Montana Rockies by Steam Train
(and Diversions in Wisconsin and North Dakota)
October 8th-19th, 2004

Don Winter

The purpose of this trip was to spend three days riding the Montana Rockies Steam II excursion westbound, over the Montana Rail Link main line from Billings, MT to Sandpoint, ID. Rolland Graham’s ‘Mountain Outin’’ tour group has arranged a 12 day tour that includes the steam excursion, as well as some diversions in Wisconsin and North Dakota, so we elect to go with them. The promise of a couple of hours at the Illinois Railway Museum was a not incidental factor in making this decision.

Friday, October 8th, 2004

Now that we live in Tehachapi, starting a tour from Los Angeles requires somewhat more effort than simply driving or taking the shuttle downtown. In fact, since this tour departs one way and returns another, driving into Los Angeles and parking there isn’t a very good choice. So, after checking with Steve Miller (who manages the Amtrak California bus program for Caltrans), I ask Rolland to ticket us on the buses from Tehachapi to Bakersfield and then Bakersfield to Los Angeles, to start the tour.

So, in late morning we drive over to the Burger King on Tehachapi Boulevard, where we leave our car on the edge of the parking lot and board the bus to head down the mountain into the San Joaquin Valley. In Bakersfield, where there is a spacious new station and a forecourt for the buses to park and load in an orderly fashion, with its own dedicated platform tracks on the north side of the BNSF main line, we wait for an hour, during which train 715 departs northbound and train 712 arrives southbound. On the arrival of the latter, we board the bus headed for Los Angeles Union Station and ride south over the Grapevine (CA 99 and I-5) into Los Angeles. This ride takes only 90 minutes as far as I-5 in Burbank, and another 90 minutes in heavy traffic, the rest of the way to LAUS. (This is still in plenty of time for its Pacific Surfliner connection, as well as our scheduled hookup with Rolland Graham in the concourse of the station.)

 We get our information packet from Rolland, put the Mountain Outin’ luggage tags on our bags, and turn the bags over to Rolland. In the process, we see some familiar faces in the waiting area around where Rolland is sitting, as well as some unfamiliar ones of people obviously waiting for this trip. At about 6 pm, we walk out to track 12 and head for the sleeping cars. We stow our hand luggage in the room on the upper level of the Superliner, and I walk the platform to write down the consist. The train departs on time, and shortly afterwards we go into the adjacent Diner (we’re in the last room before the door into the Diner) for dinner. We’re seated with a couple of the older women on the tour. By now, darkness has fallen and I can discern where we are only because of my familiarity with the line due to the time spent researching the local railroad infrastructure earlier in the year.

We’re in one of the newly-refurbished Superliner I sleepers, with two-tone plastic siding replacing carpeting on the walls of the corridor (off-white above, red-brown below). The toilet modules are completely rearranged, with what feels like more space inside, toilet diagonally in a corner, etc. However, it is now hard to put ones head over the wash-basin. The curtains between the standard bedrooms and the corridor are now too thin, letting too much corridor light into the room. There is still a closet in the standard bedroom, unlike the better (in my opinion) arrangement in the Superliner II sleepers. Others tell us that the showers in the deluxe bedrooms have also been redesigned. Rolland and others develop a long litany of points where the refurbishment has either not fixed prior problems or created new ones.

At Fullerton, some more members of the tour group board the train, including some more that we already know. After dinner, our car attendant makes up the room for sleeping, and we go to bed. We’re in bed by the time the train stops in Riverside, and fall asleep while the train is climbing Cajon Pass, following the stop in San Bernardino.

[consist]

P42                  97
P42                  60
P42                  79
Baggage           1260
Transition         39011
Sleeper             32038
Sleeper             32068
Diner                38000
Lounge             32003
Coach              32036
Coach              34101
Coach-café      35004
Box Car           74070
Box Car           74015
Box Car           74016

Train 4, 10-8-2004

Schedule

Actual

Los Angeles

6:45pm

6:47pm

Fullerton

7:45

7:32/47

Riverside

8:30

8:28/31

San Bernardino

8:51

8:50/59

Victorville

9:57

10:11/21

10-9-2004

 

 

Winslow, AZ    (PT)

6:25am

7:15/9

Gallup, NM      (MT)

