Thursday, May 29, 2008

Coal Cars-Part 3 Dedicated "Packerland" Trains

The third category of coal cars commonly seen passing through the Wadena area are the solid sets of leased cars that serve various Wisconsin power plants. These include trains serving the Weston 4 powerplant near Weston, the Alma Station near Alma, Wisconsin, operated by Dairyland Power Cooperative, and Columbia Energy Center near Portage, Wisconsin.

The unique things about these trains is that they normally operate with almost solid sets of identical cars. The other trains passing through the area, as we have seen in previous posts, usually have mix of cars, even if they carry the same or related reporting marks. Occasionaly you will see a Becker train with a pretty solid set of newer BN cars but most of the MERC trains are a dog's mix nowdays.

The newcomer to this area in this group are the WPSX cars. I am speculating to some degree but I do know that Weston 4 is a new Wisconsin Public Service-owned power plant, recently put into service, and that coal demand at that complex has therefore increased. Apparently this is the most economical route to feed this enhanced demand as the trains are now a regular visitor on the Staples Sub. These cars are of various ages but they all are a similar style. Here is an older one:

And a couple that appear to be newer. By the looks of the reporting marks, the first one might have carried someone else's initials at one time.

Pretty boring. Not much variety there, is there?

Well, for a lack of variety, no train can beat the DAPX trains that serve the Alma powerplant. These blue-ended gons operate in solid sets, with only one exception that I am aware of. Here is a shot of one of the Dairyland cars.

Even with the lack of variety, they are still one of my favorite trains. As much as any train I see, they have a defined purpose. They exist to haul coal to a given power plant, period. With all the wondering you can do trackside it's nice to know for sure where something is going sometimes.

And there is one small bit of variety. They aren't all exactly the same. A few, I don't know how many, but a few of these cars are equipped with rotary couplers on both ends. I have one shot that I pulled from a video I got at Frazee earlier this year.

The quality is not very good but hopefully you can see the blue bands on both ends of this car. It's the spot in a train where the cars switch from having rotary ends one way to the other way. There must not be quite enough to satisfy the need, though, because the lone interloper I have caught in these trains is a DEEX car with double rotary ends, seen here.

The final Wisconsin bound trains are the COLX trains that serve the power plant in Portage. They are normally pretty much solid COLX cars, although you will see more variety both in cars that carry those marks and in other cars on these trains than the other two. Here are some examples of COLX cars.

Not a lot of variety other than different number series and amount of weathering. But it's enough for these trains to win the "non-uniformity" award for any of the "Packerland" trains.

Next time-the oddball cars.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Why Do I Do This?

It's a question I ask myself on an irregular but fairly frequent basis. Is this the best use of my finite time on earth? There are so many other pass times that seem more "normal" or common. Of course I play golf on occasion, obviously I am intrigued by computers or I wouldn't be blogging, and I have other interests as well. I'm lucky enough to have a job I really enjoy and a wife who is willing to put up with my quirks.

It goes without saying that this is an unusual hobby. Mrs. L4T and son never let me forget the time we were parked at a crossing west of Wadena, waiting for a train to show up, and a local resident slowly passed by, pausing to ask me what we were doing and if we needed any help. When I answered that I took train pictures as a hobby and was waiting for a train, he deadpanned "Well, I remember when I saw my first train too". Just the way he said it, and the way it has evolved as a family legend, never fails to stir up a laugh around our house. It says a lot about my family that they were even willing to sit at a crossing with me waiting for a train to show up.

One of my main motivations for going trackside and for watching for railroad developments during my travels throughout the state, is curiosity. I still get excited every time I see a headlight down the tracks.

You never know when you will see something you have never seen before, or something that is new, or something that is old that you may seldom if ever see again. Or you might see something that is very common or ordinary now, but might become less so sooner that you think. I would put Cascade Green SD's, unpatched SD70MAC's, and maroon DM&IR units all in the category of things that we took for granted not that long ago, but find rare now. It's already been a few years since the last Dash 9 in H2 paint rolled off the assembly floor.
While we now think "Oh, it's just another 4000 or 5000 series Dash 9", someday we will be chasing the final few remaining pumpkins, thinking about that one shot we never took the time to get. We're recording history as it is made.

