Monday, November 26, 2012

What's in YOUR Wallet Basement?

Kind of a joke of a title. I always loved those commercials.

Anyway, one of the reasons posting has been non-existent for over a month is my preoccupation with planning and construction work on the latest version of the West Central Minnesota Railroad. Whether it is trying to learn how to use AnyRail, reading John Armstrong's Track Planning for Realistic Operation, or actually putting up walls, I've been able to occupy my spare time with little left for blogging or railfanning.

Having staked out a little less space than I had for my last layout (about 16' by 19', versus 11' by 42' in Wadena), I sensed the need for two levels. That brought about the question of how to get trains from the lower level to the upper level, and vice-versa. There were two basic ideas-a "nolix", or building a grade into the track as it travels around the room, and a helix, which wraps a bunch of track into a spiral to allow trains to climb between levels while keeping the grade manageable. The debate between the two has consumed many electrons, and each has its place, but I decided on the helix. Here's why: I wanted to have areas with no grade for switching on each level. After building two vertical curves on my last layout, I didn't relish the idea of multiple vertical curves this time, not to mention that the level areas would eat up footage that was needed to keep grades manageable with the "nolix" concept. Ergo, the only option left to me was a helix.

There was one other reason I wanted to build a helix-I think they are cool, and I wanted to see if I could build one. As a matter of fact, I got so excited about it that I broke my own first commandment of layout building-finish the room before starting on the layout. Sure enough, I have a huge pile of ceiling tile waiting to be installed, and here I am twiddling around with a helix.

As of yesterday, here's a shot that gives an idea of my progress:

Currently I have almost two and a half full turns done, including track laid. These things eat up a lot of track. In fact, there will be more than 60 feet of track in the four full turns I am planning to raise the track 16". The grade works out to almost exactly 2%, but the trains will pull harder than that due to the additional drag of curves. 

When it's all done, there will be threaded rod supports all around the helix, to allow for precise adjustment of grade and make sure it's sturdy. Those are planned to be the final items installed. 

Today I got so excited that I made up a 6 car train, including two bay covered hoppers and 89' auto racks, and ran it up and down the track I had installed a couple of times. The 30" radius seems adequate, but the cars have to have good couplers and the trucks need to be installed correctly (one fairly tight and one loose). I have already found a couple of cars that needed a trip to the RIP track for adjustment, but got the whole thing running nicely after 15 minutes or so. The Athearn RTR GP38 had no problem with this length of train, so it looks like the grade will be manageable. 

So to answer the title of the post, a helix is what's in my basement as of now. More to come. Next time I may have a more polished track plan to share. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Nosing Around in the Fog

A  clearing forecast and decent temps combined with the offer of a guide seemed to create the conditions for a dream railfanning outing this morning, so I took advantage of the situation and was out the door before 7:30 AM. After a short stop at to say hi to Dan's wiener dogs, it was back on the road in foggy conditions, just right to catch a train looming out of the gloom. I was driving but taking directions from the fearless leader, and he guided us to a meeting with four EMD's right off the bat, including a blue and yellow visitor to the ports.

With CP accounted for, it was off to Black Bear where a fantastic trestle was shrouded in fog when we arrived. The twenty minute or so wait for the train allowed all the fog to clear out, yielding the finest-lit shot of the day as CN "land barge" struggled by with two big units up front and a couple more mid-train. Six hundred and sixty some axles, with lots of loads, had these engines groaning as they worked the train out of the basin.  

The upside was that slower progress made for an easier chase. We were able to beat the train to this secret location even when it involved a short run that left my legs rubbery. The photo may not be much but the sight and sound of the train cutting through the fog was pretty cool. I've never thought about how hard trains have to work heading out of Superior toward Wisconsin, but apparently hills ring the Twin Ports.  

