500 miles, 11 hours, 67 trains

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, December 19, 2009

We’re told the nation is in the grips of a terrible recession. Unemployment affects more than one in ten workers. Banks remain troubled. And so on and so on. I’m having trouble buying that idea, because I just crossed the state of Nebraska beside the Union Pacific Railroad, and baby, there’s no recession to be found along the Platte River.

Union Pacific’s Overland Route west from Omaha, the mother of all western rail lines, is one of the 1,001 things you must experience in your lifetime, and not just for the trains. Here is what you’ll see:

The finest railroad money can buy. From Fremont, 35 miles northwest of Omaha, to Grand Island, Union Pacific had been run by current of traffic over double track. In the past couple of years, UP replaced that system with Centralized Traffic Control, permitting bidirectional movements on both tracks. Now about every seven or eight miles you come across quarter-mile-long interlockings with signal armadas, crossovers, movable-point frogs, switch heaters, and rows of propane tanks — quite a formidable investment.

Lots of variety. I started keeping count just outside of Omaha, when a loaded coal train came by before dawn. By the time I reached triple track at Gibbon, 175 miles from Omaha, I had gotten to 30 (and missed a few, too). They weren’t all coal and doublestack trains, either. UP runs lots of mixed freights, and every so often, a unit automobile train or a super-hot Z intermodal train.

Congestion on triple track. A welder working on a switch and an eastbound train that kept going into emergency had the south track tied up near Gibbon. Behind the stalled freight waited three eastbounds. I paced a westbound with empty coal gondolas on the north track. Why was the middle track not being used? Wham! There’s the answer: an eastbound Z-train making every bit of 70 mph with LTL and United Parcel Service trailers.

A prosperous countryside. As viewed from U.S. Route 30, the wealth produced by agriculture along the Platte is prodigious. All the way to the 100th Meridian at Cozad, it’s one prosperous Nebraska community after another.

An experience you’ll remember. Just west of North Platte, at O’Fallons, where the coal line veers off toward the Powder River Basin, the train count stood at 56 (see top photo). Thereafter, the last 200 miles to Cheyenne, the pace dropped off. By then, you don’t care. You’re sated. — Fred W. Frailey

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