Thursday, January 20, 2011

Flashback Post #2-September 4, 2006

(Note: Having lacked the time to get out trackside for the past few days, I thought I would feed the "need to blog" by digging back into the archives from before existed. The following describes an exciting early railfanning experience, and features one of my personal favorite photos.)

The Labor Day holiday in 2006 found me with a free afternoon for railfanning. I was new to the hobby at the time, and still remember the excitement of setting out on a trip with a mission. That day, the mission was to capture some action along the west end of the Staples Sub.

Seems I can also remember the faint flicker of uncertainty that coursed through my body when I came upon a westbound stack train parked just east of the Highway 10 overpass. The train was sitting on Main 1, and after shooting him from the Hagerman Road crossing, my westward journey continued.

I kept as close an eye as I could on the tracks while passing Perham on Highway 10. The complete absence of moving trains only served to reinforce the uncertainty I had noticed earlier. Still, the logical course was to press on, and so I did.

Being familiar with the "lay of the land" from frequent trips between Wadena and Detroit Lakes, I spied an unusual level of activity along Highway 10 from quite a distance. "What", I wondered, "could be going on along the BNSF Right of Way on a Labor Day Monday?"

That questions was quickly answered by the sizable BNSF work crew that was toiling at replacing what used to be a bridge over the Ottertail River between Perham and Frazee. At least a couple of years earlier, before my move to Wadena, the railroad had installed three large box culverts to carry the river flow under the tracks, and dumped hundreds of yards of fill on the culverts in a first step to eliminate a steel bridge. After letting the fill settle for a couple of freeze/thaw cycles, it seems that Labor Day was chosen to complete the replacement. A major work blitz had already removed the steel bridge, dumped fill to bring the area up to grade, laid two new tracks across the area, lined, ballasted, and tamped the tracks, and was now in the process of checking things out to allow traffic to cross the newly filled area. I stopped and spent some time watching a large crew work feverishly to get the busy Staples Sub back into service.

The photo above captures more than half of the equipment and manpower that was present.

This picture brings back fond memories. The silver Ranger pickup on the shoulder was my trusty railfan ride for many miles, going back to my days in Ranier. It would continue to serve a couple of more years after this photo was shot, eventually succumbing to age, rust, and the need for more reliable wheels that arose with a job change. But on this day, the railfan and the Ranger worked as one, capturing photos far and wide.

One final photo of the scene was evidence that a BNSF hi-rail truck is able to handle 5 loaded ballast cars. There were ballast cars for each track present, the set shown here behind the hi-rail and the set for the other main powered by a rail crane. No locomotives were involved in the reconstruction of this river crossing.

Of course, even after the work was done, the tracks needed to be clear before trains could start moving. If memory serves, for Main 1 that meant the hi-rail and its train needed to retreat to Perham and take a siding. This half hour or so journey seemed to take forever. Soon enough, though, they were clear, and the backlog of trains was ready to roll.

For some reason, I decided to shoot the first westbound across the new fill. The train crossed at a restricted speed of 10 mph under the watchful eye of BNSF personnel. Once it was completely across, it slowly began to pick up speed. I can't remember how quickly it was moving as I shot the photo below. I do know that at the time, I didn't even notice that the second westbound was right behind it, and the headlight it visible in this shot.

That's always been one of my favorite photos. It has a combination of things going for it-reminding me of the day I stumbled across the Ottertail River bridge work, catching two westbounds in a single frame, and simply being a quality photo. I still think it's one of the sharper photos I've had a chance to shoot, even now, some 17,000 exposures later.

With trains lined up, I quickly moved a bit further west to grab another set of Dash 9's crossing the bridge on the east side of Frazee.

And I wasn't done yet. I managed to get a couple of eastbounds at the Frazee curve, and then, on my way home, another headlight popped up in the distance. Pulling off at the nearest crossing, an execu-MAC with a morphodite number board led coal empties west. At the last minute I spotted a rising moon and tried to catch that in the shot as well.

