Facebook Page
Articles from TRAKing Ahead -- Grass is not Greener

This page has moved permanently. If you are not redirected automatically, follow the link to

Track Spacer


North Raleigh Model Railroad Club

Articles from TRAKing Ahead

The Grass is not GREENER on the Other Side, but the Trains Are
by Joel McCurry

Track Spacer

Part 1: Westbound

The Pioneer. Two days on the train from Chicago to Seattle by way of Denver. What could be better? See the later part of this article. We leave Union Station a few minutes late. Slowly, we leave the Windy City behind. We travel along the Burlington to Denver. This first part is freight and the commuter line. Lots of passenger stations for the commuters. Occasionally, industrial areas, a few yards, a yard full of autoracks with the autos in the parking lot. We pass a freight (Big Green Machines). Going too fast to get any pictures. Soon we make our first stop. The lights and air conditioning go off. Then the crackle of the scanner. "The second unit is not loading up. That's all this computer says." We delay for about 15 minutes waiting for the second unit to load up. The engineer believes that one F40 could replace the two new GE locomotives. This doesn't sound good. Eventually we move on with scanner activity trying to find someone that knows how to load up the second engine The locomotive won't keep the HEP working when we make a station stop. We limp on through the countryside now, although it is flat. On to the diner. An excellent meal of salmon. Eventually, we reach the Mississippi River. It's almost dusk (an hour and a half behind schedule, where's that F40?). Look's like seven or eight spans of through truss bridge and as many plate girder bridges. The River doesn't look as wide as I had imagined. Wonder if the railroad knew it was narrow at this point?

Off to sleep. We'll be in western Nebraska when I wake up. Sure enough we are, and only two hours behind schedule. Western Nebraska has a few hills. A grain elevator in every town and sometimes a grain elevator without a town.

In the same sleeping car is a couple from Chicago. An N scaler at that. Now we can get some information. There's a hobby shop in Chicago on a street corner. On three of the four corners are buildings that house club layouts. How's that for some modeling activity.

A few miles east of Denver and there is a small yard and some old buildings. In the yard are about twenty Amtrak cars, with six or seven domes. One of the domes has all of the upper windows out. Looks like the ultimate railfan-viewing platform. In Denver we must split the Desert Wind and the Pioneer. This is the last trip that the train crews will work the same train. The Desert Wind crew is based in LA and the Pioneer crew is based in Seattle. Many of the Desert Wind crew will lose their jobs, but the Pioneer crews are to pick up jobs on the Empire Builder. The Builder will change from 4 days a week to daily.

Denver Union Station
Denver Union Station

Amtrak First Class Bus at Borie, WY
Amtrak Bus at Borie, WY

We back into the station and set off a private car. Then we get disconnected from the Desert Wind. The Denver station and platforms (what's left of them) are being revitalized on the outside, but the inside of the station could use some work. The Desert wind leaves town ahead of us. About 30 minutes later, we get an engine (an F40PH, now we're going somewhere).

On to Cheyenne or actually Borie, WY, population zero as far as I can see and I can see far here in the plains. There's a bus to take the passengers from Borie to Cheyenne. Out across Wyoming. High plains here. Elevation gets up to seven or eight thousand feet. A few remnants of snow left, mostly around the snow fences. As luck would have it, our sleeper is right behind the baggage car. But it is a Heritage baggage and we are on a Superliner. We look out the end door of our sleeper across the roof of the baggage car to the engine. Almost like being on a dome car except no seat and only one window. I share this with my Chicago friend. Most of the other passengers don't care. The coach passengers are not allowed up here, so we have the view to ourselves.

Mountains and snow fences. Let's time the trains we meet. Six minutes, six minutes, twelve minutes, six minutes, twenty minutes (must have been break time). A busy line here on the UP. We get a chance to stop on this train for smoke breaks. Look into the stations. Thanks Joe Camel.

Nighttime comes. The train gently rocks us to sleep. What's this rough ride. We take a branch line into Boise, ID. After two hours, we get back on the mainline and cruise. Seventy to eighty miles an hour. We've made up about an hour.

The Blue Mountains of Oregon. We slow down and do some climbing. Green and white water. We come to an area where we make a large curve. Down in the valley below we can see a freight chasing us and the one that passed us. Now we slow down. Now we stop at a red signal. We are chasing a freight until we come to a siding long enough from him to move over.

Out to the Columbia. We see several dams. As we near Portland, we see Multanomah Falls. The one with the concrete arch bridge in front of it. Sitting right on the tracks. What a view.

The Portland stop is scheduled for about thirty minutes and since we are late, another train is here waiting to get passengers headed south. Also, a passenger train between Eugene, OR and Seattle is headed north. Three passenger trains in the station a one time. The station has been revitalized inside and out. Nice looking station.

