The great Texas desert (Day 5)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, July 17, 2009

     Going from Pecos, Texas, to the edge of Fort Worth is an experience everyone should have. Just don't do it the way I did, in the middle of summer, during a strength-sapping heat wave. Half a dozen years ago, when I began this annual west-to-east ritual of driving alongside Union Pacific's Texas & Pacific Route it was trapped in a vicious drought that had driven many sheep ranchers off their land. You would have to reach Sweetwater, roughly two-thirds of the way from El Paso to Fort Worth, before leaving what I called the Brown Zone. The drought ended a couple of years ago, and this summer the desert is in bloom, if you can believe that. Andy Yedlick, superintendent of UP's El Paso Service Unit, warned me to beware of vicious thunderstorms and flash floods. I would have welcomed a thunderstorm after the temperature topped 100 degrees well before noon.
     During the recently ended good old days, the El Paso-Fort Worth T&P Route saw roughly 20 trains a day, accounting for almost half of the train volume west of El Paso on the Sunset Route from Los Angeles. I'd guess the train count is closer to 15 right now, and on Day 5 I saw about half of them, including three westbound Z trains. I got behind an eastbound empty grain train leaving Pecos and for 100 or so miles, until just the other side of Big Spring, kept my distance, knowing that when it met westbounds I'd hear lots of radio chatter and this would alert me to an approaching train. Then the grain train waited in a siding for close to an hour, I caught up and there went my Early Warning Detector.
     What was unusual about these trains, plus other UP freights I saw later in Missouri, is that they all had one or two distributed-power locomotives on the rear. We've all grown accustomed to seeing DP on loaded and empty unit trains, or on really long, heavy intermodal or manifest trains. But Union Pacific has gone beyond that to slap rear locomotives on everything but locals. I know it makes train handling easier, because engineers can set and release brakes from each end, thereby cutting in half the time it takes brakes to apply and kick off. I suspect there is also a fuel-saving rationale. In any event, I liked the sight of those pushers. It's like the return of the caboose on every train.
     Watching the landscape change is a wonderful adjunct to train-watching. As you go east, the mesquite shrubs turn to mesquite bushes to mesquite trees. Then, east of Abilene, you begin to see what I call real trees, and finally hardwoods. For me, heading east, the thrill is topping a hill and going into the Brazos River Valley, where you think you are entering the land of milk and honey, because you are. Texas is a great state, even in the middle of summer.

     No photos today. I left my camera in the car and myself inside it, too, for the most part. Next year, I'll make this trip in spring or fall.
Fred W. Frailey

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy