Day 21: Helena, MT railfanning

When one wakes up in a Motel 6, you feel like you're waking up in some poorly scripted crime-thriller plot line. Romantic is one thing it most certainly isn't! So I escaped fairly quickly and was on my way down to the railway yard again. I soon struck the jackpot with a



Yes, those are airplane fuselages being railed across the MRL! 737s I believe, there were 3 shells and each was a different length. The get railed from one factory to another for (I guess) final assembly. Behind each shell there is an enclosed compartment for additional components, and then a few specialty enclosed wagons behind them with more components.

DSC_0527 DSC_0528
Support wagons; notice how they dwarf the diggers next to them!

I raced on up the hill to try and follow this guy over the pass, but obviously lost him somewhere because after much delay the train that actually got the helpers and appeared on my camera was another earthworm. The amount of grain being moved is phenomenal. Each BNSF line that railfan is continually pounded by these monsters. I saw one that had derailed and it looked like a very big mess, with piles of grain everywhere and lots of upturned hoppers. Better than coal or oil though.

And so here comes my surprise earthworm with the city of Helena in the background. Helena is quite nicely laid out, sort of draped over the side of a very gentle valley.


And here come the helpers. The very shiny blue paint MRL use make for pretty difficult photography.


I chased it up the road as far as I could go.

DSC_0546 DSC_0557
Roaring through the first crossing / Snaking up the road

First of the helpers through the final crossing

DSC_0562   DSC_0567
Going through Austin

DPU bringing up the rear

I tried to get further up but this patch of Mullan Pass is definitely a summer job. After the last crossing the groomed road quickly ends and you need a snowmobile (of which there were no shortage) to get any further. Later in the day once all the snow mobiles had gone home I had a go and didn't get far at all, even with my supposedly 4wd SUV.

Here is what the Austin Road looks like:


It is actually a very easy road to drive, consisting of a layer of very dry snow (not icy at all) and then a frozen gravel road under that. The road is gritted just enough that the snow is chunky and grippy. I managed 40mph very easily along here.

I continued over the hill (which in summer would be a 10 minute drive over the top, but in winter involves an hour detour the long way around) and found the West portal of the Mullan tunnel. Before I got into position the helpers came through, and then, predictably, there was silence for a very long time. Railfanning…!

The lighting over here was terrible too, being overcast and with the snow reflecting everything, and no direct lighting on anything else, the photos come out very nearly solid black and solid white.


DSC_0597   DSC_0605
Into the hole / looking through the hole

DSC_0603 DSC_0607
Continental Divide, 5548 ft elevation / Snow fighting equipment?!

Waited for a while but eventually gave up and drove back around the long way to find more trains. Found a coal train and followed that.



DSC_0647   DSC_0651

Helpers crawling up the hill.

Misjudged my timing on this one and he was so long that by the time the end of the train had cleared the crossing, the front half was already occupying the next crossing, making it impossible to get ahead! So lots of shots of the rear end power.

I went exploring up a side road to try and find a very famous trestle, but didn't have much luck. I didn't have a good map and the GPS doesn't readily divulge the position of railways lines, which can make it difficult. The roads up here also weren't as good and I stalled in a few places. I then had to slowly reverse down which was a learning experience, as it isn't so much reversing as a controlled slide. I also discovered that "all wheel drive" is not the same as four wheel drive. Proper 4wd will give each wheel 25% of the total torque. All wheel drive gives the front wheels 90% and the rear wheels 10%, unless it "detects" excess wheel slip. Well whatever detection system it uses is useless because I had my head out the window watching my wheels and the back wheels were utterly stationary while the front wheels were spinning on the spot. Hrmph! And when backing down, the front wheels were sliding and the rear wheels were turning freely, which really helped with controllability! I also found it relies on the ESC (Electronic Stability Control) system to balance the torques to each wheel, which means that when wheels start skidding it applies the brakes independently and rather noisily to each wheel. This can have the wonderful side effect of sapping almost all available torque when trying to climb a snowy hill, causing you to stall. Sometimes I do long for less electronics between me and the road.

I did however eventually get somewhere, and went for a bit of a walk hoping to find some trains. No trains were found, but I did fine an old tunnel and some great photo spots, if only there had been trains in them.

DSC_0668   DSC_0667
End of the road / "No Trespassing, Keep Out", and some footprints that are obviously obeying the sign :-)

Where are the trains?

  DSC_0679 DSC_0665
Old tunnel with tracks going round the far side.

Lovely twisted tree I found.

I wanted to stay, but decided that traversing fairly difficult roads after dark wouldn't be so wise, so headed down at sunset. The car decided that it needed an oil change, which it most certainly isn't going to get from me, however now every time I turn it on it bings at me and flashes CHANGE OIL across the dash. And if I dare start the car before doing up my seat belt, I get from 2 to 5 bings (there doesn't seem to be any pattern to the number of seat belt bings). And when the wiper fluid level gets low, I get a bing a minute later with LOWASH, which is very distracting when you're trying to merge into a freeway at 120kmh!

And to think that compared to previous vehicles, this car is fairly quiet! In case you hadn't noticed, the honeymoon period has worn off between me and the Dodge. Later on in the week I got out-offroaded by a 1980s vintage Toyota Corolla!

I headed back to Helena for the night and stayed in the depressing Motel 6 again, mainly because it was the only affordable one around, and for all its downsides it was actually clean. Check in took even longer this time, despite this time already being in their system! Dinner was mexican again from across the road.

So Mullan Pass gets my vote for being reasonably railfannable, although certainly much more accessible in any season but winter.


Leave a comment?

Your name:
From?: (optional)
Icon: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Your comment: