Call it the phantom train.
Sometime around 2 o’clock Saturday morning, residents in Nibley and Logan were awakened by an uncommonly loud train whistle and the clatter of a very long string of rail cars moving slowly north through the night.
These towns aren’t accustomed to long trains or night trains. As most locals know, the Union Pacific Railroad has for decades operated a very small train from its home base near the old depot in Logan, and it only travels in daylight hours, making a handful of stops between JBS meatpacking in Hyrum and Presto Products in Lewiston.
So the late-night run generated some curiosity, reflected in numerous social media posts plus a phone call to The Herald Journal.
Through the remainder of the weekend, a train described by one local resident as at least a half-mile long with dozens of empty hopper cars and two oversized front engines sat idle on the tracks east of the Logan-Cache Airport. Presumably, this was the train from the night before.
Then around midnight Sunday, the train made another moonlight run — this time in reverse — and could be heard again by residents in Logan, Nibley and Wellsville before apparently exiting the valley via Cache Junction.
Seeking an explanation for the oddity, The Herald Journal reached out to Union Pacific but was unable to get a definitive answer. State and local UP representatives were unreachable by phone, and a spokesperson at the railroad’s Omaha, Nebraska, headquarters said she couldn’t say for certain what business the long train had in Cache Valley.
“We were doing some track work out in that area and had a rock train come through for repairs that needed to be made,” UP Communications Director Raquel Espinoza said. “I understand that train already left, and it may be the train you referenced, but I don’t know that for a fact.”
Alternatively, Espinoza said the long train could have traveled here as a temporary reroute connected to the company’s “productivity initiative,” which reportedly gives priority to some trains over others as part of an overall effort to “streamline” service. She stressed, however, that the railroad does not share specific information related to customers.
UP’s productivity initiative was launched in 2018 to improve the railroad’s financial position in a struggling industry — a struggle that has now been made worse by economic slowing brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the railroad industry trade journal RT&S, Union Pacific laid off 11,700 employees between September 2018 and July 2020, and the company announced last month it is planning another workforce reduction. Other industry reports indicate the nation’s second largest railroad has idled about 40% of its engine fleet.
KSL news aired a segment in April raising questions about more than 200 parked engines in the train yards just north of Salt Lake City, but the news channel was unable to get any firm answers from the company.
A local resident said the freight cars on the weekend’s mystery train were all empty “hopper cars” with the name “Herzog” on the side. The Herzog company website indicates its open-top railcars are capable of carrying all types of loose materials, including the rock ballast used for track repair.
Although The Herald Journal has been unable to determine if any track repairs — especially repairs that would require that much rock — were made recently in Cache Valley, it’s possible the ballast could have been used throughout the region, with the train making one of its last stops here or simply laying over here before moving on.