And that brought a great day of railfanning to an end. What had started out with such trepidation turned into a memorable experience, one that I'm glad to be able to share with you after all these years.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Cold Day along the SOO

On a cold and snowy Sunday, just as I pulled into the driveway after church, my phone rang. Seems that somehow Jeremiah had managed to talk Chris into sharing my phone number, and wanted to report that 3 SOO SD60's were leading a train north. He even had location info, and was able to clue me in that a meet was set for Henning. Entering all this data into my mobile railfanning computer (head), the plan for a brief railfan outing was output.

Of course, Mrs. L4T had to be let in on the plan, and put together a "go" bag so we could be on our way. After a quick stop at McDonald's drive-thru, we were headed west on Highway 10. Soon the radio announced a pair of trains clearing warrants in Henning, signalling that the 60's were once again on the move. Another short consultation with Jer and plans were finalized to intercept the target somewhere in the Vergas area.

Arriving in the MP 203-204 area, I selected a curve around a pond as the ambush location. Jer reported that he was in hot pursuit of a BNSF westbound and should make the intended photo location near Vergas with time to spare. The next piece of information was a location report to the dispatcher, which placed the train near MP 188 just before Jeramiah's arrival. As the black Silverado drifted by I dismounted and was greeted by a blast of supercooled air, driven by a howling wind.

Jeramiah was wearing a pullover sweatshirt and gloves so I knew the wind chill had to be well below zero. We chatted for a while, then decided to get into position for the shot. As I huddled, shivering, behind a snowbank, I turned around to take in Jer's suffering.

Nothing like roughing it.

Distant blasts of the horn signalled the impending arrival of the train. It seemed like an eternity before the three SOO units swept majestically around the corner into sight.

A final shot, as they pass my location. Jer got them from a slightly different angle, and with some elevation as he has no fear of "teh wind chill", as the kids on the internet would say.

I also got video of the train, but that's for another day. By the time they had passed, and everything was packed up, my hands felt like they might shatter if I bumped them against something hard. And so we went our separate ways, with Mrs. L4T and I headed home for Wadena, after successfully completing the great SD60 intercept of 2011. Thanks for the heads up and the company, Jer, and you are a true Minnesotan! Uffda!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Who Says BNSF has no Heritage Units?

What a 2011 it's been for me so far, at least from the railfan perspective. On New Year's Day, I kicked off the year with the Amtrak "monster train", a weather-induced combination of #7 and #8.

After taking a break Sunday to watch the Vikings season come to a welcome end, it was back to the grindstone of work yesterday morning. In the afternoon, though, Mrs. L4T and I had to make the drive to Brainerd to see the Doc. The roads hadn't improved much since Saturday, with a substantial coat of ice on much of Highway 10 slowing traffic and lengthening our commute. Light snow did nothing to help the situation. It was, all in all, a winter day. However, my railfan senses were still at high alert as we approached Staples. We soon spotted the tail end of a loaded coal train, with an SD70MAC pushing in DPU mode. Nothing so unusual there. Then, just as I passed the Dower Lake station sign, I let out a cry that quite startled my companion: "It's the vomit bonnet!" (with apologies to Russ). The look on Mrs. L4T's face made it clear she suspected I had finally gone 'round the bend. The chattering anti-lock brakes on the Escape left no doubt that photography would be attempted from the edge of an icy, partially snow covered Highway 10, and here are the results:

BNSF 9647 sports a one-of-a-kind paint job, supposedly designed to pay homage to the classic "warbonnet" lines of Santa Fe units while at the same time conveying the message that the BNSF is (or once was) a new, cutting edge transportation gargantuan. In my opinion, the warbonnet deserves to be done up in red and silver, and this attempt to morph the exec paint with the classic lines just didn't work.

Oddly enough, it was one year earlier, to the day, when Mike Vandenberg announced the arrival of another of BNSF's locomotives sporting an experimental paint job as a group of railfans huddled against the cold in Hawley. The cry of "IT'S THE YELLOW ONE" will live in the ears and minds of those who were there to witness it for decades to come. Spotting another of the units that fall outside the norm for my favorite railroad couldn't help but remind me of that special day.

