Roadtrip on the BNSF Seligman Sub 12/20 - 12/22 2002

Heading out of Scottsdale around 1215 hours on Friday 20 December, I was (or thought I was) completely prepared for a fun and interesting few days exploring the mid-western portion of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Seligman Subdivision, stretching from Winslow AZ to Needles CA, a distance by rail of about 290 miles.

The weather forecast had talked about a Pacific storm coming in that afternoon, with the promise of snow at the higher elevations and rain otherwise. This trip would range in elevation from the low 3k feet all the way up to about 7k feet, so I figured that I'd get to see a little of both. As it's rare in the desert, it's always a pleasure to witness.

The map above shows my general route, encompassing about 600-700 miles total distance. There's lot's of back and forth along with a few side journeys that while short were far more challenging than one might think.

I passed through Wickenburg, stopped and grabbed a bite to eat, got some last-minute supplies for the trip. At Wickenburg, there was a solid line of clouds immediately west and blue skies back toward Phoenix. Looked suspiciously like nimbostratus, a fine harbinger of rain or snow. Only a few miles west, I went under the sheet of clouds and ultimately fleeting raindrops as I approached Wikiup on US 93.

I arrived Kingman about 1530 under a solid blanket of clouds, stopped for a soda, and began my journey eastbound on old Route 66, the mother road. This highway was built along the route of the old Santa Fe, and stays within a few miles of the right-of-way all the way across Arizona (at least where the old road still exists). Already, there was plenty of rail traffic, a whole slug of trains all headed east, the computer was logging all the ATCS traffic, I was maintaining a 20% error rate. From here at Kingman, the railraod heads approximately NNE for 12 miles, then curves west just a hair before heading east around the foot of Antares Point and into Crozier Canyon.

Keeping pace with the trains proved more difficult than I thought, as there was a lot of traffic on the line today and there was more than one train that was underpowered and slowing the rest of the traffic down. So, I pulled over at East Valentine (MP484) and waited for the traffic to catch up, providing me an opportunity to collect more ATCS data on E Valentine. Fortunately, I was able to observe siding usage that allowed me to flesh out a few more data bits that indicated switch throws and signal control. My most recent information on E Valentine is here.

Sundown (well, darkness) came about the same time I left E Valentine and headed further east along Rt 66, first to Peach Springs, then after watching a train or two pass through Peach Springs and recording that information, I continued east eventually arriving around 1930 at Seligman AZ.

The Roadkill Grill in Seligman is one of the places I stop when in town (there's not many places, anyway) but tonight the meal I ordered (Chicken-Fried steak) was pretty marginal. The gravy was just, well, brown. The green beans were overcooked or were frozen originally. All the while, trains were passing through Seligman and the computer in the truck was recording all the events. One of these days I will have a remote ATCSMon that runs on the iPAQ and have a Bluetooth or WiFi connection back to the truck to see the data as it's collected.

After dinner, I decided to find myself a vantage point that would let me hear as much of the local RR traffic as I could. The logical place for this was Chino Point, a promontory about 6 miles west of Seligman. I'd never been to the top, occupied by an FAA radar facility, a telco microwave relay facility, and a general two-way radio site, so I wasn't sure if there were locked gates or whatever. There weren't. About 5 miles west of Seligman, there's a closed (but not locked) gate that leads on to the Boquillas Ranch, and a well-graded dirt road that heads due north about a mile, then turns sharply west and south and climbs steeply up the east side of Chino Point. Exceedingly precipitous dropoff on the lefthand side of the truck, I hoped that the snow that was covering the dirt was thin enough that I'd have solid traction on the underlying dirt. Indeed, the drive up was a breeze.

