Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lucky Me

There's an old song that talks about how some days are diamonds. From a railfanning perspective today was one of those for me.

After finishing up the paperwork from today's work, a little railfanning adventure seemed to be in order. The River Sub was calling and so I headed south from Red Wing. After a brief stop at the Flower Valley Road crossing, something compelled me to continue southward. As it was only a little way to the Frontenac siding, I soon spotted a loaded COLX train waiting for a meet. This was pretty good evidence of a westbound, and the railfan senses were set to high alert. Sure enough, I was just getting up to speed after the 40 mph zone through Frontenac when the expected headlight appeared, moving fast. The leader was blue and yellow ICE 6451, and it was joined at the head end by three more SD's wearing the same paint scheme.

My first thought was how quick could I turn around and give chase. My second thought was how badly this was going to hurt MN Chris. And my third thought was I hoped there were no state troopers around. After waiting a few seconds for the cars speeding past me to clear I managed to reverse course and start the catch up game. And then I was back in the 40 mph speed zone for Frontenac, seeing the meager amount of ground I had gained melt away. Finally, the two cars in front of me started to speed up and once again I was passing the railcars rather than the reverse. There weren't many miles between my location and Red Wing, and if I didn't catch up before that all hope would be lost. Finally, just as I reached the still-stopped coal train, I was even with the blue and yellow quartet. My speed was limited to just above the speed limit by traffic, and crossed fingers were the order of the day.

Upon reaching Flower Valley Road and making it across the tracks before the gates started dropping, I quickly exited the car and dashed across the road to the music of the 6451's horn. I quickly snapped off this photo:

The all-EMD lashup swept around the corner and approached quickly, and my final shot got them much closer to the crossing. With access to PSE, this would look better as this shot could use a dash of USM, but here it is anyway:

And then, they were gone. I must confess, I sat in the Escape at the crossing, reveling in the sight of the four vintage engines charging northwest with a long freight train trailing behind. Needing to share the experience I posted a quick report to Facebook about NAILING four blue and yellows.

One of the things that I love about railfanning is the exhilaration when things go just right. That might mean lots of well-lit trains, a meet shot, great company on a railfan outing, catching a rare move (for example, the 4449 traversing the Staples Sub), or stumbling upon a really killer consist like this set of power. Lots of the time fanning can be mundane, an enjoyable way to pass time, and a great hobby. But once in a while it surpasses that, and to me at least offers great excitement and a feeling of reward. That's how I was feeling as I sat at that crossing. I did nothing to deserve this show, and still was rewarded with the appearance of these handsome locomotives. It's the kind of rare experience I'll have great memories of and will be able to share with lots of other people. Thanks CP, and keep up the good work!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Train and Some Other Stuff

It all started out hopefully. The trip from Owatonna to Red Wing was carefully designed to parallel railroad tracks for much of the way. Around Utica, a train showed up, lumbering slowly through the cornfields and woods. The ensuing chase yielded this shot, among others:

Surely the River Sub would offer up something to shoot on this lovely evening. And it did, although not what I expected.

A stop at Lock and Dam #5 was slotted in to allow any nearby westbounds to catch up with me, and permit shots at a number of locations as he made his way to Red Wing. While no trains showed up, a catfisherman did, and he was more successful at his pastime than I was at mine. I offered to take a photo and email it to him, and he graciously accepted. He confessed that he had never been cat-fishing on a Gold Wing before and wasn't exactly sure how he would get the bountiful harvest home.

Next stop was the north curve at Maple Springs, one of the many lovely photo locations along the Minnesota side of Lake Pepin. The BNSF ran a train during my 45 minute wait, but no such luck on my side of the river. The time wasn't a total loss in the transportation photography department, though, as a long raft of barges passed by.

And finally, another fisherman, this time of the winged variety. As I watched, an eagle swooped down to the surface of the lake and grabbed a fish. No decent picture was had, but here is my best effort, with no editing software to improve it.

