Following the Santa Fe main line
Out here, youre never far from a freight train.
For most of the journey so far from Santa Monica, California all the way here to Gallup, New Mexico, trains up to a mile long and more have been our constant companions.
Around every bend in the round it seems there is a freight train heading east or west. This is the transcontinental main line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe only ever referred in these parts as the Santa Fe which the company simply calls the Transcon.
Trains hauling consumer goods, ethanol, lumber, automobiles, or coal, you can see them all in a short stretch of time wending their way through the desert, up through the mountains and down again.
It is no exaggeration to say the history of the towns along route that we have passed through Needles, California, Flagstaff and Winslow, Arizona all the way here to Gallup and further east ahead of us – is closely linked to that of the Santa Fe.
The railroad built this town, said Jeff Williams, mayor of Needles. Without the Santa Fe there would be no Needles.
The railroad is still the biggest employer in this town of 5,600, even though it has employed many less people since the phasing out of the caboose in the 1980s which cut the number of crew per train from five to two.
This is a railroad town through and through, said Linda Lusk, who works in an insurance office in Needles. Her father, ex-father-in-law, uncle, son and two nephews have all worked for or continue to work for the Santa Fe.
The railroad needed Needles for water from the Colorado River for its steam engines. The same is true in Flagstaff, where the railroad built dams in the hills, again for water.
Much of the towns early water supply came from the dams the railroads built, said Randy Pellatz, deputy director of utilities in Flagstaff.
The main line now sees more than 100 trains a day.