Trains Unlimited Tours is running an excursion to the Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) in Chihuahua state, Mexico. TUT is utilizing the special train of 1950s streamliner cars owned and operated by Sierra Madre Express, based in Tucson, AZ, for this trip. Due to the difficulties involved in taking the train back and forth across the US-Mexico border, the train itself is based in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, directly south of Tucson and the train-based portion of the trip starts and ends there.
Because the TUT trip starts and ends in Tucson, we first have to get to Tucson. Normally, we would have taken the bus, Metrolink train, or car from Tehachapi to Los Angeles and used the Sunset Limited to and from Tucson, but this year that train’s performance has been so poor, and the incidence of busing passengers the last half day or so to turn the train around short of its destination so high, that we’re seriously concerned about either boarding the train well after midnight in either Los Angeles or Tucson, or, worse still, being bused one way (or both ways) between those two cities. So, reluctantly, we booked flights with America West (and America West Express) between Bakersfield and Tucson, via Phoenix.
So, on Thursday morning, we head down the mountain from Tehachapi, 36 miles to Bakersfield, and a few more miles north to the Bakersfield Airport. This is a very small facility, with only one security portal leading to “three” gates beyond that have but a single small waiting area. Passengers do not pass through security until it is almost time for their flight to board. There are, currently, America West Express flights from here to both Los Angeles and Phoenix, and Continental flights to Houston (on a somewhat larger aircraft than those used by America West Express at this airport). We take a 12:30 pm flight to Phoenix, followed by the short hop on America West (with a larger airplane) to Tucson. Two other members of our tour group are on the same hotel shuttle as us, from the airport to the Doubletree Reid Park hotel.
The tour itself begins with a welcome dinner at the hotel this evening, at which the Sierra Madre Express CEO briefs us all on various expectations of their train and of hygiene in Mexico. This is followed by the TUT tour guide, Bobj Berger (that’s pronounced ‘Bobjay’), who also introduces his assistant, his college room-mate of 40 years ago who gave him that nickname, Tedd (‘with two Ds’) DeLong. After a buffet dinner, we go to bed.
This morning, we have a bus ride from the Tucson hotel to the train in the Nogales yard, on the far side of the border. However, before heading for Mexico, we take a few minutes to visit the newly-restored former SP Tucson depot on the Sunset Route, now used by Amtrak and soon to be the site of a railroad museum. There is already a stuffed-and-mounted former SP 2-6-0- steam locomotive between the buildings to be used by the museum and the current UP tracks.
We then head south out of Tucson for the hour long drive to the Mexican border, where it takes another hour for us to fill out “visas” for entering Mexico, and have them approved as a group, and then pass through customs a few kilometers further south, where we all have to get our bags out of the baggage areas of the bus and troop past a table where we’re randomly selected (by pushing a button connected to a light that shines green or red, depending on whether the person pushing it is free to go, or has to open the bag). Once this chore is completed, we turn onto the road that takes us into Nogales.
A few minutes later, a large truck entering the highway from our right fails to yield and sheers off the righthand external mirror on the bus.. This delays us for another half hour, but we reach the Tucson Yard before long, and are on board the train for an hour late departure at a little after 1 pm. After we have dropped off the baggage in our compartment (and other people in their various rooms), we go to sit in the dome car (in the dome), and the train crew serves margaritas (except we turn them down) and then lunch to the expectant passengers.
The Sierra Madre Express consist includes five passenger cars, all rebuilt from cars built for US railroads in the streamliner era, arranged in this order (from the head of the train for southbound segments and from the rear of the train for northbound segments:
· Sleeper Divisadero, RPSX 800252, with compartments and a side corridor (on the eastern side), plus an open platform on the south end of the car that is on the rear on northbound segments. Built in 1949 for the Union Pacific Railroad as a crew dormitory and baggage car numbered 6005, by American Car and Foundry, this car was later Amtrak 1572, in which guise its compartments had three bunks per side (now reduced to one per side).
· Bar/Sleeper Chili Verde, RPSX 800032, which has single roomettes, staggered up and down on each side of a central corridor, crew rooms, and a bar area with tables. Built in 1946 by the Pullman Company and later purchased by the CB&Q, this car ran on the Great Northern Railway’s and CB&Q’s Empire Builder as Sperry Glacier.
· Dome-Diner-Lounge Tucson, RPSX 800606, with 22 seats at 4+2 tables and a serving area with dumbwaiter in the dome, kitchen and crew rooms below the dome, and a lounge area at the south end of the car where there is no dome. Built in 1955 by ACF for Union Pacific as one of ten cars numbered 8000-8009 on that railroad, the car later saw service on Amtrak and the original Autotrain, and then in dinner train service before coming to Sierra Madre Express.
