The Moffat Road's Tunnel District, and the San Luis Valley



I was invited to speak in Denver in April 2014.  Traveling and returning, we made a loop through central Colorado (Del Norte - Leadville - Denver - Walsenburg - Del Norte). I'm always cognizant of the rail activity, and I shot a lot of photos in a couple of locations.

The Moffat Line - The Tunnel District

Since we get to the Denver area so seldom these days we took advantage of the weekend and took a hike with a friend up in the Tunnel District. We found what we believe to be a trail leading down from Tunnel 19 Road to the ROW (if this crossed somebody's property, our deepest apologies-- we really did avoid all posted signs!)

The goal was to have a good hike, trains or no.  But hiking along the Moffat line does increase one's chances of trains.  That said: it's always good to appreciate what the original builders in 1903 achieved up here with black powder and horse-drawn wagons. I took many photos of tunnels 19 through 22 and the right-of-way between. It was a good way to try out my new Nikon D3100 camera too...

SAFETY NOTES: Technically, walking on the right-of-way is trespassing. More importantly, this is a very dangerous area. Due to the terrain, trains are not audible until they are nearly on top of you. Don't walk through tunnels; this is a good way to die or at least get injured. Respect the right-of-way and the crews.

Will you be unsafe around railroads?  Grumpy Cat says "No."
The west portal of tunnel 19 follows a left-hand curve (I believe the tunnel is curved through most of its length) and the approach passes through a long, deep cut before reaching the actual tunnel.

Tunnel 19: length = 1055 feet

Looking down at tunnel 19's west portal, one can see how the 1943 concrete portal extension has been buried with raveling material, justifying its construction.
Looking at tunnel 20's east portal, from the ridge penetrated by tunnel 19. The tracks are on a tangent after leaving 19 and remain straight through 20.
Looking west through tunnel 20's bore. It is straight throughout its length, rare on this line. As a result, the photographic possibilities are endless. The east portal was stabilized with concrete in 1947.

Tunnel 20: length = 460 feet

Hiking around the rocky ridge, one comes to the west portal of tunnel 20. Here I noticed something interesting: much of the wooden forms from the 1948 portal extension are still there, albeit rotting away. The portal face catches loose material and keeps it from falling onto the right-of-way.
Here's the west portal.  Note that this portal was rebuilt in 1948, a year after the east end. It has the nicely-styled facade found on some of these tunnels.
Note the spray-painted notation 5' 11" inside the west portal of tunnel 20. This seems to be the clearance between the railhead and the tunnel wall. Tunnel 21 has something similar painted on it.
Midway between tunnels 20 and 21 sit two flange lubricators, one for each rail.
The east portal of tunnel 21 is located around a short curve from the tangent that bisects tunnel 20. The entry is cut back into the hillside and has a slide-detection fence on the south side of the ROW. This portal and the associated tunnel lining was concreted in 1945.
If you stand in the right place you can see through tunnel 21. The curve ends shortly inside the east portal.

Tunnel 21: length = 667 feet

Hiking to tunnel 21's west end, we see that it was also recast in concrete in 1945. This portal still matches the rock face reasonably well. See the interesting concrete stub on the left top edge. Also note the natural material that has washed down from both sides, probably during the flooding of 2013.
Tunnel 22 is just around the curve from tunnel 21. It's quite short and the rocky spur it transits is fairly low. From here it looks like it's concreted throughout its length. A short slide fence protects the eastern approach, and I saw evidence that an aspen tree had come down on the tracks and been struck by a train, right behind where I stood to take this photo.

Tunnel 22: length = 180 feet

While in this area we watched two coal trains roll by, an eastbound load and a westbound empty. Considering that none of us were novices at railfanning, let me reiterate that you have remarkably little warning when trains approach in the tunnel district. You simply cannot hear them until they have already entered the nearest tunnel.

My scanner's batteries died unexpectedly so I have no precise train ID's; only educated guesses.

First train: UP 6337 East

We had enough audible warning for me to move up onto the top of the cut and watch the train as it passed through tunnel 21. Note how the interior of the tunnel is well-illuminated. It reminds me of riding the lead dome of the Rio Grande Zephyr through the Moffat Tunnel, many years ago...
The headlights of AC4400 No. 6337 were playing tricks with the interior of my camera lens!
Out in the light, now we see the face of No. 6337. This unit was delivered in 1995 as SP No. 292, repainted and renumbered in September 2003.
No. 7251 is the trailing unit on the head end, delivered to UP in August 1999. The revenue portion of the train is a mixed bag of steel hoppers. Judging by the type of cars and the shape of the flood-loaded coal, I guess this train was from West Elk Mine on the North Fork branch. Nice to see DRGW quad No. 12710 still earning its keep.
The train consisted predominantly of MoPac and UP quads, including a great number of cars with side extensions. Here the power is entering Tunnel 20.
As the mid-train DPU set rolled through tunnel 21, the number boards of the lead unit glowed like eyes in the dark. It's No. 7952, a C45ACCTE (GEVO) built circa 2012.
The swing helper is a 3-unit set, per current UP practice. In addition to No. 7952 we have CSX ES44AH No. 903 (this is a CSX nomenclature for ES44AC's meeting certain criteria; see Wikipedia for more details). Trailing is a nice old patched SP unit, 6216, originally SP 303, delivered July 1995 and patched in October 2007.
The trailing DPU today is a nice surprise, EMD SD70ACe No. 8671. These have been showing up more frequently on the Moffat recently. Unit built circa July 2011.