9:02

9:49/59

Albuquerque

12:30pm
1:10

12:18pm
1:10

Lamy

2:16

2:07/16

Las Vegas, NM

3:58

3:48/58

Raton

5:44

5:36/44

Trinidad, CO

6:46

6:42/6

La Junta

8:29

7:54
8:39

Lamar  (MT)

9:27

9:27pm

10-10-2004

 

 

Kansas City      (CT)

7:31am

7:29am

La Plata, MO

9:40

10:02

Fort Madison, IA

10:50

11:09/16

Galesburg, IL

11:46

12:14/18

Princeton

12:38pm

1:06/7

Mendota

12:59

1:25

Southwest Chief Route Description

Saturday, October 9th, 2004

I awake as the train slows for the stop in Winslow, AZ. The sky is becoming lighter by the minute, but it’s not yet full daylight. We arise and have breakfast in the diner. Later, in New Mexico, we go to first lunch, with another set of group members so that we’re done with lunch before the train reaches Albuquerque. During the stop at the latter, I walk the platform to the front of the train for some photographs. Later, I take a shot out of the car window of the Harvey House in Las Vegas, NM, with the light in just the right position. Darkness falls as the train descends Raton Pass into Colorado, and we’re eating dinner (with yet more tour group members) during the stop in La Junta. We’re in bed and asleep before the train reaches Kansas.

Sunday, October 10th, 2004

Again, I wake in the morning twilight and am surprised to find that the train is already stopped in the platform at Kansas City. This time, we decide not to go to the Diner for breakfast, since we’ll be taking lunch at 11:30 am prior to our departure from the train in Mendota, IL, around 1 pm (if the train is on time). We do, of course, eat lunch as the train passes through Galesburg, Illinois. At Mendota, the train has lost half an hour since Kansas City, and this is that half hour late. However, with the assistance of tour group members, all the bags are transferred to the waiting motor coach in only 15 minutes rather than the 45 minutes Rolland has allowed in his schedule, and we’re on time as the bus leaves the station to head north.

We drive north on I-39, passing Rochelle, to the outskirts of Rockford, where we turn east on IL-20 to Union, IL, location of the Illinois Railway Museum. Here, we have the remaining two hours of the museum’s ‘Harvest Festival’ to ride the trains that are running, visit the car sheds where many of the artifacts are stored, and patronize the bookshop and gift shop. Because we had not traversed the full length of the museum’s operating line (part of a former interurban traction line) during our previous visit during NRHS 1993, we opt to ride the line first, boarding a former Chicago Transit Authority ‘Elevated’ two car set that has been converted to over head catenary (from third rail) for local operation.

Along with many members of the group, we ride out to the east end of the 5-mile line, and then back to the west end of the line, before returning to the station. We then visit the bookstore (where I buy some videos) and the gift shop (where Chris buys some ‘Chessie’ items), after which I walk to the back of the lot and through the car shed where the big steam locomotives are stored. I look in particular at the ex-N&W Y3 Mallet, 2050, with its huge low-pressure cylinders, and at the complete 1936 ‘Nebraska Zephyr’ trainset, with its 1940 F-5 locomotive, in the same car house. Since we were last here, AT&SF 4-8-4 2903 has been moved here from its former location at the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry. Former South Shore “Little Joe 803” is in one of the car sheds; ex-UP turbine 18 is stored on one of the outdoor display lines and ex-UP “Centennial” diesel 6930 is stored out back. The ex-BN “Executive Fleet” F9s and ex-SF FP45 92 are now part of the museum’s collection, as are ex-Metra F-unit 309, still in Metra blue, and some former C&NW gallery cars from 1955 and 1960 (cab control car) restored to C&NW green and yellow (all new since we were last here).

We’re supposed to be back on the bus at 5 pm, but at 4:40, Rolland joins some tour group members for the last diesel-hauled run down the museum’s line, and is surprised that it takes until 5:25 pm to return to the starting point so that he, and they, can board the bus. We then head north, again on I-39 (after a westward leg on IL-20) to Beloit, WI, where we stop at an Italian Restaurant for dinner (an acceptable buffet) and some ‘entertainment’ by an Irish Folk Singing group that we’re forced to sit through, since we need to reboard the bus to get to our hotel for the night.

