My essay, Why Watch Trains?

This is a brief documentation of my journies to the famous Orin Line of the Powder River Basin in east-central Wyoming. This is not meant to be comprehensive, but just a few shared photographs from my brief trip.

The Powder River Basin accounts for 25% of the annual coal production in the United States, and the supporting railroad features perhaps the greatest number of ton-miles operated of any rail segment in the United States. The Orin Line was built in the 1970s as a joint venture of the Burlington Northern and Chicago and North Western, to tap the rapidly developing coal industry in this part of Wyoming. Today, successors Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific continue to operate unit coal trains that originate in several mines at the north end of the line.

The railroad is considered east-west, but actually travels north-south. With continuous welded rail, concrete ties, and a long segment of triple track CTC, this is serious railroading. As the sign at the C&NW office in Bill used to read:

Through these doors pass the world's greatest railroaders.

'That's the way it is out here in the West.'

June 2002: Orin Line and Feeder Lines


The classic Steckley Road shot of a westbound with empties heading toward the mines. The lead units are just passing Logan Summit.


Pushers dissapperating into the Wyoming grasslands.


Westbound at Bill, WY.


Near Henry, WY on UP's Powder River Subdivision that runs from the Orin Line at Shawnee Jct. toward O'Fallons, Nebraska.


Stuart, WY on BNSF's Valley Subdivion. This is part of BNSF's feeder line that runs from Wendover, Wyoming to Northport, Nebraska.


Douglas, WY.  This train is actually on the BNSF Casper Subdivision, heading east toward Bridger Jct.


Eastbound at Torrington, WY on the Valley Subdivision. US 26 follows the tracks from the staging yard in Guernsey to well east of the Nebraska border.


Not a coal train! Westbound near the siding at Texas, between Torrington and Guernsey. Occasional mixed freight can be seen on the Valley Subdivision.


Torrington, WY.

March 2001: The Orin Line


UP coal loads at Crossover 95.7. There were a fair number of SP units mixed in on the UP trains. Also, a lot of the railroad south of Bill that is parallel to route 59 is elevated, as shown, or depressed relative to the highway.


Empties up track 3. Although all tracks are CTC and signaled in both directions, the left-hand running is very common. This may well be a holdover from the C&NW days, who were famous for left-hand running. However, BNSF dispatches the route.


Loaded train eastbound at East Bill. Notice the plume of dust in the background. This was a very common sight in the northern sky. Sometimes it is from diesel exhaust, but the giant coal shovels in the mines produce these plumes as well.


Helper on the same train. Loaded trains typically have two units in the front and one or two remote-controlled helpers. Empty trains may or may not have helpers.


The famous Bill store and post office. Bill isn't exactly a metropolis; this is pretty much all there is to it. UP has a yard staging facility here, and even has a motel it operates for its own crews. Some of the only trees anywhere in this part of Wyoming are here. Look at the other images - trying to find a tree is sort of like 'Where's Waldo'!


Coal loads pass under the signal bridge at West Bill. The yard is to the south, and seems to be mainly used to hold empty trains until they are ready for loading. BNSF does a lot of their staging at the north end of the line in Gillette, and to the south in Guernsey.


BNSF loads pass under route 59, having descended Logan Hill. Lots of open space and grazing cattle. North of Bill, most of the land is part of the Thunder Basin National Grassland.


BNSF loads parallel to Hilight Road. This road wasn't in the greatest shape, and is the farthest north I went. I kept running into this train, quite unintentionally, as I headed back south.


Once in the mine territory north of the intersection of Antelope Road with route 59, signs like this were located all over the place. Of course, with blasting so close to public roads, the mines need to post these disclaimers. The same train as above continues to pass in the background.


Looking south on Antelope Road toward the Antelope Coal Mine. There is a coal train in the center, if you look carefully. After a while, the silhouette of hopper cars against the horizon becomes fairly easy to spot!


This BNSF train is coming out of Antelope Mine and was apparently still loading, since it was creeping forward at approximately 1 MPH. This is where the slow speed control on the newer units is very useful. The train is nearing the connection with the main at Converse Jct., where a westbound empty train is passing.


An SD90MAC leads a westbound north toward the mines. This is at the Steckley Road overpass. The engines have just crested Logan Hill; the summit is marked by the yellow sign with the black triangle. This also shows the concrete ties that are everywhere on the Orin Line. The combination of CWR and concrete ties produces a wonderful humming sound (interrupted only by the occasional flat wheel) as a unit train passes.



As this train passes, an eastbound BNSF train appears. It turns out to be the same one originally seen along Hilight road. Actually, eastbound trains north of here can be seen about 30 minutes before they arrive, since the visibility in this direction is so good and loaded trains crawl up the hill.

Also note the space between tracks 1 and 2. Several years back while work was being done to regrade the curves over the hill, a fourth track was temporarily installed so as to allow trains to operate continually while still allowing room for the maintenance crews to work.


The helper on this train. The westbound can still be seen rounding the corner in the distance, as can a coal mine (probably Antelope Coal Mine).



Again, this is the same train originally seen at both Hilight and Steckley roads. This time at the route 55 crossing. The train is climbing the other big hill on the route, whose summit is located a few miles to the south.

The train was moving at walking speed and the lead units were sanding heavily, as can be seen in the second image.


As this train struggles up the hill, a westbound empty train appears. The westbound is coasting downgrade and really moving, probably at nearly 50 MPH, which is the maximum speed over most of the Orin Line. This is also a good example of the left-hand running that is so common.

Seeing perhaps 40 trains in the daylight hours I was in view of the Orin Line, I didn't see one conventional cab locomotive! There was a lot of new AC power as well. This is someplace anyone interested in serious railroading needs to visit!

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