West Texas railroading, then and now

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I well remember my first trip through West Texas on the Sunset Limited. It's early July 1972, Amtrak’s second summer, and I am headed east on No. 2. We get to Sanderson, then a crew-change point, and receive a train order reading something like this:
As that old song suggests, an irresistible force (the Sunset) met an immovable object (three sections of Southern Pacific’s Blue Streak Merchandise fast freight), and the Sunset had to give.
But we give way gracefully. As our train gets a fresh crew, First 45 is already coming into town. And the following two sections await the Sunset on the main track at Mofeta, the next siding east of Sanderson.
Those were wild ’n wooly days. Back then, SP pushed 10 to 12 trains each way a day between San Antonio and El Paso. Sidings were spaced 15-18 miles apart, and all but the westernmost 90 of those 600 miles were dispatched by written train orders handed up to trains by station agents. Some of those stations were 70 miles apart, so as a dispatcher, you had to call your meets right the first time and hope no train would fall down and destroy your well-laid plans.
Needless to say, train dispatchers worked their tails off. Train-order books I later retrieved from that era showed 50-60 orders being issued per shift. One dispatcher trainsheet for the San Antonio-Sanderson desk, dated March 6, 1972, contains this note scribbled on the margin by T.A. Stojanik: “Following trains delayed for orders account unable to talk fast enough.” Below that were listed 11 trains held at six stations.
The track then was jointed rail. One of the many tragedies of Southern Pacific in modern times was that it squandered money on the western half of the system, as the perishable business withered, while starving the eastern half of needed improvements in the midst of an historic traffic boom on the Texas and Louisiana chemical coasts. Ultimately, in late 1979, from East St. Louis to El Paso, SP Lines East fell into total gridlock, its epicenter being Houston. Untangling that mess fell to a new general manager named Bill Lacy, and to a young Houston Division superintendent named Rollin Bredenberg. They did untie the knot, in fairly short order. Lacy went on be VP-Ops of Southern Pacific, and Bredenberg today fills a unique role at BNSF Railway as the gray eminence of operations, or wise man.
Today I’m back on the Sunset Route, aboard the westbound Sunset Limited. We’re almost to Del Rio. Much has changed. Union Pacific owns the track (which is welded, by the way) and train orders long ago gave way to Centralized Traffic Control. What hasn’t changed is West Texas. This is the real thing: rattlesnakes, cacti, mesquite bushes, creosote plants, hungry sheep and cattle, and poor ranchers. To those few who will understand, we’re in Eddie Sand country, baked in sun and solitude. I love it

P.S.: The scenes are (top to bottom) Paisano Pass, west of Alpine; the depot in the former crew-change town of Sanderson, and the desert as seen through a window at Knippa, east of Sierra Blanca.— Fred W. Frailey   

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