Saturday, December 17, 2016

Arizona Eastern Railway with some baseball and Amtrak thrown in

[I have corrected some of the information in this based on a more contemporaneous account written by my friend Don Winter.]

One of the problems of collecting "rare miles" on railroads is finding railroads that are willing to run passenger charters. One friendly operator was (and is) Iowa Pacific and in 2008 they owned the Arizona Eastern Railway and my friend Bart Jennings announced a charter to cover the lines in April 2009. Within days I had secured tickets to ride.

Enroute to Bowie
The Arizona Eastern Railway runs over two separate lines, mostly in Arizona. The first day of the trip, April 5 ran 133 miles one way from Miami to Globe and onto Bowie where the AZER connects with the Union Pacific (ex-Southern Pacific) line between Phoenix and El Paso. The April 6 trip ran 70 miles (each way) between Lordsburg, NM and Clifton, AZ. The excursion equipment shuttled over the Union Pacific between the lines overnight.

At Claypool (near Miami). Our excursion train is in the background
So it was that on April 4, 2009 I caught a Southwest 737 from Pittsburgh to Phoenix where I met up with friend Rick Moser who had rented a car for the very long drive (over 150 miles) to Safford, AZ where we met up with Rick's brother Phil and checked into a Super 8 for three nights. Rick had wanted to meetin in Tuscon (a much shorter drive) but we could not make the air schedules work.

Between Claypool and Globe
Bright and early on the 5th we drove from our motel to Bowie, AZ (a 45 minute drive) where we met up with the rest of our group. Because the 133 miles between Miami and Bowie weren't particularly fast, the trip was being run one way out of Claypool, AZ (near Miami) with a bus connection from Bowie which left at 7:30am. When we arrived at Claypool the train awaited..a two car train consisting of a full length dome car (Chulitna) and a coach-lounge (Calumet Club) both pulled by a single AZER GP.

We stopped in Globe so that lunch could be loaded aboard
My notes on these trips are incomplete but all trips run by Bart Jennings include ample well-scouted photo runbys and this was no exception. One such runby was at Globe (shortly after we left Claypool at 10:45am) where a Dominos lunch was provided. The train was scheduled to arrive in Bowie at 7pm (which missed badly--actual arrival was 8:31pm) and we drove back to our motel in Safford.

In Duncan the next day
Monday morning found us driving to Duncan, AZ (a 40 minute drive) in time to meet the excursion train (this time pulled by two B39-8s back-to back because of no place turn the train) which departed at 8:51am and headed southeast to Lordsburg, NM before turning around and heading northwest through Duncan and onto Clifton, AZ. Lunch was at the American Legion Hall in Clifton after which we turned around and ran back to Duncan arriving at 6:27pm. Then back to Safford for the night. (Phil left us at Duncan and drove to Lordsburg where he caught Amtrak's Sunset Limited to Los Angeles.)

In Clifton during the lunch stop
On Tuesday we slept in a bit and then drove back to Phoenix where we rode the light rail, did laundry, and checked into a Hampton Inn near the airport. Then I left Rick (who had dinner at a nearby Ruby Tuesday's) and caught the light rail to Chase Field to meet fellow mileage collectors Stanton Hunter and Steve Miller and watch the Arizona Diamondbacks lose to the Colorado Rockies in the second home game of the season. At the time of this game I was 58 years old. I mention this because when I got on the crowded light rail car for the trip back to the hotel a young lady got up and offered me her seat. (Worst light-rail ride ever!)

In Clifton
On Wednedaqy we caught a mid-morning Southwest 737 to Los Angeles, and a bus to Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal. We arrived in time for a french dip sandwich at Felipe's and then caught the Sunset Limited leaving at 2:30pm for points east. Rick was riding to San Antonio and then on to Chicago while I was riding to New Orleans.

Sunset Limited in Palm Springs
We arrived in San Antonio on Thurday evening (probably late, but I don't remember). The Sunset Limited splits into two their with some of the cars heading to Chicago as the Texas Eagle and the rest continuing to New Orleans. Because of all of the switching and a chronically late train there is a lot of time in San Antonio. (The Eagle doesn't actually leave until the next morning.) In any event, the Sunset that I was riding pulled out after midnight and we arrived at New Orleans on Friday afternoon where poker friend (from Mississippi) Mark Hughes met me for dinner. We had a terrific seafood dinner at Ralph & Kacoo's and walking out I was surprised to see a picture on the wall featuring friend and Pittsburgh blues singer, Billy Price. Mark dropped me at a Hilton Garden Inn near the airport and the next morning (Saturday) I caught a United flight to Pittsburgh via Chicago and was home late afternoon.
Sunset Limited in Alpine, TX

Friday, November 25, 2016

Farewell to the Connellsville Subdivision (1975)

[Note: this is an edited version of an article I wrote for the Fall 1975 issue of Railfan magazine, now published as Railfan & Railroad by White River Productions. It is used here with permission.]

The last passenger train over the Western Maryland's Connellsville Subdivision crosses the Youghiogheny River near Connellsville (photo courtesy of Ivan S. Abrams)
Getting out of bed early has never been an easy thing for me. However, when the alarm rang at 6a.m. on May 21, 1975, I had absolutely no trouble. I was about to have the rare experience of riding a passenger train on the Western Maryland Railway's Connellsville Subdivision. One of the last previous passenger trains over this section of track was a Southern 4501 excursion two summers ago, and I had missed it. My thoughts that Wednesday included sympathy for any railfan who missed both that trip and the one I was about to take, because there would never be another chance. The Western Maryland had received permission from the ICC to abandon about 124 route miles of track, mostly from Connellsville, Pennsylvania to Hancock, Maryland, and today's train was to be the last one ever.

Opened for operation on August 1, 1912, the stretch of the Western Maryland that reaches from Cumberland to Connellsville has always been a "redundant" line. It was built to make the Western Maryland more competitive with the B&O by giving it friendly connections for Great Lakes shipping, Its connection with the Pittsburgh & West Virginia at Connellsville was to play a part in the George Gould transcontinental scheme. For most of the line's length, along the Youghiogheny and Casselman rivers, the B&O parallels it. Since both lines are now part of the Chessie System and competition is no longer meaningful here, economics dictated the removal of one line. It was decided that the Western Maryland tracks would be the ones to go because the B&O is double tracked. Besides the Connellsville Subdivision, the Western Maryland is abandoning its line from Cumberland to Hancock, and from Cumberland to a point about three miles East of Keyser, West Virginia, called Twenty First Bridge. Not one shipper will lose service as a result of the abandonment. Where Western Maryland tracks are the only ones capable of providing service, they will continue to be operated. For example, the stretch from Cumberland to Frostburg, Maryland1, and another around Blue Lick will remain in service. Despite this "clean'' abandonment, it took over a year to get the approval of the ICC.

The map that accompanied by article in Railfan Magazine
For a confirmed passenger nut like myself, the consist of the last train was almost more interesting than the route that it traversed. On the point was steam generator equipped B&O GP9 6600. This is one of three GP9's used in the pull-pull PATrain commuter operation in the Pittsburgh area. Next in the consist was Western Maryland 1700, a 54-passenger streamlined coach painted in red and white. The mural on the wall and a little plaque inside indicated that this coach was built originally for the Pere Marquette. The last car in the consist was supplied by Amtrak and was fittingly historic: dome coach 9401 (ex-CB&Q 4714) Silver Dome. Students of passenger train history will recognize this as the first dome car ever built. According to Arthur Dubin's, More Classic Trains (Kalmbach, 1974), this car was built in 1945 out of the coach Silver Alchemy by the CB&Q at its Aurora Shops. Unlike other dome cars, Silver Dome does not have curved glass. Because of wartime restrictions, the Q was forced to use flat glass.

Silver Dome at Hancock. Notice the flat dome windows.

As much as I enjoyed seeing Silver Dome, Amtrak should never have sent it to Pittsburgh; they should have kept it in their shops until it was put in better shape. The car suffered from a common Amtrak malady: no air conditioning. That, while not good, would have been tolerable had the dome been useable. Although the car was hand washed the night before, the plastic windows were filthy. Further inspection indicated that the dirt had been ground into the windows making them un-cleanable. A dome that you cannot see out of is useless. Putting such a car on what was essentially, a press train is unpardonably bad public relations. At least one of the railroad officials on board pointed out that the situation on our special illustrated the folly in Amtrak's priorities. He felt that, after making the cars safe, the first priority should have been to make them comfortable (mainly by making the air conditioning and heating systems functional). Then, and only then, should Amtrak have worried about making the cars pretty. Carpeting on the walls (something they did to "modernize" its inherited cars) is nice, but it doesn't keep you cool in the summer or warm in the winter. Anyone riding the special could see that the official was right. Although the Western Maryland car had not been carpeted or reupholstered, almost everyone on board rode in it; it was much more comfortable.

At Bowest for speeches

The passenger list for this historic last run consisted of members of the press, conservationists, VlPs, railroad officials, and at least two very lucky railfans. The conservationists were aboard because the railroad is giving the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy the abandoned right of way between Connellsville and Frostburg for use as a recreational trail, railfans will soon be able to hike or bike where mighty Decapods once pounded.

Although a trail needs only a narrow strip of land, this has always been extremely difficult to obtain, The problem is that negotiations must be held with many different landowners. By giving this land to the Conservancy, the Western Maryland joins the Chicago & North Western whose Elroy to Sparta, Wisconsin, abandonment is probably the best known trail of this type currently in use. Environmentalists consider this an excellent recycling of abandoned right of way, and hope that other railroads pulling up rails will consider following the C&NW and WM leads.2

At 7;00 a.m. the train left Pittsburgh from the Baltimore & Ohio's Grant Street commuter station, and used that railroad's tracks for the 58 miles to Connellsville where it switched to Western Maryland track. After a press briefing at Bowest Yard, the real trip began. To me it was just like a typical railfan excursion; complete with fighting for the vestibule windows! (Some of the press can be amazingly pushy.) To make the feeling complete, the railroad even provided a photo runby. Just outside of Ohio Pyle, at bridge 2379, the train paused to let everyone off. As I walked across the bridge to get in position for a good shot, l noticed that about half a dozen railfans who had bean chasing the train had already taken the beat spots. As l got closer, I recognized some of them as friends. When they recognized me and realized that I had managed to get on board, the looks that they gave were priceless (and deadly). Two of the fans who were previously unknown to me became life-long friends with me: Ivan Abrams and Bill Metzger. We would go on to railfan all over Western Pennsylvania, Northern West Virginia and Eastern Ohio until I finally finished my degree at Carnegie Mellon University.

On bridge 2379. I was standing next to Bill and Ivan who had already staked out the better angle

From Ohio Pyle to Confluence, Pennsylvania we had to use the tracks of the B&O on the opposite bank of the river. The Western Maryland had jumped the gun a little, and had already started to remove a bridge at Ohio Pyle. One had the feeling that they were tearing up the tracks as soon as our train had passed over them. At Confluence, the train paused to let off a TV crew and then headed for Rockwood, back on the Western Maryland tracks. From Rockwood our route took us to Meyersdale. After tunneling through Big Savage mountain and taking in the magnificent view of the Cumberland valley on the other side, it wasn't long before we found ourselves first in Frostburg, Maryland and then in Cumberland where some more of the press got off.

At Cumberland, Maryland

From Cumberland to Hancock our route paralleled and repeatedly crossed the C&O Canal (whose towpath is another recreational trail). The special arrived in Hancock at 5:15 p.m., and there were Greyhound buses waiting to take us back to Pittsburgh. Being a true railfan, l ascertained that it would be possible to accompany the Silver Dome and 6600 on their special movement back to Pittsburgh. When it became apparent that this train wouldn't arrive back home until at least 3:00 a.m., I decided to get on the Dingy Dog and call it a day.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Did I mention the heat? Midwestern travels in July 1993

On July 27, 1993, I had just returned from a 11 day trip that included riding the Challenger from Omaha to Chicago, the Arkansas and Missouri, and the Frisco line from Tulsa to Enid when I wrote this.

I left Pittsburgh on Friday, July 16. I flew to Omaha (I elected not to ride the California Zephyr as it detoured over the C&NW for two reasons: I wasn't positive that it would get to Omaha in time, and I didn't like the idea of sitting up all night. It turns out that the connection was made, and I could have shared a room with someone...oh well.) Approaching the airport I looked down and noticed fields with water in them. It looked like rice fields in Arkansas, but this wasn't Arkansas and it wasn't a rice field.

At Omaha some friends met me, we checked into the motel, and went off for a good steak dinner. According to the UP, the Falls City Sub was out of service and the train would detour via Marysville. This was a tad dismaying because most of our group had ridden a Omaha to Marysville trip two years ago. Then we learned that we would not be using the Beatrice Sub, but instead would be detouring via Gibbon Jct. This made almost the entire trip (from Valley Jct. to K.C.) new mileage.

UP 3985 and little buddy. Date unknown.
We awoke early on Saturday and piled onto school buses for the Council Bluffs yard. The train was awaiting with no fewer than 6 dome cars. The UP excursion train is still a damn fine sight. As I recall the train left almost on time, and we were off towards Gibbon Jct. (for once the rumor mill was correct). The train was being pulled by diesels to Marysville where the 3985 was awaiting us. We made excellent time, but had no runbys. Instead of a 280 mile trip, this would be a 480 mile trip! The high point of the day was probably speeding through the Nebraska and Kansas countryside with lighting flashing all around us and rain pouring down so hard that you couldn't see out the windows. There was water everywhere, up to the rails in some places.

The low point of the trip was at Kansas City. As we approached Neff yard, a 10:30pm arrival seemed possible. We were held outside the yard for a while, and then moved up to the approach tracks. Then we sat...and sat...and sat. They watered the train, took off the steam engine, and eventually hooked a diesel onto us and see-sawed us into the designated track for off-loading. It was past 1:30am when we got off the train. Rumor has it that the local yardmaster wasn't going to let a passenger train upset "his yard". Rumor also has it that he was relieved of his duties the next morning. (There was some speculation that he had come over from New Haven yard on the NS :-) The buses to the motel were not right there when we got off, and the club operating the trip all but abandoned us for a good while leading to some extremely bad feelings. I was able to share a taxi with a few others while others waited for the bus, but it was still near 2am when I staggered into the motel.

Sometime after the Gibbon trip, UP sent this to participants
While riding the taxi, I had managed to sell my Sunday ticket for the ride to St. Louis. The train would be going over the Sedalia Sub instead of the advertised River Sub and I didn't need the mileage. (And I certainly needed the sleep.) A bunch of us slept in with the idea of either flying ($49) or renting cars depending on the price. We awoke at 10am, and 7 of us rented two Chevrolet Caprices to drive to St. Louis for $30 a person. The drive across Missouri was uneventful, punctuated by a stop at a Steak 'n Shake or two. The most impressive sight was the crossing of the Missouri on I70. At first it just looked like a wide river. Then we noticed the silos and barns poking out of the river along with some railroad signals. No wonder the River Sub was closed.

St. Louis was hot, and wet, and we pretty much stayed near our hotel (the Drury Inn at Union old railroad Y). I bought a shirt in the lobby that said "I've had it up to here with the Mississippi" which pretty much summed up the local feeling.

Up again at 6am on Monday to catch the buses to the loading site in St. Louis (I think it was called the compress track, but I'm unsure.) The trip to Chicago would be old mileage until Findlay, then new mileage until Woodland Jct. (where the old C&EI line to Evansville joined us). The trip was uneventful and on-time. The first runby was made in the same spot where I got attacked by chiggers during the NRHS convention a few years ago. I elected not to leave the train. (I put on "deep woods off" to make sure that they didn't get me by boarding the train.) Apparently I'm famous from this incident in least one person came up to me and said that they were all hoping I'd be out there to attract all the chiggers away from them! (There were several other runbys and I actually got off the train at one or two of them.) The service stop was at Villa Grove, and it appeared as if the whole town was out to greet us.

