Sunday, May 31, 2009

More MAC Madness

Current discussion on the OMR list has brought up a question about power assignment on coal trains in the north country-specifically, are the classic SD70MAC's becoming more prevelant as newer power from EMD and GE is reassinged? This is one of those classic railfan questions that tends to be discussed at length, which each person bringing what they think they have seen to the table.

I was of the opinion that the answer was no, the new power continues to gain share on these trains, but after hearing out those who had the opposite view and taking a look at my coal train photos from the past month, I have to admit that the MAC's are, at the least, not losing any ground. Today's observations tend to reinforce that conclusion.

A trip to Fargo gave me the chance to fan the west end of the Staples Sub. Traffic was very light, as in two trains seen all day, but luckily they were both in good light, and strangely enough, both in a position to be shot from a bridge. The first one was this empty coal train stopped at Watts to change crews. I tell you, my extra weight was put to good use on this shot as it helped me not blow away in what felt like hurricane force nor'westers on the bridge.

So what do we have here? A MAC all right, but this one is in the "swoosh" or "wedgie" paint scheme, just like the ACe that trails in this consist. There was no DPU on this train, and that is something else I have been noticing-more coal trains seem to be running with two units as the winter turns into summer.

Mrs. L4T and I next decided to stake out the wood bridge southwest of Hawley for a few minutes on the drive home. This looks to me like the spot where Mitch Wahlsten shot this photo at a time when the sun angle was a lot different that today. I had decided to wait until 7:00 PM, and about 8 minutes to 7, I heard a horn to the east! I jumped out of the Escape and walked out on the bridge. After a wait of not more that a minute or two another coal empty rolls around the corner, behind wouldn't you know it, two MAC's. My first shot from this location, and I like the way it turned out. Now you know where some of the dirt for the Stockwood Fill came from.

And that was that. Not another train, or peep on the scanner, all the way home. What started out as a bleak and overcast afternoon turned out to be a great summer day, with a temp over 80 and beautiful blue sky. Even the howling wind can't spoil a day like this. And the "cherry on the top", so to speak, was the chance to grab a couple of train shots in new or what to me are underutilized locations. Thanks for looking!


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Anniversary Saturday

One of my favorite photo locations combined with one of (what used to be) one of my favorite paint schemes offered a great start to the day our wedding anniversary. I mourn for the nose logos on the MAC's.

I had plans to head out early this morning to take advantage of the low sun angle and the beautiful weather. Mrs. L4T chose to hold off until evening on any what she calls "train hunting". The plan was to head west until I found an eastbound, then chase him back to Staples while taking advantage of any photo ops that were present along the way. My first eastbound turned out to be a vehicle train, which is a more uncommon find than it used to be, with a pair of Dash 9's up front, again increasingly rare due to the inroads of GEVO units on the BNSF fleet. Only problem was, this Dash 9 could stand an appointment with the paint booth.

But a train is a train, and a plan is a plan. I sped east and managed to try a shot at a new location for me, at the curve on the fill just east of the Leaf River bridge near Bluffton. I think this shot could work, if only I had a bucket truck or jet pack to help get some elevation.

I beat him to Staples, and shot him as he passed the yard, but I have posted enough photos of faded and peeling warbonnets for one post. So on to the next train.

After watching a westbound manifest pass the depot, I heard an eastbound clear his warrant at Wadena. The dispatcher told the crew they would be yarding that train and boarding the loaded coal train that was sitting in Staples. I decided to head to the west end of the yard and get a shot as they passed under the signal bridge.

Next shot was back at the east end after the train pulled up next to the load that had been sitting there. There appears to be something wrong with "N" on the nose logo of the ACe. The crew had to shuffle some power on the train they were taking out, and it was time for me to head for home, so off I went.

There was quite a collection of M-O-W equipment in the Staples yard on the siding by the LNG cars. The tie project must be getting close to Staples.

I spent much of the mid-day working on our screen porch, a project I have been putting off for too long. I got the old screens ripped off, scraped the areas where the paint was loose or flaking, and primed all the bare and scraped spots. Lots more work to do on that.

At some point I wandered into the house (I think it was when I changed into my painting clothes) and noticed the OMR post about the windmill train having passed Coon Creek about 12:30. I figured if I got done priming early enough, I could make a run and see if I could spot that train. I left home about 2:45 and met him between Staples and Aldrich, making good time. I turned around, gave chase, and barely got ahead of him for a shot at the Wing River.

