Watch, as the Cow Springs Trading Post Changes Before your Eyes
For over a decade, I have traveled north or south on U.S. Highway 160 in Arizona at least twice each year. Known also as The Rainbow Trail, the highway closely tracks the trail of the Ancients through Navajoland. On that trail, in Tonalea, Arizona is the Navajo settlement of Cow Springs. Although the closest thing to a commercial establishment in Cow Springs today is the Navajo Nation Head Start preschool, there was once a thriving trading post in the area.
When the Arizona Department of Transportation realigned Highway 160 in the 1960s, the new route bypassed the old Begashonto Trading Post. With all of the optimism of that time, the Babbitt Brothers Trading Company moved its previous operation to a knoll beside the new highway. The new building’s construction was robust, with a poured concrete floor and cinder block walls all around. Although similar construction supported the fireplace and chimney, their faces featured Navajo Sandstone. With its large open floorplan, vast wooden trusses supported its roof.
Out front, a sign supported by two thirty-foot poles read, “Cow Springs Trading Post”. Apparently, the name was not much of a draw. Sometime later, the owners painted over the original sign. From then until today, it features a brown background and white lettering. The “new” sign presented the phrase, “Standard Oil Products”. Even the lure of brand name petroleum products was not enough to draw sufficient customers to support the operation. At an unknown time, probably in the 1970s, the Cow Springs Trading Post closed for good.
Because of its existence in the pre-internet era and its brief existence as a place of business, there are no published pictures of the Cow Springs Trading Post while in operation. In fact, there are no published pictures of the building while its roof still sheltered it. If anyone has such images, we hope that they will publish them.
In 2015, Sandi Haugen commented on a previous article I wrote about Cow Springs - “Jim, how sad these pictures are to me, my parents Charles and Vaughntrebia Kinser were the original traders who were employed by Babbitt Brothers in this trading post - in fact prior to this new trading post being opened they ran the Old Cow Springs Trading Post. We were the first family to live in the house attached to the Trading Post. I still remember when the fireplace was built. It saddens my heart to think about all the good years spent there and to see it now in ruins.”
From the images on this page, it is obvious that the Cow Springs Trading Post is now a ruin. What is not obvious, however, is that the landscape there and the artworks displayed on the few remaining walls continue to change over time. Although I had driven by the ruin for almost a decade, I did not stop and walk through the place until 2012. By that time, a local artist who goes by the moniker “Jetsonorama” had created several generations of wheat paste art on the walls.
Wheat paste is just what it sounds like. In a bygone era, a concoction of wheat and water supported handbills on temporary construction barriers, utility poles and many other smooth surfaces. Today, artists like Jetsonorama use large-scale printers to blow up digital photos, and then piece them back together on walls such as those at Cow Springs. Although these postings appear permanent to the casual observer, the wheat paste melts in the rain and the paper deteriorates over time. While it is visually arresting art, by its very nature it is temporary.
Although I missed some of Jetsonorama’s most famous pieces, I began documenting what still existed of them in 2012. For the past four years, I have returned to see what is new there. Other than the innovative wheat paste art, many of the recent artistic flourishes are spray-overs of more gentile subject matter. Since much of what endures at Cow Springs is graffiti or spray-painted, I also documented its changes, additions and slow fading of several scenes.
In order to show how much things have changed in the art scene at the Cow Springs Trading Post, I have organized time-lapse imaging into “animated GIFs”. Introduced by CompuServe in 1987, the animated GIF predates, yet is now ubiquitous on the internet. Most of the moving ads you see on webpages are animated GIFs. An animated GIF is a silent slideshow, using “lossless compression” to limit file size, so as not to slow the loading of a webpage.
In order of their appearance on this page, I have titled the animated GIFs as follows: “The Brave”, “The Front Wall”, “The Eagle”, “The Princess and the Sheepdog” and “The Broken Sun”. In 2016, the Brave is now gone, the Front Wall is painted over and the Feather is all that remains from the front wall of a decade ago. Remember is a recent addition to a short section of wall, while the Prophet has been hammered into smithereens. Graffiti has obliterated the Eagle, while Lola! has endured through several iterations. The mirror reflects the transience of all that still exists at Cow Springs Trading Post.
If you stop and visit, please view the Cow Springs Trading Post in Tonalea, Arizona as sacred ground. Park your vehicle off the highway and away from the adjacent cattle guard, which delineates a roadway often used by local Navajo residents. Wear sturdy shoes and beware of boards with protruding nails. Although I have never seen a snake there, their presence is possible. Touch nothing, add nothing and take nothing but photos. If Native Americans are present, please show your respect for their culture by staying away from the building. Cow Springs is part of Navajoland, not Disneyland.
Since early 2016, all of the Metrolink trains that I have observed at the Chatsworth Station have been “double-enders”. By that, I mean there is a locomotive at each and of the train. On this occasion, the train arrived in Chatsworth with a locomotive at the “head end” and a Hyundai-Rotem cabcar at the trailing end.
The locomotives that Metrolink leased to ride ahead of the Hyundai-Rotem cabcars are massive Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight locomotives.
Such locomotives normally pull heavy freight trains on long hauls. Before the Metrolink lease, nowhere in the country have such locomotives pushed or pulled passenger trains. Because of their size, weight and other factors, Metrolink has struggled to safely deploy their BNSF locomotives. A recent Los Angeles Times report indicated that many trains were still running without a locomotive at each end.
The original locomotive lease from BNSF was for one year. Even at that, Metrolink now operates them on a Federal Railroad Administration temporary waiver, not a permanent operating permit. By leasing the BNSF locomotives, Metrolink made a de facto admission that heading up a train with a Hyundai Rotem cabcar was inherently unsafe. If so, why is Metrolink still running trains headed up by Hyundai-Rotem cabcars?
While at the Chatsworth Station, I walked the platform from south to north. When viewing railroad tracks up close, I like to observe the condition of the infrastructure. Are any of the railroad ties rotten? Are many of the spikes loose? Are palm trees growing up between the rails? At Chatsworth, I found instances of all these deficiencies. Why does any of this matter?
As I reached the north end of the platform, I stepped up some wooden stairs to better observe the tracks. As I looked down from there, I could see the milepost marker for that location stenciled on the side of the rail. It read “MP 445.4”, with an arrow pointing down to that exact location. In non-technical language, that means that it is 445.4 miles to the northern terminus of the Coast Line in San Francisco. In addition, that spot is where the wheel truck of an outbound Metrolink locomotive comes to rest at the Chatsworth Station.
As I looked more closely, I observed a broken rail anchor lying by the tracks at that exact location. After the Mosier, Oregon derailment, Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) admitted that despite repeated visual inspections, specifically looking for deficiencies, inspectors missed badly corroded and rusted bolts. In the case of Chatsworth, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA), better known as Metrolink, owns and operates the double-track through Chatsworth Station.
Allowing rotten railroad ties, loose spikes and small palm trees to grow between the tracks at the Chatsworth Station is ample evidence that SCRRA is not properly inspecting or maintaining its own rail infrastructure. Allowing a broken or detached rail anchor to lie where a 432,000-pound BNSF locomotive comes to rest several times each day is inexcusable. Rather than relying on redundancy to save us all from its next derailment, SCRRA should inspect and repair its infrastructure in Chatsworth and throughout its railroad network.
Author’s Note: On July 8, 2016, just two days after the publication of this article, Metrolink announced the impending replacement of fifty-six failure-prone pilots on their Hyundai-Rotem cabcars. Although the recent lease of BNSF freight locomotives topped $20 million, Metrolink expects to replace the pilot blades for a mere $1.5 million. That would bring the cost of each replacement to $26,785. If the cost to replace the pilots is so low, why did Metrolink not explore that option from the outset?
The Rodeo Drive 2016 Concours d'Elegance Classic Car Show
In the 1960s, my father shared his love of classic cars with me. Each Father’s Day, we would attend the Beverly Hills Concours d’Elegance at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. There we would see well-restored automobiles from the first half of the twentieth century. In those days, just prior to the revolution in automotive horsepower, large saloons and tiny sports cars dominated the show.
As we walked the parking lot, we would see an old Packard here and a Duesenberg there. Later, my father told me stories about Los Angeles in the 1930s. As a teenager, he and his friends would walk to Wilshire Blvd. There, they would wait at a traffic light for a suitably large automobile to stop. Then, without the driver being aware, they would dash out and sit on the wide rear bumper platform. Cars did not accelerate or travel very quickly in the Los Angeles traffic of the day, so there was little danger of ejection from their perch. When they reached their destination, they would hop down and walk away.
The Classic 1965 Shelby Cobra 289 on Video
Several years ago, I restarted the Father’s Day car show tradition. For twenty-three years now, Beverly Hills has sponsored its Concours d’Elegance on the famous shopping street, Rodeo Drive (pronounced “Row-day-o”). It is free to the public and often includes classic cars and super cars seen nowhere else except a museum. Last year, I saw the same 1915 Cadillac that my father and I had seen in the 1960s. In 2015, it was one hundred years old and arrived under its own power.
This year, I hit Rodeo Drive at eight o’clock. Many of the cars were still arriving and taking their places along the curb. Although the 1915 Cadillac did not show this year, there was a 1933 vintage V-16 Cadillac and a 1930s Packard to ogle. In addition, there were at least a dozen red Ferrari to spice up the show.