With that I gave up on the vigil and headed off to Red Wing. After a few emails I decided to post these photos and put together a story of why something other than trains made my day.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Verndale Rail 2011 Recap

June 25, 2011, dawned bright and early. The long wait for the third annual Verndale Rail outing had finally arrived, and an epic day of railfanning stretched out ahead of us. This year's plans included a quick morning visit to the west of Wadena to take in CP action and whatever eastbounds the BNSF was willing to throw our way while the light was still favorable. Given the flooding in Minot and resulting closure of the BNSF tracks through that area, traffic was being routed directionally and westbounds on the Staples Sub had dried up almost completely.

MN Chris arrived at my place early that Saturday morning and stowed his truck, loaded with gas grill, coolers, and other sundry items for the afternoon's get together, at my place. He, Steve, and I set out to the west in the trusty Escape. After passing through Perham, we spotted a train carrying MOW equipment. It turned out to be a westbound and I stepped on it a bit to get a look at the head end. We knew things were brewing up in Vergas as well, which called for a quick decision on which way to head. The sight of a C4 leading the MOW equipment train sealed the decision, and we set up to shoot the backlit train under overcast skies between Frazee and DL.

Knowing that things were developing fast in Vergas, I took a "shortcut" which worked so well we arrived in time to see the gates drop as a westbound passed through town. Then, an eastbound behind 5 units started to creep across the highway, and great depair was felt throughout the vehicle. With a long history of reacting to mighty mullerings, however, we gathered ourselves and concocted a hare-brained scheme to do an end run around the westbound and get in position for a shot. There's no way I can tell it better than Chris, so here's his description of the detour:

"Jim consulted with his TomTom and I consulted the Minnesota Gazetteer and we had a plan. We pulled off the road that was a black line and went down a road that was a red line. We followed the red line until is split to two red lines. One red line turned into a smaller red line and was a more direct route, but unfortunately it turned into a smaller dashed red line. We followed the bigger small red line. Curving through the backwoods north and east of Verges the road became more and more interesting. Eventually the red line road started getting so narrow and curvy the trees were barely wide enough for the Escape to fit throgh. I started getting concerned when there were more snowmobile trail signs than road signs and the trees were not only becoming a width issue, but a height issue as the foam antenna on the roof was whipping off branches. Pushing onward and upward, the terrain started to look more like a jungle. Jim commented that it was like driving in Afghanistan, but green. Eventually the small red line got big again on the map and we found the tracks."
That's pretty much how I remember it.

We reached the tracks, and were able to get across ahead of the train. Only problem was, this put us on the wrong side for photography. I was loath to cross back and wait for the train to pass before resuming the chase, so all the shots are from the dark side. I won't even post one.

However. All hope was FAR from lost, as DS and Jer were both hot on the trail of this train and in constant communication with Chris, who is the flip phone texting equivalent of NASCAR's Jimmy Johnson. In other words he's fast. Brief confusion about "Milky Way Drive" was resolved when we literally almost bumped into Drew and convinced him to come about and follow us to a secret spot selected by Jer. The entire fleet arrived with a few minutes to spare, which allowed us the privilege of shooting a CP GE under overcast skies. Do you feel lucky?

Well if you don't already feel lucky, you soon will. The 2011 version of the Berkshire Hathaway-owned BNSF is not known for running solid 3 unit sets of cascade green EMD's. However, that doesn't mean it's impossible, as we all learned after a short wait at the Detroit Lakes depot. Take a gander at the consist of this manifest train:

I, for one, know a good thing when I see it, and am prone to milking it dry. Saddle up, boys, this one is worth a chase. Following a brief trip east on Highway 10, we arrived at the Frazee S-curve where many more shots of this train were made. Here's mine:

You know, that was so much fun we should do it again. And I know just the place. West of Perham is another curve that will bring him around so the nose light is a bit better. Heck, that foreground could almost pass for static grass from the grassinator!

RED ALERT! Another eastbound has been spotted on ATCS.

By now it's getting close to Verndale time. The little group of foamers that had been over west decided to head east. This gave the opportunity to shoot the 5033 once more, near the Bluffton curve but from an angle that is rarely shot.

