Friday, March 5, 2004

Super charged with railfan adrenaline, I woke up at 3:35 am. On any normal vacation, I would never dream of getting up this early. However, today would be a train chasing day with Alaska Railroad mechanic Jeff DeBroeck! I showered, ate breakfast with Don, grabbed the lunch he had prepared for me and ran out the door.

The route to Jeff's house in Wasilla was treacherous with snow, ice and maniac drivers. Not long after leaving Anchorage, I saw flashing lights and knew it couldn't be good. A new SUV was upside down in a ditch and part of the roof had caved in. Even though the speed limit was 65 mph, I chose to stay at a more timid 45 mph. The road improved as I approached Wasilla and I soon arrived at Jeff's place by 6:00 am. He already had his monster truck ready and warmed up.

Birchwood #1

We first headed to a local MOW building and checked out train activity reports. From the look of things, it appeared two tank trains would meet at Birchwood. Off we went! Jeff's monster truck carried us easily through the heavy snowfall at Birchwood yard (milepost 136). As we approached the end of the yard, we saw tank trains approaching from both directions. I leaped out of the truck, gave the camcorder to Jeff and began snapping pix. Although it was still fairly dark, we got some decent photos and video [click here to view the 904KB video]. Unfortunately, the battery on my camcorder was quickly fading. Jeff said we would try to find a DC to AC inverter later in the day.

Here is an excerpt of the radio chatter as the two trains met:

4010: "Good morning, 4010 south has a meet with 4003 north at Birchwood. 4010 south will hold the main, over."

4003: "Roger, understand. 4003 north has a meet with 4010 south at beautiful downtown Birchwood, 4003 north will clear the main at Birchwood, over."

4010: "Okay, roger that. We're at the north switch now."

[Footnote: I have since learned the 4002/4003 tank train crew was Herf Keith, locomotive engineer and Steve Culver, conductor.]

Since the north portion of the railroad is much more scenic (and longer) then the trip south to Anchorage, we chose to follow the 4003 tank train as it headed for North Pole. This would provide a host of fantastic photo ops.

At 7:58 am Jeff brought his monster truck to a halt at the Matanuska curve, Palmer junction. Within minutes 4003 north went screaming by at what we guess was about 49 miles per hour. Again Jeff did the video while I snapped a few Picture of the Week hopefuls. As can be seen by the photo at left, this section of the railroad is under the control of the ARR's new CTC program.

Next, we followed the northbound tank train along a country road that came within 20 feet of the tracks. Jeff slowed his monster truck and was able to keep it along side of the SD70MACs. Excitement abound as we listened to the powerful sounds emanating from the pair of locomotives. The road began to rise and were able to look down upon the mighty MACs. Jeff commented that I should have been riding in the back of the truck so I could get better video.

Smashed police cruiserThe road parted from the SD70MACs and Jeff said we'd take the main road and catch them further down the line. As we popped over the top of a small hill, we saw a white car coming the opposite way. Even though Jeff hit the brakes and turned sharply, there was nothing he could do. The one-ton truck slammed into the car at the rear of the driver's door and split it open like a can of tuna fish. Of all the cars to hit, we had rammed a Wasilla police cruiser! Luckily, no one was injured and the police officer was very laid back about the entire incident. "Hey, accidents happen. That's what insurance is for." Jeff's truck was only minimally damaged and a second officer who arrived on the scene said maybe the Wasilla police force should all drive one-ton trucks. Amazingly, Jeff drove away without being cited.

We made a quick stop at Napa Auto Parts, purchased a DC to AC inverter and began charging the camcorder. Shortly after leaving town, the oncoming vehicle flashed its lights at us which Jeff said either meant their was a police officer or a moose up ahead. It turned out to be one of the biggest moose I have ever seen, standing at the top of a small hill twenty feet from the road. This was cause for alarm since "Alaskans have been crashing cars and trucks into moose about five or six times per day since the start of the year." [Moose carnage prompts concern, Anchorage Daily News, February 22, 2004]

HurricaneAfter a fair amount of driving, we arrived at the Hurricane section house. The thermometer on the side of the house read six degrees and the wind was blowing to beat the band. We made a quick stop inside the section house to listen to the radio and determine how far out 4003 north was and also to use the warm restroom. Jeff also took me to the shed next door to show my the generator used to provide electricity for the section house. At 11:35 am, our train came roaring by with its 55 empty tank cars. We then quickly scampered back into Jeff's monster truck to regain circulation in our limbs and digits. As we replayed the video Jeff filmed, we realized just how cold it was. The video is shaking because Jeff's body was shaking [click here to view the 3.1MB video].

Jordan Spreader 9From the road, Jeff spotted Jordan spreader 9 and a slew of Difco dump cars at Broad Pass siding. Of course we had to pull off and get a closer look. To my dismay, the access road into the siding put me on the shade side of the spreader. Every photographer worth his salt knows you want to snap your shots from the sun side. So here goes naive little John around the front of the spreader. Yes, he notices his feet are sinking about six inches into the snow. As his sunken steps shuttle him to the sunny side of the spreader (say that 30 times real fast), he realizes he is too close for a photo. So he takes a few steps back. Does he see the disaster coming? No. He takes a few more steps back and realizes he is still too close. So John thinks hey I'll just walk over to that little pine tree over there and get my photograph. The snow doesn't look that deep. Upon taking his third step he descends into snow up to his hips. Believe it or not, our hero is trapped. He cannot pull his feet out. He yells for Jeff. He contemplates making out his will. Finally, he acts. As he strenuously digs himself out, he begins to develop a new and profound respect for those who work in winter train service.