· Sleeper Ing. Ballesteros, RPSX 800473, with compartments and a side corridor (on the eastern side), plus an area at the south end of the car that has baggage-car-style doors open to the sides. Built in 1949 for the Union Pacific Railroad as a crew dormitory and baggage car numbered 6003, by American Car and Foundry, this car was later Amtrak 1571, in which guise its compartments had three bunks per side (now reduced to one per side).
· Bedroom-Observation Arizona, RPSX 800001, which has a 22-seat round-end observation lounge at the north end of the car, the rear of the train on southbound segments, a small bar/kitchen, and four double bedrooms and one drawing room with a side corridor on the east side of the train. Built in 1946 by the Pullman Company, this car ran on the Northern Pacific Railroad as Tacoma Club until the mid 1950s.
For the initial segment south from Nogales to Sufragio, Ferromex SD40-2 3167 hauls this train. The train is crewed by a group of people who are nominally employed by Ferromex, and have regular Ferromex duties when not working on the SME, including a Conductor/Trainmaster who carries on all of the radio conversations with the dispatchers as well as serving as the mechanic for the train. The line south from Nogales is currently the Pacifico division of Ferromex, but was previously the Pacific Railroad of Mexico, and before that the Southern Pacific of Mexico. As far as Empalme (and including the short branch thence to Guaymas), the line was built by the Santa Fe (as part of that railroad’s push to a Pacific Ocean harbor), and then exchanged to the Southern Pacific for the line that railroad had built between Mojave and Needles, California, in an attempt to thwart the Santa Fe entry into California.
The entire line south from Nogales is unsignalled (‘dark’), and all trains operate by train orders received over the radio. (Because the radio traffic is in Spanish, I don’t bother trying to follow it on my scanner.) There is no longer any passenger service on the main railroad lines of Mexico, so all of the traffic we meet or pass is freight between Mexican towns further south and either Nogales or the line entering the US. In Nogales Yard, we had seen several freight trains with Union Pacific power (or locomotives currently being used by UP), and one of the major trains on this line is the automobile train carrying parts from Detroit to the big Ford plant at Hermosillo and finished vehicles back north.
The line is entirely single track with passing places (sidings) that seem to be much more widely separated than those on contemporary US single-track main lines. The Nogales Yard, at the north end of the line, appears to have six to eight tracks, in addition to the spur used by Sierra Madre express on the west side of the yard. From the yard, the line heads generally south through the urban fabric of Nogales in the state of Sonora. Once past yard limits, the track speed is 60 km/h. South of Nogales, the countryside is grassland with deciduous trees arrayed on rolling hills. At Agua Zarca, km 20, there is a passing siding on the west side of the line, whose south end, at km 21, is across from the roadside office at which foreign motorists must get permits before heading further south.
For the next ten kilometers, the mountains that were at a distance now come closer to the track. There is another passing siding at Casita, km 41.3, also on the west side of the line. Here, we met a northbound manifest, headed by Ferromex 3140, 3585 and 3570, the latter two being GE C30-7s. By km 45, the line is running down a narrow valley, and some 10 km further south emerges into open country with mesquite covering rolling hills. In the vicinity of km 59-km 60, there are many greenhouses on either side of the track, filled with hydroponically grown tomatoes for the US wintertime market. There is another siding at Imuris, km 66, with a depot on the east side of the line. From Imuris, the line turns southwest through Magdalena and Santa Ana (km 105.3), and then turns south again, all the way to Empalme (km 416.7), where the present SP-built main line turns away eastward from the original ATSF-built line to Guaymas.
At km 80, the line enters a basin encircled by mountains. The valley has many cottonwood trees. The infrequent houses are quite small, and one inholding has just a single cow. Magdalena, km 87, has a massive church up on a hill to the east, a spur on the east side and a depot on the east side that looks like it dates back to SP days.. There is a mission church in the town square. South of Santa Ana, the line enters a broad flat valley with distant mountains to both east and west. At Llano, km 128.5, there is an SP-style telephone booth and a station sign on the east side of the line but no depot. As the mountains fall back on either side, an area opens up on the northwest This proves to be the route by which the Sonora-Baja California Railroad comes southeast to join with the line we’re on at Benjamin Hill. In the vee of the tracks, are some sidetracks with scrap cars and a wrecking train.
In later afternoon, the train stops at the large station in Benjamin Hill, where passenger trains of the Pacific Pailroad used to meet passenger trains on the Sonora-Baja California Railroad, serving the line to Mexicali. Here, we’re allowed half an hour to exit the train and walk around. We take photographs of the cars on our train, of the stuffed-and-mounted 2-8-0 at the station (with one number on the cab sides and another on the smokebox door), and of the general area in and around the station. While there are some buildings on the east side of the Pacifico tracks, the main platforms lie between Pacifico and S-BC tracks, with a large modern station building separating the active platform areas. A large footbridge crosses and connects the town areas on both sides of the station with the platform areas in between the two sets of tracks. South of the station, a single track crosses over from the S-BC tracks to the Pacifico tracks to connect them. Passenger trains were once combined (southbound) or split (northbound) using this connecting track, to serve both Nogales and Mexicali. There is an ex-FNM 2-8-0 steam locomotive, variously numbered 2702 and 1187, stuffed and mounted in the platform area south of the footbridge. South of the station there are freight car repair tracks and more scrap-condition cars on the west side of the line. In S-BC days, that railroad’s main repair shops were located at Benjamin Hill.
