Kaiser Coal Trains

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Kaiser Unit Coal Trains

During mid 1968, UP negotiated an agreement, along with D&RGW and AT&SF, with Kaiser Steel to operate what was to be one of the nation's first unit coal trains, a service involving a dedicated set of new equipment and motive power. The service was planned to bring metallurgical quality coal from mines at Sunnyside, Utah, and the Carbondale, Colorado, to the Kaiser Steel mill in Fontana, California.

Coal was first moved over this route to the Kaiser plant starting in 1942. The Fontana steel plant had been constructed to support the need for plate steel to build the nation's Liberty ships during World War II. Kaiser had purchased the Sunnyside mine at that time (and expanded its Utah operations even more in 1950 when it purchased Utah Fuel Co., the former Rio Grande coal subsidiary), and moving coal from Utah and Colorado to California was a major source of traffic over UP's historic Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad. Before the operation of these first unit trains in 1968, coal for Kaiser's Fontana steel mill had been moved as regular westbound traffic in standard UP hoppers, and in UP and D&RGW GS gondolas.

The movement of coal from Kaiser Steel's coal mines at Carbondale, Colorado, and Sunnyside, Utah, to Kaiser's steel mill in California began during World War II, when the steel mill was first opened. Before the operation of true unit trains, coal had been moved by D&RGW in D&RGW and UP hoppers, to Union Pacific at Provo, then on to California, with each railroad supplying its own locomotives and cabooses. In actual practice, the coal was moved in separate trains, one originating in Colorado and the other in Utah. Both trains were handed over to Union Pacific at Provo, Utah.

During the first months of Kaiser unit train operation in 1968, the train ran with leased red MKT 100-ton hoppers until Union Pacific received the first of two orders of "Coal Liner" rotary-dump gondola cars. The initial 95 Coal Liner cars were delivered to UP as its G-125-1 class cars in March 1969. D&RGW received five very similar cars, which were placed in the same pool as its contribution to the service. In 1970, UP received 100 additional cars, classed in the G-125-2 class. This second series had a slightly lower capacity, and were four inches lower in height.

The following comes from the January 1969 issue of the UP INFO newsletter, distributed to Union Pacific employees.

Unit Train Begins Operation -- Wednesday, December 4, Union Pacific, Rio Grande and Santa Fe railroads began operation of a unit train which will transport 700,000 tons of Utah coal annually to the Kaiser Steel Corporation s works at Fontana, California.

The train, operating on a 96 hour cycle, will operate 336 days per year and will handle 8,400 tons of coal on each 806 mile trip from mine to steel works. This schedule includes loading the train, making the loaded run to Fontana, emptying the cars by rotary dumper and returning the empty train to Sunnyside, Utah.

The Rio Grande will handle the train from Sunnyside to Provo, Utah. Union Pacific will then operate the train from Provo to Barstow, California. The final leg of the trip will be operated on the tracks of Santa Fe under an operating arrangement.

Union Pacific and Rio Grande will each provide two 3,600 horsepower SD-45 locomotives to power the train. Special 100-ton cars have been ordered but initially the train will be operated with leased cars. The consist of the train will be fixed at 84 cars plus a caboose. The order of 100 cars will provide 16 standbys which can be substituted for any cars needing repairs.

On June 17, 1969 a new high capacity loading facility at Sunnyside was dedicated by the presidents of Kaiser Steel Corporation, Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, Union Pacific Railroad, and AT&SF Railway, along with Utah Governor Calvin L. Rampton. The new facility, said to have cost Kaiser Steel $1.2 million, was used to load a 84-car, 8,400 ton Coal Liner unit train every four days, on a 96 hour roundtrip schedule. The entire 1,600 mile roundtrip takes place over the D&RGW from Sunnyside to Provo, over UP from Provo to Barstow, California, and over AT&SF from Barstow to the Fontana mill. The service began late in 1968 using leased cars. The dedication was held in June 1969 with the delivery of the new gondola Coal Liner cars. (Deseret News, June 13, 1969; See also: New York Times, June 22, 1969)

June 21, 1969
The following comes from New York Times, June 22, 1969:

Unit Trains Now Move Utah Coal -- (Special to the New York Times) -- SUNNYSIDE, Utah, June 21 -- Spanning 806 miles of rugged mountain and desert country over the rails of the Rio Grande, Union Pacific and Santa Fe, high-capacity "Coal Liner" unit trains are now moving 8,400 tons of Utah coking coal per trip from mines high in the Wasatch Range to the Kaiser steel mill at Fontana, Calif.

