Last Train at Ottumwa

Saturday, June 15



I managed to get away from the ranch near Pleasantville around 5:30 on Saturday, with a plan to see how the BNSF was dealing with flooding in Ottumwa.  I'd learned that the railroad expected to close their mainline across the state some time on the 15th.  I stopped once on the way south to Chariton in order to get a sunrise picture on the water-filled flats just north of Melcher.

From the radio at about 6:00, I heard that there was one eastbound headed for Ottumwa ahead of me, BNSF 9773.  After considerable equivocation at the NOC, this train was put on Main 2, "...final answer", at Maxon and continued through the flooded area on the south track.  A decision was made to put following trains onto Main 1, and the south track was taken out of service.  The only other train I learned of was another eastbound, BNSF 5831, leaving Creston at 6:30.

I stopped for coffee in Albia and checked out the helper power, BNSF 6198, 810 and 9793.  By the elevator was a Loram rail grinder.  I went down by the Relco loco rebuilding plant where a couple of used locos, BN 7929 and UP 2856, were parked on the south wye track.

As I drove over to Ottumwa, I heard the foreman at the IC&E diamonds talking to the Ottumwa side dispatcher and learned that there were two westbounds called but not yet out at Galesburg.  It sounded like there would be a few more eastbounds today as well, but they would only run trains as long as they could, then close Main 1 for the duration of the flooding, expecting to be shut down for about a week.

I parked north of the "ICE" diamond at 8:00 and walked down the former Milwaukee track to the diamonds where the BNSF crosses.  Just east of the crossing BNSF and City of Ottumwa personnel were building a berm to block the Des Moines River water.  Main 2 was already covered and the berm continued north of Main 1.  Water was building up around the crossing, flowing in from the west on both sides of the mainlines.   Just west of the diamonds the BNSF has an interchange track with the IC&E, and a trailing point crossover west of that.  This location is called "IC&E RR X" by the railroad and it is the meeting point for the Ottumwa and Creston dispatching districts.

I moved the Jeep down to the end of the levee and walked in to get a better look at the situation west of the railroad crossing.  A couple of BNSF workers were walking along and checking the depth of the water as it rose on the rails.  A number of others, with cell phones and serious shoes, were pacing and/or driving back and forth on the levee.  In visiting with personnel at the site, I was told that they could run trains with up to 6 inches of water over the rail head.  Quite a bit of debris, much of it railroad ties and lumber, was floating east and south toward the tracks.

I learned that the first eastbound, the one I'd heard leave Creston around 6:30, was expected at 10:00, so I found my way to a convenience store and then parked near the diamonds again to kill some time.  The flow of water into the area north of the tracks was pretty obvious where ever there was any obstruction in its path.   Across the rails from me a fawn grazed for a minute and then moved northeast across the water and rails, heading away from the river, but toward a heavily populated area.

In anticipation of the eastbounder's arrival, I left the diamonds around 9:30 and walked back down the levee.  Several propane tanks used to supply the switch heaters were adrift in the river current south of the tracks, but tethered with cables to keep them from heading down to Baton Rouge.  The debris buildup continued on the north side of the rails.  This material would become a major problem later in the day.  At 10:13, BNSF 5831 appeared at the gravel road crossing just west of the flood area.  5831 and the other lead unit, 5739, brought a set of BNSF tub gondolas into the water, moving fast enough to make a pretty good wake.  Shortly, they were called and told to, "pinch them down to walking speed".  In a little over ten minutes, the rear end came by with BNSF 9909 in DP.

One problem became evident as the train passed, and that was the "pumping" action of the wheels, water and debris as the cars passed.  It seemed that it would be just a matter of time before railroad ties would make their way under the cars as they passed, with potential for a serious accident.  Nebraska Division General Manager Boyd Andrew was on hand and surveyed the scene while plans were made to get some of the hazards away from the rails.

Initially, an attempt was made to attack the debris from the door of a high-rail truck.  However, observers on the levee noticed that when the high-rail's rubber tire contacted one end of a floating tie, it lifted the other end up in front of the truck's small railroad wheel.  The driver of the high-rail was alerted to the possibility of derailing the truck and it was soon backed out of the water.  By this time some larger material was buoyed far enough by the rising, moving water to almost get over the rails.

The next debris control effort involved a backhoe.  Once a key was located, the tractor headed down the right of way with one set of tires south of the rails and the other between.  This led to some interesting action as the tires slipped, tread popping, on the rails as the driver tried to get past the crossover tracks.  It was now 11:15 and the next eastbound was waiting to come through the water.  The crew was asked if they'd "...picked up your life jackets at Maxon?"  The work with the backhoe went very slowly, though it did manage to get hold of some ties and move them to the south side of Main 1.  Eventually, someone realized that this was going to be a hands-on job, and BNSF personnel were going to have to wade in to move the collection of ties away from the rails - something to consider if you're interested in a railroad career.

The backhoe was moved west to park on a grade crossing.  The operator said that the road was washed out and the tractor would have to return the way it came in, but they would wait until trains had passed.  At 11:46, the waiting train entered the water.  Leading was BNSF 9915, reflected beautifully in the flood.  Behind her was "executive paint" BNSF 9708, elephant style.  They took their UCEX hoppers very slowly through the water.  Slowly enough, in fact, that I decided to go get lunch.  I had time to hike the levee back to the Jeep, ask the National Guard for directions to get onto the viaduct, cross back over to the south side of town, go west to the Quincy Mall area, get Burger King take-out and return in time to see the unit on the rear of the train, 9606, go by just a couple of blocks out of the water.

I returned to the diamond at 12:45 and checked the rapidly rising water and the waders out on debris patrol.  The next and what turned out to be the last train, more UCEX hoppers, entered the water at 1:10.  The conductor was out on the "front porch" of BNSF 9136 with her camera as the big loco approached and we exchanged shots as the cab passed.  The pilot of this engine was dipping into the water, something I'd not observed with the previous trains.  The second unit was BNSF 6060, and BNSF workers were in the water on both sides to observe as the train passed.

I'd had more than enough sun for the day, and knew that it might take quite a while for the coal train to pass, so I went back to the Jeep and circled around ahead of them to watch from the shade on the south side of the rails by the first grade crossing east of the water.  To get through the flood, 9136 had to stop four times and wait while debris was removed from under the coal hoppers.  On the radio we were informed that General Manager Boyd Andrew had declared that this would be the last train and the line was closing.  At 2:30 the rear units came by the berm, but they then stopped one more time, with the trailing units on the grade crossing, for a dark signal up ahead.  The rear end had two engines in DP, BNSF 6142 and 5696.  It had taken an hour and twenty minutes to cross the water and move on through Ottumwa.

The minute the train passed, work began to block the rails of Main 1 and create a temporary levee.  I noticed that several of the numerous vehicles waiting at the grade crossing for 9136 to pass were pickup trucks weighed down in back with sandbags to help Ottumwa residents prepare for the coming water.

Closing the line left a number of trains and crews stopped somewhere along the route.  I knew from the radio that there were two westbounds out there somewhere, and that several eastbounds had been sent out of Creston when they'd thought they might get five or more trains through.  Among the stranded eastbounds were trains led by 8883, 5989 and 5844.  On my way home, I stopped at Halpin at 3:20 to watch one of these trains, a DEEX load which had crossed over to Main 1 and was now backing to park itself west of Halpin.  This train had BNSF 9859 on the rear, with the conductor riding to blow the horns, and BNSF 9870 and 8883 on the point.  Apparently the plan was to use Main 1 to park the trains and to leave Main 2 open for ISU trains and other traffic.

That's it!