Despite my love of Alcos, one place I'd never managed to make it was the Arkansas & Missouri, a hidden haven of American Locomotive power in the hills of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. During two of my routine trips to Memphis (June and September 2005), I decided to drive rather than fly. Not only would I get the chance to avoid the hassle of flying, but I'd also arrange it so I had time to stop by the A&M for a few days.
What today is the A&M started out years ago as the Saint Louis and San Francisco Railway's Central Division, Ft. Smith Subdivision. The route was built between 1880 and 1882, taking some amount of time to build through the Boston Mountains on the southern half of the system. Of course, the Saint Louis and San Francisco Railway is better known as the SLSF, or simply the Frisco, and became part of Burlington Northern on 21-Nov-1980. The 140 mile route was sold by BN to the A&M on 1-Sep-1986. Since then, the railroad has operated with a pure Alco roster, with the mainstay being the fleet of C-420s. Also included are RS1s, RS36s, C424s, rare T-6s, and most recently, a few MLW M420Ws.
As a note: The A&M used to be regarded as a very railfan-friendly railroad, being rather forgiving about railfan transgressions. Having come under new management in the last few years, those days are over. The corporate position has come around 180 degrees, becoming much more protective about the property and less tolerant of fan transgressions. Still, the people are friendly, and as long as you're on public property (like you should be...), security won't bother you. However, don't be surprised if around Monett and Springdale you see a member of the railroad's security force having a look at you - I believe it happened to me, and was a little unnerving at first. Just a gentleman who appeared to be an agent or a security guard watching from afar, probably making sure I didn't wander onto the property looking for a better photo. I waved, he waved, and we both went on our way. Be safe, don't trespass, and you won't have any trouble. (This is revised - I realized in the original version I made it sound much more ominous than it was. Really I was just surprised to see railroad security around on a road of this size, and even then surprised they even took a second look at me.)
The northern half of the route runs through rolling hills, with no tremendously spectacular features. However, since the heaviest tonnage runs runs over this part and runs against the prevailing grade, trains out of Monett require a great deal of power. I've seen as many as eight Alcos straining to lift 10,000 tons of train out of Monett. Generally speaking, Missouri Hwy 37 follows the line between Monett and Gateway, where it joins with US 62 for the trip on into Springdale. Between Butterfield, MO, and Washburn, MO, the line gets well away from the road. You're welcome to explore this stretch, but if you're chasing, just skip it and use the greater speeds of Missouri 37 to your advantage. Trains across the north end usually are right on track speed - 49 mph - over this well-constructed route.
The south end of the system stretches from the shops at Springdale, AR, through Fayetteville, up and over the Boston Mountains, and finally into Van Buren and Ft. Smith, AR. In terms of scenery, this section is as different from the north end as night is from day. The Boston Mountains, while pale in comparison with the Rockies, are by far the most rugged, and arguably the most scenic, section of the Ozarks. The line crests inside a 1,780-foot long summit tunnel just south of Winslow, AR. As the A&M descends from the summit, it passes over several deep valleys, spanned by three spectacular (but nearly inaccessible) steel trestles, each better than 150 feet in height. Rail traffic is slower in these parts, limited to about 35 mph. To make things even more interesting, heavy northbounds will double the hill between Schaburg and the Winslow summit from time to time. As far as passenger trains go, it seems that most of the meets involve the very short siding at Chester.
For the fan on the south end, the best choice of routes US 71, which roughly parallels the line between just south of Fayetteville and Mountainsburg. Between Exeter and Chester, the line is largely off in the mountain valleys, away from any road. Unfortunately, this is also where the spectacular trestles are located... Exeter and Chester both require short drives (1-2 miles) off of US 71, but both are photogenic (and operationally important) Ozark towns and shouldn't be missed. South of Mountainsburg, you can use Arkansas 282 to access the tracks for another few miles, passing under a very strange bridge. Beyond that, the rails again get away from the road, aside from some sporadic grade crossings, until Van Buren. Van Buren is both the interchange with the Union Pacific and the site of the railroad's Arkansas River Bridge, complete with lift span. The bridge area is easy to access on account of a riverside park south of the bridge's east end. Once over the bridge, the line extends a few more miles into the Ft. Smith yard, interchanging with the KCS's branchline and the Ft. Smith Railroad, a Pioneer Railcorp shortline.
Note: If you're a driving nut like me, US 71 from Exeter to Mountainsburg is an incredible section of road. Twisty, winding mountaintop running, with spectacular vistas off to the east side. Find a nice day, load up the convertable, and get out there and burn some asphalt. I-540, the recently completed (1999) freeway through the Boston Mountains, is impressive in its own right, but not nearly as much fun to drive as the old road.
Operations are centered around Springdale, AR, where the road's main shops are located. Two main trains ply the system - the Monett Turn, running from Springdale up to Monett, MO, and the Ft. Smith Turn, running south from Springdale to Ft. Smith, AR. The Monett Turn services a few online customers (the largest of which being a sand pit just south of Monett), but largely exists to interchange with BNSF at Monett. Since there are almost no online customers in the mountainous stretch south of Fayetteville, AR, the Ft. Smith Turn makes a run straight through to Van Buren, where it interchanges with UP, and then a few miles further into the Ft. Smith Yard, connecting with the Ft. Smith Railroad and the Kansas City Southern. Also included in this mix are a few switchers, including one that services the Ft. Smith-Van Buren area and one that services local industries around the Springdale-Bentonville region.
