Racing a Locomotive

Scoping out the Route 66 list on the web last Sunday, I picked up a neat bit of information, courtesy of Debra Hodkin at the Route 66 Mother Road Museum in Barstow, California:

"For those in the area, #3751 Steam Locomotive is scheduled to arrive at the Historic Harvey House Railroad Depot in Barstow Mon 8-19 at 2:00 pm for a water stop (30-60 min). The train is headed for the Grand Canyon and is due to return to Barstow Mon 8-26 at 4:30 pm on its way home."

The locomotive, a restored 1927 Baldwin 4-8-4, was pulling a train of classic rail cars, carrying rail fans from Union Station in Los Angeles to the National Railway Historical Society annual convention, in Williams, south of the Grand Canyon.

I've been wanting an excuse to ride that California stretch of 66 out to Amboy, and the chance to see a steam locomotive live on the rails was irresistible. Simple, right?

Not! Thanks to the passenger train's "zero priority" on a busy freight line, and the resulting flexible schedule, this little quest turned into a two-day hunt, and then a 50-mile race across the desert to "head 'em off at the pass!"

Twin to #3751, Santa Fe 3759 is on permanent display in Locomotive Park, across from the old powerhouse on 66 in downtown Kingman. The 4-8-4 has four leading wheels, eight big drivers, and four trailing wheels under the firebox. The flyspeck on the right is my XT500.

Round 1

Riding west out of Needles on I-40 Monday afternoon, I got off on Mountain Springs Road - old Route 66. Rough pavement, but great riding - it's a weird, spooky road right from the start.

Ruins - roadside businesses that appear to have died instant death when I-40 opened, vacant old houses with dark staring windows that still have the glass intact. Miles and miles of rock graffiti on a berm beside the road. It feels like "The Hills Have Eyes". Unique - how long can it last before some do-gooder cleans it up.

I got to Amboy, rode around the main and back streets, stopping for pix. I saw a couple of occupied homes, but not a single human, except the people driving through on 66. They didn't stop. Yeah, spooky.

The train was to leave Barstow at 3, pass Amboy, and reach Cadiz for a service stop at 5. I rode over to the tracks about 3:30 and got set up to shoot the locomotive. As it turned out, the train was three hours late getting into Barstow, so I had quite a wait ahead.

It was hot and windy beside the rails, without a lick of shade. At 5, the wind kicked up a thick yellow dust storm. My stuff and I got coated with it. With sweat, it makes a good sunblock. By 5:30, I'd seen lots of diesel freight trains, but no steam.

I decided to head down the line to Cadiz and see if there were any train spotters there who could give me some news. There were, about half a dozen standing around a run-down siding along the tracks a few miles south of 66. But news of the steam train was scarce.

Train buffs are an interesting and friendly bunch. We kept each other entertained for a while. The sun set down orange in the dust cloud, it got dark. Lot of freight trains, still no steam.

By 8:30 I was packing up to head home, when a super-buff showed up, with a scanner, copying radio traffic from 3751. They had stopped to switch crews and grease the engine in Amboy, and were finally headed our way. But they were late, and now "high-balling" through, en route to an overnight stop at the Santa Fe yard in Needles.

A cluster of three high-mounted floodlights threw a dim pool of light on the tracks - just enough to get an image in the video cam's viewfinder. The four of us who were left set up under the lights.

The locomotive was high-balling alright. The train came in screaming and pounded through that pool of light in a flash. To top my day off, I either forgot to hit "record", or double-tapped it, rec-pause - no shot.

This kind of thing makes a hunt interesting. Round 1 to the train.

Tomorrow's another day. The train would be on my turf, in daylight. I aimed to shoot it crossing the Colorado River from Needles, then race it to Kingman and shoot it there, then race it to Hackberry and shoot it again.

Round 2

Since I had to keep getting ahead of the train to shoot it, I was racing it rather than chasing it - and I wasn't the only one.

