Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Some Staples Stuff

A lunch trip to Staples offered the opportunity to investigate the yard, and it turned out there were some trains sitting there, waiting for who knows what. Three coal loads were the most obvious in this shot.

There was a crew hauler just out of the shot, and he must have delivered a crew for the MAC powered train, as by the time I got to the east end of the yard lead they were rolling and a wait of a couple minutes let me get them once more as they approached Main 2 just prior to crossing over again and entering the Brainerd Sub.

The drive back to Wadena gave me one more chance at a photo, which I wouldn't even post but for the GP30 that is the third unit in the consist. Maybe just moving somewhere but it's neat to see some older power out riding the high iron.

The sun came out later in the day, and after supper Mrs. L4T and I decided a tour was in order. Only one westbound was showing, and I debated about where to try a shot. I ended up at CR 143 and was disappointed at the outcome. One of this summer's tornados really tore up this area and it's not as photogenic as it once was, but the sun is swinging so far to the south that after this curve there is little chance at nose light before Frazee.

Finally, I decided to run back to Staples and see if the yard had cleared up. It was still well populated with trains, but with no photo opportunities we stopped at DQ instead of taking a picture. Then the 151.6 detector alerted us to an eastbound, so it seemed like a decent time to try and work the depot into a backlit shot.

After that train was past, I finished my new "mini" oreo mint Blizzard, and we headed back to Wadena, enjoying the wonderful fall colors along the way. A phone call from MN Chris asking if there was anything showing on the ATCS was the start of another tale, but I'll leave the telling of that one to him since he was the eyewitness.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Pair of ACe's on a Sunday Evening

With the sun out, a Sunday evening drive seemed appropriate. Even though there were no westbounds showing on ATCS when I fired it up after the Vikings game, Mrs. L4T and I still planned on a bit of sightseeing. Our plans were hastened when all of a sudden, the computer showed a coal empty pulling out of Staples yard. We were off.

After missing the train in Verndale, and having to chase him back through Wadena, the best option for a shot seemed to be somewhere a bit of color could be included in the shot. That brief period of autumn featuring vibrant colors is already too far along without any shots to show for it. So as we cruised west, one eye was watching for colorful foliage.

A likely spot popped up near the Deer Creek cutoff, and we had built up enough of a lead on the train to get across the tracks so we were on the sunny side. Here's what I came up with:

With no other westbounds showing, I figured we were done for the night. But after stopping at the store, I took one more look at the computer display and was surprised again, as a train was just coming off the Brainerd Sub and was lined up to go straight west. Off to Verndale it was.

Arriving with plenty of time to spare, the next surprise was an eastbound manifest. Since I was waiting anyway, why not try a shot? Here it is.

The eastbound met the coal empty near the west edge of Verndale. This is probably the most acceptable shot of our second ACe-led coal empty of the evening.

I also shot the ACe that was DPU, but didn't post that photo here.

One more train had crept into the picture, but he was just getting to Philbrook and we were running out of light. We headed for home with a pair of ACe's to show for another enjoyable evening of railfanning.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Coal Trail-Part 2

Yesterday I promised a surprise in my report of the second day's journey along the route coal from the PRB takes as it journeys to the Staples Sub. I'll no longer keep you in suspense-here it is:

A side trip through Bismarck, where Mrs. L4T and I first set up housekeeping oh so many years ago, yielded the chance to shoot this former CN wide cab GP40, now hard at work in its second career with the DMVW. While I'd seen reports of these engines back at work in North Dakota, I never expected to see one on a rainy Thursday. It was such a surprise I stepped out into that rain for the shot.

And then, seeing a street sign that read "Soo Line Drive", I made a right turn on the off chance it might involve something railroady. After one left hand curve I was face to face with this sight:

Two pleasing discoveries in one day!

Meanwhile, back on the interstate, the miles melted away as we travelled east. An occasional train on the BNSF entertained, but offered no photo opportunities as they seemed to know just when to appear-usually 1/2 a mile or so after we passed an exit, with no chance to get off I-94 within the next 10 miles, and no knowledge of how to access the track even if we did leave the interstate. Combined with overcast, rainy, hazy conditions, there was little incentive remaining to try and track down one of these trains.

I was frustrated once when we were west of Jamestown, as I spotted an empty coal train crossing the causeways that span the prairie potholes in the area. Seemed like a great and scenic photo location, I told Mrs. L4T, and someone should be taking advantage of it. Turns out, someone was, and only a couple of days earlier, when the sun was out. Nice job, Mike. Once again you have made me jealous!

