Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Memories

Part of the fun of a journal like is the ability to look back at what has happened in the past. For instance, just tonight I was reminded that a year ago we were much more worried about cold than the snow that is bothering central Minnesota currently.

So, in the spirit of looking back, here are some of my memories of railfanning and modeling in 2010, in chronological order.

-Some modeling action
-Any idea on how to stop a train?
-Verndale Rail
-I really love Wyoming
-The Coal Trail

What were the highlights? Well, of course Verndale Rail. Any get together with other fans is always a highlight.

Oddly enough, even though the photos weren't much, the brief time along the Big Horn Sub in Wyoming was strangely intriguing. I want very much to go back. This spurred an interest in learning more about the history of the NP, which in turn ties in with the GN. Led to a lot of reading and learning.

It was fantastic to see DC motor EMD's in regular service once again.

I got more involved in modeling, and that was rewarding. At the same time frustrating, since I will never have the skills of many that I admire.

All in all, railfanning continued to be a passion of mine in 2010, with no sign of a letup soon. I look forward to 2011, not only the trains, but especially the relationships with other fans and the information sharing that goes along with that.

Here's hoping lots of trains for you in the New Year. Stay safe along the tracks.


Happy, Snowy, New Years

Seems like it's a New Year tradition to look back. I plan on making the traditional "best of" post soon, but this isn't it. This is the story of 2010's final railfan outing. One of my catches reminded of the importance-and rewards-of looking back. I present you a stack train parked in a snowy Staples yard:

If not for for the engine numbers, you could imagine this photo from nearly any of the past 30 years or so, I expect.

But I get ahead of myself. Before the opportunity to shoot that photo presented, I had to get from Wadena to Staples. Here's a look at Highway 10 around 8:30 this morning:

Between Wadena and Verndale, a headlight announced an impending westbound train. With most of the crossings between the west and eastbound lanes not yet plowed, the only option was to pull over and make my way out into the ditch to try an unplanned backlit shot. Obviously the lack of railfanning is driving me to do ridiculous things.

At least that is over with.

Arriving in Staples, the Dower Lake crossing was blocked by a stopped east bound manifest. This gave the opportunity to check out the yard, which was when the first picture of the greenies above was snapped. The dispatcher was talking the eastbound train by a red signal and giving permission to hand throw the switches on the main, which slowed his progress enough to let me get in position for shots at 6th St and 7th St.

In the last shot you can see the conductor who just lined the switch to stay on Main 2. The train stopped so he could re-board.

There was also a section crew waiting for time and track to begin clearing crossings. I talked with one of the section gang and he didn't seem to mind waiting, since it was time and a half today. He did share that it could quit snowing anytime.

Since the railroad would be tied up for a bit due to this MOW work, I headed back to Wadena. Just east of Aldrich, I came upon another waiting train, this time a short Z. I finally found a spot to make a u-turn and came back for a shot of him.

And then, it was home. My last railfan photo of 2010 is in the bag, hopefully 2011 will be as entertaining as 2010 was. Thanks to everyone who reads this blog, and have a Happy and SAFE New Year!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Late #8-with a Twist

After Mitch Walsten's heads up this morning about a late running #8 with an unusual consist, I took inventory of my work week and decided that leaving at 6 AM Monday and getting home at 9PM Tuesday was sufficient justification to play a bit of hookey. The great Empire Builder interception was underway.

I decided to set up between New York Mills and Bluffton, at the crossing nearest the detector at MP 174.1. There is a nice little rise on the west side of the crossing to shoot from, if the light is right. One good thing about the heavy overcast was that the ability to shoot from wherever I wanted with no danger of backlighting. Of course the flip side is the dull shots and higher ISO resulting in a bit of noise in the shots.

At the first sound of a horn in the distance I skedaddled up the hill and set up shop. Here's the first shot, as the train passes between signals at a good clip:

I kept shooting as the train approached, creating a bit of snow fog along the ROW.

And then, there was a view of the reason for the outing.

The train was past in a flash, showing the lit drumhead and the marker lights of name train of yesteryear.

If you look closely, you can see that a few lucky souls were enjoying the scenery from the comfort of this classic car.

With that, the time had come to head for home and back to work. I heard the Builder clear his warrant in Wadena as I approached town. Then, turning down County Road 75, headlights appeared to the east. A coal empty was approaching, so I pulled over for a couple of shots of this ACe-led train as well. Again, the clouds worked to my favor (as much as that is possible), allowing a shot of a westbound early in the day that would normally be badly backlit.

That's about it for this report from the Staples Sub. Oh, one last thing, I've posted video of the Builder as well. Hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

THANK YOU to the Guys Behind the Scenes

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that "any sufficiently advance technology is indistinguishable from magic". It's unlikely that he had railfanning in mind, but if we use that quote to categorize the tools that we use to track and photograph trains, it's hard to argue that our cameras, radios, and computers wouldn't be defined as magical.

I want to take this chance to share some of what goes on "behind the scenes" in order to make this magic function. Railfans in Minnesota are not able to follow trains on more than 600 miles of track via ATCS, and monitor voice radios capturing communications in nearly half a dozen locations, just by accident. This capability is a result of equipment, money, cooperation, and most of all, dedication by a core group of people.