We were on a tight schedule, due to having to make it to the Doctor's appointment, and so this was all I had time to shoot. I know it's not the most attractive MAC on the system but it is unique, and I've never seen it in person before.

For the second time this year, my railfanning has produced a sight I've never seen before, and in the case of the Amtrak train, something I'll very likely never see again. The year can likely only go downhill from here.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Year's Wonder

Checking the traffic on the OMR mailing list on a lazy New Year's morning yesterday revealed chaos along the route of Amtrak's Empire Builder. Seems that for some reason the #7 westbound had been stopped, with plans for it to return to Chicago. The interesting part was how Amtrak decided to accomplish this.

The day's #8 (eastbound), which was already running late, was tasked to couple onto the rear of #7 and continue east. This decision led to the creation of a "monster" Amtrak train. Three Genesis units were leading and providing the power, followed by a baggage car, 20 Superliners, another baggage car, and three more Genesis units from the annulled #7.

A thoughtful passenger sprang into action, reporting these events to the list in real time. I was lucky enough to get about an hour's advance notice. Mrs. L4T kindly fortified me with a late breakfast and sent me out into the storm with the assignment of getting some good pictures. I was happy to try and oblige.

As soon as I left home, I heard the dispatcher talking to Amtrak 122, giving them a warrant from Gregory to St. Cloud. I had a flash of fear that they were already by me, but it seemed impossible so I continued uptown. The question was where to set up and try a shot? I contemplated trying as they passed by the depot. The faint indications of the defect detector at MP 174 indicated the train was getting close to Wadena. Then the radio came to life again, and Amtrak told the dispatcher they would be stopped for 10 minutes or so in Staples for a crew change. Hearing that the decision was made-Staples. Off I went, on an ice covered Highway 10.

The Builder was clearing his Richards Spur-Wadena warrant before I even reached Verndale. Given the road conditions getting to Staples in time to catch the train seemed iffy, so I pulled over to catch him as he passed east of Verndale. The wait was about one minute.

I realized at this point that shooting the train at track speed with fresh snow might be fun, but it wouldn't reveal what I was looking for. Again, it was off to Staples with a renewed fervor.

The conductor called out the approach signal at Dower Lake, along with a speed- 75 mph. Man, I hope I make it!

Finally, I spotted the tail end of the train. By the time I reached the west end of the Staples yard we were neck and neck and the train was slowing for the depot. Swinging into the west entrance of the Amtrak parking lot allowed the chance to shoot the entire train as it approached on Main 1.

Then it was off to the 6th St crossing, for a shot as the head end changed crews. The train was so long, this was the first of three stops they had to make at the Staples depot.

After pulling ahead, the train stopped again, spotting #8's coaches at the platform. The lead unit is just short of the 6th St. crossing in this view. The curve in Main 1 as it approaches the depot hide the tail end of this train. By my count, two Superliners, a baggage car and three Genesis units are tucked in behind the last visible car in this view.

The radio was busy with chatter almost the entire stop, anything from coordinating when to change channels (Staples West is on a different channel than Staples East), whether the rear units needed a qualified engineer on board, how the brakes should be set up ("direct" vs. "gradual" release, apparently due to train length), how far to pull ahead for the next spot, etc.

I got a final set of shots as the train spanned both crossings. I believe they were offloading the Staples passengers from #7 in this view. The word on the web is that all the #7 passengers were being dropped at the station where they boarded, which probably meant that there were multiple stops at every station due to the length of the train.

So that's the story of what is probably the most unusual railroad occurence I've ever had the opportunity to photograph. I can't thank Craig, the passenger on the train who was providing location information, enough. Without his heads-up, this train would have passed through the area without my even realizing it.

With a start to 2011 like this, who knows what else the year holds? This Amtrak monster train will be hard to top, but yesterday morning it never seemed possible that something like this would pass through Wadena. Keep looking!