A Guide to ATSF
in Phoenix, AZ

By John Timm

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Because so many railfans visit the Grand Canyon State every year, I thought it might be helpful to post a Guide to ATSF Facilities and Operations here in the Phoenix metro area. From time to time I hope to give you updates on changes in operations, unusual sightings, etc. I welcome your additions, corrections or clarifications.

A word about personal safety: most of the places I am going to describe are located in an urban industrial setting. Use common sense and don't visit them at night, don't linger and don't stray too far from your vehicle.

Phoenix sits at the end of the Fourth Subdivision. It is essentially a heavy-duty branch line which sees at least one merchandise freight daily in each direction, plus auto racks from Kansas City and an intermodal train out of Chicago. Maximum authorized track speed is 49 mph, although numerous curves and grades hold actual speeds to considerably less than this for much of the way. Most traffic is inbound, much of it in the form of lumber and building materials to feed a building boom that hasn't subsided since the 1950's. Loads of chemicals, corn syrup, paper products and steel are also common. If you like industries and switching, Phoenix is the place for you, even more so if you enjoy modeling interesting prototypes.

The Fourth Sub leaves the main at Williams Junction, west of Flagstaff, some 208.8 rail miles to the north. The line twists and turns for the first 125 miles or so, dropping in elevation from 7,000 feet AMSL at Williams Junction to 2,400 feet at Matthie (MP 135.0) where it meets the old Parker District, now the Arizona and California Railroad (AZCR). From Matthie, the rails head southeast in pretty much of a straight line, although still losing altitude, reaching a low point of 1100 feet at Phoenix.

At Wickenburg (MP 139.6)* the railroad is joined by U.S. 60, once the main Phoenix to Los Angeles highway. Except for a couple of short stretches, the road follows the tracks all the way to Mobest Yard, becoming Grand Avenue in the vicinity of Wittman (MP 157.6). Phoenix streets are laid out in a grid pattern with major east-west arteries one mile apart. Numbered avenues run north and south. This makes it easy to spot Grand Avenue on a map because it is the only diagonal route on the west side of town.

We begin our excursion in the vicinity of MP 173.6 at a place the railroad calls "Ennis." It is just south of the city limits of the cities of Surprise and El Mirage. Ennis itself consists of sidings on either side of the main, usually filled with long lines of auto racks and pressurized propane tank cars.

In 1994-95 the ATSF constructed a huge automobile unloading facility to the east of the right-of-way in the City of El Mirage. It is the terminus for train V-KCPX and is switched by a private company, using a geep and a very old EMD switcher that appears to be a SW1 or SW2. While you cannot enter the property, you can get a good view of it from the access road.

Ennis is also the beginning of the Ennis Spur, an interesting operation that crosses Grand Avenue at grade and meanders to the southwest, then south, then west for a total of about 12 miles. At one time there was an active branch into a gravel pit and one serving Luke AFB. Today the major customer is an underground propane storage facility. In the summer, pressurized tank cars are interchanged from the Arizona & California and the gas is pumped into a natural cavern. In the winter when demand is greatest, it is pumped back into the cars for distribution, much of it returning to California. You can reach this facility by taking El Mirage Rd. (123rd Ave.) south to Olive Avenue and then going west. To get to this same point the Ennis Spur cuts across a lot of desert and irrigated farm fields. A little past Litchfield Road on Olive you rejoin the tracks and will come upon more long strings of propane cars and the gas loading / unloading racks.

West of the gas storage facility is a point named Fennemore. The railroad has a wye here, the legs of which used to extend north and south along 171st Avenue to Waddell, and McMicken, not really towns but places where I am told fresh produce was once loaded into SFRD reefers. These spurs still show up on DeLorme and Rand McNally city maps, but the rails are buried in some places, hanging over washouts in others and just plain gone everywhere in between. However, there is a still a very large ag dealer at Fennemore that receives a lot of cars of fertilizer and feed year 'round, making it worthwhile for the railroad to maintain the track at least that far.

