While news of men working on the railroad may bring images of crews swinging large hammers and driving spikes deep into ties with each blow, Union Pacific foreman Dean Barber said modern equipment has changed the life of railroad workers.
"There's a lot less back work now. The Union Pacific spends money for equipment so we can get in and get out and don't disrupt the traffic," he said. "I give credit to the old timers. They busted their backs working on the railroad."
Barber and his crew of nearly 60 workers have been on the rails between Milner and Craig for the past couple of weeks, he said. Their job is to replace the wooden ties that have worn out under the rails.
Making the work less backbreaking is a machine called a TKO that extracts and inserts ties.
"There are two machines on the front and two in the middle of the gang," Barber said. "The tie-gang is 53 men plus laborers. There are guys from Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska and Michigan. And from God's country, of course, Iowa."
Once a bid to replace ties is accepted, a gang is formed for each project.
The crews travel across America, working eight days on, and taking seven off.
A "sister" gang takes over when the first crew has their week off, keeping the equipment operating 30 days a month, Barber said.
A great deal of work goes into preparing for the tie-gangs' arrival.
"Ties are all pre-marked to tell us which ones need to come out," Barber said. "Gondola cars full of ties unload them along the tracks before we come."
A machine known as a "jimbo" unloads 15 ties at a time from the gondola car, making dozens of piles for every mile of track.
Along with the crew of 60 men are nearly 30 machines that assist in the tie replacement project.
A Caterpillar tamper costing $2.5 million follows behind the crews, packing loose material around the ties after they have been replaced.
Old ties are removed by private contractors, using tie-cranes to pick-up and stockpile ties near roads that can be accessed by trucks for removal.
A number of ties are sold out of the pile to ranchers that stop by with a truck or trailer to be used as corner posts for fencing.
Union Pacific crews started working near Milner on April 13, and completed nearly 30 miles of track before reaching Craig this week.
The project will use 44,000 ties by the time it is completed, with crews replacing 2,200 to 2,800 each day.
"This is a single-main track, so they stop traffic for 12 hours while we work," Barber said. "When we clear (the track), we run the trains again."
Train speeds near Craig that have been reduced to 25 miles per hour due to the condition of the tracks will increase to 50 mph once the work is completed.
Barber said the project helps the mines get their coal shipped faster and safer.
"We're catering to the mines for coal movement," he said. "This is making the track safer for coal, which is heavier tonnage. It gets the product out quicker."
He also warns farmers and ranchers to be aware trains may be moving through the valley faster than they were previously.
Tie replacement continues year-round, with crews moving south each winter to work on rails in Arizona and New Mexico, returning to Colorado in the spring.