Stevens Pass 2006
Saturday, April 29, 2006
written by Lindsay Korst
Another beautiful Spring day broke over the skies
of Redmond as I headed for the ex-GN mainline at
Monroe. The previous day, the temperature hit 78,
so I was anticipating another great day to railfan
on Stevens Pass.
Provisioning taken care of at Monroe, I set out in
the early morning light. It was too dark yet to shoot
the double stack train parked on the mainline at
the east switch of Monroe siding.
My first stop today was at Gold Bar where a colorful
consist of BNSF, NS and MRL units basked in the dawn's
early light. Curiously, there was another BNSF unit
cut off from the consist and shut down immediately in
front of the train. There didn't seem to be any crew
around. After taking my fill of pictures, I set off
for the day's first photo spot at the MP 1751 bridge
just east of Gold Bar.
I was wearing just a flannel shirt and jeans as I
scrambled down the path and over the huge rocks along
the Skykomish River, but the temperature was quite
warm -- almost 50 already. I found my photo spot
and waited, listening to the steady conversation
on my scanner between the Seattle East dispatcher
and the various trains in the area. It was becoming
clear that there was quite a traffic jam on Stevens.
I soon learned that the train I saw in Gold Bar was
a Tacoma to Denver consist that had already gone
"dead on hours". I heard the new crew arriving and
asking the DS what to do with the dead unit in front
of them? The dispatcher said to bring it along with
them to Wenatchee.
At the same time, a westbound Z train called from
Baring siding just up the line asking why he was
being put in the hole -- to have Amtrak run around
him? The dispatcher said that he would be holding
there instead for an eastbound Q train overtaking
the outlawed Tacoma-Denver train at Gold Bar.
Shortly, I heard the new crew at Gold Bar talking
to the Q that was overtaking. The crew on the Q
train mentioned to the dispatcher that they were
"underpowered". In a couple minutes, I heard a
tell-tale rumble and the Q train with 3 units
blasted by me on the bridge and I banged off a
few pictures. Here was the train I would follow
east. The sun rose above the mountainside
illuminating the Q train just as it crossed the
Sky River...a good omen for the day.
After a brief scramble back up the trail to my
truck, I set off in pursuit. I caught the Q
at the bridge over US 2 near Index and passed the
units just before Baring. The eastbound Q had a
green signal. Where is Amtrak? The Builder is
due and a quick check of Amtrak's website had shown
it on time into Wenatchee.
The westbound Z train's conductor was on the front
porch of the locomotive to inspect my eastbound Q.
Suddenly in front of me, a red Blazer-type SUV
swerved off the road right beside the parked Z train.
Hmpf...must be a railfan going for a juicy "meet"
shot. The picture was backlit (sour grapes), so I
bode him well and pressed on for Skykomish.
At Skykomish, the "Art Train" was parked off to one
side surrounded by orange mesh fence. It sort of
schmucked up the shot I had planned at the Sky depot
but, oh well, here goes.
Well, whaddiya know, here comes the Builder creeping
down the pass while the eastbound Q gamely blasts by
the depot. #7 is going to be a little late into
Everett today, but with all that schedule pad just
might make it to King Street on the advertised.
The eastbound Q train is noticeably slowing as he
hits the 2.2% grade at the east switch of Sky. As
I drive past, the train is down to a steady 10mph.
He is indeed underpowered.
Roaring up US 2, I am quickly ahead of the Q as he
heads slowly south for Foss River trestle. I decide
to catch him at "The Cut" just west of Deception Creek.
This is the first test of my new Toyota Tacoma in 4 wheel
drive and it handles the steep Forest Service road
When I arrive at the Bonneville Power line crossing, I
can just see the train, still slugging it out on the
steep grade far below me. The train is really struggling.
I opt for a shot a little further east which turns out to
be a dandy. In the early morning light, BNSF 5069 looks
great as it squeezes through the narrow cut.
The Q train is making a steady 15 mph now and seems it
will make it to Scenic where the grade lessens a bit in
the Cascade Tunnel. Once he is past, I walk back to
the truck and pick my way down to US 2. I am surprised to see
the Q train stopped on the main at Scenic. I pull a U turn
on US 2 and head back to see what's up.
As I pass him on the overhead bridge, I see him punch his
headlights to bright, hear him turn on his bell for the
crossing and start to rev up his diesels. Maybe tunnel
was being flushed? Had a meet with a train that's
around the corner? Dunno. Anyway, since BNSF 5069 is
on his hands and knees, I can easily catch him at the
East Portal of Cascade Tunnel.
I decide to try a long shot of the east portal from the
access road far away. I pull out my seldom-used 300mm
zoom lens and give it a whirl. It frames up the portal
nicely. The light is kind of diffused (high, thin clouds)
so it should be a decent shot.
