As many of you know, May and June are always my big travel months. The first half gets consumed by a couple weeks on the road for work, and the last half gets used for a couple weeks of personal vacation. My company's fiscal year ends on May 31, so I have to burn any unused vacation by that point - and generally I have quite a bit left to use. Unlike last year's big May trips, both of which received at least a rough couple weeks of planning, this year's were a bit more spontaneous. As far as work goes, I got switched at the last minute from Brussels to Las Vegas and then finally to Memphis for work (field software testing). (For you south-central railfans, Memphis and the surrounding area will get addressed in an upcoming trip report, but I decided to split the two up this year. Be patient...) For my vacation, I decided it was time to go hit Montana again, specifically the MRL and BNSF mainlines across the western part of the state. As an added bonus, it was country that my wife hadn't seen before, and as such it's usually pretty easy to convince her to visit such places.
The first day wasn't actually a day at all - it was just home (Colorado Springs) to Douglas, WY, after work. I figured as long as we were headed for Montana, we might as well pass through the Powder River Basin. After all, I hadn't been back in a couple years and I thought I'd see if I could do a bit better shooting it with the newer camera and bigger lenses. For those headed for Douglas, though, I'm going to offer my first bit of travelling advice (and there will be a fair amount of it in this report) - avoid the Douglas Super 8 like the plague. There's nothing like arriving at your motel for the night to discover big pink signs from the WY Department of Health warning of very high levels of toxic mold spores in the air. My wife is slightly allergic to mold, so it wasn't exactly a great night, but everybody else was booked full.
Needless to say, we were both up and out of the fungus farm pretty early in the morning. Neither of us is particularly a morning person, but it was good to be out of there and on the road. Plus, getting an early start is almost essential to photographing trains on the south end of the Basin, as the road is on the east side of the line.
However, like all vacations, they start best with traumatic events, especially those involving the vehicle you're driving. Not more than a couple miles out of Douglas, a golden eagle took off from out of the ditch right in front of me and wound up spread across the entire (brand new, three day old) windshield. By the time of impact, I'd gotten the truck down to about 45, but it was still a good enough hit to make me think it would probably break the glass and kill the bird. He tumbled backwards over the top, and I heard my scanner antenna get knocked off in the process. Looking back, though, the bird landed on the road, picked himself up and shook himself a bit, and then took off again for a nearby hill. Apparently it wasn't that bad of a hit, if he could still fly - and consequently, this beautiful flying road hazard gets top billing in Photo #1 (as the lower of the two eagles).
The PRB was its usual self - antelope and coal trains everywhere, with a nasty westward wind blowing the whole time. Unfortunately, since we actually did have a few miles to cover, I couldn't take every back road looking for the perfect shots. I pretty much had to stick to the highway - after all, I'd hoped to catch some MRL action later in the day. However, I did get a few coal trains, and a few hundred more coal car roster shots for RailARC just to annoy Michael. One of the more notable shots was this one of UP 5944 southbound with a load at Bill, WY. The amount of coal dust blowing off the top should give you a very good idea of just how windy conditions were that Saturday.
The rest of the drive from Gillette to just outside Livingston, MT, was fairly uneventful. I had the scanner going from Billings west, but never did hear a thing. Then, just a few minutes from Livingston, I saw a headlight appear from under a bridge passing over the freeway. The train itself didn't interest me that much - unlike I'd hoped, it was just an eastbound BNSF junk train. However, there were four ex-BC Rail SD40-2s buried a few cars back in the train, which more than justified the 20 or so minutes I'd need to successfully chase it down and get the shot. My brain had been keeping tabs of potential photo spots since leaving Billings, and after a bit of thinking I decided the East End exit (MRL Second Sub MP99.3)was probably my best chance. At that point, there's a public crossing right off the freeway and the line is running more north-south than east-west. That would help to alleviate backlighting effects. So, back to the East End exit we went, only marginally faster than the train itself. Less than a minute after I was out of the truck with the camera in hand, BNSF 5345 east shot past (Photo #3), followed by the four ex-BCR units I really wanted (Photo #4). [As a side note, the last time I saw BCOL 757 was two years prior. See the fourth chapter of my British Columbia trip report.]