Querobabi (km 167) has a water tank on the east side of the line, south of the station. At Poza, km 190, there is a siding on the west side of the line. At Carbo, km 210,, there are burned-out work cars in sidetracks on the east side of the line. There is a depot on the east side, and a passing siding on that same side. We wait here for a total of twenty minutes, including stops to throw switches at both the north and south end of the siding, to meet a northbound Ferromex freight. At Pesquiera, km 244.2, there are grain elevators on the west side of the tracks and a tiny depot on the east side. At Zamora, km 257.3, there is a depot on the west side of the line.
Passengers have drawn an assignment for a dinner sitting in the dome, based on their accommodations. Ours, for this evening, is 6:45 pm, so after we restart from Benjamin Hill, we sit downstairs in the dome car while the dome is prepared for dinner, and then while those assigned the first seating eat their dinner. During this time period, Peter Robbins, owner of Sierra Madre Express, who is acting as the SME representative on this trip, gives a talk in the lower section of the dome about how he got started in this business, where he got the cars from, and what he did with them to get the consist we see today, as well as telling some stories about happenings on previous trips over the years.
Dinner in the dome is excellent. During dinner, we pass through the large city of Hermosillo, km 276, in the dark. We observe that Mexican cities are nowhere near as brightly lit as US cities, so what appear from a distance to be empty area prove, as we pass through them, to be full of dimly-lit houses. The extensive depot and railroad facilities are on the west side of the tracks, while the large Ford Motor Company maquiladora plant is on the east side. Afterwards, we sit in the lounge area of the dome for an hour or so, and then go to our compartment to go to bed.
At Empalme, km 416.7, the line to Guaymas goes straight ahead and the line to Sufragio turns east., East of that junction, where the line is running west-east, there is a large Ferromex repair and maintenance facility on the east (north) side of the line, where Ferromex maintains its locomotives and cars, just north (west) of the large station that is on the west (south) side of the line. The Empalme yard is also on the east (north) side of the line, across from the depot and extending southward (eastward) from there. A few kilometers to the east, the line turns to the southeast and 100 km further south, after line direction changes to the east and then south, passes through Ciudad Obregón (km 535), where there are massive grain elevators on the east side of the line, located in a rich agricultural area. The line then continues southeast through Navojoa (km 603), where the platform and depot are on the west side of the line, with the yard on the east side, and crosses into Sinaloa state.
I awake a little before 6:30 am. The train is stopped on a siding (Cañedo, km 721), awaiting the passage of a northbound freight that has just left Sufragio yard. We sit in the siding, which has another SP-style telephone booth on the west side near the south end, for a long time, with no train coming into view to the south (we’re sitting on the open-air platform at the south end of our car, which is quite a pleasant place to be in this sunny but brisk early morning air.), but a freight pulling into the siding behind us, from the north. Eventually, word comes that the northbound train has suffered a locomotive failure, and is going to be pulled back into Sufragio by another locomotive that is coming north for this purpose. While we wait, Chris and I go to the dome for breakfast. After breakfast, I see that we’ve moved south out of the siding and are now stopped, nose to nose with the failed locomotive, Ferromex C30-7 3557. (The ability to do this is one of the few advantages of unsignalled railroading.) Eventually, the freight starts to reverse and we follow it, closely, all the way into Sufragio. At San Blas (km 738.2, we cross the Sufragio River (km 738), turn from our southward heading to southwesterly, and come alongside another single track line which we parallel the rest of the way into Sufragio (km 741.5). In the town of San Blas, there is a carousel located just to the east of the lines and a depot on the west side.
The line on the east side proves to be the Chihuahua-Pacific (Chepe) line that we will be running on when we leave Sufragio. Sufragio Station is another large junction station, this one providing for the exchange of passengers between the erstwhile north-south passenger trains on the Pacifico line and the still extant northeast-southwest passenger trains on the ChePe line. The depot is on the east side of the line, with a platform on the easternmost track. On the west side of the second track is a large island platform, with another track alongside on the far western side. A large canopy provides shelter from the weather on the island platform, and a pedestrian subway provides access to the island platform to and from the depot. Chepe trains use the easternmost platform, and trains on the Pacifico once used the others. Sufragio yard is mostly to the south of the station area, but some yard facilities are west of the passenger platforms, including the diesel fueling facility and the locomotive shop.