The service, successfully tested by the Kaiser Steel Corporation and the participating railroads in recent months, was formally started this week at a new $1-million coal-loading facility at Sunnyside. Rolling along new trackage installed by the Rio Grande, the ribbon-cutting first train of 84 new, specially designed 100-ton-capacity high-side gondola cars, shoved through on-the-fly loading facilities near the Kaiser mine, powered by four new 3,600 horsepower SD-45 diesel electric locomotives. Two of the engines were painted in Rio Grande's black-and-white, two wore the Union Pacific's yellow, orange and red livery.

The 8,400-ton coal train was raised over 7,740-foot Soldier Summit 60 miles west of here by an additional pair of Rio Grande locomotives. Next day at Barstow, Calif., after 586 desert miles on the Union Pacific, the Santa Fe Railroad provided another team of helper engines to assist the heavy unit train over 3,825-foot Cajon Pass just west of San Bernadino.

Participating in ribbon-cutting ceremonies with Utah's Governor Calvin L. Rampton, Jack J. Carlson, president of Kaiser Steel, said the unit train would permit efficient, economical haulage of 700,000 tons of Utah coal a year from his company's mines at Sunnyside to the Fontana works. He praised Gus B. Aydelott, president of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Edd H. Bailey, president of the Union Pacific Railroad, and John S. Reed, president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad for "the cooperative spirit they've shown" in making the unit-train concept a reality.

The Rio Grande handles the unit train 131 miles from the mine to Provo, where new switching facilities provide a high-speed connection with the Union Pacific, which hauls the train 586 miles to Barstow. The Santa Fe moves the train for 89 miles over Cajon Pass to Fontana under a lease arrangement. Railroad spokesmen reported the Union Pacific and Rio Grande investment in new cars and trackage totaled $3.5-million. The roads purchased 100 new gondolas to provide a reserve above the 84-car permanent consist to allow rotation and repairs.

Kaiser built a million-dollar electronically controlled loading facility here at Sunnyside, at which the empty train moves slowly through a tunnel under the coal storage pile, with the 86 cars filled in just under one hour. Governor Rampton expressed belief that such efficient high-volume operation would prove instrumental in keeping Carbon County coal mines "operating profitably for many years to come." (New York Times, June 22, 1969)

Coal Age magazine ran an article in its September 1969 issue (Volume 74, Number 9, page 62) about the new loader at Sunnyside. The article has drawings of the general arrangement of the loading tunnel and coal pile at the Sunnyside mine, including the actual loader itself. The cover photo of the Coal Age magazine showed the train with D&RGW and UP SD45s as motive power, with a large banner declaring "Utah Coal means Utah Jobs" on the side of the lead unit, D&RGW 5337. Immediately behind 5337 in the photo was D&RGW 5336, along with UP 3645 and another UP SD45.

(Read a PDF of the article in Coal Age magazine, September 1969)

According to the article, Kaiser's Sunnyside mine had the capacity of 5,500 tons per day, and the K train's 96-hour (four day) cycle took all of the mine's production. The loader (actually a tunnel under a man-made 10-foot deep fill) could load up to 11,943 tons per hour, but the average loading time to fill the 84-car, 8,507 ton train was 51 minutes. Above the tunnel loader was a 120 foot high, 400-foot diameter coal pile, holding an average of 35,000 to 40,000 tons of coal, with a maximum capacity of 70,000 tons. The coal pile was fed by a conveyor belt from the mine's preparation plant, about a quarter mile away. The empty train backed all the way through the 456 foot long tunnel, with the motive power disappearing completely inside the tunnel. With the train's first car directly under the tunnel mid point at the loader, the loading cycle started, with the train moving back out of the tunnel at 0.9 mph.

The production of Kaiser's Sunnyside mine, as much as 5,500 tons per day, was matched to the steel mill's capacity to accept two 11,000-ton unit trains. The mine loaded an 8,400-ton train every other day, and each train ran on a four-day cycle. Presumably, if Kaiser had wanted more Sunnyside coal, they could have increased production at the mine and added another trainset. The loader, actually a tunnel under a man-made 10-foot deep fill, could load up to 11,943 tons per hour, but the average loading time to fill the 80-car train was 51 minutes. Above the tunnel loader was a 120 foot high, 400-foot diameter coal pile, holding an average of 35,000 to 40,000 tons of coal, with a maximum capacity of 70,000 tons. The coal pile was fed by a conveyor belt from the mine's preparation plant, about a quarter mile away. Upon arrival at the mine, the empty train backed all the way through the 456 foot long tunnel, with the motive power disappearing completely inside the tunnel. With the train's first car directly under the loader, at the tunnel's mid point, the loading cycle started, moving back out of the tunnel at 0.9 mph. The new facility, said to have cost Kaiser Steel $1.2 million, was used to load an 80-car, 8,400 ton Coal Liner unit train every four days, on a 96 hour roundtrip schedule. The entire 1,600 mile roundtrip took place over D&RGW, UP, and AT&SF, to the Fontana mill. In actual practice, the coal was moved in two separate trains, one 65-car train originating in Colorado and the other 80-car train originating in Utah.

