Thursday, October 24, 2019

RTD Failing To Protect Drivers and Riders Amid Growth

Sometimes growth and change isn't pretty, but with RTD, it can be downright ugly. Engineers of Denver's Light Rail have finally opened up to say they're fed up with long, grueling shifts, six-day work weeks, and careless disregard by management. Most people can relate to having worked a long shift once in a while, but the current manpower shortage at RTD goes beyond the occasional extra overtime. Engineers of trains report making mistakes directly attributable to their being on the clock for more than 12 hours, a condition that is illegal for engineers of freight railroads. Innumerable studies have been done showing the detrimental effects of overwork, long shifts and extended work weeks.

Fear of retribution has kept engineers from openly speaking out about the problems, but concerns about safety for the engineers and their riders have prompted them to come to the media to seek change. "[We are] not safe. We're all worked to death," one engineer said anonymously.

Jeffrey Beall
RTD engineers in the course of their duty are expected to drive their light rail trains through crowded city streets, over grade crossings and next to highways and roads throughout the Denver metropolitan area, in situations requiring attention, caution, and awareness, attributes that are dulled and even nullified by fatigue and exhaustion. Just as a tired driver of a truck or other vehicle is a danger to themselves and the others around them, engineers who are tired can make operational mistakes costing time, money, and even human lives. For example, an engineer who is inattentive--even momentarily--could miss a signal and plow their massive light rail train through a crowded intersection, causing destruction and manslaughter. Another example, an engineer could take his train through a sharp turn (like the one near Colfax and Auraria) meant for a train going 10 miles per hour at a speed of 50 miles per hour or more, causing a tragedy not unlike the 2015 Philadelphia Train Derailment that took the lives of 7 people.

Employee turnover and a general feeling of disrespect and resentment are not helping matters. Though a spokesperson expressed managements' awareness of the issue, they did not present specifics on efforts to remedy the situation. All of this occurs as RTD ridership plummets.

Opinion

Clearly, RTD is not taking the situation as seriously as its engineers. If they were, they would take effective steps to find and employ the engineers necessary to meet the needs of Denver's riders. Offering competitive compensation packages, incentives and training for applicants would go a long way toward resolving this problem, along with improving the work environment for their current engineers. Until they do, RTD and Denver are courting tragedy of the worst kind. ⚒

Thursday, October 10, 2019

POTD - Electric Wig Wag Lights A Lonely Crossing Under A Distant Moon

Lonely Vigil

You've driven hours on miles and miles of lonely two-lane highway to reach a lonely, seemingly forgotten county road crossing on the open plain of eastern Colorado. The wind stirs and a bite in the air tells you that you are not so far from another winter's chill. You smell the hint of agriculture, and it seems a feed lot must not be too far away. But the air also carries a bit of juniper from Devil's Canyon from the north and west.

You feel it before you see it. A slight hum in the rails and then a flash of a beam cuts through the night. Within moments, the bell and the light activate at the crossing, though it's just you it warns as it wags almost lazily back and forth in time with the bell. A second or two later, the Southwest Chief is upon the crossing. A blast of wind and a whiff of diesel, a blur of streaking lights, chrome and steel wheels, it flies over the rails!

Photo of the Day: Jadon H.
All too quickly, the end of the train flashes past and the marker lights recede around the corner, taking one of the slight bends in this straight line part of the state. The signal stops, its job accomplished for the night. It will not see the next train, the westbound Chief for hours. The moon passes behind the crossbucks and you see again the myriad of stars and galaxies wheeling slowly onward above. A meteor, like the Chief, flashes for a brief second and is gone, swallowed up in the night. You turn for your vehicle. Suddenly, a warm mug and a soft bed don't sound so bad right now. ⚒

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

POTD - Early Fall Evening Paints The Southwest Chief With Subtle Hues

The route presently served by Amtrak's Southwest Chief has survived the nationalization of passenger service, service cutbacks, meal cutbacks, and maintenance funding impasses to become one of the most popular trains, certainly in the west and perhaps the entire system. The ongoing challenge will be to keep the present Mountain route while still expanding connections to Pueblo and up the Front Range to Colorado Springs, Denver, and Fort Collins.

