Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Flirting with the Sun

Since she arrived home to a house with no supper prepared (I neglected my once a month duty to fix something when she is away from home), Mrs. L4T agreed to fast food tonight. After a stop at McDonalds drive thru, we staked out the tracks at Wadena in wait for a manifest I had heard was setting out a few cars in Staples before continuing west.

We just finished our sandwiches when a headlight popped up to the east, and since the overcast was still pretty thick in Wadena, I opted to head west in hopes of finding a flash of sun. The clouds broke up enough to allow a shot at the CR 143 curve west of Bluffton.

I decided to chase him a bit further west to see if I could get another shot since the Staples Sub ATCS looked dead. I intended to try the curve at Perham but made a last second decision to shoot him against the oak woods a couple of miles east of there.

I liked this location, and remember sitting here for a couple of hours one night in the hopes that a train would pass by. Not so long ago I had no scanner or ATCS and there was a lot more mystery to railfanning. Sometimes I miss those innocent days.

After we got home, a glance at the computer told me that a train was coming off the Brainerd Sub. I deicded to listen and see what the power was when he cleared up his Brainerd Sub warrant. Turns out it was a 9200 series ACe so I informed the Mrs. I was headed uptown for a try at that train as well.

The clouds were just as thick near Wadena as they had been earlier, with rare peeks of sun. I hoped to get one to light the nose of the oncoming empty coal train but no such luck. I had to shoot him anyway, though, when I saw 5 big EMD's on the head end.

I darn near packed up and left immediately, but decided to wait for some reason. Sure enough, even with all the head end power, there was a working DPU on the back of the train-another ACe. Seems like they are becoming a bit more common again.

That's it for tonights entry-trains were a bit scarce, but still worth looking for.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Red Wing Day 3-or "How I Drove 225 Miles to see a BNSF Coal Train"

Any of its few faithful readers will know that one of the most common subjects of this humble journal is the BNSF coal train. Living in Wadena and travelling the Highway 10 corridor gives me almost countless opportunties at shooting these trains, which are commonly powered by EMD SD70MAC locos. One of the attractions of shooting along the River Sub was the chance to broaden my horizon, so to speak, by working other roads into my photographic gallery.

On this, my last evening along the CP, (see the first day here, and the second day here)I decided to once again visit the Maple Springs area. After arriving there, I settled down with a novel to wait for the arrival of a train. I waited for over an hour before the eastbound signal lit up green, which forced me to head to the other end of the curve and prepare for a backlit shot. Imagine my surprise when this old friend rolled around the curve and out of the trees. This is one of the COLX trains that we see so often on the Staples Sub between Dilworth and Coon Creek.

I clicked away madly as he made his way around the curve with the heavy train. This image is probably my favorite from the whole trip. I love the contrast between the shaded and sunny sides, the glow of the greenery, and the way the right side of the image is framed by the tree.

After a quick run to Wabasha chasing this train (bonus-the DPU was BNSF 9999, one of my faves), I headed back to Maple Springs to wait again. After about half an hour, with no action, I decided to call it a night. However, just to the north, I came across a CP train waiting in a siding. I figured this meant a westbound was coming so I high-tailed it back south just in time to catch this.

Once again, the chase was on. I decided to have a go at him at my old faithful curve south of Red Wing, but ran out of light.

All in all, my impressions of the area are as follows: the scenery is gorgeous, and there are numerous spots to get great shots of trains passing through it. Traffic relatively steady, and Amtrak might be passing through during daylight, especially if you head far enough south (for #7) or are shooting in the morning (#8). Scouting the area will pay dividends in getting good photo angles. There are many shots that I don't have any idea how to shoot, for example, areas where the track is below the highway or the trees are so thick you can barely see the trains.

It's a great part of the state, and I can't wait to get another chance to visit.


Day 2 along the River Sub

After finishing work on Tuesday, I decided to head straight down to the Lake City/Maple Springs area. Unlike the gorgeous skies that had been present on Monday, tonight I could see that I would be fighting clouds and storms. While that might have deterred me around home, I decided to press on since my fanning opportunties in this part of the state are limited.

I staked out one of the curves at Maple Springs and finally got an eastbound CP manifest in my viewfinder. As you can see, the skies were a little threatening.

I decided to chase him south a ways to see if another shot could be had. I made it to the overpass in Wabasha and shot him there, in poor light. I decided to meander towards Red Wing and see what I could see.

I passed a train on my way up, and set up at the same corner as the night before. This is the best of that motley bunch. The shots I got closer to the crossing had focus issues, which I think may have been due to the headlights. It's a problem that plagues me periodically, both with my new camera and old camera. I need to try something different to deal with it rather than just get frustrated.

