Members of Union Pacificís 9001 Steel Gang work on replacing rail Thursday near the junction of Pierce Road. Sixty-two specially designed big machines, including spike pullers, rail throwers, welding rigs and cranes, are working to install new rail as part of an $8.9 million Union Pacific infrastructure investment in Eastern Oregon. (Kelly Black/For The Observer)
Union Pacific 9001 Steel Gang replacing track between La Grande and North Powder
It seems Steven Villa was meant to lay rail. After all, he’s been around it since he was a child.
As a 10-year old, Villa started traveling the rail during the summers with his dad, Francisco, who was a steel gang supervisor. His dad drove a 1960s Union Pacific yellow Rambler classic station wagon that had high rails. They lived in a bunk car and ate food from the cook car.
“It was top-of-the-line food,” Villa said.
Villa, who is from Walla Walla, Wash., started working on the railroad at 18 years old as labor on a surface gang.
“I did a lot of traveling,” Villa said. “I’ve been here 32 years and I’m still traveling.”
When Villa became a foreman in 1986, the cooks who had worked for his father, worked for him. Today Villa’s father, now 82 years old, is retired and lives in Kennewick, Wash.
Now, Villa is the supervisor of Union Pacific’s 9001 Steel Gang, which is replacing rail between La Grande and North Powder.
The 9001 Steel Gang started work in North Powder replacing sections of track with bigger, stronger rail and will wrap work up today near Pierce Road outside of La Grande. The project is scheduled to be completed in early July.
“We’re the biggest heavy-steel gang,” said Jeff Fox, a Union Pacific welding foreman originally from Longview, Wash. “We’re pretty specialized; not many people can do what we do.”
Sixty-two specially designed big machines, including spike pullers, rail throwers, welding rigs and cranes, are working to install new rail as part of an $8.9 million Union Pacific infrastructure investment in Eastern Oregon.
During the track replacement, Union Pacific has staged trains to run through the work area before 6 a.m. or after 2 p.m.
“None of the trains have been detoured,” said John Jochem, Union Pacific manager of operating practices in La Grande.
Union Pacific has about 30 freight trains that come through each day plus a few work and local trains.
Jochem sees track replacement as a necessary evil.
“Our trains don’t move if they don’t keep the tracks up,” Jochem said.
If conditions are right, the 9001 Steel Gang can lay up to 2-1/2 miles per day. They hold the Union Pacific record for most track laid in a day with 4-1/2 miles near Battle Mountain, Nev.
“They call us rail dogs,” Villa said.
The 9001 mascot is a bulldog and some members of the crew sport T-shirts with a bulldog flexed in a muscle-shirt bending rail behind its neck.
The men in the 9001 work eight days on and seven days off. The crew utilizes local hotels, restaurants and workout facilities.
William Safford of Salt Lake City, Utah, tried for a few years to get on with the 9001. Less than a year ago he got his chance. Already he’s worked in Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho and Wyoming.
“We definitely do a lot of moving,” Safford said. “I like seeing different parts of the country.”
The project near La Grande is one of nearly 1,500 Union Pacific will complete across its 32,000-mile network this year. From 2007 to 2012, Union Pacific invested $18 billion in its network and operations, including a record $3.7 billion in 2012.
According to Aaron Hunt, director of corporate relations, Union Pacific has invested more than $1 billion in Oregon since 2003.
“Oregon is a critical part of our business,” Hunt said.