there was a train quickly headed my direction. As I got into position, the skies opened up. The once dark mountainsides now beamed with light.

BNSF 5686 roars out of Little Gore Canyon on the morning of March 9th, 2020.

As the train roared out of Little Gore Canyon, additional radio traffic came in. This time it was from the Moffat Tunnel Subdivision Dispatcher. “BNSF 5686, I’m going to stick you in the siding at Gore for this westbound work train. They’re making their way through Troublesome now.” The Gore Siding is located just east of Gore Canyon between Azure and Kremmling. At 6,730′ in length, it is one of the longer sidings in the area.

BNSF 5686 continuing east between Little Gore Canyon and [Big] Gore Canyon. In approximately 5 miles, it will enter Gore Siding for the westbound work train.

As the BNSF 5686 continued east towards Gore, I doubled back west towards Little Gore Canyon. Located only a few miles west of [Big] Gore Canyon, Little Gore Canyon is one of my favorite locations along the Moffat Route. With it’s vertical cliffs that tower hundreds of feet above the river below and a view of the incredible Gore Valley extending to the east, Little Gore Canyon provides endless photography opportunities.

I soon found myself standing on the canyon edge, overlooking an incredible mountain scene. The train was taking a little longer than expected, but that bought time, allowing the sun illuminate the eastern edge of the canyon. As I waited, a Bald Eagle made several passes, patrolling his little section of paradise. “This is what it’s all about”, I thought to myself.

Eventually, the silence of the mountains was overtaken by the rumbling sound of a ballast train exiting Gore Canyon. I got into position, being careful to set my feet on the snow covered rocks. A small slip could lead to a very fast and deadly trip to the bottom of the Colorado River.

The sound of the train is getting louder as it works west through Gore Valley.

As the train rounded the bend, the sound became deafening. Like a megaphone, the canyon walls were amplifying the sounds of this incredible display of mountain railroading. The Union Pacific 7890 was in the lead, dragging 74 Herzog ballast cars west. The train briefly ducked into the 294-foot Tunnel 39 as it entered Little Gore Canyon. A frozen Gore Valley provided the perfect backdrop.

UP 7890 exits Tunnel 39 and enters the incredible Little Gore Canyon. Notice the dark shadow just above the train. As I patiently waited, dark storm clouds cycled in and out of the area adding an extra element of uncertainty. Fortunately, the clouds decided to play in my favor this day.

Distributed Power Units (DPUs) are common along the Moffat Route. The extra power on the end of the train makes for a safer journey through the mountains. On this day, the UP 5785 was assigned as the rear DPU, seen here exiting Tunnel 39.

Framed by the jagged rock walls of Little Gore Canyon, the UP 5785 is seen here as the rear DPU, helping guide this westbound train down the Moffat Route.

Soon, the UP 7890 would arrive in Bond, Colorado for a crew change. Unfortunately, do to the overall lack of of rail traffic along the Moffat Route, the few train crews that still work this section are not always available. With no rested and qualified crews available, this train would stay stopped at Bond for most of the daylight hours. Eventually, late in afternoon, a new a crew would arrive and take this train west towards Grand Junction.

The UP 7890 is tied down at Bond awaiting a new crew. At one time, Bond was a busy junction for coal and manifest trains along the Moffat Route. Today, the empty tracks paint a bleak picture.

This underscores the challenge of the Moffat Route. With some of the most incredible railroad scenes in the world, the overall lack of train traffic makes it difficult to photograph. The steep decline in Colorado Coal production, along with a general decline in overall rail traffic means this route is quiet more often than not. Fortunately for me, I got lucky that morning.

Summer Days in Northern Arizona

Why were we in Arizona?

With a short break in the baseball season, my dad and I jumped in the car and took a trip to Northern Arizona. One of the primary goals of this trip was to visit the Grand Canyon, which I had never seen before. The weather forcast was looking good so we headed off to the Southwest.

