Trainless In Livingston

Monday morning we found ourselves trainless in Livingston and with with a line up which didn’t show any activity until late afternoon.  We decided it was best if we cut our time in Montana short one day and travel while the trains were elsewhere.  In the end that was a good decision because we happened to run across some interesting items as we worked our way west.

First we stopped by the Story Mill north of Bozeman.   At one time this mill was severed by the NP on one side and the Milwaukee Road on the other.  Today the former NP line is a walking trail which is partially under construction including a refreshed underpass below I-90.  Apparently just before the economy went in the tank a developer had grand plans for a housing and retail center based at the existing mill buildings.  That would have been a terrific use for the mill buildings and surrounding land.  Sadly this didn’t happen and so the condition of the buildings continue to deteriorate.  Fortunately local residents have taken it upon themselves to keep the area clean until interest in the mill picks up.

West from Bozeman we decided to take the back road from Three Forks through Sappington and the Jefferson river canyon.  My travelling companions were thrilled.  They’d never seen the canyon as it is away from I-90 and off the beaten path.  Along the way we found NP boiler tube milepost signs south of Three Forks, jointed rail maintained for 40mph, a Milwaukee cross buck across the river (not used since 1980), and of course the spectacular scenery of the canyon itself.  The group agreed next time this would be a destination spot!

Just as we exited the canyon we heard a BNSF ballast train get a work between track warrant between Whitehall and the end of track at the Pipestone pit.  Cool, the chase was on!  Well, it wasn’t much of a chase but we did capture a few images of the DP configured Herzog ballast train west of Whitehall and just as the train arrived at the pit near Pipestone Hot Springs.  Thanks to all the flooding activity in the upper mid-west this line was averaging a ballast train per day and our luck had us in the right spot to see one!

After Pipestone Hot Springs we continue west over Homestake Pass into Butte.  Luck was again on our side as we came across the UP at Silver Bow, Mt.  We pulled in and watched as the UP crew went about setting out the hot autoracks for the Port of Montana.  In addition to the Port of Montana switcher, the BNSF local was in town.  Where else in Montana, do you get 2 class 1 railroads in one spot?  Nowhere!  It was worth capturing the two together before the BNSF train headed east to Butte cab hop.  Hmm, I never thought I’d say “cab hop” in 2011.

We thought it would be fun to photograph the UP train as it headed south out of Silver Bow but after chatting with the train crew I found it was going to be hours before they were ready to go so we decided to head for Washington.

Robert made a call to the Eastern Washington Gateway operations manager and found out that they were moving a 109 car loaded grain train east to Cheney.  Our best estimates had us meeting up with the train somewhere between Creston and Davenport.  Sure enough in the middle of the channeled scab lands we found the train poking along at 10mph.  The first photo was at Telford.

At Davenport they had to fill the sanders on the lead locomotive so they stopped for an hour to complete that task.   Once finished Steve pulled the train through town just as the sun set.  As usual with a small operation like this Greg stood by to roll the train by…just in case.

Our last effort for the day would be to set up at the top of the hill out of Deep Creek and listen to the 3 SDs and 1 GP7 pull the 109 loads up the hill.  It was a quiet night with only coyotes howling, dogs barking, and the sound of dynamic brakes whining,  When we first arrived the train was descending into Deep Creek.  Soon though dynamics switched to power.  Run 3, run 5, run 8!  The whistle for the grade crossing just down the way from us echoed all through the trees and canyons.  In a roar of fans, 645s and a 567 the 109 loads of grain passed us summiting at just over 10 mph.  Short line railroading at its best!

Bozeman to Big Timber

We chose to stay around the Livingston area on our next day and photography a couple of places we’d seen the previous day.  Sadly we awoke to less than desirable weather so our morning photographs were shot in a high overcast.  No matter we were chasing trains and that is better than being at work any day of the week!

While we ate an enjoyable lunch at the Northern Pacific Beanery in Livingston  the sun returned so we headed out to find an eastbound empty grain train.  It didn’t take long for us to run in to it near West End.  After a few photos there we moved down the pass and photographed it again just before Livingston.  It seems this year the grain trains were hard to find on MRL so this is one of the few we saw on our trip.


As the afternoon wore on the trains disappeared.  For fun we ended up wandering around Livingston photographing the town.  In the end we happened into a bar for an afternoon refreshment and some football.   Around 5:30 the Laurel Pasco showed up in town and had quite the conversation with the helper crew about the train’s need for extra power.  The helper crew thought they could solo but the head end crew wasn’t so sure.  In the end they decided to tack the helpers on the rear.

By the time the train reached Muir it was clear to me the helpers were necessary.  They were down to between 10-15mph.  The dispatcher set up a meet at Muir with an eastbound Pipestone ballast train which made us all wonder what would happen if the Laurel Pasco had to stop.  Fortunately it was a good meet and neither train stopped.  At 6:30 PM the glint light was just right on the Laurel Pasco as it crept into Muir at full throttle.

With sunset light on our side we hustled down to East Bozeman.  When we arrived the ML was in the hole with an SD45, SD70ACe, and a GP-9.  Let’s see here, 1950s, 1970s, and 2000s all represented in one engine consist!  After photographing the meet we paced the train out of the siding and used Mike’s recorder to capture the roar of 645 and 710 (the Geep was offline) prime movers.  What a wonderful sound!

After a few more photos at Muir we were off to Livingston to photograph the many neon signs in town.  For a Sunday night after Labor Day Livingston had quite a bit of activity.  This is definitely a thriving town despite the fact the railroad no longer has a large presence there.

