Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Two Unicorns In The Hand

There are times I just gotta grin. There's something about a certain type of Old South man that understates everything. They don't get worked up, they don't get excited. They make Scottish men look downright histrionic. There's one in the local trainspotting email group I belong to, and he set me on a path. A path to not one but TWO Union Pacific unicorns.

A little quick backstory. I just learned (fully) about Union Pacific Heritage engines. It seems that when Uncle Pete buys out a rival railroad company, not only do they try to keep some of the original locomotives in their original paint scheme (cheaper to keep her?) they also paint a Heritage Edition engine, a state-of-the-art SD70ACe in the bought-out company's livery and give it a unit number to match the year they bought the rival company. Therefore, the KATY heritage is red and burgundy and bears the number 1988. These engines then circulate in the old stomping grounds of the bought-out company, so the Southern Pacific Heritage engine hangs out around the deep south lines, the MoPac Heritage travels the old Misourri Pacific rails, and so forth.

There's a number of these engines, which I've added to my Unicorn List*.

Back to the group. This rather dour poster mentioned in passing that the UP KATY Heritage unit just so happened to be at the Alexandria UP yard. I got the email late that evening.

I died a little inside. I drove by the yard to not find it. I was certain I'd missed it, missed a unicorn in my own backyard. I was, fortunately, only partially right. It had made a trip to Shreveport and was coming back that evening. The group reported this, and I took the bit in my teeth and set my alarm early.

It worked. I passed the Broadway exit on I-49 and started rubbernecking, and sure enough there she sat, pretty as a, well, a picture. Even with the fog she gleamed a soft, deep red, as obvious as a Catholic cardinal amongst Buddhist monks.

What I noticed but didn't register in my excitement was the circus-tent-coloured cars there in the background being switched. More importantly, I didn't notice the unicorn that was hiding just on the other side of the yard. Until, that is, I was starting to drive off. I made it about thirty feet and saw a lot of Federal blue and grey backing up to those Tomy Toy cars. UP 4141, the George Bush Memorial unit.

For those of you who don't know (I was one of them up until day before yesterday) the UP 4141 has only one task: it carries a special set of cars around across the country.

These bubble-gum bright cars are intended to serve as training aids for firefighters and other first responders on the site of a hazardous materials accident during a derailment, and the setup was here to do some training. That morning, though, it was being reshuffled, as the 4141 needed to go back the way it came, and it was re-arranging the order of the cars.

Well, I made a fast circuit around Sugarhouse Rd. and came up on the Lee St. entrance, roared up into the yard, sniffed disdainfully at the "Authorized Personnel Only" sign and walked up to the office, ready to beg and plead for the chance to get over across the yard and see those pretty unicorns up close. I got VERY lucky that morning, and didn't know it. The first guy I met in what I was to later find out was the Yardmaster's office was a Crew Supervisor. The same lean, soft-spoken, quiet gentleman with whom I talked at length while photgraphing the BNSF engine in the early morning fog. Notice a pattern here?

This wonderful gent admitted that he did know me, and knew that I was safety-minded, so he told me to take Betty down the access road into the Mechanical Yard but no farther, and to simply walk across the roundhouse and out to her. I nearly choked on my tongue I was so thrilled.

Did I take full use of the opportunity? Yes. Almost 60 photos worth between George and KATY. You'd be amazed what you can manage if you're obviously taking pains to not be hit by a train and acting like you know just what you're doing there.

I spent the day literally foaming. I was desperate to get out there, especially since the fog cleared the moment I drove off, but I took deep breaths and monitored the board and such. The engines seemed to be staying put, and come 4:45 I hared out of the office, having told Vulgar Wizard, my partner in crime (remember, entering a working train yard IS considered trespassing) to meet me there.

One problem. She'd been met by a southern gentleman type UP employee who told her that she couldn't cross the rails, plus George was in conference with a group of firefighters and VIPs, so that was out. He also had no idea the KATY was there, and kept telling us he thought it was gone. Kids, my heart fell, both because I couldn't see her in good light and equally because VW was going to miss both of them. We kept hammering at him for information he didn't have, because I knew full well that the group had just posted, from an inside source, that the KATY was due for a crew at 5pm and therefore wouldn't be leaving until probably 6pm.

We finally hit on the bright idea that worked for me that morning--ask the Yardmaster! A brief chat with The Man Hisself (a genuinely nice guy, quiet, unpreposing in his jeans and whitening blonde hair) revealed that while he wanted to let us we still couldn't cross the rails but we COULD stand in the parking lot and watch. Which, come to find out, worked out beautifully.

The KATY, you see, was sixth in a line of SEVEN engines that were, as I'd learned earlier, headed first to Shreveport and thence to Fort Worth, TX. That massive power setup was sitting on the second to farthest track, the sun was setting perfectly across it, and it was child's play to catch good photos.

A sharp eye at a manifest train passing through let me set up THIS shot with a CSX-built autorack just 'in front' of the lead CSX units.

Finally, around 6:40 or so in the sharply setting sun the seven-unit setup had picked up it's massive cut of cars and rolled out, and I caught one more shot with both the consist and VW at her post, also faithfully photographing. If you're curious, you can find HER photo set on Flickr here.

It was an utterly marvelous evening. I could have kept chasing the units as the engineer was in NO rush and the route was taking it right back up Hwy 1 to Shreveport but it was getting dark and I figured 100+ photos to sort was plenty.

So. Two unicorns down, and...oh, forty or so to go. Hey, we've all got to have near-impossible goals to try for, right?

*That's the list of engines and specialty units that I really REALLY want to find, my lofty goal, my near-uncompletable quest. My unicorns.

The pick of the UP 1988 KATY Heritage engine photos can be found here on Flickr.

And the pick of UP 4141, the George Bush Memorial engine and HazMat cars here.

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