I was glad to see that train, even if the sun was too high for a real nice photo. It was really amazing to see how much those blades flex as the train bounces and sways on the track. The windmill train had an ES44DC on each end.

After supper I took a look at the ATCS display and saw a westbound passing Philbrook. Mrs. L4T was up for a ride, and we headed east for a little train hunting. Once again I was caught in no man's land, just like I had been by the windmill train earlier in the afternoon, when the train showed up less than a minute before the detector at MP 151 sounded off. The line runs through the woods in this area and you can't really see a train coming until it is right on you. Three nice looking Dash 9's (no "Trash 9's in this consist)were the power for this train, and I decided to shoot him at the Wadena crossovers.

Our wedding anniversary proved to be a productive day for railfanning, although the morning was little light on train traffic. But I saw something I had never seen before (the windmill train) and I managed to share a ride to Aldrich with the Mrs. All in all, not a bad day!

Jim, out

Friday, May 29, 2009

And Now for Something Different

A steady diet of orange GE's has me on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary, and Thursday evening Mrs. L4T and myself found just such a thing.

This ex-Santa Fe Geep is a rare GP40X carbody. When I pulled up to the train in Staples, I thought I had found an SD45 running around, but the length and the trucks soon gave it away. It was the third unit on this train, behind a Dash 9 and another EMD geep (this one cascade green) of some vintage. I'm not that accomplished at telling them apart.

According to this site, only 23 of these were ever built, with Santa Fe having the largest fleet of 10. It was a precursor to the GP50.

A nice change from the steady procession of orange GE's that now dominate the Staples Sub. I've got a few of those shots to post but I decided this one deserved it's own post, since it is kind of a loner in the BNSF fleet. Traffic was slow Thursday evening due to a rock train working in the Lincoln area. After he cleared up, a fleet of eastbounds was all the traffic in the area.

When you look for trains, you never know what you might find.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorable Memorial Sunday

In what is becoming a tradition for me, this past Memorial Day weekend found the Canadian railfan bunch in the Wadena area for the third year in a row (for me-they have been coming down to this area for a lot longer than three years).

I was able to get out and spend some time with them Sunday afternoon, and the BNSF was thoughtful enough to even send a few trains our way. I'm sure the crews are surprised to see the influx of people and technology in the area when this group of career rails are in the area and hard at work recording the action on video, still image, audio and in written notes.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun to catch up with these guys, and to meet the wife of one. Who wouldn't appreciate a new wife who was willing to make railfanning part of a honeymoon trip?

It makes me appreciate the fact that I can always count on Mrs. L4T to be ready for a jaunt along the Staples Sub, especially our traditional Sunday evening drives. This week our destination was Staples, where we once again sampled the delights offered at the Dairy Queen.

Even before we made it to Staples we found this mixed freight passing the station sign at Dower Lake. Turns out he was using Main 1 as switching lead as he dropped off a few cars in the Staples yard. I got this shot as he was backing his train into the yard. As this took a while, he was still finishing up his work when we were done eating.

Knowing that he would soon be heading west, I decided to leapfrog towards Wadena and set up somewhere where the track had curved more to the northwest so I could get him in more 3/4 light. I was thinking somewhere around Verndale, but I spotted another headlight just after passing through Aldrich and swung into the next crossing to shoot that train. He was moving slowly as I waited for the 7250 to arrive from Staples. However, I thought I had heard the dispatcher talking to the 6609 west and I was anxious to see if this was an ES44C4. I hadn't seen one in a month or so and wondered where they had gone.

Sure enough, it was one of the new A1A-A1A GE's. This was the first time I have seen one of these units paired with a different model of locomotive, this time the trailing unit was a regular old Dash 9.

The problem with this slow moving train was that it might block my nicely lit shot of the 7250. Sure enough, just as he crossed the road, I saw the headlight of a westbound round the corner at Aldrich. It didn't turn out to even be close-the meet was well down the line from where I was, and most of the westbound was by the crossing when the eastbound cleared. Here's the closest I was to a meet:

All in all, an interesting evening, and an entertaining day catching up with friends and sharing stories from along the line. It's always a treat for a railfan like myself to get the chance to hear stories told by actual working rail employees like the bunch from up north. Thanks to Craig, Mike, and Chris, for putting up with my questions and being willing to discuss the things I see along the line.

