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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
sunrise was simply spectacular.
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.
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.
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