Successors to the Rio Grande
A Railfan's Perspective
(Just click the thumbnail pictures to see a larger image)
In October of 1988, the struggling Southern Pacific railroad was purchased by the Rio Grande's owner, Philip Anschutz, and
the two systems were merged-- at least nominally. In reality, operations remained largely separate until early 1992. Until that time, solid sets of Rio Grande power were still common, especially on the Moffat.
After the merger, the appearance of Rio Grande locomotives took a decided turn for the worse-- grime became the new official
color, it seemed, as units were seldom washed. A new merger paint scheme was developed around 1991, using the SP colors and name but
with Grande-inspired lettering. It began to be applied to all new units, and many of those being shopped. The last locomotives
delivered in Rio Grande colors (and name) were the three GP60's, arriving in 1990. One Grande GP40 was repainted in
SP Speed Lettering (#3086), as well as about a dozen tunnel motors and seven SD50s.
Internal attempts to keep the two roads apart operationally led to widespread demoralization, at least within the SP. But in 1992, new managers finally forced integration between them, and a new, "unified" system emerged-- the "Southern Pacific Lines". This, of course, included the St. Louis Southwestern (SSW, or "Cotton Belt"), the D&RGW, and the SP. Thereafter,
units from any of the component railroads were used interchangeably.
In the new system, the Kansas City - Pueblo - Salt Lake route became the heart of SP's new Central Corridor. Intermodal traffic grew, and clearances were increased along the route to handle it. The Royal Gorge route, rather than the Moffat, became the backbone of the system in D&RGW territory. But the SPL continued to struggle financially, even as traffic increased.
In 1995 the new AC4400s arrived from GE, effectively bumping any remaining Rio Grande power from the Minturn helper pool
and from nearly all heavy coal trains. That year also saw the announced intention by Anschutz and the Union Pacific railroad to merge UP with his Southern Pacific Lines (SPL). As part of the deal, UP stated that it planned to get rid of the Tennessee pass route,
Rio Grande's historical (and re-emergent) backbone. The merger was consummated in September 1996.
Within months, UP rerouted nearly all intermodal and manifest traffic away from former DRGW lines, and the last revenue operations
over Tennessee pass occurred in August 1997. However, since then there has been a reappearance of a daily Z train (ZRODV-ZDVRO) between
Denver and Salt Lake, as well as a pair of manifests (MRODV-MDVRO). Additionally, the BNSF received trackage rights between Denver and Stockton
as conditions of the merger, and sends several trains per day via the Central Corridor.
Today, large AC power in UP and SP colors dominate traffic on the former DRGW lines, and foreign-road units are not uncommon. Most UP trains are of the coal variety,
except as noted above, and run under Distributed Power (radio-controlled helper units). The GP60's were typically assigned to the Denver-Pueblo run in the late '90s and into 2001. Two of the remaining GP30s were often used on locals around the Denver area (Rocky Flats, etc), until mechanical problems sent them to the dead-line in 1998/1999. GP40s were being used system-wide as switchers and on locals. In the latter part of 2000, tunnel motors began to be used more and more frequently on the Denver- Salt Lake route, both on manifests and intermodals. The San Luis Valley branch remained relatively active, with geeps in SP, UP, and DRGW colors leading the way. And the helper pool at Helper, Utah, was dominated by Grande six-axle power. However, that situation looked to be changing, with the advent of some DPU trains over Soldier Summit.
UP had intended to repaint all non-retiring units in Armour Yellow, and indeed was very active at that during 1999. A number of SD40T-2s, GP40-2s, and SD50s were been repainted (plus one GP60). But the announcement of the acquisition of a large fleet of SD70M's put most repainting on hold. In fact, all the repainted tunnel motors had to be renumbered from the 4000 series to make room for the SD70s.
All of the GP30's, GP35's, and SD45's have been retired,
as well as nearly all the GP40s. Starting in 2001, UP began operating the tunnel motors into the ground, retiring them after any significant mechanical problems or when their mileage was up. It now looks like the last operating units in original D&RGW paint will be GP40-2's, which continue to be widely used on locals and branch lines-- a niche where smaller locomotives thrive. Indeed, since neither locomotive builder is making 4-axle road diesels at present, we can probably expect these units to live for a long time to come.
With the rebuilding of the former Kansas Pacific route east of Denver, traffic on the Moffat is heavier than most people expected--
to the point that gridlock is commonplace. Some days in 2000 and 2001 saw upwards of 24 trains per day through the tunnel. There have even been rumors of reopening Tennessee pass to relieve the congestion. UP has officially withdrawn their abandonment application for the line, putting it instead into their "rail bank", but no one knows if-- or when-- it will be reopened.
The Rio Grande is long gone as a corporation and an operating entity, but a large part of its system is still a key component
in the national rail system, and looks to have a healthy future. One can still see the California Zephyr (albeit Amtrak), the Ski Train, and occasional DRGW locomotives. Certainly there are a lot of cars lettered for the Grande still out there. And there's an interesting mix of power plying the rails.
No matter the paint, it's fun to watch a few thousand horsepower blasting up the 2% at Coal Creek or ripping through the desert
below the Book cliffs. Not a bad legacy for the Rebel of the Rockies.
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