Then it was off to Verndale! The parade of eastbounds with nary a westbound to be found challenged the record group of photogs who turned out for this year's event. I tried a few different things. First, going "artsy":

And then, for some reason it popped into my head that the Verndale sign offered shade, and could be used to compose a backlit B&W while keeping cool. Here's the result of that effort:

Of course, even with no nicely lit trains, there were still people to shoot. Every train, whether backlit or not, drew a crowd.

At some point in the late afternoon, this wise bunch of fans somehow divined a westbound on the way. ATCS, the radio, and our intuition all told us that we were about to be in luck. A couple of truckloads of foam headed up to the sag to shoot the train, while I waited in Verndale. My heart dropped when it turned out the train would be doing some work in Staples, and there wouldn't be a westbound after all. I called the crew at the sag to let them in on the news.

One final eastbound gave the chance to catch the gang as they watched the warbonnet flash through town. The gathering dusk was a hit on the quality of the shot, but looking at it brings back some good memories. I'm already looking forward to next year.

Thanks again to Chris for his organizational effort and cooking. Thanks to everyone who contributed door prizes. Mostly, thanks to all the fans who showed up and made this another day that will live on in railfan infamy. Special days like this are what makes railfanning really worthwhile.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hey Mr. Cloud, Who's Boss?

Father's Day, what to do. ATCS shows three westbounds possibly "in range". With the first one getting fairly close it seemed only natural to set up at the Bluffton curve for a shot. It looked lovely sweeping around the corner, not so much when that big old cloud reached out and gave me a beating.

So, I'm 0 for 1. Let's go to Staples, and see if we can do something productive with the next train. I knew it would be tight timewise and sure enough a headlight appeared as I neared Dower Lake. After a short hike through the ditch a pile of ballast provided a perch for shooting the train.

The Staples DQ provided supper, which was consumed while sitting at the Dower Lake crossing. I was hoping that the Ferromex unit in the yard would head west, but an eastbound cleared up a warrant so after a short wait I got to try an artsy backlit shot that focused on the rail that had been replaced but not yet picked up and hauled away.

There was a DPU facing the right way on this Becker train, and that gave a chance for a nicely lit going away shot. At least the clouds let me have this one.

Mrs. L4T and bumped into someone we knew at the Staples Depot and had a nice conversation. Time flies when you're having fun, and soon enough the last westbound showed its face for me. Once again, Mr. Cloud showed who was boss.

Having given up hope that the visitor from the south would come out and play, I had to try one shot of it hiding behind a bare-nosed MAC. Here's what I came up with.

With that we headed for home. Even though the clouds reminded me once more who was boss, it was a fun outing.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Crude and Rocky

Saturday evening the L4T household (that's me and the Mrs.) decided that train hunting was long over-due. And we set out to right that.

Luck was with us as we saw a crude train roar across the Highway 71 crossing in Wadena. That set up a great chase and I decided to wait for that train at the Big Woods just east of Perham. With the forested background this always reminds me of a model railroad scene. Third unit on this train was a visitor from the south.

After a stop at the Perham DQ, we looked for another spot to catch the second westbound. We ended up at the landfill crossing between New York Mills and the overpass. It sure is nice to have some greenery for a background these days.

That was a long rock train, with large rip rap in the side dump cars up front and a bunch of dump train cars trailing with smaller rock. That makes the three styles of rock cars this week, after having shot the slot machine a couple of days earlier.

I heard the CP talking but we needed to get home so didn't investigate further. Sounded like a meet at Vergas but Jer will have to report on that action. All for now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Destination, Lake Park. Purpose of trip, work. Ancillary benefits, chance to see and photograph a few trains along the Staples Sub of the BNSF.

Yesterday morning I set out under mostly overcast skies and pointed the Escape west. The first train popped up before reaching CR 75-a manifest led by a pair of MAC's. After pulling over to the side of the road and jumping out the following photo was made:

Back on the road, no more traffic was spotted until reaching the other side of Perham. When a headlight popped up on the long straightaway, I made my way to the far side of the tracks at a crossing to await the train. The short wait was worth it, when a repainted Dash 9 in the H3 scheme showed up as leader.

And then, before reaching Frazee, another headlight appeared. Once more a path to the light side was found, and a very short wait yielded the "slot machine" behind a matched set of SD60M's.

