Railroads & Locomotives Hot Spots Railfan Road: Nebraska’s U.S. Route 30

Railfan Road: Nebraska’s U.S. Route 30

By John Friedmann | April 16, 2024

The Union Pacific puts on one heck of a show

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Nebraska’s U.S. Route 30

A train rolls by a sunset sky
Sunset on the Railfan Road: Nebraska’s U.S. Route 30 finds a long Union Pacific freight charging down the main. Kevin Gilliam

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Trains Columnist Don Phillips prescribed driving Nebraska’s U.S. Route 30 along the Union Pacific main line as an antidote for the 1970s railroad blues (“Solace on Highway 30,” October 1978). For all that has changed in 45 years, the railroad is still Union Pacific and it always puts on a heck of a show: lots of trains, big trains, all moving fast.

U.S. Route 30 generally parallels UP’s Overland Route from Chicago to western Wyoming. But for about 430 miles between Columbus, Nebraska and Cheyenne, Wyoming, U.S. 30 is usually right next to Union Pacific’s busy double-track-plus main line. To make train watching even easier, U.S. 30 is uncongested because through traffic uses parallel Interstate 80.

Columbus to Cheyenne is in the middle of Union Pacific’s primary route west from Chicago to the Pacific. The “core of the core” is 133 miles between Gibbon Jct., Neb., (where UP’s Marysville Sub from Kansas City joins) to O’Fallons, Neb. (the junction point with UP’s line to the Powder River Basin coalfields). UP’s massive North Platte, Neb., double-hump yard (at 2,850 acres, the world’s largest rail yard) sits almost exactly in the center of the segment and makes for a great stopping-off point.


Union Pacific runs an average of 65 to 85 trains per day on the busiest segment of the route through North Platte, and fewer east of Gibbon Jct. and west of O’Fallons. Traffic is a mixture of everything UP hauls — carload, intermodal, and unit train — although coal makes up less of the traffic than before. Be sure to watch the entire train, because most have distributed power units pushing in the middle or at the rear. No Amtrak trains regularly use the route.  Agriculture-related industries — mostly grain elevators and ethanol plants — are scattered along the route, and privately owned switch engines are common.

A yellow coal trail passes a white grain elevator
A Union Pacific coal train passes the towering grain elevator at Cozad, Nebraska. Kevin Gilliam

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Want even more trains? BNSF’s Angora Subdivision crosses the UP main line in Sidney, Neb., and the Ravenna Sub intersects in Grand Island, Neb. These are heavy coal lines for BNSF, and the crossings with UP are grade-separated to keep trains moving on both railroads. Short line Nebraska Central has its engine facility in the southeast quadrant of the Grand Island crossing, so you might see three railroads at once!

The one thing you can’t do on U.S. 30 is chase trains. Union Pacific trains are permitted speeds of up to 70 mph and trains generally keep moving on the double- and triple-track main line. But driving U.S. 30 isn’t a train-chasing exercise — keep driving until you see another headlight coming at you (or coming up behind you in the rear-view mirror).

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No. 1: North Platte’s Golden Spike Tower. Nebraska is fairly flat, so this eight-story tower overlooking UP’s massive yard really stands out. Railfans get panoramic indoor and outdoor views of both humps and the diesel shop (always full of power). The tower is open every day and features a gift shop. A heavyweight diner in UP colors sits at the base.

No.2: Cheyenne Depot Museum. Located in the 1886 UP depot, the museum highlights Cheyenne and Union Pacific history, along with a well-regarded model railroad. Tours of the adjacent UP steam shop are offered occasionally.

No. 3: Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, Grand Island. The Stuhr Museum is a 200-acre museum dedicated to the pioneers who settled Nebraska and includes Railroad Town, an 1890s prairie village. Look for former UP 2-8-0 437 and other rail equipment on display, but the museum’s narrow-gauge line, the Nebraska Midland, is gone.

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The middle section between Gibbon and O’Fallons, Neb. (west of North Platte) has the highest train density, and you can make a quick stop at the Golden Spike Tower at North Platte.

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Nebraskans love the runza sandwich, a bread pocket filled with mildly spiced beef, cabbage, and onions. The runza is also easy to eat while driving so it should be a train-seeker’s favorite as well. You can find runzas at the restaurant chain of the same name, located along in most of the larger towns east of Sidney on Route 30. For a sit-down meal, consider Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse and Lounge in Paxton, Neb. Ole’s features exotic taxidermy, so you may be seated under a giraffe or elephant head as you eat your chicken-fried steak.

Blue skies are reflected in a water-filled ditch while a yellow train passes in the background
As the author notes, Union Pacific’s triple-track main is a heck of a show for motorists on Nebraska’s U.S. Route 30. Kevin Gilliam

4 thoughts on “Railfan Road: Nebraska’s U.S. Route 30

  1. I’ve been out to US 30 in Nebraska numerous times since 1997. And I can remember back in October 2014 being in the municipal parking lot of Kearney and counted 31 UP trains from 10:15am to 4:15pm on a Sunday. Back then, nearly half of those trains were unit coal trains: loads going east, empties going west. I Even saw UP6936 pulling a string of brand new coal hopper gons west. But with the downfall of coal due to climate change AND the use of PSR, it’s down to 65-85 trains as mentioned. For the life of me, I cannot imagine any engineer being in charge of 2 combined coal trains in one with a 2-3-1 locomotive configuration with 40,000 tons of a consist. You would think the shareholders would be happy with the extra funds they got. I wish I was so lucky to have those funds. I will never understand why people are so unhappy having all of that cash and then some. Still, for us railfans, US 30 is a blessing. I love Nebraska. Sure it’s flat and full of agriculture but is SO different than where I live in Connecticut. I am lucky to be along Amtrak’s Shoreline Route at MP 113.6 and I get to see the trains of AMT, P&W and Connecticut DOT. But going out to Nebraska is just so cool. And yes, you can chase trains along US 30 and not exceed the posted highway speed limit. I still to this say cannot wrap my head around these EMD and GE behemoths doing what they so. The sounds, the smells, the joy. I’m 69 years old. I love trains. I still wave at the engineers. I always have my Uniden scanner and a rooftop mag mount antenna on my rental car and, of course, some Trains Magazines. I’m all set. See you in October.

  2. Now no disrespect to US 30 and UP ( I have fond memories of that from 60’s-70’s) but down New Mexico way along US 60/84 from Mountainair to Clovis (eastbound) the tracks of ole Uncle John Santa Fe (BNSF) there are trains and more trains and WIDE OPEN country and roads!!!! Bring along food not much to eat outside of Clovis, but plenty of railroad action …. but back to US 30 a great place as well.

  3. Don’t forget Cody Park in North Platte. On display is Challenger No. 3977, DDA40X No. 6922 and other equipment, plus the Hershey, Neb., depot. A UP 2-8-0, No. 480, in Memorial Park in southeast part of town. Museums in Kearney and Lexington also have UP 2-8-0s and depots. Sidney and Columbus have UP 2-8-0s on display. I remember my first trip along 30, with my father as a 7-year-old in summer 1955, and there was always smoke in the distance.

  4. I have a vintage, Nebraska U.S. 30, sheet metal, shield sign (minus the pole) hanging on the wall in my garage. It’s stamped 4/38 on the backside.

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