Number 4016 the "Spirit of Delta Junction" is my favorite of all ARR SD70MACs. It symbolizes my "best effort" of getting preliminary access to these majestic MACs. Security surrounding the manufacturing, assembly and delivery of these machines rivaled anything I saw while working on classified programs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
My pursuit began in early 1999. I began to make plans to fly to Alaska for the arrival of the first SD70MACs. A few of my ARR friends advised against this. They said weather and delivery schedules are unpredictable plus the MACs needed to be checked out, crews trained and radios installed. They suggested I fly up after all the MACs were received so I would have plenty of photo ops. Looking back on it all, I am amazed at how right they were!
Feeling like I wanted to somehow be a part of it all, I came up with a new idea. In the spring of 1999, I made numerous contacts to obtain access to EMD's London, Ontario plant. I wanted to collect manufacturing information and photos. I would then load this to my website so everyone could learn about the process. GM EMD said my request was impossible, but that it would be forwarded to the appropriate office. After numerous follow up phone calls went unheeded, I finally gave up.
In early fall of 1999, I discovered 15 of the 16 SD70MACs would be assembled at the Juniata plant in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Could I get in there??? What the heck, I'll give it a try. Rudy Husband, the PR man at the plant, told me if I didn't write for a major publication then I would not be given a tour. Does a major website count as a major publication? Apparently not. I figured this was another dead end until good friend and ARR locomotive engineer Frank Dewey stopped by to visit me while in the lower 48. He said Governor Bill Sheffield, President of Alaska Railroad Corporation was on the airplane from Anchorage with him. He asked Governor Sheffield regarding the possibilities of my photographing the new SD70MACs at the Juniata plant for the ARRC and my website. Bill thought it was a good idea. With renewed vigor (and Frank's help), I drafted a letter to Governor Sheffield's office on October 12, 1999. Upon receiving the letter, Sheffield's office attempted to make the necessary arraingments for me. They were flatly refused by Rudy Husband. It still amazes me that a simple request from the former governor of the state of Alaska serving as president of a major corporation which was spending over $30 million for their product was turned down. I guess it is a good thing I am not at the helm of the ARRC for I would order GE products from here on out. Rudy did say if I made a list of photographs, he would get them for me. He would send the photos to the ARRC who in turn would give them to me. My request to Rudy for these photos went unheeded.
At this point, I figured I had run out of track. However, Carl Luther, a railfan friend from Akron, Ohio, invited me to Alliance, Ohio to watch the ARR SD70MACs as they passed through on their way to Seattle. Since he knew several insiders who could monitor train traffic out of Conway Yard in Pennsylvania, I figured it would be worth the seven hour round trip drive. After making two unsuccessful trips, Carl suggested next time we go directly to Conway Yard. Instead of watching the locomotives for mere seconds as they passed through town, now we could observe and photograph them for hours! When Carl heard one of the units had arrived in Conway, he asked me to accompany him. Unfortunately, I had other committments. Carl called me later on in the weekend and bragged about spending the day with an ARR SD70MAC. Nuts!
With only one locomotive left to ship out, I was growing extremely anxious. My wife and three kids asked me almost daily if there was any word on 4016. On Thursday, April 13 I got word from Tony Kimmel that ARR SD70MAC 4016 was headed to Conway. Wouldn't you know it, I had committments for the entire weekend!!! However, luck was with me in that my weekend trip was cancelled. On Saturday, April 15 the Combs Family Unit piled into the van and began the five hour drive to Conway. Lucky for my bank account, there were no state troopers prowling the Interstate highways. With much anticipation, we pulled into the Conway Yard and found Carl Luther. He immediately took us over to see number 4016. At long last, my journey had ended in success! However, the winds of fate were blowing cold once again. After a mere five minutes and a few photos later, the railroad police arrived and told us to leave. Since our yardmaster contact (the person who gave us permission to be in the yard) had gone home for the day, we left. Was it worth it? A family vote was met with a resounding yes.
I spent countless hours in my preliminary pursuit. Honestly, this experience taught me many things. I learned a lot about railfanning. I also made several new friendships. Most importantly, I appreciated the opportunity the ARRC gave me when I arrived in Anchorage in June, 2000. They even granted me a cab ride!
For more information, see my ARR SD70MAC page.
Photo courtesy of John Combs
Photo taken at Conway Yard, PA on April 15, 2000