As many of you know, I’m not a morning person. However, the lure of four Rio Grandes and one SP-painted ex-DRGW on the front of February 3rd’s MRODV-2 coming into Denver during the day was just too tempting for me to sleep in. Finally catching them at Tabernash, I followed them back to the Moffat Tunnel in an annoying snowstorm. Upon getting back to Golden, who should I find in Clay but 5371 and friends, waiting for a meet with a westbound.
The West Side – Tabernash to Winter Park
To quote from another trip report, “Anyone who knows me knows I hate mornings. I’m cranky, irritable, and unproductive if you wake me up too early, not to mention I’m tired the rest of the day. There’s almost nothing that will convince me to leave my nice warm bed in the morning – except possibly the opportunity to catch D&RGW tunnel motors…” Keeping with this rule, when I found out there were five ex-D&RGW tunnel motors (The consist was, from front to back: DRGW5371/SP5412/DRGW5390/DRGW5389/DRGW5353/UP9797/NS9216/NS8603) on an eastbound MRODV (UP Manifest, Roper Yard to Denver), and that it didn’t leave Grand Junction until well after midnight, I decided to get up in the morning and try to catch it on the way into Denver.
The last time I’d checked before leaving Colorado Springs, the trace still showed Bond, CO, at 7:30am. Either he’d been tied down in the yard waiting for a crew, or was having a hard time getting to Kremmling. So, rather than spending half my day just sitting on the east side of the Moffat Tunnel waiting on it to come through, I decided to go up and over the Divide and go looking for it. Of course this typically means one had better get the timing right – if you miss a train on the west side, usually it gets all the way down into North Yard before you, the railfan, can get back over Berthoud Pass (US Route 40) and down I-70 to Denver again. Today that was going to be especially true – the radio was reporting snow up along the Continental Divide, so the roads would surely be iced and snowpacked. No mistakes allowed…
Everything went just fine until getting on I-70. The mass of skiers going into the mountains for the day had things plugged to a near standstill the entire distance Hidden Valley to as far as I could see beyond the point at which US 40 diverges to go over to Winter Park. It took nearly an hour to cover what normally takes only twenty minutes – more time lost. After rocvering from my yelling/ranting/raving/swearing moment (to myself, since I’m the only one in the truck) concerning skiers, freeways, inadequate vehicles, and driving abilities, I placed a quick call to Michael back in Iowa. This revealed a Kremmling trace at 9:30, just minutes after I’d finally gotten off I-70. Now it was starting to snow, and I was starting to wonder where the line between hobby and clinical insanity lay.
Berthoud wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d anticipated – yes, there was snow, but not much in the way of solid sheets of ice or snowpack yet. By 10:15, I was in Winter Park and headed northwest along the line as fast as safety/speed limits/prevailing weather would allow. One thing I took note of was a coal train, I believe lead by SP power based on what I heard on the scanner, just entering the tunnel. About 10:40, when I was getting almost to Granby, I got another call from Michael – 5371 traced at Granby, 10:17. (more obscenities deleted for readability 🙂 Now back to Tabernash, hoping I could catch up with him…
Sure enough, upon coming back to Tabernash, there was MRODV-2, sitting on the main (as Wes Cox just pointed out – not the siding, because that would have blocked the grade crossing in Tabernash). Parking well off the road at the west end of the bridge (as things were getting a bit slick at this point, I didn’t want any of the crazy idiots coming around that curved bridge, losing control, and sliding into Michelle’s truck [mine’s being replaced next week, it’s dying]), I walked back up on to the bridge and proceeded to blow about 80 shots on the sitting motors (Photos #1, 2, 3, 4). The only problem was the snow – both waiting for the waves of blowing snow to subside, and keeping it off the lens. Nevertheless, the location yielded some very interesting shots of all five units. Also of note was a police car that slowed down beside me on the bridge to see what I was doing, but as soon as I pulled the camera out of my coat he just waved and went on down the road. I would guess the law is used to seeing railfans in these parts.
After climbing back in the truck and warming my numb hands, I dumped all the photos off to my laptop in preparation for whatever the MRODV was waiting to meet. Based on the fact it was now nearly noon and MRODV had been in the hole for over an hour, I anticipated that the train in question was Amtrak’s #5, the westbound California Zephyr. I decided to head back to Fraser, in hopes of finding something to eat and waiting on #5 to show up. The whole food thing got nixed when I heard the crew of #5 call the signal at Winter Park. I immediately headed for the platform and got there just in time to get Photo #5.
I found a decent shot on the west side of the line where I could get MRODV-2 passing the Ski Train (which, as usual, was sitting in the siding at Fraser awaiting its return run), anticipating that as soon as Amtrak passed Tabernash, MRODV-2 would head out again. However, after finding out the hard way my boots were no longer waterproof and waiting far longer than it should have taken, I wandered back to the truck to get the scanner (yes, I know, I should have taken it with me the first time). After ten minutes, still no radio chatter and no sign of 5371. Rapidly becoming bored/anxious, I decided to drive up to Tabernash one more time and make sure the crew was still in the cab. I couldn’t imagine them stopping a train clear out here, but I have seen stranger things (mainly due to calamities further down the line – derailments, rock slides, etc…). No sooner had I gotten to the Tabernash bridge than I heard UP 7209 call the signal at Fraser, so I headed back. About halfway, I met 7209 and three or four other units, leading an empty coal train west. Anticipating this would be the train that did it, I stopped at the crossing on the north/west end of the Fraser siding, about half a mile or so north outside of Fraser itself. Within minutes, I heard MRODV come over the radio – “Leaving Tabernash on a green”. However, out there in wide open country, the winds were much stronger, making it hard to get a photo that wasn’t full of blowing and drifting flakes. (Photo #6)
On the way into Winter Park the first time, I’d decided there wasn’t much chance of getting a shot of 5371 entering the Tunnel. The pull-off for parking on top of the west portal seems to be used as a place for plows to push snow during the winter, and consequently I had no place to park and would have had to wade through deep snow to get to where I could actually get a shot. Ruling this out and knowing he had a substantial lead on me coming out of Fraser (due to slow-moving traffic), I’d all but decided to head for Denver.