Since not everyone reading this knows railroad terminology, let me explain a few things first. The BNSF Seligman Subdivision is the set of tracks between Needles, California and Winslow, Arizona. This set of track is part of BNSF’s Southern Transcon, which is a high speed route for trains traveling between Los Angeles and Chicago. This route is famous for seeing up to one hundred trains per day. It was also made famous by the Santa Fe Super Chief that ran this line between 1936 and 1971. You can still ride this route on the Amtrak Southwest Chief.

 

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BNSF trains operating along the Seligman Subdivision cross through the Hualapai Indian Reservation near Peach Springs, AZ. The Hualapai (or Walapai) have a unique way of brining income to their reservation. The northern border of the reservation goes up to the Grand Canyon, which allows the Walapais to earn income through tourism. While many tribes rely on casinos, the Walapais rely on “Grand Canyon West” (home of the skywalk) and the only one day rafting tours through the Grand Canyon. Even with this source of income, life of the reservation is hard.

Much of the Seligman Subdivision is paralleled by Route 66. The stretch of Route 66 between Kingman and Seligman does not see much traffic since Interstate 40 provides a much faster route. Some believe the movie “Cars” was based on this stretch of road. In the movie, Radiator Springs is a small town located along an old bumpy highway in the southwest. Peach Springs is very similar to this in real life.

Our Experience in Arizona

We ended up spending three days in Arizona. Here is what we encountered.

The first day (July 12) saw us driving from San Diego, CA to Williams, AZ. As we were driving along Interstate 40, we saw train after train go flying by. By late afternoon we were Kingman and met up with David Carballido-Jeans (slug96). David lives along the BNSF Seligman Subdivision and is an expert Transcon photographer. To see his photos, click here. Unfortunately, traffic levels were low on this Sunday afternoon. We were lucky to capture a few shots before heading to Williams.

The next day we woke up early and planned to do some shooting between Williams and Flagstaff. Unfortunately clouds to the east were making the light difficult to judge, meaning the clouds kept going in and out. Along with this light problem, the train traffic was again lackluster. We decided it was time to head up to the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon

It takes approximately an hour and forty-five minutes to drive from Flagstaff to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We arrived to perfect temperatures and a relatively small crowd gathering at the visitor center. We quickly decided to start hiking east along the Rim Trail. Monsoonal moisture was bringing thunderstorms to the area, which made for great texture in the sky. It also made for some interesting lighting conditions on the desert rocks. Here is what we were able to capture.

After a full afternoon visiting the South Rim, we headed back to Flagstaff. Thunderstorms made for an entertaining evening around the town.

An Epic Afternoon Along the BNSF Transcon

Unfortunately, the following morning did not go as planned. I was hoping to get more opportunity around Flagstaff, but the clouds were still ruining any chance at good light. We headed west towards Seligman, Arizona where we planned to catch an eastbound track geometry train. A great shot was setup with good light and a cool composition, but a westbound train came flying by on the near track right as the eastbound train passed by. This blocked out any shot of the eastbound train. With no other train coming, we drove to Kingman to grab lunch and regroup.

After lunch, we met up with David again. Since I had been having terrible luck, I was hoping the expert could show me around. Of course with David’s help, we ended up having an excellent afternoon between Yampai Summit and Hackberry. We got some great light and a ton of trains to photograph. It was just an awesome afternoon trackside. Once there was no more light left in the sky, we made the long drive from Kingman to Barstow. We arrived in Barstow late that night.

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To see a map of all the locations I photographed, click here.

Headed Home

We woke up early the next morning and began heading home. On our way, we stopped at Tehachapi. We ended up shooting a BNSF stack train at Monolith and the UP ‘Brooklyn Trailers’ at the Tehachapi Loop. With all of those “shots in the tin” (-Peter Lik), we headed home. It turned out to be an awesome trip with a lot of photo opportunities. I hope you enjoy the photos.

Have you ever traveled to the Grand Canyon? If so, feel free to share your photos in the comments.

 

The Day of the FRC Derailment

The Call

Ever had one of those morning when you’re trying to sleep but your phone keeps ringing? You play off each call as just another spammer until it reaches that certain point where you know someone is trying to get ahold of you. Well that was me this morning. Once I mustered up enough energy to roll over and check my phone I read “Wake up dude”!