I got to spend a little more time with them the next morning, and look forward to seeing photos from their extensive railfan journeys. I especially want to see the shots Chris and Craig got from the Powder River Basin, as Mrs. L4T has agreed that it will be a stop on our vacation this fall. I'm looking forward to the trip.

Jim, out

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Saturday Night (Not Very) Special

What with it being a long holiday weekend, the sun being out, and not having anything else that HAD to be done, Mrs. L4T and myself decided to run over to Staples Saturday after supper. I knew there were a few westbounds out and thought I might have a chance at a couple in decent light, unlike a recent trip when the clouds got the best of me on a busy evening.

Before we even made it to Verndale, I spotted a headlight and made for one of my standard spots, the dip where the tracks cross the Wing River west of that fair city. I really need to find a longer lens that will give me a clear shot at an affordable price. If such a thing exists.

After meandering over to Staples, I decided to take my laptop uptown to see if I could find a wireless signal to grab in order to view ATCS info while out fanning. Since I had both hands busy, I asked the Mrs. to drive. Before she had even finished parking uptown I heard a coal empty call for permission to enter the Staples Sub. He was close, as the radio was very clear, so I asked Mrs. L4T to make haste back trackside so I could get a photo. She skidded to a stop near the 6th Street crossing as I bailed out to grab this backlit shot of the MAC leading the train. I've no doubt that my antics were a source of great amusement to the crew on the coal train. After all, isn't that why I'm here, to keep the crews entertained on their long journeys across central Minnesota?

After a futile attempt to get my old laptop up and running in order to sniff around for wireless signals, I finally gave up. The battery is decrepit, and while the machine will run ATCS fine when an outlet is available, the inexpensive inverter I have for charging my cell phone and bluetooth headset are overmatched when pitted against the power requirements of this 8 year old Dell laptop.

I took the wheel again, and pointed the Escape west. I made it less than 2 blocks before hearing the detector at 151.6 announce the imminent arrival of an eastbound train. Since I so rarely see trains on this line, I decided there was no way I could pass up the chance at this backlit, wanna be glint shot. I should be ashamed of even posting it, but decided to offer it up as a display of how I can hardly ever pass up the opportunity to photograph a train, even when I know the results will be sub-par.

And with that we headed for home. There's an old saying about a bad day (golfing, fishing, hunting, take your pick) is better than a good day at work. Even though this wasn't a bad day, I think it would be safe to add railfanning to the list of things that are good even when they aren't great.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Couple from this Week

Lots of miles this week, but not so much train action. I have already shared my first shot from the week, and it was probably the most surprising one as well.

On my way out of Virginia on Tuesday, I drove by the former DWP yeard and found a DMIR tunnel motor (in CN paint, darn) all alone at the front of a string of loaded ballast cars. Even though the high sun and overcast made photo conditions less than ideal I took a shot of it.

I was in Hibbing until after lunch on Wednesday, when I had to leave for a meeting in Fosston that evening. I didn't see any action along the Lakes or GF Subs until I was west of Bemidji where there were two MOW crews out working on the tracks. I figured that meant no trains for me, but between Bagley and Fosston I spied a headlight and made the first U-turn I could find. The Cass Lake local was speeding east with a whole bunch more swamp mats and I barely got ahead of him for a shot out the passenger window at a crossing. It turned out poorly so no image.

Friday I headed for Perham a little after 0730, and before I even got out of town I heard a train pass the detector at 174.1. I decided to wait for him at the loading dock on the west side of Wadena, and in just a few mintues he showed up with an ES44AC leading.

Last night's shots are nothing special due to the clouds, although traffic was heavy with what I assume was a MOW window for tie replacement having just ended. Mrs. L4T and myself saw 8 trains and I attempted photography on 7 of them.

Hopefully this long weekend will give me a chance to get out and do some serious fanning rather than the hit and miss stuff I get while travelling. I'll be looking.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Year Ago...Today

Passing through Staples a year ago today, I happened on a stopped empty coal train waiting to enter the Staples Sub. This train was just coming off the Brainerd, and at the time DPU was less common that it is now.

The weather was gourgeous (much like today) and the nose of the stopped ES44AC was nicely lit. As the tail end of the train was close to a crossing, I decided to try for an "artsy" shot with the power reflected in the shiny rail.

