Thursday, April 28, 2011

Guts and Hustle Muscle in Montana

It's been a few years now, but there was a time not so long ago when solid sets of 20 cylinder diesel locomotives could be found pouring their guts out doing what they always did best.  Even further back than that, these beasts could be found on railroads across the entire U.S.  When these pictures were taken the year was 2005 and there were but a few remaining daily users.  The SD-45 (and its close relative, the F45) was quite a machine, and Montana Rail Link used them as they were always intended, even in their fifth decade of service.  

"Hustle Muscle" was the nickname applied to first SD-45, owned by the Great Northern.  Other nicknames have included flare-45 because of the unique flared radiators at the rear of the unit.  These flared radiators were necessary to provide the extra cooling capacity for the large 20-cylinder diesel that EMD installed under the long hood.  The 20 cylinder diesel made only a brief appearance in the EMD lineup and sales of the 45 series locomotive lasted from 1965 to 1975.  The SD-45 itself bowed in 1971.

In 2005, the Montana Rail Link began replacing many of these old 45s with new locomotives from EMD.  But in the summer of 2005, sets of 45s still roamed freely along the former NP tracks in Montana and Idaho.  I set out to photograph some of these big units at work, and found them to be as impressive in 2005 as they must have been in 1965.  Standing trackside on Bozeman pass, the 20 cylinder diesel engines gave a deep, chest pounding feel as they pushed loaded coal trains to the summit at 10 mph.  This was pure mountain railroading, from the era of the muscle car.

Today's MRL still attacks the grades laid down by the NP as it made its way across the Rockies to the West Coast - but the solid sets of SD45 helpers are gone.  In their place a new "flare" has filled in, but like many things, the new version doesn't seem to have that same old-time panache.  

The new 4300Hp locomotive uses the extra capacity of flared radiators to keep temperatures in the 16-cylinder diesel lower for reduced pollutant formation.  That, of course, was never a consideration in 1965.  Fuel efficiency was another point where the 20 cylinder 45s lagged.  Indeed, their production ceased with the coming of the 1970s fuel crisis.  What's interesting on both counts, however, is that both the original 20 cylinder SD-45 and its replacement, the 16-cylinder SD70AcE lack the brute power of the 5000 Hp Little Joe.  Now that was Hustle Muscle.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


The pages of many books are filled with images of America's final Transcontinental railroad.  They show high mountains and electric locomotives from the West, or perhaps vast corn fields and grain trains from the Midwest.  Streamlined Hiawathas that were photographed at speed through Wisconsin countryside are reproduced faithfully.  Little Joes engaged in an assault on the Bitterroots show the grittiness of a heavy mountain railroad as sand flies from around the running gear.  Wherever the locale or whatever the subject, most of the images recall a Milwaukee Road that doesn't look anything like this:  the Badlands.

The Badlands are a harsh environment.  Filled with dry sage and dry hills, these inhabit eastern Montana as part of the Milwaukee's journey west.  Shown in the above photo, the Resourceful Road crosses the Yellowstone River at Kamm, MT into a big sky beset with the pastel colors of a dipping summer sun.  Soon the cool of night will engulf the badlands and the scorched earth will yield its heat back into the night sky.

Like other forgotten places on the transcon, there were few who journeyed with the Milwaukee to this remote river crossing.  Ahead, beyond the large bridge, lie the more famous Milwaukee haunts and electrified Rocky Mountain Division.  Behind, the path back to the corn belt of the Midwest.  On this evening the bridge stands as an imposing reminder of what was and the grand scale of that vision.  The bridge is seemingly ready and able to host a Dead Freight or XL Special at any moment should the need arise.  But as it has for more than 30 years, time will again slip by and another night will fall away silently without the rumble of large locomotives.  The next night will as well.  Only the occasional rancher will pass this way, or perhaps a fisherman looking to drop a line into the Yellowstone.  Silence is a constant companion of Lines West.  The Badlands amplify it to a full crescendo.