Besides the new mileage and completing the C&EI route from St. Louis to Chicago, a highlight of the trip was meeting and talking with Jon Roma and Dave Rasmussen.

We arrived in Dolton (18 miles from the loop) at just past 7 and I was at the Palmer House by 8. A friend was supposed to have called my parents to let them know I was enroute, but he forgot. It didn't matter because they couldn't come get me anyway and asked me to go over to Northwestern Station and catch a commuter train out to Highland Park. I was there in plenty of time for the 8:35 and at my folks house by 9:30.

After two and one half days in Chicago, I found myself at O'Hare on Thursday afternoon to catch an American Airlines F100 to Tulsa. There a friend and I rented a mini-van, and awaited the arrival of two more friends (also coming from Chicago...four of us travelled on 3 different planes...we wouldn't want to deprive the railfan community of all of us in the case of a crash :-) We then drove to Springdale, AK where we checked into the Roach Motel. (Actually a Heartland Lodge, but you could have fooled me.) We were met there by two other friends, and five of us rode the Arkansas and Missouri railroad (an ex-Frisco branch) from Springdale to Van Buren. This is a nice operation, with sparkling clean Alco power, and nicely restored commuter coaches from the 20's. The train usually runs as a mixed, and we had some 41 cars out of Springdale. We left at 8am, made one switching stop, and were in Van Buren before 11:30, where the six person met us with the van. After lunch in Ft. Smith, we dropped three of the guys at the train to ride north, while three of us headed back to Tulsa for some needed R&R. (Did I mention, yet, the heat? It was in the upper 90's and very very humid.) We got back to Tulsa in time to pick up another friend who was flying in from Chicago, and go have dinner at the Metro Diner in Tulsa.

Did I mention the heat? It was very, very, hot, and very, very humid when we awoke on Saturday for the 9am departure of the Cherokee Strip Express to Enid. This was a motley train, consisting of a number of cars from the Memphis Transportation Museum, some from the Kiamichi Railroad in Hugo, OK, and various other cars. The last several cars were BN business train cars and were reserved for officials including the Governor of Oklahoma. We dropped three of our party at the train, and went off to find the first place to take its picture. As the train passed us we first became aware of the fact that there was little working A/C on the train when one of our party, standing in a vestibule, made an exaggerated brow wiping motion to us. Have I mentioned that it was hot?

We caught it several times before Pawnee, the 3 1/2 hour (!) lunch stop. We rescued our buddys from the train (and the planned activities) and went and found a nice, cool, pizza parlor where we sat and ate and talked through most of the 3 1/2 hours. After dropping the others back at the train, we left Pawnee, and shot the train several more times before hightailing it for Enid. We checked into the Ramada Inn (aside: why don't motels run the A/C in the rooms on low before you get took over 6 hours on high before the rooms started to feel cool, and I bet it cost more in terms of energy to cool the room from scratch.) We picked the guys up as the train pulled into a very hot (did I mention the heat yet?) Enid. It was around 100, and with the humidity the heat index was much more than 100. Dinner was at a restaurant touted to have the best steaks in town. (Tia Juana: "no shirts, no shoes, no service, no Mexican food".) The steaks were huge, cheap, and reasonably good. The beers were cheap, cold and delicious. After a dessert stop at a nearby Braums we went to our respective rooms (it was way too hot to do anything else.)

The leisurely 10am(!) departure on Sunday meant two things: we'd be able to sleep in, and we'd be sure to catch the hot part of the day. We were about to board our assigned car when a PA announcement told us to board a different car (the A/C wasn't working). Expecting the hell our friends had experienced, we boarded the new coach. Much to our surprise, it was pleasantly cool, and remained so all the way to Perry, our lunch stop. (Another 3 hours!) We found our friends at Perry and had lunch at another Braums and then sat in the van with the A/C on high until it was train time. We boarded a still cool car and actually left Perry a few minutes early. Less than a mile outside of the station the A/C quit on our car. Within minutes it was incredibly hot. They passed around Gatorade, and water, and wet towels, but finally, about 8 miles from Tulsa the asked us all to leave the car. We had been doing about 1 mph past a stretch of tight track and things had gone from bad to worse in the car. They put is in the trailing car and as we walked in we all felt like we would get pneumonia. It was freezing. Most people from our car were standing in the aisles, but we were able to find a pair of seats and chatted with the lady across from us. While we were freezing she was complaining about how hot it was in the car. An old gentleman in the other seat across from us had an obvious case of heat stroke. It was hot.

Due to the tight track, the train pulled into Tulsa at about 5:30, an hour late. We got off the train into the hot Tulsa sun, and into the air conditioned van for the ride to the motel where we cranked up the A/C, and then headed for a Tulsa Drillers (Texas League AA) vs. San Antonio game. The home team won, and we had a good time, in spite of the still stifling heat. A little dessert at the Metro Diner, and off to a shower and bed.

That Monday (July 26) I caught a 7:30 flight to Chicago and then Pittsburgh, looking forward to getting away from the heat and humidity. Somehow though, during the weekend, the weather in Pittsburgh had turned from great to essentially the same as Tulsa's. I suspect there was only a 5 degree difference.

I was exhausted from my vacation. I'd probably lost 10 pounds (but it was all water sweated away, so it doesn't count). The last few days weren't as much fun as I had hoped. But I GOT THE MILEAGE!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Trains I Rode: Fall 1991 Edition

For someone who likes to ride trains, the Fall is usually a magical time. There are often more trips to take than time or money to do so. Nineteen ninety one was no different. After an essentially dormant Summer, things really heated up.

Chicago & Illinois Midland
The weekend after Labor Day found me on my way to Springfield, Illinois. The goal was to ride the entire Chicago and Illinois Midland railroad. This line runs from Taylorville, Illinois to Cimic (the junction of the CIM and the Illinois Central...IC...clever, huh?) where it runs on trackage rights to Springfield. From Springfield it runs to Pekin, Illinois where it joins the Peoria and Pekin Union for the trip into Peoria. It was built by Commonwealth Edison interests mainly as a way to get coal from its mines to power plants. However the utility got smart and built a power plant at a mine mouth, cutting the railroad's traffic a lot. In 1991 it still hauled coal, and of all things popcorn!

After a drive down from Chicago with my friend Rick Moser on Friday, early on the morning of Saturday, September 7 we headed over to the C&IM Springfield yard and shops complex. There we were met by a school bus which took us down to Taylorville where the train awaited. The train consisted of a C&IM diesel (supposedly rare, but I don't follow such things), and three private cars: the Chief Keokuk, the Cimmaron River, and the Caritas. There were about 50 passengers spread through these three cars and it wasn't crowded (except on the observation platform). Once we got to Cimic, passengers had to get off the train for a bus ride to Springfield while the train ran on the IC tracks (no passengers for the IC, no siree). As compensation, the bus chased the train and offered several photo opportunities. From Springfield the train went up to Pekin, where it turned around for Springfield again, arriving about 5pm. Then it was over to the Amtrak station to drop off fellow passenger Keith White, and the long drive back to Chicago.

On the Pittsburgh and West Virginia near Monongahela, PA
Skipping ahead to the first weekend in October, the Caritas, Cimmaron River, and Blue Ridge visited the Akron, Canton, and Youngstown and the Wheeling and Lake Erie. This was a two day trip which covered almost all of these railroads. I had some of the mileage, and the price was steep so I elected not to ride. My friend Bill Metzger and I chased it from Mingo Jct. (Steubenville) to Connellsville, as it traversed some incredible high bridges. My wife Barbara is from the Monongahela area near where the above picture was taken. She later told me that her son Chris and is friends used to walk across the bridge when they were about 13 years old.