One thing that has intrigued me about this shot, and about DPU's in general, is how some of them will have a FRED hanging on the coupler, while others don't. I hardly believe this is affected by the age of the loco, as this GEVO was a fairly new unit at the time of the shot. I guess I will probably never have an answer to that mystery.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cromwell Surprise

On my way over to Virginia Monday, I followed Highway 210 to Cromwell, then headed north on 73. I saw no traffic until I arrived at Cromwell, where a loaded coal train was stopped west of the Highway 73 crossing. I grabbed my camera to get a shot as I crossed the tracks. To my surprise, the second unit was one the KCS "Southern Belle" GE's. I haven't seen foreign power used on these coal trains before at all that I can remember.

Sorry about the photo quality, I only have Picasa on my work laptop to try and edit with.

Virginia is not as exciting with all the taconite plants shut down. Traffic is down to only the CN trains that traverse the area. Clouds moved in Monday evening after work so I didn't even go out and look. Maybe later this week.

Jim, out

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Another Sunday Night in Staples

Seeing how Sunday night is "date night" in the L4T household, we are always discussing where to go for supper that evening. Strangely enough, the destinations almost always turn out to be somewhere along the Highway 10/BNSF corridor through central Minnesota. This last Sunday night was no different.

Since we had been hitting the DQ circuit pretty hard, Mrs. L4T hinted that a different atmosphere might be appreciated. Not wanting to risk my reputation as a gentleman, I graciously agreed. And so it came to pass that we headed for The Spot in Staples on this glorious May evening.

As we approached Staples, I spotted a headlight in a location that usually indicates a westbound is coming out of the yard. Sure enough, another string of GE's was easing an H train out past the signal bridge on Main 2, so I swung into the Dower Lake crossing to grab a photo.

Before they made the crossing, they stopped and radio chatter indicated they might be dropping cars in the yard. Given that they would be working for a while, we headed to The Spot and enjoyed a sit-down supper in view of the Staples Sub. Not a train passed while we ate.

When we finished, the H train was still at the west end of the yard, having set out two Dash 9's in the yard. In a moment, a coal empty off the Brainerd called asking to enter the Staples Sub. The dispatcher told him to wait for the H train to leave, while at the same time an eastbound was approaching on Main 2. I ran out to the west end of the yard to grab a shot of the coal loads as they passed the waiting manifest. This Superior bound train then stopped in front of the depot to wait for the empty to make room for him on the single track Brainerd Sub.

As the manifest got underway, I headed back to the 6th Street crossing and set up to shoot the empty as he swung onto the Staples. Finally, some EMD's to break the monotony of the GE parade I had been stuck on, with the exception of the ACe third out on the loaded train. These MAC's had obviously seen serious duty and could stand a trip to the wash rack.

While all this was transpiring, I heard another train clear a warrant at Wadena and decided to try and find a spot where an eastbound might have some light on it. The county road out south of Staples offers a view of the tracks across some muskeg, and I decided to try a long distance profile. It's a real long ways, and this is a spot where a 300 mm lens might offer some help. But heh, it's a different view, and a somewhat lit up eastbound in the evening. Not all bad.

A final note: when I passed the depot in Staples, I noticed there were two bucket lifts and a carry-all type vehicle parked just east of the building. It made me suspect that the long-rumored roof replacement project might just be close to happening. I'll keep an eye on things when I get the chance to pass through and update you on any Staples depot progress.

Jim, out

GE Potluck

With business in North Dakota again this weekend, Mrs. L4T and your humble correspondent ventured west once again Saturday AM. Sun in the forecast and a bit of free time today raised high hopes that traffic would be as heavy as it had been the previous Saturday, when poor weather and a tight schedule prevented any photo ops.

Alas, it was not to be. Having met only a Z train near Frazee, and not having a good spot to grab a photo of him, I arrived at Dilworth with the camera still in the bag. Chatter on the scanner and a headlight on the main indicated an eastbound was likely, however, and we staked out the overpass near Northern Grain to wait for a shot.

With a strong northwest wind and a temperature hovering near 40 degrees, this shot took a toll on Mr. L4T. I certainly hadn't come equipped with gloves in late May, but I could have used them as I waited for the train to arrive.

