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  • From the Ozarks to the Delta

    By Randy Woods, M.D., and Bob Plough

    Southbound Thayer Local train No. 91680 aprroaches Cedar Gap, Missouri, on April 27, 1995. An average of 20 to 25 daily trains use the scenic route. Bob Plough photo
    RailNews - August 1997 - Page 40 RailNews - August 1997 - Page 41

    The St. Louis-San Francisco Railway never reached its namesake city on the Pacific, but the Frisco was unique among western carriers by extending its trackage into the southeastern United States. The Mississippi River, the traditional barrier that separated eastern and western railroads, was breached by the Frisco in 1892, when the Memphis Bridge was constructed. This line eventually was extended from the railroad's hub at Springfield, Missouri, to Birmingham, Alabama, and remained an important part of the Frisco system until the 1980 merger with Burlington Northern. Under BN auspices, direct access to Pacific ports resulted in increased traffic into the southeast.

    Operationally, the most difficult portion of this route is over the Thayer Subdivision between Springfield and Memphis. Here freights face stiff grades and sharp curves as they work through the Ozark Mountains before reaching the flatlands of the Mississippi River Delta.

    For many rail observers, the first hint of a Burlington Northern-Santa Fe partnership came in 1993, when trackage rights were granted allowing the Warbonnet fleet to travel the Thayer Sub with trains destined for Memphis and Binningham.

    Today, with the merger complete, an average of 20 to 25 trains a day move over this track, powered by a wide variety of Burlington Northern & Santa Fe locomotives. Add to this a mixture of local, intermodal, and manifest freights, and the scenic Thayer subdivision provides a colorful look at a dynamic stretch of railroad.

    RailNews - August 1997 - Page 42

    RailNews - August 1997 - Page 43

    Flood Detours

    Even under ideal conditions, getting trains over the road can be a challenge. But midwestern flooding in summer 1993 left many railways with miles of trackage submerged-or completely washed away. Nothing will get rail officials into high gear faster than knowing their main line is about to go under. Railroads scrambled frantically to find alternative routes that had been spared the wrath of Mother Nature. As the waters continued to rise, the list of available lines dwindled. One of the stalwarts during this disastrous period was BN's former Frisco line through the Ozarks.

    The Thayer sub suddenly found itself host to such an increase in traffic that even veteran dispatchers developed headaches. Reroutes from Burlington Northern's flooded St. Louis-Memphis River Sub and detours from the Soo, Southern Pacific, Gateway Western, and Santa Fe plugged yards and sidings as railroaders struggled to keep the influx of freight moving. Soo Line train No. 02-726 detoured over the subdivison (left) on July 27, 1993. It was photographed near Mansfield, Missouri. The detours continued throughout July and August, and as the initial confusion abated, train operations became smoother. The waters finally receded, and by September railroaders could, at last, breathe a well-deserved sigh of relief.

    Unfortunately, the reprieve was short-lived. Floods returned in 1994. However, this time the damage was less severe, and the line was better prepared to handle extra traffic. On May 5, 1994, detour train No. 248 crosses Pierson Creek with a power set that included locomotives from Southern Pacific, BN, and Illinois Central (above).

    For the railroaders working the Thayer Sub, the floods of 1993 and 1994 will be long remembered. A difficult challenge had been faced and conquered through hard work and the stability of the Thayer main line itself.

    RailNews - August 1997 - Page 44 RailNews - August 1997 - Page 45

    Spring River Country

    Thayer yard is quiet on this muggy August morning, but the bags on the depot steps are a telltale sign that the rails won't remain dormant for long. A Burlington Northern & Santa Fe crew member arrives with news that a loaded coal train is descending Kosh Hill. In a few minutes, a quartet of SD70MACs rounds the curve heading into Thayer for its crew change. Taking the opportunity to get a jump on the train, I head a couple of miles down the road to Mammoth Spring and pull into the Riverview Motel overlooking the Spring River. A couple of trout fisherman loading up their gear wonder what all the excitement is about. They soon find out-16,000 h.p. thunder past, following the crystal waters that originate from one of the world's largest springs (above).

    The Thayer Sub runs through the heart of Spring River Country for nearly 50 miles, following a route that includes many scenic but seldom photographed vistas. At Many Islands the campgrounds are closed and the canoes are in storage, but the rails provide plenty of action on a beautiful October afternoon. Morning speed restrictions (due to an earthquake near Blytheville, Arkansas) have been lifted, and a backlog of trains has converged on the Spring River. Cascade green has been the color of the day, giving the line a distinct Burlington Northern flavor. Hot on the heels of a southbound intermodal, train 26 is seen hugging the bend near Many Islands Resort (right). With the high green ahead, train 26 will continue to wind along the river for another hour before reaching the Delta and a homestretch run to Memphis.

    RailNews - August 1997 - Page 46

    Deltaland to Memphis

    After conquering the Ozarks, eastbound freights make a beeline through the flatlands of Northeast Arkansas as they head toward Tennessee. West of Hoxie, the MBEME crosses a small creek in Delta country (above). Soon the engineer eases back on the throttle, slowing for the busy intersection with Union Pacific's Hoxie subdivision where BNSF traffic is frequently delayed.

    Most of the remaining journey is made at 60 mph speeds, but as trains near West Memphis, two obstacles lie ahead: Bridge Junction and the 1.3 percent grades on approach to the Mississippi River. Traffic from Union Pacific's Memphis Sub and the former Southern Pacific [Illmo District cross the diamond at Bridge Junction to enter Memphis via the Hanrahan Bridge. Burlington Northern & Santa Fe trains off the River Line at Turrell, Arkansas, add to the congestion on the Thayer sub through the Delta. For weary railroaders near the end of their run, like the crew of the Blytheville Local, photographed on November 3, 1996 (right), the venerable Memphis Bridge is a welcome sight. Now more than a century old, this National Historic Landmark is flanked by the Hanrahan and Intestate Bridges, providing a grand setting for BNSF trains entering the mid South's largest city.

    RailNews - August 1997 - Page 47

    Article Details

    • Original Author Randy Woods and Bob Plough
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date August 1997

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