It was supposed to leave Needles at 10 a.m., so at 9 I rode my motorcycle down to the Arizona side of the railroad bridge at Topock. It was a beautiful cool clear breezy morning.

There was already a crowd of rail fans waiting at the bridge. The dirt lot on the riverbank beside the bridge was filling up with cars. I moved around to the best shooting position to catch the train, and naturally wound up with good company there. The retired gent on my left had a scanner with the correct frequency, and knew how to interpret what he heard. The guy on my right was a professional videographer who regularly shoots these kinds of events. All I had to do was nod and keep my mouth shut, and I learned plenty.

3751 was running quite late. I heard they'd had trouble with a brake line yesterday, and they did stationary and moving brake tests before leaving the yard in Needles. My friend with the scanner tracked its every move, and had everyone within earshot hanging on his reports.

In the meantime, we chatted and enjoyed the fine weather and the scenery - the clear blue sky, and the desert with the cool green Colorado River running through it. Below us, kids were swimming, and a few were jumping off the lower level of the black iron railroad bridge some 40 feet into the river.

The train got out of the yard around noon. It passed over a "hot box detector", which gives an automated report over the scanner. From that, and timing previous trains, we knew 3751 was just 4 minutes from the bridge - so everybody had a nice comfortable warning to get ready, no excuses. We quit talking and focused on the California side.

The locomotive made a grand entrance at the far end of the bridge, headlight shining, engine chuffing, white smoke streaming out of the stack. It came over the bridge pulling two black tenders, a mail car, and a string of classic passenger cars. The engineer let go with that "whoo! whooo!" steam engine whistle all the way across. I'm not much of a train buff, but I'll say that was a sight worth going far to see.

(2/28/07 - Since I sprung for some first-rate Sorenson compression software, here's an 84-second video clip, 360X270 for 300kbps DSL (3.03 MB), or if you have the connection speed or patience, 550X405 for 600 kbps cable (6.02 MB) These'll pop up in a new window you might be able to resize to your tolerance for pixellation. Hit the "play" button, and hear that "whoo! whooo!")

When the last car went out of sight on down the line, I quit shooting and bent over to stow my gear. When I straightened up, almost everybody was gone - these people move fast! So I started moving fast too. I had to beat that train into Kingman to get the next shot I wanted, and I was told the locomotive would be doing "road speed" - 70 mph on that stretch of track. OK, now we're racing.

Avoiding a jam I jumped a curb out of the lot, swooped right around a curve, hard left down the I-40 ramp and whacked the throttle wide open. My bike's geared for a top of 90. I was at or near redline, and I wasn't the only one.

The speed limit's 75, so the train racers moved through and around other traffic going just a little bit faster. After 16 miles I saw the train off in the desert, a couple of miles ahead and flying, the black plume from the stack bent back over the tops of the cars. Crouched down on the bike, running wide open, I was very slowly gaining on it.

After 25 miles I was about even with the last car, and gaining. Cars and trucks around me were jammin' it on, passengers shooting with cameras out the windows.

Just north of Yucca the Interstate crosses left over the tracks. At the crest of the overpass I could see the middle cars of the train below me, with the engine steaming away on my right.

Suddenly there were brake lights everywhere - I guess some of the regular travelers finally noticed, "Hey! That's a steam locomotive!", and jammed on their brakes for a look-see.

Beyond the overpass, the tracks run close beside the Interstate. Great shooting if you can spare a hand for a camera. I couldn't, so kept on, aiming for my next shot in Railroad Pass just this side of Kingman.

I had the lead, but with hills and gullies between us I didn't know how much. I wanted every second I could get, so I kept the engine howling at redline, tucked in tight on the motorcycle like a downhill ski racer.

There was a bit of traffic backed up at the McConnico exit, but being on a bike I went through it like it wasn't there, and turned a fast right/left onto Old 66, running between the Interstate and the tracks.