But just as important to me, I go because I am attracted by the expereience of high-horsepower diesel engines giving their all to move multi-thousand ton trains. The feeling of a heavy train passing at speed and the amount of power that is in play can't be duplicated anywhere else I'm aware of.

Perhaps jumbo jets would impart the same feeling but they are kind of rare in my part of the world and the ones I do see are only dots high in the sky. At that distance you just don't sense the combination of power and speed.

The power and speed are only part of the attraction. The passing trains also convey the vitality of America to me. When I see a coal train pass at 50 mph and think of the number of similar trains that pass by each day, I am awed by the level of activity on our society. The amount of energy in that train multiplied by many similar trains loaded each day is simply amazing. And just what are we shipping around the nation that requires multiple Z trains each day through Wadena? Unit trains of grain are a common sight, 100+ cars that each hold 4500 bushels of wheat or corn. Over 10,000 tons of grain, passing by on a regular basis. That's enough wheat to make at least 10,000,000 loaves of bread-2 loaves for every man, woman, and child in in Minnesota, from a single train across the Staples Sub, a move which is repeated multiple times each week. That makes me say "Wow".

Vehicle trains-have you ever considered the fact that a single vehicle train, of, let's say, 50 auto racks, each loaded with 15 new vehicles, carries a sticker price of almost $2 million? That is a whole lot of money. And intermodals carrying containers that have travelled across the sea, what are they carrying? However you feel about imported merchandise, we as Americans obviously have an insatiable appetite for it given the number of stack trains that traverse the Staples Sub each day. What could possibly be inside all those 20' and 40' boxes? Clothing, computers, and coffee pots, Timexes and toys, all manner of items destined for Wal Marts, Target's, and Costco's across America. I always wonder what is in that single container that I select for some odd reason. Could it be appliances? Or is that one packed with auto parts, or shoes, or zippers? Maybe today's container of choice is loaded with TV's. I'll never know, but that doesn't stop me from wondering.

I see a lot of beauty during the time I spend trackside as well. Waiting gives the chance to observe wildlife, weather, and the movement of the sun from hour to hour and season to season. One of the things I hope to gain from whatever hobby I choose is relaxation, and railfanning comes through in most cases. And on the rare occasion it doesn't, it's usually because it is so busy or something so unusual is happening that it is better than relaxation.

I've also had the chance to make friends, both virtual and actual, as a fan. I'm sure some of you that read this have met me, and others have had email correspondence, but even for those who I haven't had any interactions with, I feel like I share something with you as part of the "foamer" community.

I share your triumphs and your disappointments through the magic that is the internet. Your work serves as an inspiration and sometimes, frustration to me, given that I will never achieve what many of you have. I continually learn that I can be at once envious while at the same time, happy for your achievements. MN Chris, I can simultaneously admire the shots you got during your big snowfall yet be frustrated that I will probably never have the opportunity to come even close to your experiences that day in April. Thanks to all of you for everything you have shared and what I've learned as a result.

And last but most, part of it is respect for the men and women who make it all happen. From the engineers and conductors running trains in all weather, to the signal maintainer who gets called to New York Mills on a Tuesday night just as he was getting home from work to repair a crossing gate that won't go up, to the dispatchers who juggle trains, MOW windows, and balky equipment, to the Fort Worth mechanical desk trying to troubleshoot an extremely complex locomotive by radio, I have respect for all of them moving the freight in a safe and cost effective manner.

My grandpa and my father-in-law both worked their entire careers on the railroad and that is one of the reasons I became interested in trains. I've had jobs that were demanding and important to the safety and comfort of people who didn't know I was doing what needed doing to help the public stay safe and comfortable, and I think I can understand how railroaders must sometimes feel-underappreciated.

So, the answer to the question "Why do I do this?" is a lot longer than I intended. But just trying to answer the question has made me think about why I do it, which has reminded me of a lot of pleasant experiences. If you have stuck with me this far, congratulations, and I'm sorry it took so long. Next time I plan on getting back to something more sensible, but I needed to get that off my chest.