Monday, October 11th, 2004

The schedule for the next two days seems designed as a way to occupy the tour group members for the time intervening before we board the train to head west to our ultimate destination. First up this morning is a visit to the Angel Museum, in Beloit, which we can skip and decide to do so. After those visiting the Angel Museum have been loaded onto the bus, we pass the Fairbanks Morse factory in Beloit. Then we head for the Museum of Anthropology at Beloit College, which is moderately interesting (including its discussion of the ‘effigy mounds’, which dot the landscape on which the college is situated. Part of the discussion of local anthropology is of the way the natives used food, and we’re treated to an example for lunch—a Thanksgiving Dinner that includes turkey (but no dressing/stuffing) and a sweet potato and squash casserole.

Before we eat, our guide gives us a talk on the food, during which Rolland leaves the room. At the end of the talk, the guide requests that we all go to the food and take our portions, and then sit down again at our tables to eat. Naturally, we comply. Rolland returns and is (obviously) annoyed to see a long line of people waiting their turn at the food. On reboarding the bus, he gives us a lecture on doing such things ‘one table at a time’, which is resented by people around us at the back of the bus (especially since we had done what the guide asked us to do). At least one tour member feels insulted.

Our first stop after lunch is a barber’s shop in downtown Monroe that has an extensive collection of memorabilia from around the world. The owner has come into town today especially to open the shop for us to visit, since he is normally closed on Mondays.

From Beloit, the bus takes us west to Monroe, WI, which is in the “driftless area” of Wisconsin that was never covered by the glaciers of the ice ages, and is thus rolling country, not scraped flat by the ice. We visit the local visitors’ center to be treated to a historical lecture on Swiss-style cheese making, and a visit to (but not a tour of) a local brewery, followed by a walk around the beautiful town square with its courthouse centerpiece. We then go to our hotel for an hour or so, before returning downtown for dinner at the Rathskeller in the basement of the Turner Hall (excellent) followed by ‘entertainment’ (again, forced upon us due to our distance from the hotel) by an a capella choir performing Swiss folk songs. Although the alphorn performance were interesting, and pretension to authenticity on the part of the choir were dissipated by ending the program with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Edelweiss, which not only isn’t a folk song, but doesn’t pertain to Switzerland. (As an aside, a ‘Turner Hall’ in this part of the USA is something that German immigrants built in the late 19th-century as a venue for gymnastics as well as staged and musical performances. The one in Monroe—the only Swiss one to be built—is the only Turner Hall known to be remaining in the Midwest. It has excellent acoustics.)

Tuesday, October 12th, 2004

Tuesday morning starts with a visit to a cheese factory just north of the hotel, which unfortunately is not actually in operation this morning. Then we head north, almost to Spring Green, for a visit to the ‘House on the Rock’, which turns out to be not just a quirky house but also an eclectic collection of items such as an old time street of shops,, carousels, theater organs, automated music-making machines, automobiles, ship models, replica crown jewels (in replica crowns) and other things, all arranged in cavernous rooms with complex walkways leading the visitor on a two and a half mile walk through them. While these were somewhat interesting to see, it appears that many of what at first appear to be museum pieces were in fact constructed in place at the “museum” owner’s direction, in the last two or three decades. This certainly reduces their interest, at least to me, and I would never have chosen to visit them had I had the option.

On leaving this location, we pass by Frank Lloyd Wright’s house ‘Taliesin’ in Spring Green, which I would much rather have visited (and which Chris, on seeing it, called a ‘much more livable house’ than the one we had just visited). We then head for Portage, WI, where we board Amtrak’s Empire Builder for the overnight trip to the far west end of North Dakota. The tour group members are distributed among all three sleeping cars, including the one at the rear of the train. Not long after boarding, a tour group member in the adjacent room closes the door to our room because I have the radio channel scanner turned on (at a level lower than she and her companion are conversing). We have reservations for dinner at 7:30 pm (obtained by a tour member joining the group here), which is good, but are served by one of the surliest waiters we’ve ever encountered on Amtrak (which was bad). We go to bed shortly after dinner, before reaching the stop in the Twin Cities.

