Friday, September 24, 2010

The Coal Trail-Part 1

Anyone who has spent time railfanning the Staples Sub, especially that portion west of Staples, knows how important coal traffic is to this stretch of railroad. It's relatively easy for us to picture where that coal is being dumped-who can miss the MERC facility on a visit to the Twin Ports, or the Becker plant along the railroad? While some of the coal trains continue on into Wisconsin, it's still not hard to imagine the destinations.

What's been harder for me is visualizing where this coal comes from and the route it travels to get here. Last year, as part of a visit to Yellowstone, Mrs. L4T and I were able to spend a day in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, where many of these trains are loaded (I believe some still come from mines in Montana). Even after that experience, though, the question remained-how does it get from there to here? And so, as part of a visit to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton areas, this year we planned a stop in Sheridan and a trip along what I call the "Coal Trail". This post is the first part of my report on that trip.

In a reversal of last year's trip, the weather this time was spectacular while we were in the parks and driving the scenic highways of northwest Wyoming. But almost as soon as the agenda turned to railfanning, the clouds and rain rolled in for good. Not to be deterred, I railfanned on through the weather, although the photos show the effects clearly. As an example, I offer this Burlington 4-8-4 steamer that is stuffed and mounted in Sheridan:

Sheridan is an active railroad town, where quite a few trains seem to change crews. I suspect that trains from the Gillette area are re-crewed in Sheridan for the continuation of their journey. Another interesting operational facet of Sheridan is the use of helpers, at least on loaded coal trains headed toward Montana. I believe the helpers shove for about 25 miles north out of Sheridan, and a number of helper sets are present in the yard. This photo shows 3 sets of SD70MAC's sitting near the turntable waiting to go to work. There was a fourth set out and about at this time as well.

As we headed north toward Montana, on two lane roads that follow the tracks rather than the interstate a mile or so to our east, everything I spotted signalled a slow day for rail traffic. There was a rail train preparing to go to work, and then a ballast cleaner hard at work. However, I did spot this unused grain elevator in Wyola, MT, and couldn't resist stepping out into the drizzle for a shot.

After stopping at the Little Bighorn battlefield, we continued on toward I-94, intersecting with the interstate and the Coal Trail again near Custer on the south bank of the Yellowstone River. A couple of false starts and u-turns later, we were lucky enough to spot a westbound DEEX empty moving slowly as he left Forsyth, MT. I was able to easily get ahead of the train on what is called "Old Highway 10" for shots of the head end and DPU as the train snaked along the south bank of the Yellowstone River (which, incidentially, is the longest un-dammed river on the continent, or in the nation, or something like that).

Once we were east of Miles City, I searched out Old 10 once more, and after a few mintues we came across an eastbound manifest. The chase was on, and my first chance for a shot was the west side of Terry, shown here:

After hopping ahead once more, I shot the six units this train had for power between Terry and Fallon, where the interstate crosses the tracks and the river.

I noticed this slow moving train was looking at yellow signals, and sure enough a loaded coal train was ahead of him. The tracks swing well south of the interstate in this area. I made one try of accessing the river, but it was a dead end, and given the weather and the miles left to go we decided to give up on that train and keep moving.

So that's all the action from our first day along the Coal Trail. We pulled into Dickinson in a steady rain about 5:45, ready for a meal and sleep to prepare for the rest of journey to Wadena. That day's report will include a surprise sighting, and some photography from an old favorite location.


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