Sunday, July 6, 2014


Man it's been a long time since I posted! On this Independence Day weekend when our thoughts turn to revolution, I'm back to discuss evolution of a model railroad layout.

I have been hard at work building a layout that pretty closely follows this trackplan (note-click on any of the images in this post for a larger view):
In another room on the right, there is a small staging yard for SOO line power and transfers, as well as a helix to get me to the lower level BNSF staging yard below the paper mill. All in all, that's my layout. 

I had a couple of friends over for an inspection the other night, and they ran some trains. One thing that I noticed was that this layout, as built, was pretty much limited to one train at a time. In order to switch the industries, the only "main" track was tied up, preventing another train from getting by. Since I hope to host multi-person op sessions, this troubled me. I started thinking about possible changes that would correct this, up to and including starting over. Which I most certainly am not inclined to do. 

Then I had a light bulb moment. One small change would enable the layout to accommodate more simultaneous traffic. I came up with this:
Simply adding some double track would free up the railroad, allowing the SOO Line transfer to bypass the BNSF job working the paper mill, or the mill switcher trading cars on the siding for cars in the mill. It would also give me a runaround that would handle the 20 car grain trains the elevator is designed to accept. 

And so today I started tearing apart my still-abuilding railroad. Fascia, and some completed scenery, out the door. I needed to extend the shelf on the left of the drawing some 2 inches to allow the installation of the parallel track, and wrap it around the top. Two additional turnouts will also be needed, but luckily these are in inventory. I've got the work well underway, with one turnout installed and two sections of flex track in place. Here are a couple of photos of the work that is in progress.

So that's the story of evolution on my model railroad. It's not revolutionary, but hopefully it makes for a more enjoyable, more "operable" layout that will allow more people to participate in sessions. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Over and Over

Every so often you get put in a situation where a train can be shot over and over. That happened to me yesterday, and I took advantage as best I could. 

Due to some family issues, Mrs. L4T and I have made the trip from Duluth to International Falls and back 3 times in the past week. My wife has even more of these trips under her belt in the preceeding weeks. It's a long, boring, and recently, very cold drive. Last week the drive was brightened a bit when I got my first decent photo of a train along Highway 53 near Ash Lake. That train must have made a meet, given his slow speed leaving Ash Lake South. Since I was headed north that day, I only got one shot at that train.

Similar situation yesterday, but this time I was headed the same direction as the train. I even was a bit ready for the train as I had just spotted a northbound and suspected there might have been a meet. Sure enough, this guy was just getting underway. This first shot is just after the power crested the hill at the south end of the siding. 

I moved a little way down the road to get him again, this time working in an edge of the rock cut the highway travels through in this area, paralleling the tracks.

CN has been doing some work on the ROW just north of Cusson, where the track curves away from the highway for a short distance, then rejoins it again. Here the train is once more, now getting close to track speed as he rounds the corner.

I raced to the overpass on the north edge of Orr for what I thought would be my final shot.

The train must have slowed going through Orr as I was able to catch up near the bridge south of town, for one final frame showing the mis-matched power set.

At that point, the tracks disappear into the wilderness east of the Highway. Someday I will explore that area and see if there are interesting shots to be had, but on this day we had to get back to Duluth. Many thanks to Mrs. L4T and her mom for their patience as we waited for a couple of these shots. Couldn't do it without their support!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Good and Faithful Friend

Farewell to a good and faithful servant. My Canon S2IS has finally given up the ghost, after nearly 7 years of service and tens of thousands of photos and videos captured.

It was my first (and some would still say *only*) real camera. It traveled with me across the state of Minnesota many times. I had it set on a tripod shooting video the first time I saw a steam locomotive under power. It went to Glacier National Park and I used it to photograph trains in Marias Pass. It's been shoved in duffle bags abused by bag smashers at many different airports. When it survived its first fall from the dashboard near Springfield, MN, I celebrated my good luck.

With the trusty S2 by my side, I learned to navigate the rocky shoals of That wasn't always easy or fun, but it was certainly rewarding for a while. I like to think that when I learned to shoot what I wanted rather than what I thought other people wanted, the S2 was at least partly responsible.

I remember the Labor Day that I shot this photo:

It's still one of my own all time favorite train pictures. Here are a couple of more shots with the Canon that bring back good memories.

That last one is one of the first photos I took with my brand new S2. I had no idea the Builder was running late, I just parked at the crossing and waited. Darn near peed myself when Amtrak showed up. (First picture I got on railpics too!)

Technically, I have a better camera now. I might just be buying a still better camera shortly. But no matter what it's doubtful any new gear will give the feeling of excitement and satisfaction I got from that old S2. 

Railfanning (and life, I guess) are funny that way for me. The new is so rewarding. So much to learn, so many new experiences to look forward to. In 2006, the world was my oyster. I didn't know how much I didn't know. Anything seemed possible. 