Empire Builder Route Description

[consist]

P42                  89
P42                  81
P42                  124
Baggage           1248
Transition         39018
Sleeper             32023
Sleeper             32064
Diner                38025
Coach              34085
Coach-bagg.    31026
Lounge             33012
Coach              34074
Coach-bagg.    31006
Sleeper             32021

Train 7, 10-12-2004

Schedule

Actual

Portage, WI

5:29pm

5:35/45

Wisconsin Dells

5:47

6:02/8

Tomah

6:25

6:46

La Crosse

7:11

7:25/9

Winona, MN

7:44

8:02/6

Red Wing

8:46

9:06/16

Twin Cities Midway

10:25
11:15

10:25
11:15

10-13-2004

 

 

Rugby, ND

7:19am

7:45/49

Minot

8:46
9:04

8:40
9:06

Stanley

9:57

9:57

Williston

11:07d

10:56a

Wednesday, October 13th, 2004

We awake in Rugby, North Dakota, and go to breakfast. At about 11 am (Central Time), we detrain in Williston, ND, only to discover that our new bus driver has planned to reach here prior to 11 am, Mountain Time, an hour later! (We’re very close to the time zone boundary, and the bus is coming from Billings, in the Mountain Time zone.) However, the bus driver had planned to arrive early and is thus only half an hour later than we had anticipated.  During the wait, some of us notice an ex-GN 2-8-2 ‘Mikado’ steam locomotive that is stuffed-and-mounted nearby, and take advantage of the time to photograph it. We have lunch at a local restaurant, where as luck would have it I’m forced to sit next to the woman who had closed our room door the previous afternoon!

This is the area along the Missouri River just a little upstream from where the Lewis and Clark expedition had spent the winter of 1804-5, so much is made of them in the area (especially since this is the bi-centennial of that expedition). On this trip, we will pass through a number of places associated with that expedition, including the Yellowstone River valley that William Clark had used on the return eastward trip in 1806, the headwaters of the Missouri, the Clark Fork River they had used to descend to the west in 1805, and the Columbia River Gorge that they had used to reach the Pacific Ocean.

After lunch, we head south to the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Some 80 years after Lewis and Clark passed through this area, TR came to the region as a sickly young man from Long Island and found both his health and a calling to preserve the environment that he was able to put into practice after his accidental ascent to the Presidency. Theodore Roosevelt National Park preserves two separate areas of the “badlands”—the broken countryside along the Little Missouri River in far western North Dakota—in which TR lived and worked for several years in the 1880s. This afternoon, we visit the North Unit of the National Park—the more remote of the two in that it does not lie along a major transportation artery through the area.

We arrive during the small North Unit Visitor Center’s lunch break, and thus do not get to tour the museum located there, but we do take the 14 mile drive out to the west along the north side of the Little Missouri River, 550 ft. above the river (2,500 ft. elevation), stopping to look at the Cannonball Concretions located on the north side of the road, the herds of bison that graze in the area, and the various overlooks with views of the bluffs along the river itself (the Bentonitic Clay Overlook—not overlooking the Little Missouri River; the Oxbow Overlook; and the River Bend Overlook).  While the visible strata in the more distant cliffs are horizontal, many of those near the river itself, in the so-called ‘slump blocks’, are tilted at steep angles as the results of massive landslides occurring in the immediate aftermath of the glacial period that had diverted the Little Missouri from its northward flowing course south of this area to its eastward flowing course through the North Unit. Many of the exposed cliffs include a thin layer of black lignite coal sandwiched between layers of bentonite, siltstone, sandstone and silty clays.

Near the close of our visit, we stop at the Little Mo Trail so that those who wish to may take a hike along the paved nature trail that reaches to the bank of the river, at an elevation of 1,950 ft., and a small unpaved extension that take the total trail length a little over a mile. Three of us, all born and raised in England, take the trail in a clockwise direction, and (observing the behavior of the bison alongside the unpaved trail) elect not to take the extension. Those who are taking the loop trail in an anti-clockwise direction, and who ignore Rolland’s advice not to take the extension, find themselves the target of some apparently aggressive behavior on the part of the bison herd (some called it a ‘stampede’).

On leaving the North Unit to head for our night’s lodging in Medora, ND, we move from the Central to Mountain Time Zone (while heading southward). Eventually, we reach I-94 and turn westward towards Medora, stopping for view of one last overlook—this one the Painted Canyon Overlook in the South Unit of the National Park—before reaching Medora and our hotel. Tourist season in Medora has ended, so the group has little choice but to patronize the one open café in Medora, whose staff struggle to cope with over 40 people descending on them at once, albeit by prior arrangement. Although we use the bus to go to the café, it’s clearly within walking distance of the hotel, so some of us elect to walk back, observing the former NP depot on the north side of the adjacent railroad track as we do so. This track passes directly in front of our room at the hotel, and although darkness prevails this evening, we’re able to observe a number of loaded unit coal trains headed eastward, with helpers up the eastward grade in the area, and both helper sets and empty unit hopper trains heading westward. After watching the close of a Presidential Debate and some League Championship Series baseball, we go to bed to the sound of passing trains (not so very different from home in Tehachapi, after all).