Still looking4trains,


Flashback Post #1-July 2006

Note:The following post is taken from the defunct blog "Wadena Rails" I started that never developed into anything. There are a few posts there, and I plan on adding them to this site over time to consolidate my railroad related posts in one location. This one tells the story of what I consider to be one of my first real railfan experiences.

East of Bluffton, MN-July 15, 2006-With a new found determination and a budding idea of how to accomplish what I was trying to do, I rose early on Saturday morning and ventured west with a plan more detailed than "Find a train and take a picture". I knew of a curve between Wadena and Bluffton that should present eastbounds in nice light early in the morning. Of course I had no way to know what was coming or when it would show up but I figured if I kept the windows open while parked at the crossing I would be able to hear horns a couple of crossings away and have plenty of time to be ready for whatever came.

I had probably waited for no more than 5 minutes before I heard a horn in the west which immediately got my attention. Here was my big chance to take a good picture, maybe even something I would proud to share with the world via the internet. I established my postition, popped the lens cap, and switched on the camera. The next few moments seemed like hours as I waited to see what would come into view as I tried to calm my nerves and decide how much zoom I would use for this shot.

Within a minute I saw a headlite in the west but was not able to identify the locomotive. I zoomed in as far as I was able and thought it was funny looking locomotive. As it came nearer, I realized that unbelievably the first train I was going to shoot with a plan was the eastbound Empire Builder, the Amtrak passenger train that was scheduled to pass through Wadena at about 3:00 AM daily! I had spotted this train in daylight only 2 or 3 times before during my 2 years in Wadena and now it filled the viewfinder of my camera.

I was so startled I almost forgot to press the shutter button, but I finally remembered. The experience had a lot of similarities with sitting in a deer stand listening to the brush crackle as a critter approached. There was a definite adrenaline rush.

I wanted to leave right away to go home and upload the image to look at it on screen but I convinced myself to hang around for a while to see what else showed. I caught another train a bit later led by GE C44's, and thought that was enough for the morning and headed home.

I immediately cropped and sharpened and submitted these pictures and learned something else about the system-the waiting is that hardest part. Now that I had a picture I thought might really make the cut I was on pins and needles waiting for an answer on these shots.

When I got the approval notice I was thrilled and viewed my own photos on the site multiple times that day. Lots of pride, and now there was a desire to take more pictures and get them accepted. I was about to become a telemasher.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Coal Cars-Part 2 DEEX/DETX Cars

In my first coal car post I discussed what I see along the line for BN/BNSF cars. They are probably in a neck and neck race for numerical superiority on the west end of the Staples Sub with privately owned cars carrying DEEX and DETX reporting marks used to service the Midwest Energy Resources coal terminal in Superior, Wisconsin.

Midwest Energy Resources, or MERC as I usually refer to it, is a coal transshipment facility with the capability to handle 25 million tons of coal annually. Basically, they unload unit trains of coal, and load the coal onto lake boats for delivery to end users further down the Great Lakes shipping system. You can learn more about the operation here.

My connection to MERC is as a railfan watching numerous trains traverse the Staples Sub between Dilworth and Staples, where they enter the Brainerd Sub for most of the remaining trip. My own estimate is that there are probably about 4 loaded eastbound and 4 empty westbound trains each day. I have nothing scientific to base that on, just a guess resulting from how many trains I see pass through the area. If it is wrong, it is probably too low.

The trains usually consist of a mixed bag of cars, mostly a combination of DEEX and DETX marked gons, but with a bunch of oddballs thrown in as well. You will see FURX, CRIX, GEMX, MBKX, NCUX, and others as well. I will cover some of these "oddballs" in a future post.

The most common DEEX cars are probably this style car:

I wish I was more familiar with the builders and could give more concrete information. I think that this style car has been built by different manufacturers, and I know that they have been built over quite a long time period as I see many different build dates on them. This particular car is part of one of the newer series, the 060xxx cars that I see fairly often. Here is another older example:

Also, I have no idea what the numbering system is, as I have seen cars of this style marked DETX with very low numbers:

Also, 11xxx is not a complete series. Here is another car in that number series that is of a totally different style. If you look at the "bathtub" on this car you can see it is angled up the middle as opposed to level all the way across. It also looks like the reporting mark might have been changed from DETX to DEEX at some point.