We leave the station and see something that's GREEN and it's not grass we're talking about. Yes it's a Big Green Machine again. Glad to get rid of all that yellow.

We leave the Kelso—Longview, WA station and what do we see? Full size replicas of deLuxe Innovations Wood Chip cars, GN, NP, and BN. They even have full size replicas of Fine N-Scale woodchip loads. After 27 years, many of the wood chip cars are still in original reporting marks and colors. Wish we had those GE's pulling us so we could go slower and get pictures. Oh wow. Look at that curved wooden trestle. Must be a quarter mile long. Gotta come back here.

Advice from some on board is to get off in Tacoma to go to the Airport to pickup the car, so we shorten our trip to Seattle. Good-bye Pioneer! May you return to us soon.

Part 2: Green Trains by Car!

Now to the car and the trip across Steven's Pass and the Cascades. Some Green Machines, but Pumpkins are everywhere. Going up to the pass, we drive in rain. Typical Washington weather, so I'm told. A lot of clear green water, green trees, and an occasional Green Machine. Snow on the top of the pass. About ten feet along the road side.

A stop in Wenatchee to see the model railroad layout of Steven's Pass. Good layout for HO. Shows a piece of all three GN routes across the Cascades.

On across Washington. A town with a grain elevator, a grain elevator without a town, a town with a grain elevator. . . We need more grain elevators on our modules. Towns not necessary.

WhitefishThe next day, we stop at the station in Sandpoint, ID. In two hours time, only one train comes through. A local says track maintenance shuts the line down in spring during the day to catch up on repairs that piled up during the winter.

Whitefish, MT has a four-story station. A massive structure for such a small town, but this was a bustling place in the days of steam. The roundhouse, turn-table, and shops are now gone. Just five or six yard tracks with trains waiting for crews.

Essex, MT and the Izaak Walton Inn. What a place! What a room! Got a corner room overlooking the mainline and the yard. Three SD40 helper pairs rumbling outside the window. Won't need that air conditioner fan running here to drown out any disturbing noises. Look at those snowplows. The library has a great selection. "Great Northern Color Pictorial, Vol. 1", "Vol. 2" ...., "Great Northern Railway", ... That's the book selections, and the videos were there too. Need to spend a month here just to check out the books and videos. Have you ever tried to read a book, watch a video, and watch trains at the same?

The Inn had the Goat on the bedspreads, shower curtain, a comforter, a double chair in the room, and on four panes of etched glass. The Goat was a popular one here as his real home was just two miles up the road. Stopping along US 2, we look across the Flat Head River and see the tracks crossing Sheep Creek Trestle and a train crossing the trestle. To our right, we see seven goats at the top of Goat Lick Rock. Yes, we're looking at the source of the Great Northern emblems of Old Bill and Rocky. Eventually, five of the goats start their journey down the face of the rock. Leaping, carefully choosing a path. Seven animal trails lead to this rock. With this many animals crossing the road, the highway department put up a fence on the road behind us. This corralled all of the animals through a tunnel underneath the highway and over to the rock for a little taste of minerals. One amazing sight.

On the next day, we travel west to Whitefish, MT and West Glacier National Park. The old depot in Whitefish has a museum. About a third of the museum was dedicated to Great Northern artifacts. Outside is a NW3, road number 181.

We go back to the west side of Glacier NP. The road across the park has not yet been plowed from the winter. We only go a few miles into the park, but what a beautiful lake with mountains rising from its waters. The road ahead is covered with 80' of snow and will not be open until late June or early July. Let's see, 80', for N scale 0.5'. Somebody put a little more snow on the snow module.

Back along the Flat Head River to see the trains and tracks. A gorge, not wide enough for the river and rails at times. Several tunnels in this area. Signs of the old roadbed running along the river. Missed a train coming out of a tunnel.

The next day, we go east. As we leave the Inn, we see the reason for the helpers. We climb along the river with the rails. For about 15 miles, we climb and go over and under the tracks several times. Many snow sheds are along this route. Some with double track and some with single track. The mountains are tall and steep here. A lot of smaller waterfalls from the snow runoff. The eastbound Empire Builder is running along with us, if we'll just slow down. At the summit of the continental divide, we have some light snow. A freight waits here at Marias Pass one mile above sea level. As the Builder approaches, I'm shaking so much I can hardly video a steady shot. The snow-covered mountains are in the background, but to the east the plains are very apparent. It's such a drastic change.

Continuing east, the mountains become the background. As we enter the town of East Glacier, there is a nice trestle across a small creek. On a siding is a bulkhead flat of lumber. There has been a derailment a few days earlier. Two workers are pulling the wheelsets from this car and replacing them. Another railroad employee tells me that anytime a car is on the ground for more than 50', the wheelsets must be changed out. About an hour to change one truck.

