Thursday, July 30, 2009

BNSF Monster Train-and some other East Staples Stuff

Greetings railfans. Today we'll take a look at a couple of warbonnet-led trains on the Staples Sub, and what I have dubbed the "BNSF Monster Train". Let's get right to it.

After an almost four day business trip I headed for home today after lunchtime and saw nothing but MOW crews between Anoka and north of St. Cloud. Not a train was moving. When I got to Darling, I spotted the rear end of a westbound intermodal in the siding. After I passed the head end I pulled over for a shot.

Given that the clouds were on the prowl, the sun was high, and I hadn't been home for four days, I pretty much wrote off the eastbound that this guy was likely holding for. I decided that if I could get a shot near the curve south of Randall I would try it, but when I met a worm train just a little too soon, I decided to just keep going.

Imagine my surprise when all of a sudden where it seemed the end of the train should be a mid-train helper blasted by me with another long string of grain cars snaking around the curve behind him. That, as they say, changed everything. I have never ever seen a mid train helper on the Staples Sub before, and made the first available u-turn. After engaging warp drive on the Escape and phoning home to inform Mrs. L4T that I would be a bit late, I set off on the task of catching the head end. The train wasn't moving too fast but I still hadn't caught the lead units when they passed under Highway 10 entering Little Falls. I decided to head on south and try to get up on the old Soo Line overpass in hopes of getting a shot of the train all stretched out.

I made it to the overpass with a minute to spare, and decided to take the short route up the side of the fill. That was a project in the wet weeds, but I made it all the way up and double-timed it across the bridge to catch the lead units pass under me.

I started counting cars and trying to shoot photos at the same time. The rough count I came up with was 220 cars plus locos, which if correct, the detector would have announced as "TOTAL AXLES NINE ZERO FOUR". I never heard a detector though, so I'm not sure if my count was accurate. Even if not, I know it was close. It was by far the longest train I have ever seen anywhere myself.

I wanted to make sure to get a shot of the rare (to me) mid train DP unit, and here it is.

The train, according to the EXIF files on the pics I shot, took about 3 minutes to pass. I know it seemed like a long time. The mid train unit seemed to be pretty much exactly in the middle of the train. In fact, I suspect this was two trains combined into one.

Finally, the rear DPU came into view. Once again, photo documentation was called for.

And then he was gone.

I resumed my journey home and once again, traffic was light. The sun was peeking out from between the clouds on occasion, but just as often it was raining. When I got to Staples, I found a manifest train in the yard with another warbonnet leading. This train had a bit more unusual third unit in its consist, though. I shot the power set in the rain from Highway 10.

Two eastbound coal loads passed by as i travelled from Staples to Wadena but no shots of these MERC trains. And that's it for today's trip from the Cities to Wadena. I got to see the "Monster Train". Always keep looking.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The "Old College Try" at University

With work keeping me in the Twin Cities area another night, I decided that rather than spend the evening in a futile search for the end of the internet in my motel room, I would again head down to the Northtown Yard area to see if anything interesting was about.

When I arrived I drove across the St. Anthony bridge and didn't see anything new and exciting. I parked and checked out the walking path in the area to loosen up my old bones for a few minutes after spending the day in meetings. After that, I decided to look for Station Sign University on the advice of a railfan guide found on

I'm glad I did, as I was greeted on arrival by another railfan, who turned out to be none other than railfan/photographer/blogger/font of railroad wisdom Milwaukee Road Matt and his family, out for a look at the traffic in the area. And luckily for me, there was a bit of traffic to be seen. A CP manifest led by an SD40-2 and a GE passed by us southbound just after I arrived. I could see that there was a loaded windmill blade train waiting for them to get by before he would be able to pull into Northtown yard. After the CP was clear, the windmill train picked his way into the yard. I shot him as he cleared the signal bridge at East University.

As the head end unit passed our location, the sun tried to lever its way out from behind a cloud, and I was able to fire off another frame and get father and son doing the same.

Nathan is a knowledgable, dedicated, and friendly railfan who was happy to share information with a stranger who was "poaching" on his territory. Thanks Nathan!