Photo of the Day: Jadon H.
RailPictures.Net photographer Jadon H. has ventured out of Texas to southeastern Colorado to deliver some first class photos of Southwest Chief. The eastbound Amtrak #4 descends into Trinidad from Raton Pass and the highest point on the former Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe system. Passing in front of Fishers Peak, the eastern skies turn the finest southwestern pastels as the day comes to a close, reflected in the silver Superliner cars. The long descent across the prairie beckons the P42 DCs on into the night. ⚒

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Denver & Rio Grande Engine 168 Fired and Steaming Up For a Big 2020 Celebration

For the first time since most of us were born, narrow gauge Denver & Rio Grande steam engine 168 turned her wheels under steam. Trains Magazine reports,
On Friday night, 3-foot gauge Denver & Rio Grande 4-6-0 No. 168 ran for the first time in 70 years, following an extensive restoration at the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. Friday’s test run consisted of a brief trip around the Antonito yard. C&TS Assistant General Manager Stathi Pappas says the 136-year-old Baldwin locomotive was being fired up again on Monday for another test. 
“The test went great,” Pappas says of the locomotive’s first run since 1938.
Engine 168 in Black Canyon
 of the Gunnison in 1904
The engine will be matched with purpose-built replica passenger cars to roll behind her in what will likely be a very memorable 50 year-anniversary celebration of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. In 1970, the states of Colorado and New Mexico teamed together to purchase the narrow gauge segment of the San Juan Extension that runs between Antonito Colorado and Chama New Mexico when it appeared certain that the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad was abandoning the line. Since then, a six-member commission led by both states has supervised the investment in the C&TS, with an emphasis in history and preservation, something with which the restoration of engine 168 falls right in line. Having an active volunteer organization dedicated to assisting that mission with hands and feet, hearts and minds doesn't hurt, either.

Engine 168 is an important historic artifact to Colorado and to railroading. While it's a steam engine, something that last roamed the rails en masse 70 years ago, it's also narrow gauge, designed to run on rails 3 feet apart, rather than the standard 4 feet 8½ inches apart. There are dozens of these narrow gauge engines in the state of Colorado already, and they're all worthy of preservation. What makes 168 so unique is that it is one of two surviving class T-12 locomotives built in 1883 for General William Palmer's original vision of the D&RG connecting Denver with El Paso and Mexico City.

168 Awaiting President Taft in Montrose, 1909
The Rio Grande never reached further south than Santa Fe, but the engine would go on to haul passengers throughout the state and beyond. One of its more important roles was to carry then-President William Taft to the opening of the Gunnison Tunnel, a record-length water supply tunnel that turned the land around Montrose into a veritable garden beginning in 1909.

As railroads around the state prepare to rest or at least scale back activities for the winter, it's worth contemplating how many engines are now in steam that were dry and static several years ago. Certainly, such a recounting is worth its own post! ⚒

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Fall Colors Return to the Rails of Colorado

Kids are back in school. Football is rolling into stadiums. The summer heat is fading into a warm autumn. Pretty soon, we will see the first hints of fall colors in the only state with color in its name: Colorado.

As a photographer, I love and hate driving a car in the mountains. It's s beautiful and challenging and yet, there's no way for me to actually enjoy the beautiful vistas and dramatic, vibrant aspens. Taking a train is the best solution to let everyone enjoy the views while still keeping the parade of Rocky Mountain gold moving. If you haven't booked tickets for a train ride through the fall colors, you still have a chance. Here are a few options.

Farthest north in our list and therefore first to turn that glorious gold, the far-famed Loop is a fine addition to anyone's trip up Clear Creek. The aspens around Georgetown and Silver Plume are legendary, especially up the former grade of the Argentine Central. The only downside: the equally legendary traffic on I-70. Better on a weekday, ideally a Tuesday or Wednesday

If steam is not as big a deal for you, the LC&S has an opportunity for a trip to near-timberline. While aspens are not nearly as numerous, the opportunity for closeups and wildlife are increasing. The trip up the nice side of Fremont Pass is an enjoyable one. Were it able to go all the way to the summit, it would certainly rank among the best.

Steam and diesel both make the trek over La Veta Pass and aspen and buckbrush are available. Most of the climb is isolated from any road, allowing for a sense of true exploration and yet the standard gauge rails allow for full-size accommodations. Although most seats are under or behind glass, an open air car usually allows for great photo opportunities. A recent wildfire damaged the facilities at the summit of the pass, so what is there is brand new!