Thursday, October 14th, 2004

The sky is still dark, and the sun has not yet risen, when the time comes for putting out our luggage this morning. However, the sky lightens and the sun comes up before we head off to continue our visit to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park this morning, before heading west later in the day. The South Unit of the National Park is located immediately north of Medora, with its Visitor Center located within the town itself, and in contrast to the North Unit comprises an area of badlands in the unglaciated part of the Missouri Plateau. Rolland has decided that we will take the loop drive around the park before making our stop at the Visitors’ Center. So, we head north, past the Visitors’ Center and onto a bridge taking us over I-94, then curving back and forth within the main area of the park.  We see some sheep that are scared by our presence, and retreat up a steep cliff to a precarious ledge, several well-inhabited black-tailed prairie dog towns, and several herds of bison. We also stop for photographs at a number of overlooks, including Cottonwood River/Woodland Overlook, Boicourt Overlook and Buck Hill, which looks southward over the same area that we had seen from Painted Canyon Overlook, looking northward, the day before. The Little Missouri River here is at an elevation of 2,250 ft.

We can’t actually drive all the way around the “loop”, because the southeast part of it is under reconstruction, so we return from Buck Hill the same way we came, stopping at the Skyline Vista above the valley containing I-94, and make our stop at the Visitors’ Center. Here there is a small museum, as well as the relocated and restored Maltese Cross [Ranch] Cabin that TR lived in when he first moved to North Dakota. Just south of the Visitors’ Center is a chimney marking all that remains of a factory started by the entrepreneurs who founded Medora in the years after TR lived in the area. As we leave in the bus, we also make a swing by the large house (“Chateau DeMores”) that these entrepreneurs lived in during their successful years.

To get to this house, we have to wait at a grade crossing, while a long eastbound loaded unit coal train passes. The main line of the Northern Pacific Railroad that runs east-west through Medora and continues west into Montana along the route we take today has been transformed into one of the coal arteries that take coal mined in the Powder River Basin and move it to markets in the Midwest and eastern portions of the United States. (The Midwest is generally considered to blend into the “West” at the 100th meridian, which passes through Rugby, ND, where we awoke on Wednesday, some distance to the east of here. A more scientific definition of the eastern boundary of the Great Plains shows that boundary running north-south along the 100th meridian in the southern part of North Dakota, at our current latitude, but bending northwest to pass just west of Minot on the route we have taken to get here.)

The former NP main line, now the BNSF Dickinson subdivision from Dickinson, ND, through “DeMores” (Medora) to Glendive, MT and the BNSF Forsyth subdivision from Glendive to Jones Junction) is used by trains heading for Minnesota, Wisconsin, and to Great Lakes ports accessed by water from the Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior at the west end of Lake Superior, for onward delivery to destination ports along the Great Lakes such as Detroit Edison power plants along the St. Clair River, between Detroit and Lake Erie. Coal trains from the Powder River Basin currently access this line through a west-facing junction at Huntley, MT, from the former CB&Q line northwest from Alliance, NE (now the BNSF Big Horn subdivision from West Gillette, WY, near the north end of the Powder River coal line, to Huntley), and thus must both go a hundred miles out of their way and make a reversal that requires the power to be re-arranged compared to a more direct connection that has been proposed for construction to reach the former NP main some fifty miles east of Huntley.

The need to use the former NP line for the eastward loaded unit coal trains (and the empty unit trains going in the other direction) led the BN to divert all of its through freight traffic between the upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest to its former GN “hi-line” through Williston, over which the Empire Builder travels. In turn, this led directly to a major loss of through traffic over the former NP line west of Huntley, and thus to BN’s decision to spin off the line from Jones Junction, MT (east of Huntley) to Sandpoint, ID (where the ex-GN and ex-NP line come together) to Montana Rail Link in the late 1980s. Since this decision helped make Montana Rockies Rail Tours, operator of the steam special on which we will be traveling, possible, there is a direct chain of events linking the coal traffic on the line through Medora with the ability to run steam specials between Billings and Sandpoint.

