Saturday, October 31, 2009

Orange (and a touch of Green and Cream) in the PRB

A little Wyoming trivia: there are not a lot of trees in the Powder River Basin.

What the area lacks in trees, though, it makes up for with a pretty good assortment of BNSF locomotives and coal trains. The train pictured above is grinding north (railroad west) at Lawyer Road the morning of October 6, 2009. As you can see, the previous night's snow has not yet had a chance to melt. This is the first of many BNSF coal trains I will see on my day in the PRB.

So where to next? Mrs. L4T was pretty convinced that she would be more comfortable with an idea of where the nearest civilization was. The logical response was to find the city of Bill, Wyoming, well south on the Orin line. So that we did. But as we crossed the multi-tracked mainline on Wyoming State Highway 59 about 15 miles north of Bill, my keen eye spied a train stopped to the north. I pulled over and got out to grab a shot, and luckily, I had eaten well the previous evening or I may have been carried away by the wind. I managed to make my way to the overpass, where I was able to brace myself for this shot. It even turned out that a UP empty showed up to insert itself into the photo as well.

I know you can't tell from this extreme tele shot, but the orange unit facing you is the last thing I expected to see when I visited the coal fields. It's one of BNSF's 25 ES44C4 units, seen here on the point of a ballast train. See, when you get out and look for trains, you never know what kind of oddity you may find.

Continuing on to Bill, traffic was what I consider heavy. I grabbed a shot of BNSF loads rolling by UP loads headed south. BNSF has the advantage of being able to route loaded trains out either end of the area, while UP is limited to sending trains south. Once again the Bill water tower makes an appearance.

After lunch we were once again northbound, and at some point found ourselves hot on the trail of a BNSF northbound empty. In this shot the train is passing a stopped UP empty as it approaches Reno Junction, where a spur heads east to Black Thunder Mine and Jacobs Ranch Mine.

And here we have trains staged in the yard that sits alongside the spur to the two mines mentioned above.

Think about this for a minute. According to this site, Black Thunder has produced a billion tons of coal in 27 years. That's 1,000,000,000 tons. Current production rate is 91 million tons a year. At 15,000 tons per train, that equals 6000 trains a year, or 16 trains a day, from one coal mine.

My. That is a huge amount of coal.

Makes for a great place to take pictures of trains.

And one oddity (the first one was seeing an ES44C4 in the PRB) wasn't enough for the day. I waited for the DPU on another train in the hopes of getting a going away shot. While it turned out the engine was presenting its tail to the sun, it was interesting enough to shoot. This lonely C44-9W must have felt out of place in what seemed to me like an ocean of AC units. It was one of the only times I have ever seen a DC motor GE on a BNSF coal train.

I'm honestly embarrassed to admit that by late afternoon, I was just about railfanned out. It wasn't the gorgeous weather, or the lack or trees, or the physical exertion of getting in and out, and racing across ditches and fields to shoot trains. It was mental overload. Trying to read maps and signs, spot trains, listen to the scanner, and avoid antelope while taking pictures of dozens of trains wears a guy out. And so we retreated to our motel for a few minutes rest.

Refreshed, I headed east of Gillette to once again check out Donkey Creek Yard. I never did find Donkey Creek, but you can't miss the yard. Luckily, I was able to catch the DPU on a loaded eastbound as it passed the sign identifying the yard.

I shot my last train in the Powder River Basin proper in the same location as my first. This southbound empty had just negotiated Donkey Creek Junction on the way to a loading slot at one of the mines. It also seemed kind of symbolic to me that I had finally captured one of the my favorite locomotives (SD70MAC) in my favorite paint scheme (although someone had defaced it by removing the nose logo) doing just exactly what it was built to do-pulling a coal train in the Powder River Basin. I doubt that there are many success stories in railroading like this-a revolutionary locomotive, built to do a single job, and doing so successfully, over such a long time period. Congratulations, EMD and BN. You have done well. Thanks for the memories, and here's to many more.