Another "bowed bottom" car.

Now on to another more unique car. This one is often seen in many different trains as it appears many of them were built with rotary couplers on both ends. You can see that both ends are marked with yellow, which I have concluded must indicate they have rotary couplers on both ends. I didn't realize if for a long time but every unit coal train I see has a double ended car in it somewhere and the rotary ends of the cars ahead of and behind it are reversed. I have no idea why, but since I have started watching for this I have never seen a train without this trait. Now I know someone will prove me wrong, but I have not found an exception yet. Sometimes the rotary reversal is very close to the front or rear of the train, but it is always (or almost always) there. So here is the famous car I speak of.

Most of these cars do not have rotary couplers on both ends, through. Here is an example of a more common version. This is a very common car in MERC trains.

Not quite as common, but still not unusual, is the aluminum hopper with rotary couplers. These will be seen running free along with the gons in some trains, while at other times you can find solid sets of them. I believe that the solid sets are delivering to the Hallet dock in Dulth, where they don't have the capability to dump the solid bottom cars.

A couple of intersting points about this car. First, they stick out in the train due to the high ends of the hopper bottoms. I suspect this leads to the second peculiar trait. When you see them loaded in a train of gons, the coal sticks up quite a bit higher. While from the ground you often can't see the coal heaped up in the gons, in the hoppers it is very visible.

As I said earlier, there are quite a few other oddball cars found in these trains. Next time, I will try and cover the unusual or less common cars found in coal trains on the Staples Sub.


The Week that Was

Work found me travelling West-Central Minnesota this week, with a couple of days spent in Randall and a day in Lake Park as well. Along with last Sunday's exploration in Detroit Lakes, I have been working the west end of the Staples Sub pretty hard.

The first photo I want to share is from Tuesday AM, when I found a short mixed freight train entering Staples yard from the west just as I was also entering Staples from the west. I stopped to take a couple of shots as he passed under the signal bridge at Dower Lake. Here is the one I like the most:

What do I see in this picture? Well, I like that it includes the station sign for Dower Lake. Also, anytime something in the picture can seem to "dwarf" the train, for some reason it appeals to me and in this shot that is what the signal bridge does. Personally, I will also remember this shot because I thought, "what in the world is the BNSF using two AC motors on a 188 axle merchandise train for?" Things like that intrigue me for some reason. Anytime I see something out of the ordinary it sticks in my mind. I know most of the people passing by on Highway 10 just notice two orange locomotives, but to me it is much more than that. Do you suppose the crew wonders about this as well, or do they just write it off to the workings of the big corporation and are thankful they got a new unit to lead in?

Wednesday I had to head back to Randall bright and early, and instead of taking County 7 to cut the corner, I heard there was a coal empty coming off the Brainerd so I followed 10 to check him out. I was glad I did, since he had to stop and wait for traffic which gave the opportunity to shoot the Distributed Power Unit on his train.

I'm not much of an artist when it comes to photography (or anything else for that matter) but I am a little proud of this photo. Once again, though, a question comes to mind. Compare it to this picture-do you notice anything unusual?

They are both DPU's-one on coal and the other on grain. In both cases the ditchlights are off. But in the most recent one, there is a FRED hung on the loco coupler and tied into the train line. On the shot from 2006, no such thing? These are the questions that keep me awake at night. It's also what keeps it fun for me to go trackside.

Anyway, sorry for the digression. We have progressed to Thursday at this point, and I am in Lake Park. Mrs L4T agreed to accompany me and she spent the day in Fargo. When I was done with my duties, she picked me up and we spent some time railfanning the area between Hawley and Lake Park. I know that is a popular fanning area but I have never spent any time there before. I was very impressed with the scenery but track work resulted in not too many trains. I found a location I like very much, up on a hill above a curve as you look east, with the Lake Park skyscrapers on the horizon. You can barely see them in this shot.

