Black Mesa & Lake Powell visitors' guide

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Black Mesa & Lake Powell crosses a bridge near Cow Springs, Ariz.
Andy Kirol
PAGE, Ariz. – The end is in sight for the isolated Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad in northern Arizona, with some reports putting the end of operation in August yet.

Each day, except Wednesday, a single set of hoppers makes three round trips from the Navajo Generating Station, just east of Page, to the Black Mesa mine loadout southwest of Tsegi. Contrary to popular belief the Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad, which began operations in August 1973, is accessible and with all coal trains running on a schedule getting photos is as easy as it can be.

The coal train crews are on duty at 6 a.m, 2 p.m., and 10 p.m. and are ready to depart the power plant within one one hour, but the first departure of the day is occasionally delayed if the day shift crew has to run the previous night's coal train through the dumper loop. Wednesday mornings are reserved for track and equipment maintenance, but visitors might get lucky and catch a ballast train or other non-revenue movement before the afternoon coal train departs.

The train is usually visible at the power plant from State Route 98. Without leaving the highway one can get great photos of the train with the power plant and Lake Powell in the background and then of the train moving into the open desert to the south. After the departing train passes to the south side of Route 98 there are several more good photo locations with red desert mesas in the background as the track slowly wanders away from the road. Be sure to bring a long lens with you as the distance steadily increases, but the train will remain in view off and on for many miles.

The empty coal trains move along at a steady 40 mph so there is no time to dawdle. There are several dirt roads that angle southwest from Route 98, but loose sand, mud, and deep ruts can slow travel significantly. If you take one of those side roads to the track you might not have time to get back on the highway and catch the train again.
The trains are made of up a mix of ribbed and slabside hoppers.
Andy Kirol
These roads will get you close to the track, but they will not yield any spectacular scenic vistas.
Navajo Route 201 is one such road veering off of Route 98 as is the road leading toward the tracks closer to Page marked 12.9 indicating that it will take you to Black Mesa & Lake Powell milepost 12.9. In fact, most side roads are labeled with the milepost where they intersect with the railroad.

The Klethla Valley provides a variety of understated foreground and background scenery as you move along and the 40 mph train speed allows for many shots.

Drive respectfully so as not to coat the local residents with dust and watch out for livestock, including the photogenic stout little multicolored horses that are so well suited to the desert. The local residents are well aware of the likely closure of the line and are accepting of railfans, but please do not trespass as there is no need for it.

A word of caution, do not go into the desert without at least three gallons of potable water per person and tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. Do not count on having cell phone reception. The majority of locations are accessible with a low-clearance, front wheel drive car, but a high-clearance, four wheel drive vehicle would be handy access a few spots.

The train will slow down only as it approaches the beginning of the mine loading loop where there is another power switch. When the loading process and inspections are finished the conductor will ride in a company truck from the mine tipple to the head end.

Once on the move, the three or four 6,000-hp electrics will quickly accelerate the heavily loaded train up to the 40 mph track speed. They will have no trouble maintaining track speed down the relatively flat Klethla Valley and they will not get bogged down much even by the 0.8% climb up the fill and on past the bridge.
A loaded train departs the mine in June 2018.
Andy Kirol
The Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad was the only railroad to buy the E60C locomotive, and the first three were on hand for the opening along with 50 unique 122-ton capacity slab-side steel rapid discharge hoppers. Unfortunately the railroad quickly found that it wasn't possible to run such heavy loads without grinding the track structure into the ground. Thus, 40 conventional 100-ton steel five-bay rapid discharge hoppers were ordered to supplement the original hoppers. The railroad also acquired with three more single-cab E60Cs in 1976. That combination enabled the BM&LP to run two trainsets simultaneously in order to meet the coal delivery requirements that would have been handled by one trainset under the original operating plan.

As the six electrics aged, the railroad bought eight Nacionales de México E60C-2 locomotives in 1999 that had been delivered to Mexico in 1982, but never used in regular service. Two were immediately relegated to serve as parts sources while the others were slowly converted from 25,000 volts to the Black Mesa & Lake Powell's 50,000 volts.

Used aluminum rapid discharge hoppers were also purchased in recent years to supplement the original steel cars as their ranks were thinned by heavy use.

Three round trips a day over the 78 mile line equates to 468 miles per day or almost 3,200 miles a week if they take Wednesday morning off. If even one of those hoppers or one electric makes every trip for a year that is 166,296 miles.Few railroads in the U.S. can come close to that kind of equipment utilization, but even with that heavy wear, at least six of the original hoppers and one of the original E60Cs are still in service!
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