Byron and Tammy came over on Friday evening and went with me on a train-watching excursion on Saturday. Iowa is in the middle of a cycle of hot and humid weather, and the forecast called for another day of 100+ heat-index. It was hazy and in the mid-70's when we left Indianola around 8:00 a.m.
Our first stop was at the bottom of Whitebreast Hill just east of Lucas to intercept a train that we'd heard on the Russell dectector as we were driving. It appeared through the early morning fog at 8:30. This turned out to be a coal empty, of UCEX and BN cars, pulled by BN 9444 and BNSF 8921. They rolled west past the crossovers at Shannon as we continued along Hwy. 34 in the opposite direction. Speaking of station sign places like Shannon (at the far left in the image), the BNSF is apparently replacing these nice large signs with smaller ones, so salvage your favorites before they're in the dumpster!
On the radio, dispatcher "SLY" was discussing the morning's work with maintenance people and finally said "Don't you want to know about Amtrak? Nobody's asked about Amtrak." He said he couldn't wait to tell someone that No. 6 was figured at Creston for 22:30, about 14 hours down. It sounded like we would not be seeing the Zephyr today!
We figured on being able to beat an eastbound, BN 9492, to Melrose (the old station sign has been replaced with a new puny one here) and pulled in there to wait. I could hear the dynamics on the coal load as the train came around the curve west of town, and they stopped at 9:35 before coming on through Melrose. In a discussion with the dispatcher, they indicated that they would wait here until a track inspector cleared up at the top of Albia Hill. They must have wanted a run at it today. We knew that the GALLIN, a westbound manifest, was out of Ottumwa by now, so we decided to go ahead and move over to Albia for both trains.
We got to old Maxon well ahead of the coal load, hoping that our manifest would come through first and not be blocked by the eastbound on the south track. It was a good meet (for pictures). The GALLIN arrived at 10:23 with an interesting collection of power: BNSF 4420, EMD 9001, BNSF 2236, BN 1538 and BNSF 8734. They were to drop engines off at various stations along the way, including leaving one (BNSF 2236) at Albia. While they were working on their engine setout, the load we'd seen stopping at Melrose made it up the "South Way". This train came by us at 10:38 with DETX and DEEX cars behind BN 9492 and 9649.
We drove over to the Albia depot (there's really no "depot" these days, just a yard office) area and caught 4420 again at 10:55 as they started down the hill, now with four units instead of five.
I wanted to check out the progress on the new Cargill connection to the BNSF, so we went up through Avery and cut across country, ignoring the "Road Closed" signs. The grading looked pretty much like it did when I came through here in June, which makes me wonder if they had some washouts during the recent heavy rains in southeast Iowa. We found that the new switch to connect into the north track at the county line road has been cut into place.
We passed through Chillicothe and headed into Ottumwa the "back way". When we reached the point where we could see the Des Moines River bridge project, a coal empty was passing over the span, so I reversed direction and went back west to catch the head end. Since there was a 10 mph slow order on the bridge, we didn't have any trouble getting ahead of them. We stopped on the road at a high spot about 11:35 and got some nice shots of the engines passing between us and the river. This train, an AEPX empty, had three units: BNSF 9975, 8885, and 8882. The haze from Iowa's humidity is obvious in the background of the image.
We drove back on the gravel to the entrance to the bridge project, where the railroad has put in a temporary gravel road to the Des Moines River bridge. The gate was open and several hard-hats were standing down by the bridge, so I decided to take a chance and drive in. The bridge, known on the railroad as "Four Mile Bridge", is about 1/4 mile north of the road. BNSF is removing double-track trusses and replacing them with deck sections. One truss and was to be replaced the next day, and the railroad had set up a 6 a.m. to midnight curfew for the work. Another section is to be done a week later.
After identifying myself and agreeing to not go near the tracks, I was allowed to get some pictures. Soon, a Structures Supervisor and I were discussing digital cameras and I ended up with a couple of addresses to send pictures to. The new bridge was lying on the ground south of the old one, new concrete supports were in place, and a couple of cranes were ready for Sunday's project. Here's a recent picture of Four Mile Bridge from the cab, courtesy of Don Lipsky.
We stopped at the Amtrak depot and were told that No. 6 wouldn't be there until midnight and that the reason was a "derailed UP freight". Sunday's No. 6 was to detour on the old CNW line to avoid the bridge work. Sunday's No. 5 would wait at Ottumwa until the bridge was open.
The first train we caught in Ottumwa was the local, 463. They started west from the yard at 1:15, with BN 2903 and BNSF 2200. Dispatcher "KRS" wanted to get an empty around them before they crossed over. They had almost too many cars to avoid blocking crossings, but they pulled down to the last grade crossing before the IMRL diamond and waited. I parked northeast of the diamond and walked down to the south side of the BN tracks to wait for them. The afternoon temperature was near 90 by this point, and there wasn't much shade from the signal bungalows.
The empty appeared at 1:27. On the point were BN 9585 and 9662. The train had new (1-00) UCEX hoppers. The local rolled next, at 1:40, crossing the IMRL on the south track and then going through the crossover to follow 9585. The local had quite a few Cargill tanks in the consist to drop off at old Maxon.
Using an arrangement Jan and I worked out, I'd left a walkie-talkie with Bryon and Tammy in the Jeep. Byron monitored the scanner while I baked in the afternoon sun. Just as the local was clearing the IMRL diamond he called to inform me that an IMRL train was on its way down the hill. I ducked back in what shade there was and waited. They were there almost immediately, a grain train with BN 9514, IMRL 216 and (ex-BN) CEFX 7118.
Tammy, Byron and I started back to the west and drove out to a highway overpass east of new Maxon where the BNSF mains separate to catch the DENGAL at 2:54. On the point were BNSF 4382 and EMD 9051. They swept around the broad curve by the highway and were off into the haze toward Avery.
From the radio we knew that a coal load was working its way up Albia Hill. Rather than bake in the sun at Maxon, we sought a shady spot by the south track where it crosses Benton Avenue (old Hwy. 34). The load, a DP train, came up the hill very slowly, trying the patience of some of Albia's motorists since the gates were down minutes before the train arrived (this picture was taken at 3:30). The train finally appeared at 3:34 with BN and BNSF cars and BNSF 8864 in the lead. Five minutes passed before the rear unit, BNSF 8949, reached us.
We knew of one more load headed our way, so I drove west on Hwy. 34 and then back down into Melrose for the second time today. This time we went west out of town on a gravel road and, after checking out a back-woods grade crossing, went back east a short way to MP 321.8 for pictures. This train was powered by a couple of older MAC's, BN 9661 and BN 9561. They were by us at 4:44 with a set of UCEX hoppers.