Elliston to Reed Point

Day 4 we moved east into territory I haven’t spent much time railfanning in.  As a kid my family and I made numerous trips on I-90 from Washington east to Laurel, Mt.  I was usually glued to the window anytime we were near the tracks.  The result is I became somewhat familiar with how the railroad looked from Logan east to Laurel.  Rarely did we stop though so I never did get much railfanning done in this area.

Out of Elliston we headed east of Helena to catch our first train at Winston before sunrise.  Temperatures were in the high 30s.  Fall was fully underway in Montana!  We photographed a couple more trains as we proceeded east to the Livingston area.  Since it was still early in the day we decided to chase a coal train east.

Between Carney and Big Timber the light was 90 degrees to the track so we decided on a side shot with the Crazy Mountains in the background.  When we stopped I hopped out of the rig and walked up the road toward a bull who was enjoying the peace of his field.  He didn’t like my approach and stood to show me that he was the boss.  The rest of the guys got out and set up for the empty coal train and he continued to keep his eye on us the whole time.   Fun times with Montana railfanning!

Our next stop was Reed Point.  The funny thing is I think all of us took a liking to this place.  We wandered around and captured miscellaneous images of the town since it was so photogenic.  In fact it was so interesting we decided that a photo of the town with a train in it was very appropriate.

A train with a CN leader is something interesting so we decided it was worth our efforts to chase it west.  We captured it in the S curve west of Springdale, in Livingston getting helpers, on the climb up Bozeman Pass, and finally at East Bozeman at sun down.  This is another China coal load on the long road to Prince Rupert, BC.  It leaves the PRB and travels via MRL to Sandpoint.  Then BNSF to Spokane, Pasco, Vancouver, Seattle, Everett, and finally is delivered to CN at New Westminster BC.  CN then handles it north to Prince Rupert.  Whew.

One of my favorite photos of the trip was this photo of the coal train climbing Bozeman Pass.  The light was just perfect to highlight the nose of the lead unit and provide mottled light on the Absarorka Mountain Range in the background.  There are not many images that are more “Montana” than one like this!  Beautiful.


Elliston to Lombard

Day 3 was very cold and wet early on.  I guess that ended up being a good thing because there really weren’t any trains to be had.  Thanks to the MOW west of Avon train movements were winding down for the day.  The ML was pulling up to Elliston to add helpers so we ran over McDonald Pass and set up at Austin.  The timing should have been right for the train to drop down from Weed as the sun was coming up over the mountains.  Great plans!

We heard the ML come out of the tunnel in full dynamic.  We knew it would still be 20 minutes or so down to Austin so we stayed warm in the rental car.  The sun wasn’t out yet.  About 15 minutes later we hear on the radio “Did you do that?”  “No, wasn’t me”.  The ML went into emergency just about the time it was going to pass the signal at Weed.  Wonderful.  By the time they walk the train, tie it down, recharge the brakes and get going it should be another hour.  The good news is the sun isn’t out yet so maybe the delay will work out light wise.

Nearly 2 hours later the ML arrived at Austin and the sun wasn’t quite out yet.

After Austin we headed east and poked around Louisville, Winston, Townsend, and Toston seeing and photographing a few trains along the way.  We ended our eastward trek down at Lombard.  Lombard is such an interesting place with a wonderful history.  Today it isn’t much but to think about all the things it was really make it special.

As the day wore on the light improved significantly.  Also Helena started kicking westbounds out of the yard.  Back up to the pass we went to capture a loaded coal train grinding it out against the grade.  Of the 8 units on this train only one was a GE!  What a thrilling sound to hear so many 710s doing their job!  Thanks go to Robert for the inspiration for this image of the MRL helpers rounding Skyline trestle.

The goal for the day was to capture a westbound departing Helena in sunset light.  Most of the group had never photographed a train climbing out so it was high on our list.  We knew another coal train was called and had just started out to Helena Jct.   Perfect.  Our thrill was squashed a bit when the dispatcher told the coal train they had to wait for their helper to return from Elliston AND wait for a coal empty.  Great, it might be dark by then. We stuck by it though and were rewarded with the very last light of the day shining on the train as it headed for the hill.

Paradise to Skyline

Day 2 dawned damp and smoky.  No wonderful “Big Sky” today.  The previous night we made the decision to chase the gas local on its early morning departure from Missoula.  Upon arrival in Paradise we heard some tidbits on the radio which told us the gas local was going via St. Regis instead of the 10th sub.  Our goal was to catch it on the 10th but since it wasn’t going that way we decided to wait at Paradise and see what happens.  Soon we heard an eastbound out of Plains copy a track warrant from CTC Paradise to CTC DeSmet.  The chase was on!

Along the Flathead

 An empty rail train from Wishram, Wa. passes through Perma on MRL’s 10th Subdivision.  While a shorter route between Paradise and DeSmet its grades prevent heavy trains from using it.

When we arrived at Missoula it became quite clear that the maintenance window at Avon had things shut down on the MRL.  Nothing was moving and trains were being parked.  Thanks to a tip from Drew we knew the BNSF local was running up from Butte to Garrison to deliver cars to the MRL interchange there.  We decided to continue east and photograph the local’s return to Butte.  Since things were slow we also stopped off at Deer Lodge to see Little Joe E70 and made a visit to Anaconda to see the Rarus headquarters.  After another photo of the local we then took a driving tour of Butte.  Fascinating place for the railfan!

The end of the work day was nearing so we headed north again to catch the mess of trains on Mullan Pass.  As our luck would have it the sun didn’t cooperate with MRL’s plans.  2 more trains and an officers special passed before dark.

After helping a loaded grain train over Mullan Pass helper 3 sits in the siding at Elliston to wait for an officers special delivering Matt Rose to Seattle for a speaking engagement.