After grabbing a bite to for my wife to eat in Livingston and checking into the motel - a Comfort Inn just off the freeway (and a very great improvement over the previous night) - I heard horns to the east of town. I'd planned to go find something to eat myself, but instead I ditched my wife at the hotel (as she was a bit tired of being on the road) and headed out west to hopefully catch the train going over Bozeman Pass (or at least under it). Livingston has three main freeway exits, and I got on at the center one. Less than a mile after entering the freeway, my low fuel light came on. @$%^%%!!! I had great light and a train headed west into the sun, and I had no gas with which to follow it. You'd really think I'd notice these things earlier. Fortunately, for forgetful/absentminded souls like myself, there's a gas station back up the road a bit from the west exit - and coincidentally right next to the railroad.
The train itself was nothing that exciting, as it turned out. It was a westbound BNSF intermodal with a BN SD60M on the front, followed by two Sante Fe's - BNSF 8229, an SD75I, and BNSF 104, a GP60. Still, I'll take a train over none any day, and the light was somewhere between good and great. The only problem was that the light was starting to fade on the east side of the pass. While there are several choices for easy access on the east side of the hill, the simplest of them all is Muir. You can get at it going west on the freeway by getting off on Exit 327 and following the frontage road about 2-3 miles up to Quinn Creek Road, or by taking exit 319 on the west side and driving the frontage road over the pass. Turn under the freeway, and you'll arrive at Muir and within sight of the east portal of Bozeman Tunnel. There's a small gravel area here that makes for easy parking. Also, trains are pointed into the evening sun at this point, without hills blocking the rays. After a short wait, BNSF 9262 showed up (Photo #5) and headed through the bore, only to announce he was running on a restricting signal at the other side. Needless to say, that evoked a little curiousity.
Muir is the siding on the east side of Bozeman Tunnel, and the aptly-named West End is the siding immediately through the hole on the western slope. The freeway frontage road actually goes further than the point at while it connects with the freeway and eventually crosses over the line somewhere mid-siding. However, there was something at that point indicating that road beyond that point was private property - whether it was or not I really don't know. Regardless, the apparently public side of the crossing offers a decent evening shot. No sooner than I'd found the Yukon a spot to sit out of the way of traffic than an eastbound (Photo #6) tripped the defect detector at the west end of West End (talk about confusing!). I couldn't have asked for better timing or placement to catch the meet - a rolling meet and I still got Photo #7.
Another easy place to catch either east or westbounds is at Exit 316 - Trail Creek Road (at least that's what my map calls it). This works especially well for long telephoto shots of afternoon westbounds, as the canyon is well-aligned for summer sunlight. While it's not a semaphore, the signal at MP132.2 serves as an interesting lineside prop. Fortunately, between track speed and highway speed, I found it fairly easy to catch trains between West End and this intermediate point. As a result, Photo #8 is an easy shot to get, but I still particularly like the result. It's also the last time I'd be able to catch 9262 west that evening - track speed rises considerably to the west of the canyon.
I was going to call it a day at Bozeman, but I heard the DS mention a meet out at Belgrade with another eastbound, so I pressed on. I couldn't resist any longer (there are few things that make me grumpier than an empty stomach), so while I was waiting for the meet to happen, I grabbed a couple of artery bombs from the local McDonalds. The eastbound in question turned out to be a heavy eastbound BNSF junk train, lead by BNSF 4882 and two other motors. Additionally, there was a five-unit manned MRL swing helper set spliced in the middle. It wasn't the MRL-powered train I'd been hoping for all day, but as I mentioned earlier, it was better than nothing.
Because of the desire to quiet my digestive system, I actually didn't catch up with the train until east of Bozeman. The slower speed limits and stiff grades gave me more than enough time to grab a a shot of the train from on top of the Bozeman Tunnel cut in the last light of the day. From there, it was over the hill to Muir to catch the helpers (Photo #10), and then back down to Livingston to review the day's photos and call it a night.
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This work is copyright 2003 by Nathan D. Holmes
(email@example.com), but licensed under a
Creative Commons License. This allows and encourages others to copy, modify, use, and distribute my work, without the hassle of asking me for explicit permission or fear of copyright violation.
I encourage others to consider CC or other Open Content-style licensing of their original works.
All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 10D using either a Canon 28-105mm USM or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.