Note: This is the 150th post I have made to Thanks to all the readers. I hope you find them a bit entertaining. They are fun for me to put together.


Friday, October 30, 2009

ISO 800

Just a quick note to share a couple of photos from the ride home today. I spotted a DPU crossing Highway 65 westbound as I neared the Highway 2 crossing. A short chase west allowed me to catch a westbound loaded coal train as it approached Warba. Must be a reroute of some sort-there is no reason to run loads west here, unless the Lakes Sub is tied up and they are trying to get to Cohasset.

The other train was stacker coming into Staples in snow flurries. Just a couple of Dash 9's but this what some of us are waiting for.

Both at ISO 800, which was unusable on my old camera. It's still noisy on this one but presentable.

All for now!


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Buddy, Can You Spare an SD40-2?

On Monday October 26, my Outlook calendar told me I had to be in the Cities for a meeting. Back on the road! Luckily, Mrs. L4T agreed to ride along on this day trip so she could take advantage of the retail opportunities the metro area offers.

Cloudy skies spoiled a couple of photo opportunties on the way down, where two trains met in Clear Lake, a coal empty was leaving Becker behind four units-a pair of AC GEVO's leading, trailed by a pair of Grinstein MAC's. I should have tried to get a decent shot of that consist, I don't think I have ever seen that particular combo before.

After my meeting, we decided a swing by Northtown yard was in order. I gave the Mrs. a quick tour of the area, which I am not all that familiar with anyway, and then parked so she could enjoy her magazines while I spent a little time on the St. Anthony bridge. Seems that FURX might be getting some SD40-2's returned, given the accumulation at Northtown.

Of course some of those units are SD60M's, and there might be some SD75's in the mix as well, but there are a whole lot of -2's in this photo.

One of the units doing some switching was also an SD carbody, I'm assuming now called an SD39-2. I haven't seen one that wasn't re-numbered for some time, so this was kind of a treat. They did have to pick one of the rattiest looking cascade green units I have seen to use that day, though.

I grabbed a straight on shot of one row of the 40's from the bridge. The fourth one back was painted in a FURX scheme.

I was just about to leave when I saw headlights approaching from the south and wandered back out on the bridge to see what was coming. When I spotted the train I was glad I walked back out on the bridge. I trotted all the way across to shoot a "practice" Northstar train as it passed through Northtown yard. I've caught a couple of the coaches before but this was my first time seeing the power live. Sharp!

I never did really get any decent light, but it's always fun to stop by Northtown to see what BNSF is up to. We headed home in the clouds and spotted a couple of trains on the way home, but no photos. That's it for now.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Meet Me in Mahnomen

It was a dark and gloomy morning, last Monday as I pointed the Escape northwest for a trip to Hallock. It's kind of a neat drive for me, since you can parallel tracks almost the entire way. Oddly, by the time I made it to Detroit Lakes and made a hard right to follow the CP, I hadn't yet seen a train. It's kind of unusual to make the Wadena to DL run without seeing a train on the Staples Sub.

I didn't expect much on the CP DL Sub as that has always been a tough place for me to catch a train, but for the first time, I stumbled across a meet in Mahnomen. The northbound train was waiting for the southbound, which I have to assume was to take the siding. I didn't have time to wait around and see. I did snap a cloudy day shot as the train crept toward the crossing on the north edge of town.

Just as I left the crossing the southbound appeared. I pulled over and again grabbed a shot under leaden skies.

Having caught two trains, I knew I was safe the rest of the way to Erskine. As I headed west on Highway 2, my expectations were still pretty low as the clouds gave no sign of thinning. I took a close look at the shuttle elevator, and saw no activity there.

I confess to being shocked to see a headlight coming toward me as I rounded the curve near the elevator. Dashing across the tracks to the south at the first available crossing, I peered into the gloom to identify the oncoming train. There was something unusual about it, that I couldn't quite place. The first horn blast confirmed that this was not the usual Cass Lake local Geep. Imagine my surprise.

Take a close look at the second unit, this isn't the last you will see of it.