Atop Chino Point, you're only about 500-600 feet above the local terrain, but that's plenty to have a view that stretches a long way in every direction but north. There's a BNSF radio site here, at the general two-way radio facility which is the northernmost site, and I figured that this point would have the necessary coverage to see many of the local Control Points (CPs). Parked just south of and 50 feet below the radar facility, I was nearly nose-against the north side of the fence surrounding the telco microwave facility. Quickly I found that the coverage of the railroad stretched from Yampai station (MP453.5) to the west all the way to E Williams Junction (MP374.3) about 40 miles due east. There were holes in the coverage, certainly, but it was definitely the best spot for many miles.

The night started out foggy (I was in the clouds surrounding Chino Point) but later on the clouds would part leaving me seeing black sky and finding the temperatures dropping into the low teens. A little before midnight I rolled out the sleeping bag, and leaving the computer running I dozed off. Around 5 I awoke due to the biting cold, so I started up the truck again and got the heater going to worm up. Found also that the computer had crashed around 0047, so what I had hoped was 5+ hours of data collected turned out to be just over an hour. Darn.

Rebooted the machine, got everything running again, and with the warmth of the heater, dozed off again. Around 8 I awoke to a grey morning, full overcast, white desert, mesas, escarpments and volcanic peaks spread out in all directions. Beautiful! However, the computer has again crashed, again only 45 minutes or so after starting it losing most of the potential three hours of data. Normally, I rarely get lockups, and this time I suspect that it might have been related to the radar facility or to the extreme cold. After checking out the view with the binoculars for a while and seeing what I could see from the top, I headed back down the hill (very slowly) as I wasn't sure if the way down was going to be much slicker than the way up. Fortunately, there were no problems and I made it down off the hill in 15 minutes or so.

Back in Seligman, I spent the better part of an hour watching a crew deal with some sort of problem on a grain train over on the Yard 1 track. Radio conversations appeared to center around a broken knuckle (coupler) and even the need for additional horsepower to move the train along. Multiple trains passed in the hour, in both directions, there was some use of the crossovers at either end of Seligman, so I was able to collect a fair amount of data to reinforce or correct the observations that I'd made back at the end of July, the last time I'd been here.

It was time to leave town, and return to the CPs that I'd not visited the night before. E and W Pica, Yampai, E and W Peach Springs, potentially even East Valentine and West Valentine again. My data for all those CPs were still not complete, and needed some switchthrows and reverse running to get all the occupancies, signal indications and switch indications logged. No matter how much time you spend, you'll almost never get exactly what you need, and today was no exception. Today, as normal, the railroad was using track 1 (north track) as the westbound track, and track 2 (south) as the eastbound track. Occasionally, they'd need to run one train past another, and there's where I was able to collect the reverse-running and switchthrow data, but unfortunately it wasn't near me as often as I wanted it, so the radio-collected data wasn't necessarily complete.

First stop west was West Pica station at milepost 446.9. About 0.6 mi south of old Route 66, it's in the middle of practically nowhere while being only 20 minutes or so from downtown Seligman (also nearly practically in the middle of nowhere). I snapped a picture of West Pica looking east along the right of way, but didn't shoot any of the trains that rolled through. The snow veneer was no more than an inch or so thick, and the temperature just below freezing.

After logging more data for both East Pica CP and West Pica CP, I rolled west along 66 to the turnoff at mile marker 117.0 at Hyde Park Rd. South along this road (paved for the first few hundred feet) about 1.7 miles until the BNSF right-of-way appears, then another 0.3 miles to the dragging equipment detector (DED) at MP452.9. West of the DED another 0.1 miles is the Hyde Park Road grade crossing. Yampai CP crossovers are another 1.7 miles west of the crossing.

I decided to find out if there was a vantage point east of Yampai that would give me a good view of the railroad east towards Seligman while being able to see Yampai. East of the grade crossing about a mile was a local rise maybe 300 feet higher than the corssing, so I found an little-used dirt road that led that way. Following a fenceline for a mile, I came to a twisty turny road that wound around the north flank of the rise and climbed. About a quarter mile along this, I saw atop the ridge a metal chimney pipe and smoke issuing. Not wanting to trespass though not having seen any signs or other indications of occupancy, I turned around and returned to the grade crossing near the DED.