For Alaska Railroad addicts only: Jordan spreader 9 is the only piece of railroad equipment with the ARRC designation on it. All other equipment is designated with an ARR or nothing at all. And talking about oddities, caboose 1069 is the only piece of equipment to have a half standard, half inverted logo.


As we approached Windy, we caught sight of 4003 north in the distance. The rugged mountainous backdrop was too tempting to pass up. We hopped out of the truck and Jeff ran video [click here to view the 1.4MB video] while I grabbed some photos.

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At 12:34 pm we caught 4003 north at Summit siding. The engineer gave us a friendly toot, signifying that he realized we were stalking him. We traveled a little further down the road and Jeff stopped the truck so I could get some very Alaskan video on 4003 north [click here to view the 644KB video]. We made a stop at a parking lot close to Windy. At this location, three trains had come together, a southbound freight, our northbound tanks and a work train. I grabbed a bite to eat as we watched the intricate ballet of passing equipment. Now I am typically not a litterbug. However, today I decided to throw a banana peel out the window. Hey, I was just providing food for the poor starving wildlife, right? Anyway, it was so windy at Windy that the banana peel flew just a few feet out the window, came soaring back over the hood and landed on the other side.

Riley Creek TrestleOur next stop was Denali Park. Jeff had intended to drive the MOW road almost all the way back to the Riley Creek trestle. Unfortunately, the monster truck finally met its match and came to a gradual halt in the deep, deep snow. Jeff contemplated putting chains on the tires, but instead opted for a hike. The snow on the steps that lead down to Denali depot went past our knees and we struggled greatly to reach the building. There was no time to rest so we plunge onward to the tracks, staying close to the rail with its hard packed snow. I kid you not, we reached the trestle just as the train did and quickly whipped out our camera equipment. The walk back to the depot was extremely nasty. A sharp arctic wind sand blasted our faces until I was sure our cheeks were frostbitten. We crawled back through the snowdrifts and I finally dropped breathlessly face first onto the passenger seat of Jeff's recently defeated monster truck. He told me to get the rest of my body in and shut the door as I was letting all the warm air out of the truck. Note to self: next winter trip rent a snow machine.

Healy overpess Healy overpass #2

By now the muscles above my knees were aching from walking through deep snow. Jeff, the ever adaptable guy that he is, made our next stop an easy one. He pulled his monster truck onto the overpass on Healy Road (north end of the Healy Yard) and we sat in the sun and waited for our prey. Eagerly munching on chocolate bars and canned fruit, we rehashed the police cruiser demolition derby. Jeff was still amazed that the police officer did not issue him a citation. Jeff's radio crackled with the voice of 4003 north's locomotive engineer. We hoped out of the truck and took our positions on the bridge. Jeff shot more video while I captured the moment on electrons. [Note: In the upper left hand corner of the photo you can see the exhaust from the Healy Clean Coal Project. This perplexed both Jeff and I since we thought it had been closed down for quite a while now.]

With not a moment to lose, we quickly made our way to Ferry bridge. After walking across the bridge and getting into position, we waited for our prey. And waited. And waited. And waited. I could not believe it. I had missed snapping a shot of a train crossing the Ferry bridge in 2002. Now I had missed it again in 2004. Note to self and Randy Thompson: top priority for 2005 trip – get photo of train on Ferry bridge. Drats!

We had now reached a point of decision. Should we chase the train to Nenana and come crawling back home in the wee hours of the morning? Or bag it and head back? My aching knee muscles and exhausted body easily made this decision.

As a final hurrah, we made a stop at the Cantwell section house to watch the work train come in for the night. The moon was just coming up over the mountains as the work train rumbled to the section house and I was able to get a few handheld long exposure shots. As luck would have it, the work train crew had several people on board that I knew . Extra gang foreman Rich Holzapfel invited us into the warmth of the section house to view some of the photos he had taken on the railroad. As Jeff and I looked over the photos, the work train crew, Frank Armstrong, Duane Frank, Rich Hozapfel and Darryl Kollander skewered each other with their rapier wit and told stories of work days gone by. The camaraderie that exists between these railroad employees filled the small room with a warm glow.

All good things must come to an end. Jeff and I piled into his monster truck and began the long, trainless drive home. Jeff shared various aspects of his job and I must admit my head nodded a time or two. We again saw the same big moose beside the road although this time dangerously close.

Once we arrived at Jeff's house, he invited me in to see his HO scale steam locomotive projects. He and Pat Durand are racing one another to see who can build one of every type of locomotive that was ever on the Alaska Railroad roster. Jeff's work was incredible! Once he regains Internet connectivity, I hope to feature more of his work on the website.

I arrived back at Don's silent condo just after midnight. The 21-hour day done, the trains chased and the body exhausted, I crawled into bed and drifted contently off to sleep.

Chapter 2 | Index | Chapter 4