Looking back on DPM’s “finest railroad”

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, June 11, 2020

Three Black Mesa & Lake Powell E60C locomotives ease a train through the loading silos at Black Mesa, Ariz., in 1986, 13 years after the isolated, 78-mile, coal railroad opened. John C. Illman
The United States reached its peak railroad mileage around 1920, when there were approximately 252,000 route miles across the country. You might say it’s been downhill ever since, although railroad economists would tell you that’s a good thing.

But it’s also a good thing to see a substantial new railroad built, like what’s planned for remote northeastern Utah. There, a consortium of public and private interests — notably the railroad holding company Rio Grande Pacific (RGP) — is planning to build the Uintah Basin Railway, an 80- to 100-mile line designed principally to deliver crude oil to market, likely via a connection with Union Pacific near Soldier Summit.

Earlier this month the project took another step forward when it filed a petition with the Surface Transportation Board, seeking to begin construction in 2021. The latest estimated cost of the entire project is $1.2 billion.  

A brand new, heavy-duty railroad would be something to see. It hasn’t happened very often over the past 50 or 60 years. The last time came in the late 1970s early ’80s, when Burlington Northern and Chicago & North Western (with backing from eventual merger partner Union Pacific) thrust into the Powder River Basin seeking coal. 

But the news about Uintah Basin got me thinking about another “new” railroad, a rather famous one at that, built just a few years ahead of the Powder River boom. That would be the Black Mesa & Lake Powell, an electrified 78-mile private railroad (i.e., not a common carrier) built exclusively to take coal from a mine near Kayenta, Ariz., to the Navajo Generating Station at Page. The Black Mesa trains generally made three round trips a day, pulled by a fleet of six GE-built 6,000 h.p. E60C motors, later replaced by slightly newer E60C-2s purchased secondhand from Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (NdeM).  

The BM&LP was state-of-the-art in every respect, including its 50,000-volt power distribution system. Construction crews put the finishing touches on the catenary in 1973. Koppers Corp.
Isolated from the U.S. rail system and free from federal regulation, the BM&LP was, in the words of Trains Editor David P. Morgan, “America’s finest railroad,” as he headlined in an October 1974 cover story. Leave it to Morgan to boil a railroad down to its essence: “Black Mesa & Lake Powell is efficient because its train behaves just like a child’s O-gauge tinplate toy encircling a Christmas tree.” 

It’s interesting to look back at David’s embrace of the BM&LP. Here was a railroad nearly devoid of anything most railfans would consider interesting. It featured bleak scenery, uniform unit trains of coal, austere electric locomotives, substantial automation. No wonder I never went to see it.

But it was the railroad’s very purity that appealed to DPM. The editor loved steam locomotives and passenger trains, but he was a railroad intellectual. He could look past his emotions and appreciate the Black Mesa as a near-perfect expression of flanged-wheel-on-steel economics.

“If the lesson that Black Mesa & Lake Powell illustrates is widely broadcast and listened to and employed as a precedent, then the value of this desert industrial spur will far transcend its role of keeping lights on and the air-conditioners running in L.A., Phoenix, and Las Vegas,” wrote Morgan.

A complementary perspective on the BM&LP comes from Mark W. Hemphill, who, as RGP’s Uintah Basin project manager, is in a unique position to look back. Mark’s remarkable railroad career includes a nearly four-year stint as editor of Trains. Like Morgan, he can appreciate the Black Mesa on its own terms.

In the years leading up to its closure in late 2019, BM&LP relied on a fleet of E60C-2 motors acquired secondhand from Mexico's national railway, NdeM. Charles Freericks
“To me the BM&LP’s real analogy was the space program,” Mark told me. “Like the space program, the BM&LP was an engineering project done with a big appetite for grandeur and vision, and rethinking everything as informed by the latest and greatest scientific discoveries. The BM&LP reflected an ethos of the Sixties that ‘This time we’ll get it right and we’ll throw all the science and engineering we have at it.’

“Thus, it was electrified — clearly that wasn’t an economic necessity — and had in its design and execution very little in common with traditional railroading. It was supposed to be automated, a technology still ahead of its time (it didn’t work), and it used concrete ties, resilient rail fasteners, a completely new car design, and even had a mod paint scheme. It’s as if NASA engineers designed it.”

The Black Mesa & Lake Powell wasn’t designed to last forever. It ended operations in August 2019, when today’s costs of generating electricity with coal finally caught up with it. Photographer Charles Freericks was there just before the end, providing us with this fine view of a BM&LP train with three of those ex-NdeM motors. 

The railroad’s demise doesn’t diminish Black Mesa’s place in history, nor DPM’s estimation of it. Hemphill can appreciate what drove his predecessor’s thinking. “I think Morgan gushed about the BM&LP because he needed something to be positive about,” says Mark, “and because it was such a complete departure from everything railroading had done before.”

*  *  *

Amtrak's Amfleet cars were based on the self-propelled Metroliners, whose curved sides reflected the original plan for them to tilt when rounding curves. Penn Central car 880 leads the first New York–Washington revenue Metroliner run at North Philadelphia on January 16, 1969. George A. Forero Jr. 

A couple of weeks ago in this space, I wrote about the novelty of seeing three original Amfleet cars go into heritage rail service. I received an interesting response from our friend Victor Hand, railroad strategist and noted photographer, and it’s too good not to share:

“I was working for Amtrak in 1973 when the first new cars were being planned. I was given the assignment to determine what new equipment was needed, and spent several weeks using information on the condition of the various cars from the mechanical people to ‘cascade’ the best existing cars down through the system and see what was needed. At the time, there were some excellent cars that had come from UP, Santa Fe, BN, and Seaboard Coast Line. The rest was junk, particularly the Penn Central stuff.

“The result of the study was a need for 492 cars of various types. Bids were requested, and Budd came up with two prices. One would utilize existing jigs from the Metroliner production run, with the curved sides and small windows. Metroliners were designed to tilt on curves, and thus needed the curved sides to clear catenary poles. The tilting was never implemented, but the curved sides remained. The marketing people wanted straight-sided cars with bigger windows and larger luggage racks, but Budd said that would require new construction jigs and would delay delivery by three months. 

“I was again given an assignment to figure out the cost of delaying the delivery of new equipment by three months, and it was millions, so the decision was made to go with curved sides.

“About this time, I left Amtrak to go to the United States Railroad Association. A few months later I read in the paper that Amtrak had ordered 492 Amfleet coaches. I called up my ex-boss Harold Graham, VP of marketing, and asked him why he had ordered 492 coaches. He replied that the number came from my study. I pointed out that the study specified different types of cars. The next year Amtrak had to go back to Congress for a few hundred million more to buy diners, sleepers, and baggage cars.

“So that is why Amfleet cars have curved sides.”

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