 By this time, I had worked up a healthy appetite and the Escape was thirsty as well, so we headed back to Superior to fill everyone's tanks. After stops at Holiday and McD's (and a few well-chosen words about the lateness of this year's McRib), it was back on the road, to check out what my old friend the BNSF was up to. 28th Street Yard was strangely unoccupied when we drove up, with only a couple of units present, but the railroad fixed that in a minute when a couple more GP's backed a cut of cars into the yard. The fog was back in force as I shot the action. I do find something uniquely compelling about these foggy day shots.
 Of course no railfanning outing in Superior is complete until you at least do a roll-by inspection of the engine servicing facility. Today, we were lucky enough to catch a crowd of EMD's, of various vintages, paint schemes, and wheel arrangements, being prepped and fueled for service. I couldn't resist.
Finally, a swing around the yard and down past the elevators produced nothing new. However, I did get a valuable tip about a photo location for boats loading grain at CHS. Today it was the "American Mariner" filling up. Even got a tiny bit of fall color in the corner of the shot.

And with that, our three-hour tour had ended. Not stranded on a deserted island, either, but just minutes from home and already dreaming of the next chance I have to get out and look for trains around the Twin Ports. Thanks, Dan, for the tour and all the info you shared. It's appreciated.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


The first ten days of the month went by in a blur, with a trip to Michigan for work followed up by the movers coming and packing up our household goods the following Monday and Tuesday and delivering to our new home on Wednesday. I managed to fit a couple of fun-filled unpacking days in last Thursday and Friday before getting up at 4 AM Monday to head, once again, to Michigan. Now I'm back at my new home in Duluth and Mrs. L4T is here with me, and all is well with the world.

My Mom and Dad stopped to see our house on the way to Florida for the winter on the same the movers arrived. We decided to go for a drive so I could show them where I work and sneak in a little railfanning, which is how I caught this "critter" at the end of the day, working the storage elevator in Old Town Superior. Since we were in a bit of a hurry I had to settle for this shot, someday I would like to get him out in the open.

The heir to the Look4trains fortune was next to visit, and help unpack over the weekend. Since he also needed to see my office, and do a bit of touring around the area, I again managed to sneak in a train photo. This time we were passing the west end of the BNSF pellet yard at Allouez and found a DPU sunning itself while I suppose the train waited to dump. Out came the Pentax and captured the sight.

What a difference between Friday evening (above) and Saturday, shown below. Coming back from Superior, a transfer was leaving Rices Point and a short trip down I-35 let me catch him as he passed through the gloom on the way to Grassy Point. Can't be sunny all the time.

Finally, one more at Allouez, another DPU sitting at the entrance to the yard. This time it was an ACe, but even though the power was nicer the weather wasn't.

That's it for the month so far. Pretty slim pickings but it sounds like the weekend might be at least partly decent so there's that. Wish me luck in my new digs.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


As my time in Wadena draws short (when I leave today, I won't be back here to live, the movers come tomorrow), I can't help but think back on the time spent here. Wadena is where I got really involved in railfanning, and where Mrs. L4T and I lived when she encouraged me to buy my first "real" camera.
6 years ago today, there was a coal train leaving Staples headed for Superior. With no knowledge of things like scanners or ATCS, railfanning was a hit and miss game. That fine day I was lucky to catch this train as it ventured onto the Staples Sub, led by a triclops 60M. A scene that will likely never again occur, it seems a blessing now that I was able to witness it then.
There are some things I will miss about Wadena. Having grown to love the Staples Sub, that's one thing, and I have a few good friends here in Wadena that I will miss. No longer being able to host an ATCS server is a regret. The disassembly of the first edition of the WCMR was a bitterseet event. All in all, though, I'm real excited about the future and look forward to what it holds.
Thanks to everyone who has been a reader, hopefully this blog makes the move well.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Oil at Oink Joint

After pizza at Larrys this evening, Mrs. L4T and I had half an hour to kill. A drive to Verndale and back were trainless until we reached Wadena, when an eastbound tipped us off with a headlight. We reversed course and raced to the Oink Joint Road crossing. I thought there might be some glint but there was nothing but backlight.
And then we headed home. What with buying a house, starting the process of getting settled, working 5 days, driving back to Wadena, loading the Escape with model railroad paraphernalia, and getting ready for a 6 AM Monday morning flight to Michigan for work, railfanning has been sorely neglected lately. At least I got a shot for the week.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fighting Traffic