All the way from Medora to Billings, I-94 (and later, I-90) and the former NP main line follow the same route, and are often within good sight of one another. Heading west from Medora, road and rail line cross the watershed between the Little Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, heading roughly west, and then descend in a west northwesterly direction to Glendive, in the Yellowstone River valley. The routes then turn roughly southwest up the Yellowstone River valley, gradually curving to west-southwest and then west by the time we reach Billings. Along this route, which takes us several hours to cover, we see the following trains:

As we cross the watershed west of Medora, winds are blowing at up to 35-40 mph, which coupled with our road speed gives us a slipstream approaching 100 mph. Twice, this causes the rear ventilation hatch on the bus to pop up into the head wind, and we have to stop while this is returned to its stowed position. We stop for lunch in Miles City, MT, because this is roughly half way between Medora and Billings, and because there are several fast food restaurants located near a place where the bus can be parked. Nearing Billings, we pull off the interstate highway to go by “Pompey’s Pillar”, a large rock outcropping named by Lewis and Clark after the son of Sacagawea, the native American woman who had guided them across the Continental Divide. The monument is closed (as Rolland had known it would be), and since it is raining, no one wants to walk over to it. However, several people do choose to photograph a passing coal train in the rain.

We continue into Billings on the old highway (US 12), since it is only a few miles away, and go to our hotel, the “historic” Northern Hotel. While we’re checking in, I see Jim Fredrickson, former NP Dispatcher and latterly a tour guide (as on our 1997 BC rail trip), dressed in an NP conductor’s uniform. We go to our room and drop off the bags, and then head for the room in which there is a reception for those traveling on the steam trip for the next three days. Here, we see several people we have known from NRHS Conventions and the like, including Don Kehl, Ed Miller (from Fort Worth), who had also taken the eastward portion of the steam excursion earlier in the week, and Bob & Diane Heavenrich (who arrive after we do). There are also additional members of our party, including Joe Shine, publisher of Four Ways West Books. We’re provided with additional information about our upcoming trip, including the horribly early times at which we have to have luggage out each morning, and pick up our tour badges for this part f the trip. (Rolland is furious when he is asked, apparently our of the blue, to handle giving out these materials for members of our group.)

After the reception, and since it is raining outside, we elect to have a pizza delivered to our room for dinner. We go to bed early, mindful of the ridiculously early alarm we have set fo the morning.

Friday, October 15th, 2004

We arise reluctantly, in full darkness, in time to put the luggage out by 6 am, then check out of the hotel and walk over to the former NP depot where the steam tour has breakfast ready for those traveling on the train. We also have an opportunity to purchase merchandise offered by the 4449 team before boarding the train. At 7:30 am, we board the train, settling into our allocated rear dome car of the “Big Sky” class dome cars on the Montana Rockies Rail Tours train. There are not quite enough coach seats in the lower part of this car for everyone in our group who are traveling in this class (there are group members in coach class, elsewhere on the train), so some people have to find seats elsewhere. We are all supposed to occupy seats in the dome for half of each day, leaving our on-board stuff in the seats we have taken on boarding the train this time. Rolland has told the train staff that we will police our own time in the dome, which is reasonable, but the resulting virtual disappearance of our supposedly allocated “car host”, and the scarcity of those who are supposed to be offering us “drinks and snacks throughout the day” are not. (The latter show up between 9:30 and 10 each morning, and around 3 pm in the afternoon, even on days when the trip legs end at around 3 pm!)

A characteristic of the Rocky Mountains in Montana is how far west their eastern edge is: Billings is as far west as Grand Junction, CO, and Gallup, NM (both west of the Continental Divide), yet is still in the Great Plains. (Glacier Park, in northern Montana, is even further to the west before the Great Plains end abruptly in the east face of the Rockies.) From Billings, it is more than two hundred miles and two major eastward-flowing river valleys (Yellowstone River and Missouri River) before the Continental Divide is reached at the summit of Mullan Pass.

Montana Rail Link Route Descriptions

The trainset used for this excursion is essentially the same as that used by Montana Rockies Rail Tours for its regular, diesel-hauled, excursions for the tourist trade during the spring and summer months. For this excursion, there are several additional head-end cars, including those owned by the 4449 folks right behind the locomotive(s), as well as the addition of the Pony Express in the middle of the train. In addition to former Southern Pacific Lima-built GS-4 4-8-4 4449, resplendent in its newly-repainted daylight colors, west of Livingston MRL F45 391 is provided both for additional power uphill and dynamic braking capabilities downhill.

