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"Big Load" on the Joint Line

Palmer Lake to Englewood

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Picture 1) Big Load train rounds Palmer Lake led by newly painted ES44DC #7687.
On March 28, 2005, word hit the online train community that there was a unique train departing Houston, TX on BNSF. This train was reported as carrying the largest piece of equipment ever unloaded at the Houston Port Authority. The unit, as it turns out, was owned by Suncor Energy and was headed for Suncor's oil refinery plant in Commerce City, CO. The unit is a 570 metric ton refinery reactor! It will be used to create low-sulfur fuel through heat and pressure. The "hydrotreater", as it is called, is 115 feet long and, as mentioned, is not light! A company named Westinghouse Electric Corp provided a 36-axle schnabel car (CEBX 800) that is over 200 feet long (including the cargo) for the journey.

Picture 2) BNSF 7687 heads up the train just north of Palmer Lake, sporting the new black BNSF logo.

With BNSF at the helm, a brand new GE ES44DC (one of two sporting BNSF's new "toothpick" logo) was sent to Houston to bring the reactor north. The journey from Houston to Denver was going to be a long one! Due to the sheer size of the cargo, the train was restricted to a mere 15 MPH for the entire trip, and could only travel in daylight hours. To ensure the cargo made it safely to its destination, an R.J. Corman derailment crew stayed within an hour of the train, so the train could be quickly re-railed, should the need arise.

The train left Houston on March 28 with the symbol J-PTRDEN1-28A. BNSF 7687 was the sole power on the massive train. With so many unknowns for the trip, there was a lot of give in the schedule for the last leg of the trip into Denver. The train never averaged much more than 80 miles a day.

Picture 3) A look at the new BNSF logo which has already earned the nicknames Toothpick, Wedgie, and PowerBar.

By Sunday, April 10, the train had finally reached Colorado, making it all the way to La Junta. As luck would have it, that same day a spring blizzard hit Colorado all the way from Denver to Pueblo, effectively shutting everything down. Monument Hill (where Palmer Lake is located, at over 7,200 feet) received over two feet of snow. Depending on when the train left La Junta, the race would be on between the sun (to melt the snow), and the train.

Fortunately, safety was absolutely top-notch for this crew, so the train stayed an extra day in La Junta without movement. It did not reach Pueblo until Wednesday. The suggested schedule at this point was Pueblo to Castle Rock on Thursday, and Castle Rock to Denver on Friday. As it turns out, this schedule was extremely optimistic! The train did not even reach Palmer Lake on Thursday, making it only to Monument. The train was tied down on the siding for the night with a crew lined up to go on duty at 0700 Friday, April 15 (Tax Day!).

Picture 4) The train passes through Greenland as Pikes Peak stick up over the ridge in the distance.

I made it down to Palmer Lake by 9:30am with a half an hour to spare. Due to the nature of the train, it received an on-track escort provided by two highrailers: one in front of the train inspecting the tracks for defects, and one behind the train to ensure no track damage had been done. Consequently, the only way the train could move was under track and time (instead of using signals). At Palmer Lake, CTC ends, and Track Warrants (TWC) begins. So, the train stopped on the west side of the lack for 15 minutes or so, waiting to receive a track warrant to proceed north.

Picture 5) The hydrotreater rolls over a trestle north of Larkspur that is dwarfed by the mighty load.

In addition to the derailment crew that was closely following the train, Westinghouse (owner of the schnabel car) provided its own escort service too. Vans would drive ahead of the train and monitor grade crossing. BNSF also had two trucks on the road, and one BNSF police officer was out in a Ford Explorer.

After catching the train at Greenland (Picture 4), we headed north to Larkspur. I say "we" because there were a fair number of railfans out to witness this incredible move. Not to mention that it is much more interesting than the typical coal train the the Joint Line sees. The train got stopped just south of Larkspur for nearly an hour to wait for MOW to clear up ahead of it.

Picture 6) Creeping along at 10 MPH, the train makes it safely through downtown Castle Rock.

While waiting at Larkspur, I happened to meet a gentleman who was following the train, but was not a railfan per se. He works for Suncor in Commerce City and was interesting in seeing the move. I spoke with him for awhile and got some details on the reactor. The reactor was built by Belleli Energy in Italy. It was loaded onto a ship near Venice on February 10, 2005. The ship took some time getting across the Atlantic, reaching Houston on March 20, when the unit was unloaded.

Picture 7) The best overall view of the train I got for the day was from a hill alongside US 85, not far north of Sedalia.