Lots of radio chatter on the CP channel indicated a busy DL sub, but I didn't have time to go looking for the trains. A massive MOW crew west of Audubon was tieing up Main 1 as well, and I didn't see anything else until the afternoon.

I heard KAW on the radio talking to BNSF 7828 at Aldrich, and decided to sit and wait by the crossing in Wadena for him. In less than 5 minutes the headlight appeared and the silent "hot rail" call was made, and soon after I got this:

With that, it was time to call an end to a long railfanning day.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tinkering with Tiny bits of Plastic

Lately, my model railroading efforts seem to have taken on a distinct agricultural theme, with projects including a fertilizer plant and the first step at a grain elevator. I got to thinking...

One of the signature items I often see around grain elevators are augers. Seems every elevator worth their salt has at least one or two for various duty. A grain auger would be a great scratchbuilding project, wouldn't it? One way to find out-bust out the tools, the plastic cement, and a box of scrap plastic shapes waiting for a home. After a couple of evening's work, I had progressed this far:

Then last night, I managed to add a drive line to the top of the auger, along with a pair of tire and wheel assemblies (which aren't overly realistic, but clever, I tell myself). The drive line is Plastruct rod, and the brackets are tiny bits of for sale signs. The wheels are sections of 1/4" diameter dowel with the last of my big black shrink wrap shrunk on them. The grain hopper at the bottom is a bigger chunk of sign, bent around the auger with a flat end glued on. A few minutes with some craft paint yielded this:

Here's one more view of the itsy bitsy model, just over 7" long. The auger tube scales out to 8" diameter, which is realistic. But I forgot to include some type of motor to druve the auger! Something else to figure out.

This kind of small project is rewarding. It hardly costs anything, actually, I didn't have to go out and buy anything not already on hand to do it. Progress is quick enough to not get frustrated. And it's obviously not overly difficult or I couldn't do it.

Personally, it brought back memories of days gone by, almost 30 years gone by now, when I spent two plus years working in Bismarck, ND. Mrs. L4T and I were newlyweds, and one of my tasks was to assemble augers just like this one. I've learned a couple of things in the interim-HO scale augers are a lot less work to build, and being married is just as rewarding as it was way back then.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Chasing with Chris

Saturday morning found Mrs. L4T and I on the road to Bemidji. Her Mom fell down a week or so ago and suffered a slight pelvic fracture, and is doing the rehab stint at the Bemidji hospital. Her recovery is going great, and she hopes to be able to go home this week.

I didn't plan on spending the entire day in the hospital though. After contacting MN Chris plans were made to visit the Bemidji model railroad layout. Around lunchtime we met up in the depot basement where I pestered Chris while he tried to lay some replacement flex track on the club layout. We were swapping tall tales about railfanning when a growing rumble tipped us off to a passing train.

Chris had seen a DEEX empty come into Cass Lake before heading to town and expected a crew would arrive shortly to continue the trip west, but we were still taken a bit by surprise. It's doubtful there has ever been a quicker exodus from the layout room of the club as we both beat feet for the Escape to make chase. Getting out of Bemidji was slow, and the train had a fairly good lead on us, but we passed him somewhere east of Bagley and swung into town for a shot as the empty passed the old GN water tower. Here's my effort:

But Chris had greater plans. There's a place in Minnesota, that I didn't even know existed, called Ebro. Ebro is a unique spot, because it's one place along the Grand Forks sub where the track curves around toward the south and offered the hope of some decent light. Chris "encouraged" me to make the best possible time to our ultimate destination. Matter of fact, I felt a bit like "Ruler on Ice" as he galloped toward the finish line in the Belmont Stakes.

Anyway, it all worked out as we beat the train to a little bridge across some body of water with a minute to spare. The stopping place I picked wasn't conducive to the telephoto lenses we had, but I decided to do what I could with mine. Chris, on the other hand, stuck his head in the back of the Escape, grabbed a short lens, and made the switch so quickly all I saw was a blur. He was standing next to me as the train rolled into view. He must practice changing lenses blindfolded on new moon nights to be that quick!

