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"At The Throttle"
by Mark Bassett, Executive Director

A weekly series of columns originally published in the Ely Times 
Mark Bassett is the Executive Director of the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation, operator of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. He can be reached at the museum (775) 289-2085 ext. 7 or e-mail: director@nnry.com

 


Track Rehabilitation
16 July 2008

 

The Nevada Northern Railway is currently a landlocked railroad. What I mean by this is that we are isolated from any connection with the national rail system. A little background: the Nevada Northern Railway ceased service in 1983. At the time the railroad was split, the southern third was donated to the City of Ely and the White Pine Historical Railroad Foundation. The northern two-thirds of the railroad was purchased by the City of Los Angeles. The boundary between the two railroads was McGill Junction.

LA purchased the line because they were planning on building a power plant in Steptoe Valley and the rail line was needed to move coal to the plant. The power plant was never built. After years of negotiation, the City and the Foundation were able to purchase LA's portion of the railroad. Now the entire railroad is whole again.

The railroad needs to be thought of as two sections, even though the railroad is whole again. The line from the mine to the mill acted as a conveyer belt. It moved ore 24/7/365. Because this track was so vital to Kennecott, this track was upgraded and maintained all the way up to the last day of operations.

On the bench just to the east of Ely is a rail junction called Hiline. Here the track split. The right hand branch went to the mill and was very well maintained. The left hand track is the original mainline that heads 134.5 miles north to the Union Pacific railroad at Cobre. The mainline track from Hiline north is the original track built by Mark Requa a century ago. During the railroad's history neither Kennecott nor Magna nor BHP ever upgraded this track. They did just enough maintenance to get trains over the line.

The old ties have been removed and the new ties are spiked into place.


But with the turn of the millennium, things were changing on the Nevada Northern Railway. The copper mine reopened. Two different power plant companies are planning on building coal-fired power plants along the old LA section of track. As part of their development plans, they planned to rebuild Mark Requa's track into a modern, heavy-duty railroad. This is all well and good, but neither power company has any interest in rebuilding the track south of McGill Junction.

The stretch of track from McGill Junction to Hiline Junction was built by Mark Requa a century ago. The last ore train used the track in 1999. So the challenge for the City and the Foundation was how to rebuild this section of track? For if this section of track was not rebuild, Ely would not receive any transportation benefit from the rebuilding of the old LA section of track—Ely would remain landlocked.

In 2005, Senator Reid announced a $750,000 Economic Development grant was awarded to the City and the Foundation to rebuild the track from Hiline Junction to McGill Junction. In the spring of 2008, the project was ready to begin. Dennis Winger stepped up to the plate to serve as Project Manager and Leonard Cassieri was Construction Manager. The project started at Hiline Junction and headed north. The first tasks were grading a service road and removing brush from the tracks. In nine years, the track was overgrown with sagebrush. Crews started in March removing the sage. Then truckload after truckload of ties showed up along with spikes, joint bars, bolts, and a couple pieces of rail.

Crews then started removing the worn-out ties and inserting new ones. Following the tie gang was the plate gang that reset the tie plates on the tie. Then came the spiking gang, spiking four spikes to every tie. Slowly, the crews made there way south. After a mile of track had been spiked then came the ballast trains.

This was the dirtiest and most dangerous part of the job. Five ballast cars were filled with 60 tons of ballast each. At this point, the track looked like two thin ribbons of spaghetti twisting and turning down the hill.

The ballast train started at Hiline Junction. At the car farthest from the engine, a man on either side of the train opens the dump doors under the car. A signal is given to the engineer and slowly the train is pushed down the hill. Great big plumes of dust boil out of the car. The wind comes and blows the dust everywhere. It's hot, dusty, and dangerous. The men on either side of the train walk slowly dumping the ballast, opening the doors a little more as the ballast starts to run out. The dust is everywhere. And it is so thick you can't see the train at times. Once a car is emptied, then the next car is dumped, until 600,000 pounds of ballast have been dumped. The process starts all over again and another 600,000 pounds of ballast is dumped.

After the empty ballast train pulls away, what's on the ground doesn't look like track. Now the two thin ribbons of spaghetti twisting and turning down the hill are buried up to the tops of the rail under rock.

Now you wonder just how is this going to turn out. The magic is the next two pieces of equipment: the ballast regulator and the tamper. The ballast regulator spreads the ballast out so the tamper can then tamp it under the ties. Slowly the two strands of spaghetti are turned into a railroad. The dips, bends, and humps are removed by the tamper. And the ballast regulator follows behind smoothing everything out. The transition is magical. What were two strands of spaghetti is transformed into a railroad. Ballast tamped tightly under new ties. The rails straighten and gauged. And finally, the ballast is groomed with a defined shoulder.

Locomotive 204 is shoving a ballast train towards the Club 50 crossing. This is the first time a train has been on this section of track since 1999. (Locomotive 204 was one of the BHP locomotives that hauled ore trains over this section of railroad.)


We're not quite to McGill Junction yet; we're close. Our next challenge is where the track crosses US Highway 93. Called the Club 50 crossing, the crossing is failing. The track and roadway are just about to the end of their service life. Plans have been developed and the project has been released for bidding. The new Club 50 crossing will be built to current specifications, 136-pound rail as opposed to 70-pound rail. The road surface will have concrete panels. And instead of just two sets of flashing lights, there will be lights and gates.

Once this project is complete, it's on to McGill Junction. By bringing the southern third of the railroad into compliance, we are ready for the rebuilding of the northern two-thirds of the railroad. Then Ely will once again be connected to the national rail system. In this era of high fuel costs railroads are the most fuel-efficient method of moving large quantities of freight and material. The City and the Foundation are on the verge of completing the first step in this project. With the track rebuilt to McGill Junction, we'll be ready to tie into the reconstructed portion of the track that LA owned. And once this happens, Ely and White Pine County can reap the benefits of low cost rail transportation.

 

 

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