Train-watching at Missouri Valley

Posted by Roy Blanchard
on Thursday, November 08, 2012

The town of Missouri Valley, Iowa, is 40 miles north of Omaha, Neb., on I-29. It's the site of some of the most concentrated and intense mainline freight action you'll ever see. And I make it a point to get out there whenever business takes me to Omaha. Such was the case the week of Halloween for the annual Union Pacific shortline meeting.

An ill wind blows no good, and I have an extra day in Omaha thanks to Hurricane Sandy. My home airport, Philadelphia, is closed, and I already changed my hotel and return flight accordingly.

So here I am with Dick Peterson, recently retired UP shortline marketing staffer, heading north out of Omaha in his black Chevy Tahoe, alternately reminiscing about the business car trips we've made together and talking about the track structure upgrades around Mo Valley, as it’s called on the railroad. 

It isn't long until we see our first train, a northbound mixed freight bound for Sioux City, Iowa, on the line up from Council Bluffs. It’s stopped at the home signal protecting the south end of the Mo Valley wye. Here, eastbound trains running via Omaha and Council Bluffs rejoin the ex-Chicago & North Western main line, which heads due east from its junction with UP’s transcontinental route at Fremont, Neb., all the way to Chicago. Mo Valley is also a crew-change point, where crews get on and off so fast the brakeshoes are still hot when they pull.

California Junction Photo by Roy Blanchard
At Mo Valley, westbound trains head due west, cross the Missouri River and run to Fremont on what is essentially a single-track railroad. At Fremont, double-track resumes, putting east- and westbound trains back on the same alignment. UP has begun the process of adding a second main between Mo Valley and Fremont, including a new Missouri River bridge at Blair, 12 miles west of Mo Valley. And that's why Dick and I are out here today. I want to see the work in progress, and he knows what's where better than most.

A 100-car manifest blasts by California Junction. Photo by Roy Blanchard
Our first stop is California Junction, where the Sioux City line peels off to the north. We’ve barely stopped at the crossing when we see a westbound headlight. I jump out of the car, Dick turns it around, and we’re ready to watch a 100-car manifest blast by. Dick points out the new subgrade on the south side of the existing main, built to accommodate the new double-track.

UP added crossovers and a third track on the approach to Mo Valley. Photo by Roy Blanchard
What’s new and different is what looks like a paved macadam road parallel to the ballast. The second main goes here, the idea being that the macadam will prevent the ballast from becoming one with the subgrade, promote drainage, and prolong tie life. A few miles east of here, about halfway back to Mo Valley, UP has added crossovers and a third track on the approach to Mo Valley: one track east, one west, and one for the Omaha line.

We chase the westbound as far as Blair, so we can see the preparations for the new double-track bridge. Then we head back east, and the parade has begun. A stack train, a short (50 or so cars) auto-rack job, and another merchandise train were all heading west, one right behind the other. Our Sioux City train is still holding at the south home signal, and coming up behind it is a Powder River Basin coal train bound for Northern Indiana.

In our brief hourlong tour of the area, we saw six trains, two of them stopped waiting for the four others — and possibly more — to clear up. No wonder UP wants that double track from Mo Valley to Blair.

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