BNSF 3613, on duty as Job 101, switches boxcars at the 12th Street Yard in the rare afternoon sunlight of a February day in Portland, Oregon. Everything here — the end-cab switcher, the diminutive yard, the boxcars, the old yard office — is a reminder of a kind of railroading that is quickly fading from existence.
Last Light at 12th Street
By Alexander Craghead/Photos by the Author
The venerable Keline switch lock was once an everyday item of the railroad world, and persists here at Portland's Guilds Lake industrial park. Elsewhere it has been largely replaced by so-called "high security" locks, rendering the brass switch key yet another anachronism of railroad history.
Portland, Oregon's Guilds Lake is a railroad industrial park like many others. It's a sea of vast, sprawling buildings, divided by wide streets and narrow alleys filled with tracks. Dating primarily to the immediate postwar boom brought on by a renewed economy and cheap hydroelectric power, the park was once served by both the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway and the Portland Terminal Company (PTRC).
This was a place built for the switch engine. Spurs grow like blackberry bushes throughout the area, winding between buildings and carving canyons that go who-knows-where. Old heads at the nearby PTRC Lake Yard recount when the switch job — daily then — would sneak between the buildings and simply disappear into the industrial labyrinth and not reappear until the end of the day. Metal scrappers, rebar and bolt producers, truck-transfer firms, lumber, oil, and beverage distributors, steel rolling mills; Guilds Lake was like a mid-century textbook example of American economic progress.
Despite the growth of rail traffic in the United States since the mid-1970s, Guilds Lake is languishing. The shippers here are small by contemporary standards, and few of them ship or receive more than a handful of loose cars. There are no bulk shippers, no unit trains. Most of the industries here have long since switched over to truck shipment, much better for their just-in-time delivery performance and payloads more suited to niche operations. At present, the number of active rail customers here can be counted on one hand.
The place is still home to Job 101 originating in the old SP&S Willbridge Yard twice a week. The duties these days fall to BNSF 3613, an SW1000 built by GM-EMD as number 388 for Burlington Northern in 1972. The spunky thing is the last BNSF end-cab switcher left in the Portland area. Its fate is tied to Guilds Lake; thanks to the light (and lightly maintained) infrastructure of the district a small locomotive is still required.
Guilds Lake is the antithesis of contemporary railroading. Cars are blocked for spotting in the vest-pocket 12th Street Yard, (paradoxically located at NW 31st Avenue) at the junction of multiple industrial leads. All of the traditional icons are here: hand thrown switches and old-fashioned switch locks, industrial canyons with spurs running at their bottoms, boxcars being spotted at customers that still exist largely out of habit, the 3613 itself. Job 101 even uses a three man crew still versed in the language of hand signals and the black arts of efficient switching.
But all is on borrowed time. The rumor at PTRC is that BNSF would like to "unload" the place on them, but the idea has not gone over well: there is a lot of rail in Guilds Lake to support only three-or-four small-time shippers. Near the ports and the center of the metro area, but distant enough from downtown to be unattractive to redevelopment, the area will likely stay the realm of small industry for the foreseeable future. The railroad's role in Guilds Lake, however, appears to be coming to a close.
And the 3613? When the last railcar moves out of the area, it's likely that 3613 will too, quite possibly headed to the dead line to await conversion into raw scrap.