Before we knew it, we were back in Minnesota. I stopped at the hobby shop in Moorhead, and had to give MN Chris a call to check out how good a deal a certain HO engine was. As we talked a manifest freight passed heading east, and once more my railfan juices were flowing. After retrieving Mrs. L4T from the Moorhead Target, we swung by Dilworth yard in time to see loaded coal train leave with two Exec painted MAC's leading and another pushing. I figured he wouldn't make much time going up the hill, so we visited Watts, where I shot a westbound manifest waiting to enter the yard.

Next up was the coal train. It was still raining on and off, so the best spot to shoot him seemed to be the Highway 32 overpass near Hawley. We made it with about 10 minutes to spare, and when I got out of the car to assess the situation, I heard a westbound blowing as well. The wait seemed to indicate they would meet close to my location. The coal train won the race to the bridge.

It was a close race, though, with the meet occurring just east of the bridge. Turned out to be an all-energy theme, with coal loads going up the hill and crude oil empties drifting downhill.

Most crude trains I have seen have a DPU, so I waited and this one was no different. A final shot as the DPU trails the train into Hawley:

Seems that while this route is still primarily a "coal trail", it's also become something of an "energy trail" as well, with the regular crude oil trains now running these tracks.

We met one final coal empty as we pulled into Wadena, which seemed appropriate given our theme for the previous two days.

That's the story of our journey along the tracks that are travelled by coal trains as they reach this corner of the world. Hope you've enjoyed it.


Friday, September 24, 2010

The Coal Trail-Part 1

Anyone who has spent time railfanning the Staples Sub, especially that portion west of Staples, knows how important coal traffic is to this stretch of railroad. It's relatively easy for us to picture where that coal is being dumped-who can miss the MERC facility on a visit to the Twin Ports, or the Becker plant along the railroad? While some of the coal trains continue on into Wisconsin, it's still not hard to imagine the destinations.

What's been harder for me is visualizing where this coal comes from and the route it travels to get here. Last year, as part of a visit to Yellowstone, Mrs. L4T and I were able to spend a day in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, where many of these trains are loaded (I believe some still come from mines in Montana). Even after that experience, though, the question remained-how does it get from there to here? And so, as part of a visit to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton areas, this year we planned a stop in Sheridan and a trip along what I call the "Coal Trail". This post is the first part of my report on that trip.

In a reversal of last year's trip, the weather this time was spectacular while we were in the parks and driving the scenic highways of northwest Wyoming. But almost as soon as the agenda turned to railfanning, the clouds and rain rolled in for good. Not to be deterred, I railfanned on through the weather, although the photos show the effects clearly. As an example, I offer this Burlington 4-8-4 steamer that is stuffed and mounted in Sheridan:

Sheridan is an active railroad town, where quite a few trains seem to change crews. I suspect that trains from the Gillette area are re-crewed in Sheridan for the continuation of their journey. Another interesting operational facet of Sheridan is the use of helpers, at least on loaded coal trains headed toward Montana. I believe the helpers shove for about 25 miles north out of Sheridan, and a number of helper sets are present in the yard. This photo shows 3 sets of SD70MAC's sitting near the turntable waiting to go to work. There was a fourth set out and about at this time as well.

As we headed north toward Montana, on two lane roads that follow the tracks rather than the interstate a mile or so to our east, everything I spotted signalled a slow day for rail traffic. There was a rail train preparing to go to work, and then a ballast cleaner hard at work. However, I did spot this unused grain elevator in Wyola, MT, and couldn't resist stepping out into the drizzle for a shot.

After stopping at the Little Bighorn battlefield, we continued on toward I-94, intersecting with the interstate and the Coal Trail again near Custer on the south bank of the Yellowstone River. A couple of false starts and u-turns later, we were lucky enough to spot a westbound DEEX empty moving slowly as he left Forsyth, MT. I was able to easily get ahead of the train on what is called "Old Highway 10" for shots of the head end and DPU as the train snaked along the south bank of the Yellowstone River (which, incidentially, is the longest un-dammed river on the continent, or in the nation, or something like that).

Once we were east of Miles City, I searched out Old 10 once more, and after a few mintues we came across an eastbound manifest. The chase was on, and my first chance for a shot was the west side of Terry, shown here:

After hopping ahead once more, I shot the six units this train had for power between Terry and Fallon, where the interstate crosses the tracks and the river.

I noticed this slow moving train was looking at yellow signals, and sure enough a loaded coal train was ahead of him. The tracks swing well south of the interstate in this area. I made one try of accessing the river, but it was a dead end, and given the weather and the miles left to go we decided to give up on that train and keep moving.

So that's all the action from our first day along the Coal Trail. We pulled into Dickinson in a steady rain about 5:45, ready for a meal and sleep to prepare for the rest of journey to Wadena. That day's report will include a surprise sighting, and some photography from an old favorite location.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I love Wyoming. I love the scenery, the grandeur, the vast open expanses, the people that I get the chance to talk to. Wyoming also has some fantastic railroading, most of which I've only had the chance to read about. Last year I got to spend a bit more than a day in the Powder River Basin and came away awed by the intensity of the railroad action there.

