Sunday, May 31, 2020

Railfanning made easy: Or, fighting cabin fever in the age of COVID-19

Railfan Trip Report, May 29-30, 2020


These are strange times, indeed. As I write this railfan trip report, a highly-contagious virus (for which there is currently no vaccine or cure) has kept most of us on “quarantine-style” lockdown for many weeks. The economy has, at least for the present, pretty much tanked. Cabin Fever has become a very real thing for many who have otherwise never experienced it.

I am very lucky. I continue to work full-time, from my home. For my wife, Jan, things have not been as good. She is on a temporary furlough which we hope will come to an end in a few weeks. All that time being off work, with little opportunity to get out and about, can make a person kind of antsy. It was time for us to hit the road. We are both remaining healthy and virus-free (at least as far as we know, what with the issue of asymptomatic people roaming about unaware that they’ve picked up the virus). So, we decided the sunny skies and warm-to-very-warm temperatures forecast for Friday, May 29, 2020, were reason enough to fight back against cabin fever. We would take a railfan trip over Stevens Pass, possibly as far east as Trinidad loop (east of Wenatchee). It began as a one-day, out and back strategy, but soon morphed into a two-day trip with an overnight stay in Wenatchee. We would avoid contact with others to the maximum extent possible, and wear cloth masks and sometimes gloves when appropriate. We could have a fun outing in each other’s company, and enjoy some great scenery and have a nice time together.

And get this – it was her idea to go railfanning. Although she is neither a railroad enthusiast nor avid photographer herself, my wife has often told me she thought it might be fun to chase and photograph trains, so she borrowed our son’s nice Nikon digital SLR camera, and we made all the preparations to spend a day or two shooting photos of whatever trains we happened to see.

For the first day (Friday), the forecast called for mostly sunny skies and highs near 75 at our departure point north of Seattle. We would drive up over Stevens Pass and work our way down to (and possibly beyond) Wenatchee, where the forecast also called for mostly sunny skies, but highs considerably hotter – as hot as 94. However, a storm system was forecast to move up out of California overnight Friday into Saturday, so our prospects for effective railfanning were likely to fall off dramatically at some point on Saturday.

I’m not nearly as experienced or knowledgeable about chasing trains or understanding railroad operations as most avid railfans, but I’ve been out enough times with a very knowledgeable friend to have learned many of the important strategies and methods for railfanning the Scenic Sub and out to Trinidad on the Columbia River Sub. I have a decent radio scanner, and we learned about the online radio coverage for areas on both the west and east slopes of Stevens Pass. We also found the Skykomish Railfan webcam to be particularly useful. Armed with all these resources, plus plenty of water and food, off we went. We agreed from the outset we would treat this experience like the so-called difference between “fishing” and “catching.” If we found trains to shoot photos of, great, but we were determined not to get our hopes up too much. The bar was set exceptionally low, so some manner of success was all but assured. We learned later that we could have set the bar extremely high, and still would have hit our target. It was a truly strange series of railfanning events over the entire 2-day jaunt.

Out of the driveway at 0530 on Friday, in our 2017 Toyota 4Runner (with 4WD, if needed), away we went. First stop, Sultan Bakery (currently they serve take-out only). After picking up the grub, we swung by the Sultan Public Library to park on the street and access their Wi-Fi. We pulled up some info on Amtrak 7’s westbound progress (on time, out of Leavenworth at 0608). As we popped out onto Highway 2 at Sultan, we immediately noticed an eastbound double-stack Z train we could chase up toward Skykomish. This was the first omen of what would soon evolve into the most bizarrely successful railfan trip I have ever experienced.

The Z train wasted no time heading up through Index, so we took a chance at catching a grab shot near Baring. We pulled off the road just short of Baring and banged off our first attempts of the day. Then we doubled-back to Index to wait for Amtrak #7. Our plan was to shoot the Empire Builder crossing the trestle at Index from the vantage point of the automobile bridge just upstream from the trestle. We had enough time on our hands that we drove around to the opposite side of the railroad trestle to scope out that angle (an afternoon shot) for a later attempt.

It’s now 0751, and Amtrak 7 arrives at Index.

Jan's first "railfan" photo - Amtrak #7 at Index
My shot from a few feet away

We bang off some pics as it crosses the trestle, and then we’re off to see if there’s any hope of catching up to the Z, which is being pulled by BNSF 4123, a GE C44-9W, and three GE ES44DCs: BNSF 7765, BNSF 7689, and BNSF 6225. By the way – I wouldn’t know an SD40 from a WD40. I’m getting most of these locomotive types from RR Pictures Archive – thank you to all who have posted there. 😊

Jan and I raced up Highway 2 thinking we might catch the Z-train at Scenic. We were a few minutes too late: the scanner informed us he reached Scenic about 5 minutes before we got there. So we pressed on, thinking we might try for a shot of the train exiting at the East Portal of Cascade Tunnel. We arrived in time, but access to the location appeared to be more restricted than I recalled from years past. We bailed out of East Portal, and charged ahead to catch him at Gaynor. Arriving there with only a few minutes to spare (and yes, the 4WD came in handy), we parked back in the trees and walked down to the trestle. After only a modest wait of 5 minutes or so, along came BNSF 4123 and friends. This was just a few minutes before 0900. We banged off some oochie shots of the train coming over the trestle, Jan got a couple friendly toots of the horn from the engineer, and then we jogged back to the truck. The chase was on!

