Drive along the I-10 interstate east toward Benson. Quick! Look out your window! Do you see that long, curving line of mustard yellow metal that seems to go on forever? Notice that they are massive locomotives, stretched out in the middle of nothing and leading to nowhere.
Out of the desert shrubs and dusty landscape emerges what appears to be a train graveyard hosting over 100 steel corpses. Little do you know, these engines are not in their final resting place, but are stuck in idle limbo awaiting their fateful return to service.
The little engine that could takes on a new meaning for these trains. Years of hard labor and travel are ingrained into their gears and wheels so that, one day, the little engine can pull again.
Union Pacific owns and operates 8,400 locomotives over 32,000 miles of track west of the Mississippi.
Jeff Degraff, director of media relations in Arizona for UP, said that the 3-mile stretch of track once held approximately 360 stored locomotives. Several years ago, the track was reconfigured and cut off from the main line. Today, there are about only 20 left on the track and that number continues to dwindle.
“The locomotives are not considered dead, they are active trains that have been pulled out of service to ensure that not too many would not get in the way on our track network,” Degraff said.
When extra resources are needed and there is a higher customer demand for products pulled by freight, the stored locomotives are put back into service.
“We’ve had ebs and flows based on customer need,” Degraff said. “After several years in the recession, where less trains were needed, we are now in a resurgence where a lot of customers are ramping up their production.”
When the trains are put back into service they can travel the entire Union Pacific network. From Chicago to the Pacific Northwest down to Arizona, these engines have a high tolerance for long-distance travel.
“Union Pacific operates in over 23 states and has a lot of spots used for storage,” Degraff said. “They are strategically chosen, easy to grab and all in one place.”
Degraff said that the desert was chosen as one of the main train storage facilities because of its temperate conditions. The isolated location and hot temperatures in Southern Arizona prevent these locomotives from rust and extreme cold. They are kept safely preserved until they are back and ready for business.
According to Degraff, these locomotives weigh almost 10 tons and cost between $1 and $3 million. Security measures are taken to ensure that the trains are not tampered with or damaged.
Degraff said that some of the vandalism on the locomotives “are not of any consequence” and that the tracks are fenced off and isolated.
The Union Pacific Police Department works with the Pima County Sheriff’s office, Border Patrol and the Tucson Police Department as well.
Deputy James Allerton, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said that the train tracks are considered to be in UP’s jurisdiction, but that area is still in the county and their department patrols just past March Station Road off I-10.
“We don’t get called often by the Union Pacific Police, and there aren’t too many emergencies,” Allerton said. “Trespassing or vandalism wouldn’t be considered an emergency, but we still have grounds to arrest someone for these crimes.”
Allerton said that PCSD has more essential resources than the Union Pacific officers do, so they call them in for help if necessary.
Visitors and tourists who want photos of the locomotives are encouraged to stay in public areas, and away from the tracks and fences.
“As long as you are not laying across the train tracks you should be good to go,” Allerton said.
Emily Homa is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.