While the train is stopped in the westernmost platform at Sufragio, all the passengers who wish to go are taken over to the diesel servicing area for a look at, and brief explanation of, the facilities provided there. After we return, Peter Robbins takes a group of local Ferromex officials through the train, while the six-axle locomotive that had brought us down from Nogales is replaced by a four-axle locomotive on the other end of the train. (Four axles is needed because of the curvature on the line up into the mountains; the other end of the train is needed because the line we’re going onto also heads north from Sufragio, and there are no facilities for turning the train in this vicinity). The new locomotive is Ferromex GP40-2 3031, which is initially long hood forward when it couples onto the Arizona end of our train. (After it drops the train at El Fuerte, the engine and its crew will return to Sufragio for the night. When it returns on Sunday, the locomotive will have turned and operate short hood forward the rest of the way up the mountain.
The line we’re about to enter is the former Chihuahua Pacific Railroad, now operated as the ChePe division of Ferromex. The engineering difficulty of this line is such that it wasn’t completed throughout until 1961! The line runs generally northeast-southwest, with its westernmost extremity on the coast at Tobolabampo, some 60 km west, and a major town at Los Mochis, some 40 km west of Sufragio, on the western side of the north-south Pacifico line. Sufragio is at about km 881.5 on the ChePe line (with Los Mochis at about 920). Sufragio is about 300 ft. above sea level. As far as the line separation on the north end of San Blas, the route is the same as the Pacifico line. Northeast of San Blas, the single track ChePe line head northwest across the coastal plain, on the southeast side of the Sufragio River. In the vicinity of San Blas, there are adjacent tree-covered hills to the southeast, but these soon give way to simple scrubland on both sides of the track. Some 15 km northeast of San Blas, the mountains come into view to the east, with two mountain ranges visible, the Sierra de San Francisco close and lower, the Sierra Sonobari higher and further away. Almost 30 more km across the plain is the station at El Fuerte (km 838.6) with a depot and spurs on the west side of the tracks, and a siding on the east side. El Fuerte station is about 455ft. above sea level.
We restart at about 11 am, and lunch is served about 11:30 am. Chris and I eat in the dome, and during lunch the train stops in the platform at a station and then just sits there. As lunch ends, it transpires that this is our destination for the day, and we’re to get our overnight bags, leave the train, and ride the provided ‘buses’ into the nearby town of El Fuerte where we will spend the night in a hotel. (This is neither the first nor the last event that comes as a surprise to the TUT staff; it transpires that there are three different lists of events and times, none of which agree, and none of which reflect what actually happens. A complicating factor is that the ChePe runs on Central Time, whereas the local time off the train is Mountain Time. (US nomenclature). All of our materials are in MT, but sometime conversations between tour guides and train staff are in CT, perhaps not immediately realized by the guides. Things get to the point that Bobj introduces his announcements with the words: “Here are the latest unsubstantiated rumors . . .”)
In town, where rain is now falling intermittently, we get our rooms at the Hotel Posada de Hidalgo and settle in. Our room has two sets of large wooden doors that open onto balconies above the side street. There is no glass to provide outside light when the doors are closed. (The effect reminds me of the setting of the second act of Puccini’s Tosca in a large room at the Palazzo Farnese, in Rome.). The side of the Spanish Colonial style municipal building across the street (that also fronts on the main square) has a similar arrangement. After we walk around the town square for a little while, admiring the rest of the Spanish Colonial period architecture, I settle down in a chair that I’ve moved out to the balcony and read my book until darkness falls (while the rain holds off). At 6 pm, there is a ‘reception’ with Flamenco dancing from the states on the west coast of Mexico (where we still are), followed by dinner at 7. During the reception, a resident tabby cat comes around to visit the visitors (including Chris), and during dinner, we notice bats flying around the area. After dinner, we go to bed, since our schedule for Sunday requires getting up before dawn to make the railroad’s departure time for our train from El Fuerte station.
By morning, the rain has set in for the next two days, but we can’t tell that as we arise before dawn. As the sky lightens slowly, during and after breakfast, we realize how much of the darkness is due to the leaden sky disgorging the rain. At 7 am, we walk out into the rain to board the buses back to the station. There will be an election for Governor of Sinaloa held here, today, but it doesn’t start until 8 am, so we see no activity so far today. (On Saturday, there had been several loudspeaker vans cruising the streets, and there was some kind of rally in the main square in late afternoon.)
At the station, the train is in the siding, not the platform track, and the locomotive has just arrived from Sufragio (where it had returned for the night with its crew). The rail and concrete tie train that had been in that siding when we arrived yesterday is now split between two spurs on the depot side of the line; across the tracks there is a speeder standing on one of the setout tracks (rails orthogonal to the main track). Once the locomotive has hooked onto our train, it pulls it ahead and then backs into the platform for boarding. We board, and drop our overnight bags in the compartment, and then take (what will become) our usual seats in the dome. The train moves out at 7:52 am, eight minutes early.
