Friday, July 04, 2008

West Texas wheat rush

West Texas isn't the first place that comes to mind when most of us think of the late spring wheat harvest. The harvest, which typically begins around Memorial Day and runs through the month of June, is associated more with north Texas and southwestern Oklahoma. North Texans will know when it's gotten under way... just drive past the grain elevators in Saginaw (a suburb north of Fort Worth). Dozens of trucks, tires bulging under the weight of full loads of grain, are lined up day and night to discharge their cargo, and the railroad tracks adjacent to the elevators are crowded with covered hoppers awaiting loading. As soon as one train is assembled and departs for Mexico or the Gulf Coast, another takes its place.

The pace is a bit different in southern Oklahoma. While the Saginaw grain elevators (the largest in Texas, by the way) receive wheat from hundreds of miles away, even the tiniest lineside towns in Oklahoma seem to have their own elevators, which purchase grain grown within a much smaller local radius. Their loading tracks might hold 50 or 25 -- or even fewer -- cars, and the shortline railroads which serve them are often overwhelmed at trying to handle a larger volume of carload traffic in a single month than they see the entire rest of the year.

Not commonly thought of as a wheat-growing region, west Texas has a busy grain harvest of its own, essentially a west Texas equivalent of the annual wheat rush in Oklahoma. Wheat produced in the Concho Valley near San Angelo is shipped from elevators located in Ballinger, Rowena, and Miles. Texas Pacifico, operator of the former South Orient rail line which serves these towns, has recently seen some increases in its non-seasonal traffic, and has been having a hell of a time trying to handle the extra traffic brought on by this year's bountiful harvest. During my recent trip to San Angelo, I noted that the elevator tracks in each town were jammed with grain hoppers. The siding at Talpa was full of outbound tonnage, which TXPF had been unable to deliver to San Angelo Jct (the BNSF interchange near Coleman) due to heavy inbound volume.

As I drove east from San Angelo on the morning of June 23, I caught up to an eastbound train (see photos above and below) heading toward Miles to work the elevator. In addition to this train, the Texas Pacifico had two other jobs working that same day: a westbound from San Angelo Jct. to San Angelo, and a different westbound running from San Angelo to Rankin and Fort Stockton.

A train of empty grain hoppers approaches the town of Miles. The crew will pull 14 loads from the elevator to take back to San Angelo, and will then spot their empties.

Spotting cars at the elevator in Miles.

A crew member connects the air hoses...

It looked like the elevator manager's whole family was on hand to help. Those kids actually rode the top of that car as it rolled down the track to couple into the other cars! BNSF jumbo hoppers seem "out of place" on my hometown railroad, which Santa Fe sold off to the South Orient in 1992...

That afternoon, I caught a different Texas Pacifico train heading west on the same line. Four locomotives powered 36 cars of mixed freight from San Angelo Jct (BNSF interchange near Coleman) toward San Angelo. The train consisted mostly of pipe loads destined to Fort Stockton, frac sand for Rankin, and sheet steel destined to Hirschfeld Steel in San Angelo.

westbound near the San Angelo Feed Yard west of Miles.

When the crew ran out of time to work, they tied their train down at MP 59, about 11 miles short of San Angelo. They'd come back the next morning to complete the trip.
Coming next: action on the Lampasas Sub.

np: Waylon Jennings - "Are you ready for the country"

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