What could possibly be so important that I need to interrupt my morning of sleep? Well it was the fact that a grain train derailed in the Feather River Canyon and I needed to go get photos.

Time was already running low as it was 11:30am and I was 2.5 hours away from the derailment. It’s amazing how fast your light will disappear on these winter days. I raced around packing up all my gear making sure not to forget anything super important like the camera or the computer. Shortly after I left Davis to make the long drive up to The Canyon.

On Scene

After a long drive that was made longer by PG&E construction (yeah PG&E, great day to shutdown the highway), I was on scene of the derailment. In terms of location of the derailment, it couldn’t have happened in a much better place viewing wise. Right across the river from the downed rail cars was a very large turnout, allowing employees and passerby’s the opportunity to safely park and view the wreckage. If you’ve never been to The Canyon, just know most parts put you right between the speeding traffic of Highway 70 and the rushing waters of the Feather River.

So now that I was on scene, it was time to get to work. I immediately started shooting photos as I knew my light was just gonna get darker and darker. Using my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 II and 24-105mm f4, I was able to capture some impact shots of the derailment. In this instance, it was really important to have a good camera body and solid glass. Lighting conditions were not conducive to photography.

The derailment itself looked a lot worse than it actually was. Because the derailment happened towards the rear of the train, the crew was not hurt. Inside the overturned cars was corn from Nebraska which does not present any kind of biohazard or threat to the river. Also, because the cars fell so far away from the tracks, Union Pacific only had a few cars to remove from the scene before they could relay the rail line. This means the backlog of trains was soon moving again. On the day of the derailment, UP did utilize Donner Pass as a detour route for many trains headed towards the FRC. This will give cleanup crews larger work windows to get everything cleaned up.

The derailment occurred along the UP Canyon Subdivision, also known as the “Feather River Route” or simply “The Canyon”, at approximately mile post 265, “Rich Bar”. This area appears especially treacherous do to the steep rocky walls of the Feather River Canyon.

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What if?

The biggest hit the railroads will take because of this derailment is the “what if?!?!” factor. Over the past couple years, there has been a large fight between railroads, the government, and environmental groups over the increase of crude oil shipments. There has been a lot of attention given to the BNSF crude oil trains that travel the Feather River Canyon once or twice a month. Many groups fear that if a crude oil train derailed like this grain train did, it could have catastrophic effects on the Feather River and its ecosystem.

These groups are already asking the “what if?” question to the media and I will bet that this is just the beginning. What eco groups don’t know is that railroads have been asked to haul hazardous materials through the Feather River Canyon and other environtmetaly sensitive areas for decades. The only reason this became an issue is because of the derailment in Lac Megatic and the media fire storm that ensued.

At this point, both the railroads and environmental groups have evidence to why their side is right. It’ll just take time to get this issue settled where it should be, the courts.

Back On Scene

So what should you do if you are asked to photograph a scene like this? Well it can be a challenge since shooting a still subject can be a lot different than shooting moving trains. My first piece of advice would be to explore. Check out every angle, get high and low, look for things that might be visually interesting. Great photographers don’t get cool shots by zooming in and out, they get them by moving their feet. Unfortunately, there was not much room for me to move around at this scene.

Also, make sure you shoot Raw (especially in difficult lighting circumstances). When I arrived on scene, the entire area was under canyon shadows. These shadows can cause your white balance to get funky so you’ll want to be able to adjust it in photoshop (if needed). Raw allows you to do that.

Lastly, talk to people. Get a sense of the scene. Find out who might be able to point you to a good spot or someone that can give you information that you’ll find helpful. If you’re in a derailment situation, chances are other people have been around there longer than you have and know more about what’s going on. Talk to those people.

Wrapping It Up

This derailment looks big in a number of ways. First is it just looks like a big derailment. You won’t see eleven cars clinging to the cliffs like that everyday. This derailment has also added heat to the “crude by rail” debate. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.

Give me your thoughts. Should oil trains be allowed to travel through the Feather River Canyon? What are the risks and alternatives in your mind? Also, have you ever seen a derailment? If you have, I would love to see the photos.