2011 Gillette Convention Report

by John Adams

Sitting in the Denver Airport, I am just wishing I had the time to continue the activities of the 2011 FOBNR Convention in Gillette. Once again it was a wonderful experience with many thanks due to Kent Charles for overall organization, John Parker for help with the Black Thunder Mine tour and Dave Poplawski for registration.

We started with registration on Wednesday afternoon, followed by dinner at the local Applebee’s. We then returned to the hotel for an orientation session for the activities of the next three days. We then were able to view slides of the historical days of the BN as well as modern BNSF pictures. Needless to say, we have some excellent photographers in the group!

On Thursday morning we started off in the rain, and then fog, to Hill City, SD for the 1880’s train ride on the abandoned branch from Hill City to Keystone. Fortunately we had the option of an inside ride because it was surprisingly cool outside. The ride went well and was followed by a tour of the South Dakota State Railroad Museum in Hill City. Our host, Rick Mills, gave us an excellent history of the line, as well as showing us pictures of the CB&Q and BN eras. It was fascinating to think SD9’s had made it around those curves! The trip up and back gave us an opportunity to railfan the line to Edgemont, but was cut short by weather as well as MOW operations on the line, although those also were interesting and photogenic. On our return Thursday evening we were again able to watch some excellent slides and prepare for our Mine tours on Friday.

Friday morning found us on the road again to the Black Thunder Mine, where we were able to see their introductory video, as well as tour several parts of the mine itself. An unusually wet May-June did prevent us from getting into several areas, but still gave us a good look at the largest mine in North America. We were even able to see how quickly problems can be fixed as part of the loader broke loose; tearing up one hopper car, but within a very short time loading was back in action. After a run back along the Orin Sub we returned to Gillette, grabbed some lunch and headed for a tour of the Eagle Butte Mine on the Campbell Sub. Eagle Butte was smaller, but equally interesting as they were opening a newer pit and were able to show us a small blast to break up overburden. By the end of the afternoon we all had a real appreciation of the scope of activities in the mines as well as their outstanding safety record. The safety theme continued as we returned to the convention hotel to listen to a discussion of the Operation Lifesaver and Citizens for Rail Security by Jim Schafer, the senior special agent for the BNSF in Gillette. He was able to tell us about Operation Lifesaver activities and how we can keep ourselves safe both as railfans and motorists around the railroad. To safeguard others he encouraged us to join the Citizens for Rail Security with BNSF, where we receive a number to call if we see potential dangerous situations developing on the railroad. His talk once again impressed on us that the railroad is happy to have us around if we share the goals of safety with rail management and labor.

Friday evening followed with dinner followed by a membership meeting and a Board meeting. The membership meeting once again gave convention attendees the ability to directly give their input to the Board of Directors. During this meeting we discussed the Website, with suggestions to try to add an up to date BNSF locomotive roster, as well as indexing a posting the Jack Keers slides we have received and including them, possibly in a members-only section. We also discussed the option of having social media sites for the organization, without a ground swell of encouragement. A discussion of possible future convention sites and formats followed, including the idea of a moving convention where we would actually meet in several sites. There seemed to be support for the Amarillo site for 2012, and a feeling by the membership that they wanted to stay in a historical BN site. All felt that the tours in Gillette had been excellent and that they were a big draw for the convention. There was also a discussion that a reception for local Retirees at each convention site might increase attendance. In discussing the Expediter, several members felt an electronic version would be worthwhile, and maybe even become the only version. Several members also asked for a new CD with more recent back issues, and this was agreed upon at the Board Meeting which followed.

Saturday started early for a number of members, eager to do some train watching without MOW work windows. The day was beautiful and sunny, so a lot of electrons were used to capture digital images of the many trains to be found. At 10:30 we met again to tour Donkey Creek Yard. Will Cunningham, the marketing director for coal was our guide and host and provided access to the new yard, created several years ago to inspect incoming empty coal trains. At the yard office we met 2 very knowledgeable, and very young Trainmasters, who were able to give us in insider’s view of what happened in the facility. It was extremely interesting to hear their thoughts, particularly since one had come from a management training program from college and the other had worked up from conductor and engineer. Although both agreed totally with the purpose of the facility, they each had their own unique perspective of how that could best be accomplished. It was quite interesting to learn the time pressures and amount of work that has to be done, as well as being able to see a somewhat unique, and very easily modeled, diesel fueling facility. We were also able to see how the Yard is supporting the traffic detours forced by the Missouri River flooding, adapting the lengths of the coal sets to their new routes. After the tour it was back out trackside, with people scattering to get their best shots.

That evening the convention ended with our annual banquet at the hotel, followed by a more formal presentation by Mr. Cunningham. He was able to provide us a Power Point presentation about the history of the coal fields and how they came to be located in Wyoming, despite the even more abundant reserves in Montana. He also showed how coal is feeding our nation’s insatiable appetite for more and more electricity, and yet has become markedly cleaner as the years go on. He also talked about the future of coal, both domestically and internationally as the export market expands with the hopes of delivering clean coal to foreign markets that would otherwise be forced to use more polluting resources. He presented some of the challenges that coal faces from regulatory agencies and governmental policies, as well as the opportunities. He also talked about the immediate challenges faced by the spring floods this year, and how the railroad has to adapt to almost daily routing changes.

And with that we ended the 2011 Convention. Once again we want to thank Kent, John and Dave for their efforts to make this another excellent convention. We also want to thank all of the convention attendees for their input, both during the convention activities and at the Membership Meeting. Most of all, we want to invite all of you to next year’s convention in Amarillo, TX. We hope to have a new digital photography activity, where each person can share some of their favorite memories of the BN and BNSF, and many other activities and tours. Please watch for more information in the January issue of the Expediter.