Anyway, that's a lot of babbling just to introduce the picture, which was actually spoiled by the presence of an inconvenient cloud.

And then it was time to reverse the route and dash back to Bemidji. Having finished one of the mains on the club layout, Chris set up a gorgeous ethanol train with a pair of custom painted DME SD40-2's up front. It was a lovely site making its way around the layout. That Chris is quite the rennisance man-not only an excellent rail photog, but also an artist with the airbrush.

Thanks for the entertaining afternoon, Chris! What better way to pass the time than sandwiching a chase of an ACe-led coal train between a couple of stints at the model railroad club?

Friday, June 10, 2011

After Effects

After spending a few days in the Twin Ports and along the North Shore, Wednesday evening found me headed for home. I was curious about the level of rail traffic that the Brainerd Sub might carrying, and not sure what to expect after the recent derailment. Maybe trains weren't even running yet? Suspicions grew as the miles ticked by with no rail traffic in evidence.

I was just getting out of the Escape at the Holiday in Deerwood (a favorite stop of mine on 210) when a throaty EMD roar jerked me out of my trance. After a glance east I was back in the car and on the road in a jiffy. A pair of green GP's were smoking it up as they worked hard on a long Brainerd local. I easily outdistanced the train by the edge of town and hit the ground running to grab this shot:

A long string of loaded coal gons must have been leftovers from the recent derailment that had been pulled back towards Brainerd to open the line for other trains. They needed to finish their trip to Superior one way or another and fate had chosen this pair of Cascade Green veterans as their appointed power this day. I couldn't help but think I was seeing an unusual occurence as the local power moved 16 loads of coal along with the normal consist of covered hoppers, tanks, and boxcars along the Brainerd Sub. Next stop-a curve along the highway.

After that shot I set out for the S-curve near Aitkin, a spot I've passed by many dozens if not hundreds of times but never shot a train passing. Obviously the light was far from ideal but what the heck. Here comes the train, snaking through a series of curves as it winds along the shore of a small lake.

And one more shot, as he passes me. The conductor gave a wave, probably wondering what kind of strange railfan was out shooting on a cloudy, rainy Wednesday evening.

I counted 16 loaded coal cars as the train passed. I'm almost sure these are the cars from the recent derailment, which seemed interesting to me. Made the trip a lot more enjoyable to finally see a train. Keep looking.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Beat with an Ugly Stick

During an improptu railfanning encounter today in Wadena, I came upon a stack train parked just west of the 2nd Ave crossing. Since it was a train, and even had a CN unit as the second in consist, it was time for a photo.

Even when I took the picture the GE was anything but pretty. Still, the full effect didn't show up until I uploaded the photo. This thing was all kinds of ugly, with the peachy paint scheme that was burned off the engine compartment.

Power is power.

"Too Much Work for a Friday"

Friday forenoon, lots of errands were awaiting me as Mrs. L4T was out of town for a few days and had left some domestic chores for me to clean up. One of the last things I did was stop at the insurance office on the east side of town to drop off the paperwork related our roof replacement. The Wadena local was sitting on Main 2 at the K line switch when I came out. I decided to play a bit of hooky and swing down to Drywall Supply and check out the makeup of this Friday's train. It was a doozy, for a Wadena local.

There were boxcars, an empty centerbeam flat, tankcars, lots of tankcars, and a covered hopper or two, along with a single coal gon making the lonely trip back to Dilworth. In addition to the eight tank cars in the consist of the train, four more were sitting on the former "K" line main. I've seen the engines run around the cars in this location, and they were planning to do the same thing today, but the four tanks were in the way. The engineer was also holding on to two boxcars on the south end of the power.

(If you want some idea of locations mentioned in this post, since I'm using names I have made up unless I've heard the crew using a name for the sidings, you can find a map I put together here.)

To make room for the runaround move, they grabbed the 4 tanks with the boxes, pulled them back toward the Staples Sub, and pushed them back down into the Drywall Supply spur. In a couple of minutes the trucker was back at work unloading what I think is magnesium chloride for dust control on roads as the engineer began his runaround by drifitng south on the K line main. Soon we'll come to understand the purpose of the pair of boxes tied onto the south end of power set. It was somewhere around this time that the engineer made the comment on the radio that the railroad had given them "Too much work for a Friday!" This was reinforced when the dispatcher called with the news of a pair of approaching Z trains.