Returning to Grand Avenue, the team track at Peoria Avenue (MP 179.9) usually holds several carloads of feed, fertilizer and lumber in the process of unloading. It has great modeling possibilities, especially some of the portable grain conveyors.

A quarter mile south of Olive Avenue is the ATSF Peoria Overpass and the tracks will now be on the west side of the highway. To your right is the Agua Fria Generating Station of the Salt River Project, one of two electric utilities serving the Phoenix area. Fuel oil is brought in to the plant in GATX and UTLX tank cars to be burned during peak useage periods.

At Northern Avenue there are two lumber yards. The largest, Lignum / Shuck Reload, is east of the intersection and reached by a spur that crosses Grand just south of Northern. The other, Alliance Lumber, sits just west of the tracks on Northern. A block beyond Alliance to the west is a Stone Container Corp. plant. Long lines of boxcars await unloading outside.

Glendale is at milepost 183.7. At one time, Glendale was a small city all to itself, separated from Phoenix proper by orange groves and reached by trolley. The Santa Fe stopped here, too, at a depot which still stands. Today it has a population of over 150,000 and won't stop growing. The intersection of Grand, Glendale and 59th Avenues lies at the west edge of the downtown historical area. If you or a companion are into antiques and crafts, there are dozens of small shops in the area. The Cerreta Candy Company is a must, and for those who want authentic Mexican food, try La Perla just west of the tracks on Glendale. A family operation, they just celebrated their 25th anniversary. (Fridays and Saturdays, ask for Benito. He works for me by day and sings with the band at night).

Getting back to railroading, Glendale marks the beginning of what is really one long, thin yard almost all the way down to Mobest. First comes Glendale Yard, consisting of four tracks. From what I have seen, there are can be at least two jobs working Glendale Yard and its nearby industries at any given time. Here you will find more LP tank cars waiting for a trip out to Ennis, lumber cars for the reloads, boxcars for Stone, piggyback flats, both loaded and empty, and tank cars of asphalt waiting their turn to go further down the line to McDowell Rd.

Traveling another half a mile down Grand brings you to Maryland Avenue and the Navajo Marketing Company. Although produce traffic is a trickle compared to a couple of decades ago, Navajo still receives things like carrots in insulated box cars. Seen recently were two ex FGE "Solid Cold" RBL's with SFLC reporting marks. BNFE RBL's are also frequent visitors. The Navajo facility is very basic and easily photographed, making it a great candidate for modeling in any era back to the 30's or 40's.

Just north of Bethany Home Rd. is the AmeriGas LP gas facility. There are usually three or four cars waiting here for unloading. The high level unloading platform can be photographed from the edge of the property. I built a model of it in about three evenings, using styrene and Plano roofwalk material.

All along Grand from this point on are large corrugated metal warehouses, many dating back to a time when cotton was the predominant local industry. Spurs lead in every direction to these and other structures, some crossing side streets and leading several blocks to both current and former rail users.

South of the Bethany Home/ Grand Avenue / 51st Avenue intersection is the Phoenix piggyback yard with its two straddle lifts. Known at one time as "Valley Lift," the CHPX normally arrives here late in the morning or early afternoon, drops its train and runs its motive power light down to Mobest for servicing. Shortline fans will note that a small maintenance facility here features a Kankakee, Beaverville and Southern trailer, now shorn of running gear and apparently used for storage.

On the northwest side of Camelback Rd. is a large industrial park and the beginning of a long spur leading west to serve a number of major customers. Not unexpectedly, many of these like Georgia-Pacific receive building materials. Others include Zellerbach Corporation and Gaylord Container, a cold storage plant and a chemical company. Until El Mirage was built, the Santa Fe unloaded its auto racks off this spur and still uses the old facility for car storage. A pair of sidings also serve the local Coors distributor, Pearce Distributing, regularly visited by BN and NS insulated boxcars. For access to this area take Camelback west from Grand, turn right at Tom Murray, go north to Colter and turn left.

South of Camelback Rd., Grand and 43rd Avenues another spur cuts west across 43rd Avenue to reach the Santa Fe Industrial Park, whose major tenant is Hensley Distributing, the local Budweiser distributor. Golden West Service boxcars (GVSR) predominate here.

