Saturday came up calm, clear and very cold. Byron and I got an early start and were out of Indianola and headed south for the BNSF mains by 7:15. Down in the South River valley, the Jeep's thermometer showed three below. I'd checked www.amtrak.com to see how the Zephyr was doing and the "Arrival Status" showed No. 6 to be just 49 minutes down. I'd been alerted by Amtrak fan John Elliot that the passenger train would be sporting freshly-outshopped power today. On the way down Hwy. 65 we heard the KC dispatcher say, "...one out of Creston at 7:05".
At the junction with Hwy. 34 we turned east, crossed over the railroad, and from the bridge spotted a coal empty just off Whitebreast Hill bearing down on the tiny town of Lucas. I made a U-turn and we hurried west in hope of intercepting the train at a grade crossing. We passed up the Stephens Forest road, figuring that we didn't have enough of a lead on the train to set up for pictures. I took the next gravel road south off the highway and we rolled up to the crossing at 7:50, but found that the train was already upon us, coming out of the sunrise. I put down the window and got a quick shot off as BNSF 9860 and 8946 came past us and rattled off toward Creston with a set of AEPX cars.
We reversed direction again and drove back east into Chariton. In the yard we found a work train with BNSF 2362 and caboose BN 12155. Two units from a recent rear-ender involving two coal loads at MP 348 were sitting on the south side of the yard, BN 9227 and BN 9206. The third unit involved in the wreck, BN 9214, was apparently elsewhere. Around 8:30 we heard a warrant given to BNSF 9991 West over at Albia. We decided to find a good vantage point in Chariton and wait for one each way before moving on to the east.
The eastbound arrived first, at 9:00. This was an IPSX coal load pulled by a pair of old MAC's, BN 9498 and 9645 (the second number's somewhat of a guess). They slowly threaded through the ess-curves in Chariton and then things quieted down again. In a few minutes we heard the Russell detector (MP 328) announcement on the scanner for Main 2, "...four nine six axles...". After what seemed like a long wait, the westbound hit the detector. Byron said, "It said 612 axles! That's 150 cars!" The empty made Chariton around 9:30, DEEX tub and box gons with BNSF 9991 and 8852 on the point. Byron counted cars as the long train rolled through Chariton. Sure enough, 150 cars and two units. I wonder how they handle this eastbound? Helpers?
Byron and I headed east on Hwy. 34 and soon heard another train given a warrant from Halpin to Creston and headed toward us. We decided to try to intercept it at Melrose, just a few miles south of the highway and about half the way between Chariton and Albia. The train appeared in the distance just after 10:00, two older MAC's again, BN 9628 and 9523. They roared through the valley south of town kicking up great clouds of powdery snow around the DEEX tub gondolas.
Just before the train arrived in Melrose we'd heard another westbound clear its warrant up at Maxon. It was decision time - where were we going to intercept the Zephyr? I voted for the top of the hill at Albia and Byron agreed. That meant we probably shouldn't wait for another westbound at Melrose. We decided to sacrifice that one and move on to Albia. We kept hearing switching activity, "Okay. Set and centered.", on the radio. It turned out that we wouldn't miss the next westbound after all, they were busy picking up fuel oil in Albia.
At the Albia yard we found helper power, BNSF 9717 and 8845, parked west of the office. The empty we'd heard about earlier was out east on Main 1 picking up fuel tankers brought down from Des Moines. It was about ten 'til 11:00 and I was starting to get a bit nervous about being in place for No. 6, so we drove on out toward Maxon. On the way we passed by the head end of the empty with BN 9687 and 6385. They were picking up 14 fuel cars to set into the train in front of their empty DEEX coal cars.
We pulled up at Old Maxon and didn't have long to wait before we could hear the Zephyr climbing the hill. The locos sounded like they were pulling hard, making that General Electric "chuffing" sound. At 11:07 the passenger train rounded the corner and came parallel to Main 1. On the point, as promised, were two new GEnesis units, AMTK 126 and 135.
The California Zephyr had quite a bit of freight trailing the passenger cars today - a material car, seven boxcars and one roadrailer bringing up the rear. As you can see, we were left in a bit of a ground blizzard after the train passed! Byron and I got back in the Jeep just in time to hear from the scanner, "Good morning, Mr. Tinder, hope things have been going well for you..." We tracked conversation between the engineer and conductor for a while as we headed on over toward Ottumwa. Thanks for the "heads up" about the new station sign for the Cargill Spur! We heard Amtrak's times at Ottumwa reported as "27 and 38".
We came by the ISU power plant and into Ottumwa by the "back way". We'd heard IMRL train 112 getting ready to depart the yard and managed to intercept them at Quincy Street just as they were pulling out and stopping for the helper to couple to the rear for the shove up to Rutledge. On the head end of the freight were IMRL 363 and 220. They took the signal and entered the CTC for the BNSF crossing just after noon. The helper power was IMRL 610, an old SD all cleaned up and looking pretty handsome in the dark blue WIG paint scheme.
Byron and I made a quick stop for Burger King take-out and then crossed over the Des Moines River to head for the IMRL/BNSF diamond. We saw the Ottumwa Local going west on Main 2 under the viaduct with BNSF 2324 and a green GeeP. Shortly after we parked, just southeast of the diamond, 112's helper came back down the hill and clattered across the BNSF rails. While I was out by the diamond, I noticed the pattern of ice falling off of passing trains, west of the diamond on Main 1 and east of it on Main 2.
