Borrowed Time on the Moffat Road

While the purpose of my trip out west to Winter Park was to ski with some close friends, I always pack my camera “just in case”. So, after two beautiful, sun filled days skiing, this particular morning was overcast with a forecast for snow and blowing winds. I didn’t feel particularly motivated to head to the mountain to ski this day, but the possibility of shooting trains in the mountains was a different matter!

It didn’t take much arm-twisting to get Bryan Bechtold to set out from Winter Park with me on a very loose plan of following the Moffat Road to Kremmling and then head northwest to Phippsburg, the operational hub for the former Craig Branch of the DRG&W. While the Moffat Road itself has tremendous scenery and plenty of photographic opportunities, we both figured that the branch is living on borrowed time and we should use the opportunity to explore the line and hopefully catch a train on it.

Not looking for a train on the main line, we came across a Denver bound manifest in the siding at Granby. As we pulled over to figure where we could shoot it, the westbound California Zephyr flew by and with that action, knew that we didn’t have much time to find a suitable photo location. A quick look at a DeLorme map showed us a dirt road leading into a valley east of town and we followed our impulses. A few minutes after agreeing on a location to stop, the train came by and we had our first railroad photos of the day.

This eastbound manifest took the siding at Granby for Amtrak's California Zephyr on its westbound journey.

An eastbound manifest a few miles out of Granby

From Kremmling to Toponas, we were away from the tracks for about 45 minutes. As we came down the western ridge towards Toponas, we could see the tracks and visually scanned both directions for any sign of a train. At Toponas, we turned north and and parallel the tracks all the way to Phippsburg. With an eye on the track, we looked for shot possibilities along the way and made mental notes in case we would be lucky enough to find a train heading south. At Yampa, it started to snow and the possibilities of capturing some wonderful weather conditions and light got us excited.

Upon our arrival in Phippsburg, we turned down a dirt road that lead to the present Union Pacific crew building, and there it was! A loaded coal train, lit locomotives, and importantly, a crew visible in the cab! We were elated with our good fortune of finding a train ready to head south and even more grateful once we heard it would be the only one of the day. Within minutes, the train started its battle against inertia and gravity and crawled past UP’s “depot”. We found various angles to shoot the departing train and not having a chance to scout the train, it was exciting to see the two mid-train DPUs come into view and finally, two more on the end. A bit more than 25,000 horsepower to lift and move 15,000 tons of train against gravity.

A coal train rolls past the station at Phippsburg

The coal train rolls past the “depot” at Phippsburg

After we got our shots, it was time to head back south and set up at the next photo location. On the way up, I spotted a group of buildings and “trash” along the tracks in Yampa and thought that we could find plenty to work with there. It took longer than I thought for the train to make it the few miles since we passed it, but it finally came into our pre-visualized compositions. With three groups of power and a slow speed, we were able to move around the scene and make quite a few different shots of the passing train.

The rear DPU's push past a home in Yampa.

The rear DPUs push past a home and “trash” in Yampa

Once again, it was back to the car and make a run to our next location. With the tracks so close to the road, we didn’t see an interesting angle or visual element worth stopping for until we were almost in Toponas. We spotted a curve through a cut and I eyed a composition that included much of the snow covered landscape as I wanted to capture the train as a small element within the vastness of the high plain.

The coal train is working hard as it approaches Toponas.

The coal train is working hard as it approaches Toponas

Next stop was the small town of Toponas itself, which offered plenty of interesting angles and visual props. The challenge in such an environment is to distill the scene and make quick choices on composition and visual elements to include before the train comes through the scene. I didn’t have as much time as I would have preferred, but was happy with several of my shots there.

South of town, the tracks head into a remote and inaccessible canyon, so we drove towards the junction town of Bond and considered where we could go and have enough time to survey the scene and select a composition. We decided to bypass the scenic area of Lava Canyon and the double horseshoe curves at Crater and go for the horseshoe curve at Copper Spur Road. We felt that this location would give us the time we needed to get in and find our shot.

