Union Pacific's beauty amid the beasts

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, February 23, 2011

You’re tooling westward down U.S. Highway 30, just west of Silver Creek, Neb., on a gorgeous February morning. Beside you, on the Union Pacific double-track main line, is a doublestack container train doing a cool 60 mph. You’ve been pacing this train for 40 miles and would be content to do so another 40 miles, which would put you in Grand Island. Then, on the railroad radio comes this exchange:
 
“Dispatcher, this is UP 1989 West. We’re starting to get flashing yellows. Is there something ahead of us? Over.”
 
“Yes, an intermodal train. Over.”
 
“Is there any way we can get our passenger equipment around it? Over.”
 
“Negative, 1989. Dispatcher out.”
 
Did he say “passenger equipment”? There’s no mistaking that. You’re almost out of gas, so you get a fill-up in the community of Clarks and return to the highway to see a headlight behind you. But wait! There’s a highway overpass close ahead, the perfect photo op. You make the turn, pull to stop near the crest of the overpass and jump out, camera in hand. By gosh, it is a passenger train. You aim and at the climatic moment click. Your camera responds, “Please replace battery” and turns off. Can you believe your bad luck?
 
Back in the car, you give chase while digging out a fresh battery. Fortunately, the mystery train catches a yellow block signal from the intermodal train ahead of it, slows dramatically, and lets you review it as you pass. On the front is heritage engine 1989, honoring the Denver & Rio Grande Western. Then come these 13 cars:
 
City of Portland (dome diner)
Columbine (dome coach)
2066 (power car)
Kenefick (business car, platform pointed forward)
Lake Forest (deluxe sleeper)
Columbia River (crew sleeper)
Promontory (exercise car)
Portola (deluxe sleeper)
Wyoming (deluxe sleeper)
Green River (deluxe sleeper)
Colorado Eagle (dome diner)
City of Los Angeles (diner)
Fox River (inspection car)
 
You get your first chance of a real photograph outside Central City. This is one pretty train, and it’s obviously on a deadhead run because the inspection car Fox River is empty as it goes by. At Grand Island there’s a brief stop for a swap of managers of operating practices on the locomotive, during which time an empty BNSF Railway coal train trundles overhead. Your last look is on the triple track outside North Platte. UP 1989 West is stopped behind the same intermodal train as both wait their turns into the terminal. That’s the last you see of it.
 
Your encounter turns out to be a sweet spot on a sour trainwatching day. Driving from Omaha to Cheyenne, you’re used to seeing 80 trains and sometimes 100. Today, the count is fewer than 60 of the beasts, not counting that beauty.
 
And UP 1989 West? It turns out to be a positioning run to Oakland, where David Connell, UP’s vice president of engineering, will begin one of his periodic inspection trips the following week. After all, he has 50,885 miles of track to care for, a task that consumed a capital budget of more than $1.6 billion last year. He’ll have his hands full on this extended trip, but wouldn’t you like to be along for the ride? —Fred W. Frailey

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