The following weekend, Barb, Chris, Chris's then girlfriend (and now ex-wife) Amy and I went over to Rook yard, in Pittsburgh. There we boarded a 21+ car train of mostly junk equipment for a roundtrip to Connellsville over the same route Bill and I had photographed the previous week. The Fall colors were out in most of their splendor, and although the train was late and it was cold, it was a very interesting trip. I had wanted to ride the line to Connellsville for years. Since there was a rumor that the Wheeling would abandon that line within the next several years (it didn't), I'm glad I got the chance. I'd already missed the chance to ride the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie to Connellsville. That line was long gone.

819 in Mount Pleasant, TX
October 18 found me in Pine Bluff, Arkansas boarding the Cotton Belt Historical Society's special train to Tyler, Texas. The train was about 14 cars long, and was hauled by their steamer 819. We were late most of the way to Texas, mainly due to a faulty air brake somewhere on the train that would cause us to stop periodically as the pressure dropped. This was fixed at Texarkana, and we had no further difficulty. By cutting out photo runbys (not clear any where scheduled), and by cutting short a visit in Pittsburg, Texas, we were able to reach Tyler at 7:00, about 30 minutes late. This was tons better than my last experience behind 819, which was on the way back from the NRHS convention in 1990. That was a 90+ degree day, and the air conditioning failed in every car, the train was incredibly late into Pine Bluff (3am), and we were attacked by DC-6 sized mosquitos around Brinkley, Arkansas. A totally miserable trip (but I got the mileage :-)

My friend Rick Moser had spotted his minivan at Tyler ahead of time. After the train arrived a bunch of us hopped into it and drove several hours up to Paris, Texas where we spent the night. The next day (Saturday), we drove to Omaha, Nebraska stopping only once to shoot a train we came across (on the Burlington Northern). After a night in perhaps the worst Super 8 ever built (in Council Bluffs, IA), Sunday morning at 7am, found us at the UP's TOFC (trailer on flat car) yard near downtown Omaha (across from the Amtrak Station). It was cold, and we were ready to board the train, but it didn't show up until after 8 (for an 8am departure). When it did show up it was a beautiful sight: steam engine 844 pulling the UP excursion consist, all looking like it had just been built. In addition to coaches, and the usual tool cars that accompany steam engines, the UP had provided a museum car (very interesting display of UP history inside a baggage car), a dome diner, a full diner, and a lounge car complete with bar service.

844 pulling a spotless UP train to Marysville
We boarded a very uncrowded train (considering that virtually every seat was filled), and headed to Marysville, Kansas. This line had not seen passenger service of any kind since at least the 50's. Almost every card carrying mileage collector in the country was there and most of us sat in one car. The train was operated by the Camerail Club (of Omaha) and they did a great job. They provided complementary coffee, doughnuts and juice in the morning, a lunch in the diner, and Pizza Hut pizza (delivered train side at Lincoln) for dinner. The UP provided a train that ran well, was comfortable, made 6 (!) photo runbys, and looked great. We arrived at Marysville around 5pm and left 844 behind, as we were pulled by diesel back to Omaha (no place to turn 844 in Marysville). The lounge car was busy that evening, both because of reasonably priced drinks, and two televisions carrying the World Series. (This was the year that my Pittsburgh Pirates managed to lose to the Atlanta Braves in game seven of the playoffs after having Atlanta down to their last strike in the ninth inning. I was not happy about a World Series featuring the Braves and their awful tomahawk chop. Thankfully the Twins won the Series.) We arrived back in Omaha around 10:30...a very long day.

Somewhere out of Parkersburg
On Sunday, October 26 I drove to Parkersburg, West Virginia to ride from Parkersburg to New Martinsville (50 miles, but it was close to home, and it connected with the previous year's Huntington to Parkersburg trip). The colors were great too!

611 enroute from Atlanta to Chattanooga
Then, on Friday, November 1, I flew to Atlanta to ride behind steam again from there to Chattanooga for the Norfolk Southern Steam Program's 25th Anniversary. (This was the only NS trip of the year for me...probably a new record low.) After the banquet on Saturday night, we drove to Etowah where we rode another special from Etowah to Cooperhill and back on Sunday, November 3. To do this we gave up the return portions of the Atlanta to Chattanooga trip. That was triple headed steam out of Chattanooga which would have been quite a sight. But getting the mileage was more important.

The train to Etowah
Enough mileage for the year, right? Not quite. I attended a work-related conference in New Orleans in early December. I took the obvious routing...flying to San Antonio, spending the night in a hotel, and catching Amtrak's Sunset Limited into New Orleans. (Obvious for a railfan who needed the mileage that is.) And that really did close out the 1991 mileage year for me.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Chasing the Pennant: My relationship with the Cubs (and the White Sox and the Pirates)

Well it looks like the Cubs are going to do it this year. As I write this they are 87/47 with only the Cardinals (elimination number 14) and the Pirates (elimination number 12) having any remote possibility of overtaking them to win the National League Central. While winning the league championship is not a certainty, it is a strong possibility. This got me to thinking about Chicago baseball and my relationship with the Cubs. Along the way I will necessarily have to bring in the Pirates since I've lived in Pittsburgh for over half of my life.

I grew up in Highland Park on the North Shore of Chicago in the 50s and 60s. Like every kid I knew in grade school I loved to play baseball. At least I loved to play baseball in concept. My usual position in games at Ravinia school or in pick up games at the park at Beech and St. Johns next to the railroad retirement home was "left out". Well not really, that's just a bad joke I tell. But I was not a particularly good hitter and an even worse fly ball catcher, so I spent a lot of time in the outfield hoping that nothing would be hit to me. But, hey, hey, I was there.

I also enjoyed going to major league baseball games. As a denizen of the North Shore I was supposed to be a Cubs fan but for the first 10 to 12 years of my life I was a Chicago White Sox fan. Although this included 1959 when the Sox won the pennant and Daley-hack Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn set off Chicago's air-raid sirens (in the height of cold war jitters) to celebrate, this was not the reason.

Rather, I was a White Sox fan was because the Cubs did not play any night games in those days. In fact night games at Wrigley were impossible in that era since it did not have any lights. Why did that matter? In a word "golf". My Dad was an avid golfer his whole life. He would rather take me to less convenient Comiskey Park for a night game than to Wrigley for a day game and have to give up his time on the golf course.

My father belonged to a city club in downtown Chicago, the Standard Club. In the day this was a great club where we would meet my Dad in the bar for snacks (and drinks for him and Mom) before going to dinner if we were downtown. The club had a lot of family events including, as I recall, a holiday celebration, complete with Santa to keep all of us (Jewish) kids happy. One of the other events they had every year was a "Father and Son night at the ballpark". This night would start with a picnic-style dinner in the dining room complete with fried chicken. After dinner we'd get on buses and have a police escort to Comiskey Park. At the end of the game we'd ride the buses back to the club and head home.

As I got older we stopped going to the Father/Son nights and I became more of a Cubs fan. I'd occasionally be taken there as part of a friend's birthday celebration or for some other occasion. I don't have any particular memories of having a preference for one ball park over the other. There was nothing particularly special about "the friendly confines" to me. (Though as I grew older it became clear to me that Comiskey was a dump.)

Just prior to my 18th birthday, my friend Alfie and I made the trip to Wrigley on our own. The highlight of this visit was that I had my first illegal beer (an "Old Style") at this game.

During my undergraduate years at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh I pretty much forgot about baseball. In fact I only made it to one game at Forbes Field even though it was block from the campus (if you ever see the original "Angels in the Outfield" CMU, then known as Carnegie Tech, is visible over the left-field fence.) In 1970 I was sweating getting into the Ph.D. program in Computer Science at CMU. I had a lot of grad student friends and they knew I was a wreck and practically kidnapped me to a game. The following Fall (as a first year graduate student!) I went to my first game at Three Rivers Stadium. Over the years in Pittsburgh I would occasionally go to other games there, and no doubt went to additional games at Wrigley when visiting Chicago, but nothing particular stands out because I was not really much of a fan in that era.