The only westbound I shot while I was there:

I told Mrs L4T that I thought we should find the owner, buy the property adjoining this location, and build a house there. She was not so sure that was a good idea. Anyway, it was a new and very appealing location and I will make another visit there someday.

A Friday evening visit to Perham for ice cream gave me the chance to stake out the curve just east of town for a little while. Just as we parked a headlight appeared well down the tracks and I had time to get ready for the approaching train. I shot him as he rounded the curve at speed.

I like the way he is leaning into the curve.

That's all for now, I am heading out to see if there is any action. Hopefully this weekend will give me time to work on part 2 of my coal car study. Thanks for reading this whole thing!


Monday, May 19, 2008

Smoky Sunday

On Sunday afternoon I floated the idea of heading over Detroit Lakes way for a drive and to grab a bite for supper. I didn't have to twist Mrs L4T's arm very hard to get her to agree.

The sun was fairly cooperative and I had high hopes for getting a few shots in the scenic DL area, maybe even some CP action. However, the scanner and tracks were both quiet the entire drive over, and the only action in town when we arrived was a long string of MOW equipment on a siding across from and just west of the depot.

We grabbed a bite to eat at the new KFC in DL and just as we finished eating and left the restaurant, a loaded DAPX train rolled by. As the sun was out, I decided to see if I was able to get a shot at the Frazee S curve. The sun was just a little too far around for nose light so I shot a video. Who knows how long solid sets of matched cars will last? I'll try to get the vid posted if I ever get time.

After that train passed we headed back to DL and I shot the MOW equipment I had seen earlier.

While I was out of the car, I thought I heard a horn, and sure enough, here came a Z train with plans to get to Dilworth in the next 30 minutes if that is even possible. Anyway, he was rolling, and I was out of position. I decided to try and catch him and finally succeeded just before Audubon. Interestingly, this is the same train that Ian had shot earlier that afternoon near Elk River. His story on it is here.

As this train accelerated, it became clear the trailing C44 had some kind of significant mechanical issue. The smoke output was overwhelming-if the mosquitos were out they would have tipped over dead. Don't know how far he made it, but that does not look healthy to me.

A stop at Wal-Mart caused us to miss the baretable train that Ian talked about-I saw it pass by westbound through the door of the Detroit Lakes Wal-Mart while my wife waited for the slowest cashier on the planet. After that bit of bad luck, I decided we should head for home. I stopped at the bridge just east of Perham for a bit, but no traffic and building clouds put an end to that as well.

It was a nice evening and I got to see and photograph something a bit unusual, so I wasn't disappointed. The company was good as well. Thanks for reading.


Saturday, May 17, 2008

Something Old, Something New...

I made a trip to Staples this morning as it looked like a pleasant day was in store. The scanner was quiet as I headed east, and I saw no traffic on the trip over. I was a little worried because I had heard a lot of horns very early in the morning before I left (departed about 0645) and I hoped I hadn't missed the day's traffic.

Last night Mrs L4T and myself had been out prowling for trains with very little luck. I heard an extensive discussion between a Conductor and Fort Worth mechanical regarding an SD75 that would not load past 150 amps, but no other traffic. It sounded like that eastbound might have trouble getting up the hill into Wadena as his only other unit was a GP60M, but when I headed west to intercept he was scooting right along and I heard him tell the dispatcher the unit was now working, although with some surging going on.

The point of the story is that the train was sitting in the Staples yard this morning with a Dash 9 tacked onto the head end as well. I stopped for a photo as I arrived in Staples.

I know it's a stretch, but with the H1 paint scheme on a three digit road number Dash 9, I'm calling this the "something old" part of the story. I guess we could also use the pioneer unit of the final GP model built as well for the something old part of the rhyme. Where's an SD40-2 when you need one?

Since nothing was moving but I could hear chatter on the radio about getting a FRED to talk to a loco, I decided to swing around the yard and see what else was there. Turns out, quite a bit.

A head on shot revealed the train that was fiddling with its FRED as well. Lots of trains tied down in Staples this AM.