Jan's shot of 4123 easing onto Gaynor Trestle

Scott's photo of the train arriving at the trestle

Scott's photo, Gaynor Trestle

An artsy-fartsy view of the train going away (Scott photo)

One old adage I’ve learned about railfanning the Scenic Sub: find a train, and follow it. Period. It’s nearly always your best bet. And so we gave chase to the eastbound Z. We figured he would move downslope quickly. The thought was to try to catch him somewhere past Leavenworth. He made Peshastin by 0950, but we were out ahead of him by then. We opted to hedge our bets and remain in front, getting ourselves in position for a photo-op at Monitor on Sleepy Hollow Road. The lighting should be good, and he’d be coasting toward us along the bank of the Wenatchee River. It’s an excellent vantage point to photograph an eastbound.

We weren’t parked more than 2 or 3 minutes, and BNSF 4123 began blowing his horn for a nearby crossing. I was going to set out a couple of folding camp chairs so we could sit and relax in fruit orchard country, but there wasn’t time. Once again, we arrived in time to get set, but no excessive time for sitting around waiting.

Our Z-train rounds the bend at Richardson's Curve at Monitor (off Sleepy Hollow Road)

After snagging more oochie shots of 4123’s Z train, off we went again. The train was long enough (276 axles) that he was still in sight as we doubled back along Sleepy Hollow Road – whoa! Great photo op for future reference: just as the road begins to drop down toward the grade crossing, there’s a great view of the train with expansive acres of fruit orchards in the foreground. Gotta store that idea away for later.

Time to proceed into Wenatchee to check things out at Appleyard, the traditional barometer of train activity near the transition between the Scenic Sub and the Columbia River Sub. But as we dropped down the highway into town, we glanced down at the tracks below and saw that #4123 had…. stopped! At one of the first available opportunities, I turned off the main drag and found a way back behind a business that had property butted right up to the tracks. We found the train had come to a stop just before the sign marking the break between the two adjoining subdivisions, Scenic and Columbia River. We thought, “holy cow, he’s just sitting there posing for us!” We jumped out of the truck and banged off more oochie roster shots, and then minutes later he got the green light to proceed toward Appleyard, and we banged off some more (hey, they’re only electrons – remember the days of 35mm film and photo-op frugality?).

Jan's roster shot as the train starts up again.

The Z-train striking a pose just before the switch-over from the Scenic Sub to the Columbia River Sub.

As the train slowly proceeds down to the crew-change point, the signal remains green.

4123 has tripped the signal in this going-away shot.
We picked up some chatter on the scanner about a westbound approaching Wenatchee, so we decided to hightail it east toward Trinidad to see what we were dealing with. Just after passing the Rock Island Bridge, the westbound rounded the curve. This was one of only a very few trains we ever missed a chance to photograph in two day’s time. Curiously, we picked up a detector triggered by another train in the area with a remarkable 458 axles. We couldn’t make out exactly where it was, nor what direction it was headed. This mystery train could be anywhere. We were on high alert, but without a clue where this train was or whether we had any chance to find it, we pressed on eastward.

We pulled off Highway 28 at the “Sand Pit,” a state DOT facility near the turn-off to Lynch Coulee and the Trinidad Loop. At the very least, it seemed likely that our primary “target,” the Z-train led by BNSF 4123, would come up from Wenatchee before too long. Still, it seemed we were in another great location to bust out the camping chairs, the ice-cold bottled water, and the snacks. Before I could open the back of the truck to pull out the chairs, I took a gander over the side of the hill to the tracks below.
A peak over the sand pile, and voila! Our "mystery train" appears
It was the mystery train! Once more, incredibly, Lady Luck was smiling brightly on us. A pair of GE ES44DC’s, BNSF #7461 and #6413, were pulling a long empty oiler up toward Lynch Coulee. I swear, we weren’t out of the truck 30 seconds and we found ourselves in perfect position for some incredible down-on photos of this remarkably long string of black oil cars snaking its way along a series of S-curves on the bank of the Columbia River. Jan wasn’t sure if I was joking when I kept telling her “seriously, this is not supposed to happen – railfanning is not this easy!” I could not believe how lucky we were and how our timing seemed almost fool proof.