As soon as he reached the crossing I was off like a shot with the hopes of catching this train passing the depot in better light. I got him past the depot, with this being just a hair later than what I wanted. Red Wing has a gorgeous depot right along the river and I would really like to figure out how to work it into a shot sometime when I am in the area.

Amtrak was a bit late this night so no chance at them. I headed back to the motel to take a look at the day's shots and plot my course for the following evening.

First Impressions of the River Sub

Monday June 22 found me bound for southeast Minnesota. In the past I have spent the evenings in Zumbrota, but this trip I decided to establish my base in Red Wing. It's a bigger town with more hotel and restaurant options. It's also right on the CP River Sub so there were some railfan opportunties involved as well.

After I checked into my hotel, I decided to do a bit of exploring. This is a completely different kind of terrain than I am used to and it calls for a different approach. I caught a DP westbound through town just a few minutes after setting out, but the shot I got at a grade crossing in town was very crowded. I decided to head south and see what opportunities were available.

Just south of town I found a curve that seemed to have promise. Once again, I didn't have to wait too long for a train-and he was even heading into the sun! This is probably the best shot I got although the shadow from the crossing gate really irks me.

Next I headed further south to scout the area. Imagine my surprise when I met Amtrak's Empire Builder westbound at track speed! I made a quick u-turn and gave chase, which allowed me to catch but not pass the train by the time I got back to the curve in the photo above. I grabbed a going away shot but won't post it. Knowing Red Wing was a stop, I rushed into town, past the depot, and set up on an overpass to wait for him to come by. Sadly, the light disappeared before #7 appeared. I packed it in and headed back to my motel, which was just across the street from the tracks, and listened to CP freights pass by well into the evening.

I had a location in mind, and decided to try and be prepared for the Builder the next evening. With a plan and a long drive behind me, it was off to bed with visions of red GE's dancing in my head. So ended my first day along the River Sub.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Verndale Rail 2009

The first thing to say about the railfan get-together at Verndale on June 20 is "thanks". Thanks to Christopher Muller, who not only was a driving force behind getting it going, but also took the logistical lead in making sure there was food, beverage, and a grill for cooking. Thanks to everyone who attended and made this a fantastic experience for all who were able to be there. Thanks to BNSF for running trains on the Staples Sub while railfans were present. Thanks to Mother Nature for giving us great weather for the event. And thanks to the City of Verndale for providing a great location. In my opinion, and I think in the opinion of everyone who attended, it was a great success and will lead to other similar get-togethers in the future.

So what went on at this gathering? Well, here is a "taste" of the event:

As you can see the trains weren't the only thing that got attention. MN Chris did a bang-up job with the grill and there was food aplenty. I also have to give a shout-out to Mrs. L4T who baked some chocolate chip cookies for me to bring. They must have been good as none of them came home with me, and I didn't eat all of them myself.

Door prizes were distributed, and appropriately, the youngest attendees, along with some of the older ones, were winners.

What else do I remember? Well, I was chastised (in good nature, and I have to admit, only after insinuating that since this was my "home territory", I might have to charge for photography permits for interlopers) for not tending to my vegetation contol duties along the right of way.

I remember being reminded how old I actually am, since in the process of trying to start something with a St. Louis Cardinal fan and bringing up the subject of the 1987 World Series, it came to light that the person I was engaging in debate was only 5 at that time, compared to me having been in my late 20's.

I was put in my place as a Pentax owner, when a herd of Nikonians descended on Verndale in a clicking frenzy.

I heard stories about how NOT to clean the sensor on a DSLR, including what cleaning solutions and tools are a bad idea, and why it's important to know how long the mirror will stay up while you are doing this. That last story, involving a q-tip and no sense of timing, was enough to send chills up your spine.

We watched some spectacular video from end of LTV, when 5 F units were bringing reclaimed pellets from the dock in Taconite Harbor back to the plant site. Chris does a great job on those videos and they helped to entertain us during the times when there were no trains.

I remember the way people were gathered around the computer trying to interpret the ATCS display, and the speculation that maybe, just maybe, a coal empty from Superior might show up and surprise us all.

From my perspective, the best part of Verndale Rail 2009 wasn't the opportunity to take train pictures. It was the chance to meet people who I have corresponded with via email in the past, or who I have met briefly out along the tracks. While the internet lets us find people who share out interests more easily than in the past, there is still no substitute for meeting someone face to face and spending time with a group of people who participate in those activities that we enjoy. Getting to spend time with this group of people yesterday reminded me of that, and for me at least, put rail photography in second place for a day. It was fun to see and shoot trains but the real enjoyment came from sharing experiences and stories with people who could understand and identify with you.