Having grown up in Southern California, I was hoping to see the quintessential American sports car – The Shelby Cobra. As a tingle went up my spine, I heard a 289 cubic inch V-8 engine rumbling up the street. I ran to a spot where I was able to capture a classic 1965 Cobra preparing to park in its appointed spot.
With only 150 of the 289-Cobras produced that year, I was looking at a rare automobile. After the driver parked, I stood with him and admired his classic Cobra. He told me that he had purchased it from a private party about twenty years ago. Without my asking, he told me that he had paid $175,000 for the car.
He had repainted it in a dazzling red and done some engine work, but otherwise had kept it in “stock” condition. According to a classic car valuation website, his Cobra may now be worth $1.2 million. If you are in the market for a concours-condition Shelby Cobra, he does not plan to sell.
Although the field of classic cars was a bit smaller this year, the 23rd Annual Father’s Day Concours d’Elegance was as exciting as ever. If you want to see the cars arriving next year, I suggest that you get to the show prior to the 10 AM start time. Perhaps I will see you there.
As BNSF Freight Locomotives Fail The Test - It's Time to Audit Metrolink Operations
At 5:39 AM on February 24, 2015, Metrolink Train No. 102 departed the Oxnard Transit Center. Its intended destination was Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS). After negotiating a sweeping arc of track, the train crossed Rose Ave., at Milepost 405 of the Coast Line. Leading the way was Hyundai-Rotem Cabcar No. 645. After negotiating the initial curve, ten miles of straight track lay ahead. Under the control of a student engineer, the diesel pusher train quickly accelerated to seventy miles per hour.
With Metrolink Sr. Engineer Glenn Steele occupying a jump seat behind the student engineer, it would be less than one minute before the cabcar reached Rice Ave. at Milepost 406.23. Unknown to the engineer and his student, an abandoned Ford F-450 work truck lay high-centered on the tracks eighty feet west of Rice Ave. In the early morning darkness, the headlights and emergency flashers of the disabled truck pointed toward the oncoming Metrolink train.
Until it was too late to avoid a collision, neither the student engineer nor Steele determined that the truck’s lights represented a hazard. While traveling at seventy miles per hour, and with less than three tenths of a mile to go, the student engineer saw the headlights looming before the cabcar. Sounding the horn and applying the brakes was insufficient to prevent a collision. On orders from Steele, the student applied emergency braking and both men bailed out, heading toward the rear of the cabcar.
With the brakes engaged, less than 1500 feet separated the cabcar and the work truck. As momentum carried the entire train forward, the impact with the truck was catastrophic. The pilot, a blade intended to clear debris from the tracks, detached from its support structure and disappeared beneath the cabcar. As the wreckage traveled along the tracks, the cabcar and its following coaches derailed and whipped in opposite directions. As the first two cars rotated and toppled on their sides, the whipsaw effect injured dozens of passengers and crew. One week later, Sr. Engineer Glenn Steele succumbed to his injuries.
In early reports, Metrolink touted the crash energy management (CEM) features of the Hyundai-Rotem cabcar. Without its safety features, a spokesperson said, the severity of the incident could have been greater. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made such statements seem hasty and ill informed. By September 2015, the NTSB had determined that both the steel within the pilot and welds in its structural supports were deficient. Further, the entire assembly had ripped loose at stress levels below its design criteria.
After receiving an NTSB report regarding failure of the pilot assembly, Metrolink officials skirted discussions regarding any potential design flaw or culpability in the collision. Instead, Metrolink management initiated a conference call with its board members. During that call, the Metrolink Board approved a one-year lease of forty BNSF freight locomotives at a total of $20,000 per day. According to Metrolink Chief Executive Art Leahy, the forty freight locomotives would soon head up all Metrolink trains on their return trips to LAUS. Using the “rule of tonnage”, Metrolink management wanted to rule out the possibility of another deficient pilot or cabcar causing injury in a collision. Lost in the publicity regarding this supposed safety measure was the fact that no regional rail carrier in the nation had ever utilized freight locomotives to head up passenger trains.
Citing the unprecedented, yet unspecified safety issues involved with the Hyundai Rotem cabcars, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink) Board sidestepped the California Open Meeting Law. That ill-conceived and illegal action set Metrolink on a path to its potential demise. It also put the executive management team at Metrolink in a position to either defend their actions or place blame on its own board or others yet unnamed.
On December 5, 2015, I attended the “Steel Wheels Conference”, which is the annual meeting for the rail passenger association known as RailPAC. The meeting convened at the Metro Headquarters Building adjacent to LAUS. While on a lunch break, I discovered a long line of BNSF freight locomotives parked on LAUS Track Number 14. With no room to spare in its maintenance yards, Metrolink had redirected at least sixteen of the leased BNSF locomotives to the depot.
In "The Purloined Letter", a short story by American author Edgar Allan Poe, detectives assumed that a blackmailer would conceal a damning letter in an elaborate hiding place. Thus, he hid it in plain sight. In a flash of chutzpah and hubris, the Metrolink executive team decided to hide almost 7,000,000 lb. of BNSF freight locomotives at LAUS.
