Friday, December 18, 2009

Winter Photos Over Donner Pass

A small respite from a serious snowstorm.  Here, under breaking blue skies, a downhill UP consist has just cleared the Big Hole and meanders towards the Soda Springs crossing.  The sun smiled down upon me and presented some wonderful lighting conditions.

This is a UP train running downhill on the #1 track, EMD SD-70M on point, in the midst of a rather serious 2004 snowstorm.  At the time I still had a smaller, nimble 4WD vehicle.  The train approaches "American."  Flangers had just, about an hour prior, cleared the downhill track.

This was the head-end of a special consist purposely run up Donner for former UP CEO Dick Davidson's Christmas cards for 1998.  Yes, that is the reason these units are inordinately pristine.  This train stopped just past Shed 41 for the photographs.  Please note the sequential engine numbers: 4526, 4527, 4528.  The engineer is waving.  It's good to be King.

A very unusual consist over Donner: two Norfolk Southern engines.  NS is seldom if ever seen this far west for good reason.  Here a mixed manifest train pulls uphill, eastbound, past a spot UP engineers know as "Rocky Point."  In the mid-1800s Central Pacific named this area "American" and would stop their open-car trains here.  Passengers would step down and gaze west towards Sacramento and down to the north fork of the American River.

GE, EMD, GE, EMD: An autorack with an elderly GE engine on point exits the Big Hole, Tunnel 41, 10,322-feet in length, having summited and now beginning to run down hill on the Number 1 track towards Norden and Soda Springs.  This portal, now concrete, was once comprised of massive timbers, removed in the early 2000s.

The City of San Francisco, a Southern Pacific train, gets trapped in the Winter of 1952:


Monday, December 14, 2009

Farewell to Double Stack Trains Over the Feather River Route?

Union Pacific recently opened the Donner Pass route (otherwise known as the Number 1 and Number 2 tracks) from Roseville, California to Sparks, Nevada for double stack container service. This was done because running intermodal trains over Donner saves about 75 miles in distance, as opposed to running the Feather River.

See my prior post here for that opening.

Before November 19th, Donner could never handle double stack traffic due to the height restrictions in most of the tunnels, first holed by Chinese laborers for Central Pacific's portion of the Transcontinental route.

East/west double stack traffic into and out of California historically had to travel through the Feather River Canyon, as the multiple tunnels there could easily accommodate the height of well cars -- roughly 22' tall.

Now, there are those who fear that the removal of intermodal traffic from the Feather River Canyon will doom that route.

Union Pacific, at this point and to my knowledge, is not making any indications that it is even remotely considering the abandonment of Feather River traffic.

There are those, however, who believe that the writing is on the proverbial Union Pacific wall, and the above beautifully-done video laments what the producers believe may be the end of trains through the Feather River Canyon.

I personally do not believe Union Pacific can afford to close the FRC route. Each route, Feather River and Donner, have their weather problems. For example, when snow and drifts occlude or close Donner Pass, the alternative route is the FRC.

And when heavy rains, the rising or flooding Feather River or loose shale closes the FRC, then Donner is the viable alternative now.

Both routes have their own very serious weather issues.

For now, railfans and railroaders alike will have to simply enjoy what exists, while it exists.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Double Stack Trains Over Donner Pass!

Southern Pacific had a problem at first. Then, when SP was bought out (actually owned by DRGW's Philip Anschutz) by Union Pacific on, oddly enough, 09-11-1996, Union Pacific inherited that problem.

And that is this:

Double-stack (also called intermodal) trains could not be run up and over Donner Pass due to tunnel clearance problems.

Now, double stack traffic can run over Donner.

If UP wanted to move double-stack traffic west/east, east/west through California, it had to do so through the Feather River Canyon -- once the province of the Western Pacific (purchased by UP on 12-22-1981).

The problem with the Feather River Canyon route is that it's inherently fluctuous. The Feather River is prone to flooding, and the area is rife with shale rock -- making the route notoriously unstable and -- as UP discovered once purchased -- requiring thousands and thousands of dollars spent for track stabilization programs to shore up the sides of mountains, hills, tunnels, sidings, bridges, trestles and basic trackwork.

The additional problem was that running double stack traffic east/west through the Feather River Canyon added 75 miles to the journey and another three hours.

Today, what is known as "Donner Pass" corresponds to Union Pacific's Roseville Subdivision, what are now termed the Number One and Number Two tracks from Roseville, California to Sparks, Nevada.

When originally holed in the mid-1800s by the Central Pacific, the tunnels comprising the Central Pacific portion of the Transcontinental Railroad were built only to accommodate the traffic of the day. And certainly not traffic corresponding to the height of today's double-stack well cars.

The average locomotive is 15 to 16 feet tall.

Auto rack cars are currently 20' 2" tall.

Double stack traffic can run up to 22-feet.

The specific tunnels in question were holed down to accomodate 22-foot traffic. Enviro- and historically-concerned issues included destruction of the original Chinese tunnels. But, as Union Pacific worked, it didn't scrape the tunnels up. Instead, it lowered the track beds through the affected portals.

Efficiency and history can be reconciled.