Extensive ATCS coverage of BNSF, CP, and UP lines in Minnesota require data radios and servers in more than 20 locations across the state. Remember, every one of those locations needs some sort of tower, an antenna, a feedline, radio programmed to the proper frequency, a server, power, and high speed internet access. In some cases radios capturing voice traffic are piggybacked onto the same tower as the ATCS server, but require separate antennas, radios, and servers. At least a portion of the locations are powered by uninterruptible power supplies. All the data is sent into a "magic cloud", where the 3 servers we end users rely on put everything together in a form useable to the ATCS application. I have no idea how this all works but rest assured the output is one of the most valuable tools available to the railfan for tracking trains.

Voice traffic is streamed to various servers, which allow railfans to log on and listen to multiple AAR channels and decipher the goings-on as trains make their way through the area.

The monitoring sites range from extremely simple-a 20' pole with a traintenna, 50' of feedline, a radio and a server in my basement, capturing the ATCS signal from Dower Lake and Wadena, to the complex. Here are some statistics on a complex site: a 150' tower, with a big antenna for ATCS installed near the top. Yes, someone from the railfan community actually climbs a 150' tower to install antennas and feedline so you can have an ATCS to your computer. This is attached to a data radio. A second antenna and radio serve to capture a difficult location. These feed a main server, connected to the "mother ship" via high speed internet. In addition this location also captures and streams voice, via a big omnidirectional antenna mounted at 140'. This antenna is 15' tall! And there are plans in place to replace it next spring with a heavy duty 22' tall omni. Of course this calls for another radio and server. The voice stream feeds to This radio stream regularly captures voice communications and detectors from almost 100 miles of the Staples Sub.

I haven't even mentioned the folks who wrote and support the ATCS program, or the people who decode the control points and write the layout files so all the beeps and squawks that the signal system emits can be converted into something we normal humans can understand. These are the guys who built the upload function into ATCS, which enables many of us to use BlackBerrys or other smart phones to access ATCS feeds from anywhere a cell signal is available.

It's also important to remember someone has to maintain and troubleshoot all this equipment. I'm going to include a bit of an email from Don Schoenberger to illustrate some of the problems these guys deal with:

"Due to the unique characteristics of ARES VHF, receiving packets from Little Falls E is a problem. Since LF East is line of sight from the higher antennas, we miss packets. To “fix” that problem, it is necessary to use a 2nd radio on a lower, less gain antenna to receive the Little Falls E. station. In late 2009 I installed a Motorola Spectra on a lower antenna. That antenna belongs to the tower owner, and he wanted it back, so early this year I installed a low gain antenna at the 60’ level, which belongs to us. Although you may not have noticed the difference, trains now progress through Little Falls without missing packets since this radio went on line."

While I don't understand all the technical jargon, I do know this-we are tremendously lucky to have people as dedicated as Don willing to invest time, money, and knowledge in these projects. Without that kind of effort and dedication we would all be much less blessed.

I want to take this opportunity to personally thank Don and everyone else who helps support these systems, whether through labor, knowledge, providing a location for a radio and server, or dollars. What a great service these people are providing! Thank you.

Does anybody use this stuff? They sure do-last I heard, on an average day 40+ users are signed on, with a high of 57 at one time and the numbers keep growing. While Don has made the comment that this is what makes all the work and investment worthwhile, it sure couldn't hurt to say thanks to him and the others that are involved.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Before the Storm

With Mrs. L4T recuperating from surgery to remove her cantankerous gall bladder over the last few days, railfanning has been replaced with housekeeping. This afternoon, after spending a few hours working from home, I was dispatched on some errands around town. A couple of inches of light fluffy snow earlier in the day had everything looking Christmas-y around Wadena.

After stops at the bank, post office, library, and grocery store, I allowed myself a glance down the tracks on the way home. A headlight rewarded the afternoon's tasks, so I pulled over and grabbed the camera to capture a mixed freight as it sailed east through its own personal ground blizzard. The first long distance shot catches the train as it passes by the former Leaf River Ag spur. It's not likely this spur will ever again see revenue service, as the fertilizer plant destroyed by last summer's tornado is being rebuilt in the industrial park on the south edge of Wadena. Rumor has it that a segment of the former GN line to Eagle Bend will be rebuilt to serve the new plant.

After backing away from the tracks, I waited as the train approached to catch the power in a more wedgie configuration. Quite a mix it was, with the Dash 9 leader, an ES44AC second, and a pair of cascade green units trailing. The train was a mess as well, with a lot of coal loads mixed in with tank cars and covered hoppers.

Then is was off for home, to carry in the groceries and report on the activities uptown. The big snow is due tonight, so perhaps I will venture out tomorrow for some actual railfanning.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Stacks and Snow

With Mrs. L4T feeling well enough for a drive, we headed over Staples way this afternoon to see what was out and about. There was a yard full of trains, including a westbound manifest behind a pair of GP types and some coal trains tucked in behind him.

I expected another westbound at any time, and he showed up while I was in the former Radio Shack in Staples trying to find some cheap RJ12 jacks for the Digitrax system. They didn't have any, and to top it off now I was behind the train. Luckily it was a stack train and wasn't going real fast so I managed to get ahead of him before the curve at Aldrich. West of there the nose light is gone. Here's the shot:

Last night's light snow was fairly fluffy and so every passing train stirred it up anew. We basically paced this train back to Wadena, and met two eastbound coal trains in the process. The poor light angle and setting sun were enough to discourage us from trying any other photos.

It's not much, but it's the best I can offer today.