April 26
Helpers at Albia

After some delay on this Saturday morning waiting to see what the weather was going to do, Jan and I went east out of Indianola to intercept an IMRL detour on the UP Spine Line at Beech. When we arrived, the signal to the north was yellow, and I watched it turn red as I drove across the wooden county road bridge just past the south switch of the Beech siding.

IMRL had been detouring due to flooding in eastern Iowa and on north up the Mississippi. On the scanner, we could hear IMRL trains receiving warrants on the Kansas City - Nahant line, but also heard several warrants given to MRL and CP power on the UP Spine.

The southbound detour rolled up to the south siding switch at 10:45 and paused briefly to wait for a warrant to go on south. On the head end of the train were MRL 352, MRL 107, GATX 7370 and MRL 354. They were on the move again at 10:52. The warrant sent them all the way to Allerton, so we figured we would not see any northbounds on the Spine line for a while.

On the BNSF dispatching channel, we learned that helpers were being used at Albia to push coal loads up the "north way" while the ballast was being undercut and cleaned on the less steep (normally eastbound) route. We decided to head over and watch this activity, sure to produce a bottleneck in the CTC section between Halpin and Maxon. We knew that there were some westbounds headed our way, and we ducked into Russell to wait for intermodal CHDV (formerly, and still quite often, called 65). We intercepted them at 11:58, with BNSF SD70MACs 9794 and 9728 in charge. It's unusual to see the MACs on anything but coal trains in these parts.

We went directly to Halpin, at the west end of the CTC, where an eastbound coal train was waiting clear of the crossovers for a westbound empty to come down the hill, followed by the helpers. The empty, with BN 9524 and 9642 in front of AEPX gons appeared at 1:03 and blasted by us with a friendly engineer playing a tune on the horns.

We needed to make a "pit stop", so we drove into Albia and got some lunch to bring back to Halpin. When we returned, we found the helpers had followed 9524 down the hill and were in the clear on the westbound. At 1:25, the coal load, behind BN 9626 and 9511, started through the facing point crossover onto track one. As soon as they had pulled their train past the signals, the helpers, BN 7250 and 5565, got permission to come ahead and couple to the rear of the black and white BN hoppers. They were on their way up the hill at 1:28.

An eastbound freight was waiting for a chance to come up the hill next, so we decided to go to the east end of the CTC at Maxon. Our coal train reappeared, having crested the grade, at 1:58. In just a couple of minutes, the UP "Syrup Turn" from Eddyville came around the curve from the northeast to exchange Cargill tankers with the BNSF. Its power today was CNW 4631 and UP 2227. They made a very quick pair of moves and were soon on their way back up the line.

We heard a new detector on the BNSF today - at milepost 298.9, which is just a short distance east of Maxon. The crew of the Ottumwa local also used a radio frequency that I'd not heard used around here before - AAR 51, 160.875.

The freight waiting at the bottom of the hill managed the north way on its own power and arrived at Maxon at 2:17. This was the SPOGAL, and had LMX 8591 and EMD 6302 on the point. The next train in at Maxon was the Ottumwa local, with EMD 787 (appeared to be ex-Conrail) and BN 2774. They had work to do in the area, including picking up the syrup cars and some ballast hoppers on the east passing track. The brakeman asked me what I was up to, and when I said I was just taking pictures of trains, he said, "In nine years, you can have this job." I figured that anyone who was counting that far ahead was pretty unhappy, and sure enough, I got an earful of his discontent with the railroad and his job. Shortly after beginning their work, the Ottumwa local switched their radios to AAR 51, putting them out of communication with the dispatching center in Fort Worth. Since the dispatcher was having trouble fitting all the traffic into the single track, and the local needed to use both tracks at the east end of the CTC, this led to some problems later in the afternoon.

Another coal load, with OWY 9008 and BN 5090 and 5034, had been stopped behind the SPOGAL and was waiting on the Ottumwa local to get up the hill. They'd been there since approximately 12:30. The helpers were on and it was ready to come up at 3:00. However, the dispatcher could not reach the local's crew. Even when others in the area figured out what channel they were on and told them to call in, they refused to change channels until their work was done. The coal load, with JE hoppers, finally made it up the hill at 4:15, followed by the helpers, which were cut off on the fly just east of the junction with the Des Moines branch.

By the time the local let others use the tracks, some westbound traffic was waiting. At 4:30, we saw BN 7937 and 5122 on a grain empty and fifteen minutes later came OWY 9012, UP 3781 and CR 546 with AEPX tub gondolas.

We drove back down the hill to catch the helpers and the next coal load. This train had BNSF 9743 and 9757, with green and silver BN gons. They pulled around the helpers and waited while they coupled up. They started up the hill at 5:15.

Another load was waiting west of Halpin, but it was time for us to head home. We caught one more train, an eastbound freight, at Lucas just before turning north from the BN mains. SF 2851, BN 2337 and 1597 attacked Whitebreast hill at 5:50.

That's It!

Bonus Section
A Visit to the Rio Grande Pacific

In conjunction with a local model railroad meet on April 12, friends Paul Speer and Dennis Williams had an open house at their Rio Grande Pacific, in Dennis' basement. Dennis describes the HO layout as "a train watcher's layout", with broad curves, long trains and lots of mountain scenery.

Here are a few images from the open house: