2020 Stevens Pass
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Stevens Pass 2020
written by Lindsay Korst

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Atmospheric conditions were shaping up for an exceptionally warm and sunny weekend just perfect for a little railfanning on my favorite stretch of the former Great Northern Railway. Camera? Check. Scanner? Check. Snacks & water? Check. DelGrosso Guide to Stevens Pass and timetable? Check. Let's hit the road!

Juice up the Tacoma with some 87 octane and fill my belly at Mickey D's and we're off at the ghastly hour of 5 am.

Train! At Gold Bar, I am greeted by a double stack holding the main, headlight extinguished, with the eastward signals displaying red over flashing red. The stacker is toting 3 Boeing cars up front, but alas, no 737 fuselages.

Schweet. I'll have an eastbound to follow over the pass. Let's get in position at the east end and wait for him. I wonder what sort of train it will be?

At the crossing, I can see the high green for my eastbound. It's a long, 35 minute wait until an empty oil train materializes, led by BNSF #8243, one of their ubiquitous GE ES44C4's (4400 hp, six-axle trucks, 4 traction motors (idle center axles).

As the two trains pass, the crews exchange a few pleasantries. The dispatcher then gets on the radio and informs the westbound that, "the Z train was a little late getting out of South Seattle" and he may meet him either at Monroe or Lowell. Cool. Another train going east is always welcome!

Back to my eastbound 8243, I set off in pursuit. Too late for a "spindly bridge over US 2 shot", I head for Index.

Wow! The mountains are "out" today. As the North Fork of the Skykomish River burbles underneath me, I capture both the front and rear of the train, noticing he has two DPU's pushing on the rear. He'll need all that horsepower on the upcoming 2.2%.

Amtrak is due (on time for a change) and I'm hoping to set up a meet shot at Baring, or catch #7 at Money Creek or Grotto. Headlight. Damn! Hastily I whip a U-ee on US 2 and rocket to the west switch of Baring. With seconds to spare, I bang off a grab shot as the Empire Builder's hogger serenades me with his 5 chime. It's a GE P42 #137, if you're keeping score, with a pike-sized 4 car set of Superliners.

My attempt to use the Cascadia Inn railcam at Sky to capture both me waving AND the train passing beside me, doesn't turn out so well. Trying to take a picture of my iPhone as the train is rumbling nearby almost guarantees a fuzzy picture. Apologies. ;p

Where to catch the empty oil train next? I bounce up the Forest Service road to the trestle at Deception Creek, but the bridge is still in shadow. Off to the west portal of Cascade Tunnel.

Tunnel #15 is also still shady, but I get a passable shot as he roars into the 8 mile long bore.

As the old GN signal bridge at West Merritt was recently replaced with a modern structure, I'm curious if the similar GN relic at East Berne still stands. Note for future use: the turn off for East Berne is right at highway milepost 74.

In a nice touch, the planked old TTX flatcar over Nason Creek has been named for BNSF Signal Maintainer Charlie Cruickshank.

Alas, the old GN signal bridge spanning both tracks is no more, replaced with a shiny new signal cantilever. Green signals beckon the empty oiler eastward as it whines past me in full dynamic.

Full consist is 8243 and 6413 with 6370 and 6133 on the rear. With the exception of 8243, the 3 other units are all GE ES44AC.

Snack break! I find a dusty road up Chumstick canyon and wait for my quarry. To my surprise, this guy has seen nothing but green signals since he left Baring. With a mouthful of Gorp, I manage to bang off a few shots through my bug-splattered windshield.

Early May usually coincides with Wenatchee's Apple Blossom festival, but there are none to be seen in the orchard below. Still, the fruit trees nicely frame 8243 West as it rounds Richardson's curve near Monitor, WA.

The sun is getting pretty high in the sky, so I need to start taking "looking down on" pictures to best utilize the light.

At Appleyard, I spot a double stack, an empty coal train, and at least two merchandise trains all apparently westbounds waiting for rested crews. I park at "Kirby Billingsley Hydro Park" with a view of the tracks alongside Highway 28. Maybe that Z will catch up and I can follow him.

Nope. The oil train has made a crew change at the downtown yard office and is shortly barreling along past my vantage point. This string of empty cans is the hottest train on the Columbia Sub just now.

Lava cliff shot! At Rock Island Dam, I catch our oily friend as he snakes along the Columbia River.  Snake?  Oil?  Geez, I crack myself up...

Sand pit shot! BNSF 8243 and friends are down on their hands and knees struggling to make the long grade as they climb up towards Lynch Coulee.

Trinidad horseshoe beckons, but I have only a short while to get in position, setting up very close to the curve.

I get a nice horn salute from the crew as he blasts by wide open. As the cans trundle past, the reason for their slow progress becomes apparent as there is just the 6133 as DPU.

"The bluest skies you've ever seen are in Ephrata."


Not sure if the above link will work, but if you want to hear Perry Como sing it...

Rather than sit at Trinidad and bake in the sun as I would normally do, I decided to follow the tracks as far east as Ephrata. Unfortunately, the old GN depot is no longer there and pretty much this BN/GN? sign is all that's left.

Back to Wenatchee I roll. As I'm coasting downhill from Quincy, I finally spot that late-running Z train climb the grade up to the big curve. I stop for a grab shot.

It's getting towards late afternoon so I gas up and hit Carl's Jr. for a burger (Hi, Carl!). After provisioning, I visit GN F-8 class #1147 2-8-0 in City Park. Still looking good after all these years!

Talk about luck. As I'm photographing 1147, out of the corner of my eye, I notice that double stack from the yard slowing rolling by west. Something to follow home! Let's visit the yard office.

Sure enough, the double stack is slowly picking up speed. I spy some yard power and identify the train's two DPU's as 6654 and 6925, both GE ES44C4 types.

The four-axle yard power is much more oochie: 2562 (ex-Santa Fe GP35u) and 3143 (ex-BN GP50).

At Dryden, I discover the lead units are a trio of GE's (big surprise) BNSF 7101/7003/7666. From the axle count I hear on the detectors, this train is actually longer than the oil train. Thus the five units.

One of my favorite spots, Nason Creek bridge just west of Merritt. The Evergreen containers squeeze through "the slot" with BNSF 6654 blasting away for all it's worth.

I caught up to the head end of the Evergreen stack train at East Berne just long enough to see he had a green signal and was proceeding into the Cascade Tunnel.

At the west portal, BNSF 7101 West pops into daylight and begins the descent from Scenic down to Skykomish. There was an eastbound empty coal train in the pass at Scenic who was grousing on the radio about sitting there for over an hour. He'll have at least another 20 minutes to cool his heels while the tunnel is flushed of diesel fumes.

Now for some "Ego-fanning" (to coin a phrase). Here I am at Sky waiting for my double stack to come down the hill. A radio conversation with the Seattle East dispatcher reveals 7101 will hold the main with #8 taking siding. I snap a picture of "Old Blue" as the double stack whines past. Later that evening, I would "rewind" the Cascadia Inn/Sky webcam and take screen caps shown here. I give the hogger a friendly, little wave as he comes to a stop.

Hats off to Virtual Railfan for making this possible!

I drive down to the West Skykomish switch and set up for the Empire Builder.

Here she comes! Coming and going shots of Amtrak #8 capturing both the meet with 7101 and myself taking pictures.

Finally, the west signal changes to green and BNSF 7101 slowly begins coasting down the 1% grade to Gold Bar.

As always, I had a joyous time out chasing trains. I still hope to once more tackle Stevens Pass this summer, hopefully with good friend Scott Tanner along.  We'll see how things pan out.  Highball!