Kolin Storage

Coal cars stored near Kolin, MT shimmer in the moonlight.

While Central Montana Railway’s bridges are unusable and under repair the CMR is storing cars where they can.  About half of the track from Moccasin to the former GN Judith River trestle is filled with coal cars of various ownership.  These long strings of cars stand out on the open prairie and are quite a contrast to the wheat fields that dominate this particular area.  Kristi from the CMR told me last month they have over 240 cars stored currently.  Nice bit of income for a shut down railroad.

At one of the grade crossings near Kolin I stopped when I noticed how the moon lit the sides of the stored hoppers.  I spent 10 minutes or so photographing this spot until the moon moved around to where it wasn’t shining on the car sides any more.


For me, one captivating aspect of railroading is sound.  You know exactly what I’m talking about.  Barking exhaust, thumping wheels, squealing flanges, rail contracting and expanding, horns, bells, and whistles.  Oh my!  Back in April I experienced one of the best sound shows I’ve heard in some time but  documenting without a recording is not easy.  Here’s my attempt to describe what I heard.

First, let me set the scene for you.   I’m on a desolate gravel road.  Since I left the pavement 20 minutes ago I passed a ranch a ranch which at 7:20PM appears abandoned.  I stopped a few hundred feet short of a grade crossing guarded by a pair of cross bucks.  Getting out of my vehicle I hear the ducks in a nearby pond chasing one another about (it is spring time!).

To my east (railroad south) I can see the track as it descends through a valley for about 2 miles on its gradual descent to Surprise Creek.  To my west (railroad north) the track is pretty much straight and is on a steady .6% climb to a summit near Geyser.  Nothing steep mind you but the train headed my way is 2X2 123 car coal train which will definitely need all 8 notches of throttle on this hill.  Oh, yes, there are crickets too.

At 7:20PM in April the sun is about to set.  The unseasonable warmth of the day is gone and I’m already feeling the coolness creep in.  There really isn’t any wind, highly unusual for this part of Montana.   East of me 4 miles the Surprise Creek tunnel and a bench provide a physical and sound barrier.  I won’t hear the train until it exists the tunnel.  I sit for the next 15 minutes in the relative silence.

Pretty soon I hear a distant rumble.  My coal train has reached the bottom of the Surprise Creek valley and has started the climb toward Geyser.  For the next 6 minutes the lead GEs begin overpowering the sounds I hear.  First the grass rustling disappears then the ducks.  As the train appears around the corner I begin to hear the whine of AC traction motors under the steady thump of FDL prime mover exhaust.   For the next few minutes exhaust sounds overwhelms me as the lead locomotives pass.  Next comes 123 cars laden which Powder River Basin coal.  Each one creaks and groans as is passes over the crossing.  Occasionally flat spots pass…thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk…at a pace equal to the 20 mph the train is making.

2 minutes later two GE ACs on the rear roar by.  Soon the exhaust sound begins to fade replaced by the high pitch of of AC traction motor whine.  For a few minutes I stand there soaking it in.  The train sound continues to fade but the drama of it is still fresh in my head so the sounds I pick out still remind me of what I just heard.  Slowly the relative quiet returns to my little spot by the tracks.

As I pack up my camera gear and walk back to my vehicle it strikes me how impressive that particular train passage was.  I’ve heard thousands of trains pass but somehow the atmosphere, train, and mental state all lined up to really leave an impression on me.  I should have pulled my sound recorder out.

Trains and Flowers

It amazes me every time I arrive in the dry, arid portions of the Columbia River Gorge and find flowers.  My mind always associates flowers with more moist conditions.  How wrong my mind is!

When I visited Maryhill in mid-May the Arrowleaf buckwheat and the various balamroots were in full bloom.  I spent the day hanging out with friends at this curve west of Maryhill and with the variety of rail traffic I was able to capture several of the flowers along with the train traffic.  Since these flowers are such a stark contrast to the sagebrush and usual vegetation out here I couldn’t resist.

My favorite from this cloudy day, is this image of a westbound coal train passing through the rocks west of Maryhill.  Not only is there a wonderful flower in the foreground but the rock cut is peppered with even more!

More Montana

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Montana April 2012

This week I’m spending spring break with my family in Central Montana which of course means you all get to see some BNSF Laurel Sub action here on dogcaught.  The good news is the action seems to be plentiful.

So far traffic has been much improved over the last two years.  I’ve seen…

1.  Daily Laurel-Shelby and Shelby-Laurel trains.  During the economic downturn this symbol was cut back and it seemed there was one train in one direction each day.  Back to one each way each day!
2.  Windmill blades.  A loaded blades train headed for Canada passed on Sunday.  With the Spion Kop wind farm in the planning there will like be more blades visiting these parts.
3.  Loaded coal for the Sweetgrass, MT interchange.  I’m not sure where the coal goes once it reaches Canada (probably Prince Rupert) but there seems to be a train every 3 days or so.
4.  Fewer slow orders.  Trains are getting over the road much quicker now.  The speed through Stanford has even increased from 25 to 40!  Sometime after July last year about a mile of concrete ties were installed in the canyon between Armington an Raynesford.

For the rest of my visit it looks like I’ll get to see the daily manifests, a coal empty and a load, as well as the lost local on its wanderings.  It should be a good couple of days of railfanning!


Empty Rawhide

As I sit writing this post we are getting our first good winter storm of the season.  Typical Northwest stuff with gusty winds and plenty of rain.  The remaining leaves that are hanging on will likely be blown away by this.  Oh, and my favorite part, weakened trees will now be selected by mother nature to meet their end.  All of this is part of the circle of life in the Northwest.

On a warmer, drier, sunnier day in the fall of 2009 I captured an empty coal train in gorge east of Bingen.  I took this photo on Day in North America 2009 and thinking about where we are today I’m amazed how coal traffic has changed.  Sure coal trains still go to Centralia but in just a few short years they won’t.  More trains now head north to Roberts Bank than ever before.  It seems like the stream of coal is stronger than ever with even more coming down the road tomorrow.  Good, bad, or ugly it means more trains.