Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009-Year in Review

I've been pondering doing a "year in review" post for a couple of weeks, and even made a list of some the memorable experiences I had railfanning in 2009. I figured it would be tough to come up with a list of unique happenings-after all, how exciting can it be to get out trackside and aim the camera at a train?

It was surprising when the list ended up being to cover in a post. A whole bunch of neat things happened in the area this year-some of them that will be repeated, and some that won't. I went in the ditch for the first time while chasing trains (which I hope NOT to repeat). BNSF's ES44C4's were common on the Staples Sub for a couple of months, and I managed to catch more than half of the 25 units in this area. I was lucky enough to encounter a "monster train" as it passed through the Little Falls area. I made it back to the Kate Shelley bridge for the second year in a row. I got a shot of the Brainerd local doing some street running. And I got to spend time with a bunch of fellow railfans. These are a sample of what I was lucky enough to experience this year.

But I decided to focus on what I thought were my top 5 railfanning experiences, and in true David Letterman style, am counting them down in reverse order. So here goes:

At number 5, just about a year ago I became the proud owner of a new camera. I have about a year under my belt now with the Pentax K200D, and am at about 5000 shots. So far I have been fairly happy with the camera, and would definitely do it again if I had the choice to make. There was (and is) more of a learning curve than I expected, but that's part of the fun to me. One tip to anyone using a camera that takes AA batteries for power-buy a set of the Energizer Ultimate Lithiums. I am on my 4th set. Yes, I do get more than 1000 photos from a $9 set of these batteries. Amazing.

One other thing I have learned, because I am stubborn and won't take advice without having it proven to me the hard way, is that all the advice about the importance of lenses is 100% true. If there is one piece of equipment that I would love to have for railfanning right now, it is a fast, high quality, medium range telephoto lens. I now realize why people buy these lenses even though they do cost an arm and a leg.

PS: I must be a glutton for punishment, because I actually kind of enjoy the abuse I take as a Pentax owner. So bring it on.

Number 4: My experience with ATCS. I was a late adapter, and actually was running a server from house for a few months before I started using ATCS myself. It has changed the way I railfan just like fishing with a depth finder changes the way you fish. The change is not all good, as the thrill of the hunt can be reduced, but being ready for more of the trains you see, and outings being more productive, makes up for that. The real change for me came when I found the feature that lets me publish a screenshot to my webserver every minute and access ATCS from my BlackBerry while trackside. Combined with a scanner, this is very powerful railfanning technology. I often know what is coming and where it is well in advance of arrival. I would hate to give up ATCS now that I have experienced it.

In the show position at number 3, I slotted in the day Mrs. L4T and I spent in the Powder River Basin area in October. The sheer volume of trains was amazing, and the weather cooperated for the only day of our vacation. I would be thrilled to return and shoot coal trains again. The scenery is totally different than anything I see in Minnesota, and the spectacle of loaded coal trains working their way up 1% grades while you stand on an overpass is hard to top. 2009 was the second consecutive year that the Mrs. agreed to travel to a railfan Mecca with me, and I sure hope that trend continues in the future! If you get the chance to visit Wyoming, by all means, do it.

I put my first ever experiences with working steam locomotives in the Number 2 slot. July found the SP 4449 headed east across the Staples Sub. I chased it from Detroit Lakes to Staples, and was flabbergasted at the number of people that came out to see the Daylight engine pass through the area. It was everything I had imagined and more. The cry of the whistle as 4449 approached a crossing, especially leaving Staples, is a sound I will never forget. I also caught the return trip as the engine passed through Bluffton, and the crowds were once again large. People love steam engines, especially when they are working. This is one of my favorite shots of 4449 on the Staples Sub.

And strangely enough, between these two trips, I got to ride behind a working steamer when I attended the Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag. So in 2009, it didn't just rain steam sparks on me, it actually poured.

A long time ago, when this blog was in its infancy, I posted something talking about why I do this. One of the big reasons was because of the people that I meet and interact with through railfanning. That was driven home this year at the Verndale Rail get-together, which is my Number 1 fanning experience of 2009. The turnout was very good, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Even the BNSF cooperated, running a fair number of trains on a decent afternoon in Verndale. We enjoyed good food, videos, stories, much debate about camera brands, and most of all, time spent with people who share the same interest. What a great bunch of people to spend an afternoon with. MN Chris was a big part of putting this together and I wanted to again say thanks for pushing this.

Here's hoping that 2010 holds out the promise of many calls of "Hot Rail!"


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Post Christmas Snow in the Sun

Having suffered from a railfan drought for almost the entire month of December, Mrs. L4T and I decided to head out this afternoon to check on a train that was showing westbound from Staples. Since the sun angle in the Wadena area this time of year is not at all conducive to afternoon photography, I headed for the only spot where there was a chance for nose light-Bluffton.

After a short wait we we greeted by an empty Dairyland Power coal train, headed up by three EMD's. I shot him as he crossed the bridge over the the Leaf River.

One more shot as he approached the grade crossing, kicking up a cloud of the fresh snow we received over the Christmas holiday.

The defect detector at MP 174.1 told me this train had 442 axles, which meant only 106 empties, a bit shorter than the average coal train on the Staples Sub.

I suspected there was an eastbound out and about as well, and as we chased the coal empty west, sure enough, we met an eastbound Z train. After a U turn and short chase, I grabbed a photo near the same location as the first two, unsuccessfully trying to capture the setting sun as the train passed. A matched set of three Dash 9's in the H2 scheme is getting to be less common than it once was.

And then we headed home. Hopefully the chances we get to check out the rail action will increase over the next few months, along with the length of the days. All for now.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Staples Snow Squall

A quick trip to Brainerd today gave Mrs. L4T and I the chance to check Staples for any rail action. We met a Herzog inspection truck on the way over, and they must have found a problem at Aldrich as the section was just beginning with what looked to be replacing a chunk of rail on Main 1, I believe.

A couple of trains in the yard at Staples, but we didn't have time to stop on the way over. After an appointment at Mills Ford and a quick shopping stop, we were on the way home in light snow flurries.

I spotted a coal train resting on the Staples Sub from across the lake as we approached Staples. If he was moving, it was mighty slow. As we entered town, there was a stopped train (looked like Becker empties) east of both crossings. I decided to grab a shot even though this area is might cluttered by wires.

Looks like a couple of pretty fresh GEVOs on the point of that one, along with an ACe in third place.

I could see some trains in the yard from that vantage point, and so we ran down on the south side of the yard from where I was able to get this. The snow was picking up a bit at this time.

Couple of loads in the yard, and a MERC empty waiting to head west. I heard another train on the radio, a westbound that had just passed Lincoln, but needed to get home and go back to work.

Another interesting item in that second shot is the trainset furthest to the left. I presume it's a stored Laskin Energy set, all black BN steel hoppers. It's been sitting in Staples for a few weeks now. I've never seen one being stored here before.

Met a couple of eastbounds as we travelled the final leg home to Wadena. I didn't see any more MOW action but suspect something was going on further to the west that had one main tied up. If I could have made it back out an hour or so later, I might have had some action as all those parked trains headed for Dilworth.

Seeing some trains in the white stuff kind of got the juices flowing again. Hopefully I'll start to get a little time to get out and about, get some photos, and find the time to post them.