The title is kind of a tease. The traffic referred to is not on steel rails, but instead on Interstate 35 in Duluth. After work today, I drove over to Duluth, and spotted the rear end of a train leaving Rices Point yard. With no place I needed to be, a short chase seemed like a no brainer. That was until I saw the traffic jam the interstate was. I grabbed the first exit I saw and headed for the city streets. Finally arriving at the overpass near the paper mill, it turned out the delay had not prevented a nicely lit shot of a pair of GP's with some empty (stone?) hoppers heading into Mike's Yard. Not exactly what you would call Staples Sub scenery.
And that was that. I sure was glad that the delay on the interstate (due to bridge work on the Blatnik Bridge) didn't prevent me from getting the shot.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Old Days

One of the great blessings of my railfan "career", if such a thing exists, has been the willingness of Mrs. L4T (that's my wife for those of you who have always wondered) to humor me by tagging along on "train hunting" expeditions. We have explored nearly every inch of the Staples Sub together, and she has gotten to the point where she occasionally sees the train before I do. She even questions why I am taking a shot from time to time, commenting that "the light is no good here". We've been great friends as we cruise up and down Highway 10, always on the lookout for the distinct pattern formed by a headlight and a pair of ditchlights.

With an impending move to the Twin Ports just a few weeks away now, something Chris Muller posted on Facebook today inspired me to check ATCS, and sure enough, the westbounds were lined up all the way to Gregory. Mrs. L4T and were out the door with visions of GEVO's and ACe's dancing in our heads.

My first move was east. It seemed a good bet we could catch the leader of the pack the other side of Verndale, but he beat us to the punch and surprised me just outside Wadena. If not for the glorious consist of new BNSF covered hoppers I would have passed, but these cars called for a u-turn and chase. The slow order near Bluffton allowed us to just beat the train to a crossing.

Hoping to beat something to Staples, we once more headed east, and this time made it almost all the way to Aldrich before a Z train sailed around the corner. Once more we were ready.

The action was pretty steady at this point, as the next train was approaching Dower Lake when we got there. This time is was a crude oil empty, led by a GEVO. You might also notice a blur of color in the distance that will come into play a bit later.

But the interesting unit was third out. For the third or fourth time I got the H3 painted 8987, an SD70MAC. The paint sure holds up nice, as this is at least two years old.

One of my goals for the day was a shot from the new overpass in Staples. Alas, it was not to be, as the final westbound was passing the depot as we neared the parking area. Plan B took us back to the Dower Lake crossing, where we captured a manifest with lots of oilfield traffic, including pipe, sand cars, and empty tanks. I even noticed an ADM car placarded for crude oil in this train.

This thing got me excited. I wonder what it hauls and where it hauls it?

The treat of the day was next. A manifest train sat on Main 2, sans power, just west of the Dower Lake crossing. It was only a few minutes when the power for the train ran back west from the yard. It was great to see a 4 unit set of SD40-2's "leading" this power as it backed up onto the train. What a sight! I hollered "Nice Power" to the conducter as he passed by and got a smile and wave back.

After getting the air pumped up and the train underway, we were able to swing by the Staples yard and shoot three more classic EMD's sitting at the west end, including a fairly uncommon GP40. Second one I have seen this week, the other was in Superior.

And so you have the story from today. We probably won't get many more chances to fan the Staples Sub, but I'll always remember this one and the day Mrs. L4T once again brought me luck!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Wednesdays with Dan (The GP Edition)

Once again this evening Dan M. was kind enough to drag me along on a local railfanning outing. This one turned out to be heavy on GP's although we didn't photo each and every one.