There is one narrow gauge railroad route that takes riders further and higher than the others: The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. Starting in Antonito, Colorado or Chama, New Mexico, the train climbs over Cumbres Pass from both directions daily, passing through stands of aspen on both sides of the state border it hopscotches, scraping every contour for every bit of grade needed to summit the pass. Several sections are rail isolated and the coal fired steam is every bit the railroad experience you hope for and a fall color paradise late in the season! There are plenty of reasons USA Today readers voted it the best scenic ride in the country!

There is only one line that has never stopped hauling passengers over its narrow gauge rails. Since 1882, the Denver & Rio Grande Western and now the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroads have taken passengers up the Rio de las Animas between the former milling town of Durango and the remote mining town of Silverton, Colorado. The deep chasms of the San Juan mountains still turn gold with aspens as if to match the Grande gold of the cars of the splendid little train. Stuffy coaches, open air gondolas or even the Silver Vista glass dome car still ply their trade and regularly rock over the rails as ever they did.

Honorable Mention: California Zephyr 
It may cut through the most amazing scenery on the entire Amtrak system, and aspens may run riot through every canyon, but until you can (legally) pry your Superliner window open for an unfiltered photo or plant a seat in the vestibule, the CalZ is not your ideal way to see the colors.⚒

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Billy Westall of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad

A favorite story of mine, especially when it comes to narrow gauge lore, is that of Billy Westall. The Denver, South Park & Pacific, one of Colorado's "other" narrow gauge railroads, got rolled up in the consolidation of a number of railroads that became the Colorado & Southern.

The Columbine, Colorado's State Flower
It was around the time of this consolidation on Sunday, August 28th, 1898, that William G. "Billy" Westall was working for the railroad as an engineer, pulling a train of seven passenger cars with around 450 souls aboard. The passengers were participating in a regional phenomenon where, to beat the summer heat that regularly soars above 90°F in and around Denver, those with the means would take an excursion train to the high country. There the relatively clean alpine air, streams of cold, clear water that only hours before had been locked within snowbanks, and wildflowers like the Columbine and fauna in abundance would work their magic on the denizens of arid, dusty, and crowded Denver. Returning on a summer afternoon, it would have been perfect if not for one simple but intractable problem. As editor Ed Haley writes in M.C. Poor's Denver South Park & Pacific,
Just as the engine rounded a blind left curve near Dome Rock, engineer Westall caught sight of a large pile of sand and gravel on the track directly ahead, which had been washed down the mountain side by a recent heavy rain. He could have easily "joined the birds" and jumped in the clear, but chose, instead, to stick to his engine and try his best to stop the train with its human cargo. His fireman, Joseph Nichols, also stayed with the engine but was thrown into the clear as the engine turned over and [thus] escaped injury. Westall was successful in saving the lives of all his passengers at the expense of his own. His body was pinned to the ground by the handhold on the right side of the tender. He lived 12 hours, dying in the arms of his fireman. Westall's last words were: 'Tell my wife I died thinking of her'.
The Westall monument
at rededication
Billy Westall and Joseph Nichols are heroes for refusing to leave their positions and giving every last ounce of effort to preserve the lives for which they were responsible. His co-workers and friends were deeply moved by Westall's sacrifice and through their union, the American Order of United Workmen, they placed a large granite memorial near the site of the wreck a year later. Three separate trains were necessary to carry the passengers to the dedication of that monument. The monument sat for over a century before being adopted by a class of middle school students. They rehabilitated the monument and placed a placard detailing Westall's story for the public.

Westall was buried in Denver's Riverside Cemetery, known as the "Pioneer's cemetery." It is connected to the other monument by the Platte River, which runs along its northwest side. On the other side, it's bound by the active tracks of BNSF, the successor to the C&S and the DSP&P.⚒

Thursday, August 15, 2019

POTD - Old Bridge With a New Perspective

Today, we are finishing our look at Timothy Tonge's work along the Joint Line between Larkspur and Palmer Lake, an examination that wouldn't be complete without a stop at the ATSF bridge just south of Larkspur. This bridge is no stranger to those familiar with the line as it passes over both East Plum Creek and West Fox Farm Road as it splits from South Spruce Mountain Road. Spruce Mountain, of course, was the old Denver highway before I-25 was built. On July 19, 2019, a pair of BNSF swooshes lead a coal train south over the bridge on the climb to Palmer Lake.