As you can see, this consist was a mix of GE products, with the GEVO units getting ever more common as time passes. All but coal trains have become almost exclusively GE powered as the recession allows BNSF to store the less efficient power in hopes of a better day. What started with stored SD40-2's has progressed to the Oakway SD60's, Green Giant SD60M's and even the warbonnet SD75's apparently having been laid up. The only EMD's left on the Staples Sub are the MACs and ACes on coal, and 4 axle power on locals.

One unusual (to me) move I noticed as we passed through Moorhead was a loaded coal train passing west through town, headed for the Hillsboro sub and I suppose ultimately Clay Boswell. Is that normal, or does coal for the Grand Forks sub normally swing north in Fargo? Seemed unusual to see coal moving west.

As we headed home in the evening, I stopped and grabbed a few shots of the Stockwood Fill, with no trains anywhere to be found. After finishing up with that, I headed for Hawley, and soon heard BNSF 6130 (I think) get a warrant for Richards Spur-Wadena. The dispatcher asked if he was one engine, and the conductor came back, no we are 6 units light power. Huh? I sped up to maximum authorized speed plus a bit, and finally spotted this consist nearing DL. I was able to just keep up, and when we made it through town I finally caught him leaving Frazee as the light gave way. This is a going away shot of the mixed bag of GE's going...somewhere.

And that's all there was to see on a long day, Wadena to Fargo to Grand Forks and back. Traffic was light, but as always, if you look long and hard enough, you will find something that surprises.

Jim, out

Stockwood Fill

Any railfan who has ever travelled Highway 10 from Detroit Lakes to Dilworth has noticed the 7 miles or so of mainline that is on an elevated grade heading east from Glyndon. While shots from the Highway 10 side of the tracks are rarely well-lit, trains can look very impressive making their way along this trackage. I don't have any presentable shots of trains on the fill, but this shot by Mitch Wahlsten is the best I have seen showing a train in action coming "down the hill", as the crews say on the radio when calling the Dilworth Yard.

The question that always pops into my mind when I am travelling this route is "where did this come from and how did it get there?" For the answers to those questions I would direct you to this photo-essay describing the background and construction of the fill. After you read this piece, titled "Toils on Weak Soils", you will never look at the Stockwood Fill the same way again. A couple of the statistics from the article demonstrate the effort expended in construction: more than 2 million board feet of lumber and 5 million cubic yards of fill went into the (partially) successful effort to ease the grade out of the Red River Valley for eastbound trains. To this day, you can see heavy trains work hard all way to the Lake Park area as they lift their loads out of the basin of the ancient glacial Lake Agassiz.

Yesterday, on the way home from North Dakota, I grabbed a few shots of the fill, even though there was no traffic moving while we paralleled the tracks in this area. The fill starts in the Glyndon area, just barely noticeable at first, and rises to a height approaching 50 feet before the tracks begin to follow the Buffalo River valley eastward.

In a couple of the shots you can see remnants of the compression ridges caused by the sinking of the fill as it was installed. The Highway 9 underpass gives and idea of how massive this fill is, and helps a person imagine how much work went into building it.

Next time you travel Highway 10 in this area, take a moment to think about and appreciate the effort that went into building it.

Jim, out

Friday, May 15, 2009

Austin Bound

ICE 6452 heading for Austin
Originally uploaded by look4trains

Having spent a few days in the Austin and Owatonna area this week, I had hopes of catching some DME or ICE action. My last night in the area, I was staying in Owatonna. After checking into my motel, I heard a horn on the DME and headed out to check the traffic. Turned out to be an ethanol train headed east. Not knowing the town, I decided to try and get ahead of the train and finally accomplished that at the Highway 14 overpass south of Owatonna.

It was a cloudy day, and I tried to compose the shot in a way that would minimize the unattractive white sky. I also kind of like the way the cattle worked their way into the photo. As you can see, the EMD's were working hard on this long train as they passed under me.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tie Project

Having caught the BNSF unloading new ties along the Staples Sub right of way earlier this spring, I have been watching for the start of what appears to be a major tie replacement project. It looks as if the project has kicked off, and major progress is being made. I caught them working on the project today as I passed through Royalton on my way home. The crew had just finished work and was heading into a siding when I stopped.