The train departs Billings at 8 am, with the twilight still fading slowly. Along the Yellowstone River, we observe that there is snow on the adjacent hillsides, down to only about 100 ft. above track level. We stop for a photo runby at Columbus, MT, where we observe snow on the tops of the cars in a line of tank cars on the opposite side of the track. Our group in the dome car has an excellent lunch in the diner four cars forward, at 11 am (so that we’re finished by the time the train makes its stop in Livingston, from 12:37 to 2:04 pm). In the depot at Livingston is a museum, to which we have been provided entrance vouchers, and a model railroad club with layouts in HO scale and Lionel O gauge. Chris and I take our ‘allocated’ time in the dome after lunch, both in the short stretch along the Yellowstone River before reaching Livingston, and then over Bozeman Pass following that stop.

We reach Bozeman and about 3 pm, and are bused over to our hotel a few miles away. We eat dinner in the hotel, and go to bed early, since we have another ridiculously early luggage pull in the morning.

Saturday, October 16th, 2004

This morning, we observe how ridiculous the timing on the luggage pull really is. Yes, the hotel staff takes the bags from outside the doors down to the rear lobby (where the buses pick us up) at the appointed hour—but the bags are still sitting there, untouched, 90 minutes later when Chris and I leave on the bus to board the train. The train leaves at the appointed time, and several minutes later there is radio chatter to the effect that one of the support vehicles is bringing a passenger who had overslept to meet us at a grade crossing down the line. This transfer is duly accomplished at Logan.

We have two photo runbys today, one each at Clarkston in the morning and Garrison in the afternoon. During the morning, Chris goes to the club car to buy the last two Montana Steam II lined jackets (one in each of our sizes) against the expected cold weather in Tehachapi this winter. Our group has second sitting for lunch in the diner today, which at first seems as if it will mean we’ll be eating during the climb up to Mullan Pass. However, it transpires that we’re eating during the service stop in Helena (and thus don’t get off during that stop), but are done in time to sit in the dome during the climb of the east side of Mullan Pass, and remain there the rest of the way along the Clark Fork River to Missoula (with views of the former Milwaukee Road alignment and artifact remains to our left/south). At the latter, there is a reception in the hotel for those traveling on the steam excursion, which provides sufficient food to suffice for our dinner. In our hotel room, we realize that my insulated BC rail mug has been left on the train (and confirm that with the train staff, who have put it aside for us), which provides an excuse to buy a new insulated mug from the 4449 folks who have set up their table in the hotel lobby.

We go to bed thinking that the huge lead enjoyed by the Yankees over the Redsox mean that the Yankees have won the American league Championship series, only to discover days later that the Redsox had come back to win that game (and ultimately the series).

Sunday, October 17th, 2004

We again have to arise in pitch darkness, since the luggage pull toady is at 5:30 am. We go over to the Missoula depot while it is still dark. We are glad to be wearing our new jackets against the bitter pre-dawn cold this morning (there is a strong wind blowing), as we wait for the train staff to assemble the train (which had been parked in the station reversed, so that the Montana Gold passengers on the rear of the train had access to the platform). There had been problems with the generators providing the head-end power on the train late on Saturday afternoon, and since these still persist, the train staff is adding the car they have borrowed from Montana Rail Link (which is headquartered in Missoula) to attempt to solve the problem. Eventually, the train is assembled and turned, and 4449 added on the front, and we leave town almost an hour late. The HEP problem isn’t fully resolved until another hour or so has passed.

Chris and I sit in the dome for the first half of the day, today, for the climb over Evaro Hill. The rain and low clouds make it impossible to see the surrounding mountains, but we do get to see the trestles and the tunnel entrance. There is a stop to service the locomotive at Paradise. After lunch in the diner, there is a pair of photo runbys at Bridge 50 over an arm of the reservoir near trout Creek. Along with only a few others, I walk through some trees a short distance along the arm of the reservoir to get a better photo angle on the bridge and train. Some others climb the hill southwest of the bridge to accomplish something similar.

We arrive at the western end of the train’s run, near the western end of MRL in Sandpoint, ID, over an hour late, which means Rolland’s schedule for the rest of the day is thrown off. We board our bus directly from the train, and head off westward. We stop at a buffet restaurant in Spokane Valley, WA for dinner (at what I consider a more reasonable time than had been scheduled (helped also by the time change to Pacific Time at the Montana-Idaho border) and then continue west on I-90 and southwest on a lesser highway to the Pasco-Kennewick-Richland, WA, “tri-cities” area, where we stay at a hotel in Kennewick on the right bank of the Columbia River. We don’t have to be up quite so early in the morning, but this is already late so we soon go to bed.