After a six year interlude between 1976 and 1982 when I lived first in Chicago and then in silcon valley (and never went to a game in either place), I returned to Pittsburgh apparently for good and started going to the occasional game. I'd make a point to get to a game or two every year when the Pirates played the Cubs and I am happy to say that I was present at Three Rivers Stadium on September 24, 1984, the night that the Cubs clinched a playoff berth for the first time in the modern era. I was rooting for the Cubs every inning.

One year in the late 1980s I was lamenting the fact that when I did want to go to a game all I could get was crap seats in an upper level. I was complaining to a friend about this and he mentioned that he and two other friends had season tickets behind third base and that I was welcome to use one of his for some game. To me seeing a game from somewhere between third and first base and low down is a significantly different (better) experience than seeing it from any other location. The following year a bunch of friends and I split a partial season ticket ourselves.

Just after I met my now wife Barbara in 1989 we were visiting my parents in Chicago and decided to go to a Cubs game on a Wednesday afternoon. I called for tickets and was informed that they had standing room or obstructed view seats only. I was bummed. (And not bleacher bummed either.)

Back in Pittsburgh, I went to a game against the Expos on the spur of the moment. Three Rivers was so big and the Pirates were so mediocre at the time that it was seldom difficult to get a ticket of some sort. So I went to the stadium and was heading to the home plate box office when I was stopped by an older gentleman (call him Milt because I believe that was his name) who asked me if I needed one ticket. He looked too nice for it to be a scam and he offered the ticket at face value telling me that I'd be sitting next to him...he had two tickets but his partner couldn't make the game. The seat ended up being in the first row, right against third base, a terrific place to watch the game. Even better were the stories that Milt told me about his years watching the Pirates. He'd had the seats we were sitting in as well as equivalent seats at Forbes Field stretching back to the 1930s. He told about getting hit by a foul ball and breaking his collar bone one year. He told about knowing many senior people in baseball. He was fascinating to listen to. I told him my story of not being able to get into a Cubs game and he said "next time you want to see the Cubs give me a call and I'll get you in."

The next year I was in Chicago visiting my father in the hospital. He was doing well so my cousin Jimmy and I decided to go to the Cubs game. I remembered Milt back in Pittsburgh and gave him a call. The next thing I knew we had house seats just behind home plate compliments of Jim Frey, the Cubs General Manager, at no charge. Getting these great seats for nothing made me extremely uncomfortable. The next time I wanted seats Jim Frey was no longer the GM but the Cubs were playing the Cardinals and Joe Torre provided the seats. When I asked Milt how I could pay for the seats he suggested that I send Joe a box of premium golf balls...which I did...along with a copy of my favorite baseball novel, If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock.

That same season three of us decided to split a pair of tickets for the complete season (27 games each.) The seats were in the third row just to the right of home plate. I've maintained those same seats since then...transitioning to first row seats at PNC Park when it eventually opened.

In recent years my cousin Jimmy has managed to obtain Cubs/Pirates tickets at Wrigley from a high school friend of his who has a set of truly excellent seats at Wrigley (though not as good as those that Jim Frey gave us) and has treated me to a game most every summer except this year and last (as the Cubs got hot again.) Wrigley still has some magic for me (though I haven't seen it since they put up the new scoreboard), but PNC Park actually has it beat in my book. I know that is sacrilege for a Chicagoan but I invite all of my friends to join me and see what I mean.

I've become a Pirates fan, but one with a soft spot in my heart for the Cubs. Generally I will still root for the Cubs but not when the Pirates interests are involved. Since it is clear this year that the Pirates have no chance (in spite of still having not been eliminated at this point) I have become a Cubs fan again (especially if they can help the Pirates by winning games that help the Pirates in their quest for a wild card slot -- yet again.) If, for some reason, the Pirates actually make it to post season I will root for the Pirates but I will have no problem ultimately rooting for the Cubs should that come to pass.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Three-three-threeing my way to the impossible dream

Between 1962 and 1966 I attended Highland Park High School in Highland Park, IL. I was a math-minded person and even though it was the only language spoken at home, I was definitely challenged when it came to English class.

In those days HPHS (and the workshop) taught a structured writing method called 3-3-3. Essentially it required that each essay have three main topics, that each main topic be supported by three paragraphs, and each paragraph consist of three sentences/thoughts. We hated it (or at least I did.)

Part of the problem was that I had poor study habits, an issue that my parents helped me correct by hiring a teacher, Vernon Hein, to get me on track. The summer after the Freshman year, they also made me take a workshop run by Mr. Hein and Mr. William Guthrie--perhaps the most feared English teacher in the school. In that course we had to learn 20 vocabulary words (including "heinous" -- Mr. Hein was asking for trouble with that one), and also write a short essay every day. I became "expert" at 3-3-3.

Vernon Hein and William Guthrie
Fast forward to my Freshman year at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. I noticed that every Sunday, while others were struggling to get their English homework done, I had most of the day free because I was finished. I didn't think anything of this until near the end of the year.

My English Composition class was on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and was taught by David Demerest, one of the top professors in the department (I later learned). One Tuesday he gave us an assignment to read Don Quixote and to write a essay about how the book illustrated any of several supplied subjects. The book is over 1,000 pages which ordinarily would not be a problem because I love reading. However, this particular week I had an interview in Chicago for a summer job at the Kitchen's of Sara Lee as a computer programmer (I got the job.)

I flew to Chicago after class on Thursday in first class on United Airlines ($14.70 each way using youth fare) for my interview the next day and then back to Pittsburgh on Sunday. In spite of my best intentions (really) I only managed to read about 100 pages by Monday morning. Although I never used them, I figured Cliff Notes would save me. I spent a few hours checking local bookstores for them and none had Don Quixote. I was royally screwed. Or was I?

David Demerast
On Monday night I started quickly scanning the book to locate three sections that I might use to support one of the supplied topics. After not too long I found them and read only those sections in any detail. I wrote three paragraphs of three sentences about each.

Although I felt guilty about not having read the book, I turned it in and hoped for the best. On Thursday morning Dr. Demarest returned the essay to me marked with an A!

Years later, when I returned to the now named Carnegie Mellon University as a researcher I would occasionally see Dave Demarast on campus. One day I told him this story and we had a good laugh about it. To this day I blame the English department at HPHS and 3-3-3 for any success I've had in writing.

[I realized over the weekend that I still have not read Don Quixote...something I intend to remedy soon.]

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Steaming our way to the 1992 Republican Convention

The 2016 Republican Convention has just gotten underway so it seems to be an appropriate time to post this article about traveling behind steam to the 1992 Republican Convention. 1992 was a great year for steam excursions behind Union Pacific Challenger 3985. I was lucky enough to participate in three of them. The first article about these trips described a run from San Jose to Salt Lake City. The third, about a run from Little Rock back to Kansas City after the convention will be the subject of a future article.

In the previous article, I wrote a somewhat negative report of my trip between San Jose and Denver in July 1992. The negativeness was mostly the result of a disastrous Amtrak segment (a 7 hour late #26), and over assertive people in some of the sponsoring organizations. On the balance, though, I enjoyed the trip and was mostly looking forward to the next leg of my three part visit with the UP 3985 train.

Late afternoon on Monday, August 10th, 1992, I boarded a United Airlines 727 for Chicago where I connected to an identical aircraft for Kansas City. Due to bad weather in the East we were late leaving, and arrived in Kansas City around 9pm. The air and heat outside was oppressive -- about what I expected for Missouri in August. My friend Rick was waiting for me at the gate and we drove over to the Budgetel in North Kansas City.

On August 11, after a restful, but short, night we piled into the car for the trip to the boarding site. This was the Parc Place hotel and shuttle buses took us from there to the train. Although it was at least an hour before departure time, the train was ready for us to board and we quickly found our seats in the Union Pacific coach Texas Eagle. The weather outside was terrific -- a front had gone through during the night and we would be blessed with temperatures 10 to 20 degrees less than normal for the whole trip -- and little rain.