I continued on to my destination, spending the rest of the workday in Stephen right along the Noyes Sub. I've been lucky there in the past, but not today, as the BNSF didn't run a train for my enjoyment either on the Staples or Noyes Subs, and the only train I saw on the GF Sub was the Minnesota Northern one.

Pipeliners have literally taken over the extreme NW part of the state, and I ended up going to Thief River Falls to find a motel room. That turned out to be a lucky break, as the sun tried to peek out for a few minutes just before dark and I was able to get a couple of pictures before retiring to my motel.

As I headed up to the yard, I came across this car scrapping operation, which was shut down for the evening. It must be where EEC hopppers go to rest.

There was still a substantial line of stored SD60's in a couple of paint schemes in the yard, but no decent photo opportunities. Same story with the repainted switchers, I think at least one was an MP15, but no chance at a decent photo.

NPR was putting a train together, though, and I grabbed a quick shot at the north end of the yard. That must be a fertile engine, to have a light pole growing right out of the top of it.

Last up was the ILSX 1381, second unit on the morning Minnesota Northern train. Evening found it resting just north of Thief River Falls, coupled up to more fodder for the scapper's torch from the writing on the car. I got it in the only sun I saw all day.

I also walked out across a stubble field, that was surprisingly dry (although it wouldn't be by morning) to shoot the entire train. Some day I want to go up and chase them to Roseau.

Next morning I was off for Hallock well before dawn, and made the return trip to Wadena in the evening. The skies were still dark and gloomy, and the trains were rare. I was just thankful to have seen the action I did the previous day.

Keep looking for trains,


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ICE on the Pink Granite

Over the last couple of weeks I've shared some photos from my recent venture to southwest Minnesota. This will be the last I have from that trip, all focused on a single train I caught on my last evening in the area.

After work I was headed back to Marshall for the night when I decided to make a stop at the DM&E crossing of the Marshall Sub. There was another car pulled over at the overpass, and my railfan detector was starting to go off. Sure enough, just as I got out of the car he waved for me to hurry over the bridge. I got this shot, which I really like, and the mystery railfan was gone in an instant, before we had even had a chance to talk.

The train was heading west into the descending sun and I had scouted the immediate area a bit that morning, so off I went as well. He stopped to throw a switch here at what was called Florence, so I managed to get ahead of him relatively soon. Next up, ICE power curves around a slight rise covered in corn.

If anyone ever tries to sell you on the idea that these trains just meander across the prairie, don't buy. This guy was moving right along, and I had to slow down passing west through Tracy. As a result of this, and my unfamiliarity with the country ahead, I blundered about looking for a shot and finally settled on this one as he left Verdi, MN.(Side note: I really blew any shots as the train made his way from Lake Benton to Verdi. Seeing the country on the return trip, I was greatly disappointed that I didn't make the right guess leaving Lake Benton so I could have shot the train twisting through the bluffs and climbing out of the river bottom. I need to get back there sometime!)

Anyway, here he is, leaving Verdi behind. Nice sky.

Finally, I caught a glimpse of the mystery railfan I seen earlier. It was Craig Williams. We didn't get a chance to talk much, but he did clue me in the cause of this last photo-apparently, the switch wouldn't throw as it had been run through earlier, and the meet was delayed while repairs were made. As the overcast was moving in I tried a little B&W action. My first South Dakota shot, with Elkton in the background.

And that's it for this trip to the southwest part of the state. I'm still working on getting some PRB stuff ready to go, and have two or three overcast shots from a trip to Hallock early this week, including something that is a first for me. You'll have to check back to see what that is.

See you along the tracks,


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fighting the Fog on the Staples Sub

Saturday morning dawned foggy, but the computer promised that upper levels were finally clear of clouds! Your correspondent was out the door before 8:00 AM, confident that the sun would soon have the fog burned away, even afraid that it would happen before there was a chance to shoot a train making its way through the gloom. Obviously, that was an unfounded fear. The image above gives an idea of what the atmosphere was like at the CR75 crossing on the west side of Wadena this morning.