Photo of the Day - Timothy Tonge

Now to reveal the hidden theme mentioned last week: All three of the Photos of the Day have been taken using a drone. It would be impossible to get each of these shots any other way, unless Mr. Tonge has quietly developed an ability to fly and take photos at the same time. Each of the shots has given us a new view of BNSF operations on this very picturesque, scenic portion of the Joint Line. Done well, a drone can elevate anyone's photographic abilities. Done poorly, it can be a menace and even illegal. I think we can all agree that long-time railroad photographer Timothy Tonge has done well!⚒

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

POTD - A Painted Lady Came Out West

Today being Tuesday, it's fitting to return with another Photo of the Day by Timothy Tonge. On July 23, 2019, it's not quite mid-morning and we're further north along the Joint Line near Larkspur. A rare morning shower graces the sky with a fraction of a rainbow, reflecting the colorful locomotives. Second in the locomotive lashup is BNSF 8480, an EMD SD70ACe not quite 5 years old. She is being led by KCS 4604, a GE AC4400CW in Kansas City Southern's popular heritage paint scheme. Together, they're hauling a loaded coal train south toward the Gulf of Mexico, a once-common sight that's becoming rarer and rarer these days.

Photo of the Day - Timothy Tonge
This paint scheme is not without controversy, especially in modeler circles when they focus on exactly what shade the darkest color is. Most folks say black, but a closer look and the company press releases both reveal it's actually a Brunswick Green, a color only bright sunlight can reveal. Regardless, the red Scotch-lite stripes and the clean lines make the KCS colors a natural favorite, especially when compared with the old red letters on flat gray scheme they stuck to for years. I've heard it called the Southern Belle paint scheme. It fits.

PS: This related photo would have been a second POTD. Unfortunately, it seems like the horizontal level leans a bit to the right. I really love the shot otherwise, in particular because of its strong composition and ideal "hero" pose. A re-crop could fix this.⚒

Thursday, August 8, 2019

POTD - A Crossover Before Crossing Over Palmer Divide

It's been quite a while since we've had a Photo of the Day, so it should be a good one! A new photographer has been making quite an impact over at RailPictures.net. His name is Timothy Tonge and his photos, while not all from Colorado, hold nothing back in the way of beauty and sight lines! A prime example of this is his photo of a BNSF grain train heading south at Spruce, Colorado on the Joint Line between Colorado Springs and Denver late on a summer evening, July 11, 2019.

Photo of the Day by Timothy Tonge

As Mr. Tonge also points out, Spruce was one of the locations where the main lines of the Rio Grande (lower, left) and Santa Fe (right) crossed over each other. By the middle of the frame, the former Rio Grande main is the curving grade on the right! All of this was a fight to gain the elevation needed to crest the Palmer Divide just a couple miles distant.

Those familiar with the line will notice something a little strange about this shot. Although there are 4 locomotives, they are all trailing as pushers. The train is following the right-hand rule that is almost always in place on the Joint Line, allowing both UP and BNSF to use the former Rio Grande and former Santa Fe main lines as a double-tracked expressway for most of its distance between Denver and Walsenburg. It is remarkable that despite mergers, this has remained a two-railroad district for over a century!

PS: There is a theme to the Photos of the Day over the next week. While they all feature the same photographer, railroad, and section of the Joint Line, there is also a hidden theme that will be revealed on the 15th.⚒

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Follow Up: Transcontinental Railroad Symposium

As a follow up to my previous post from April 26, it's worth noting that the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden is conducting a symposium on the weekend of June 7-9 on the Transcontinental Railroad.
Celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad with a decidedly Colorado twist.

Friday, Saturday & Sunday June 7-9, 2019

The top scholars in railroad history explore the struggles undertaken to build one continuous line of track from coast to coast and the resulting impact this had on our nation’s settlement and economy.
Speakers currently on the schedule include filmmaker Richard Luckin, David Bain, Peter A. Hansen, James Ehernberger, Kyle Wyatt, Dick Kreck, and Jim Wrinn, editor of Trains magazine. Of particular interest is Saturday afternoon when Al Dunton is scheduled to present The Colorado Connection, speaking on the Kansas Pacific and the Denver Pacific Railroads. Presiding, of course, is the director of the Colorado Railroad Museum, Donald Tallman.

The symposium will be held off-site from the museum for Friday and Saturday, and seating is limited. Reservations required by Friday, May 31, 2019, only 10 days from this post, so do not wait! Visit the event site for all official details.⚒

Friday, April 26, 2019

Was It Truly A Transcontinental Railroad?