Now starts the "fun" part of the journey. Driving back to RT 66 on the snow-covered Hyde Park Road, no more than 0.1 miles from RT66 I went into a little 4-wheel slide and slipped into the ditch along the road, ripping open the front right tire in the process. A four-inch radial gash marked the end of that tire. Limping over to the paved portion of the road, I popped the killed tire off and replaced it with the spare. Discovered also that the right rear was looking a little low, but was unsure why as it didn't look like it was involved in the altercation that destroyed the less than one year old front tire.

Now it was time to head to civilization - I don't normally carry a second spare on mostly highway trips. The Big O Tire dealer in Kingman was the next stop, where we all discovered that the right rear had been improperly installed 360 days ago (4 new tires last Christmas) and that someone had actually gotten one of the crimp-on weights stuck between the sidewall and the rim. This wieght had pressed into the bead and apparently the cold weather and rough roads had allowed air to start leaking. Needless to say, that tire was shot, also!

Nice thing about Big O: both of the tires, one destroyed by me, the other by improper installation, were fully covered under the warranty. So what would have been $350+ of tires cost me $5, which was the recycling fee imposed on tire carcasses by Mohave County. With two new tires on the front, I found a little lunch and returned to the right of way at West Berry CP which is about 1 mile north of the I40 overpass.

It proved to be a fine time to observe some complicated railroading, as they had chosen that afternoon to swap two crews at Berry (traded trains). They also had some low Horsepower Per Ton (HPT) trains that were holding up some fast trains, so they used Berry siding as the runaround. I got lots of confirmation on signal indications, switch indications, and occupancy.

There were a bunch of eastbound trains that departed Berry while I was there, so in the late afternoon I decided to see if I could catch up with one or more of them. Heading east along 66, I wasn't apparently going fast enough to catch up to the bulk of the eastbounders, but I did find one particular spot almost exactly at RT66 milepost 92.0 where I could park and hear simultaneously all CPs from West Berry (MP511.5) to Yampai (MP453.5). Parked there for a few hours, I had the opportunity to observe maybe 5-7 trains passing through most of that run.

I discovered a new, bad thing: I smelled the sickly, fishy smell of radiator fluid. Double-darn. A month ago I had the truck in to replace the front heater core in the sub - it looked like the repair they did had failed. Not good on a sub-freezing night in the middle of nowhere, where any moisture in the heating system would immediately fog the windows. Indeed, slowly but surely the fog started to thicken and the lights of approaching cars grew rays and starbursts. Running the defroster wasn't an option since that meant running the air conditioner, and it was already in the mid-20s outside. The best option I could come up with was to shut off the front heater and run the rear heater at full throttle, and take my sleeping bag and cover my legs, lap and chest. Still really cold, the stream of unheated air coming out of the front vents made life very difficult.

Next stop was Seligman, where I couldn't find a tube of radiator stop leak. On to Williams, getting colder and colder even though the rear heater was on full blast. None of that heat was getting east to the front of the cab. At Williams, I found the bottle of Bars Leak, and after waiting 30 minutes for the system to cool enough to open, I poured the stuff in and hoped for the best. Indeed, it did seem that the leak was abated, at least enough that I could run the front heater again. But the ethylene glycol film on the inside of the front windshield wasn't cleaning off with a rag, just streaking more. Out came the window cleaner (I carry window cleaner, you'd think that I would have had Bars Leak also?!?) and another interesting thing occurred. The windows were so cold that the window cleaner would freeze almost immediately when sprayed directly on the glass. It was kinda funny, but I guess you had to be there...