Actually the GP theme of this evening started to emerge even before I met up with Dan. On my way to supper with a former colleague, I spotted the UP switch job working in Superior and shot him just north of Belknap. Since I was in a hurry there was no time to wait for better light, so this shot will have to suffice.

After supper and a call to Dan, we headed out after 6 and promptly spied a pair of CN units at BNSF's Superior engine terminal. Since they both had 6 axles and were built by GE they don't fit the theme of this post, so no picture.

The radio brought news of a BNSF job at the Peavey elevator, and off we went. Sure enough it was a good decision as my old friends the 2765 and 2801 were tied on to a long string of grain cars coming out of the elevator.

News of a transfer from Duluth provided our next target. When Dan asked if I shot backlit I told him heck yes. After seeing the shots it was a good thing he asked. Here comes yet another pair of GP's, this time led by a freshly painted unit that probably still smells new. It likely won't stay that way for long, though, given the sander dust rising from the tracks as the engines move a heavy train into Superior.

Fresh paint called for a better lit shot, and sure enough Dan had just the location. The light barely held on as the pair swung into the Superior yard. That lead unit sure is pretty.

Oh and I almost forgot the day's oddity, this time some kind of scale and warehousing car tucked away back near the CHS elevators. You just never know what you might find, if you are looking in the right places.

A couple more GP's, this time CP, were at Rice's Point, but the light had pretty much given up by them. Finally it was off to the depot, for a report on the prototype and modeling events of the past week in the Twin Ports area. A good evening, for sure.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Some Superior Shots After Work

After work today I decided a swing by the BNSF facilities in Superior was in order. (All of you with your Virginian photos must have inspired me.) To give you an idea of what Superior is like, the first of these shots was taken at 4:18 PM. The last was shot at 4:28 PM. And yes, the same day. I also passed on a CP train that wasn't very well lit, and another unknown train that I heard blowing for a crossing but never saw. In addition there were 3 other GP's and a pair of Dash 9's at the engine terminal I didn't shoot.

But first up, at 28th Street, an SD40-2 is headed south with a cut of cars while a pair of GP's rest. Interestingly (to me at least), I also saw these two engines on my way to Superior last night. They were just west of Home Depot in Baxter with a string of gondolas. It was strange to the 2801 leading and the 2785 bringing up the rear, as if it were a DPU. I figured they were headed into the spur at Baxter.

Next I decided to head up to the engine terminal and see what was happening, but before I made to 21st Streeet another SD passed me going south. Since it had nice looking paint I decided to shoot it, even though the nose is not well lit.

There was something going on with an ACe at the terminal. I don't think it was good news after looking up the website on the side of the van.

A lone GP sat on the short engine track, tempting me to try shooting it, so I did. And now I'm posting the photo.

I was going to post one more shot of the people working on the ACe, but decided not to. And now I have made a post for September. Hopefully my wild life will soon begin to settle down so I can get back to posting a bit more regularly.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Wednesdays with Dan (This one is Late)

This is one of those posts that somehow slip through the cracks. Getting out along the tracks with Dan last night reminded me this was in the hopper so thought it would good to share it.

Way back on August 8 (seems like an eternity ago to me) something inspired me to do a little investigation of the downtown Superior area and sure enough I was able to locate the depot.

Since I was halfway to Minnesota already, it seemed only proper to finish the journey and see what was brewing down by the paper mill. In the dim recesses of my memory it seems I was chasing after one transfer or another and finding out just how quickly the can make it across the bay compared to me when I have no idea where I'm going. So I tried to make the best of it and shot some sugar stone.

Blundering along the interstate, I spied yet another limestone train, this time tucked down along the ore dock. A little exploring and I had this view:

If memory serves, just after that shot I retreated back to Wisconsin to meet up with Dan. After I told him about the CN limestone train, he led me to the proper location for a shot.

Oh, and he shot the train himself.

Last stop was CP Rices Point, where the traditional pair of GP's was shuttling cars in and out of the port, offering opportunities for some shots.