Now, it's more megapixels, faster autofocus, video, ATCS, trunking scanners. Then, it was the excitement of hearing a train blowing for the crossing a couple of miles away. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Luddite who thinks we should go back to the old ways. I love having ATCS on my phone. But don't be afraid to just go out sometimes, sit along the tracks, and see what might come along. You might not bag as many trains, but the ones you do get will mean a whole lot.

I sat and waited two hours for the train pictured below. I had no idea whether a train was coming or not, but I had hope and a cooperative wife. It was my last afternoon of the trip, and I felt like I needed a Tunnel 4 shot to make things complete. As I sat, I watched the shadows creep toward the track. I hoped harder, and sure enough, finally, the sound of an approaching train echoed down the valley. It was great. 

I got it with my trusty S2. Thanks, old friend. Thanks for the memories. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Sunrise at Proctor

With a couple of weeks vacation carried over from 2013 to 2014 and the requirement that it get used up ASAP, I took the first couple of workdays of the year off. This morning, Mrs. L4T and I polished off a pot of coffee, and after a peek out the window I decided to head to Proctor to enjoy the sunrise. 

The yard switch job with DMIR 215 pointed north was puttering about when I arrived, well away from my vantage point. That didn't stop me from capturing the sun as it rose in the southeast, preparing to illuminate the yard. 
There was another train tucked back in the yard as well. Limestone loads behind a quartet of SD40 variants were working their way out as the sun climbed in the morning sky. I felt for the conductor who was handling the switches as the train progressed through the yard trackage. It was -21 when I drove up and didn't feel like it was warming up any. 
One more shot as he approaches the bridge. Every time the train throttled up the exhaust formed an almost steam engine-like cloud. Very impressive. 
A loaded pellet train was sitting at the scale, and I wanted to work that into a photo. Got my opportunity when the limestone loads stopped to get a switch before heading out. Oh, and there is our old friend the 403, trailing today. That means that technically the first shot in this post has both remaining maroon Missabe units in it, although you sure can't identify them.
It was about this time one of my pinkies was ready to snap off, so I headed to the Holiday in Proctor to warm up for a bit. Also needed to pick up milk. After that was done I stopped back to see if the sun had climbed enough to illuminate the pellet train, sure enough it had. I grabbed a couple shots of that, even though the wind was preventing any spectacular steam clouds from lingering.

All in all, a productive hour or so. Might get the chance to do it again before I have to head back to work Monday.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Range on a Frosty Sunday

Faced with the prospect of a return to work following a 10 day hiatus over the Christmas holiday, a railfanning trip seemed in order. After casting a trained eye on the weather forecast a couple of days ago, Dan Mackey had contacted me with the idea of heading out on Sunday morning to hunt for some loads of steaming pellets under code blue skies. Who could turn down such an offer? Certainly not me. And so it came to pass that I found myself in the passenger seat of a 4 wheel drive Ford headed north on roads that looked to have been treated by a Zamboni as the sun rose this morning. 

Before long a phone call from Scott Carney indicated that our party was about to get bigger. First things first, though, a southbound behind a CN SD40-2 was calling our name and fell under the spell of our lenses at the S-curve near Kelsey. I was disappointed that this wasn't a pellet train, but Dan encouraged me to hold out hope. 
Next stop was supposed to be the gas station at the junction of 7 and 37, but that was interrupted by the sound of a train somewhere close. After fits, starts, and u-turns, we managed to pin down this taconite train bound for Two Harbors. It was cold on the range, and the ice fog combined with steam from the pellets to obscure all but the power as they pounded the diamond at Ramshaw. 
That train was hardly moving when it passed us, due (we surmised) to some unknown speed restriction related to the cold. Surely there was time for a stop at the Lucky Seven in Biwabik, before heading on to catch the train in dandy light. 

Except....there wasn't. As we approached the overpass after a quick pause, the train flew under the road, much to the chagrin of a truckload of fans. Time to regroup and carry on, or as the Brits say, "Keep Calm and Rail Fan". We headed back to Iron Junction. 

Where we found a gaggle of trains. A manifest with an SD70 leader was waiting there, behind another manifest led by the squeaky clean GEVO shown below. 
The train in the photo above had no crew. After a short wait, a northbound led by yet another shiny GEVO passed by. The paint is so fresh it still reflects the other engine.
Next up was the EMD led train that had been waiting at Iron Junction. I got this one passing the crewless train at Keenan Road.
We headed south and stumbled across a T Bird that was just finishing the unloading process at U Tac. Power for this train was a pair of Dash 8's, with the 15 year anniversary graphics on their flanks. Mr. Carney grew quite excited at the sight of these former CNW units. 
After talking him off the ledge, we managed to make it to Alborn and witness a meet between the 2847 (the shiny southbound we had shot earlier with no crew) and limestone loads for the range. Needing to get home, we elected try one more shot south of there, and picked a crossing north of Bear Trap. The blue sky in these last two shots doesn't convey how cold it was by this time. The wind had picked up and a couple minutes outside was literally uncomfortable. But we GTS.