I thought briefly about driving all the way home, but it was nearing midnight and I was tired, so I headed over to a Forest Service Vista Point called Garland Prairie (about halfway between Deer Farm offramp MP171 and Parkes Road MP178 on old Rt 66) and parked there for the night. This minor rise seems to be well-situated, allowing me to observe radio traffic from East Bellemont (MP354.5) to West Perrin (385.3). If you know the area, you know how hilly and difficult it is to hear that length of railroad in this area. Running the heaters full-on for an hour, the inside of the truck got toasty enough that I figured I could last the night.

7 am came pretty cold, but this time it was going to be a sunny and bright day. The computer had survived the night, so I was more convinced that the failures the night before had something to do with the radar transmitter being only a few hundred feet from me. Maybe that's why I'm growing a third arm now? The low during the night had been between -2 and -10 Fahrenheit, based upon Flagstaff airport reporting a low of -2F (elevation 7000') and Grand Canyon airport reporting -8F (elevation 6570'). I was at 7400', and closer to Flag than to GC. Very cold. Sleeping bag needs to be beefed up. I think it's a sub-freezing bag, but definitely not a sub-zero F bag. I ended up with a cloth tarp and a mexican blanket also wrapped around me and slept in my parka.

This morning the radiator smell was minor, but still there. Running the defogger (which conducts heated air from the front heater core to the inside of the windshield) didn't produce any more fog, but the smell was still there. This morning I took the opportunity to head back over to Williams Jct, and watch a few trains head through the junction (but unfortunately none onto or off of the Phoenix Main). I did further verify some of my observations from Thanksgiving, when I discovered that they had come through and changed all of the signal/switch/occupancy indication/control bits for East and West Williams Junction, making for some very strange readings until I fixed it all.

After Williams Jct, a quick trip to the new Chalender double crossovers at MP368.1, where I snapped a shot of eastbound passing through at the grade crossing at Sherwood Forest Road. Then back to Williams and breakfast at Old Smokey's, where the pancakes are the size and thickness of hubcaps, and served really hot. Now feeling like I'd eaten way too much, I waddled back to the truck and headed east to Flagstaff to see what was going on at MP342.9 and 342.7. I'd heard on the radio that a rail had broken during the night at 342.7 (what's weird was that the evening before, way out west at MP 442.7, a rail had also broken; numerologically significant or what?) and that the crossing gates at Enterprise Road had failed.

Indeed, this had created a real mess on the railroad, and it wasn't making the lives of Flag's residents any easier, either. For some reason, during the night the railroad had switched to reverse running: in other words, the eastbound trains were preferring the north #1 track, while westbounders were running on the #2 (south) track. They had chosen East Flagstaff crossovers as the place to turn the railroad around to normal, and the rail break and defective gates were only a half-mile west of East Flag. So not only were trains grinding to a a full stop before proceeding through the defective crossing, they couldn't cross over the broken rail at more than 10mph. Then, eastbounders coming in on track #1 (north) would cross over to #2 track at east Flag, and westbounders coming into town on #1 north track would cross over to track #2 (south) at east Flag. What a mess. However, from my point of view, it was great as I got to see lots of signal and switch indications for East Flag, and verify or update my earlier observations. Oh yeah: these half-dozen trains that passed during the hour that I was there were blocking two major grade crossings for local residents, so this was really scrambling up the town. There's a consistent push to get the railroad to go underground in Flag, and I imagine that eventually it will, as there are 5 major grade crossings and constant whistle blowing as trains past through town. Now for me as a tourist, I think it's a wonderful fun part of visiting Flag and part of the heartbeat of the city. However, if I was living there, I might very well have a different opinion after a year or two of dealing with it!

Finally, my time to return home was drawing near. I headed over to a rise just west of West Flag (MP344.8) and watched a few trains pass by both directions while I tried to figure out the ATCS signalling bits. After not getting enough info, mainly becuase the number of trains prevented bits from getting reset enough, I packed up and headed back to Scottsdale. On the way back I got a bit of snow at Sunset Point on I17, and a little rain further in toward town.


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