The train left a little late and snaked its way out of Kansas City onto the Missouri Pacific. This first segment was being hosted by the U.P. Historical Society, but staffed by members of Camerail. They did an excellent job of keeping things going smoothly. We soon settled into what would become our daily routine of mostly high speed (60ish) running, with two photo runbys in the morning and two in the afternoon, a public relations stop in a town in the morning, a service stop at mid-day, and another public relations stop in the afternoon, before arriving at our destination for the evening. This first day we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the morning donuts were "on the house". They had brought enough to feed an army of railfans and didn't run out until late in the day. The box lunches were also complimentary and quite good. The only thing we needed to purchase in the food department were soft drinks and good UP popcorn. The location of the photo runbys were almost uniformly poor on all four days of the trip. This probably couldn't be helped given:
  • the terrain
  • Steve Lee's desire to avoid doing runbys where chasers could get to us (e.g. not along side a highway)
  • Someones decision to avoid doing them near towns or grain elevators or... no doubt for safety reasons.
We eventually learned why Steve didn't back up enough and therefore didn't completely runby the crowd. He didn't want to have to bother with the dispatcher in Omaha and call attention to what we were doing. He didn't have to as long as the train didn't exit the block we were in.

The train pulled in more or less on time to Coffeyville, Kansas, where we spent the first night. The shuttles were small, but they efficiently got us to the ex-Best Western Fountain Plaza, easily the worst lodging of the trip. Checkin took forever, but I soon found my room and turned on the TV. I was hoping to watch the Pirates - Mets game on ESPN. Unfortunately, my set wouldn't tune to ESPN (other friends had sets that did). Before settling down in a friend's room to watch the game we went to dinner at a family restaurant across the parking lot. Nothing spectacular, but an ok meal.

The next morning, I volunteered to be the early ariser to pin down seats for our group of 6 in the Texas Eagle. I took the first bus over to the train, and managed to get some of the crew to place my bags on the appropriate seats -- boarding wasn't to be for an hour. While we waited, a UP directors special passed through with some more of the passenger fleet, also enroute to Houston and the Republican Convention. We figure that they made Houston before we left McAllister the next morning. The Wednesday and Thursday segments were sponsored by a coalition of Oklahoma railfan organizations. They did a good job, but weren't as well organized as the other group. On the other hand, their lunches were the best of the lot. Again, a very pleasant day of travel through the Oklahoma countryside. Again, a number of runbys and a service stop.

About a year ago I wrote about my 1990 visit to the St. Louis NRHS convention, where I got throughly eaten by chiggers. This time, thanks partially to some spray that the late Pete Bretz had the foresight to bring along, I was able to avoid being bitten even once! The train arrived early into McAlester, Oklahoma (on the Katy) and we boarded perhaps the most interesting (stupid) shuttle bus scheme I've ever encountered. You've heard of hub and spoke in the airline business? We'll this was a hub and spoke shuttle system. We got on buses which took us to the fairgrounds outside of town. This is where the locals had all parked. The motel vans were to meet us there, but since we were early they weren't ready for us. The upshot is that we wasted an hour standing around the fairgrounds before someone finally found a bus to take us to the motels.

That evening's lodging was at a Comfort Inn, a very nice property. We had dinner next door at the Day's Inn and enjoyed a real good chicken fried steak. The only downer was the smell of chlorine from the indoor pool adjacent. The rest of the evening was spent playing about half a game of Rail Baron before retiring early. Getting to the train the next morning was a lot easier than getting to the motel the night before. Boarding, again, was about 30 minutes before train time, and we left a few minutes late heading for Ft. Worth. An uneventful day (the best kind), highlighted by the intricate maneuver that got us into the T&P station in Ft. Worth. We had Tower 55 tied up for over half an hour and actually heard a Santa Fe freight make a reservation to get through the interlocking! A friend met us at train side and shuttled us to the Worthington Hotel, a nice place with oversized rooms. After a cocktail in the bar, we went across the street to a BBQ place and then back to the hotel to finish the Rail Baron game (which I won for the first time in recent memory). The only downer of the evening was that the hotel was also inhabited by teenage bible students with predictable results. A call to the front desk finally quieted them down at 1:30am, but it made the stay unpleasant.

Not only were we tired from the bible students the night before, but the train was leaving an hour earlier (at 7am) necessitating a 5am wakeup. Our friend was kind enough to shuttle us back to the train at 6am, and we boarded and were underway on time. After additional maneuvering through Tower 55 we were on our way to Houston on the MKT. This day's segment was sponsored by the Gulf Coast NRHS, and they were extremely competent even though they had little experience running such a trip. Things went very smoothly without any of the over assertiveness that characterized the Feather River folks. You could tell the GC people had their act together by the fact that they were extremely disciplined in their use of the radio. Most groups overuse the radio. These guys would say what needed to be said and then shut up! On this day we had three runbys, two of which were excellent (though I only got off for one of them). The last runby was the fastest one of the entire trip (starting in San Jose). I think Steve got her up to 60 during that runby. We had an extended service/PR stop at College Station right between the massive football and baseball stadiums of Texas A&M (on SP tracks). This was the only service stop that they let us off the train during the whole trip. We walked over to see the Amtrak shack (literally) and to get some ice cream at the Circle K. Then we reboarded because it was HOT.

We arrived at Spring Yard, north of Houston, more or less on time, and encountered the only foul up of the day (and it was minor). The shuttle buses were unlabelled as to where they were going (one of three different places) and, worse, the drivers didn't know either. This soon got settled and an hour or so later I was dropped off at Hobby Airport where I caught a shuttle to my hotel. Early the next morning I flew home on a Delta flight thorough CVG.

I thoroughly enjoyed this trip and came home feeling relaxed and rested (in spite of early morning departures).

Part three of this travelogue, will cover the return to Kansas City from Little Rock, AR.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

San Jose to Salt Lake City behind steam

Note: 1992 was a great year for steam excursions behind Union Pacific Challenger 3985. I was lucky enough to participate in three of them. The one described here is a run from San Jose to Salt Lake City. The next one was a run from Kansas City to Houston for the 1992 Republican National Convention. The third was a run from Little Rock back to Kansas City after the convention. This particular article is about the first of these journeys.

The 1992 convention of the National Railroad Historical Society was held in San Jose, CA in July of that year. Due to work issues, I only participated in the tail end of the convention and then rode the so-called "outbound convention train", a Union Pacific steam excursion to Salt Lake City where I caught Amtrak for Denver and then flew home. This is the story of that trip.

In Altamont Pass
On Sunday, July 26, 1992 we left San Jose on the train which was pulled by UP 3985 (the Challenger), and  which consisted of flat top coaches, a dining car, a lounge, a museum car, a concession car (former RPO), 3 domes, a power car, and a business car. The trip got off to a bad start at the Union Pacific's San Jose yard, with the train backing in very late.  We went to board near the front of the train and learned that the first two cars were reserved for a we walked down the train and got seats behind the second dome (I forget the car name).  Then they ended up using part of our car for yet another group.  The second group was from Mountain Outin tours and Let's Travel (combined).  As for other trips I've written about, they were a pain in the ass the whole trip.  Anyway we finally made it to Milpitas and sat for a while while the yard master got his act together.  We left late, which didn't much matter except that we got to Sacramento after the Milepost One bookstore had closed. There were two or three good runbys in Altamont pass, and according to some folks, while we were stopped somewhere around Milpitas people in one of the domes were able to see a woman on the second floor of her house cleaning in the buff.  Arrival at the hotel in Sacramento was about 5pm, we had dinner at Denny's and crashed for the evening.