I ask the employee if I can get to Two-Medicine Trestle. He tells me that I'm not supposed to be there, but I can cross over the siding and follow the little road around the bend, just don't get on the tracks. I thank him and find the trestle. It is a long way to the bottom. This would make a good module if I could hide all but one track.

We journey on to the eastern part of the park. Hoping to see inside one of the park hotels built by the railroad, we stop at one on a lake. The hotel doesn't open for another month. A few workers are around. One of the workers comes by to tell us the hotel is not open. I explain to her that I just wanted to see the lobby. I'm told to wait by the front door. After a few minutes, she opens the door and shows us around. She's from Tennessee and tells her boss that we are family. Southern connections pay off. The lobby is incredible. Four stories tall, probably 60' wide by 200' long. The logs holding the balconies around the outside perimeter are probably 3' in diameter. Quite a place! Looking across the lake, the mountains rise straight out of the water. I thought I was in Switzerland. By the time I get outside to take a picture, clouds have rolled in and hidden the mountains.

A little train watching at the hotel yields a little action on the scanner. "If I have to give up one of my locomotives, I'll be a long time getting up the hill." To which the dispatcher replied, "If you don't give it up, you're not going anywhere 'cause the train ahead of you has lost two of the new units'. Drop one of yours off and the helpers will come back down and get it." (In these parts, a new unit means some GE Pumpkins). Soon, a train comes in and drops off a Pumpkin for the helpers. (Good thing they're using SD40s for helpers.)

The next 5 days are spent going to and through Yellowstone, across Idaho and central Oregon to Northern California, then two days along the coast of Oregon. I hope to see some of the wooden trestles around Coos Bay and Tillamook, OR, but I didn't have much success or time.

On to Longview, WA where I had spied a wooden trestle and some woodchip cars still in GN paint schemes and roadnumbers while on the Pioneer. The trestle is still there, but the GN woodchip cars have been replaced by Cascade Green and some old Northern Pacific cars. I video this using a good assistant to drive the vehicle slowly beside the string of cars. As we finish the video and are about to depart, the assistant sees a train on the wooden trestle. A couple of old GP7s or 9s for the Columbia & Cowlitz. The train backs across the trestle and out of sight. In a few minutes, the train reappears below the trestle. While I video the train coming into the yard, the ever attentive assistant yells out, "Look! There's a train on the trestle." I turn around to see 5 SW type locomotives in a yellow scheme lettered for Weyerhaeuser. They are pulling 20-30 flat cars with containers. Must be old cardboard or something going to the paper mill.

We take a little day trip to Vancouver, BC on the Talgo from Seattle. The cars are short as two cars share a single axle at each end. The crew tells us a group from North Carolina was there two to three weeks ago looking at the train to replace the Piedmont.

Our last day off the train. We look around Seattle in the morning. See a few sights. We eat lunch beside the main line going to Everett, WA. A train comes by about every 10 minutes. Mostly Pumpkins, some Cascade Green, and occasionally Armour Yellow. Here comes a pair of Cascade Green ones now. Oh no! They're pulling two new Amtrak GE's. That's the Empire Builder running four hours late. I hope they have some other units for our train in a few hours or we'll be late before we get started.

Checking out King Street Station in Seattle, we notice in a part of the station that's blocked off that there is a set of Electric Stairs. I guess this was the name for early escalators. The waiting room has had a dropped ceiling installed. The lobby has some of the old arched ceilings and paint from years past. The station needs a renovation. Ah. There's our train. They must have fixed those GEs. Hello Empire Builder.

Part 3: Home on the Empire Builder

We get on the SuperLiner and settle in to see the sights remaining for the day. Within a few blocks of King Street Station in Seattle, we go into a tunnel. We emerge and go along Puget Sound at water's edge. A crackle on the scanner, "The second unit locomotive (a Genesis) has shut down." Here we go again. Soon the intercom comes on, "Good afternoon and welcome aboard. My name is Keith Lyons and I will be your Interpretive Guide across the Cascades." Keith Lyons? The Keith Lyons of N-Scale Magazine? I ask the car attendant about this Keith. She says she doesn't know him or where he is doing his announcements, but she will find out. She returns later and says Keith will be by when he gets a break. Sure enough, Keith comes by and it is the N-Scale Keith. We chat a bit. Keith is making this trip after finishing many 80-hour weeks getting out the N-Scale Product Guide. He will ride to Spokane until about three in the morning, get off for a few hours, and catch the westbound Builder back. Keith adds a nice touch to the trip with his historical commentary along the line, primarily focused on railroad facts.

