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ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREAT train-watching spots is the Chris Guenzler Million Mile Lookout at La Plata, Missouri, a wooden cabin and deck high above the Burlington Northern Santa Fe's main line from Chicago to Los Angeles.

It's part of the "Silver Rails Country" scheme anchored by the celebrated Depot Inn & Suites, a rail-themed motel on the northern edge of La Plata a few hundred yards from the Lookout.

The participants in the recent rail travel writers and photographers workshop hosted by the Inn repaired regularly to the Lookout to hang out and take pictures, but after dozens and dozens of double-stacked container trains, trailers-on-flatcars, grain unit trains, mixed freights and both eastbound and westbound Amtrak Southwest Chiefs went by, a certain sameness settled in.

So it was with considerable delight that I arrived at the Lookout one afternoon at the same instant as a hi-rail ultrasonic track testing truck from Herzog, a St. Joseph (Mo.) rail service outfit. It stopped just past a section of damaged rail a few yards east of the station.

Look closely at the rail a few feet behind the left rear wheel of the Herzog truck, and you'll see a "dished" section, a flaw that delivers a considerable jolt to speeding freight trains.

A closeup of the flaw, circled in red.

A Herzog technician sprays the offending section of rail with signal orange paint to guide the BNSF track gang, on its way to the scene.

Its job done, the Herzog truck heads east to hunt for more trouble spots.

Twenty minutes later, advance elements of the BNSF track gang arrived and measured the lengths of the flawed rails on both north and south sides of the track.

A third truck, hiding behind the first two, has arrived while the gang loosens spikes with mauls and a pneumatic jackhammer.

Truck No. 4 pulls up just as the crew begins sawing apart the rail with a huge grinding wheel.

Just as Truck No. 5 arrives, so does a BNSF double-stack freight at speed, and the crew takes a break.

The new crane truck pulls to the other side of the damaged rails, and the crew removes the now separated section of north rail.

The crew cuts a replacement rail to size.

A crane truck and two members of the gang muscle the replacement rail to its spot.

The replacement rail is wrenched and pounded into alignment and fastened with spikes.

A sixth truck, carrying acetylene tanks, arrives and the crew welds the joints at both ends.

This time the crew doesn't bother to stop working while a double-stacker thunders by.

I'm not exactly sure what is going on here, but perhaps the crew is annealing the welded joints with intense heat. After this part of the job, I think, the crew ground the joints smooth.

Finished! The repairs are visible between the red arrows; the south rail fix appears to be much shorter than the one on the north, although I am told the minimum length for rail replacement is 16 feet.


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