Soon after their irrevocable one-year lease at $500 per day each ($7,300,000 total), Metrolink discovered that heavy freight locomotives are more expensive to outfit and operate than they originally thought. Although the BNSF locomotives already featured positive train control (PTC), the software version on the BNSF equipment was two generations beyond what Metrolink was using (version 0 vs. 2.0). A new train management computer (TMC) and retrofitted software were required for each BNSF locomotive placed into service. By late December 2015, BNSF locomotives entered into limited service on Metrolink lines. Almost immediately, problems developed with their operation.
With a gross weight of 420,000 lb., an overall length of seventy-four feet and a wheel diameter of forty-two inches, the huge locomotives had difficulty negotiating ten-degree radius curves such as the one approaching Chatsworth Station. As a result, the wheel-trucks on the BNSF locomotives create premature wear on the inside edge of the outboard rail. In a metallurgical process known as spalling, the BNSF wheels shave steel filings off the rails. The dispersion of filings into nearby electrical shunts often shorts out the signal systems along those tight curves.
Although the horns on the BNSF locomotives fall within legal standards, their blaring pitch can make them sound louder than a regular Metrolink horn. With their twelve drive-wheels and massive sixteen cylinder turbocharged diesel engines, the BNSF freight locomotives are louder and create more vibration than their passenger locomotive counterparts. In addition, regardless of their direction of travel, both the BNSF and the Metrolink locomotives generate power, noise and pollution whenever a Metrolink train moves. Despite Metrolink's claims of environmental sensitivity, a double-ender Metrolink train produces almost twice the engine noise and twice the pollution of a single-engine train.
Because of the unprecedented use of freight locomotives in their train consists, Metrolink obtained only a six-month temporary waiver to utilize the BNSF equipment. A stipulation of the temporary waiver was that Metrolink would maintain compliance with all positive train control (PTC) regulations as specified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). With a few of the BNSF locomotives entering service prior to January 1, 2016, their six-month temporary waiver shall soon expire. When the temporary waiver expires, will the FRA recertify the freight locomotives under rules for passenger use or will it require a full audit of their operations?
One requirement of PTC is that the speedometer on each locomotive shall be accurate at any speed above thirty miles per hour. With a freight locomotive geared for long hauls and a top speed of seventy miles per hour, the stipulated variance of five miles per hour (plus or minus) is difficult to achieve. For example, frequent starts, stops and delays for other rail traffic make the use of freight locomotives on the San Fernando Valley line problematic. Often operating at just above the thirty mile per hour threshold, a wide variety of speed sensors can cause the TMC to place the locomotive into “penalty mode”. Once it enters penalty mode, the TMC automatically applies the brakes and stops the train, no matter where it may be along the tracks.
Before the penalized locomotive can resume service, pumps must refill the air reservoirs that supply breaking power to the train. A locomotive that experiences a penalty can stay in service for the balance of that day. However, a penalized locomotive may not reenter passenger service the following day unless Metrolink corrects the anomaly (inaccurate speedometer) and certifies completion of that work. According to the Los Angeles Times, Metrolink was able to average only twelve BNSF freight locomotives in service per day during April 2016. With so few BNSF locomotives in service, the majority of Metrolink trains returning to LAUS are headed-up by Hyundai-Rotem cabcars. This also begs the question; where are the remaining thirty-eight BNSF locomotives?
After the embarrassment of letting the batteries die on the sixteen BNSF locomotives parked at LAUS in late 2015, Metrolink crews jumpstarted those units and repositioned them to the Metrolink Keller Street Yard. To keep their electrical and motive power units in working condition, the non-operating BNSF locomotives remain in temporary storage at the Keller Street Yard. Placed in “automatic mode”, the engines cycle periodically, bringing them up to operating temperature and charging their batteries. Among other things, this periodic cycling of the engines produces wear on the starter motors, flywheels and the diesel engines themselves.
In 2015, a Los Angeles Times article detailed Metrolink’s plans to purchase twenty-nine so-called Tier-4 locomotives. They were touted as state-of-the-art, low pollution passenger locomotives. According to the article, Metrolink intends to replace up to forty-nine of its aging and ill-maintained passenger locomotives over the next several years. Meanwhile, forty BNSF Tier-1 (high powered, high pollution) freight locomotives sit largely idle in the middle of Downtown Los Angeles. Hidden from public view, cycling their massive engines, these locomotives pump out untold amounts of air pollution into the Los Angeles Basin.
Metrolink’s temporary waiver to operate the BNSF freight locomotives will soon expire. When it does, it will be appropriate for the FRA, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) and the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA) to conduct a complete audit of operations and practices at Metrolink.