That's not to say it wasn't fun to grab some train photos-and I learned the appropriate way to announce the appearance of a headlight in the distance. "Hot rail!"

I got a few decent shots, that I will be sharing over the next couple of posts. I learned a few photography facts, that hopefully will help me in the future.

So again, thanks to all involved for making this a success. It was one of the highlights of my railfanning career, and it left me looking forward to doing something similar again. Hopefully some of you who weren't able to make it this time will be able to attend the next one.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

First One from Verndale


Well, I made it to Verndale and the first train just went by. This intermodal had a pair of consecutively numbered new ES44DC's up front, trailed by a pair of Dash 9's. The photo suffers from high sun and lack of processing, but it's hot off the camera!

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Three from the 13th

It's been a busy weekend. Today we celebrated the birthday of the heir to the L4T empire and Saturday was filled with chores around the house. The only railfanning I managed to fit in had to come early Saturday, between about 6:30 and 9:30 AM.

The BNSF wasn't overly cooperative, but I got a couple of shots I enjoyed. I started out by heading west until I met a train, which was all the way to Ottertail CR 75, about a mile and a half outside Wadena. I immediately turned around and gave chase, shooting him passing the Wadena depot, passing through Vernadale, and passing a loaded coal train sitting in the Staples yard. I wasn't real happy with any of these.

Another eastbound was right on his heels, and I decided to run a bit further east and try some new shots. I ended up between Cushing and Randall, where I barely caught the first train as he travelled down the Staples Sub. This was actually shot out the passenger window as I didn't have time to dismount before he arrived.

Right behind were coal loads with (you guessed it) another MAC up front. This is from the exact same location, but the angle is a little different. I think this is my favorite shot of the day. With some experimentation this area should offer some nice photo ops in the future.

I decided to work my way back to Wadena, and paralleled the tracks as much as possible through the Philbrook area. The only train I saw was a vehicle train that caught me by surprise. I really need to address the scanner situation as there is either a radio or antenna problem that is screwing up reception and making chasing tougher.

When I made it to Staples I found a wireless signal, fired up my laptop, and saw on ATCS that an eastbound was just passing through Wadena. I headed west and made it past Aldrich before I spotted him. A quick u-turn and dash through the ditch yielded this shot:

I made it home with no further action. That was the end of my fanning for the weekend. I am looking forward to the Verndale get together this coming Saturday and hope that some of you are able to attend.


Thursday, June 11, 2009


I think it was John Denver who sang about sunshine on his shoulders making him happy. For me it is more like sunshine on BNSF's locos makes me happy. And Thursday I finally got a bit of that.

The morning started out with an early trip to Randall for work. The sun was out and a coal train was posing in the Staples yard, creating a combination that was too good to pass up. I grabbed this shot to capture the scene.

I spent most of the day in Randall, either outside along the tracks or trapped in meetings that let me see and hear the trains passing by but with no chance to attempt photos. Since the sun was almost directly overhead for much of the day I guess that was no loss. Street construction had a BNSF section employee on site in Randall and I got a chance to talk with him for a moment. The most interesting tidbits were that the ongoing tie replacement project on the Staples Sub comes at a high price-the total cost for each tie replaced is in the $45 neighborhood. That adds up to a LOT of money. Second, his impression was that traffic is down a bit, and that the change in traffic seems to lag the economy. This means that even as the economy recovers, any increase in train frequency will likely be a few months behind that improvement. Not scientific, just a working man's observation, but it seems the economists haven't been the most accurate when predicting what is going to happen so this probably has as much credibility as anything.

One interesting sighting was a two car business train, with the trailing car being "Skagit River", passing through Randall eastbound Thursday afternoon. Again, no photos as my camera was in the car, and the train was there and gone so fast I had no chance to retrieve it.

I arrived home to company, and after they left I asked Mrs. L4T if she was interested in going out for supper. Of course she was willing so we headed uptown with camera in hand. When I crossed the tracks an empty coal train was crossing from Main 2 to 1. I ran to CR 75 west of Wadena to catch him and I really liked the sky in the shot.

Next we headed for Staples. There was a train changing crews at the CR 9 crossing near Aldrich, and I shot him just as he started to pull. Probably should have changed lenses to try a wide angle.

After getting some "to-go" vittles at the DQ, we headed to the west end of the yard to shoot what I think is a rail welding train. Here are a couple of shots of this contraption, complete with a set of cascade green power, including an SD (40 or 39 or something) in the consist.