Like every other windmill blade train I have seen, this one was powered by a GE on each end. As the DPU passed I shot him passing under University Avenue and entering Northtown Yard. Here is the result in B&W:

Luckily Matt had his better half along, since as we chatted we never even noticed an approaching westbound CP train with 4 big GE's up front. Stephanie gave us enough notice so we were able to get some shots.

This train had some unusual power tucked in behind the GE lineup-a CAT powered GP from the RRVW was the fifth unit in this consist. The sharp-eyed Nathan had this spotted well before it was plainly visible, noticing the yellow door on the cab from quite a distance.

We never did figure out what this unit was doing in the consist. Hard to believe that the train was not well in hand with the four GE's, although with their recent troubles maybe CAT/EMD products are required to come to the rescue. Or maybe it's payback for HP hours.

That was all for this evening. It was great fun to spend some time trackside with a family that obviously gets much enjoyment from railfanning as a group. I always get a kick out of meeting people out enjoying this hobby, especially when it is someone who has shared with other fans like Matt. Thanks for the local insight and information, and especially for the good conversation and enjoyable time trackside. I hope to get the chance to meet up with you again soon.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Southern Swing

I was off to New Ulm this morning bright and early, with visions of some DM&E action dancing in my head. When I arrived I noticed a shuttle train was loading at the elevator. So, after I was done with my meeting, I swung by the New Ulm yard for a look at the power for this shuttle.

I have heard in the past that these trains run with 4 units (including an ACe, a pair of Dash 9's, and an ES44DC in this case) in order to make the grade leaving New Ulm headed west. Rumor has it they have stalled in the past with three units climbing out of the Minnesota River Valley.

As you can see in that shot, there were many clouds about. That affected my next photo negatively. When I made it to Mankato, a train was headed south out of town. I'm not very familiar with the trackage, and I didn't see the power but I made a u-turn and chased the slow moving train down. As the UP line winds out of the valley it passes through some scenic territory. This shot doesn't do it justice but you can get an idea of what the stretch of track is like before they make it up to the plains again.

Very pretty area, I really like the rock retaining wall the train is passing by, and I got a friendly wave from the engineer (you can see him waving if you look close). You can tell how the designers of this line wound it around to help the trains beat the grade out of town. Still, these AC units were really working hard lifting the train up the hill.

As my final destination was on the north side of the cities, a swing by Northtown Yard seemed in order. I made it about 4:45 and got a couple of shots of the deadline south of the St. Anthony Boulevard bridge. There were 19 GEVO's lined up with their stacks capped. I suspect that these units require turbocharger inspection prior to being operated again. Makes the lines of SD75's a little shorter than I have seen in the past. It was good to see the Green Giants again-I sure hope they get back on the road soon.

That was it for today. Not a lot, but way better than nothing. Maybe I will have a little time to get out tomorrow evening, if the weather holds and I don't end up with too much work to do after tomorrow.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

50,000 Tons of Coal

What does it take to move 50,000 tons of low sulfur Powder River Basin coal? 12 big AC motors, 7 EMD's and 5 GE's.

Mrs. L4T and I stopped in Staples for supper this evening. The ATCS display didn't hold out much hope for moving trains, but there were a few in the yard. In fact, 4 loaded coal trains were staged, waiting for crews, or room, or need, to proceed on their respective journeys towards power plants.

I shot the DPU's as we came into town. Not a lot of angles to choose from, but I managed to fit them all in one frame.

Question, for anyone who might care to offer up an answer: Why do the DPU's on the two south trains have FRED's hanging on their couplers, while the two north trains don't? I have seen this before, and never heard a good answer.

Since the trains were posing, I decided to run around to the head end and shoot the lead power, even though it would be backlit. You can see how common the newer units can be some days in this shot, where 6 of the 8 head end units are ACe's or GEVO's. Must be at least some of the GE's that still have all their turbo blades.

