During the week of June 13-19, 2009, Union Pacific and
Operation Lifesaver ran specials all over Colorado to promote grade crossing safety. The first sets of these trips were scheduled for the Western Slope, running over both the old Rio Grande mainline as well as on the North Fork Branch from Delta eastward. The train itself consisted of UP 1989 (the Rio Grande Heritage SD70ACe), UP E9B 963B, several UP passenger cars for the public, and UP AC4400 7250 on the rear. Grand Junction to Westwater – Saturday, Jun 13, 2009
On Saturday, 13-Jun-2009, the train made three runs from Grand Junction out west to Westwater, UT, leaving the Grand Junction depot at 0900h, 1200h, and 1500h. After the day’s runs were complete, the trainset was moved southward to Delta, CO, for Sunday’s North Fork Branch runs.
As I arrived in Grand Junction, the third of the Friday Operation Lifesaver runs between GJ and Westwater was already headed out of town, as seen here out at the west end of town.
I’ve always wanted the shot at Utaline, and given that the train made Mack ahead of me, I decided to give it a shot. The road out to Utaline from the freeway is rough, narrow, and a generally bad idea in wet weather, but nothing a small SUV can’t handle in dry conditions.
Obviously I wasn’t going to make the canyon edge before the special’s westward trip, but I did make it just in time for the eastbound return. Since I was basically sprinting from the car down to the canyon edge (a couple hundred yards over rough ground), I didn’t have a great deal of time to set up the shot.
The scenery through Ruby Canyon is – in a word – enormous. Unimaginably, indescribably enormous. It makes hundreds of tons of train look like tiny models, and humbles most who experience it first-hand. (And a difficult shot for those of us terrified of heights.)
Amtrak 5, lead by AMTK 25, left Grand Junction at 1610h, and was set to meet the Operation Lifesaver special at Shale. So, I figured with another westbound coming, I might as well just hold my ground and wait. In the meantime, I sat and watched these two lizards for a while.
About 30 minutes after the passage of the OLS train, Amtrak 25 and 119 popped out from around the corner with the westbound California Zephyr in tow.
Rounding the bend just east of the Utaline siding, Amtrak 5 is just about to cross over McDonald Creek and then hug the sheer cliff for the next quarter mile or so. It’s about three hundred feet or so to river level from my vantage point.
On the back of the Zephyr are two private cars, both formerly part of the real California Zephyr (the CB&Q / D&RGW / WP one). The two cars – Silver Solarium and Silver Rapids – are both now operated by California Zephyr Railcar Charters. The original neon sign on the end is particularly appropriate today, reminding us this was an original end car for the “California Zephyr”.
Amtrak 5, highball Utaline!
I started scouting for spots south of Grand Junction, to shoot the afternoon deadhead run from Junction to Delta. Along the way, I found this grinder sitting at Whitewater. Alas, the 1989 and OLS train didn’t leave until 1900h under cloud cover, and didn’t make Delta until after sunset.
North Fork – Delta to Paonia on Sunday, Jun 14, 2009
Sunday’s operations basically mirrored Saturday’s – out and back trips at 0900h, 1200h, and 1500h, but this time running up the North Fork from Delta, CO, where it connects with the Montrose Branch, up to Paonia.
As the line is usually the exclusive domain of coal trains coming out of the mines near Somerset, the chance to shoot a passenger train was too good to pass up. So, I headed on my first real mainline railfan trip of 2009, and what follows are the results. I caught both the final Saturday run out of Grand Junction, as well as the first two trips between Delta and Paonia. I decided to skip the third and final run, given diminishing light, but there are more than enough decent shots from the first two to cover the branch well.
With the first trip’s passengers loaded up, the train gets under way promptly at 0900h. It’s seen here on the new bypass, crossing over the Uncompaghre River. Passengers were boarded at the grade crossing near the west end of the new alignment.
The train made good time east from Delta, and with traffic and road construction, my next shot wasn’t until the west side of Austin as the North Fork Branch starts to climb off the flatlands surrounding the Gunnison River east of Delta.
Just east of Payne, CO, we see the first OLS run traversing a long zig-zag in the branch to gain altitude. The train looks remarkably small, especially when I’m used to framing up shots for the 110+ car coal trains that usually ply this line.
Climbing up onto Rogers Mesa, along Colorado Highway 92. Like most OLS specials, a large contingent of local police as well as a few UP Special Agents was out following along with the train, educating drivers that blew through crossings or anybody blatantly trespassing. I can’t speak for the UP SAs (didn’t try to strike up any conversations with them), but the local officers were all quite friendly.
A slightly different perspective and crop of the train at milepost 68.