Our next train appeared at 1:40. This was a coal load, DETX, DEEX and CEFX cars, with distibuted power. BNSF 8891 was on the point, with BN 9716 pushing the rear of the train. We knew that a westbound should be showing up any time, and its headlight appeared beside the 9716 just after the load passed us. The westbound train was a DTCX empty powered by BN 9579 and 9418.
The next move through the crossing of the IMRL and BNSF was a UP coal load of MARX cars, up from Kansas City on the IMRL, probablyh destined for the power plant at Fruitland. This business used to be BNSF's but I believe it is now being done by UP. The coal train was split and doubled up the 1.6 % grade to Rutledge, with the first section coming across the BNSF just after 2:00, behind UP 8307, SP 126 and SP 185. Plenty of horsepower there - the train seemed to accelerate up the hill with ease.
The BNSF had the next move, a westbound manifest powered by BNSF 4332 and 8033, at 2:28. While the UP coal train power waited at the bottom of the hill to get back into the yard and pick up the rest of their train, the BNSF dispatcher ran another train. This was a coal load, mostly UCCX cars, with BNSF 8821 and 9770 on the head end. It turned out to be a very long train and to have a DP unit on the rear, BNSF 9890. We wished we'd counted the cars, since this seemed like it might have been another 150-car job. This train came by us just before 3:00.
After the two BNSF moves, the signals at the junction were lined for the IMRL and the coal train power came across and rolled back around the curve, across the river and nto the IMRL yard.
We decided not to wait on the second section of the coal train on the IMRL and started back west on Hwy. 34. On the way over to Albia, we heard an interesting situation beginning to develop out at Maxon. The BNSF dispatcher asked the engineer on a coal load coming up the south hill, BNSF 4872 East, if he'd be able to stop and restart his train at Maxon. What the dispatcher wanted this train to do was to pick up all the power from the Des Moines - Quincy train. This train was going to leave all of its cars in the west passing track. The crew was to be picked up by a Black's van at New Maxon.
We found the load, WFAX hoppers, passing in front of us at the Packing House crossing in Albia. By the time we got out on the gravel near Old Maxon, they were just getting the last car off of the crossing. We drove on out to the "Level B" road that goes to the New Maxon crossovers. It was pretty well drifted up at the top, but we plowed through without too much trouble and soon were parked south of the rails and looking at the power on the coal load, three GE's, BNSF 4872, 1114 and 4976. It was about 3:45 in the afternoon, and the sun was backlighting the engines to the west of us.
Just to make things interesting, the Ottumwa Local was west of this situation on Main 1, a CSX-powered coal empty was waiting on Main 1 east of the CTC out here, and there was another coal load waiting somewhere down at the bottom of the hill. The Des Moines train power, LMX 8553, BN 9222 and PRR (ex-Conrail, NS) 5290, was rolled up on Main 1 and spotted so that the coal train units could run east of the crossover and come back against Main 1 to pick them up.
Just before 4:00 the Union Pacific's "Syrup Turn" showed up with three units, UP 9967, CNW 5517 and CNW 5869, and three cars. This has to be one of the last runs of this train now that the new Cargill Spur's in place and the BNSF connects directly with the corn plant at Eddyville.
The two sets of power were coupled and lashed up, several brake tests were made and then the whole set was run back east through the crossover and backed onto the coal train. The plan was to get the six units and the WFAX cars east out of the way and to then cross the CSX empty over and send it down the south hill, since Main 1 was in use by the Ottumwa local. Once the CSX train was back on Main 1 and west of the CTC at Halpin, the waiting load could come up Albia Hill on 2.
Meanwhile, the Black's van had stopped at the entrance to the Level B road, where the driver called the dispatcher to say he couldn't get in there without getting stuck. I stood by the Jeep and waved. After reconsidering, he decided to go for it, and joined us down by the mainlines. The men from the Des Moines train boarded the van, with one crew member stopping to tell Byron that, "This morning everyone on this railroad took two 'stupid pills'." The loaded van took off back south through the drifts. Fortunately they made it out, since there's no way we could have gotten around them if they hadn't.
Byron and I drove back through the drifts and stopped at Old Maxon with the coal load stopped on Main 2 and the Ottumwa Local switching on Main 1 behind. The load started pulling but only got a few car lengths before we heard the air run out and the slack run in. The engineer called the dispatcher to say that they were "...in emergency, in the plant." What had happened was that a drawbar had broken on the old Conrail unit, PRR 5290. This problem promised to take quite a while to work out, since the lead five units would have to go east of the crossovers and allow the 5290 to go east, back onto Main 1 and then into the siding, the coal train would have to be reassembled, etc. This kept the dispatcher busy issuing authorities to pass the signals in the plant at Maxon.
The sun was going down, so we took off for home, monitoring the radio. Eventually, the Ottumwa local was put out of the way onto the Des Moines branch and the CSX train allowed to go downhill on Main 1. We heard 4872 get back on its train and the CSX train start down the hill around 5:30 as we were headed north toward Indianola on Hwy. 65.