Boardman CoalI took a couple of days this week and drove to BNSF's Homestake Pass to walk several miles of the moribund railroad. On the way I encountered one of the Boardman coal trains that operate from the Powder River basin to the power plant west of Hinkle, Oregon. These are the only regular coal trains that operate over the Montana Rail Link (MRL).
Power is usually BNSF SD70MACs but because the west end of the trip is on Union Pacific the trains sometimes see UP (or SP) power also. When UP power is assigned it usually stays with the train for several roundtrips. At least once an SP C44AC was on one set for over a month. I often run these trains over the 160 miles from Sheridan, Wyoming to the MRL's Laurel yard. I usually don't do yellow but I made an exception in this case.
On Wednesday August 14, 2002 I first encountered the train at Reedpoint, Montana as I drove west on I-90. I stopped for lunch at the Grand Hotel in Big Timber and when I came out after eating the SPB coal train had caught up and was passing through town. Back on I-90 I again passed it then pulled off at a ranch access road west of Big Timber. I made the mistake of stopping at the first ranch access road in the area when the one I wanted was the second one about two miles farther along I-90. The second one has better scenery and better lighting at that time of day. But once I'd stopped there was no time to move on. I could have kicked myself for that mistake but took the following photo anyway. Power is two UP units, a BNSF SD70MAC, and a BNsf SD40-2 which is one of the "MRL Shuttle Units". The Yellowstone River is in the background.
I stopped for gas at at Livingston, MT. Livingston is where the MRL track (former Northern Pacific) leaves the Yellowstone River valley where the river turns south towards its namesake park. By the time I had poked around the yard and loco shops the coal train had arrived and stopped on the main to await its helpers for the climb up Bozeman Pass. An eastbound freight just off the hill was pulling into the yard. It had the five MRL SD45 helpers on its rear end.
About an hour later the coal train finally poked its nose out the west side of Bozeman Pass tunnel. The thick cloud of black smoke was just begining to show at the tunnel portal when I took this shot.
A quick about face got the units going away from me in the cut that leads up to the tunnel entrance.
I was hoping that the five SD45 helper units would stay on the rear end to help with dynamic braking down the west side or to go to Bozeman to help an eastbound up. But no such luck. When the last PGEX coal car exited the still smoking tunnel it was sans helpers. They had cut off on the east side to return to Livingston.
By the time I had walked back to the car the coal train was long gone. Since it is downhill from the pass to the Missouri River headwaters west of Logan, the coal train could make good speed. However I caught it and passed it again west of Bozeman.
Logan, MT is where the Northern Pacific's Homestake Pass/Butte route and Helena/Mullan Pass routes divide. Today the Homestake Pass route is no longer a through route. All westbound through trains make the northward bend at Logan to head for Helena. A local services the Homestake line and during the summer months BNSF and MRL ballast trains run almost daily between Logan and the foot of Homestake Pass.
Here is the SPB coal train at Logan, MT. The bridge is on the Helena main and the track coming towards the camera on the right is the Homestake line.
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