My first photo was of the "facilites" that are provided to the workers when they are working along the main. I really enjoyed the crescent on the door-it's a nice touch. (Remember, clicking on the thumbnails will open the full size image in a new window)

I grabbed another shot of the biffy as it passed by. This is quite an elaborate setup-looks like a water tank is provided for washing up as well.

The next piece of equipment that caught my eye looked to be a machine that picks up the used spikes. One of the things that attracted me to this was the CAT graphics on the machine-it was the only piece of equipment that I noticed that was made by CAT.

I grabbed a shot of about half the equipment in the siding at Royalton. I couldn't get a much better angle, with all the traffic and people in the area. I didn't want to seem like a psycho railfan to the BNSF people on site.

Next up is what I think is a ballast regulator. If you look closely, you can see the amount of work being done by the brush under the hood on the far end of this machine. There were ballast chunks being thrown all over the place. Definitely something you want to stay clear of, as a piece of flying ballast could make your day take a definite turn for the worse.

Just before I left, an eastbound manifest passed through the area at 25 mph. I heard the radio conversation between the foreman and the conductor and the the train crew promised to keep an extra close eye out for any workers as they passed through the area.

Obviously these shots were taken in high sun with less than ideal light. As the crew passes through the Wadena area I hope to be able to get out some morning and grab better lit shots of this operation.

Given the number of employees working on this project, maybe the best economic stimulus the government could have undertaken would have been to fund even more tie replacement projects. This was impressive, and the crew is making impressive progress, with the project seemingly complete from the Big Lake area all the way to Royalton.

Jim, out.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fire One

Mrs. L4T and myself were set to celebrate Mom's Day with a trip to the Staples Dairy Queen this evening. After a lazy day recovering from the physical effort of helping our son move yesterday, we decided to head out about 5 PM. A quick glance at the ATCS display revealed a westbound train approaching Wadena, so I prompted the guest of honor to hurry and get ready. Even with my cajoling, we were a bit late in getting uptown as the train was just clearing the crossing. I vowed to catch up with him, even though he was headed away from Staples. After all, Perham has a Dairy Queen, too.

We reached the Bluffton curve in time to see the tail end of the train. When I glanced up towards the tracks to dream of what might have been had we left a few minutes earlier (could have shot this train in nice light rounding the curve), I caught a glimpse of smoke coming from the ROW. I immediately decided my citizenly duty was to investigate the source of the smoke. As you can see above, it wasn't a conflagration, but the smoke was enough to indicate something was definitely burning.

I wasn't going to try and put the fire out, and thought someone needed to know, so I called the BNSF emergency number and gave them the crossing number as a location. I noticed later that the rail looked freshly ground, and suspect that might have been the cause of this fire.

By this time the westbound was well out of reach. We decided to head east again, in the hopes that something would develop from that direction. I had an inkling something was coming up the Staples Sub, but just as we reached Aldrich, I heard a coal empty call the Staples dispatcher for a warrant as he came off the Brainerd Sub. He got his ticket, and word that he would have to wait for a westbound Z on Main 1 before he could enter the plant at Staples.

This gave us a chance to swing through the drive up at the DQ and grab some tasty fast food-chicken strips for me, and popcorn shrimp for the Mrs. We settled in for supper and to wait for the coal empty to head west. Soon enough the zipper passed and the coal train throttled up. I grabbed a shot as he swung onto the Staples Sub.

After trying a shot of the DPU ACE passing the depot, I decided that maybe we could still get ahead of this train for one more try. Turned out to be quite a struggle.

It took all the way past Bluffton before I could cut him off. I got him again at the Ottertail County 147 crossing as he rounded the curve.

All in all we saw three trains this evening, two backlit eastbounds and the westbound coal train. I guess you could call the tail end of the first westbounder a fourth train but I never caught up to him. I think we did our good deed for the day, reporting a tie fire, but the reaction at the emergency number didn't really tell me if they appreciated it or not. Anyway, it was a gorgeous evening to spend travelling along the tracks in early May here in central Minnesota, looking for trains.

Jim, out

A Few from the Road

I am lucky(?) enough to have a job that gives me the chance to travel the state. At the same time there are places I have to be at given times, so frequently I am along tracks with no time to stop and wait for a train, I just grab whatever targets of opportunity present themselves. This past week was a good example of that.