We had supper at the Spot Cafe, across the highway from the tracks, and saw nothing moving while we ate. After supper, we headed back to Wadena, and met yet another DEEX load headed east. I think this one passed right on through town, but we didn't turn around and check it out. That was it for out little Sunday evening outing.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Couple Before the Clouds

Made it out this morning for about an hour. It looked like there might be some clouds moving in so I was up and at 'em early-out the door at 0615. There was an eastbound blowing for the Wadena crossings as I left home and I hoped to be able to catch him by the time he reached Staples. I could see the light on the DPU as I crossed the tracks in Wadena and chased east. Got him first at the curve near Aldrich:

Then I ran ahead to the detector at MP 151 to shoot him again in nice morning light. This was a DAPX train that would be staying on the Staples Sub. As you can see, clouds were trying to take over.

Clouds blew my shot of this train at the crossing in Staples, but I heard the dispatcher clearing up a warrant for another eastbound. After a stop for a Diet Coke, I headed over to the depot to shoot this train. There was a loaded coal train (likely a Becker train judging by the cars) in the yard. I grabbed one of the parked train as the eastbound MERC train approached.

Then again as he was passing the depot on Main 1, preparing to leave the Staples Sub and head onto the Brainerd.

I headed back to Wadena after that train, as the clouds had built in pretty well by now. I wasn't sure if there were any other eastbounds moving, but I soon spotted a headlight and swung over to a crossing for a shot.

Those LED numberboards really stick out in this cloudy and dark shot.

And that was all for today. I had spotted two westbounds earlier, on my way to Staples, but my pursuit of the DAPX train meant no shots at that time. All in all, a nice little outing.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Wadena Local Power

Mrs. L4T and I spent much of this cloudy Saturday searching for treasures hidden in rummage sales throughout the Menahga and Park Rapids area, which made for no railfanning opportunities until we made it home to Wadena. As we crossed the tracks, a headlight to the east called for attention and I complied.

After pulling in near the crossovers, I walked a little ways east and managed to shoot this photo:

I figure it must be power for the Wadena local.

I googled BNSF 3207 when I got home and found out that it has been working the Staples Sub for at least a few weeks, as shown in a photo by OMR member Bryant Kaden here.

The number on the second unit seemed unusual, and sure enough, it was one of the re-numbered SD40-2's that have been running around. This is the first time I can remember seeing six axle power on the Wadena local.

And that's all from Wadena so far today. We may venture out yet this evening if the clouds offer any hope of abating.

Keep on lookin!


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

You Just Never Know...

...what you might see along the tracks.

Business this week has me travelling along the Noyes Sub in far northwest Minnesota. I have been lucky enough to catch the local working this branch a few times in the past, which gave me hope of seeing some action on this trip as well.

Tuesday turned out to be the day of no trains as my trip up revealed nothing all the way from Wadena to Hallock except a MOW crew around Donaldson. Kind of strange to travel all that way, paralleling lines the entire trip, and not see a train.

Wednesday I was in Hallock when I heard a horn, and ran outside to see the train. It was a mixed northbound, and wonder of wonders, the leader on this train was one of the ES44C4's. BNSF 6608 was proudly heading north with Dash 9 trailing. I grabbed a photo under completely overcast skies to capture the moment.

As the train passed, I thought "that picture could have been taken in countless places. I need something to show where it is." So here is a going away shot with the old and new Hallock water towers in the background.

This is one of those experiences that makes railfanning special to me. If you had asked me the likelihood of seeing one of these unique locos on the Noyes sub when I left home Tuesday morning, I would have given you extremely good odds on my not seeing one. I know all the reasons they shouldn't be here. Yet, in spite of the facts that I have never seen 6 axle power on the Noyes local, that there are only 25 of these engines in existence, and that it has been rumored they were bound for high speed service on the southern transcon, here it was ambling north along a dead-end BNSF line on a manifest. You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather.

That was the last action I was to see on the Noyes sub today. I swung through Grand Forks this evening to have supper with the heir to the L4T fortune, and we drove around town a bit to view the locos at the BNSF terminal. It sure doesn't look like this new GE was assigned due to a lack of 4 axle power, as there were 8 or 10 GP types parked in Grand Forks.

I met a westbound on the GF sub as I headed to Crookston for the evening, but the clouds and my yawning convinced me to continue on to the hotel. So here I am, posting this tale.

And the moral of today's little story is: keep looking for trains. You just never know...


Friday, July 10, 2009

How Popular is Steam?

A short note to share one piece of data that might help illustrate how popular the run of the 4449 through the area was.