This same spur intersects with another, that travels south, parallel to 43rd Avenue. ABOX and SP box cars are usually spotted at Spellman Hardwoods. A couple of blocks beyond Spellman, Hills Brothers Chemicals with its myriad of tanks in all shapes and sizes receives sulfuric acid and chlorine by rail, the latter used to disinfect the tens of thousands of swimming pools that are a necessity, not a luxury, to heat-parched Phoenicians.

Back on Grand Avenue, Superlite Block receives several cars of fly ash weekly in Santa Fe 179000 series hoppers.

Alhambra Yard begins officially at milepost 188.3 as you approach Indian School Road. A team track right along side Grand Avenue receives regular shipments of steel beams on TTX bulkhead flats. Boxcars and centerbeam flats of lumber abound, along with 50' mostly shortline boxcars destined for Ringier American down the line. I sometimes see loaded coal cars here too. I am told these are interchanged to the SP and taken to the cement plant at Rillito near Tucson. The Alhambra switcher is usually parked right across the street from the Denny's in the 3300 block of Grand Avenue.

Just before Thomas Road is a short remnant of track that crosses Grand and heads up to Osborn Rd., 1/2 mile north. It was built after WWII to serve an industrial park and used to run all the way up to a Levitz Furniture Warehouse at Indian School Road. The track has been cut back over the years and today is fenced off at Reynolds Aluminum, although some rails and crossbucks remain beyond. The big customer these days is Liquid Sugar who recently built a rail-to-truck transfer facility at Cheery Lynn Avenue. This is another small rail user that can be easily modeled. Liquid Sugar has its own fleet of shorty tank cars, bearing LSIX reporting marks.

American Fence Company sits just south of Thomas Road along Grand Avenue next to the I-17 Freeway. There are always several cushion coil cars parked on the bridge over the freeway, representing every possible railroad and displaying a colorful variety of mis-matched coil covers.

The yard throat for Mobest yard (MP 191.6) begins just north of McDowell Road. Before visiting the yard area itself, you may want to take a look at the newly-completed Ernest F. Mariani & Company rail-truck transfer to the west of the tracks on the north side of McDowell. At any one time there will be a dozen or more ADM corn syrup tankers spotted here. Across the street is a bulk asphalt storage plant which receives still more tank cars. A block further west on McDowell, the railroad delivers loads of salt to Spalding Salt in ATSF and Espee high cube box cars. Next door and behind Spalding is a two track ramp where you will occasionally see new construction equipment being unloaded.

Mobest Yard itself is stub-ended, rather narrow, and diverges from Grand Avenue at this point to run in a north-south direction. From surface streets, it is best viewed from 19th Avenue which crosses Grand at McDowell. For a birds-eye view of Mobest, take the I-10 Freeway which bisects the yard from east to west on a long bridge.

There is an engine service facility, yard office and turntable at the south end of Mobest. There are normally several units waiting here. Besides the bevy of rebuilt geeps and GP 30's that serve as local switchers, there is always a mix of older U-boats and modern warbonnets of both the 4- and 6-axle variety. Unfortunately, this area is often obscured from view by outbound freights. To get a better look at things, go west to 21st Avenue and north to Fillmore where you will find a long driveway leading into the yard. Don't expect to gain admission. Just roll down the window, crank off a couple of pictures and move on.

Returning to 19th Avenue, the tracks continue for one mile south of Mobest to an interchange with the Southern Pacific at MP 193.7. This is the end of ATSF ownership, although Santa Fe switch runs occasionally venture down a long SP spur to work a major industrial park near the Salt River.

By no means have I described every Santa Fe customer or point of interest in Phoenix. However, I have tried to point out some of the more interesting and photogenic. If you plan on taking a trip to Phoenix, don't hesitate to e-mail me for specifics, plus info on accomodations, restaurants, hobby shops and points of interest.

*Mileposts and actual mileage Phoenix to Williams Junction differ due to a line relocation. The original mainline junction was at Ashfork, 26.0 miles west of Williams Junction.

John Timm
Scottsdale, AZ

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