Monday morning I headed northwest with a destination of Warren, MN. I followed the Staples Sub from Wadena to DL, the CP Detroit Lakes Sub north to Erskine, picked up the BNSF Grand Forks Sub west to Crookston, and the Noyes Sub north to its crossing with the NPR at Warren. Yes, I am like that, and do plan my routes with railroads in mind.

Anyway, there was no traffic until I passed through Erskine and met what I believe was the Cass Lake local working the propane plant in Mentor. The sun was high, but I stopped and grabbed a couple of quick shots before moving on. This is probably the best one. (NOTE: I have changed the formatting of photos on the blog. Starting with the last couple of posts, clicking on the pictures should make them open in a new window, rather than the existing window like they used to.)

Looks like the swamp mats are still moving somewhere. I also noticed that the shuttle elevator at Erskine had a train stored on the loop. I found another stored train on the loop at Argyle the next day.

Now, I have had pretty good luck along the Noyes Sub in the past. Not a lot of trains, but one train a day each way has given me a chance at a shot almost every full day I spend up in the area. The flooding north of the border had really clamped down on the traffic this week, though. Seeing or hearing nothing for the first couple of days (with the exception of an eastbound NPR train in Warren that work prevented me going after), I figured the Noyes was as good as closed. But on Wednesday, I heard a horn while in Stephen and almost crippled myself rushing out the building, with just enough time to see a string of yellow rock cars of some sort head north. I never saw the power.

I was in Hallock that night, staying at the Caribou Inn and dining across the parking lot at the Caribou Grill, when what I think was the same train sailed through town southbound. All I saw from the window were the tops of two orange locos passing by. My view was obstructed by buildings and I wouldn't have seen the cars if they were along for the ride.

So flash forward to Thursday, on my trip home. I noticed that the unit trains stored on the loops at Argyle and Erskine were both gone. However, once again, traffic was light almost all the way to Perham. Finally I spotted the headlight of a westbound and pulled over to the nearest crossing to grab a shot of an ES44DC leading three Dash 9's on an intermodal.

Continuing east, I spotted another westbound just as I left New York Mills. I had a few minutes to spare so I made a u-turn and raced west, considering a shot from the Highway 10 overpass. I decided to try a shot at the Perham curve instead. This train was really flying, and I had hardly any time to get out and run through the ditch before grabbing this shot of him just entering the curve at Perham.

So, having travelled almost 600 miles (including daily trips along portions of the Noyes Sub as I worked in that area), and paralleling railroad tracks the entire way, I came home with a grand total of three shots. This was not my most productive railfanning week by any means. Strangely, on Saturday Mrs. L4T and myself were up and out early as we headed to Fargo to help the Son & heir move from Fargo to Grand Forks, and I met 5 eastbounds between Wadena and DL, along with passing a westbound. So there are still trains out and about. You just have to get lucky.

Tonight we will probably head out after supper and see if any traffic is moving. The skies have cleared and the temp is a very pleasant 60. Next week, I will be travelling the Staples Sub, the UP in southeast MN, and some DME and ICE trackage, so with any luck, I will get some shots to share from that part of the state. Thanks for looking!

Jim, out

Sunday, May 3, 2009

That "New Loco" Smell

Along with a number of other OMR members, Mrs. L4T and myself spent a little time on the west end of the Staples Sub Sunday afternoon. I thought a few westbounds would show, and sure enough we got a couple of chances. First up was this empty coal train, that passed through Wadena a few minutes before we left. I caught up with and passed him around Frazee and decided to try a shot at the curve near Richards Spur:

A quick getway allowed me to pass him once more and grab a shot from the Highway 32 overpass. I like this location a lot, and I got a friendly toot on the horn from the engineer.

I soon heard another westbound clear up a warrant, and fretted about where to shoot him. In hopes of a new angle, I headed to the crossing south of Hawley, and got there with only a couple of minutes to spare as this intermodal with three like-new GEVO's on the point with two more trailing in the consist roared down on me. I thought I could smell fresh paint as they rolled by.

I decided to try for another shot of these new locos, and chased him all the way to East Dilworth. However, the sun angle was pretty much head-on at that point and the shots didn't turn out too well. It did give me the chance to gas up in Glyndon for $1.93 a gallon though so it wasn't a wasted trip.

After supper at the Hawley Dairy Queen, where people were lined up 4 to 5 deep at the counter trying to get tasty treats, we decided to meander home to Wadena. I made it almost all the way back (halfway between New York Mills and Wadena) before meeting a merchandise train with three Dash 9's up front. Time for a u turn and a run back to the overpass west of NYM. A short wait yielded this shot.