This second image is evidence that the fog was in charge even on the far side of Verndale. I was chasing this manifest train, and at the time I shot this photo fully expected to find another spot to take a shot of him emerging from the fog.

As I passed through Aldrich, the fog began to lift. In fact, by the time the train reached the CR 9 crossing, it was lit by a strange glowing sensation. Oh that's right, it's the sun.

The second photo and third photo were taken 6 minutes, and about 5 miles, apart. What once was fog had become clarity.

Continuing on to Staples, I found a pair of loaded coal trains laying over in the yard. As the sun has now gone around to the south in the morning, I grabbed a shot of them from the far side of the yard. Too bad the ACes couldn't have been leading.

ATCS revealed another eastbound, which passed the Staples detector just as I got back in the Escape. The first shot was right down the yard lead from the 7th St crossing.

Next shot, as the train passes the Staples depot. The new roof is on, and work on the soffit and fascia is also progressing. It seems the depot has received a new lease on life.

One other thing I noticed while waiting for this shot-Staples apparently is now whistle-free, as none of the trains passing through this morning blew for the crossing, and there are signs in place warning motorists "No Train Horn".

Time to head back to Wadena. The highway was free of fog as far as Aldrich, where it was still socked in. The fog continued all the way to Wadena, where I stopped at the depot to grab this shot of an eastbound Z train:

Hard to believe it can be clear blue skies in Staples while Wadena is still socked in, but that's the way it was. Even now, at 1:00 PM, skies in Wadena still have not cleared. Oh, well, at least I got to see a little sun this morning.

See you along the tracks.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tilting at Windmills (Part 3)

An earlier post covered my fotography fiasco in southwest Minnesota. Today I'll share some shots that are more presentable, although none of them are anything to brag about.

The first three photos are all of the same train, which I heard getting a warrant to head south on the Marshall Sub fairly early in the morning. I moved to intercept, and located a likely spot at the S-curve shown in the first offering.

This shot gives an indication of something I have noticed in prior trips to the area-there are a lot of AC locomotives on not only coal trains, but also grain trains and manifest trains that operate through the area. This next shot gives a good view of not only the SD70MAC leader, but also a somewhat uncommon BNSF AC4400CW. This GE model was certainly outnumbered by the MAC's that came to dominate many BNSF coal trains.

My last shot of this train was once again near the "summit" of the Marshall Sub's passage across Buffalo Ridge. This is where the windmills are thick. I do love this spot, and hope some day to take a decent train photo here.

This post also has a bonus prize. I happened upon a shuttle train being loaded in Holland, and this CF7 had the honors. Nice paint, and one of the few I have ever seen in person. I think the only others were TCW units that I have stumbled across while travelling central MN.

Next up in this series, the final post. This one will feature blue and yellow paint instead of orange, along with my first railfan photo in South Dakota.


Tilting at Windmails (Part 2)

Three years and single day before shooting the photo that is the subject of this post, when I was still fairly new to this railfan photography business, I had an outing that I can remember to this day. A big part of the memory is the frustration I experienced by making some dumb mistakes while trying to capture train images in digital form. On September 30, 2009, I was reminded of these dumb mistakes because I repeated one of them.

The ugly image above is the best I was able to recover from a hopelessly overexposed raw file that was planned, set up, and shot with loving care. Go ahead, click on it, if you dare. Let your mind adjust the exposure. Picture the glorious blue sky, the magnificently lit train, the slowly turning blades of the wind turbines, and the deep red barn. It nearly makes me cry just writing these words.

I don't know that there are enough electrons in the world to explain what I think caused me to do this, but what it boils down to was being in a hurry, getting overexcited, not checking things prior to shooting, and just all-around stupidity.

