2016 Stevens Pass
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Stevens Pass 2016
"Chasing a Z"
written by Lindsay Korst

Thursday, May 26

With my weird, new schedule at work, my days off are now mid-week! That's why I'm heading out on a Thursday. This should be perfect. Just before Memorial Day weekend -- people haven't started heading out yet. Indeed, after Gold Bar, I pretty much have the highways all to myself, coming and going.

Out the door at 6am, it's a short drive to Sultan Bakery for a mouth-watering, chicken fried steak breakfast. Leaving the Bakery at 6:45, #7 the Empire Builder, is right on time, so I SHOULD meet him somewhere this side of Skykomish. The scanner reveals little activity until I reach Grotto where I learn a westbound is starting to pull out of Sky. I set up at Money Creek bridge.

From there, it is a short sprint to Sky, but the signals are dark and #7 is nowhere to be found. He must have followed RIGHT behind the westbound on his yellow signals. Indeed, I later hear the Seattle East dispatcher talk to the westbound freight telling him Amtrak will run around him at Baring siding. The good news is the freight will also hold at Baring for a Z train taking siding at Gold Bar. Cool! An eastbound to follow! All right. Time to poke around Sky, then.

A set of engines idle softly next to Skykomish landmarks; the Whistling Post Tavern and Cascadia Inn.

Good Golly Miss Molly -- they are starting to paint the BNSF 6126 in Omaha Orange! Can't wait until that's done. This unit is the former Great Northern # 599, a high-nose SD9 - one of only two on the GN with dynamic brakes (the other was GN 598/BNSF 6125). Word on the street is this unit will be painted back into the original Orange/Green/Gold Stripe scheme as funds allow. Beauty, eh?

Good progress on the Great Northern and Cascade Ry. continues to be made. The Skykomish depot is looking good as ever and I notice they have enclosed the shed built to hold members equipment with plywood. Also there's this nifty Wellington depot!

No visit to Sky is complete without a visit to Fred Black's X-228 caboose. As I walk around for a few shots I notice that Fred has the old Skykomish depot sign mounted on one of his sheds. Old GN depot signs are way cool.

Soon enough, I am back by GN 599 for a shot of the Z as he pulls thru Skykomish a little after 9am. Here is a view of the old and the new.

Once the Z is out of town, I head up towards Scenic. I plan to catch him either at the east portal of Cascade Tunnel or at Gaynor trestle. First stop at Scenic is the X-294 caboose at the Iron Goat trailhead.

Second stop is -- someplace I just never got around to somehow - the NP wood caboose (off its trucks) just across the road from X-294. Hey, whaddiya know - this guy has the old GN Scenic depot sign! Did I mention original depot signs are cool?

Off I go over Stevens Pass. The weather is damp and misty (in case you haven't noticed from my pictures). Then, magically, as I cross the pass and head downhill, the clouds clear off and the sun starts to peek out. First the turnoff for East Portal.  Hmmmm....BNSF has all sorts of scary new signs up -- even though this is an old Forest Service road according to Bob Kelly -- and the clincher is a BNSF high rail truck down by the crossing. Not gonna go there today. I reverse course and continue east down US 2.

Now...where was that turn off again? MP 74? 75? 76? Finally, I opt for the turn off at MP 74 and trundle down a really rough service road -- oops, this isn't the road to Gaynor. Then I realize as I near trackside, this is the access road to East Berne siding...with the oochie TTX flatcar bridge over Nason Creek!

I park the truck out of the way and remember -- hey, is that signal bridge still in place? I trudge uphill, around a corner and sure enough, there is the mighty span -- an old relic of GN days.  Serendipity!

The sun is out and it isn't long before my BNSF 7620-led Z train is whining by in dynamic.

New shot for me! Haven't been here in ages, other than on the Empire Builder itself. OK, back up the steep hill in 4 wheel drive I go and back in pursuit of the Z.

I overtake him just outside Winton and grab a quick shot at the US 2 overpass. The engineer remembers me from East Berne with a nice "BONK BONK" on his horns.

It is a scenic drive down Tumwater Canyon, with the river in full roar of spring melt and then thru Leavenworth down US 2. I'm a good ways ahead of the Z now, even though there have been no meets to slow him down. I set up at Monitor curve.

Once again, I get a very nice highball from the hogger as his conductor gets on the radio and talks to Wenatchee about where they'll make the crew change. I head thru Wenatch and set up for my first shot at Rock Island Dam. The Z takes a while to get there, but finally I'm rewarded as he snakes his way past the basalt lava cliffs alongside the Columbia River.

I hop back in the Tacoma and soon arrive at the "sand pit" photo spot. From this vantage point, the train snakes its way through a double S curve as it climbs away from the river up into Lynch Coulee.

The Z train passes overhead on an old GN-era bridge as I chase it east towards Quincy on Highway 28.

I set up my final shot of this eastbound at the Quincy depot. Notice part of the roof is torn off of the building. I'm wondering if BNSF is getting ready to demolish this 1950's era GN passenger station. Look, Baolu! Tiger!

Time for lunch. A quick trip through the local McDonald's (Quincy's only drive thru) and then it's back to railfanning. As it is a weekday, the "Quincy Local" is doing its regular chores switching the numerous local industries. There is quite a bit of chatter between the local and the Seattle East dispatcher as they continuously request signals and use of the mainline for switching moves. Obviously there is no mainline traffic coming East or West for a while.

After getting my fill of shooting "BNSF 3010 East", I head west from Quincy back down to the turnoff for Lynch Coulee at Trinidad siding. I notice there is a high-rail truck at the Trinidad East switch doing some welding. A little further on, I notice the boonie wood trestle over the tracks has been replaced with this enormous concrete bridge. Actually, they are still putting the finishing touches on it with lots of equipment clanking around. Quite the structure considering it's just an old dirt road to someone's ranch.

Since no trains are due for a while, I explore around various places near the Trinidad horseshoe curve, then make my dusty way up to Tunnel 11.1 to wait for the Quincy local.

It's a beautiful day (78 degrees and sunny) and I just enjoy the spot. Then just like that, the Quincy Local comes coasting silently down the hill with a few cars in tow. BNSF 3191 is a former Santa Fe GP50 in "Bluebonnet" and BNSF 3010 is a former BN GP40 with large BN nose logo.

It's getting towards evening, so time to start heading back home. As I approach Rock Island dam, I notice an eastbound Boeing train (empty). I am "out of position", so I just press on to the Rock Island Shell station to gas up for the return trip.

Back in Wenatchee, I pay homage to the Great Northern steam engine #1147 (F-8 class 2-8-0 Consolidation type) on display in a city park. She's a little faded (last repainted in 2008), but still looking fine.

I stop at the Wenatchee "depot", but no motive power around -- just this BNSF 12577 caboose. (rebuilt March 1990 from BN caboose 12249 nee-August 1978.)

Heading back towards Stevens Pass, I begin plotting and calculating where I can get a grab shot of #8. As I head eastward from Cashmere, I can see an enormous fluffy mound of clouds hugging just the top of the Cascades. The Builder is on time according to the app on my iPhone, so I estimate he'll pop out of Cascade tunnel between 7:15 and 7:30pm. I should be able to see it at White Pines Road where it crosses Nason Creek.

I am "in position" right at 7:15. It is just starting to spit rain. Hmmm...#8 is due into Leavenworth at 8pm straight up. As I hit "refresh", now the Builder is due at LWA at 8:45pm! A couple minutes later it's due at 9:05pm. OK, something happened to it. Either a unit died or it got seriously stabbed by another train. Too bad. No Amtrak for me today! It's a shame, cause it's a beautiful spot.

Postscript: This train arrived into Chicago two days later at 3:37pm. 18 minutes EARLY. That is some serious schedule pad.

I had a great time out 'fanning. Like the old saying goes, "The worst day fishing beats the best day at work". Long live the train hype!