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Thread: Doubling Heavies

  1. #1

    Default Doubling Heavies

    The Experiment

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    This past summer, with the advent of longer, heavier DPU powered coal and grain trains, the Montana Rail Link opted to split these trains into two sections for the trip over Mullan Pass. Trains were broken apart in Helena, with Rail Link power fore and aft on the first and longer section. That movement was closely followed by the smaller section section, handled by the road power and rear DPU's.

    A bit of a novelty these days, let's take a little closer look at how the "Merle" once again rose to the challenge of heavy trains versus a forbidding mountain.

    Part One: Breaking a Heavy

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    Out, just east of Helena Yard, a single DPU idles away a hot afternoon. Stretched westward across the Long Lead sag is a string of 112 loaded coal cars, waiting for a work window to lift and the show to begin.

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    It's showtime! A road crew has been vanned out to the head-end and pulls the train up to the Helena Depot. Out on the main, yet another coal train waits its turn to do battle with the grades to the west.

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    The road power is cut from the train and backs into the the clear past the roundhouse lead. On the adjacent track, a 3-set of ACe helpers makes ready to couple onto the first 77 car cut.

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    Coupling made and the air up, the first cuts leaves town where a 4-set of SD 45-2's is waiting to tie onto the rear for the push over Mullan Pass.

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    With the first section clear of town, the road power backs down and couples to the remaining 35 cars and DPU. Pulling up to the depot, they will have to wait for the frist section clear the switch at Tobin before given the high green.

    Part 2: Like a Hound Chasin' a Hare
    Last edited by Martin Burwash; 11-09-2008 at 03:21 PM.

  2. #2

    Default Doubling Heavies Part 2

    Like a Hound Chasin' a Hare

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    From a clearing just east of the Great Divide, the old Northern Pacific main across Mullan Pass twists below you like an N-scale model. Far to the east the first section of a westbound grain heavy emerges from the "Narrows" and like a dark snake slowly climbs the south side of the Austin Basin.

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    As the train rounds the upper loop at Austin (first photo), the second section exits the narrows, riding the yellow boards left behind by the first section. (Sharp eyes will spot the grain hoppers of the first section on the far left, and the head-end of the second section on the far right.)

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    In view one minute, out of sight the next, only the noise of 8 SD 45's remains constant. The first section winds its way through the old siding at Weed then follows the ridge towards the trestle at Greenhorn. (Out of view to the left of the second photo.) All the while the second section continues its westward assult, now climbing the upper loop at Austin. Once at Weed it will have to stop and wait for the first section to clear the Mullan Tunnel at Blossburg before continuing up the hill.

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    Emerging from the back canyon and the Green Horn trestle the twin 45 4-set of growlers fill the mountains with their characteristic throaty 20 cylinder roar and they pass through the old Skyline siding. It isn't until the train is fully engulfed by the Mullan Tunnel does quiet come back to the mountain.....

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    ...but not for long. With the first section clear of the tunnel, the second section is once again on the move. Following the same path like the old wagon trains of a by-gone era, the two lead units and single DPU work through Green Horn.

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    Their trip to the top nearly complete, the short train passes through Skyline and disappears into the shadows below.

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    The chase ends at Elliston, the western base of the pass where the train will be reunited. In the last light of day, the second section arrives, with the first section holding the main.

  3. #3

    Default Doubling Heavies: Part Three

    Stickin' em Back Together

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    The sun has just broken over the mountains to the east and is bathing Elliston, MT in its late summer glow. An eastbound empty coal train with its twin DPU's is in the siding. Out on the main a 3-set of MRL ACe's brings the first section of a loaded coal train down off the mountain.

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    Pulled to a stop, an MRL switchman pulls the pin and then climbs aboard as the units pull away. 77 cars further back, a 4-set of 45's stays coupled to the train, keeping the cars in check.

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    As the DPU's of the coal empty resume their eastward trek, the MRL units follow the train up the siding. The ACe's will duck into the third house track at Elliston and will be used to protect the second section once it arrives.

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    Stuck up at Blossburg for the passage of the empty coal train, the second section finally arrives about an hour behind the first section.

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    Cut from the shorter rear portion of the train, the lead units cross over onto the main and recouple to the longer first section brought over by the MRL power. They then pull the cut clear of the West Elliston switch.

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    While the first section is being pulled clear of the switch, the helper, now uncoupled follows close behind. The switchman climbs down from the old veteran and will make the final coupling, reuniting the two sections.

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    The long train once again made whole, the DPU's rolling west roar past the manned helpers heading back east.

    Post Script

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    There was a fair amount of thought and planning that went into this idea of doubling the heavies over the hill. Beyond just the logistics of the switching and movements, there were the issues of crew safety when dealing with a DPU train that might stall in the tunnel, as an example. Also being considered were the effects the prolonged exposure to the smoke in the Mullan Tunnel was having on the ACe's and how to minimize the damage.

    In the Helena Depot, the Road Foreman of Engines and his Assistant have the white board out and grease pencils. With a diagram of the tracks at Elliston drawn out, the two men are in the midst of brainstorming ways the entire process can be made more efficient.

    To that end a solution might have been found. Word has it, upper management has decided to discontinue splitting the heavies. A single super set of ACe/SD 45's is now being used mid-train along with the DPU's on the rear.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Feb 2006
    close to Lake Ontario in Burlington, ON Canada

    Default Stickin' Back Together!

    Wonderful contrasts between on the road and in the office views!

    Especially like the short sequence of the brakie standing beside the
    cut and then watching the locomotives coming back to make the connection.

    There is something about black and white that colour can not match.

    As to approval for an essay, I'd say Yes, a thousand times yes.

    Off topic question for you Martin.

    Is MRL "happy" with their new locomotives?
    They were after all assembled here in Canada.
    I should see if some of my compatriots have views
    of them here on the test track. Now as they were painted
    in the US the only identifier will be a painted MRL
    with an order number of the side of the cab

    Locomotives which are shipped from London Ontario are tracked
    rather closely, so much doesn't leave without somebody being aware, and having photographs of same.

  5. #5


    Martin? Is there a reason these are three seperate threads? They form a complete story, could I put them all in one?
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

  6. #6


    Excellent photos, along with informative narrative. You've clearly explained how the operation works and what they do.

    The photos are up to your usual standards, great contrast, crisp and clear. Composition is excellent, I can't find anything to critique...

    I vote for approval.
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

  7. #7



    If you'd like, e-mail me one of the photos you're not happy with and let me see if I can figure out what's happening.

    Meanwhile, they all look good to me. Yes, obviously the train is small in some of the images, but that's the whole idea... They look good in the large version, and they'd look great printed in large format.

    I vote for approval on this one as well, and I don't think we should hold any slight softness against you as it's apparently being lost somewhere along the way. That's not your fault.
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

  8. #8


    Yes, you can make all 3 into one.

    Maritn Burwash

  9. #9


    Photo 4 and Photo 9 are the ones that look soft to me, Bob.

    Martin Burwash

  10. #10
    paul@mwr Guest

    Thumbs up

    Great story telling in both photos and words as usual. I'm Paul Birkholz and I endorse this photo essay.

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