I realized things were even more complicated when I headed uptown to wait for the local to set out the two boxcars that were now on the front of his train. It was then that I spotted an eastbound stacker sitting on Main 2 just west of the 2nd St SW crossing. Combined with the local now on Main 1, Wadena was totally blocked.

So I watched as the local, with a brakeman riding the boxcar protecing the front of the shove as the train slowly made its way down Main 1, until it was well clear of the crossing.

Then they uncoupled from the body of the train, ran ahead a bit, and backed into the runaround far enough to clear the switch into the bean track. When they were past the switch, the brakeman lined it for the spur and the engineer shoved the two boxcars into the track, backed out, and reversed the previous actions to get to the front of his train and couple up.

After a brief pause to charge his brake line, he was off as quick as could be, headed to Perham to clear for the Z trains just behind him. The first Zipper was already waiting at the plant in Wadena, and accelerated quickly as he got a green signal.

This was the most extensive work I have ever had the chance to witness the local doing in town, and it was interesting to see how they solved the various challenges, especially the problem of reversing direction at the end of the run. I also learned something, specifically that a switch off the main that I never knew about exists behind Hide and Fur.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Homebound under the Clouds

It's funny how times change. Not so many years ago, there were extensive discussions on the OMR list about who had been lucky enough to catch a BNSF loco in the new "swoosh" paint scheme. Those who had captured their first loco decorated this way were envied by the many of us still waiting for a first real-life sighting of such a unit. Oh, how we lamented the seemingly endless string of DC-powered coal trains behind warbonnet SD75's, green giant SD60M's, and the fleet of Oakway lease "power by the hour" SD60's in their attractive blue paint scheme.

Fast forward a few years, and it seems the worm has turned. Nowdays probably a majority of the trains, or at least close to a majority, have at least one of the H3 units in the consist. We railfans have lamented the demise of many models of locomotive, including the SD40-2 series and just about every other EMD 6 axle unit with the exception of the MAC's and ACe's.

But for some reason these old friends seem to be making a comeback. The 40's started to reappear, now designated SD39-2 and derated on paper to 2999 HP. They have become fairly common on work trains and other low-priority service, with new numbers in the 1600 and 1900 series (among others, I'm sure). Their old numbers are being swallowed up by the hordes of new GE's that continue to appear on the railroad. The 40's were followed by the SD75's, some in H2 paint and many others still in good-looking warbonnet paint schemes. The SD60M's, renumbered to make room for new coal power in the form of SD70ACe's, have been showing up for some time now. And finally, rumor has it that some of the blue SD60's are once again out and about, hauling freight trains across the countryside and earning their keep.

Today I returned home from a trip to Hallock, and of course followed the Noyes sub from Hallock to Crookston. Somewhere near Argyle, a headlight showed itself far to the south. It was soon obvious a train was on the way, and I pulled over at a crossing for a shot under the clouds. This train was led by an ES44AC, and had an unusual mate in its consist. First, the leader:

And here's the trailing unit-the first Oakway I have seen underway in I don't even remember how long. Obviously, this called for a going away shot to record the moment for posterity.

Well that was interesting. And so I continued on, anxious to get home. The BNSF's Grand Forks Sub and the CP's DL Sub were thoughtful enough not to disturb my travels. In fact, the next train I saw was stopped on the west side of Perham, but far beyond photo range. With no time to cut through town for a shot under overcast skies, on I went.

Then, this appeared, also stopped, this time on Main 1 east of Perham, near what I call the "Big Woods". 4 matched units, a Z train, what the heck, I'll grab a shot even though it's cloudy. And so I present:

That was it for today. Oh, I almost forgot a grain train on the loop at Argyle, but in no position for photography. I have a couple of shots from the previous day, when they were loading as I passed by, that I'll pick through to see if one is worth posting. Other than that, you now have my entire report on train action between Hallock and Wadena, the afternoon of June 2, 2011. That is all.