The line from El Fuerte runs in a generally north-northeasterly direction until it has climbed up above Temoris, and then resumes a northeasterly direction all the way to Creel (as far as we will go). The line starts to climb out of the coastal plain north of El Fuerte, so that by Loreto (km 791), where the depot is on the east side of the line, it has reached 1000 ft. above sea level. At km 781, the line crosses over the Rio Fuerte on a 1.637 ft. long deck-truss bridge (longest on the ChePe), and immediately afterwards passes through the village of Agua Caliente. Following the contours of the land, the railroad jogs to the east and then turns north again, and then trends northwest for a little way., turning north again at Los Pozos (km 763). At El Descanso (km 757), the line reaches 2000 ft. above sea level. At about km 754, the line passes through tunnel 88, longest on the railroad at almost 6,000 ft. in length, and then several additional shorter tunnels. Shortly thereafter, it comes alongside (but well above and on the west side of) the Rio Fuerte again. That river is formed from the Chinipas and Septentrion just ahead, after which the line crosses over the former on the Palo Dulce bridge, 1,000 ft. long and 355 ft. above the river (which is broadened at this point by a downstream dam). The railroad’s buildings (section houses) here have had the windows removed by the local population.
At km 743, the line passes from Sinaloa state to Chihuahua state, and starts to climb in earnest., with the Septentrion River valley below on the east side of the line. Grades vary between 2.3% and 2.5%. The line passes through tunnels, Santa Niño (km 736), where there is a passing siding, Tacuina (km 728), where there is a passing siding, more tunnels, and Julio Ornelas (km 722, depot on the east side), where it heads due east for a way, through more tunnels, and then turns north again through yet more tunnels and some slide sheds, crossing over to the east side of the river as it approaches Temoris. This is one of the most interesting railroad places along the line, as the track turns through 180º to the west, crossing the river on the long Santa Barbara bridge and a side stream on a shorter bridge as it does so, before reaching Temoris station (km 708, altitude 3,900 ft.). The depot at the latter is on the west side (but right hand for an uphill train), with a spur on the riverside of the line. The track then enters a tunnel in which it makes another turn through 180º to the west, emerging above the two lower levels of track and passing above the station. After passing through a short tunnel, there is a monument to the railroad’s construction on both sides of the line, an installation with a projecting locomotive just below, and a large textual sign just above. These are both best seen from the line levels below rather than while passing between them above.
All along this line, we note that cemeteries have the gravestones brightly decorated, perhaps from the recent Dio de los Muertes (November 1st). Long-range views of the scenery are unavailable, today, due to the rain and concomitant low-level clouds, but we are now into the mountains, which are covered with trees all the way to the top. Crews are replacing 75 lb. rail with 125 lb. rail, and installing concrete ties all along the ChePe railroad. Most of my early attempts at photographing the scenery or the train, bridges, etc., are impacted by the rain, especially since I’m trying to take them from the glassed-in dome not the open-air vestibules. (I had hoped to sit out on the open-air platform, now at the rear and unencumbered by the presence of a locomotive, as the train moved up the mountain today, but the weather makes that a distinctly uncomfortable place to be; even the vestibules are uncomfortable, but are occupied by other photographers for most of the day.) A planned photo stop at the Palo Dulce bridge is scrubbed because of the weather, which would have made the footing quite unsafe. As we climb into the Sierra Madre Occidental, granite outcroppings appear. The lush vegetation gives way, at about 2500 ft., to oak tress and grassland (savanna), very much like that at home in Tehachapi, then an oak-pine mix above 4500 ft., and above 7000 ft. or so, exclusively pine trees.
The line now turns towards the northeast, passing through more tunnels and slide sheds. Above Soledad, which has a water tank on the west side, the line heads up a side valley to the east, makes a tight curve back to the west and returns to the main valley, heading in the same northeasterly direction as before.. There are many tunnels and bridges along this segment of the line. Eventually, the river is no longer in a deep ravine far below on the east side, but running through meadows beside the line on that side. The trees are now pines, as expected above 4500 ft. The rain has diminished considerably, if not stopped all together. As the line enters Bahuichivo (km 668, alt. 5,300 ft.), there is a large corrugated iron shed, followed by a siding and a large depot and water tank, all on the west side of the line.
The line continues northeastward through Cuiteco (km 662, alt. 5,500 ft.) where the depot is on the east side of the line, crosses the 389 ft. long Rocohuaina bridge (km 656.8), and turns almost eastward for a segment of line with nine tunnels totaling 4,934 ft. and 5 bridges totaling 2,101 ft. (including the above 389 ft.), including the Novochic bridge (km 655.3, 393 ft. long), Sehueravo bridge (km 651.5, 429 ft. long), and La Mora bridge (km 650.1, 445 ft. long. Following the latter, the line continues east on the valley floor, makes another semi-circular turn (to the north) and returns westward on the valley wall. It then turns north for a short distance, then turns across the La Loja bridge (km 639, 596 ft. long), and leaves it in a southeasterly direction before turning north again to reach San Rafael (km 636, alt. 7,300 ft.)), the crew change point, where the large depot is on the west side of the tracks, with a siding to the east of the main line, and there are several spurs and a maintenance shed on the east side of the line
We sit for over an hour at the siding at Bahuichivo apparently waiting for an opposing train, but what eventually appears is a speeder that pulls up alongside our locomotive and, after a lengthy chat between the crews, pulls back out in front of us and leads us up the mountain. During a relatively dry spell, we meet the train that carries Recreational Vehicles on flat cars, on a siding that appears to cover the entire distance between the Sehueravo bridge and the La Mora bridge. Then exiting a tunnel, we stop for what appears to be no reason at all.