When I heard a 9300 series clear a warrant in Wadena, I decided to try catching him near the depot. I didn't have to wait long for MERC coal loads to show up, and the something new part of the equation was in play. A second ACe was pushing, in real fresh and shiny paint. I only have video of the pusher on this 1x1 train, I will try and get it posted as well. Here are a couple of shots in Staples:

I decided to chase him a while, and got him between Staples and Motley, then again as he crossed Highway 10 on his trip to Superior.

While in Motley I spotted a ballast car sitting on a siding as well, with some unusual graffiti. I couldn't resist trying this:

Back to Staples, and the Becker loads were ready to leave. I shot them heading out of the yard onto Main 2 track, and now we have reached the something borrowed (I know, this is a real stretch) and something blue part of the rhyme. Oh well, three out of four isn't bad. Not often that I see a solid set of CITX units operating in this part of the country.

The last train that was leaving was the original merchandise train the wife and I had seen the night before. Shortly, the Dash 9 got a signal and was soon headed east as well.

I headed back to Wadena with a bunch of photos to process and some good memories. I was glad I made the decision to head east this morning and look 4 trains.


Friday, May 16, 2008

North by Northwest

I'm not sure how many of you have had the pleasure to visit Hallock, but even for someone who has spent the great majority of his adult life in places like Baudette and International Falls, Hallock is "up north". So when duty called and I needed to be in the area for a couple of days this week, I headed out early which means well before 6 AM, and pointed the Escape west on Highway 10, then north on 59.

It seems that everytime I pass this way I am in a hurry to get somewhere. Wednesday was no different, but I still manage to keep an eye open for a CP train traversing the rolling land north of DL. I made it out of the hillier country (side note: one of my favorite train pictures was shot in that area, this one by Christopher S. Muller. I have long been jealous of catching something just right like that)before I came across any traffic. I finally spotted a CP southbound behind a pair of GE's and took a long range shot from the hiway.

The scenery is starting to get close to green, if we could ever get some warm weather.

Work for me that day started out in Stephen, after I had passed a string of MOW equipment in Euclid. Looks like the BNSF has plans to keep the Noyes line active from the amount of machinery they were preparing for the day. However, it did make me doubt that I would see much traffic that day.

So you can about imagine how surprised I was when, after lunch at the Victory Lane Cafe in Stephen, we heard a train horn and watched this unit head north:

As my lunchmates are not railfans there was a lot of speculation as to what a "trolley" car was doing on this line. I always like to expound on my railfan smarts when the opportunity presents itself, so I was happy to explain that this was a Federal Railway Administration car out doing whatever it is those guys do when they are in the far reaches of Minnesota. I got the photo at a crossing just north of town, and I shot him going away due to the sun angle. It just so happened he was headed directly away from the sun so not much chance for a photo but when you catch something like that on the Noyes line you need to take a picture. Thanks to Dave for humoring my little side trip to the north to get this shot.

My evening in Hallock, while offering a fair amount of train action. The southbound local stopped to switch the elevator and reblock his train but offered few photo ops as the clouds were out in force. I still ambled out to watch the action for awhile, though.

After more meetings the following day, a stop in Warren gave me the chance to try for another view of the switcher at Northwest Grain. The sun was little dodgy, but I got a shot of him from the head end this time.

While I was snooping around the area, I came across a couple of hoppers that had seen better days and shot them from a number of angles.

I don't know the whole story, but I do know that is stunk like rotten grain and that these two hoppers have likely hauled their last load and will go to the high speed line in the sky where the only cargo is marshmallows and all draft gear is extra cushioned.

And lo and behold, while I was shooting this what did I hear but the Northern Plains westbound? I hustled back towards the highway so i could shoot this shot of the ex-CPR SD's in charge of a long string of covered hoppers with one lone tank car in the string:

And again for good measure just west of town, because I hardly ever get the chance:

The last action of the day on the way home centered around a lone hopper on the outskirts of Ogema. I fear that this one may join those in Warren as part of the unit train to eternity:

With only a little way to go until I made it home to Wadena, I tried for a couple more shots on the Staples Sub, but only one pleased my eye at all. I caught a DAPX load headed east just outside of Perham and got a backlit shot.

And that is about all I have time to offer now. If the weather cooperates hopefully I will find some time this weekend to look around. Until then, keep looking 4 trains!