Adventures (and misadventures) on the road

Posted by Bill Stephens
on Monday, October 5, 2020

A Union Pacific coal train heads south on the Joint Line in the Powder River Basin, south of Bill, Wyo. Bill Stephens photo
I took an epic road trip last week to explore the Powder River Basin and the BNSF Railway and Union Pacific main lines it still feeds with more than three dozen coal trains per day. These days the combined volume, measured by the average daily train count, has fallen by roughly half since the peak of 2008. So I’m working on a story on what this means for railroads as natural gas remains cheap, more renewable energy projects are coming online, and more coal-fired power plant retirements loom in the years ahead.

I’m happy to report that the PRB is still a busy place. While there were lulls in traffic, there were just as many times when there were several trains in sight. 

Crawford Hill, on BNSF’s Butte Subdivision, remains a challenge for BNSF coal trains. Not long after I arrived at the summit at Belmont, Neb., along came a coal train with a pair of SD70ACe’s up front, an ES44AC and SD70MAC as distributed power on the rear, and a Crawford-based helper set consisting of an ES44AC and an SD70MAC. 

Beware of nettles in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Bill Stephens photo
Later on, while exploring the grade on Sawlog Road, I unwittingly picked up a bunch of souvenirs: Razor-sharp nettles that clung to my hiking shoes, socks, and pants. Nature’s equivalent of barbed wire, they are without a doubt the meanest nettles I have ever encountered. This is probably not what Fred W. Frailey had in mind when he dubbed Crawford Hill the “meanest mountain in Nebraska” in his landmark 1989 Trains Magazine story on the development of the Powder River coal fields.

More adventure awaited. I wound up getting lost in Dewey, S.D., a gravel road town at Milepost 494.6 on BNSF’s Black Hills Sub that just 10 souls call home. The population nearly doubled when there was a three-train meet that I showed up to witness.  

Calling Dewey a town is a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t think the population was actually as high as 10 unless you count dogs and cats. At any rate, my trusty Waze navigation app assured me that I could take a shortcut from Dewey toward Wyoming. Except that the dirt roads got narrower and narrower until Old Highway 85 – no more than two ruts through the brush – ended where a bridge was out. So I had to double back to Edgemont, S.D., and take the real (and paved) Highway 85, which didn’t reunite with the tracks until Newcastle, Wyo.

I shared this tale with Trains Senior Editor David Lassen, prompting him to wisecrack: “Perhaps we won’t be having you lead any Trains tours in the near future.” No, I suppose not.

My other trip failure: I brought the wrong USB cord with me and therefore could not connect the camera to my laptop. For the whole trip I felt almost as if I had shot Kodachrome and I’m waiting for the slides to come back via the U.S. Postal Service. I was not patient back in the film era and I’m even less so in the digital age. But at least nowadays you get an idea of what you shot based on the camera screen.

A BNSF Railway coal train heads south on the Orin Line south of Bill, Wyo., where a new wind farm is being built. Renewable energy has helped reduce demand for Powder River Basin coal. Bill Stephens photo
Those misadventures aside, I came away from the trip with what I did hope to find: A snapshot of what’s going on in the Powder River Basin. I drove into the PRB alongside BNSF in Nebraska from Grand Island to Alliance and Crawford, then on to Edgemont, and ultimately Gillette, Wyo. The next day was spent entirely on the Orin Line, the Joint Line where empties arrive, are quickly loaded with coal, and depart for power plants in Texas, the Midwest, and as far away as Georgia. I exited the PRB via Douglas, Wyo., and then followed UP’s Powder River and South Morrill subdivisions.

BNSF was the far busier railroad, as you’d expect since its PRB coal volume is more than double that of UP. There were times that would remind you of the PRBs heyday, like triple meets or two coal trains running side by side up Logan Hill.

Union Pacific is removing Track 1, one of the three main tracks on Myles Hill on the west end of its Powder River Subdivision. Bill Stephens photo
But there are signs of decline everywhere, from lines of stored power in Edgemont and Alliance to multiple sets of coal gondolas parked on one of the four main tracks north of Bill, Wyo. And on UP’s Powder River sub just east of Shawnee, Wyo., I stumbled upon a track crew that was lifting the rails of the now unnecessary third main track on Myles Hill, whose summit was among the higher points on the former Chicago & North Western system. This is likely a sign of things to come as traffic continues to decline.

For now the windswept grasslands of northeastern Wyoming remain the Big Show for coal railroading in North America. No one knows when the curtain will come down on coal, so my recommendation is to see it while you can.

You can reach Bill Stephens at bybillstephens@gmail.com and follow him on twitter @bybillstephens

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