When we start away again, the mechanic/conductor/trainmaster (José) comes to Peter and gives him the sign for “we’ve got a serious problem” (two fingers alongside his nose). It transpires that the airline beneath the Chili Verde, at the Tucson end, has become detached and broken away from the air hose connecting the Tucson to the Chili Verde. We have been able to resume our journey only because José has cut out the brakes on Chili Verde and Divisadero. Peter instantly realizes that, in the event that the cars should become uncoupled, these last two cars on the train would roll away down the mountain until they either derailed or hit something (such as the 1st class passenger train that had followed the RV train through that passing siding while we waited—there are operational passenger trains between Chihuahua and Los Mochis, south of Sufragio, on the Chepe line. Pete and the other guides tell everyone to get their overnight bags from those cars, and then vacate those cars for the remainder of today’s trip.
At the division point of San Rafael, there are Ferromex facilities that can be used for making repairs to the car. So, leaving the rear car on the main line (even while a southbound freight passes by on the platform line), our train switches the problem car into the spur with the mechanical shop on it. Then, it transpires that there are no tools in the shop, so Peter needs the tools in the Ing. Ballesteros to effect the repairs. This means that we all have to move into the observation car, Arizona, which is immediately behind the locomotive, for the remaining few miles to our destination for today, at Divisadero. This is cozy, to say the least. Bobj opens the door at the round end of the observation (that is currently leading) to ventilate the car, since it has no power in this train configuration. (There are generators only under the two compartment cars, both of which we have now left behind. After waiting for the southbound 2nd class passenger (‘chicken train”) to pass by on the platform line, the rump of the train then heads north.
The remaining 14 km to Divisadero twists back and forth along the edge of the canyon, albeit not in view of the depths off to the east. After two complete traversals of curves from north through east to south then east and north again, the line heading north reaches Posada Barrancas (km 624), where there is a spur on the west side of the line, a road crossing, and then a station platform on the west side of the line, and then passes through a tunnel to Divisadero (km 624, alt. 7,500 ft.), where the platform is on the east side of the track, with many vendors’ stalls lining the short walkway to the canyon edge—the major overlook along the ChePe line. Once the passengers have left the shortened train, it returns to San Rafael to join the remainder of the cars. (The locomotive and its crew would have returned to San Rafael for the night, anyway, as it will do in the other direction later on.).
By the time we reach Divisadero, we’re 90 minutes late, the vendors have left, and the light level is too low to take photos of the Copper Canyon (in the rain). The passengers pile into two buses, with the luggage in a pickup truck, for the short trip over the muddy, water-filled potholed, roads to the Mirador hotel perched on the side of a branch of the main canyon, where we will spend two nights. With the climb up the wooded valley walls, and the Copper Canyon at the top, today’s ride has been as if, after climbing the west slope of Donner Pass, the line would emerge on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
After a reception with some folk singing by one of the hotel staff, we have dinner in the hotel dining room. Chris and I are seated across from Geoff and Janet Allcock, with very distinctive English provincial accents. In conversation, it transpires that he had been a summer apprentice at Blackburn Aircraft, in Brough (East Yorkshire) for two summers—1962 and 1963—that I had also worked there, and that she had taken her teaching certificate at Southampton University during my final undergraduate year there (1964-65). We don’t recognize names that we provide each other, however. We go to bed in our room overlooking the canyon, not knowing if we will have a train for the round trip to Creel in the morning.
While we have been at the hotel for the night, Peter Robbins and his crew have repaired the train. One of the things that Peter had said in his talk on the first night was that the SME is totally self sufficient, even to the extent of making heavy repairs to the cars. Now he has proven this to all of us. The group is informed of this when it assembles for breakfast in the dining room, and there are cheers all around. Leaving our bags in our rooms, we take the same set of buses over to the Divisadero station. The light is still not good enough for photos of the main Copper Canyon, visible from the station, and it turns out that this will be our last opportunity for viewing the canyon from this point.