During the summer the mix changes a bit, with the addition of three regular passenger trains and occasional specials. The first is a Friday-Saturday train that runs from Springdale down to Van Buren and back. While the passengers lay over in Van Buren, the equipment is reutilized to make a short mid-day run from Van Buren up to Winslow and back. Upon arrival back in Van Buren, the original passengers are reboarded and hauled back to Springdale. The other train, which runs only on Sundays, takes sightseers over the mountainous section of the line from Ft. Smith up to Winslow and back.
My best advice to anybody fanning the A&M is to be absolutely sure you have the FRED frequencies (452.9375 MHz and 457.9375 MHz) plugged in your scanner as priority channels (if your scanner supports such things). The A&M is a very quiet railroad, only infrequently using the radio. More often than not, I knew a train was nearby because I started hearing FRED blips. The only time trains would really announce themselves was when two were operating within close proximity, or the dispatcher was wanting an update. Also note that the A&M runs two radio repeaters - Exter and Winslow. Monitor 451.400 MHz and 456.400 MHz to pick up repeated transmissions between the Exeter/Winslow bases and the dispatcher. Also, once you have a train, plan ahead and time things conservatively. Because they're often out of sight, it's very easy to lose one while trying to figure out which side roads will yield the best shot. Don't ask how I know, let's just say this trip report would have more photos if I'd done a better job of taking my own advice. So, without further blabbering, let's finally get to the trip...
The first A&M trip started in the early morning hours of Friday, 3-Jun-2005, from Coffeyville, KS. Now, you're thinking that Coffeyville isn't on the A&M, and you'd be correct. However, it is a major operational hub for the various Watco lines in Kansas, and has an impressive collection of rare (but dead) units, including a Katy RS3m. More on Watco's Coffeyville junkpile later in Chapter 13... Regardless, after getting my morning shots, I headed on east to Monett, MO, to begin backtracking in search of the Monett Turn.
My intention was to meet the Monett Turn somewhere out on the line. Now knowing just how hard it is to find a train on the A&M if you're not quiet sure of its position, this was a stupid, stupid way to start things off. I drove the entire line from Monett down to Rogers, AR, and didn't find a stinkin' thing. I was growing quite concerned that I'd missed the Turn, until I saw five big maroon Alcos idling just north of the Bentonville Branch junction. This threw up all sorts of questions, such as if my schedule estimations were way, way off and I was going to have to rethink things. After all, according to what I knew, there was no reason that the Monett Turn should still be at Bentonville Jct. at nearly noon. As things turn out, it was just a particularly late, and weird, day.
As I got turned around and found a grade crossing, they had pulled forward to switch a single car into a customer alongside US 62 between Rogers and Avoca. The train was headed up with a solid set of C-420s - 44, 58, 48, 66, and 68. Despite being only noon, the oppressive heat of the day was already on us. It's not really that it was all that hot - only about 84 - but at nearly 90% humidity, downright sweltering. The crew backed onto the rest of the train (Photo #2) and, without much delay, notched out the Alcos for the climb north.
Remember what I said about not underestimating trains on the A&M? Well, here's a perfect example. North of Avoca, there's a great high bridge over a small stream. It's accessed by a road going east of the main highway called Sugar Creek Road. I thought I could beat the train down there from Avoca, so I went and sat... and sat. I thought maybe they'd stopped to switch another customer. (FYI - there aren't any more between the two points...) Turns out that the Turn had completely smoked me to the bridge, and was still headed north while I sat and looked like an idiot. Once I realized the error of my ways, I tore out of there and back onto the highway. Fortunately, the train had stopped to switch log cars at Gateway (near the AR/MO border), and thus by Seligman, MO I was once again ahead of it. (Photo #3) With the sun nearly at its highest point in the sky, it was a lousy shot, but out of fear of getting skunked, I presesd the shutter anyway. It's not the greatest, but it's passable.
I tried to beat the train to Exeter, but failed miserably. The trip back from Exeter to the main road cost me so much time that my only option was to run clear up to Purdy, one town before Monett. Purdy has a unique grade crossing - it's unprotected, just crossbucks, but it has an unusual Union Switch & Signal "teardrop" bell on a pole by the crossing that does go off when a train approaches. (Photo #5).
Between Purdy and Monett lies a siding that serves Kay Concrete. This out of sight, out of mind siding can keep a train crew busy for quiet some time and make it appear that a black hole ate the train you were following. It's also the directly related to all that sand you see moving around the A&M system. I've never seen a Monett Turn not switch this facility... In fact, sometimes on days when the Monett Turn doesn't run (usually Saturday), Sand Extras are run specifically to keep this customer serviced. Once they finish this facility, they start down the hill to the BNSF interchange yard at Monett, MO. (Photo #6)
Usually the Monett Turn arrives, does its work in an hour or two, and immediately heads for home (Springdale, AR). On this day, probably because it was running so late, the crew died at Monett. Thus, the crew tied the train down after completing most of the yard work. (Photo #7) I waited and waited and waited some more, and finally, just as the sun was starting to kiss the horizon, a fresh crew showed up and started the train back towards Springdale. In the very last light of the day, I grabbed shots of AM 68 leading out of the BNSF interchange yard (Photo #8) and then a profile shot of it crossing County Road in Monett.
Overall, it hadn't been the greatest day, but I had gotten familiar enough with the north end that hopefully I wouldn't botch it again. With the sun being gone, I grabbed dinner and headed for the hotel in Bentonville. Hopefully Saturday would go a bit smoother.
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This work is copyright 2006 by Nathan D. Holmes
(firstname.lastname@example.org), but licensed under a
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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.