Most days, the Staples Sub radio feed bounces between 0 and 5 listeners at any given time. I have seen it jump up to 8 or so a few times when something unusual was going on, but normally 3 or 4 people will be listening during evenings.

The following graph shows what the listenership was like during the time 4449 was plying the rails through central Minnesota.

The highest number I saw was 19 listeners. This is more than double what I remember ever having seen in the past.

Just, wow.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

4449 on the March

As all of you are likely aware, today was a very special day on the Staples Subdivision of the BNSF. Today, the SP 4449, a vintage steam locomotive, travelled the length of the sub on its journey from Portland, Oregon to Owosso, Michigan.

Your humble correspondent has been a fan of railroads for almost my entire life, yet I had never had the opportunity to watch a mainline steam locomotive under power. I looked forward to this day for a long time, and begged and cajoled the people I work with to make it possible for me to be able to observe this trip. Thanks to all who accommodated me.

I went to bed last night with hopes for clear or at least partly cloudy skies in the morning. As soon as I woke up, a little before 6:00, a quick glance outside revealed that those wishes were not fulfilled. A low layer of thick clouds blanketed the area. Even so, the trip was on come rain or shine. I was out of the house before 0700 and off in search of Daylight.

I headed straight for Lake Park, encountering a few sprinkles on the way. As I approached Detroit Lakes, the skies lightened and some blue patches even showed up. I expected to encounter a crowd at the S curves but there was no one there when I arrived. Checking the twitter feed for the 4449, I found that they had indeed left Fargo "on the advertised". The feed also said they left in heavy rain, and the skies were beginning to darken in the west. These factors helped me decide to head back east in hopes of encountering the engine in fairer weather. My fear was that I would only get one chance at them due to speed, and I wanted to make it good.

I set up at the crossing west of Richards Spur, where the rails are well below Highway 10 and there is a curve a few hundred yards down the line that the train would round as they arrived. There was actually some sunshine when I arrived, but that didn't last long. The wait seemed to be forever-a lady showed up asking about the train, and just as we began to talk, the skies opened and a fairly hard rain began. I ran to retrieve my video camera (Canon S2, actually) and get everything in where it was dry.

In a few minutes more people arrived, with the news that the train had stopped just to the west. I knew there is a detector around MP 221 and the speculation was that they had been stopped due to a defect.

Soon enough, we saw the smoke and steam of the approaching engine, and I ran to the north side of the tracks to get ready. I shot video and a few still photos, including the one at the top of the post, as the train rounded the corner. My first exposure to live steam was certainly impressive.

As he passed I joined the flood of foamers chasing the train east. Detroit Lakes hasn't seen an invasion like that since the last WE fest. I was hoping for a stop in DL, but no luck. Having made it through town without too many delays, I went into chase mode myself as the speed limit changed back to 65 east of town. I spotted the train as he traversed the ridge on the west edge of Frazee. Knowing that he was in reach, I decided to shoot him again at a crossing between Frazee and Perham.

Next up seemed to be a pan attempt. As every crossing was occupied by a photographer or three, I just pulled off to the side of the road and shot this:

Far from perfect it is, but it has one thing going for it-it's my shot of a steam loco operating on the Staples Sub in 2009.

This angle of the engine slashing across farm country was my next attempt, as he crossed the old Highway 10 over pass between Perham and New York Mills. I probably don't need to confess my amateurish attempt at cleaning up the grey skies, but in the interest of full disclosure I admit having done it.

Mrs. L4T had an interest in seeing this train as well, so we had arranged for me to pick her up in Wadena for the run to Staples. I gained a bit of headway on the train approaching Wadena, and we had time to grab a shot as it passed a large group of fans at the Wadena depot.

And then it was off to Staples for a few shots at the service stop. I got an audio recording of SP 4449 clearing up his warrant from Richards Spur to Wadena as we drove. I'll have to post that sometime. My focus was on catching the scene, not just the engine, in Staples. Some samples:

The lone BNSF Police Officer had quiet a time keeping the fans off the tracks in the area, and I was disappointed with how a few people behaved as a stack train pulled up on Main 2. One thing I learned today was that the appearance of a steam locomotive makes most people get real excited, and a few people absolutely lose their heads.

