Five things to know about Great Plains railroading.

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, May 29, 2010

Here’s an idea for someone wanting to break into print in TRAINS or  A feature story on industrial switchers along the Overland Route. Somewhere west of North Platte, Neb., today it occurs to me that I have seen more than a dozen of first-generation diesels living out third or fourth lives as plant switchers at grain elevators and agribusiness factories abutting the Union Pacific west of Omaha. The last one is a GP7 or GP9 in faded Florida East Coast colors, in the vicinity of Julesburg, Colo. The variety of names, paint schemes, and locomotive models is stunning, although the models tend to stick close to the GP7 prototype.
Okay, that’s my story idea. You write it, I’ll read it.
You’re probably wondering where my photos are today. I goofed. I get this story idea late in the day, and by the time I spy the former FEC diesel, I am seriously behind time on my quest to reach Cheyenne, Wyo., by cocktail hour. I’m sorry, but by late afternoon a Ketel One martini trumps an FEC Geep.
Four other thoughts gathered from 12 hours on the road today (and 24 hours the past two):
Attitude. Union Pacific has the rep of being a wee bit arrogant. After venturing west from its corporate headquarters in Omaha, it’s easy to see where this comes from. From home base to North Platte, 275 miles, the railroad now is signaled bi-directionally on double track (and triple track almost the final 100 miles into North Platte), with 50-mph double crossovers and movable-point frogs, every eight or so miles. These control points are easily a quarter of a mile long. Very, very impressive. And, oh, do they run trains.
Numbers. For those of you who keep count, I meet and overtake 60 trains today between the west edge of Omaha and the west edge of Cheyenne, roughly 600 miles. All but 10 are eastbounds. One thing surprises me: How few intermodal trains I see, relative to the coal and manifest trains. I enjoy distinguishing between international and domestic doublestack trains. The two types do not mix on Union Pacific (or on BNSF, for the most part).
Velocity. I’m not referring to train speed, but to Zephyrus, the Grecian god of the west wind. The farther west I venture, the more Zephyrus tries to blow me down. You either love it or hate it. I love it.
Point of view. Hey, this is a great country. Venture from eastern Indiana to western Nebraska and witness the incredible wealth that agriculture produces, not just for the farmers but also for communities and entire regions. Railroads share abundantly in this cornucopia. And so do our fellow citizens. I’ve been all over, and I cannot think of another part of America where small-town economies are as vibrant as you’ll see in this swath. — Fred W. Frailey

PS: The sixth thing to know is that it’s a whole lot easier to watch trains on the Overland Route than to photograph them. The latter I barely tried, because it was hard to achieve anything better than a wedge shot. To the right is my take on a westbounder entering North Platte.

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