Monday: we were in the dome and it was hot.  But the view was worth it.  I don't recall a lot of details about this particular day except that we were running early and there was a question of whether the busses would be at Portola.  So we had an extra runby and still got in early.  Speaking of runbys, Steve Lee apparently doesn't know how to do one.  He never did a high speed runby, never backed completely out of sight, and never pulled all the way past the runby site.  He also seemed to feel that two mediocre runbys were better than one good one at a particular site.  Oh well.  In Reno we went to the Italian restaurant, La Strada (at one point one of my favorite Italian restaurants), at the Eldorado. We enjoyed it quite a bit.  Then some gambling (I won $125 at blackjack...I subsequently lost most of it in Elko.)

Tuesday: longish trip to Winnemucca run by the Feather River folks.  We arrived at Portola and the train was sitting there, but we weren't allowed to board. When we did,  all of a sudden the cars we were in were for the "group". Since the passenger load this day was low they decided to cram us into a few hot cars instead of spreading us out and giving the A/C a chance to work.  On the plus side, their runby locations were fantastic.  We arrived in Winnemucca at a reasonable hour and had a nice dinner at the hotel.  Gambled a little and went to bed.

Wednesday: a short trip to Elko, with the usual Feather River circus just to keep us happy.  Two or three good runbys, fast running, and arrival at about 1:30.  Swam in a very hot pool, and gambled the stay away (and my winnings unfortunately). During the various runbys people had been warning us to look out for rattlesnakes. So during this long afternoon in Elko, my friend Rick and I went out in search of a baby rattle. We found one and used it during a runby the next day...but no one seemed to notice. Dinner was a $4.95 prime rib special at the casino. Excellent.

Thursday: a long trip to Salt Lake City.  The Promontory Chapter was quite refreshingly laid back, especially after the Feather River folks.  Quite a nice change.  But the runbys were mediocre.  A nice day though.  We arrived in Salt Lake City about 6:45 and had dinner at Denny's and walked to the Amtrak station (kid's don't try this at home...there were homeless everywhere).  The California Zephyr and The Pioneer were both late for various reasons so we decided to call before getting out of bed in the morning.

Friday: the train from hell to Denver.  Instead of taking the direct California Zephyr which went via the old Rio Grande route, we elected to take the Pioneer that ran from Ogden to Denver via Cheyenne.  This necessitated taking a connecting bus from Salt Lake City to Ogden.

We called at 4am to find out that the bus to Ogden wouldn't be leaving until 7am instead of 5:15, so we slept in a little and got to the station about 6:50am.  The bus was there, but it now wasn't scheduled to leave until 8. So we walked to Mickey D's for breakfast.  The bus eventually left at 8:30 and after the Zephyr arrived (also late).  We got to Ogden and our train was nowhere to be seen.  I think we left there about 10:30 over 4 hours late.  Reason: engine problems, an air hose leak in the dining car, and heat related slow orders.  I claimed a seat in a coach, and then joined Rick in his sleeper (he went to Chicago, I only went to Denver) to get a meal voucher.  The Wyoming scenery was prettier than I remember it. We lost more time at Green River when the cab signals in our single F40 died and we had to get a UP unit to lead us (this cut our maximum speed to 70, and made it impossible to make up any time).  We also hit some slow orders, and ended up arriving in Denver after midnight, almost 7 hours late.  I hightailed it outside the station to get a cab...and there were none in sight, even though the Zephyr had already arrived. I got to my motel near Stapleton airport and to bed around 1:15. About 2:15 the A/C failed  I slept fitfully until about 6:15, got up, got dressed and caught my plane to Pittsburgh. It left on time, was comfortable, and I could sleep!  As I told my friend at the time, "this may be my last Amtrak trip (unless I need the mileage)" (it wasn't). But this trip made me really down on them as I attributed most of the delay to poor maintenance, and just plain not caring for the customer.  Example: we finally arrived in Denver and people started to get off the train. All of a sudden the lights went off because they had taken the engine (which powers them) off the train without delay. I guess the engine crew wanted to get to bed. Great customer orientation.

I checked that night before dinner and the Zephyr (which took Rick's car onto Chicago) was 5 and a half hours late at Galesburg.

Amtrak has gone through high points and low points since it was founded in May of 1971. To me this was one of the low points. Thankfully things are much better today and I would not hesitate to recommend an Amtrak trip.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Front-Range Explorers

I'm starting to write this on Sunday, June 5, 2016 on a train headed from Glendive, MT to Sidney, MT and then on to Snowden, MT. This is the first known passenger train from Glendive to Sidney since about 1925 and a rarity north of there. The train, called the Front-Range Explorers, is the latest rabbit pulled out of the hat of Clark E. Johnson who along with his wife, Nona Hill, runs High Iron Travel Corp. We began the trip in Fort Worth on May 31 and will wind up tomorrow afternoon (June 6) in Minneapolis. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Last December, Clark sent out a mailing to the "usual suspects" (those who have traveled with him before) announcing this proposed trip. By mid-February, just as I was ready to leave for my Switzerland railroad tour, the details were firmed up and the trip was a likely "go" so I quickly signed up. As time got closer I made arrangements to fly to Dallas-Fort Worth on Memorial Day, and back to Pittsburgh from Minneapolis on June 7. Then it was a matter of waiting.

Well, not quite. Over the four years I have designed custom polo shirts for the various High Iron Travel trips that have run. The shirts have maps of the route on the back, and a trip logo on the front. Since the map will show you the route of the trip, I reproduce it here.

The Route of the Front-Range Explorers
On May 30, I took a bus to Pittsburgh International Airport, cleared security in less than 5-minutes (thanks to TSA Pre-check), and waited for my American Airlines non-stop to DFW. It both left and arrived on time and I was off the plane by 1:40pm. Some friends, Rich Copeland and Rob Mandeville, had agreed to meet me so that we could share an Uber to the Fort Worth Intermodal Transportation Center where we would board the train.

Amtrak's Texas Eagle leaves Dallas heading towards Chicago

Some of the "usual suspects" wait to avoid the Front-Range Explorers at Dallas
The day before, the cars and locomotives that would make up our private train left Chicago on the rear of the Texas Eagle. That train was due in Fort Worth around the time we would arrive so things would work out great--except the train was running late. That actually worked to our advantage as the three of us were able to take the DART (Dallas rapid transit) to Dallas Union Station (for all of $1.25 each) and board the train there after about an hour wait. This allowed me to settle into roomette 121 in the Cimarron River well before arrival in Fort Worth. Dinner was off the train and a handful of us went to a nice place, The Little Red Wasp where I had a very good shrimp and grits dinner.

The Front-Range Explorers in Fort Worth the night before departure
Our train consisted of two Amtrak locomotives, four sleeping cars, a dining car, a full-length dome car, and sleeping/open platform observation car "Caritas". All but the Amtrak locomotives and the sleeping car Cimarron River were painted in Illinois Central Railroad brown and orange.

Bright and early on May 31 we pulled out of Fort Worth headed for Amarillo, TX on the BNSF Railway (formerly called the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe). I had ridden the first part of the trip, from Fort Worth to Quanah as part of a convention of the National Railroad Historical Society in 2008.

After a good breakfast of bacon and eggs in the diner, we settled in for the long, hard day of watching the scenery glide by punctuated by lunch in the diner, and dinner and the diner, not to mention an afternoon restorative around 4pm. After passing through a torrential rain in Wichita Falls, the train arrived in Amarillo and some of us took the opportunity to walk around before calling it a night.

The Front-Range Explorers in Amarillo 
 On June 1, we headed from Amarillo to Denver via Dalhart, TX, Trinidad, CO going part of the way on the "Joint Line". The Joint Line gets its name because it is jointly owned by the Union Pacific (via it's purchase of the Denver and Rio Grande Western), and the BNSF. I had ridden all of this route on several previous trips, but it was well worth doing again. It was a beautiful day and I spent a few hours sitting on the rear platform enjoying the fresh air, the comfortable temperatures, and the mountain views. Due to a delay leaving Amarillo and some delays along the way, we arrived in Denver a bit late...after dark...where we were to spend this night and the next parked in Denver Union Station.