The train is waiting in the platform, properly assembled and ready to continue northeast, up and over the summit of the line and on to Creel. Once we’re under way, we hear what Peter had had to do to get the car up and running. He discovered that the airline had been knocked off the bottom of the car by the persistent hammering of a bolt on the newly-rebuilt truck that was a half inch or so too long. So, in order to prevent a recurrence of the problem, the bolt had to be removed from the truck and re-inserted the other way around. While re-affixing the airline was a fairly simple job, reversing the bolt on the truck was a longer job, and the total repair was finished about midnight, or approaching eight hours after we had dropped the car in the repair shop at San Rafael.
Today’s segment of the line runs across the summit from Divisadero to Creel, climbing to 8,071 ft. at the highest point on the line at Los Ojitos before dropping down to 7,875 ft. at Creel. From Divisadero, the line heads northwest for a short distance before turning back to the north. Some distance further along, the line turns generally east, curving along the contour lines to minimize the grade, back to the south for a short way and then east again. Beyond Pittoreal (km 502), the line turns south, goes around the end of an outcropping, and then heads east and back north, later turning east again. At El Lazo (km 591), the line turns north, passes through a short tunnel, then heads counter-clockwise around another outcropping until it crosses over itself above that tunnel, heading east again between closely spaced rock walls. The summit of this segment of the line is just 8 km further along at Los Ojitos (which is not the Continental Divide—that is east of Creel). Shortly after Los Ojitos, the descending line turns north, west, north, and east again, with some smaller perturbations following, and then continues northeast through Sanchez (km 576). A little further along, the line turns northwest into a side valley, makes a semicircle to the right and returns southeastward along the valley floor before turning east and then northeast, and finally around a clockwise horseshoe curve into Creel. At the latter, there are freight sidings and rail-served industry on the east side of the line, there is a siding on the west side of the line at the station, and the depot is on the east side of the line. There is also either a small wye or a turntable here, since our locomotive is able to turn around while switching the train into and out of the siding during our stay here.
Rain is still falling as we climb away from the Copper Canyon above Divisadero. After passing over the summit, and having descended almost into Creel, the train stops on a curve exiting a long side valley. Here, it sits for almost an hour. At the time, we’re told that the railroad is removing mud from the siding switches in Creel, but later it comes out that there is a broken rail on the track at this point, which had to be inspected before we could proceed. Indeed, we creep through this same location on the return, later in the day. In Creel, along with many others, Chris and I patronize the Mission Store, whose profits are guaranteed to go to the Tarahumara Indians, the indigenous people of the area, where we buy a couple of books, a doll, and some carved animals. Meanwhile, our train has been pulled out of the platform track, the locomotive has both run around the train and reversed direction, and the whole train has been shoved into the siding track, across from the station. In the light rain that is still falling, the passengers return to the train for lunch. As we start lunch, a southbound freight train with Ferromex 3026, 3006 and 3003 passes on the platform line. Towards the end of lunch, the ChePe southbound first class passenger train enters the main platform, pauses for awhile, and then leaves toward Divisadero.
After lunch, a couple of ramshackle buses are available to take us to a Tarahumara habitat, south of the town. Here, in a rocky basin almost surrounded by granite cliffs, a Tarahumara family lives in a cave; the tribe (not just the family) charges admission to the area for visitors to look at the habitation in the cave, to which we all walk in the lingering light rain. A fire burns in the cave, and the air is much warmer just a few feet into the cave than it is out in the rocky basin. Chris buys two potholders and a rebozo from the Indians in the cave. Returning to Creel over the rutted rocky dirt roads, we reboard the train and set off for our return to Divisadero. On the way back, we hear that one of the tunnels on this segment of the line had collapsed due to the rain the previous night, and had been cleared before our traversal this morning, leaving a short segment of the tunnel open to the daylight. If we had not been told, we would never have noticed! (The train does traverse this area very slowly, in both directions, however.)
The tour guides (including Peter) all seem to be agreed that we will get back to Divisadero in time to get a daylight view into the Copper Canyon, even if it is still encumbered by clouds. However, as we approach the station at Divisadero, it is clear that the train is not stopping. Instead, to the surprise of all (except the Spanish-speaking train crew), it continues straight through the platform at Divisadero and goes another mile or so before stopping just past the Posada Barrancas station platform and then reverses into the private siding that Sierra Madre Express had built at this location. From here, the same hotel buses as before take us a much shorter distance to the Mirador hotel (‘Posada”) than the journey from the Divisadero station. In a sense, this is good, but it deprives us of another chance to look into the Copper Canyon from the Divisadero station.
At the hotel, we can see down into the canyon for the first time, but the light level is too low for good photographs, either from the main balcony or our room. At tonight’s reception, a small group of Taramuhara performs some of their native dances for us. After dinner, we repack the overnight bags and go to bed, hoping for better weather in the morning.