Soon Mrs. L4T spotted a headlight approaching from the east and I decided to backtrack towards Wadena to get in a spot where the light was less head on. I settled for a crossing just east of Oink Joint Road for this shot.

With that we aimed for home so I could take a look at what I had captured. Not too bad an evening, as we were able to see some trains and share a ride and a meal. Another fine day along Central Minnesota's iron highway, the Staples Sub.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Manitoba Junction

Friday morning found me bound for Hawley, with at least a half-day's work to complete before I could think about coming home. Turned out I worked in Hawley until almost 2:00 and it was a lucky thing I did.

When I was leaving town I noticed a worm train headed east across the Highway 10 overpass in Hawley. The sun was high but I though I might watch him traverse the scenic country between Hawley and Lake Park, my next stop. But, by the time I found him again, he was stopped at Manitoba Junction. It was a shuttle train for Ulen.

Having never seen this move before, I was flying blind looking for photo locations. My first shot of him was across an empty field as the power started climbing away from the Buffalo River. This was also the only angle that was lit in a way that was at all acceptable.

Trains entering this spur from the west have to make a very sharp, very extensive turn to get going north. After seeing this curve I have nicknamed it "Northwest Minnesota's Horseshoe Curve". It's the reason I posted the next shot, which was poorly lit but shows the power on the train travelling northwest and climbing the hill while the tail end of the train (just visible in the right side of the frame) is still heading east on the Staples Sub. It's a very drastic change of direction and grade, at least for this part of the country. I would love to get a train here in decent light, whenever that would be.

Since the train was picking his way along, I had time to run up a little further and grab a wedgie towards the top of the grade. Again, this one is is tough light, but I kind of like the effect with the grade, and something else you don't see on the Staples Sub, jointed rail. I have one other shot of a train on jointed rail (not BNSF, either) that I hope to post soon.

Finished up in Lake Park around 3:00, and headed for home. I knew traffic had been light all day and there was a tie crew at work west of Wadena. I saw eastbound empty ballast cars waiting at Richards Spur, but didn't see the power and didn't stop. I was surprised by a full tie crew heading into Perham from the west, and wondered how they had made it so far. Turns out there must be two crews working, as the Wadena crew was tied down when I got back to town. No wonder they are making such great progress. I think they are done to around CR143 near Bluffton, with the west crew having completed some work near Perham.

That's all from Friday, and I expect posting to be light over the weekend. I've started hoping for good weather for the OMR get-together on the 20th in Verndale. Hope some of you can make it to that event. Til next time, keep looking for trains.


Friday, June 5, 2009

The Highway 210 Thing

Business in Duluth on Tuesday resulted in the opportunity to fan nearly the entire length of the Brainerd Sub. Trains turned out to be few, but one train provided multiple shot attempts. That was on the way home, though. On the way over there was, as Sgt. Schultz was fond of saying, NUTH-ING!!!

After I wrapped up my business in Duluth, I headed up to the mall to pick up Mrs. L4t, who had been kind enough to accompany me on this journey. She agreed to search out Skyline Parkway with me so I would have a chance to shoot the stuffed Rice's Point yard, bulging with what I would guess to be mostly idled taconite cars.

Leaving Duluth, I let the Mrs. have the wheel for a bit while I grabbed a nap on the way home. I woke up somewhere east of Cromwell, glanced north, and saw an empty coal train racing through the swamp. Obviously my innate train radar is still in working order. I immediately began coaching Mrs. L4T on driving speed and technique while I began to attempt a series of horribly lit pacing shots that had no chance of turning out. I'll spare you by not posting one.

With great coaching, my driver managed to beat the train to McGregor and I made it up to the overpass with enough time to grab a head on shot as the train approached.

Another leapfrog and I caught him as he approached Deerwood. This spot really appeals to my eye, but the photos I attempt here never seem to live up to the potential. I think it's the big pine tree that really appeals to me.

I planned on trying to shoot him again as he crossed the bridge in Brainerd. After waiting for about 20 minutes, I figured that maybe he beat me through town, although I couldn't belive that was possible. My scanner has been acting up so I didn't trust not hearing anything. After I gave up and headed for home, I told the Mrs. that there was probably a meet set up between Deerwood and Brainerd and we would soon see a loaded train heading east. Just imagine how smart it made me look when we met a train in less than 5 minutes. With a head of steam built up, I decided to let him go and continue on to Wadena.

All in all, another good day. Pleasant company, a chance to take a train picture, and the opportunity to enjoy both of these while working made for a good trip.

Jim, out