I am parked no more than 10 minutes when the "five minute
warning strobe" starts flashing. I take the obligatory
opening door pictures (sliding door, actually) and shortly
thereafter, the eastbound Q pops out into daylight after
his nearly 8 mile journey in darkness.
The hoghead has the train quickly up to speed once he starts
heading downhill to Berne, so catching him will take some
time. Strangely, the weather is turning CLOUDY now that I
am in Eastern Washington (the dry side). Usually the opposite
is true. When I reach Merritt, there is a light rain. As I
come up to the US 2 rest area, I just catch up to the units.
He is really moving.
But not for long. The Dispatcher notifies him that at a
certain milepost (I estimate near Plain, WA), he is to pass
at restricted speed with "plenty of bells and whistles"
requested by the local Fire Department who are doing an
arson investigation. The Q's engineer repeats this back
to the DS as I pass through Leavenworth. I decide my next
picture will be on the sweeping curve just east of Monitor
along the Wenatchee River. I have some trouble finding the
spot, but luckily my Q train meets a westbound stack at
Cashmere which slows him down.
The sun has come back out again and it is such a pretty spot
with the apple blossoms in bloom, I decide to have my lunch
here, listening to the scanner for any further trains.
Later, as I come into Wenatchee a "vehicle train" passes by
me heading west. Hmmm...It's only noon. Too early to head back
home just yet. First, I head out to Appleyard to see what's
cookin'. Wow. EVERY TRACK is filled with either a stack train
or some sort of priority stuff (auto racks, trailers, etc.).'
An acquaintance of mine from BNSF had warned me a lot of trains were
being held on this division for lack of power. Here's the
Saw something kind of interesting at a road crossing in the
yard. All the stack trains had cut the road crossing, but
were still connected together with air hoses which ran
UNDER the crossing (pavement) to keep the train connected.
Never seen that before. I guess those trains won't be moving
for a while. Enough fun. Back to the depot to see if any
of these fine trains were going to head back west.
Not much happening. I relax in town at the depot taking a short nap
in the sunshine until a "junk train" pulls up to the yard office.
It always strikes me as odd or unnatural to see an ATSF silver/red
warbonnet unit on the point of a train over Stevens Pass. I just
prefer BNSF's orange, thank-you-very-much. It's the historian in me.
Anyway, this train is a real "dog's breakfast" of freight cars.
It's got to be the lowest priority on the entire subdivision.
He's got a collection of grain cars, hopper cars, empty lumber
cars, tank cars and heaven help me, a few box cars (do they still
Finally about 1:30, he announces he's ready to go and lo and behold,
the yardmaster let's him out! The engineer seems surprised and
thanks the yardmaster and Seattle East dispatcher profusely. He
starts to pull and I head out ahead of him for my first shot on
the road back home. It is a sunny, balmy 78 degrees outside.
First stop is the trestle at Dryden which has some nice blossoms
in bloom to frame my shot. The apple orchards between here and
Leavenworth are in FULL bloom and really dress up the landscape.
As I make my way through Leavenworth, my westbound junk train is
out of sight to the north. (the highway goes
up the Tumwater Canyon, whilst the railroad follows the Chumstick
Valley). I decide that Merritt would be a good photo op. As I
get to the crossing, I notice the signals are set green for an
eastbound. Hmm....they must be holding my junk train at Leavenworth.
It is starting to spit rain and the clouds on the pass ahead look
ominous. What happened to my nice weather? No time for heading
out to the signal bridge at West Merritt, I content myself for a
shot of this eastbound at the ex-GN style crossbuck.
Lo and behold, it is the Tacoma-Denver train from the Gold Bar
siding this morning! And he managed to get the dead unit
BNSF 4875 going because it is in the lead and working (I see the
exhaust). As he passes me, however, he notifies the DS that
his MRL unit (the nifty SD45-2) has shut down. Lucky for him
he's going downhill.
Anyway, it's getting late in the day, and my junk train is
nowhere to be found. I set up for him at White Pines Road (see Scott?
I said it properly!). Since the sun is sort of touch and go,
I set up on the dark side to try a different angle -- not too bad.
As I set off in pursuit, I hear my junk train announce approach
medium and diverging restricted signals at Berne meaning he will
be taking the siding. By the time I reach Cascade Tunnel the
clouds have rolled in and the temperature has dropped to around
45. It is pouring down rain.
Time to bag it and head home. Of course, now that the weather
has turned foul, there's two trains at every siding. Through
the rain, I see the westbound vehicle train from Wenatchee passing
another stack train at Sky, and both Baring and Goldbar sidings
have eastbounds waiting for him.
Still, got some good pictures, had fun and stayed safe. Stevens
Pass is like that. You take what it gives you. Coming next month,
a trip to Blaine perhaps? Then the Spokane/Sandpoint
trip with Scott Tanner is in June. Stay tuned!