The Genesis is having problems. Over the scanner, someone mentions that some GE personnel are on board and at the next stop will check out the unit and get it running (they cannot go through the train to the locomotives due to material handling cars up front). With only one unit, our speed slows up the west slope of the Cascades. We lose over an hour in the first two hours of our trip. We continue our trip with Keith's commentary but eventually he announces that he will stop due to lateness and darkness outside. With just a little twilight left, we enter Cascade Tunnel. We stay in total darkness for about 20 minutes (8 miles).

Off to bed and tomorrow we will awake to the Rockies in Montana.

Dawn in Montana finds us back on schedule. Apparently, the locomotive came alive and we really moved across eastern Washington (mostly flat country). We begin watching the sights just west of Whitefish, MT. We go along the Flathead River along the southern border of Glacier National Park. The river has changed from a clear, green color to brown in just ten days. I can see the river is higher than when we drove through here. The engineer tells the conductor he is going to slow the train because of reports of the water rising to close to rail level. We soon see spots where the water is within eight inches of the rail. Some of the places are flooding from the raging river. A very drastic change in such a short time.

We go by the Izaak Walton Inn and stop, but not for long. We stop at the Amtrak platform (there is no station here). The van from the Izaak Walton drives up and a couple of passengers get off and a couple get on the train. Someone has some pull to get a stop like this. The "community" of Essex has fewer than four hundred people. Only tourists get off and on the train.

Shortly after leaving Izaak Walton, we pass Goat Lick Rock and see two goats on top of the hill getting ready to make their descent down the rock. We are riding in the lounge car to see all the scenery, snow capped mountains, rushing streams, snowsheds, and other sights. We come to a spot on the mountain where we make a half loop around and can see where we have been. This is the sight of the Great Northern diesels with the solid string of reefers looping behind. Our train is not that long. As we crest the continental divide and look east, the mountains drop quickly to the prairie. (Looks a little like the drastic change of scenery between two NTRAK modules). The rest of the day is spent on the prairie. You can look out the window an hour later and the scenery looks the same (i.e., plywood plains, except plowed fields).

At our stop in Shelby, MT, the train operating crew changes. I see the conductor go over to a late '40s two ton truck and drive away. All of the old vehicles here look to be in good shape, very little rust.

As we arrive in Minot, ND, we get a small scenery change. We go across Gassman Coulee on a long and high trestle. Too bad it was almost dark.

We see two Great Northern steam locomotives. Very few were saved from the scrap pile.

The next morning, we go through St. Cloud, MN. I look for the old shops where the Great Northern built and rebuilt most of their freight cars. I did not see the shops. One of the highlights that I was expecting to see, but I was looking the wrong way or the shops may have been on another line. (At St. Cloud began one of the many cutoffs to shorten the trip to Minot, ND.)


GN Switcher

The ride south of Minneapolis-St. Paul takes us along the Mississippi River, but we have switched over to the Soo Line tracks. After an hour or so, we cross the River and head due east across Wisconsin. Here, another roadbed can be seen parallel to us. This has been made into a bike path. I think this is the former Milwaukee Road.

We have lost an hour and a half due to the floods around Fargo and Grand Forks, ND. An announcement is made over the intercom that twelve passengers that are to catch the Southwest Chief will get off in Columbus, WI and be bussed to Peoria, IL. I've seen too many Ambusses on this trip.

We arrive 1½ hours late leaving us with 1½ hours to get to the airport. It takes an hour and fifteen minutes to get there. And guess what? The airport is closed down due to a storm. After waiting four hours for our flight, we finally get to leave. Ironic. A two-day trip on the train with those Genesis locos and we lose three times as much time with the airline. Why take the plane?

Would I take this trip again? In a heartbeat! But first I need to ride the Zephyr. My biggest complaint was trying to get Pioneer and Empire Builder souvenirs. They were supposed to be available on the train. One of the crew on the Pioneer gave me the name of someone in Seattle to contact. I finally contacted this person and got a patch, mug and wineglasses from the Pioneer (the complimentary wineglasses on the Pioneer were Empire Builder glasses). I asked if I could go ahead and get the same items for the Empire Builder. "No! They are available on the train." Yeah, right. A short stop in Harve, MT produced a mug for the Empire Builder. None in Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Let's go again.



News Page



Track Spacer

Copyright © 1996–2009 North Raleigh Model Railroad Club. All rights reserved.
The NRMRC is a Not-For-Profit Corporation incorporated in North Carolina.
The various logos and heralds shown here are the property of their respective organizations.

Last updated: Friday July 3, 2009


North Raleigh Model Railroad Club
Webmaster: John M Wallis (Email)