The Kaiser unit coal trains, known by railroaders simply as the "K-Trains," operated over D&RGW tracks from Carbondale and Sunnyside to an interchange with UP at Provo, Utah. From Provo, the trains operated over UP trackage to Barstow, California, where they were interchanged with Santa Fe for the final miles down Cajon Pass to Kaiser's steel mill at Fontana. Part of the route over UP included descent down two of the most difficult grades in the western states: the 2.2 percent descending grade on Cima Hill from Nevada into California, and the 3.0 percent descending grade on Cajon Pass into the Los Angeles Basin. The severe nature of these two grades required UP to set retainers to safely control these heavy Kaiser unit coal trains. To reduce the time normally required to manually set retainers manually at the top, and manually release retainers at the bottom of these two hills - an hour or more at each instance - UP and D&RGW equipped the locomotives and cars assigned to Kaiser service with remote controls. which allowed the engineer to set retainers from the cab.

At times, due to the 12 hour unloading period, Santa Fe often made use of the locomotives for a freight run to Barstow. While other cabooses were regularly used, UP assigned at least four cabooses that had been modified to operate over all three railroads to this dedicated service. These four cabooses were designated for this special service by a large green K on their cupolas.

In later years, in addition to the 84-car train on every fourth day from Sunnyside, there were also two other distinct coal train operations to Kaiser. The first train came from York Canyon, New Mexico on the Santa Fe. It operated with 84 cars, on every fourth day, using all AT&SF power including four remote-controlled units cut in 23 cars from rear end. This train was routed by way of AT&SF all the way. The other train was 64 cars and originated from the Helper, Utah, vicinity. It was also routed DRGW to Provo, then UP to Barstow, then AT&SF to Kaiser, with Santa Fe helpers from Barstow. At times, Kaiser received an extra coal train for a few trips that arrived on the open day. The power on all coal trains would deliver the train to Kaiser, and then return to Barstow, for use by Santa Fe until the empty train was released by the mill about 24 hours later. The empties would be hauled to Barstow by anything handy, and the correct power would be added at Barstow, for return to the UP or to York Canyon. (from Trainorders.com, June 27, 2008)

In 1970, a ride was arranged the Kaiser train's motive power from Helper, out to the mine and back, then on the helper locomotives from Helper on up the hill, and back to Helper. At the mine, the train pulled into Sunnyside, through a wye, then backed around a balloon track that extended from the tail of the wye and which lead into the loading tunnel. After being loaded, the train continued around the other leg of the wye and proceeded back out to the mainline at Mounds.

Last Trains

The last coal was shipped from the Sunnyside (Utah) and Redstone (Colorado) mines when the Kaiser closed its Fontana coke plant in late 1982. In September 1982, there was a note in the New York Times stating that Kaiser would close its coke plant "by the end of 1982." The news item went on to say that Kaiser would continue making steel at Fontana by using its stockpile of coke. (New York Times, September 18, 1982)

In December 1983, the Fontana Works was closed. Early the next year, two investor groups bought Kaiser Steel for $374.4 million. Later, the investors sold the most modern section of the plant for more than $110 million to California Steel Industries, a partnership of local, Brazilian and Japanese interests. (Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1985)

The former Kaiser Fontana steel plant was sold to California Steel Industries in August 1984. Using steel made in Brazil and Japan, in late November 1984 the rolling mills at Fontana began production of finished steel products, producing hot-rolled, cold-rolled, and galvanized coil and sheet. CSI also produces electric resistance welded pipe. (FundingUniverse.com - California Steel Industries, Inc.)

Kaiser Steel Corporation's Fontana steel plant was shutdown in late 1983, the rolling mill was sold to California Steel Industries in August 1984; the coke plant and blast furnaces were sold for salvage and were dismantled in 1985; Kaiser Steel went bankrupt in February 1987; reorganized as a new Kaiser Steel Corporation in September 1988; reorganized as Kaiser Steel Resources, Inc. in October 1990; name changed to Kaiser Resources, Inc. in June 1993; name changed to Kaiser Ventures LLC in June 1995. (Various internet searches)

(Read more about the the end of Kaiser Steel at Fontana)


To serve as motive power for this new unit coal train for Kaiser Steel, UP regeared seven SD45s from their as-delivered 59:18 ratio to the lower speed 62:15 ratio, giving the units more lugging power and a lower maximum speed of 65 mph.