I had changed batteries in my camera in preparation for this shot, as I thought they had to be getting fairly low and I didn't want to be interrupted by an unresponsive camera. Thinking it might be a good idea to get some video of the train as it passed the slowly turning windmills, I inserted the old batteries into my S2, mounted it on the tripod, and aimed it in the general direction of the track. Little did I know that the general direction meant only the top half of the train would show in the video. This qualifies as a second brain fart in this comedy of errors.

In the process of changing batteries, I must have bumped the selector on the still camera to the "manual" position, from the aperture priority where I normally shoot. I had been trying some blur shots last time I shot on manual and the shutter speed was pretty slow. The results of this wrong headed move are obvious in the above photo.

It's also neat that I failed to even look at the results, heading down the road to shoot this train once more as he crossed a bridge, again horrendously overexposed. Once I discovered the error, I had a long and stern talk with myself, making it clear that whichever part of me was stupid enough to make this mistake was not appreciated by the rest of me.

Oddly enough, I was able to get some very nice photos this same day, which I will share soon. This one, though, deserves to stand on its own, as both a memorial to what might have been and a reminder to always double check your settings. Hopefully I can inspire others to avoid the fate I bestowed on myself. If even one train photo is saved by this post, it will have been worth it.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Second Coming of 4449

On Tuesday, October 13, the SP 4449 "Daylight" steamer began its trip home from the Twin Cities area back to Portland, Oregon. Seeing as how it was using the Amtrak route, which includes the Staples Sub, to head west, it hardly seemed like a Staples Sub railfan could ignore the passage.

I had made extensive arrangements to fan the trip east in July. This time, having just returned from a week long vacation, taking the entire day off hardly seemed doable. I still wanted to get a glimpse of the engine passing through the area, though, and Mrs. L4T and I managed to sneak out on a late lunch break to wait for him in Bluffton. I figured this was the only spot nearby where I would have a chance at decent nose light, so Bluffton it was. Before we even made it out of Wadena, we came across the Wadena local posing for a photo on the siding north of the mains at the depot, so out came the camera.

After that shot we headed west. We made it to the crossing about half an hour before the crowd began to arrive. Soon after parking and setting up the video camera, a couple more vehicles pulled up. One was carrying two older gentlemen who were following the entire trip, from the Twin Cities to Portland. The rest were locals who just wanted to see the steam engine pass. I got a shot of the fans as we waited for the train.

Before the steamer showed, we were treated to the passage of a Z train the dispatcher had run around the former SP engine during the Daylight's service stop in Staples. The crew on this train probably never expected this kind of attention in the sleepy burg of Bluffton.

I had the ATCS fired up, and along with the GPS on the steam train it was obvious that we didn't have long to wait. The video camera was all ready to go, and shortly the wailing of the steam whistle could be heard approaching. I decided to try a long range tele shot down the throat as the train crossed the Leaf River bridge, and it didn't turn out too well:

I liked the results of the wedgie a lot more-this is the first sunny shot I got of the 4449, after a bunch of cloudy shots on the earlier trip.

Now that's more like it.

And then it was time to say so long to a new friend. Farewell 4449, and may you return again, soon.

I slowly packed up and watched the rest of the crowd race off to the west. Mrs. L4T, my trusty railfan companion, made the comment that chasing the engine all the way to its Portland home seemed a little excessive, and I couldn't help but agree.

We talked about the runby, and agreed that the second coming of the 4449 didn't stir the same excitement as the intial trip. It was still fun to see, and well worth taking the time out of the day, but it's hard to match a person's first encounter with a steam engine.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tilting at Windmills (Part 1)

Everyone knows the prairie of Southern Minnesota is flat.

Isn't it? Well, if it is, it's news to the crews of BNSF trains that operate along the Marshall Sub between, say, Granite Falls and the Ruthton area where the line crosses Buffalo Ridge. This 50 miles of right-of-way rise from about 600' above sea level in Granite Falls, climbing all the way to about 1300' ASL as the line snakes through the "pass" through the hills.