Jan's landscape perspective of the oiler snaking around the curves

A vertical perspective at the Sand Pit

Without waiting to see if the oiler had any DPUs, we jumped back in the truck and zipped up the coulee for some photos as it trudged up toward the loop at Trinidad, and then as it rounded the curve and headed off into the distance.

I snapped a shot of the oiler struggling up Lynch Coulee on approach to the Trinidad Loop

Exiting Trinidad Loop, the oiler is seen with our trusty steed in the foreground

Another going-away perspective, with the gleaming empty oil cans rounding a curve just past the Trinidad Loop

After that, we figured #4123’s Z train would probably be along pretty soon. We drove back down the coulee to the small overpass on one of the most blandly named roads in the area, “Road W NW.” Not to be confused with Road W SE, I suppose. We finally pulled out the folding chairs and settled in for some lunch. It was now approaching 1130, and the temperature was in the low 80s. We managed to choke down some food before the Z train appeared. We hadn’t been there more than 15 minutes. I swear, I kept telling my wife “it isn’t usually like this!” I was becoming increasingly amazed at how simple this all was. Just run out to a good location, and WHAM! another train comes along. Jan was forming her own ideas about the nature of railfanning. I shudder to think how letdown she’ll be the next time out, if we keep having trains just fall into our laps like this.

The Z train led by 4123 comes into view as it climbs Lynch Coulee toward Trinidad Loop

4123 pulls its heavy load through a small cut and rolls under the overpass for Road W NW.

The double-stack train curves away from the Road W NW overpass and continues on to the Loop
We headed back to Wenatchee, thinking it was time to check Appleyard again. We decided to call “Julie” at Amtrak to confirm that Saturday morning’s #7 was running on time. They use some fairly robust voice recognition software, so we were surprised and frustrated when “Julie” repeatedly confused our station data request of “Wenatchee, Washington,” saying “I think you said Wausaukee, Wisconsin – is that correct?” But just as we crossed the river back into Wenatchee, I glanced to my left and spotted a locomotive with all his lights lit up, including the ditch lights. We had prey to chase! Off we drove through the traffic and stoplights of downtown Wenatchee. I was hoping this was our chance to catch the train at that promising new spot at Monitor, overlooking acres of fruit trees. As we made it out of town, it became clear the train had the advantage of us and Monitor was a no-go. So we pressed on and aimed for Dryden. There is a great spot to shoot a westbound train crossing the Wenatchee River at Dryden if you park on the shoulder of Main Street near where it intersects with Alice Avenue. But before this journey began, I had been pondering the possibility of shooting a train crossing the second trestle to the east of that one, as the train is about to enter Dryden. This would mean turning off Highway 2 onto Stine Hill Road and doubling back about a mile to an unmarked little side road that might put us into a public river access spot marked on the maps as “Fox Miller Public Access.” From what I found on Google Maps, it appeared a nice view of this trestle could be had by scrambling down by the riverbank. Having never tried this location before, I overshot the unmarked dirt road turnoff. By the time we found the correct road and made our way down to the public parking area by the trestle, the train was already there. Honestly, this turned out to be one of only about two or three “whiffs” that we endured in two days. Still, I’ll squirrel that one away to try again in the future. Before we pulled out from Dryden, we tried calling Julie again at Amtrak. She still thinks Wenatchee is Wausaukee. No, Julie, not even close (at least, not geographically!).

Now our best bet seemed to be to chase on up past Leavenworth and try to catch the train somewhere further west. I decided to aim for White Pine Road and the popular Nason Creek trestle. We arrived at the trestle feeling confident we had overtaken the train, but not feeling at all sure about how much time we had. We’re not in our twenties anymore, so it was a bit challenging for us both to scramble up the rock face to reach our preferred vantage point on the rock ledge above the tracks. I swear, we picked out our perspective to shoot the train, made sure our cameras were at the ready, and WHAM! it wasn’t 5 minutes and the train rounded the curve at the base of the rock cliff and crossed the Nason Creek trestle.

7112 creeps around the bend at the Nason Creek cut, peering at us through the tree branches

Coming into full view, 7112 leads its load across Nason Creek trestle

Jan snagged this shot at Nason Creek trestle, a popular railfan location on White Pine Road
Not being too eager to have to scramble back down the rock face of our “photographer’s roost,” I quickly spotted the well-worn trail no doubt made my many previous railfans that led us easily and safely back off the ledge and into a camper’s pullout off the road. I log THAT in the memory banks for next time, too. So much easier and safer than scrambling up and down loose rocks.