We awake to sunshine. I leap out of bed and go to the window, from which it is clear that we finally have a long distance view into the canyon and across the tops of several branches of the canyon. Even as I dress, prior to stepping out onto the balcony outside the room, the fog fills the canyon below us and then clears, three separate times. (It will do this twice more during breakfast.) I take photographs from the balcony of our room, and more from the main hotel balcony, both before and after breakfast, as the light level continues to change and the places that are obscured by the fog differ from moment to moment. Of course, we’re only looking down into a side canyon here, off the tributary that is visible at Divisadero, of the Rio Urique that occupies the Barranca del Cobre itself. Unfortunately, none of the tour guides (not even Peter) can make it possible for us to return to the Divisadero overlook for pictures there, before our scheduled departure southward down the mountain to Sufragio.
Just before lunch, we approach the three levels of track at Temoris, where we had done the runby in the rain on the way up. There is a 10 mph slow order on the line below Temoris, so the eastbound 1st class passenger train that is scheduled to meet us here is delayed. We pull into the spur, just above Temoris station, to wait for that train to come up this far and go past us. Meanwhile, lunch is served as Chris and I are seated in the dome. The pictures I get as the regular train, preceded by a speeder, comes up, crosses the bridges, stops in the station, and climbs above us on the third level, are much better than those I got at the runby in the rain two days before, as are the photos I succeed in taking of the railroad’s monument (celebrating its completion in 1961) located on the hillside above the station but below the upper level track. Once the northbound train has left, we back out of the spur, and continue southbound down the valley.
After lunch, the train stops on the main at Santa Niño, for a meet with the second-class “chicken” passenger train headed by Ferromex GP38-2 locomotives 2015, 2022, 2020. Soon afterwards, we stop at the south end of the Palo Dulce bridge, and after passengers wishing to take photographs have detrained, the train backs up across the bridge and then runs towards us across the bridge at maximum authorized speed, in brilliant sunshine. We’re scheduled for early dinner (5:30 pm), but trade dinner slots with some folks who were scheduled at 8 pm, a time we much prefer. Once we have to leave the dome, we move to the observation lounge in the Arizona, which is now at the rear of the train (as far as Sufragio), a place on the train we had previously only sat during the time that was the only car in the train from San Rafael to Divisadero. While we’re sitting here, we’re treated to more of Peter Robbins’ stories about past trips on the Sierra Madre Express.
At Sufragio, reached before our dinner seating, the train again reverses (passing through the station on the ChePe line, and reversing south of the platforms before moving northward into the Pacifico platform), with a GE U30C six axle locomotive (3546) attached at the Arizona end of the train replacing the four axle EMD locomotive that had hauled us up the mountain and back. This entire process takes about 35 minutes. We head north in the darkness. Dinner in the dome is a little late, but not severely so, and we go to bed in our compartment as soon as it is over.
I awake just as the train leaves a stop in the vicinity of Hermosillo. By the time I’m dressed, we’re out in the countryside, so I can’t be certain of the exact location. At Selva, we meet a southbound manifest hauled by Ferromex C30-Super 7s 3812, 3806 and C30-7 3557, stopped on the main while we pass through on the siding on the east side. (Super 7s are reconditioned C30-7s, built at Mexican Railroad shops, such as that at Empalme, from kits of parts supplied by GE In a conversation with Peter Robbins, he says that this is the “fullest” the Sierra Madre Express has ever been!
During the morning, we retrace our route of Friday afternoon, seeing track equipment in the spurs on the east side at both Santa Ana and Magdalena, and paying close attention to a flour mill on the east side of the line just north of Magdalena that Peter has his eye on as a backup storage and maintenance location for the Sierra Madre Express. We make a brief stop at an accessible location near km 21 to detrain four passengers who have booked early and mid afternoon flights out of Tucson, for a faster transit of the border, and reach the yard in Nogales just after 11 am. UP 4401, 2294 and 6262 are at the head of a train of covered hoppers and box cars on a track to the east of the SME spur, and FM 3516 is attached to the breakdown crane on another track in the yard.
After taking a group photograph in front of the Tucson, we board the bus that will take us to Tucson, and head for the border. It takes us about an hour to clear immigration and customs back into the US, after which we’re served a box lunch as the bus heads north on I-19. In Tucson, we drop off a number of passengers at the airport, and then head for the hotel by way of a route past the aircraft bone yard and storage yards in the area. At the hotel, only four passengers stay on the bus to go to the tourist locations that Bobj and Tedd have cooked up for the remainder of the afternoon, while the rest of us check into the hotel or drive off in private automobiles. We eat dinner at the restaurant in the hotel.
We have the van from the hotel take us to the airport, leaving at 8 am. At the airport, we check in and check the luggage, go through security, and are in the gate area by shortly after 9 am. Our 9:30 am flight to Tucson is delayed about 20 minutes, but is nonetheless into Phoenix roughly on time. We transfer to our flight to Bakersfield, which gets us there a few minutes after 12 noon. Collecting the checked bags goes quickly, and exiting the parking lot a little more slowly. Nonetheless, we complete our drive up the mountain, collecting the mail from the Post Office, and lunch at Denny’s, in time to be home by 2 pm.