UP initially supplied six units to the pool, plus a spare, and D&RGW supplied three units. UP's units were 3643-3649 and D&RGW's units were 5336-5338. By January 1971, the number of trains was increased with added traffic from the loading point at Carbondale, Colorado. (the mine itself was 17 miles away), and the number of units dedicated to this service rose to nine units, UP 3641-3649. In June 1971, with the expansion of service, and the delivery of 100 additional Coal Liner cars in 1970, three additional units, UP 3638-3640, were added to the Kaiser pool, as were three more D&RGW units, 5326-5328.

The ratio of twelve UP units (UP 3638-3649) to six D&RGW units (D&RGW 5326-5328 and 5336-5338) reflected the two to one ratio of operations between UP and D&RGW, based on mileage. UP also furnished a majority of the "Coal Liner" cars for the new, dedicated service. The trains operated every four days from late 1968 to early 1983, when the Kaiser steel plant quit making steel and became a rolling mill.

The Rio Grande locomotives were leased for actual operation to UP and to help them stand out among UP units, they were among the first D&RGW to incorporate the new large "Rio Grande" logo. The D&RGW units weighed 389,400 pounds in operating condition, while UP's units weighed 393,300 pounds. Although UP only used Coded Cab Signals on its Wyoming mainline, the D&RGW engines also had cab signal equipment installed so they could run in the lead position in UP territory. Motive power was run through all the way to the unloading point in California. During the 12 hour unloading period at the steel mill, the Santa Fe often made use of the locomotives for a freight run to Barstow.

D&RGW 5337 and 5338 were the first two Rio Grande units to receive the large Rio Grande billboard lettering. Both were assigned to the Kaiser coal trains and were repainted to make them stand out from the UP units. The remaining four units soon followed in getting the large lettering.

UP and Rio Grande coordinated motive power purchases for the new Kaiser trains, and agreed to buy SD45s dedicated to the service. UP's units and D&RGW's units had the multi-channel radios. UP's units for this service had 62:15 gearing, whereas all the other UP SD45s were delivered with 59:18 gearing for high-speed merchandise and perishable service. (Rob Leachman, Trainorders.com, June 29, 2008)


"Union Pacific's first group of 95 ‘Coal Liner’ cars, series 31900-31994, were delivered from Thrall in 1969. They were classed G-125-1 by UP. The cars were designed to be high capacity (3850 cu. ft.) and were delivered equipped with a remote control retainer system and 38-inch wheels. The D&RGW also ordered a group of five cars in 1969, numbers 56995-56999. They were very similar in appearance to the UP cars except for small horizontal ribs running between the heavy vertical ribs. Union Pacific purchased an additional group of 100 cars for Kaiser Steel unit train service in 1970. Numbers 32000-32099 were classed G-125-2. These were also quite similar to the first group of cars, differing only in minor dimensions and lower capacity (3700 cu. ft.)." (Mark Hills, "Coal Liner Modeling, Using The MDC Thrall Gondola", Mainline Modeler, Volume 15, Number 9, September 1994, p. 27)

Jim Eager adds some clarification concerning the small horizontal ribs seen on these cars:

Both the D&RGW and the UP cars were built without the small horizontal ribs. The UP added them to both their own cars and to the D&RGW cars within a few years of delivery. (posted to D&RGW group on August 13, 2009)

The G-125-1 cars had an inside height of 8 feet, 10 inches vs. the G-125-2 inside height of 8 feet, 6 inches. Four inches difference, explaining the lower capacity of 3700 cu. ft. for the G-125-2 vs. the larger 3850 cu. ft. on the G-125-1.

The cars were delivered in April 1969 by Thrall Car of Chicago Heights, Illinois.


There were at least six cabooses assigned to dedicated service on unit coal trains for Kaiser Steel Co. between its coal mines at Sunnyside, Utah, and Carbondale, Colorado, and its steel mill in Fontana, California. These six cabooses were assigned to this service in 1968, along with SD45 motive power and gondolas from each road. Included in the group of cabooses was a single CA-8 (UP 25529) and three CA-9s (UP 25656, 25669, 25680). All six cabooses had the same features as standard pool service cabooses, and each caboose also had a large green K painted on each end of its cupola.

More Information

Sunnyside mine -- Information about the Sunnyside coal mine prior to being purchased by Kaiser Steel

Kaiser Coal Company -- Continuation of the Sunnyside story after 1943, when the mine was purchased by Kaiser Steel and became a dedicated coal mine that furnished coal solely to Kaiser Steel Company.

UP's SD45s -- An article about Union Pacific's SD45 locomotives, of which 12 were assigned to the Kaiser trains.

UP Coal Liner -- Thornton Waite's article about UP's Coal Liner cars used in the Kaiser unit trains.