By now it was mid-afternoon, and with no other hot prospects we decided it was time to head back down toward Wenatchee. I told Jan that I wanted to check out what appeared to be a dirt road that we might be able to use to get us close to the Rock Island Bridge near the Alcoa plant east of Appleyard, near Malaga. This held the prospect of a perspective of the bridge that I had never photographed. So off we went, planning to head out on the Malaga-Alcoa Highway past Appleyard to do some exploring. But as we were working our way through downtown Wenatchee and were passing the Amtrak stop and BNSF’s typical crew change point, we spotted another westbound-facing freight with their ditch lights on. We had learned the hard way – do NOT try to get to Monitor ahead of a westbound out of the Appleyard area if he’s already moving and you still have to fight your way through all the traffic lights in town. So, without waiting for the train to start moving, off we raced toward Monitor to try for the shot across the fields of fruit trees on Sleepy Hollow Road. We arrived in plenty of time. In fact, we had to sit and wait for about 30 minutes, but he finally appeared, and we banged off some more satisfactory photos. Still, I would love to shoot a train rolling through there sometime a little earlier in the season, when the fruit trees are in full blossom.

Yay! I scratched this itch by catching a westbound across the fruit orchards on Sleepy Hollow Road.

Jan plucked this doozy as the train made its way through the grade crossing below us.

I shot one more photo of the train as it was leaving our view of the orchards.

With our intended exploration of access to the Rock Island Bridge near Alcoa aborted, we decided to try that again. We headed off to Appleyard and planned to continue right on past. However, as we neared the yard, we spotted another long string of empty coal cars parked at the east end of Appleyard. He appeared to be occupying the main, but his ditch lights were off. We could see the crew was aboard, and we soon heard some helpful chatter on the scanner. He was being cleared to depart eastbound. Thank you AGAIN, Lady Luck! We had time to race down the road to check out access to the bridge from that side of the river, and it looked like we would have a train in a few minutes to shoot as well. Off we went, but as we reached a point only about a mile out of Appleyard, here comes another westbound! We had no time to get any grab shots, but our heads were spinning. It seemed like the Scenic and Columbia River Subs were practically saturated with train movements. On we drove toward the Alcoa plant. Anyone who has ever looked into the site must already know what we learned the hard way: there is absolutely no access there, not even to the little dirt road that looked so promising. It’s all private property, and it’s all gated or marked for no trespassing. Bummer. But we knew the empty oiler was heading toward us, so we shot back toward Appleyard looking frantically for a good place to pull over for some grab shots. We found a spot and jumped out, and got into position. It was only a couple of minutes before a brace of GE ES44ACs led by BNSF 6349 and then BNSF 5906, with another unit in the mix that we did not identify, plus a pair of EMD SD70ACe’s (BNSF 9339 and 8561) came up the rise and split the signals.

Slogging through the tall weeds, I snagged this shot of 6349 straining to get up the slight grade out of Appleyard.

Jan captured a stealth train slinking through the weeds, as I braced for a signal-splitter photo.

Here he comes, splitting the signals at the grade crossing.
The time was now 1730 and still about 90 degrees. We rolled back into Wenatchee and picked up a couple of juicy bacon cheeseburgers to go from Bob’s Classic Brass and Brew, then it was off to our motel to eat our dinner, download the day’s photos, and settle in for the night. I plugged in my laptop and pulled up Amtrak’s “Track Your Train” web site. I wanted to double-check #7’s progress and ETA the next morning at Wenatchee (especially since Julie had seemed so confused earlier on the phone). We had discussed getting up early the next morning and racing up to Dryden to catch it on the trestle just off Main Street, which we calculated would be about 0545 (if holding to their scheduled time). You can imagine my confusion when the map, peppered with data on trains all over the US, was not showing ANYTHING for our #7 due into Wenatchee the next morning. The train was just gone! That’s when I pulled up the Facebook page for “Amtrak’s Empire Builder” hoping to learn some news. Did I ever. Train #7 had collided with a farmer and his tractor at a rural grade crossing near Bainville in eastern Montana. I saw some very depressing news reports that the farmer had perished and some on the train were injured and taken to the hospital. The lead locomotive was badly damaged (likely totaled), and the second unit and all seven Superliner cars (and possibly the trailing baggage car) were all on the ground, but upright. There would be no #7 pulling into Wenatchee in the morning. We turned in and agreed we would not rush to start our day. In fact, with the nasty weather moving into the area, we realized we had already struck gold on Friday, and maybe it was just as well that we grab some coffee in the morning and just head on home.

We eased into the morning. A quick review of the Skykomish Railfan webcam showed an eastbound recently passed through Skykomish, but we didn’t have enough info on it to do us much  good. But the skies over Wenatchee didn’t look too threatening. We had come this far, and had the whole day ahead of us, so… Off we drove to Appleyard to take a look-see at what was going on. As we drove along Wenatchee Avenue in the direction of the yard, we crossed Thurston Street and peeked down the road toward the BNSF office where crew changes usually occur. Ditch lights! They’re on! Facing westbound! Train Hype! We immediately doubled back and started heading back up the hill. We decided to get out ahead of this imminent westbound and start reviewing our options.