In two weeks, dignitaries and pundits will call attention to a small bluff in western Utah named Promontory Summit where rail crews from two different railroads met and held a golden spike ceremony on May 10, 1869, 150 years ago. These facts, and more like them are certain. Among the statements and praise for the men--great and small--who commissioned and built it, statements will be passed as fact with hyperbole and oversimplifications mixed in. It's important in these times to remember the facts and, among them, Colorado's special place in America's transcontinental railroad history.

Photo: Andrew J. Russell, Restored by Adam Cuerden

While we could review much of the history of 19th century America in how the transcontinental railroad changed the course of history and formed the world we live in. Without it, much of America--and the world--would be different. It's not really possible to overstate it's role in forming the United States. But is it possible to oversimplify it or overstate certain facts? Absolutely! While we celebrate the transcontinental railroad with the Golden Spike ceremony, most of it is more symbolic than the actual formation of a transcontinental railroad.

True or False: The Golden Spike joined the nation by rail

FALSE -- The Golden Spike joined the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads, tying Omaha and Sacramento. A trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific by rail was not possible on May 10, 1869. While the Central Pacific did connect to Sacramento, it would not reach San Francisco Bay until much later that same year. Even with that gap filled, you would be forced to disembark your train at Council Bluffs, Iowa, to take the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry across the Missouri River to Omaha. While your travel time was cut from months to weeks, it would be over-simplifying to say the nation was joined by rail.

How was the nation joined by a truly coast-to-coast railroad connection? On August 15, 1870, two crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad met at Comanche Crossing at Strasburg, Colorado. By joining their rails together, it was possible to embark a train at Jersey City, New Jersey and disembark at Oakland, California. The Union Pacific would not complete its Missouri River Bridge until March 25, 1873. Until that date, the true transcontinental railroad actually passed not through Omaha but through Kansas City and Denver.

Ready for more?

True or False: Promontory Point has a museum run by the National Park Service

TRUE -- You can visit the museum and watch a re-enactment of the Golden Spike ceremony most days out west of Salt Lake City. Just don't look for parking on May 10th.

T/F: The Union Pacific still uses the Golden Spike route

FALSE -- While much of the route is still the same, the route by Promontory was shifted to a more favorable grade well to the north of that historic location. The Comanche Crossing site east of Denver, however, is still in use, even with a museum.

T/F: Union Pacific owns the full route of the transcontinental railroad today

TRUE -- On September 11, 1996, Union Pacific Railroad purchased and merged with Southern Pacific, which had itself been purchased by the Denver & Rio Grande Western only 8 years before. Southern Pacific purchased the Central Pacific in a series of maneuvers beginning in 1885.

T/F: Union Pacific is bringing a special locomotive to the party in May

Are you kidding? TRUE! Union Pacific took one member of the largest steam locomotive class in history from Pomona California back in 2014 and has put it through a full restoration. The Big Boy 4014 will be heading to Utah this May for the ceremonies. Union Pacific's "never-retired" steam locomotive 844 will also be on hand for the celebration. For more information, visit Union Pacific Steam

In conclusion...

So was it truly a transcontinental railroad? Depends on your point of view. Politically, yes. Businesswise, maybe yes to a degree. As a passenger? Well, if I had to hoof it over to a ferry and then wait six months for Sacramento and San Francisco to join... then no, not hardly. But, from Atlantic to Pacific in 1870 through Denver on the Kansas Pacific with my private railcar? Sure! I'd call that a railroad.⚒


Special note: Though the Comanche Crossing web site has been down for more than a year, it's archived page still survives and from all indications, the museum is still in operation, opening June 1st through the summer every year.

On Wikipedia:

Promontory, Utah
Comanche Crossing on the Kansas Pacific
Union Pacific Railroad

Monday, April 8, 2019

How to Fire Up Your Morning

Ever wonder how to fire up a steam locomotive? Take a trip inside the Colorado Railroad Museum's roundhouse to bring life to Rio Grande 491!



Producer Jeff Berrier shows us the condensed version* of the steps required to steam up 491 early in the morning before a day of hauling visitors around the Colorado Railroad Museum. Grab a cup of coffee, stoke the fires, and get ready to enjoy this high quality look at operations in Golden! ⚒

* condensed version ...get it? Steam ...condensed ;)