This year Mrs. L4T and I decided to return to Wyoming for a fall vacation. We were able to drive the Beartooth Highway (closed last year due to snow), spend more time in Yellowstone, visit the Grand Tetons and spend a night in Teton Village (which is a strange place-not at all like the rest of Wyoming I've seen). We also have driven the Cheif Joseph Scenic Highway and the Bighorn crossing, both of which are spectacular and rival any National Park for scenery.

Then, this afternoon we arrived in Sheridan. I've wanted to check out the railroad action here for quite a while, partly due to Al Krug's Tales and partly because much of the coal that travels the Staples Sub also travels the Bighorn Sub of the BNSF.

Oh, almost forgot that we came through Greybull on the drive over, where I spotted the first train of the day. Since it was sitting in about the worst light possible, I worked the photo over heavily:

One interesting point (to me, anyway) is the "NSS Greybull" sign. I can't ever recall seeing railroads designate locations as north or south before-always east or west. Probably just ignorance on my part. Anyway, on to Sheridan.

When we came into town, two coal trains were sitting on the north (west?) end of the yard. After we checked into our hotel and ate supper, we went back for a look-see, and they were both gone. I headed north in hot pursuit, knowing that at least one was loaded. Perhaps I could catch him? Around Ranchester (about 15 miles north of Sheridan) I spotted a helper set headed south. The sun was nice and I looked for an exit so I could chase him down. After I finally found a way to access the tracks, it seemed a hopeless task but we carried on-and were surprised by headlights heading north at Ranchester. It was a pair of NS GE's on a manifest train, with two Boeing cars right behind the engines. This train was grinding up the grade to Parkman, working hard and not moving very fast. I shot him in two locations, shown here-the second spot I couldn't resist trying to catch the sun glinting off the train with the Bighorn Mountains as a backdrop.

Tomorrow we head north at a leisurely pace, hoping to get the chance to shoot some more action on the Bighorn Sub.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Morning and Evening

Any trip along Highway 10, from Wadena to the Metro, is usually good for a few trains. Wednesday was no different as I cruised down in the early morning and returned the same evening. The first train shot was parked on Main 2 at MP 61. This seems to be a standard occurence lately. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon when the shutter was released.

Although I spotted a couple of more trains, an early meeting prevented any more attempts at photography.

The return trip proved to be productive as well. A glance toward the tracks somewhere near Elk River gave me cause to be jealous of those who were riding in style, rather than fighting the traffic. It also offered up a double-headed Northstar train for a photo op, as seen here:

With an evening meeting waiting for me in Wadena, that was all the time I had for photography on the return trip, although I did see a few more trains.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Return to Rollag

Last year I made my first ever trip to the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion just outside Rollag, MN. It was so much fun that I had to go back again this year, and it was worth the trip. While many of you were out chasing a very late Amtrak #8 on Saturday, I had a different passenger train in my viewfinder. I was after the former SOO Line 353, which serves as power for Rollag's "Railroad to Nowhere". It seemed to me that they had beefed up the consist of the train this year, with 5 passenger cars available to guests. I suspect that this train can carry more people at one time than the standard consist of the Empire Builder, albeit not in the same luxurious style.

It's not all about trains. There is an endless variety of steam engines, both mobile (tractors) and stationary. In addition, the gas engine fan would be entertained to no end by the hundreds of units of every conceivable size, from little engines that would run a wash machine to the giant 600 horsepower Snow engine that is 67 feet long and weighs in a 140 tons. Some examples of the equipment you see during a visit to Rollag:

We ate like kings, we toured the grounds and watched as the giant steam hammer from the old railroad shop in St. Paul did its thing, making the ground shake under a large crowd as it stamped out commemerative plates for the 2010 edition of the show. We saw threshing machines, sawmills, a flour mill, a couple of enormous steam powered electrical generators, a working foundry and machine shop, and actual STEAM rollers and STEAM shovels go through their paces. After walking until I thought my legs would fall off, it was time to head for home. Since one of the attendees from our party was staying at Rush Lake, we followed the scenic route through lake country. Wherever we crossed the CP I took a good look each way for any railroad action, and when we reached Dent, it paid off as I spotted red to my southeast. This called for a brief stop to shoot a SOO SD60 that was sitting in the siding, waiting for its call to work.

I'm already looking forward to next year.


Friday, September 3, 2010

The Road Home

After telling the story of the first half of a recent trip to the Hallock area, I uploaded a few photos taken on the return journey. They've been sitting waiting for me to find the time to do a little write up describing the what, where, and when all weekend. Mrs. L4T and myself spent most of the weekend entertaining our son. Now that he is on the way home I thought now would be a good time to finish this post.