With only roughly 80 minutes to make the trip out and then 80 back to Delta, the western end of the trip was at the Paonia siding. While the crew switches ends and gets their return warrant, other crewmembers are attending to a camera cable that apparently came unplugged during the trip. The cameras are positioned in the locomotives so that passengers can see what the crew sees.
The Operation Lifesaver specials weren’t the only special transportation passing through Paonia and Hotchkiss on Sunday. The Denver Post’s Ride the Rockies brought a couple thousand bicyclists through town as well. The riders started in Glenwood that morning, and the first group I saw came by just as the train was getting ready to head back on its first trip.
About fifteen minutes after arrival, the crew is on west end in AC4400 #7250, has their warrant, and starts the train back west towards Delta.
With the clouds starting to build in, I’ll take any shot of 1989 I can get in daylight – even if it is headed away from me (as seen here, headed into Paonia proper). The 1989 has been nicknamed the “Vampire Motor” by some of the Colorado Springs fans, on account of the fact it only comes out at night on the its usual MNYPU and MPUNY assignments. It’s good to see it out during the day.
Headed back west at the west end of Hotchkiss, skirting around the southern end of Rogers Mesa along the branch’s namesake North Fork of the Gunnison River.
As the train approaches a rural crossing between Rogers Mesa and Payne, a Mesa County Sheriff’s Deputy is following right along. Along the route, at least one officer was at nearly every crossing ahead of the train.
Heading away towards Payne and the loop down into Austin, CO.
At Austin, 7250 leads the way across the Gunnison River.
Continuing west through Delta, the train passes the town’s elevator and steps out onto the new bypass line. The original North Fork Branch continued on the gravel to the left on down to the wye.
The OL Special stopped at the west end of the bypass, just short of the connection with the Montrose branch. A healthy crowd got off, and was replaced by an equally large number of passengers for the second run at noon.
The line of folks waiting to get on the second run for the day, scheduled to depart at noon.
It’s not every day you see an E9B out running around on the mainline, so I thought I’d throw a shot in of the unit. UP 963B, actually built as UP 970B, was converted by VMV in 1993 into what essentially is an E38-2, with a 2000 hp 645 and Dash 2 electronics. It’s also capable of providing HEP (head end power) for the passenger cars, which is why it’s along on this trip.
Meanwhile, down in the Delta yard, the Montrose Local is working to pick up some cars in the yard. For some time, the train has worked down to Montrose on Friday, and then returned to Grand Junction on Sunday. The local is seen atop the Uncomphagre River.
UP 1526 (ex-SSW GP40M-2 #7291) and UP 1205 (built as Kennecott GP39-2 785, to MKT 385, to UP 2355) have the local well in hand as they get a warrant to Roubideau to meet a returning coal empty.
With another round of passengers loaded, the noon Operation Livesaver train departs Delta for Paonia, as seen from the US Hwy 50 crossing.
The clouds are really starting to build as the train comes through one of the famous curves above Payne
Heading away from me, towards Rogers Mesa through the S curve.
Passing over one of several fills that the line uses to climb up the west side of Rogers Mesa, around milepost 67
As the train climbs towards Rogers Mesa, the skies to the east are looking more ominous. Looks like there will be rain by the time we get to the end of this trip.
Over on the east side of Rogers Mesa, the train comes around headed for Hotchkiss
The peaks in the background are starting to get a little Colorado summer rain, complete with lightning. The prominent peak on the left is Mount Lamborn, and the one on the right is Landsend Peak.
The back end of the train, headed towards Hotchkiss
Passing through downtown Paonia. The rest of the town was filled with bicyclists from Ride the Rockies, so I found this off-the-route crossing to set up.
With the rain starting to fall and a mass of bicycles plugging up the road, I settled for this shot near Coburn as what I presumed would be my last shot.
I had to stop for the famous sweeping curve at the west end of Rogers Mesa. Even with bicycle and farmer delays in getting down from Paonia, I still managed to beat him here on account of a meet with a coal empty headed for the mines.
Okay, so I’m cheating. 1989 is on the rear, trailing as the train heads down the hill, but I still liked the shot.
Coming back down through the S curve above Payne
The special passes through downtown Austin, almost done with its second run for the day. I confess, this photo is a bit of Photoshop trickery – there are normally three bright, silver power lines running right through the shot. Clone tool to the rescue!
You just don’t see too many overhead shots of 1989 showing all the details, so I figured I’d put this one in here.
The new bypass swings off to the left in this shot, whereas the old branch used to run just to my right.
The second OLS train of the day returns to Delta. They’ll switch ends again, pick up one more load of passengers, and head back up the line at 1500h. That run, though, will only go as far as Rogers Mesa, as otherwise they’d have to wait for a load coming down from one of the mines. I decided not to chase the last run anyway, and headed back home at this point.
All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 40D using either a Canon 24-105mm F4 L IS/USM, Sigma 18-50mm, or a Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS/USM.
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.