Monday, October 18th, 2004

Dawn is already breaking when the alarm goes off this morning, and we leave the hotel in full daylight. We head due south, crossing the Columbia River again into Oregon, and then turn west on I-84 along the south (left) bank of that river. We see a number of Union Pacific trains on its line along that river, including an eastbound double stack and a westbound loaded grain train meeting and eastbound manifest., stop in The Dalles for a rest break, and stop briefly at Multnomah Falls for a quick photograph. In the Portland urban area, we turn north and cross the Columbia again into Vancouver, WA, where we are to board our southward train.  Along the former Spokane, Portland and Seattle line we see an eastbound empty grain train, an eastbound double stack, and an eastbound bare table train. Here, rain is falling (as it had been most of the way along the Columbia River Gorge). The Coast Starlight is on time on its arrival into Vancouver, WA, but late departing due to the ineptitude of the train staff loading some of our bags onto sleeping car 30. Our group goes directly to the diner, where we have lunch before and during the stop in Portland, OR.

[consist]

P42                  115
P42                  118
Baggage           1235
Transition         39009
Sleeper             32090  Michigan
Sleeper             32098  New Jersey
Sleeper             32095  Nebraska
Pacific Parlor    39972
Diner                38056
Lounge 33033
Coach              34041
Coach              34510
Coach              34098

Train 11, 10-18-2004

Schedule

Actual

Vancouver, WA

1:29pm

1:26/52

Portland, OR

2:05
2:25

2:10
2:32

Salem

3:37

3:36/40

Albany

4:10

4:10/13

Eugene

5:10

5:19/26

Chemult

8:05

8:27

Klamath Falls


10:00

9:47
10:01

10-19-2004

 

 

Sacramento

6:35am

6:35am

Davis

6:50

6:50

Martinez

7:34dep

7:31arr

Coast Starlight Route Description

The rain has stopped as we head up the Willamette River valley to Eugene and then east into the Cascades. There is evidence of good UP dispatching as the passenger trains threads its way among freights headed both north and south along the line between Albany and Eugene, where on trips not too long ago the passenger train would have followed the freights. After we turns eastward into the Cascades, we can clearly see a discernable channel for the river in the bottom of the reservoir on the north side of the track, and the upper part of the reservoir floor (except for that river channel) is dry and green with grass or other ground cover. We eat dinner as the train descends on the east side of the Cascades, and are in bed by the Klamath Falls stop.

Tuesday, October 19th, 2004

I awake at 6:10 am, with the train stopped in Sacramento. There is a San Joaquin that has pulled alongside of us in the next platform, but we have no intention (or possibility) of catching that train. We will, however, be in Martinez in time to take train 712 southward, rather than our booked train 714. This also means we don’t have time for breakfast on the train we’re currently on, already paid for or not. We had carefully said goodbye to tour mates the previous night, as we returned from dinner, so since we’re in a lower-level room on this train, we don’t even go upstairs (except to get coffee at the top of the stairs) this morning. Rolland does come by to see us off at Martinez, however.

Rain is falling heavily this morning, and it has impacted UP’s signals in the Bay Area, where our next train originates. Thus, we are almost 45 minutes late leaving Martinez, where the light level has scarcely risen in the 90 minutes since our arrival.

[consist]

Cab Car           8314
Coach              6565
Café                 8501
Coach-bagg.    8201
F59PH             2012

Train 712, 10-19-2004

Schedule

Actual

Martinez

8:23am

9:07am

Antioch-Pittsburg

8:42

9:30

Stockton

9:20

10:32/4

Modesto

9:40

11:10

Turlock/Denair

10:04

11:25

Merced

10:31

11:54

Madera

11:02

12:33pm

Fresno

11:25

1:04

Hanford

12:11

1:37

Corcoran

12:27

1:57

Wasco

12:55

2:28

Bakersfield

1:45

3:01

San Joaquin Route Description

The train loses another 45 minutes on its journey south to Bakersfield, where the rain has stopped but clouds still threaten. As expected, the Amtrak buses are waiting, and our bus gets us up to Tehachapi in good time so that we’re home a little after 4 pm.