By the time we reached Dryden, we were somewhat amazed to see the morning’s eastbound freight from Skykomish rolling down toward Wenatchee. This had us thinking we could get well ahead of the WB we had spotted leaving the crew change point in Wenatchee, since our westbound might have to wait for the eastbound to pass. We decided to venture up the Chumstick cutoff. Neither of us had ever seen the Icicle Amtrak station just outside Leavenworth, so this seemed like the opportune time. A few minutes of moseying around Icicle Station, and we headed up through the Chumstick Canyon. With the already sketchy weather getting worse by the minute, we had long since decided any further railfanning on this day was unlikely, but icing on the cake if any opportunity presented itself. We heard rolling thunder as we pulled out from Icicle Station. We were in no rush today, so I decided to take Jan out to the Wenatchee River trestle to at least show her that location, and roll the dice as to whether the WB out of Wenatchee would appear within a reasonable time frame.

It was a relatively slow-paced drive through the rural countryside as we paralleled the Chumstick realignment that the GN put in back in 1928 (bypassing the snail’s pace Tumwater Canyon) in conjunction with the construction of the new 8-mile Cascade Tunnel. We reached River Road and made the turn toward our goal, which was a view of the BNSF crossing at the Wenatchee River. We backed in and parked below the elevated railbed at that location, satisfied that this was another situation where we could hang out for a little while and relax before our westbound train made it up the hill from Wenatchee. We kept an eye on the signals for the westbound, and I asked Jan to be sure to let me know immediately if she saw one of the targets turn to green. We had been there only 5 minutes or so when I decided to stretch my legs a little, and I clambered up toward trackside to get an unobstructed view looking down the line to the west. By the time I got high enough to see down the tracks, I saw it – the lights of a locomotive, eastbound! Train Hype! Lady Luck is still with us!

Our latest bonus train turned out to be a double-stack led by BNSF 8343, a GE ES44C4. Next in the lash-up was BNSF 7975 of the same locomotive type. BNSF 5788, a GE ES44AC, was next, finally trailed by another ES44C4, BNSF 6886. We both scrambled to get to our chosen spots. I “sprinted” (if that’s what you can call whatever it was this out-of-shape, overweight couch potato was doing) over to the riverbank to get some pics of the train crossing the bridge. Jan wisely stayed put and got her shots from a sensible position near our parked truck. Her decidedly more reasonable choice was rewarded by a few more friendly toots of the lead unit's horn.

Jan, from her sensible location, snapped a nice shot of the train at the grade crossing.

Down by the river bank and gasping for air, I managed to click the shutter as the eastbound crossed the Wenatchee River bridge.
I came back huffing and puffing, and we once again just shook our heads over how incredible our timing and our luck continued to be. I estimated that we had about 20 minutes before the westbound made it to the river. Sure enough, that’s just about how long it was when Jan suddenly shouted “green!” I once again “sprinted” back to the riverbank (you’d think I might be getting a little wiser about all this by now, but… no). We both banged off some more nice shots, then boogied it out of there. I predicted that if we made good time, we might just catch this train coming out the west portal of Cascade Tunnel.

Jan got this sweet shot as the train advanced across the trestle and approached the grade crossing.

Back near the riverbank, I snapped this shot as the train was emerging from the trees and starting onto the trestle.
Over the pass we drove. We did encounter some slightly heavier car traffic than I anticipated, but even the RVs were keeping pretty good pace. We made decent time going over the pass. Most of the higher peaks still had plenty of ground snow on them, and there were still significant patches of snow on the ground right up to the highway shoulders near the pass. We noticed the road down into the Wellington site was still closed, because of the access road's being impassable due to snow.

We turned off at the west portal and parked. We were able to immediately see the westbound train’s headlights in the tunnel, but it was clearly several miles away still. I explained to Jan that the tunnel’s bore was dug “as straight as a rifle bore,” according to accounts of its completion back in 1929. We watched as the light got closer and closer. We both snapped a few photos with our 200mm lens settings as the train’s headlights illuminated one of the rails for a long distance. Then we banged off a number of shots as the train emerged from the portal.

The lights of BNSF 7946, a GE ES44C4, shine off the inner walls of Cascade Tunnel as the train nears the west portal.

 The train is about to emerge from the tunnel's relative darkness, but into a decidedly cloudy afternoon sky.

Jan pegged this shot as 7946 led its pack of locomotives (and a short string of cars) out of the west portal of Cascade Tunnel.
The sky was completely overcast, but the rain held off pretty well at the portal. Then it was back onto the highway and a sprint to Skykomish. I knew the hairpin curve at the Foss River crossing (among other things) would slow the train down enough for us to get to Sky ahead of it, despite the fact it was now rolling downhill, and had a remarkable six locomotives pulling only 13 cars.

We parked across from the Cascadian Inn and I gave an obligatory wave to anyone watching on the railfan cam. We pulled up the webcam feed on Jan’s cellphone, and realized it was focused in the middle of its usual viewing range: neither looking left to the east approach into town, nor to the right and the west end of town. I tried pantomiming to anyone watching (and who might be managing the camera controls) that a train was approaching from the east. 


We decided to get our photos stationed near the town’s homage to the Great Northern Railway’s “Rocky,” a mountain goat shaped steel plate mounted on a large boulder. The train arrived, and we banged off some more good shots.

Jan's photo of the SIX locomotives (pulling only 13 cars!) along the fencing at Skykomish.

The Town of Skykomish embraces its railroad heritage, and the generational influence of the Great Northern Railway.    Rocky Lives!

I nab one more going-away shot as this unusual lash-up is about to trip the signals at West Skykomish.
Then we were on the road again, heading generally in the direction of home. But wait – what about that location we scouted out on Friday at Index, from the south side of the RR bridge? It was a solid overcast, so the sun angle wasn’t really an issue. If only the rain would hold off for us …  We charged (safely, at no faster than the posted speed limits) down to Index and flew around the side streets in town on only two wheels (well, sort of) and parked by the riverbank. Our luck with the weather gods finally petered out. It began to rain, rather insistently. But we arrived in time and got into position. Within only a few minutes, the train was upon us. We banged out a few more shots as it crossed the river.

One last photo of 7946 and his pals as they cross the trestle at Index - in the pouring rain.
Content that we had succeeded in squeezing the last bit of good fortune out of the weekend, we finally decided that was the last of the railfanning for this trip and we continued on home.

I don’t know if I should take my wife out railfanning ever again. On the one hand, you could say she was an incredible good-luck charm. On the other hand, she’s going to think all railfanning is this easy, and will forevermore be thoroughly underwhelmed by any future trips we might take. Decisions, decisions… But in the end, we got the better of Cabin Fever (take THAT, quarantine!).

Yeah, I'd go railfanning with my wife anytime. That was fun! Thanks, sweetie!


Sunday, July 10, 2016

The first electric locomotives on the Great Northern Railway

Magazine advertisement, McClure's Magazine, 1900

On July 10th, 1909, the Great Northern Railway began electrified operations in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. But before the electric motors went into service, the GN had to get their trains over the Cascades via a series of switchbacks. This was a terrible waste of time and effort (but at the time, it was unavoidable). In 1900, the GN opened a tunnel of about 2.5 miles in length.
 
This tunnel eliminated the switchbacks. However, the combination of heat and smoke emitted by steam trains operating through this first Cascade Tunnel was so overwhelming that engine crews and even passengers were overcome. So in 1909, an electricity-producing power plant was built on the Wenatchee River not far from Leavenworth, and a section of the line about 4 miles long was electrified through the first Cascade Tunnel.

Cover of GE Bulletin No. 4755, dated June, 1910


Here are a few images and historic descriptions of this electrification effort.

On August 27, 1909, a trade publication called Railway World published the following explanation of the GN’s strategy to electrify the 4-mile section of their operations over the Cascade Mountains:

This tunnel has always been a nightmare to passengers and to trainmen. It required an hour after each train passed to clear it of smoke sufficiently to pass the next, and its capacity was thus limited to twenty-four a day. To remedy this, a river beside which the railway runs has been dammed twenty-four miles from the tunnel and harnessed to an electric generator. Four electric locomotives are in service and trains can now be sent through – with comfort to the passengers – as often as the speed regulations will permit.




On November 14, 1908, the Railway and Engineering Review published this article about the GN electrification project:

               The General Electric Co. has completed several electric locomotives for the Great Northern Ry. on its order for rolling equipment for the Cascade Tunnel section of the road. This part of the line is now in process of electrification and the electric locomotives will be used for hauling both freight and passenger trains through the tunnel and over the heavy grades adjacent. The length of this tunnel—about 2 3/8 miles—together with the fact that it is unequipped with ventilating shafts of any description, has rendered the employment of some motive power other than the steam locomotive almost a necessity. In addition to the danger arising from the gases emitted by steam locomotives, and the possible obscuring of signal light by smoke, the accumulation of sooty matter has given rise to a slipperiness of the rails that materially increases the difficulties of the grade, which, throughout the tunnel, is 1.7 per cent.

               To meet the requirements of the traffic, four of the electric locomotives have been ordered. Each of these units will have a weight of approximately 113 tons, this weight being entirely on the drivers, and will be equipped with four 400-h.p. three-phase induction motors mounted on two articulated bogie trucks. The locomotive units are designed to be operated by the Sprague-General Electric multiple unit control, so that three or four may be operated from one controller on any unit.

