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Thread: Boardman Coal

  1. #1

    Default Boardman Coal

    A year ago, with the permission of the Montana Rail Link, I rode the helpers west from Helena, Montana over Mullan Pass. I did a series of rides in June and September of 2005. I have posted bits and pieces of these rides, but now have put together the photos taken on a single trip. These are not the pristine views we often see on this and other lists. These shots were taken on the move, moving targets taken from a moving target, if you will. The sun was not always where I would have liked, the engine would rock at the wrong second, but what you will see here, is what it was like to shove 12,000 tons of coal over the Great Divide. So climb aboard with engineer Sam Sutton, switchman Travis Stabnau, Trainmaster/Road Foreman of Engines Kern Kemmerer and yours truly for a westbound shove of...

    Boardman Coal

    Helena Yard

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    With the steel gang working on the east slope of Mullan Pass, westbound trains begin to pile up in Helena Yard waiting for the window to lift. However, by mid-afternoon things begin to stir.

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    While one crew heads out to their helper power, engineer Sam Sutton signs in and picks up his assignment, rear pusher on a Boardman Coal drag.

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    The first train out is a Denver/Tacoma intermodal. Having added an MRL F 45 to its consist, it rolls west. Hot on their heals, with a fresh crew aboard, the Boardman coal drag follows the hot shot out to Helena Junction where a 4 unit helper will be cut in. If things aren't confusing enough, a Kansas City/Pasco freight, known as the "Kick-Pass" pulls up to the depot for a crew change.

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    Completing the madness, a westbound grain train, lead by BNSF 4005 parks out on Track 2. With more helper crews and helper assignments than helper power, the 3 BNSF units off the grain train will serve as the rear pusher on the Boardman Coal train. Engineer Sam Sutton climbs aboard, settles in, then watches his mirror for the signal from his switchman to pull off the train. Said Sam when I joined him in the cab, "You don't care about riding with me, you just want to ride this nice new power."

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    Approaching the rear of the coal train near Helena Junction, Sam talks over the coupling with his switchman Travis Stabnau. Giving up trying to peer over the desk top controls, Sam stands up to get a clear veiw of the signals being given to him by Travis. Helpers coupled, the air up, we are ready for...

    The Shove West

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    "Clear board, you can lean on them Helper 3."
    Notching open his throttle, Sam grabs the phone,
    "Clear board, air released, here I come!"
    Across the cab, Trainmaster Kern Kemmerer and Travis settle in for the ride over the top. Travis is trying his best to sell Kern his ski boat.
    "It's like new. With the trailer and all it's worth easy, $24,000...."
    "...but for you Kern, he'll let it go for 26!" Sam adds.

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    Like a snake weaving its way through the tall grass, the train wraps itself around the loops at Austin. Rounding the lower loop, Sam looks out at the 4-set of SD 45's working midtrain. Rounding the upper loop, the head-end power appears out through the front winshield, high above. Having caught a red board due to the Denver/Tacoma still being in the summit tunnel, the train grinds to a halt. After a 10 minute wait, the head-end gives Sam the highball. Watching his air, a flicker in the reading and Sam begins to notch out his units, keeping his engine brake set.
    "Gonna have to wind them up a bit before I turn them loose," Sam tells me. Finger on the sand button, its run 3 before he feathers off his brake. Slowly, steadily, the units begin to move. Looking back in the mirror, the three big motors dig into the rail, yet above, the head-end has yet to move. A slight nudge and black smoke drifting from behind Iron Ridge lets us know the mid-train set is underway. Well into our end of the shove, the head-end finally begins to move.

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    Back underway, I couldn't help but chuckle at the editorial comment left by a rail disgruntled with the performance of the boys out at Interbay Yard. Outside, an into the rear view mirrow shot shows the rear helper crossing the Greenhorn Trestle. Further upgrade, Kern and I make our way to the second unit where our masks are air bottles have been stowed for the trip through the Mullan Tunnel. What a rush! Out on the catwalk, three big units in Run-8, shoving for all they are worth, all the while looking down into the Austin Gulch. This is railroading across the Great Divide! Respirator hoods on, air flowing, we plunge into the tunnel. It's pitch dark in the cab and only a change in the ptich of the noise lets us know when we have cleared the west portal. We are well past the East Blossburg switch before breaking out of the smoke and are able to take off our masks. Kern and I stay in the rear unit and visit during the quick trip down the west side to Elliston where the helper will be cut out for...

    The Trip Back East

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    Arriving in Elliston, we hold the main while the mid train set is cut out. After Sam pushes the train back together, Travis uncouples our units, resets the FRED, and climbs back aboard for the trip home. Reversing ends we hustle back east, passing the mid-train set still holding the siding. As they will be used to help the grain train from which our set of power was "barrowed", they will follow us back to Helena.

