Powder River Basin/Crawford Hill railfanning Questions

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robjacox

New Member
Planning a trip to Powder River Basin and Crawford Hill in September. Being totally unfamiliar with the area (other than studying maps, photos, and trip reports), I have a couple of questions that hopefully will help me plan things out.

So far, this is what we have planned. We have to drive from Bend, OR, so four days of our 10-day vacation are going to be mostly driving. Too bad air fare and car rental is so much more expensive than gas!

For our six days in the area, starting on a Monday:

(Day 1) Powder River Basin, working from south to north. Plan on spending night in Gillette.

(Day 2) Black Hills Sub. and north end of Butte Sub. from Gillette to Crawford. Spend two nights at Crawford Ranch.

(Day 3) Crawford Hill all day, staying at Crawford Ranch.

(Day 4) Crawford Hill to Alliance and surrounding area, spending night in Alliance.

(Day 5) not sure, may head down Sand Hills Sub. and then south to see the UP at North Platte.

(Day 6) not sure, but need to be in Wyoming by bedtime so we can get home!


That's the plan, so far. Now for some questions:

Traffic patterns.

I have been unable to find any recent train volumes. I understand that the BNSF sends MOST of their coal out of the north end of the PRB. That would mean that the Black Hills and Butte Subs (Gillette to Alliance) should see the heaviest traffic.

(1) How many trains (roughly) is the PRB originating these days? What percentage exits the north end vs. the south end?

(2) The Angora Sub. between Northport and Alliance appears to handle loaded trains in both directions, or that is what captions on photos I have seen indicate. True?

I would imagine that loads heading to Texas would take the southern exit. But, I have seen photos on the Angora Sub south between Alliance and Northport that seem to show loads going both directions. I guess that could happen (loads coming out of the south end, but heading east on the Sand Hills Sub., passing loads coming out of the north end and heading south?).

(3) Any locations were it is possible, safe, and legal to camp trackside. "Backpack" camping in small tents and no elaborate setups. Would love to hear the trains all night and save a few $ on a hotel one or two nights. I don't see a lot of public land in the area!

(4) If shooting from public roads, will be "bothered" shooting train pics in the PRB?

(5) Austin is worried that we're going to get bored with coal trains. All non-coal traffic runs over Black Hills/Butte/Sand Hills subs from Gillette to Lincoln?

(6) Non-BNSF question. What is status of DM&E line into Crawford? Any chance of seeing any DM&E/CP locals there?

Trying to pickup the Nov. 1998 issue of Trains magazine (good guide/map I understand) and another railfan guide book I've found.

Thanks well in advance!

Rob & Austin
 

BN9244

New Member
Hi Rob & Austin,

I'd be glad to answer some questions for you. I've been to the PRB and surrounding area with my dad five times now over the last ten years or so. Definitely well worth the trip.


(2) The Angora Sub. between Northport and Alliance appears to handle loaded trains in both directions, or that is what captions on photos I have seen indicate. True?

I would imagine that loads heading to Texas would take the southern exit. But, I have seen photos on the Angora Sub south between Alliance and Northport that seem to show loads going both directions. I guess that could happen (loads coming out of the south end, but heading east on the Sand Hills Sub., passing loads coming out of the north end and heading south?).
Correct. It is possible to see loads going both ways, same with empties. The routing probably depends on other traffic and crew availablilty (atleast, that's my guess)


(3) Any locations were it is possible, safe, and legal to camp trackside. "Backpack" camping in small tents and no elaborate setups. Would love to hear the trains all night and save a few $ on a hotel one or two nights. I don't see a lot of public land in the area!
How about the Thunder Basin National Grassland? I have no idea if camping is allowed out there, but I would think that's public land. (Maybe?)


(4) If shooting from public roads, will be "bothered" shooting train pics in the PRB?
In all the times we've been out there, we've had very little trouble. Most of the train crews and maintenance forces are very friendly, and almost always wave. On occasion someone might stop to see what you're up to, but generally they have no problem with it (as long as you stay on public property).

However, there were two separate instances where we inadvertantly drifted a little too far on to railroad property and were called on. One time was when we were sitting at the bridge at Coal Creek Junction. Our truck was parked at the end of an access road to a MoW storage area, just to stay out of the way of road traffic. A passing train noticed, and called the dispatcher. Nothing ever became of that one. The other was at a crossing east of Donkey Creek Yard. I may have wandered a little too far down a maintenance road for a picture. A little while later, while we were parked on the west side of Donkey Creek, a Special Agent caught up to us and had a little "chat". Supposedly he was the only Special Agent in the entire state of Wyoming.

(5) Austin is worried that we're going to get bored with coal trains. All non-coal traffic runs over Black Hills/Butte/Sand Hills subs from Gillette to Lincoln?
Yes, there are several non-coal trains that run over that route. I'm not specifially sure which ones they are currently, but in prior years I know we've seen various manifest and stack trains heading each way. Some of the higher priority trains will have the Boeing cars on the head end. One year we saw a single B40-8W on a dedicated Boeing train. There are also a few local/roadswitch trains mixed in there too. I know one runs from Gillette into the PRB. It usually picks up bad-order setouts and services the refinery north of Reno. I want to say there was an explosives plant of some sort that it also serves/ed around Belle Ary and Caballo Rojo. You could also see an oddball train here and there too. Last year there was a westbound grain shuttle in the yard at Donkey Creek.

(6) Non-BNSF question. What is status of DM&E line into Crawford? Any chance of seeing any DM&E/CP locals there?
Things have been a little mixed up out there. As I understand it, the section of track from Dakota Junction to Crawford is leased to the Nebraska Northwestern from DME. From Dakota Junction to Chadron its own by the NNW. The most recent CNW Historical Magazine has a picture of a DME train bound for Crawford with the NNW's two locomotives leading two DME SD40 type engines. Also, don't forget about the Nebkota. They're still alive too. They operate the track from Chadron to a location a few miles east of town, where they have a "poor mans" shuttle loading facility. They were loading cars when we went by in July of '11. If you have the time, I'd recommend a quick side trip to Chadron. It's not too far from Crawford.


If you have any other questions, feel free to ask! I'd love to help.
 




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