In late March 2004, I had the opportunity to go visit various bits of my family in Tucson, AZ. However, as those of you familiar with me will suspect, any 3000 mile road trip through warm weather just begs for a little railfanning here and there. Obviously Tucson has the ex-SP Sunset route, carrying its myriad of hot trains every day, and northern Arizona has the ex-ATSF Transcon route, but true to my nature I was looking for things with a much more local flavor.
Southern New Mexico and Arizona are known for many things, but one of the largest and oldest industries is copper mining. Where there are copper mines, there are sure to be supporting railroads, as almost everything about the industry is large, bulky, and incredibly heavy. Two copper-focused shortlines still run regularly - the Southwestern Railroad between Rincon, NM, and the west ends of the line near Silver City, NM; and the Copper Basin Railway, a fascinating shortline in south-central Arizona.
On the way down, we'll take a look at some of the Southwestern's operations, particularly on the east end. Hard hit with a mine and smelter closure in 2002, the Southwestern is left with only a single mine, the Phelps Dodge Tyrone Mine, left to serve in the copper industry. However, not to take the downturn in business lying down, in 2001 they doubled their length, acquiring the entirety of the BNSF Deming Subdivision and extending their reach from the previous end at Deming clear east to Rincon, NM. We'll see a westbound travelling over this eastern segment on Friday, 26-Mar-2004, powered in part by one of their ex-Phelps Dodge GP30s. On Saturday, we'll move west to the original part of the SWRR, and there we'll see what's left around Hurley and the Chino Copper operation (now closed).
Several days later, on Monday, 29-Mar-2004, we'll venture up towards the Copper Basin Railway on the way back to Colorado. Here we'll follow this unique operation's unit ore train as it completes an entire cycle from smelter to mine and back. Powered by a dedicated group of employees, a fleet of GP39s and first generation power, and 26,000 tons of copper ore a day over a 30 mile section of track, the Copper Basin is enough action to hold any railfan's attention.
Partly new to this report is an effort to explore the history of the routes we're looking at - where the routes came from, what drove their development, and how the railroads came to be the way they are today. While I obviously can't include an exhaustive discussion of such things in a trip report, I've made an effort to give the reader a general overview. Corrections or clarifications are always appreciated, as I've only had a week or so to do the research and as such, have possibly made errors. Enjoy!