Two more miles of fast riding and I was at the west end of Railroad Canyon. But the road was blockaded - work crews cutting weeds had the whole canyon down to one lane. I pulled to the shoulder and stepped off, speed-hiking cross-country into the canyon, looking for a shot.

Video: A 51-second clip at 320X240 for 300kbps DSL (1.53 MB), or 73 seconds at 450X340 for 600 kbps cable (3.82 MB)

Across a dry wash, up and over the high raised bed of the westbound rails, I found a shot. The eastbound track was carved out of the rock cliff 50 feet above. I couldn't see the train, but I could hear it coming, "chukka-chukka-chukka-chukka",the sound of it echoing off the canyon cliffs and getting louder.

It came through a cut in the rocks and across the face of the cliff in front of me, chuffing and smoking, the drive rods thrusting back and forth turning the wheels. I was seeing the living spirit of Western railroading right there on the cliff in Railroad Canyon. It crossed a side canyon on a black steel bridge with the "Santa Fe" logo, and headed on up the main canyon to Kingman.

I hoofed it fast back to my motorcycle, but there was no rush - the road was closed again. I sat on the bike and waited for the go-ahead. People sure move slow when you're in a hurry. One of the crew took his hand out of his pocket, and it seemed to take a full minute for his hand to reach out and grab the door handle on his truck. Slow.

Finally the westbound traffic came through, and we were waved on. Couldn't pass in the canyon, but I didn't need to - I wasn't the only one in a hurry.

The train was pulled up at the depot in downtown Kingman, right on 66. There was quite a crowd of people there, and they were the happiest people I've seen in several years of events here. Everybody was smiling, waving, talking, laughing. There's something absolutely delightful about a big steam engine, and the delight is immediately contagious. It felt great to be there.

Video: An 89-second clip at 360X270 for 300kbps DSL (3.17 MB), or 550X405 for 600 kbps cable (6.31 MB)

It's a busy mainline track, though. I only had a few minutes to enjoy the party, then the train got slowly underway again. "Choo - choo - choo - choo". To see something so huge and heavy get moving under its own power still seems like magic.

Everybody watched and waved until the last car was out of sight, and then moseyed on back to the workaday world - still smiling. I couldn't mosey, though. I wanted one more shot, out on 66 near Hackberry. Back to racing.

I had to stop for fuel and water, but I made good time out of town, with only one short traffic light. On the open highway again, I opened it up and took off, keeping one eye on the tracks off in the desert to my right. No sign of the train.

Around the apex of the "Long Curve", 20 miles out, I turned right, off 66 on to a dirt ranch road that crossed the tracks and ran up hill. Right there I had a good shot - the curve, the cliffs of the Colorado Plateau, and the open desert stretching off in the distance to Las Vegas. There was a major dust storm blowing up out there.

I set up in the shade of a thorn bush, and waited - three hours. I counted 12 eastbound freights in 120 minutes, but I never did see that steam locomotive again. Could it have beaten me out of Kingman and over the road? Was it sidelined by the heavy freight traffic? Did it blow a brake line again?

Beats me. I don't know. I know I had a couple of great days, and got some unique shots, and that's plenty good enough. I'm still smiling over that train.

The return route will be from Williams, to Wickenburg, to Parker today the 25th, then up to Cadiz and back over to Barstow and L.A. on the 26th. I think this is going to be well worth seeing again. But considering the train's "flexible" schedule, I think this time I'll hang out in luxurious Barstow to wait for it. The museums - the Route 66 Mother Road Museum and the Western America Railroad Museum - sound great, too, and the train's schedule says it'll be "watered by a 1902 steam powered fire pumper supplied by the California State Firemen's Association" when it gets to Barstow. Sounds like another great day coming up.


My Last Sight of the Train;
Out of Gas in Amboy


San Bernardino Railway Historical Society

National Railway Historical Society

Route 66 List at Yahoo

Route 66 Mother Road Museum, Barstow, CA.

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