I spent a few days in the area a couple of weeks ago. Part of the time featured spectacular weather, and I was able to spend my free time trackside after work. There was still enough evening light to allow some photos. My first evening, I heard the dispatcher setting up a meet at Ruthton (hooray-I finally have a working radio again!) and made it in time to see what the southbound was meeting. I think this rig has been spotted across the state at various times over the summer.

With that backlit shot out of the way, I was free to set up for a shot of the southbound as he snaked through the pass crossing Buffalo Ridge. This is one of my favorite spots in Minnesota for railroad photography, and my interest is a result of a wonderful shot by Mike Vandenberg. I still haven't been able to come close to what he has done in the area.

This southbound had another interesting feature-two what have been called "hospital cars", hauling wreck damaged covered hoppers to a body and fender shop somewhere for a little repair work. I think it's sweet how they keep the parts from the car together-wouldn't want the trucks getting separated from the carbody, now would we?

And with that, having driven much of the way to Pipestone, I headed back to Marshall for the evening and a little homework to get ready for the next day. Luckily I managed a little time trackside then as well, and will share the photos in a future post.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Armour Yellow in the PRB

(Note: I've got enough photos from the PRB area for a couple of more posts. I will also probably write something about "if you go" that talks about the experience we had, and what I would find helpful when I visit again. Until then, hopefully this UP focused feature will entertain those of you who are kind enough to visit this blog.)

Wyoming's Powder River Basin is unlike anywhere else I have ever been. It's not just the extreme level of railroad activity, but also the remoteness, the wildlife, the barren landscape. When someone who has lived almost half his life in Minnesota's Koochiching and Lake of the Woods counties calls a place remote, you can pretty much take it to the bank that it's remote.

The photo above is taken at what is a metropolis by the standards of the PRB. Mrs. L4T and I were in Bill when I grabbed a shot of this UP train passing, one of the parade of trains out the south end of the Orin line. We had headed to Bill as it was the closest approximation to civilization in the last 70 or so miles. And it turned out to be quite civilized. Penny's Diner, on the east side of the highway across from the tracks, turned out to make a mean patty melt at a very reasonable price. I think they were surprised to see customers who actually wanted to pay money for their meal, though, as the clientele seemed strongly skewed toward railroaders laying over at the attached motel. It's doubtful that Bill is high on the list of many tourists...but for railfans, it's unmatched. In this shot, the same train as shown above is passing another UP set waiting in the yard to proceed south. The Bill water tower, which carries a UP shield, accents the shot.

Fed and refreshed, it's time to head north. This trip was as much about exploration and experiencing the area as it was about photography. I actually was bypassing photos by early afternoon, in order to learn as much about the lay of the land as possible. Here's one I had to grab, as it showed the expanse of the 4 main tracks that carry up to a hundred trains a day in and out of the area.

Just a bit further north, near Nacco Junction, I met another southbound and caught him as he rounded a curve.

My last train for this post was a load headed south from Coal Creek Junction. This train was just starting the assault on what looked to be a 1%+ grade and was working hard. I stood on the overpass shooting him as he approached, the motors up front thundering as they worked to lift the train slowly uphill.

After he passed under the overpass in a haze of heat and diesel exhaust, I shot him going away. The heat shimmer off the top of these engines was impressive.

This was one of my favorite moments of the day, as the brute power involved in railroading is something that draws me to it and makes me a railfan. The closest to this experience I have had in the past is standing on one of the bridges near Hawley as coal loads grind up out of the Red River Valley, but this train was moving much slower and gave the impression of more effort being expended.

Knowing there was an S curve just south of here, we decided to backtrack a bit and get a shot as he passed through the area. I parked in the wrong spot, as there was a herd of antelope just to the left of this image and I couldn't quite work them in. The frequency of trains in this area is demonstrated by the fact that (unlike me) the antelope barely looked up as the train passed them, finally having crested the hill and beginning to pick up speed.

I don't know if any of the crews that run trains in the area will ever read this, but if they do, THANKS! The way they were willing to give a friendly wave or a toot on the horn was really classy. Across the board, they were as friendly as any train crews I have encountered, if not more so. All in all it adds up to a great experience.