Too soon it was time for the 4449 to leave. I got a couple of shots as the train pulled out of the station, along with a video clip (I've put a bunch of stills and a couple of video clips together and posted it on youtube). Good bye to the 4449 in Staples:

It was a great day. I was flabbergasted by the number of people out watching for the engine. There is a huge interest in an event like this, many times greater than I anticipated. I look forward to seeing it pass through the area on the return trip, and hope I can be trackside for it. If not, I know there will be a lot of fans out shooting and I can enjoy the photos.

THANKS to the Friends of the 4449, the train crew, the people who organized this trip, the BNSF, Amtrak, and anyone who had a hand in making this possible. It was GREATLY appreciated!!!

Hope you enjoy the photos and descriptions. Remember, always keep looking for trains.


Friday, July 3, 2009

3-Wait, No, 5 of a Kind

Mrs. L4T and I took a July 3rd jaunt to Brainerd this afternoon. Our last stop was Home Depot, and as we were checking out (bought a paint brush), I heard a train pass by. A glance out the door revealed a westbound coal empty.

Traffic was heavy on Hwy 210, and we didn't catch the train until Motley. I decided to have a go at him just east of Staples, and here is the result:

The leading ACe of the three in this consist was the same one I shot last week near Bluffton.

When we made it to Staples, I was surprised to see a loaded coal train with two more ACes on the head end. A chance to get 5 of these units in one frame, even if the lighting wouldn't be great. I stopped along Highway 10 to shoot this:

After supper there were three westbounds showing on the ATCS display, so we decided to head out even though there was a thick layer of clouds in the sky. No better time to try something new, eh?

My last offering for the night is another shot of the same train, a few miles further west. This stacker had a CP GEVO as the second unit. Time to try a pan, again. The results are a little better than my prior attempts.

And that's all for tonight. Hopefully this cloud blanket will lift sometime tomorrow so we can at least make an attempt at some sunny day photography.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Train Huntin'

Greetings train fans. A couple of photos for your enjoyment tonight. Mrs. L4T and myself plied the roads around Wadena this evening in search of trains and found a few.

I knew there was a westbound out and about from the ATCS display. This coal empty off the Brainerd Sub was in Staples when we left home, so I decided to have a go at him at the Wing River. I clambered this old frame up on the Escape bumper for a little extra elevation, but it's nothing like balancing on the side of Jer's Silverado. Anyhow, here's the resulting shot:

I didn't even realize the lone leader on this train was my old friend the 9999 until after I looked at the shot. I just saw this engine last week on a COLX train headed down the CP River Sub. Since then he's been upgraded from DPU to leader.

Mrs. L4T likes to call these little outings "train hunting", a term that has caught on in the L4T household and even the extended family. When the Mrs. calls her mom a few minutes late some evenings, the question is always "Have you been out train hunting again?" She also has a friend who, when she heard the term, thought we were out looking for tiny toy trains. Turns out she was too embarassed to ask what it really meant.

Since I knew there weren't many other westbounds out tonight, I chased this guy to Perham for a second shot. If it had been any almost any other MAC I would have likely passed, but I have a special affinity for this unit. I shot him from a new angle (for me) as he rolled around the curve east of Perham.

As I was setting up for this shot, I heard a horn to the west. When I turned around a worm train was bearing down on me with three Dash 9's in the lead. The plan became an eastbound chase with the hope of a glint shot as the sun got lower. When I reached the overpass between Perham and New York Mills, I decided to try another new shot for me, and I was kind of pleased with the results.

In this view the train has just passed over old Highway 10. It's one of the few places where you can show foreground and background along this section of track without having to worry about a huge pole line or the road interfering with the shot. I'm sure I will try other shots here in the future, especially later in the year when the sun gets around to the south more.

ATCS showed another westbound in Staples, so I decided to continue east. I was so focused on getting a glint shot of the worm train that I was surprised by the fast moving westbound right just as we entered Verndale. I considered a u-turn and chase, but I knew I wouldn't get him before Wadena and wasn't going to run all the way to Perham again. So after a couple half-hearted attempts at a glint, we called it a night and headed for home.

That's all for tonight, thanks for reading and keep on train hunting.