Those lights in the tunnel are not lens artifacts.  See below!

Following right on the heels of this coal train was a hi-railer pickup truck. I've never seen one following this close before. I suppose that this simplified things for the dispatcher-- no track-and-time paperwork to fill out.

Second train: UP 7176 West

Nearly an hour later, a westbound empty roared out of tunnel 19, with C44AC No. 7176 on the point. We thought we might have heard a train coming, but weren't sure until about 30 seconds before this photo.
Looking directly down on the lead steed. Note the interesting positive-train-control antenna assembly on the cab roof. UP has been installing these throughout its fleet over the past few years, but I had never noticed it until now.
The train was all aluminum hoppers, mixed reporting marks and heritage. Towards the front were a few older CTRN cars. It's interesting to note the discoloration on the interiors where the coal loads usually make contact with the metal.
Trackside view of the cars. This particular one is CEFX 62688.

The train was running 2+1 with a solitary unit, UP 7295, pushing on the rear.  Watch the YouTube Video.

San Luis Valley - The San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad

Returning home on April 14 brought us through the Alamosa area. I saw no trains in La Veta pass (not unusual at mid-day). There were a couple of mechanical reefers spotted near Fort Garland, and the East Yard (Alamosa) looked typically full. Going downtown I poked around briefly with camera. Actually, these days it's difficult to get well-lit photos due to "urban" encroachment on the south side of the yard.

The downtown area was jammed full of passenger cars, many seemingly awaiting their turn in the car shops.  I would estimate off-hand there to have been easily thirty of them, not counting the ones currently in service by the Rio Grande Scenic RR. Iowa Pacific uses Alamosa for much of its mechanical and refurbishment work for all its short lines.

A sample of the coaches parked near the depot in Alamosa-- some old heavyweight, some streamliners of various ages. More are on the adjacent track; more in the space to the east towards the diesel shops; more behind us to the west, all over the downtown yard...
SLRG's beautiful F10 No. 1100 is parked with a string of passenger cars just west of the depot. I didn't get around to the other end for a better look, unfortunately. The two cars at front of the train area actually just one car, conjoined as it were.
Biggest surprise for the afternoon was this E9 unit, lettered IOWA PACIFIC. The number is not visible but deduction reveals it's No. 9925.  The clues are as follows: (1) all portholes are blanked out; (2) the presence of ladder grabs on the left side of the nose, unique to this unit among the Iowa Pacific E units. The combination of these features is pretty conclusive...  It's classified as an E9AM, having been rebuilt at some point by Morrison-Knudson.  The number goes all the way back to its BN days.
Nose-to-nose with the E9 is SD9043MAC No. 115.  Seems like I never get a good angle on these guys...  One of only two 6-axle freight units on the railroad-- not counting the E units of course. Four years here now, they seem to be performing acceptably.


The SLRG has been using a stable of B39-8 units from GE for several years. I have heard that some had gone elsewhere, but there were 3 on the property that I spotted this day-- including No. 8577 (center). This unit's been in Alamosa in these colors since 2008. It's a former LMX unit, like No. 8560 to the right.  The 8560 is a relative newcomer to the SLRG. Also note the pair of F units to the left, awaiting refurbishment.
These cars look to be in line for repair/refurbishment.  Several look to be built by Pullman-Standard. The dome car is missing all its glass in the dome. Let's hope they fix it up and use it on La Veta pass.
Leaving Alamosa we headed west. I noted a string of aluminum Bethgons being stored at the Poole Chemical site, and a small cut of aluminum 5-bay hoppers at Zinser. As we passed Sugar Junction I spotted headlights in the yard and pulled over to get some photos.
Another of the B39-8 units, No. 8527, was switching the yard.  This is the interchange with the San Luis Central, the other short-line railroad in the valley. Covered hoppers, mechanical reefers, and tank cars form the lion's share of car varieties seen here.
Of interest were these ex-Amtrak mechanical reefers-- I saw at least three. Now carrying RWIX reporting marks, they're an interesting change of scenery.
Here's a broadside portrait of No. 8527. Despite the difference in color, I am in love with this revival of the D&RGW scheme.

I'm definitely in love with my new Nikon, a step-change up from any of my previous digital cameras. Stay tuned for more from the world of railfanning at Actionroad.net!

My Video of the Monte Vista Local at YouTube
My Video of a DPU Helper in the Tunnel District at YouTube
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