Remnants of the Rio Grande

by Dave Abeles

I flew out of Newark, NJ on Thursday 08/17/00 bound for Salt Lake City, our plane landing just as the sun set over the Great Salt Lake.  I rented a car there, and drove south on I-15 into the growing darkness.  The flat, suburban landscape of Salt Lake proper soon gave way to looming, massive shapes, dominating the night sky. The sky was clear, I soon recognized that the shapes were moonlit mountains all around me.

It wasn’t long before I came upon the U.S. 6 interchange, and thus a turn to the east for the climb over Soldier Summit.  The flatlands quickly gave way to stiff grades, and I realized that the railroad was beside the highway as moonlight would occasionally catch the shiny tops of the rails.  I passed a several trains in the darkness too, westbound on the western side of the slope, and therefore under full dynamic braking for the trip down to Salt Lake. Eventually I passed Soldier Summit, and began the descent to Helper, UT, and the reason for my trip: the last bastion of Denver and Rio Grande Western locomotives on the old Rio Grande mainline.  The road passes right through Helper at the eastern base of the Wasatch Mountains, and as I neared the town, I decided that I had to stop out of pure principle. Things were dark and quiet upon my arrival, and across the yard through some cars I could hear power, but couldn't see anything. Off to bed I went.

The alarm went off at 6:30 a.m. (I learned to really appreciate the 2 hrs gained flying out there from the East Coast) and I headed for Helper. The Book Cliffs and the Wasatch Mountains form an impressive backdrop. As I pulled in, there were 3 of the anticipated Rio Grande SD40T-2's in the engine facility. About a half-hour later, 7 more pulled into the yard from the west, having drifted back into town after being cut out of the middle of a UP coal drag headed for export.

As I stood on the station platform in Helper, a UP employee approached me, and asked if I would be taking more photos.  I said “Yes,” and he then told me that I could stand on the small rise between the engine yard and the rows of stored cars on the far side of the yard if I wanted to, as long as I was careful.  I happily accepted this invitation, as it was early morning and the sun was at a perfect angle from that side of the engine terminal.

Amtrak also put in an appearance at Helper around 8:45 a.m. when #6, the eastbound California Zephyr, made a stop.  The train left as quickly as it had arrived.  However, freight crews were busy around the yard.  The switching in Helper seemed to consist of one of 2 things: either reorganizing the 10-15 SD40T-2's into various consists for pushing trains west over the Summit, or making up/breaking down the daily-except-Sunday “Dirt Train.“ This train ferries municipal waste, delivered from the west each evening by the Roper Turn, east from Helper to a dump on the Sunnyside Branch, out in the desert.  The Roper Turn also returns empty cars to Salt Lake.

The dirt train is well known due to its dependable mid to late morning departure from Helper and its usual power: 3 Rio Grande Tunnel Motors, running in a “pure” set.

This day was no different.  The combination of great light, scenery, and incredible power provided a memorable chase east over the desert.  Being my first experience with the Sunnyside Branch, it was somewhat challenging as I learned some of the tricks associated with railfanning the line.  However, I got some worthwhile results.  (It’s hard to go wrong with 3 D&RGW SD40T-2’s.)

Another interesting attraction on the Sunnyside Branch is the switcher at the destination for the dirt train -- an ex-SP SD9, painted in a neat paint job for its current owner. In a desert old as time, it's fitting for a dinosaur of the diesel world to tread there.

I chased the train back west as well.  There is a decent shot just east of Wellington, UT, from a bridge embankment for a road that goes over the tracks.  I caught both the dirt train and DVROZ there, the Z had run ahead of the dirt train prior to its leaving the Sunnyside branch.  Then it was back to Helper.  The rest of the day was spent chasing trains on the climb to Soldier Summit. Great shots, great light (till the thunderstorms come over the summit late in the afternoons) and enough action- especially when I chased it.  Afternoon light was spectacular on the yard in Helper as well. At the end of the day, I watched a crew assemble 6 T-2's and splice them into an 85-car westbound coal drag. I chased it west till a thunderstorm hit at dusk up at Colton, and I went to bed tired but happy.

On Saturday, I rose at 03:45 to drive 100 miles east into the desert to watch the sun rise at Sagers, UT, a location famous for fans of Mark W. Hemphill’s article “The Unknown Rio Grande” in the July 1985 Trains.  The experience was truly incredible, everything I had hoped it would have been. The desert is SILENT. It's like nothing I've ever experienced. No crickets or birds, no streams, no leaves for the breeze to rustle. There is the occasional truck on I-70, a few miles away. Other than that, one is alone with the desert and the railroad.

The sunrise was simply spectacular.

There's something about the Desert that UP (or any road) will never be able to take away. The Rio Grande is forever a part of places like Solitude, Thompson, and Sagers. The power may be different, but the experience is still pure Rio Grande.

The only train I saw out there was the RODVM with 2 UP SD70M’s, elephant style.  I spent the remainder of the day meandering west across the desert, looking for the dirt train (which had gotten out early, so I only saw its light power returning down the Sunnyside branch). The rest of the day was spent on Solider Summit's eastern grades. What a show! BNSF provided a number of photo opportunities, as did several coal trains and UP’s DVROM and DVROZ.  Midday, UP put 7 SD40T-2's into a massive 105-car coal drag. I chased that to the summit. The afternoon was spent chasing other trains around the area on the main.

I hit the sack early, victim of the 4-hour sleep the night before.  Sunday came all too soon, and with it the trip home.  This time I was able to view the western slopes in daylight—and I quickly realized that another trip would be needed!! For fans of the Rio Grande, it’s truly a spectacle worth traveling for.


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