Farewell to a Kentucky Coal hauler: TransTucky Transportation Part 1

Few shortline railroads elicit such immediate recognition from rail enthusiasts as the TransTucky Transportation, more commonly know as TTI. This scrappy little shortline took 50 miles of run down and soon to be abandoned L&N branchline trackage and transformed it into a unique coal hauling bridge line which provided a shortcut from the coalfields in Eastern Kentucky to the Ohio River at Maysville where the coal was loaded onto barges. The railroad has always been known for its fleet of General Electric power, a rarity in the shortline world where lower maintenance EMD’s rule supreme. The railroad started with a fleet of ancient GE U28B’s from a variety of heritages then transitioning to a succession of cast off high horsepower CSX GE’s, first U36B’s and finally B36-7s. The railroad did brisk business from its inception to the mid 2000’s but the decline in mining activity in Eastern Kentucky and the use of coal in general led to the railroads decline. By the time I had the ability to travel the railroad was down to sporadic as needed movements, often just short 20 car trains enough to load one barge. I had pretty much given up hope on ever photographing the railroad when in summer 2015 there were rumblings of TTI getting a new contract from a mine at Calla (near Ravenna) on the Eastern Kentucky. The new arrangement would have TTI power run directly to the mine on the CSX EK (Eastern Kentucky) and then on TTI’s own line to Maysville. 

In mid July information emerged that the first TTI coal train had departed for the mines in Calla and would be returning in a few days. I quickly asked for time off work for the upcoming Thursday and Friday and hoped that the train would run either then or over the weekend. Thinking the train might run Thursday (July 16th ) I took a short nap after work and headed north at midnight towards Kentucky. After the long 6 hour drive through the dark I arrived in Paris under a typically hazy cloudy summer sky to see not much of anything happening. A check at the office revealed the train was at Calla but no clue as to when they would head north. I decided to head down the EK to try to find the train and scout out a few of the massive steel viaducts incase the train did run.

The imposing Red River viaduct blends in with the gloomy morning skies.

 

The EK is true Appalachian railroading and once you leave the main road at Winchester its a slow a winding drive down to Ravenna. Unfortunately the mine is virtually inaccessible so gave up and went to scout the trestles, hoping to luck into the train. After a drive on an even more backwoods road I found a spot at the Red River trestle but after enough strange looks from the local holler residents I decided it was best not to stand here all day. Getting to the other bridges proved just as fruitless as the view from the road was blocked by the thick summer foliage and walking through private property without permission is not something you wan’t to do in this part of the world.

Having given up on the EK I headed back to the CSX CC (Cincinnati-Corbin) mainline in hopes of finding something to shoot while waiting for the TTI train. Luck was finally on my side as a I heard a Z545 get permission to open up onto the main at Berea, which I knew meant the northbound RJ Corman Alcan train was about to depart! These trains carry aluminum ingots between the Novellis Aluminum recycling plant in Berea, KY and their aluminum can manufacturing plant in Logan Kentucky, operating on CSX trackage rights up to Winchester where they diverge onto the former L&N “Old Road” which is now owned by RJC. 

I quickly headed to Ford, KY which was one of the only spots where the track ran the right way for the light. Not long after I was rewarded as RJ Corman SD40-2 3314 and SD40T-2 5409 roared out of the tunnel and across the bridge over the Kentucky River. I quickly got back in the car to chase but got caught in some roadwork traffic. Not knowing if I was ahead of the train or not I decided to skip ahead to Lexington given the marginal light angles in Winchester.

RJC Alcan train emerges from the Ford Tunnel and crosses the Kentucky River
RJ Corman local switches Lexington
 

I found a RJC local working Winchester and after a few photos decided once more to skip ahead to Midway to wait for the train. RJ Corman is not like other shortlines in that their trains can run as fast as 49 mph which should come as no surprise since they are one of the countries premiere railroad construction companies. As such I did not feel like missing the shot in Midway which I had wanted for years due to getting stuck in Lexington traffic, even still I started to second guess my decision as I sat on a bench in downtown Midway for what seemed like an eternity. Finally at 16:50 a horn! The sun was out and the Alcan train rolled through the great small town scene, a small surprise was the local power seen earlier hitching a ride behind the ingot cars, the units and cars would be set out just east of Frankfort to work the industries there. 

The westbound Alcan now running as RJC N101 on home rails rolls through Midway, KY.
Local power hitching a ride, it will be set off just east of Frankfort to work industries there before returning to Lexington.

Frankfort is the state capital of Kentucky and for my purposes was the must get shot on this line. The line through Frankfort is very interesting, entering town through a short tunnel before heading down the center of the road for # blocks before crossing the Kentucky River on a truss bridge. I got lucky break when the crew decided it was time for dinner and stopped the train in the middle of the road to grab a pizza allowing a multitude of different angles.

With pizza onboard the train slowly departed while I rushed out of town knowing they would pick up speed after clearing the speed restriction through town. After _ minutes of frantic driving and location scouting I found a location too good to pass up, the Wick Moorman wye near Christianburg, KY, named after the recently retired president of Norfolk Southern. The Wye is the only remains of the original Louisville to Cincinatti route which branched of what is now the CSX LCL main at LaGrange, once the line through Shelbyville was completed the line was abandoned in pieces starting in the 1950’s. RJ Corman rebuilt the wye in 2010 to turn their Chinese QJ Steam locomotive which unfortunately has been retired since the death of Rick Corman. 