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    The last rays of the September sun are finding their way down through the Austin Gulch notch and are casting their glow on the siding at Austin. Our helper set has taken the hole and is holding for yet another westbound grain train. A wait that seems to take forever has the sun setting, the light fading, and me cussing. In the last glimmers of light, the grainer appears, the head-end still nicely lit. The passing hoppers block out what little light is left as the mid-train and rear helpers roar past. Headed for the loops, they pass the Boardman's mid-train helper set which has crept up behind our power. A high green, it was an easy trip back to Helena where our units were rejoined with the awaiting grain train. It was nearly dark when my feet hit the ballast out in front of the depot
    "A good run?" I called up to Sam.
    He just shrugged.
    "We'll soon find out. If I can go home, yeah, but something tells me we're headed right back out."
    Just another run over the hill.

    Martin Burwash
    Last edited by steveeshom; 08-28-2006 at 08:46 PM.

  2. #2
    paul@mwr Guest

    Thumbs up

    The "layering" you have done over the years on Mullan Pass has served you well for this piece of work. It is wonderful and well describes helper operations on Mullan Pass - especially having perfect light for the next train and then operations conspiring against you.

  3. Default

    Very nice piece Martin! I like the mix of people, trains, and scenery. The narrative flows well and provides some 'color' to the story. I vote to post!

  4. Thumbs up

    Nice work Martin. Having visited Mullan Pass several times, I think this essay does a nice job of documenting a typical trip up the hill. I love how the images capture the men who make this happen day in and day out. I vote to promote.

    Do you happen to have an email address for any of the guys pictured? I wonder if they'd like to see this story.

  5. #5
    Iron Horse America Guest

    Thumbs up Martin'sBoardman helper ride...

    Great story Martin. Nice to have a feel of the railroaders, instead of just the pretty shots of the trains and scenery. Add a shot of the tunnel if you have any.
    Thanks for sharing.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    durham, sc


    Another great essay to add to the ranks. Having been to Mullan before, this essay really captures what I love about the pass and the helper operations that take place there.
    Freeze this moment a little bit longer
    Make each sensation a little bit stronger

  7. #7


    Will wantz a tunnel shot....

    tried a couple...tough to do with the hood on.


  8. #8


    Back in from the field, and wanted to explain a little more about the ride through the Mullan Tunnel. The respirator hoods that all were required to wear are just that, hoods, not a simple mask. They fit over your entire head and have a thick, tight elastic band that snaps tight around your neck. The actual respirator is by your nose and is fed with an air line from a bottle stowed on the backwall of the cab. There was a bottle for each mask.

    As a rider, Trainmaster Kern Kemmerer showed me how to use the hood down at the depot my first trip out in June. It was one of those things, easy to do sitting at the desk with all the elbow room in the world, a little tougher couped up in the small engine cab, especially being a greenhorn at such things. Each ride, about the time we crossed Austin Gulch trestle Kern had me start putting on the hood. This way, he could be sure I was set up and breathing "OK" before he put his hood on. With the shape of the hood, it is nearly impossible to really see through a camera viewfinder to take any photos. Best I could do was aim and hope the wide angle would take care of things.

    On the ride shown in this essay, the masks and bottles for Kern and I were in a trailing unit. As we crossed Austin Gulch (see photo) we made our way back to the middle unit to put on our masks. Riding in that engine, and with the curve leading to the tunnel, there, of course was no way to shoot the train going in.

    As a guest riding an engine, I really wanted to make sure I did exactly what was asked without question. When Kern tapped me on the shoulder and told it was time to get the mask on, I did it, no questions asked, no stalling for that one last "killer shot". A shot going into the tunnel would be nice, but in the whole scheme of things, getting that hood on when the Trainmaster told me was quite a bit higher on the priority list.

    Martin Burwash

  9. Default "Helper Buddies"

    When my wife lived in Helena for a couple of years, her first apartment was up above the capital building. From there, one could watch the trains and light helper sets come down off of the hill in the evening and at night. When it was quiet, you could also hear the engines blowing for the various crossings. Somewhere along the line, she coined the term "helper buddies" for the helper sets and used to comment about them during our weekly phone call.

    It used to even more interesting when the helpers were added at Helena Junction in that the MRL would have to communicate with the BN Dispatcher as the hill was still dispatched by the BN at that time. It was pretty fun watching a loaded coal train come out of the siding at Austin. Lot's of smoke and noise!

    You caputured the feel for the operations well, Martin. Thank you.
    Dan Schwanz
    POSTCARDS FROM THE GORGE Website update 12.26.09

  10. #10
    16CSVT Guest


    An evocative taste of primal railroading at the dirty/sharp/pointy end.
    I can imagine that walk along the side of that loco, all that noise and power, the height, looking around trying to take it all in, a kind of sensual overload, whilst trying not to fall off or be a burden to your minder and then all too quickly the moment was gone.
    Damn, lets do that AGAIN!
    The human element is what really shines in here for me, just another day at work, I like the comment at the end, "if I get to go home it will have been a good day" great stuff, for you Martin a trip of a lifetime, to those guys it was just another day, another dollar and you caught the essence of it here.

    My favorite image is number 2 on The Trip Back East.

    Nice one.

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