               In normal operation, two of these units will haul a train having a gross weight of from 1200 to 1500 tons up a grade varying from 1.6 to 2.2 per cent at a speed of 15 miles per hour. The motors will be wound for 500 volts per phase, and will be fed from two step-down transformers located on the car. They will be controlled by resistance steps in the secondary or armature circuit.

               On down grade the motors will tend to control the train by regeneration, and at any speed in excess of 15 miles per hour, will return energy to the line, thus tending to assist other trains that may be ascending the grade at the time. If, at the moment, there is no such train to utilize this returned energy, it will be dissipated by water rheostats at the power house. An additional advantage in thus using the regenerative feature of the motors on a descending grade is, of course, the braking effect and the consequent saving of brake shoes and tires.

               Electric power will be supplied from a hydraulic plant located on the Wenatchee River, and distant about thirty miles from the tunnel. The generating equipment will consist of two 2000-kw., 25-cycle, three-phase generators, which will be driven by water power. From the station the power will be transmitted at 30,000 volts by means of duplicate transmission lines, and will be stepped down by transformers at the mouth of the tunnel to 6600 volts. The locomotives will take the current from an overhead wire, which will be of a modified catenary type, utilizing the new fish tail strain insulator of the General Electric Co. The voltage on the trolley wire will be 6600, and this pressure, as indicated above, will be stepped down before entering the motors by transformers on the locomotive to a maximum of 500 volts per phase.


The locomotives placed in service on the newly electrified section were numbered 5000, 5001, 5002, and 5003. According to the seminal work by Ken Middleton and Norm Keyes on GN locomotives, published in 1980 in RLHS Bulletin #143, these four electric motors were delivered to the GN by General Electric in February and March of 1909. The motors remained in service until they were replaced by new locomotives in the mid to late 1920s, in preparation for the extension of electric operations all the way from Wenatchee to Skykomish.

On November 12, 1909, a meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers was held in New York City. The keynote speaker of the event was Dr. Cary T. Hutchinson of the Great Northern Railway. Dr. Hutchinson provided the essence of a paper he wrote titled “The Electric System of the Great Northern Railway Company at Cascade Tunnel.” Part of his abbreviated material was published in an issue of the Electrical Review and Western Electrician. Here are some comments Dr. Hutchinson made regarding the first operations of the electrified section in the Cascades:

               The electric service was started on July 10 last, although one or two trains had been handled previously. From that time to August 11 practically the entire east-bound service of the company had been handled by electric locomotives. During this period there were 212 train movements, of which eighty-two were freight, ninety-eight passenger and thirty-two special. In each case, the steam locomotive was hauled through with the train. The total tonnage hauled was 275,000 tons.




 
Dr. Hutchinson concluded his remarks by enumerating several distinct advantages of electrified locomotion in this instance:

1.      Maximum electrical and mechanical simplicity
This point is of great importance and was one of a number of reasons for using the three-phase system. The motors will stand any amount of abuse and rough use.

2.      Greater continuous output within a given space than can be obtained from any other form of motor This is shown by comparison with other electric locomotives, which is due to the fact that the losses can be kept lower in the three-phase motor than in any other type.

3.      Uniform torque
This is important, particularly at starting. The three-phase motor will work to a three or four per cent greater coefficience of adhesion than a single-phase motor of fifteen cycles.

4.      The possibility of using twenty-five cycles
This is important, as it leads to a less cost and a better transformation of power-station apparatus; moreover, it is standard and the power supply can readily be used for other purposes as well as for traction; a commercial supply can be provided.

5.      Constant speed
This is ordinarily stated as a disadvantage of the three-phase motor. But it is a distinct advantage in mountain service, particularly the limitation of the speed on down grades. It has also an advantage on up-grades: meeting points can be arranged with greater definiteness.

6.      Regeneration on downgrades
This matter has been discussed since the earliest days of electric traction, but has not been, up to the present time, put into practice. Although this result can be attained with other forms or motors, yet it is most perfectly attained by three-phase motors. There being no complications involved. This is of importance in reducing the power-house capacity required for a given space. Although no doubt the saving in power-house capacity will not be as great as indicated by theory, owing to the various emergencies that must be provided for; nevertheless, there will be a material saving.

7.      Excessive short-circuit current is impossible, and consequently destructive torque on the gears and driving rigging is eliminated
There will be no necessity for the complication of the friction connection between the armature and driving wheels, as in the recent large direct-current locomotives.

8.      Impossibility of excessive speed
Even when the wheel slips the speed remains constant. Therefore, the maximum stresses put on the motor are less and are more accurately known than with any other form of motor.


To be even-handed about the thing, Dr. Hutchinson then enumerated six issues he framed as “the principal disadvantages of three-phase motors for traction use” that were commonly stated to be the following (although he also countered several of those points as they applied to the GN operations):

1.      The constant speed
This is rather an advantage for this class of service.

2.      Constant power
The fact is that the motor is a constant power motor, and therefore requires the same power at starting and accelerating as at full speed.