The first train of Wedensday was an NPR eastbound in Warren, and since I was working there is no photo of the set of red SD40's that were leading. No other rail action was spotted on the Noyes Sub. I did meet an empty DEEX train near the Erskine shuttle loader but cloudy skies and a desire to get home helped me pass on that one. I did stop in Erskine and shoot a non-moving target-what's left of the depot.

Next stop was in Mahnomen, where it seemed like a car still in MILW paint and reporting marks in 2010 was worth a shot.

As a matter of fact, there was a whole string of these cars sitting there. Not something I expected to see anywhere in this day and age, much less in Northwest Minnesota.

Looks like the Mahnomen elevator is expanding, given the support beams erected on either side of the track and the foundation for a huge grain bin that's been poured on the east (highway) side of the DL Sub. The rest of the elevator complex is on the west side of the tracks. You can see these supports in this wide view of the power from the ballast train.

Here's another shot of that same power, this time with some more zoom added to the equation.

Must be substantial trackwork on the DL Sub, as I noticed a good sized m-o-w crew was tied up for the evening in Ogema, and there were ties distributed all along the tracks.

That was it for the DL Sub. The Staples Sub was pretty quiet as well, until a single headlight was spotted east of the Highway 10 overpass near NYM. Perhaps a DPU? Sure enough, I was able to overtake a loaded coal train, and shoot just east of CR 143. This area was heavily damaged by a tornado on June 17, the same day as the tornado that impacted Wadena. The NWS suspects this tornado was even more powerful than the Wadena tornado. In this view you can see some of the trees along the ROW that were bent over or broken.

Expecting that to be the end of the action for the day, I was racing for home when the brand new crossing gates at the Black's Grove Road caused me to look east, and spot a westbound on Main 1. After quickly pulling over and grabbing a shot, here's what I came home with.

That's the story of a drive from Hallock to Wadena. Total score: 5 trains (3 photographed), 220 miles, 4+ hours. All I can say is that it sure beats spending that time sitting in an office.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

To Noyes...

...by way of Hawley, Ulen, Fertile, Crookston, and Warren. Should be a great railfanning opportunity, given the cooperation of the National Weather Service, the BNSF, MNN, and NPR.

None of them were very cooperative. Still, it wasn't a total washout.

My periodic trip to extreme NW Minnesota took a bit of a different turn on Tuesday, in that I had to stop in Hawley on the way up. This eliminated fanning that part of CP's DL sub between Detroit Lakes and Erskine, but to make up for it I got to parallel BNSF's branch that runs from Manitoba Junction up to Ulen. Trains are not very frequent, as the only customer I am aware of is the elevator in Ulen where they load shuttle trains.

But today was a lucky day, as a train was in town. Just like the last time I caught a train in Ulen, the power was parked just north of the derail on the south side of town. And just like the last time, there's not a whole lot to work with from the photography side of things, but here's an effort:

I can say that, even though the lead unit is in the shade, at least the sun was out. That's a distinct advantage over much of the time I spent on this trip, whether working or chasing a train after work.

For example, the sound of a train blowing for a crossing had me leaving my motel room at the fabulous Caribou Inn in Hallock like a fireman leaving the station at the report of a 3 alarm blaze. I figured there was a need for speed. In reality, I had no problem beating this train to the Two Rivers bridge just north of Hawley as he must have been running the jointed rail at restricted speed. An example of the kind of lighting I was enjoying.

It was tempting to throw in the towel due to the cloud cover, but a sliver of blue to the northwest was enough to keep me chasing this train. I decided to cut west on a gravel road in the hopes of getting a panoramic image of the train on the flatlands, but the road condition scared me enough that I gave up in the first location. What passes for gravel in Kittson County is not fit to build an all weather road. Instead, I found a paved county road and shot the train again as he passed.

Smoke from the GE said the slow order might have ended, and sure enough the train sped up. I chased with all my might and managed to get on the sunny side with a minute to spare. Too bad that minute only contained 55 seconds of sunlight. With a heavy heart I watched the approaching train run into the shadow of a huge cloud bank that had moved in. I managed one shot just before he reached that shadow.

I figured we had to be getting close to the border, and the train began slowing. I pressed ahead with the mission of seeing what a "Noyes" looks like. A right turn at the border and a short upgrade offered a view of-not much. For some reason, a lonely CN EMD was resting at some kind of a structure that does things I have no concept of.

And then, just as evidence that I have, in fact, been to Noyes, a tele shot of the depot that should have been wide angle shot.

And so, my bucket list is one item shorter, now that I've seen Noyes. I've spent the majority of my adult life living within blocks of the Canadian border, and enjoyed those places greatly, but I can safely say that while Noyes is a nice place to visit, based on my first impression I wouldn't want to live there.