The Front-Range Explorers approaching Walsenburg, CO
View from the rear platform near Trinidad, CO
Denver was an off-day to give the crew time to restock the train, and the passengers time to explore Denver. In the morning a bunch of us rode the newly opened rail line out to Denver International Airport and back. Then we had lunch with local friends Joe McMillan and Steve Patterson at Union Station. At some point John Arbuckle from Hutchinson, KS joined us. He would be riding the next day to Gillette, WY and then returning to Denver by a rental car.

Denver Union Station
After lunch, Joe took Dave Ingles and I out for a quick drive to a grade crossing on the airport line we had just ridden so that we could get a picture of a train. A rather officious wanna-be highway official tried to shooed us away but not before we could snap a few photos while standing on public property (the sidewalk). After Joe dropped us back at the station we reboarded the train for an afternoon of relaxation. At 5pm a friend from the BARGE poker community, David Lawful, came into town to meet me for a beer. I gave him a tour of the train and then we went to a brew pub across from the station.

A train on the Denver airport line
Dinner was a banquet at the nearby Fogo de Chao Brazilian steakhouse. After eating too much, we passed a microphone around the room and all 70 or so of us had an opportunity to say where they were from and what they did. Since we form sort of an extended family, much of this was not new to anyone but it did give us an opportunity to thank hosts Clark and Nona, who have announced that this will be the last Explorers trip that they organize. (There is hope that a protege, Jim Fetchero, will continue however.)

Friday, June 3, was a major highlight of the trip and represented a significant rabbit for Clark. We traveled from Denver to Gillette, WY via the Powder River Basin coal line. I've written about this line before, so I will not describe it here. Due to a fairly massive decrease in coal traffic, this mostly mostly three but sometimes four track line from Bridger Jct. to Donkey Creek has significantly less traffic than when we visited in 1994, but it was still quite impressive. Perhaps more impressive, we were the first passenger train over this line (constructed mostly from 1972 to 1979) not counting official trains on railroad business. We probably wouldn't have been able to do this except for the decrease in coal traffic. Before reaching that line we traveled through Boulder, Fort Collins, and the Wendover Canyon. Due to some slow running and delays we arrived at Gillette just as the last (very faint) rays of daylight were disappearing. Surprisingly we were able to see most of the line in near-full daylight.

The view from the Dome car in south of Wendover Canyon
On Saturday, June 4, we traveled to Forsyth, MT via Jones Jct (near Billings) and Clark pulled two more rabbits out of his hat. In addition to being able to travel over the "rare" line from Gillette to Jones Jct, we actually had two photo runbys.2 The first runby had the Amtrak conductor initially flummoxed as she told me that she had never allowed a passenger to get off one of her trains away from a station. By the second one, she was fully into it. One of the reasons this is considered a rabbit is because we were tying up a mainline (for 20 minutes in both cases) while we did our shenanigans. But the railroad agreed to do it and had a bunch of very happy customers. We arrived in Forsyth around 4:30pm, right about on schedule and tied up for the night. Dinner was in a very warm dining car (failed A/C) and was followed by a half mile walk to the nearby Dairy Queen before it closed at 8pm (on a Saturday night!!!)

Amtrak conductor Mandy participating in her first photo runby
Runby near Aberdeen in Big Horn County, MT

Runby near Big Horn, MT on the Yellowstone River

I'm picking up the narrative here after having arrived at Amtrak's old Midway station (so-called because it is midway between Minneapolis and St. Paul) where the Front-Range Explorers trip terminated.

Shortly after returning to the train after the Dairy Queen visit, the head-end power (HEP) failed. HEP provides electrical service to the entire train. This was not a good thing. It would periodically come up for about 5 seconds as they tried to restart it, and then go down again. Finally it came up permanently. It turns out that the second of our two locomotives ran out of lube oil and had shut down due to overheating. The solution was to switch to using the lead unit for HEP. Luckily one of our passengers was an Amtrak engineer from California and knew exactly how to do that (the Amtrak crew was off in a motel for the night.) By the way, the reason we had two locomotives for a relatively short train had to do with Amtrak desiring redundancy far off their normal routes.

As mentioned in the opening, Sunday, June 5 was an amazing day as we traveled between Forsyth, MT and Minot, ND over some very rare mileage. It was a beautiful sunny day and the slow speed over much of the route was highly conducive to taking in the rays and shooting pictures on the rear platform. We arrived at Snowden, MT at a junction with the main BNSF line in the early afternoon. Since we were overnighting in Minot, ND -- where we would have to water and otherwise service the train in the depot, there was some concern that we would have to wait for Amtrak's Empire Builder to pass before we could continue on. This would have made for a very late arrival. But we were so early that we were able to leave Snowden almost immediately after a crew change. After servicing in the depot as scheduled, we pulled East into a yard across from a speedway well ahead of the Empire Builder's arrival. Dinner was in the lower level of the dome as the diner was oppressively hot.

The Front-Range Explorers in Minot, ND
Monday, June 6 was the last formal day of the trip. We left Minot in the middle of the night (3:15am) so that we could make Minneapolis before the afternoon commuter rush (or perhaps it was so that optimists could make early evening flights). I was a bit concerned about how well I would be able to sleep while the train was in motion (when traveling overnight it usually takes me a day to get used to the motion) but I need not have worried. Except for waking up briefly when we left Minot, I slept as well or better than I had any night of the trip...getting up about 7:30am. At this point we were well into another "rare" part of the trip. We were scheduled to take the Surrey Cutoff from Minot to Fargo which is not the usual Amtrak route but, due to flooding, has been used often enough that most of us had already covered it. We did, but instead of turning right at Nolan ND to Casselton and then up to Fargo (as is the usual practice) at Nolan, ND we continued straight ahead on the Propser Subdivision towards Fargo. This had been set up only the day before when Clark realized that it would be interesting to do so!

From Fargo we headed south to Breckenridge, MN on the Moorhead Subdivision, and then East through Willmar, MN onto Minneapolis. I was not sure whether I had this route or not because, in the early days of Amtrak, they kept switching between this route and the current route. Now I am sure. We arrived in the Minneapolis area just before the 4pm rush hour start and were in Midway station, shortly thereafter.

The Front-Range Explorers at the end of the trip at Midway station
Many of the passengers elected to stay on the train that night and either get off in the morning to catch a flight home, or stay on to Chicago after the cars were attached to the end of the Empire Builder. I and others elected to spend the night in a hotel prior to our flights on Tuesday. After saying goodbye to friends, three of us caught an Uber to our various hotels and then, took another Uber to meet up at a restaurant for dinner. Due to a momentary surge in Uber pricing, we used a Lyft driven by a very unusual tattooed young lady back to the hotel, arriving before 10pm and in bed by 11pm. Surprisingly slept better most nights on the train than I did in the Hilton.

Tuesday morning I awoke ahead of my alarm at 7am and was at the airport by 8:15 for my 10:00am flight home. I had heard  horror stories about lines from friends who fly regularly out of MSP, but was through the TSA Pre-Check line in less than five minutes (and it didn't look like the non-Pre-Check line was moving much slower.) My flight was uneventful but bumpy as we neared Pittsburgh. I caught a bus to the CMU area and another to few blocks from my home and walked in the door just about 2:30pm.

It was a great trip and I hate to think that it is the last such trip. I am sure something will come up in the future.

The cars that made up the Front-Range Explorers were added to the Empire Builder at Amtrak Midway, went on to St. Paul itself and left there 1 hour and 32 minutes late. Arrival, for those who stayed on to Chicago, was 1 hour and 37 minutes late at 5:32pm.

A roomette is a room for one person that includes a sofa, a toilet that doubles as a seat, a sink, and a bed that folds down for sleeping. 

A photo runby is an event that used to be fairly common on railroad excursions but that in today's litigious society has largely disappeared. It proceeds as follows: The train stops in a likely location usually in the middle of nowhere, the passengers get off and find good positions on hillsides or where ever, the train back ups, the passengers get quiet (hopefully), the train comes forward at speed past the passengers, then (if they're lucky) backs up to pick them up before continuing on the way.