Sunday, May 29, 2016

1994 Trip to the Powder River Basin

In May of 1994 some friends and I made a visit to the Powder River Basin coal region of Wyoming to see and photograph the impressive coal traffic in that region. On Monday I am leaving to ride the Front Range Explorers rail trip that will take us through the same region. I thought it would be worth writing up the past now and the future when I return. I mention photographs, but this trip took place during the time I had eschewed slide film for negative film before ultimately switching to digital in 2001. Unfortunately we moved in 2002 and I cannot, at the moment, find any of the negatives from that era. I've included a few relevant photos from other occasions.

When the Union Pacific steam schedule came out in early 1994, my friends Rick Moser and Dave Ingles and I targeted the excursion from Omaha to Cheyenne behind steam engine Challenger 3985 as being the one to take. We signed up as soon as possible and made plans to spend some time after arrival in Cheyenne visiting the Powder River Basin coal region. Our appetite had been whetted by the article Powder River Country by Fred Frailey in the November 1989 issue of Trains Magazine and this would be an opportunity to see this miracle of modern railroading in person. Paraphrasing briefly from that article: the Powder River country was America's newest railroad frontier. Beginning in the early 1970's two railroads fought for a decade for access to the 40 billion tons of sub-bituminous coal. They spent $2.5 billion as an investment in their future -- and what a future in proved to be -- at least as observed in 1994.

So on Tuesday, May 3 I left work a bit early and flew to Omaha via O'Hare Airport on United Airlines. I was met by Rick who had arrived earlier, I checked in to the motel and we went off for a great Omaha steak dinner.


Challenger 3985 in action on 1992 NRHS excursion
The next morning, May 4, we, along with Dave (and a whole lot of other friends) boarded the 3985 excursion which took the Union Pacific mainline to North Platte, NE. We had dome seats and we were lucky enough to be in the lead dome so we had an excellent view of the steam locomotive pulling us along at a high rate of speed. At least we would have had a great view if the front window of the dome had not been bug splattered before we started. But we were treated to an almost continuous flow of UP freights heading in the opposite direction. It was a great and memorable day, only marred by the logistics in North Platte. There were supposed be busses to shuttle us to our motel, but they were nowhere to be seen. We later learned that Let's Travel Tours (an independent tour group that had bought seats on the train) had commandeered them for their customers...and the buses never returned for the rest of us. (We had this trouble before with the same group and a related one, Mountain Outin Tours, on UP excursions.) Luckily a friend was there in his car and he ran a shuttle service to the motel for us.

Cody Park Railroad Museum in North Platte
On Thursday, May 5 the same friend shuttled us back to the boarding location. The train was schedule to depart at 11am so we had plenty of time to see the sights of North Platte first. Mainly we visited the Cody Park Railroad Museum where there was another Challenger on display at the (relocated) Hershey, NE station, along with a Railroad Post Office car and others. When we returned to the boarding site we found that they were loading about a train length further down the track than where we had gotten off. This necessitated a rather unsteady walk along the right of way. Shortly after departure we stopped to refuel and then were treated to another fine display of UP style railroading all the way to Cheyenne. We arrived in Cheyenne an hour late at 6pm and taxied to the airport where we picked up our reserved mini-van and drove to Scottsbluff, NE for the night.

On Friday we started the day exploring Morrell (a Chicago & Northwestern yard). Then we headed over to Alliance (a Burlington Northern yard) where we dined on Subway sandwiches as we watched the action.  After Alliance we drove to Crawford Hill where we saw approximately 37 trains, many moving, as spent hours racing up and down the hill to get some good pictures. At about 8pm the light died and we headed to Lusk, WY for the night. Our motel, whose name I did not record, was straight out of the 1950s but had a friendly staff and was really comfortable. We had a late dinner at Cindy's Cafe, also right out of the 1950s.


On Saturday, after a fortifying breakfast back at Cindy's we began the day by spotting a C&NW empty heading towards the Powder River Basin. Shortly thereafter we found four westbound empties stacked up at a siding called Myles near Shawnee, WY. Several loaded eastbounds passed us as well. As we continued on to Bill, WY and Reno Junction we were treated to an incredible parade of trains in all directions. We'd take a picture of one train and could already see the headlight of the next. They were literally (?) running like street cars. By the time we called it a day we'd seen 40 different trains, all moving. That is, we saw more than four trans an hour. We spent the night at a Super 8 in Douglas.

On Sunday, May 8, we awoke to a rainy, windy, and overcast day. We had really lucked out with the great weather the days before. We drove to Cheyenne where Rick and I left Dave and the mini-van (I believe he went back home via Amtrak the next day.) Rick and I rented another car to get to Denver and our flights home. Along the way we saw three or four Burlington Northern trains including one colored for Desert Storm. We were in plenty of time to catch our flights, and I was home by 11:30pm.

Given the sheer volume of trains running in the Powder River Basin we despaired of ever being able to ride a train on the line. They say it is an ill wind that blows no good and with the recent downturn in coal coming out of the Basin all of a sudden the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (successor to the Burlington Northern) was amenable to the idea. And so, this week I'll be able to ride the line as shown on the map from Bridger Junction, WY to Gillette, WY along with 50 or so of my friends. I will report on that trip, which actually begins in Fort Worth, TX and ends in St. Paul, MN when I return.

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