On the drive between Fraser and (new) Winter Park, I was able to get ahead of him slightly. According to my track charts, the grade in this section is fairly close to 2%, making it a stiff climb. However, about half a mile north of the tunnel mouth there is a road diverging from US 40 to the right – Winter Park Drive, I believe. Following this a few tenths of a mile will lead you up to a parking lot (used apparently by more skiers and snowboarders). Conveniently, though, there is a grade crossing only a few hundred feet from the parking area. I parked, walked to the crossing, and got set up with plenty of time (3-4 minutes) to spare. Unfortunately, though, the snow was coming down much faster now, and the winds were gusty (Photos #7, 8). At this point, it was only a minute until they were inside the Moffat Tunnel on a much faster route to Denver. Still, I hoped something on the east side would slow them down a bit, and decided to head back for Denver.
The East Side
After seeing the amount of snow falling in Winter Park back in the first section, most of you familiar with Colorado can probably imagine the condition of Berthoud Pass and US 40. It took considerably longer going back to I-70 and the east side of the Divide than it did coming west that morning. Just up from Empire, CO, though, the snow stopped, the roads went from snow to just wet and then finally to dry. Maybe after I’ve lived here a few years, I’ll get used to this strange weather, but for now it still surprises me how rapidly it changes – for better or for worse.
I finally showed up at the Big Tens around 2:40, only an hour and 30 after leaving Winter Park. Sure enough, radio chatter started almost immediately, and while I couldn’t make out most of what was being said yet from the trains, I could tell there was an eastbound in Clay and a westbound at Rocky, and they were moving the meet up to Clay. Once I reached the bridge, I could see four Grandes sitting on the side of the mountain over at Clay, and a westbound UP manifest right under the Colorado 93 bridge moving through Rocky. I had hoped to catch the eastbound with the Grandes at the Blue Mountain grade crossing, but upon arrival I could see that the whole area was in shadow and it didn’t matter anyway – the train had already passed. I’m still surprised that I caught up with him at all, considering the road conditions and all.
With the sun in the southwestern sky, I decided the best bet for a decent shot was at the 80th Avenue crossing, just east of the east Leyden switch. After waiting a while, I finally heard the dispatcher tell a westbound that he was going to meet one in Leyden, and that the train in question had just left Rocky. Sure enough, looking over at the signals, they had just gone green-over-red, and four headlights were visible far down the grade to the east. Within a few minutes, BNSF 4453 passed with a westbound mixed (Photo #9). Still, there was no sign of 5371 in the siding as the tail of the BNSF cleared.
It seems I can’t ever sit at 80th Avenue without at least one other railfan showing up. Last time, it was Paul Z. and Matt, this time it turned out to be (first) Wes Cox and a friend of his named Warren, and then shortly afterwards Joe McMillan. Somewhere in the middle, 5371 and friends appeared on the siding, slowing to a stop at roughly the same place they did last time I was up here. Joe shared with us a bit of information the rest of us hadn’t heard yet – UP had suffered a derailment in Wyoming (37 cars and one 1000 gallon switch heater propane tank at Rawlins, WY, last I heard), and was rerouting some priority traffic via the ex-D&RGW Denver-Salt Lake main. Of course this meant no stackers, as they don’t fit through the Moffat Tunnel, but anything else would work. After almost 45 minutes of waiting, talking about anything and everything rail-related, and stopping with anticipation every time the scanner crackled, UP 6364 and three others showed up with a fast westbound intermodal (Photo #10). At this point, Mr. McMillan decided to head down to the 66th Street crossing, thinking the lighting might be much better down there. The other three of us decided to stick it out at 80th, hoping that something would happen soon. The sun was rapidly dropping towards a cloud bank (from the snowstorm I’d fought with earlier), meaning we’d probably be out of usable light by 4:45pm or so.
A few minutes later, 5371 was cleared to head on in to head in to North Yard, and left without wasting much time. The lighting at this point was still fairly good, and at last I managed non-snow-obstructed shots of the units in action (Photos 11, 12, 13, 14). Wes and I talked for a few more minutes, but I finally had to head for home – I needed to be back in the Springs by 6:30, and it was already almost 5:00. Four Grandes and one ex-Grande on both sides of the Divide in one day, and meeting more D&RGW list members – not at all an unproductive day.
This work is copyright 2021 by Nathan D. Holmes, but all text and images are licensed and reusable under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Basically you’re welcome to use any of this as long as it’s not for commercial purposes, you credit me as the source, and you share any derivative works under the same license. I’d encourage others to consider similar licenses for their works.