3.      Small mechanical clearance
In this particular motor the clearance is one-eighth of an inch, which is ample for all practical purposes.

4.      Inequality of load on several motors of a locomotive due to differences in diameter of driving wheels
To meet this, an adjustable resistance is included in the rotor of each motor. The motors are then balanced up and no further attention is required as long as the wear on the driving wheels is approximately the same.

5.      Low-power factor of the system
This does not seem to be borne out by practice. The power factor, as shown by the switchboard instruments in the power house, is eighty-five per cent.

6.      Two overhead wires
There is no doubt that two wires will cause more trouble than one, and in case of complicated yard structure, it might not be practicable to use two overhead wires.

One of the attendees of the banquet in New York was J. H. Davis, electrical engineer with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Davis marveled at the success of the Great Northern Railway in conquering their motive power issues through the Cascade Tunnel, saying: “It is the first attempt in this country to use the three-phase induction motor for handling heavy passenger and freight trains on a trunk line railroad.”

Dr. Hutchinson practically made a second career for himself on the speaking circuit, trotting the fruits of his work in the Cascades to countless groups of professional electrical engineers. One of those sessions was held in Pullman, Washington, with a group gathered at the State College of Washington (later to be named Washington State University – my alma mater, coincidentally). Some in attendance had worked on the tunnel the previous summer.


Less than a year after the GN instituted electrified motive power through the Cascade Tunnel section, a massive avalanche swept down through the little railroad village of Wellington (later renamed Tye). This disaster has generated a great deal of research and reporting. Even the community of electrical engineers had their angle on the tragic events:

               It may not be generally known that the avalanche which occurred at Wellington, at the western end of the tunnel, on March 1, caused considerable damage to the equipment of the system. All four of the electric locomotives, with two trains, three steam locomotives, and a rotary snow-plow, were swept away by the slide. Some idea of its force may be gained from the fact that the weight of each of the electric locomotives is 230,000 lb. A portion of the overhead catenary construction was also swept away. The extent of the damage to the electric locomotives has not yet been determined. If much of the apparatus has to be rewound, it may be six months before the electric service can be resumed, as the locomotives will probably have to be sent to Seattle or some other city for repair.


I don’t know anything about the efforts that took place putting the line, and the electrification system, back in service after the avalanche, but suffice it to say the repairs were eventually accomplished. Jumping ahead several years, a new fleet of electric motors was purchased to operate over the dramatically lengthened section of electrified railroad between Wenatchee and Skykomish. The four original electric motors were retired in May of 1927 as they were replaced with the new Z-1 and Y-1 electrics from about 1926 to 1928, just prior to completion of the new 8-mile Cascade Tunnel.


From a November 14, 1925, article published in Railway Age, here is an explanation of how the electric motors were operated in conjunction with steam engines, and the typical times involved with running this motive power mix over the Cascade Mountains:

               A 2,500-ton time freight, out of Seattle, or rather Interbay, the terminal yard, consisting of about 60 cars, covers the 80 miles to Skykomish in approximately 5½ hours when hauled by a 250-ton Mikado type 2-8-2 oil burning locomotive having a normal tractive power of 64,300 lb. At Skykomish, two 2-6 + 8-0 mallet type locomotives of 260 tons and developing a tractive effort of 78,300 lb., are cut into the train at about uniform distance apart, to assist on the 2.2 percent grade to Tye. Including a delay at Skykomish for this operation of one hour and for water at Scenic of 20 minutes, the 21.4 miles to Tye is covered in 4½ hours. On arrival at Tye, the steam helpers are replaced in 30 minutes by the electric locomotives located two ahead and two in the center of the train, and from Tye, the run to Cascade tunnel station is made in 22 minutes. Allowing 15 minutes at Cascade tunnel for cutting out the electrics and inspecting air brakes, the train when reassembled completes the remaining 53 miles to Wenatchee in four hours.

 

 

Additional sources of information about Great Northern Railway electrification:


                              Web site devoted to Milwaukee Road electrification – has a ton of great GN material too

·                       http://www.gngoat.org/tumwater_dam.htm   

·                       http://www.gngoat.org/tumwater_canyon.htm

·                       GNRHS Reference Sheet #18 (April 1976), Great Northern Three-phase Electric Locomotive by William McGinley, Michael Oltman, James Vyverberg, Kenneth Middleton, and Charles Wood

·                       GNRHS Reference Sheet #58 (September 1983), Great Northern Modernized Class Y-1 Electrics by Stan Townsend

·                       GNRHS Reference Sheet #210 (December 1993), Z-1 Class Electric Locomotives by Fr. Dale Peterka

·                       GNRHS Reference Sheet #316 (September 2003), Great Northern Railway Electrification by Stan Townsend

 

 

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