'Twas a great day, with lots of excellent memories. Thanks, men, for the tour. Let's do it again on another clear, cold winter day when the ghost of the DMIR is busy once more. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013


I got up early this morning, and after drinking a pot of coffee with Mrs. L4T headed east for Superior through the gloom and flurries of a Twin Ports December morning. My destination was the Mackey basement, where the mission I had accepted involved helping Dan with some of the staging benchwork on his massive HO layout. Coffee was consumed, plywood was butchered, jokes were told, and in the end even a little work was completed.

Dan takes a different approach to layout building than I have in the past. As you can see in the photo below, he is committed to ensuring things are plumb, level, and square, not to mention well built and intended to stay that way. 

I think I have accumulated a lot of BNSF coal gondolas. Actually I probably do have one of the larger fleets that I am aware of of those particular cars. Amazingly, I think Dan has more woodworking clamps than I do coal gons. There are clamps everywhere you look. He clamps things up and down, side to side, back and forth, and I think if you cut yourself working on the layout he could likely clamp that shut too. The only thing he has failed at clamping that I know about is my mouth shut. If it's not expressing one crazy idea or another, it's likely eating fresh baked corn bread. Thanks Dan!

I just had to take a picture of the joint shown below. I used to do woodworking as a hobby and would have been pleased with such a joint in a piece of "fine" furniture. But this is in model railroad benchwork, and in a place where very few if any people besides Dan and I will ever see. Once the staging is completed you will likely have to crawl under the layout with a creeper and flashlight to see it. 

It was the impressiveness of this joint, I think, that caused me to blurt out something on the order of "Dan! That's amazing! I have used CARDBOARD for benchwork construction in the past!" Dan might have thought I was crazy, or making this up, or gone 'round the bend, but I soon had him convinced that this was absolutely the truth. On my old layout, I repurposed the cardboard corner protectors used for shipping heavy objects for legs. They worked really well, too. Didn't look near as nice as what you see above, but still...

The craftsmanship and scale of what Dan is building never ceases to amaze me. It's a lot of fun to have even a tiny role in building this empire and participating in operating sessions will be even more fun. Thanks for including me in what you are doing, Dan!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

"I'm an Idiot"

I know that there are people who would agree with the post title, or at least say it's true about me sometimes. And they would likely be right, but that's not where the quote came from today. But more about that later. 

This week's big snowstorm went on without me. In Michigan for work, I dreamed dreams of shooting trains in the snow. Dan Mackey even texted me to find out if I was willing to venture into the teeth of the blizzard with him when work got out early one day. When I told him I was out of town he mentioned heading out over the weekend to take in the fresh blanket of white and predicted code blue skies. Sounded like a winner to me, so Friday evening I texted him and finally, with Scott Carney's assistance, was able to goad him into heading out. So after a hearty breakfast at Big Daddy's we headed to Superior to meet Scott, where we promptly came to the conclusion that the confluence of sun, snow, Saturday, and free time led every area railroad to take the day off. 

After some fancy driving, fancier planning, and world class scanner interpretation, we found ourselves in the path of a CN stacker climbing Steelton Hill. With poor sun angles for a wedgie, we settled on this broadside as the train climbed out of the St. Louis River valley. 

FYI-there is a lot of snow out there. Feet and feet of it, as a matter of fact. And the temperature was in deficit territory, likely double digits at the time this was shot. The clothes required combined with the snow depth and a short jog darn near gave me a heart attack.

With a set of GE's in the bag, we were alerted to traffic on the Hinckley when a detector announced the arrival of something with 500 plus axles approaching Boyleston. Turned out to be an all rail empty headed for Allouez. Oddly, when I looked at ATCS, the train was lined into 28th Street while we headed east for the intercept. Shortly after I announced this to the gang, the train crew piped up and asked the dispatcher if they weren't supposed to be headed to Allouez. His response has to be an all time great, "I'm an Idiot". Sure enough he had them lined wrong. 

The delay gave us a chance to hike in and get this as he crossed Sawyer Creek. Lots of nice creaking and groaning as the power crossed the trestle. 

I widened up a whole bunch to get him once more. Gotta say there is still something special about them MAC's to me.

After that we headed back to town, and Dan headed home for a day of domestic chores. Scott agreed to give me a lift home, and on the way over the bridge we decided to stop and check on the paper mill switch, which luckily enough was just coming out of the plant while we watched. Sort of like crossing the tracks and seeing a headlight. It's a bonus BNSF shot.

Really was good to get back out and do some semi-serious railfanning. Weather was spectacular, there were a few trains, and best of all, the company was great. Thanks, guys, lets do it again soon!