What would you guess is the cost of transporting this reactor? How about just the journey on BNSF alone? Apparently the bill was in excess of $1 million (yes, that's $1,000,000), not including problems encountered along the way. At a hill in Texas, the car would not clear the turn, so 200 feet of the hill was cut back by a few feet to make room. Add another $200,000 to the bill. Then, a few bridges needed some re-enforcement...there's another $150,000. Suncor also had to pay for custom modifications to the schnabel car...how about another quarter million for that. When all was said and done, the transportation costs along exceeded $3 million from Italy to Denver. Reportedly there were also dozens of switch stands, crossing gates, and block signals that had to be disassembled (to some degree) to accommodate the 14-foot wide cargo to pass. (Note: These dollar figures are based on second-hand information passed on to me from the gentleman in Larkspur. I make no guarantee that these figures are accurate!)

Once arriving in Commerce City, the car would be parked in a siding along the BNSF Brush Sub. The mainline happens to cut through the middle of refinery. A crane was built alongside Brighton Blvd to perform the task of unloading. The car itself would not need to enter the plant. Four block of Brighton Blvd were closed off to allow the crane to offload the reactor and swing it into the plant. The crane required to offload the reactor had to be built onsite by two smaller cranes!

Picture 8) A shot of just the schnabel car as seen from above on the hill.

After leaving Larkspur, the next logical choice for a shot was in Castle Rock. The train had to slow in order to enter a track foremans "Form B" limits between MP 33 and MP 31.3. A "Form B" is a railroad form that prevents trains from entering specified limits without the permission of the foreman. This allows maintenance crews to work without the worry of a train coming by unannounced.

Picture 9) The train passes the former Santa Fe intermodal facility named Big Lift, and passes under Titan Blvd.

From Palmer Lake to Sedalia, a Union Pacific highrailer had been bringing up the rear of the train as the northbound track between Palmer Lake and Sedalia is owned by Union Pacific. Upon reaching Sedalia, the Union Pacific highrailer left the train behind, and a new BNSF highrailer hopped on the track to continue inspection for the remainder of the journey into Denver.

The Form B would be the last slow down for the train prior to reaching Littleton. At Littleton, CTC resumes and TWC ends. This would require the train to once again get track and time from the dispatcher. This caused a brief slowdown as the dispatcher had to determine if main two or main three would be the best choice for the train. Ultimately, main three was decided on and track and time was issued.

Once track and time was issued (to both the highrailers and the train itself), the train also had to be "flagged" past the red signal. After the entire train was clear of the TWC territory south of Littleton, the track warrant from Palmer Lake to Littleton was given up, much to the relief of the BNSF dispatcher who could once again begin running his northbound trains!

Picture 10) The train passes over Santa Fe Blvd (Hwy 85) just south of highway C470. The entire car cannot fit on the bridge!

On the approach to Englewood, another minor slow down occurred when the train has to change dispatchers. At the Englewood crossover, the dispatcher changes from BNSF DS-16 (Denver South Dispatcher), to BNSF DS-87 (Brush Sub Dispatcher). The delay came when the dispatcher was unaware of the fact that both the highrailers and the train needed track and time. Once that was sorted out, the train was again flagged past the red signal, and was able to continue north toward the yards.

Picture 11) The train passes the former Santa Fe intermodal facility named Big Lift, and passes under Titan Blvd.

By 2:30pm, the train was approaching the Evans Avenue underpass (underpass for the train that is; overpass for cars). Pretty good time was made, considering the train left Palmer Lake to head north at 10:15am. That is 44 miles over the course of roughly four hours, so the train was doing a pretty good 10 to 11 MPH.

Unfortunately, Evans Avenue is where I had to leave the train behind. I needed to be home by 3:00pm so I was unable to get any shots of the train actually entering the yard. However, I was also informed by the gentleman who works for Suncor that the reactor will be off loaded late morning or early afternoon on Saturday, April 16, 2005. Brighton Blvd, as mentioned above, will be closed for the duration of the unloading, but a few areas have apparently been setup to allow spectators to witness the unloading.

It is my understanding that the train reached the BNSF 36th street yard shortly after 4:00pm, and that after a brief stop in the yard it continued on to the refinery. It will be interesting to see where the schnabel car goes once the reactor has been off loaded on Saturday. This was also my first look at the new BNSF logo (in person). When I first saw the logo, I thought it was a joke! But, I have to admit, after seeing it in person, it really does look pretty sharp. Heck, as railfans, we should all be grateful that things change. Without some degree of change, our pictures from the past wouldn't be worth nearly as much!

I hope you enjoyed this brief photo-tour from Palmer Lake to Englewood on the Joint Line. If you were able to see the train in person, then you know what an amazing piece of machinery it is. If you were not able to, then hopefully these pictures will get the point across!

I will leave you with the link to one additional photo (that would not quite fit here on the page). This last photo (click here) is a shot of the schnabel car passing the Evans Lightrail station, preparing to pass underneath Evans Avenue.

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions about this guide, by all means e-mail the webmaster!!!

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