Met one more westbound coal train before getting home but we didn't try and catch him. We had a good time and managed to see a few trains. What more could a man ask for on a lazy Sunday afternoon?

We had to have crossed paths with Jeremiah and Bryant at some point that afternoon, as I heard the 8300 working its way east just behind us on the trip home. Looks like the two of you had a great outing. Keep up the good work.

Jim, out.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

What is ATCS?

What if I told you that as I sit here typing out this meager offering I was also monitoring the train traffic on almost the entire Staples Sub at the same time, watching a display that is very similar to what the dispatcher in Texas is seeing and having it updated in real time? That I can see the passage of the train I just heard blow for the crossings in Wadena? (According to the radio, it's BNSF 5254 east, clearing up a warrant just now.) And, it's all free?

Click to open in a new window

I first learned about something called ATCS Monitor about a year ago. When Mike and Craig came down from Canada last May, they were set up to monitor signal indications remotely (using a radio and laptop) and I remember being fascinated by the possibilities this offered.

A little research put me in touch with a group in the Twin Cities that was very involved with this technology. They were looking for someone in this area to host a radio and server for capturing the signal information from the Dower Lake and Wadena control points, and thought I might be able to do that. One thing led to another, and I was soon sent a radio and got the instructions and help for how to get my install up and running. I was seeing signal indications from Dower Lake and Wadena on my server. These guys are good!

Life, as it often does, occupied my time and put installing and getting ATCS running on my main computer on the back burner. Finally, a week or so ago I decided to get with the program, and with some help from Don Schoenberger in the Twin Cities, got my display operating. The results are shown in the picture above. I have to say, it is impressive. The work that has gone into this is very extensive.

So, what are some of the highlights and shortcomings of ATCS? First, it only works where CTC signalling is in place. That covers a majority of the Staples Sub, but if you look closely at the screenshot, you can see that the two sections of TWC territory are greyed out. Richards Spur to Wadena and Gregory to St. Cloud are not covered by CTC, thus ATCS Monitor can't capture any information on these segments. As you can see, the rest of the Sub is CTC and thus the radios and servers in various locations capture the signal indications that are communicated by radio between the various control points.

Not every trackside signal is shown. I don't know the proper technical term, but I think of the sections as being between crossover switches or sidings, and approaches for them. I'm still trying to figure out how to interpret the information I see. Basically, the red sections are occupied by a train, and the green sections have a signal lit up allowing a train to enter them. The small diamonds along the side of the track represent the signals. Sometimes you will see a train stopped at a red signal. Other times they will have green signals stretching out a long way in front of them. The route through turnouts and crossovers will be shown. Trains will sometimes (logically) occupy multiple sections at one time.

Given that we are blessed with a couple of sections of TWC, radio traffic is required as well as signal indications, with trains being issued and clearing track warrants. In my opinion, this makes for an almost perfect railfanning environment, with ATCS allowing you to see trains well in advance of their arrival, and track warrants being cleared and issued giving you some idea of what train you are seeing on the display. Defect detectors also help to ID trains, given that intermodal trains are usually in the 200-300 axle range, coal around 480-500 axles, with manifests being the wild card.

Last night Mrs. L4T hinted that ride would be nice, and the sun was peeking out from time to time. I took a look at the ATCS display, and sure enough, there was a westbound looked to be stopped at Wadena on Main 2, and another leaving Staples on Main 1. By the time we made it uptown and crossed the tracks, I could see two headlights to the east, and set up for a shot.

I knew there were a few more westbounds out there, and we managed to get some more chances that I will share later.

I think ATCS is a great railfanning tool, and it's one more "piece of the puzzle" when you are trying to figure out what is happening on a certain stretch of railroad. I'm a fan, and want to encourage others who might be interested to try it too. There are a lot of helpful users, and it's not as hard as you would think at first glance.

One drawback: as far as I know, this is Windows-only software. I know there are some faithful Mac users out there, sorry.

A last thought as well. There is at least one webmaster that is hosting the dispatcher image, and has it set up so it refreshes every minute or so. I have emailed him asking how he does it. If it is not too difficult or costly, that is something I would like to try and do in the future.

Jim, out