It turned out that we needed all the time we could get. We parked near the tracks at the grade crossing and followed our intuitive on heading to the east bore of the tunnel. Without a clear path, we hiked across alternating patches of snow, soft mud and more deer poop than I care to remember. We crossed three fences and finally saw the tracks well beneath us. We had hiked too far and high in our hast and probably should have taken the time before we started to see if our phones could get a signal to allow the use of our phone GPS system. We quickly backtracked, moved lower and found our desired position on top of the tunnel where we could get the train on both sides of the canyon. Just about the time my breath returned to a normal rhythm, the train appeared. Not sure if we were going to get two sets of locomotives in a shot, the anticipation grew as the lead locos moved out of view, swung around the curve and burst into view beneath us while the mid-train helpers were visible on the opposite side. The shot would have been good without the DPUs, but told a better story with it so I was quite happy.

Just a short distance away from Bond, is the horseshow curve at Copper Spur Road. This train has just exited the tunnel and the mid-train DPU's are across the gully. Another 40 plus cars behind the far curve are the rear DPU helpers contributing here to braking as the train descends to Bond.

Just a short distance away from Bond, is the horseshow curve at Copper Spur Road. This train has just exited the tunnel and the mid-train DPUs are across the gully. Another 40 plus cars behind the far curve are the rear DPU helpers contributing here to braking as the train descends to Bond.

With the shots I had, I felt that we already had a successful trip and didn’t need to chase the train further so we went into Bond to explore and shoot. We spent about 30 minutes in town photographing the post office, various structures and signs. Getting back into the car, we decided to head east through Gore Canyon on a leisurely pace to Kremmling. But as we approached Kremling, we spotted our coal train entering town and the chase was on again! Wanting to get some distance between the train and us, we made a beeline to Byers Canyon. The snowstorm that dampened my motivation to ski earlier finally made it north and the area was suddenly a winter wonder land with large snowflakes sticking to everything.

As we made the first turn into Byers Canyon, Brian startled me with a loud shout as dead ahead was the BNSF daily westbound trackage rights train. This wasn’t our intended subject, but we quickly turned around as we knew that either this train or the coal train would take the siding at Pearshall and give us a clue on what to do next. The coal train was in the siding and we took a few shots there as the BNSF train passed and we then went back to Byers to find a location that satisfied us both for composition possibilities. The snow was really coming down and the rocky brownish-yellow canyon that we had passed through just 5 hours earlier was now covered in a soft and blurred whiteness.

The coal train takes the siding at Parshall to allow the westbound BNSF manifest by.

This BNSF manifest has just exited Byers Canyon

We wait at Parshall siding for the BNSF train to pass and the coal train to proceed.

We wait at Parshall siding for the BNSF train to pass and the coal train to proceed.

Continuing its eastward journey, the coal train moves slowly through Byers Canyon.f

Continuing its eastward journey, the coal train moves slowly through Byers Canyon.

Darkness was approaching and we knew that we would not get in front of the train for a good, deliberate composition again, so Bryan did what railfans do! He caught up to the lead locomotive and paced the train as I got a few last shots before the slower speed limits of Granby would end our chase.

On the relatively flat line between Hot Sulpher Springs and Fraser, the coal train is able to maintain a good speed with 6 units and no track restrictions.

On the relatively flat line between Hot Sulpher Springs and Fraser, the coal train is able to maintain good speed with 6 units and no track restrictions.

A combination of luck and territory knowledge rewarded us with an increasing rare opportunity to photograph a coal train out of the Craig Branch. Just a few years ago, Phippsburg called 12 crews daily and now they are hanging on with just one. I don’t know if the Craig Branch is truly on borrowed time, but its fate doesn’t seem that different to me than the former Virginian or Clinchfield coal routes back east. With Colorado coal becoming increasing uncompetitive, who knows how much longer coal will flow out of the mountains.

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