At the end of the season the Minnesota Transportation Museum moves its Osceola and Saint Croix passenger train from Oceola, Wisconsin to its shops at the Jackson Street Roundhouse in Saint Paul, Minnesota for winter maintenance and storage. Today as they migrated the cars (a passenger fleet of about 6 cars and three engines) they allowed members to hop aboard and get a tour of the rails during the five hour journey over an active main line that doesn’t see regular passenger service. Add to that the fall colors and you have an awesome day.
The trip started out at the Jackson Street Roundhouse where we boarded a bus for a ride to Osceola. It was about a 60 minute ride from the roundhouse to Osceola. Once out of the city we rode through the countryside and crossed the St. Croix.
Once the train boarded at 9:10 a.m. we waited for heat (it was 35 degrees) and clearance to proceed onto the mainline operated by Canadian National. There was a rock train loading in Dresser behind us that we were had to wait for as freight has priority and we were a special. However, by 10:30 it had not yet left so we were given clearance to highball it to the Withrow Junction and go ahead of the rock train. We pulled out at 10:48 and soon found ourselves riding along a bluff carved out by dynamite over a hundred years ago eventually crossing over the Saint Croix and back into Minnesota.
Once we passed the siding at Marine on the St. Croix we entered rare mileage as excursion train operations never went past it and only train crews rode the rails beyond this point.
There was a short stop at the Withrow Junction to get a pilot from CN and await further instructions. We wouldn’t be able to go all the way to the roundhouse as we could not be on the last section of a main line with passengers. So the most likely spot we would be able to deboard and rejoin our bus would be either Shoreham Yard or Arlington Ave. by Soo Line Junction in St. Paul. The bus was on standby for whatever our final destination would be.
After Withrow we headed into familiar territory for me as we passed through Hugo and White Bear Lake. I got to see Pine Tree Apple Orchard from a new vantage point, pass by a park I enjoy train watching at, cross U.S. Highway 61, go behind International Paper, and Go over I-35E and along the southern no boarder of North Oaks into Shoreview.
Soon we made our way into Cardigan Junction where things didn’t go as planned. With the rock train behind us we were given clearance to proceed on the mainline to Soo Line Junction. However, when we reached Cardigan Junction the switch took us not on the mainline but into a siding where we had to stop due to track maintenance ahead. We were on a dead end track and couldn’t back up because the rock train now had possession of the route behind us. Also it seemed trains don’t normally get clearance to back up out of a corner.
So we had to wait for the rock train to pass us. And wait. And wait.
At 2:00 the rock train finally caught up but started to noticeably slow down. And then we got a report that the rock train was dead. In other words, the crew of that train had reached their daily limit on hours and stopped the train on the mainline and waited for a crew change. Even if we could back up, our mainline was blocked until another crew came in.
Our car kept in good spirits listening to the rail scanners many of us had and taking up conversation. Several took naps and others watched a track crew put together a replacement switch. Though it looked like we were in the middle of nowhere we were in fact along two roads behind the trees. It was a decent spot to wait.
By 3:00 the special trip was declared over and we were given permission by Canadian National to deboard our train under the careful watch of CN employees (safety first) and walk up a path to our bus which had found us.
We got home safe, learned a lot about railroad operations, and racked up several miles of rare mileage. In other words it was a good trip despite the fact it didn’t go as planned. We were told when we signed up not to plan on a scheduled return time. It was more entertaining than a normal trip and quite the experience. Thank you to MTM and CN, it was fun riding the rails with you today.