I tried in vain to get one more shot but the train left me in the dust and having not eaten all day I settled instead for dinner at a Culvers in Shelbyville, a surprising find as I thought they only existed in the upper Midwest where I had last eaten there. At this point I was unsure if TTI was even going to run the next day and was tempted to just go to Louisville for the night as I was almost there. However better sense prevailed and I made the drive back to Lexington and found a cheap hotel, the Motel 6 which was pretty terrible even for Motel 6 standards but I survived…

July 18, 2015: 

I woke up bright and early and headed down Highway 68 through the rolling bluegrass country towards Paris once again. The sun was shining and I was hoping just maybe today would be the day. I pulled up and again no coal train but I was excited to see U28B 260 started up infront of the office, it was no coal train but seeing as 260 was the last U28B in active service I was going to photograph it whatever they were doing! The crew showed up and told me the coal train was indeed on the way and they would be adding the 260 to the consist to take up to Maysville! 

Then suddenly I felt like I was timewarped back into the 1990’s as the crossing bells began ringing and a southbound empty coal train roared through town with a pair of GP38-2’s leading a set of steel hoppers, no doubt heading for the EK as well. Then just as the CSX coal trains power disappeared around the curve TTI’s sparkling clean B36-7’s arrived with the coal train from Ravenna, game on! 

 

After the 260 was attached it was off to Maysville! I made a few phone calls to try to get out the info and then it was into full chase mode, years of waiting were finally over, I was about to chase a train on the TTI! 

After three sets of the train creeping out of town I headed out of town to look for a photo location, having never photographed the line I did not know where I was going but suddenly stumbled across this amazing scene with a small pond located in the middle of a picturesque farm. Like a few other things this day I would be the only one to photograph this scene as the pond was a temporary feature caused by recent heavy rains. I hastily scrambled down the right of way and over a barbed wire fence as the distant roar of the 4 GE’s grew closer, just in the nick of time the train roared by right before a cloud covered the sun. Video from the chase here on imbedded below. 

 

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It took a long time to catch back up and missed several well lit shots thanks to the slow drivers ahead of me. The road was in the process of being widened to 4 lanes but not in time for this trip! I finally caught back up near Carlisle just before the train slowed to creep through the tight curves in town. 

An interesting scene presented itself as the chase driver hands up a CSX Bulletin to the conductor as the train creeps through the back alleys of Carlisle, almost like hooping up train orders in the old days! 

After photographing the train powering up out of Carlisle I headed straight for Cowan, KY where the railroad has two tunnels in the middle of a steep grade. I got there with plenty of time and set up to enjoy the sound spectacle of the 4 GEs working hard upgrade through the tunnel. The photo doesnt do the scene justice but the video does a little better. 

It was a long walk out from the tunnel and I only caught up again at Flemingsburg Junction where I royally botched my shot due to the camera still being on high ISO. After a quick dash to Helena I got ahead of the train again and met the famous Garland McKee for the first time who had just now been able to get ahead of the briskly moving train. 

After Helena the tracks went far away from the road and ran due north so we headed to Strodes Run where the line ran due east allowing for some good lighting. This section is easily the most scenic on the railroad, passing through some idyllic bluegrass farmland and it would take another trip to do it justice. 

Unfortunately the train had to wait for one and a half hours for a southbound CSX train to clear. After CSX cleared TTI still was not moving so in a very unwise decision we headed to get a quick lunch at in downtown Maysville, the name of the restaurant eludes me but it was not very good and by the looks of it on google maps its no longer in business. Heading back to the tracks we found the coal train gone so headed towards the dumper, halfway there we found the train moving briskly down the main with the U28B leading! We just barely got ahead of it and I leapt out for a shot of what might be the last time a U28B will ever lead a mainline train! And to think I almost missed it for a mediocre burger…..

Unfortunately the river was too high to dump so the crew could not begin unloading the train today so after setting out the 260 to work the dumper and shoving the coal train into the yard it was engines light back to Paris. I was able to find a few spots that would makes the lack of cars less obvious and thankfully they waited long enough for the sun to get lower in the sky. 

The smokestacks of the Stuart Powerstation tower on the other side of the Ohio River, most of TTI’s coal will be barged here after it has been unloaded.

 

Blasting out of the south end of “Little Cowan Tunnel”
Passing through Carlise, the original line which branches off at the switch included a block of streetrunning.
Passing the famed Bourbon Drive-In, a favorite TTI scene.

 

 

After a final shot in Maysville we headed to Winchester to photograph the CSX local power and lucked into a northbound unit Pipe train which we photographed passing the still standing searchlight signals at HK Tower where the RJ Corman “Old Road” to Lexington branched off. With nothing else moving on CSX we headed to Lexington to see if RJ Corman was running but no sign of activity here either. The shop area did present some interesting finds including a pair of RJ SW1200’s in for work an a Cincinatti East Terminal (CCET) GP49 recently purchased from the Alaska Railroad. The unit was here for mechanical work and paint and would loose the distinctive Alaska scheme for a less interesting  black and red scheme. After dinner at with Garland I decided to head west to photograph the Paducah & Louisville the next day. That would not be a successful endeavor at all but after finally getting a crack at the elusive TTI it didn’t really matter much at that point! 

K573 Unit pipe train passes through HK tower where the RJ Corman “Old Road” diverges to the right.

Epilogue

Over the next few months TTI would have a glorious if short lived resurgence with trains running several times per week, I would be able to make one more visit in October which would prove even more successful than the first but that’s a story that will be told in Part 2 and 3 at a later time. Sadly after the 2015 season the railroad would only run a handful of trains in 2016 before shutting down permanently. At the moment the future is very uncertain for the line and its rare GE motive power but I am glad to have seen it in operation before it was too late. The end of 2015 would be a sad one for the TTI for another reason as longtime engineer John Donovan pictured in these photos passed away in December. R.I.P.

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