I believe after that shot we retreated to the depot where I had the chance to get to know some of the Great Model Railroaders of the Twin Ports (GMRTP for short-rumor has it the pronunciation is something like "Gomertop"). Anyway, thanks to everyone for the warm welcome and putting up with my incessant questions.

Like an Old Shoe

For any readers of this blog who aren't already aware of it, I started a new job, working in the Duluth/Superior area, about a month ago. There is a thriving railfan community in that area, and I have felt very welcome. "Guided Tours" of a few areas have already taken place, with more in the offing. It's exciting seeing places in person that have only existed in photos for me until now.

The best part is getting to know some of the fans in that area. I've long felt that getting to know fellow railfans is the high point of the hobby and so far the Twin Ports have reinforced that belief.

However, the area I called home for 8 years still has a strong hold on me. Commuting back to Wadena on weekends has allowed me to stay in touch with that area. On my way home Friday evening, I caught an empty coal train between Staples and Aldrich. Racing along at highway speed allowed me a short lead by the time I reached Verndale. It only seemed right to stop for a shot at one of my favorite photo locations-the Verndale Sag.

The combination of nice evening light, a familiar coal train behind a pair of MAC's, and a well known location sure combined to make me feel "at home". It's just a matter of time before the Twin Ports are able to provided the same level of comfort. I look forward to it.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Learning Superior

If you don't know where you are going, you have a few options. One of the most commonly used (by me at least) is to keep blundering on in hopes of getting somewhere. You can also use things like GPS or maps. Advice from a trusted friend is always useful. The most valuable solution, though, is an experienced guide. That's what I lucked into last Wednesday when Dan Mackey was kind enough to give me a grand tour of Twin Ports railfanning locations. I know this wasn't all-inclusive, I don't think you could do that in a full day around here, but it was a great introduction. And there were even trains!

After a quick stop at McDonalds (take out), Dan soon knew exactly where to wait for this trifecta of EMD's as it brought a cut of cars from Duluth up a grade into the Superior yard. The GP's weren't able to get the job done themselves so the SD was placed in helper service as the long transfer made the loop toward the yard.

These 8 axle flat cars made up a good portion of the train with what looked like wind generators aboard. Must have been one of the reasons so much tractive effort was needed. Dan managed to get elevation to shoot this train.

Now for a brief OMR tidbit. On the previous Sunday, when I was on the way back to Superior from Staples, a train of DME and ICE hoppers was making its way onto the Brainerd Sub at Staples. Knowing how excited Chis Muller would be, I called him with a live report. When I mentioned 4 bay DME hoppers he asked what kind, so this photo is intended to provide that info.

We now resume our Twin Ports discussion. Dan had a good idea of what was going on from the radio chatter. Being a novice in the area, when I asked him where 15.9 was, he gave me a funny look and said something like "a mile from 14.9". Then we were off for places like Saunders, and Boylston, where I think I shot this after running the hundred yard dash in as good a time as I can muster due to my wandering off and not observing where the qualified guide set up. Note to self: "PAY ATTENTION!"

And the hits just kept on coming. The Benzene bridge, MP 15.9, where a coal load and coal empty met, and yet another bridge south of town, which Dan was kind enough to drive down to. By this time I didn't even know what color locomotives might show up. As we pulled up to this location Dan asked if I saw a headlight coming. Sure enough, the CN delivered a train just in the knick of time.

And it just went on. Grassy Point Draw, Mikes Yard. The pair of Rice's Point yards, and all the trackage down in the port area, where a CP job was working. A ship loading at one of the massive elevators in Superior. The action never stopped.

I want to say thanks to Dan for the great tour. I'm looking forward to learning the area, and getting to know more of the fans around here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Never Again

No, I haven't done something I regret. In fact quite the opposite, in looking back over some old photos I find things I'm thankful to have taken the chance to do when I had the opportunity. You can probably guess from the tagline on the photos I somehow ended up tonight and wound up nostalgic.

The changes I have seen in my few years as a serious railfan are truly amazing. I can remember when a GE Dash 9, while not a surprise, was a refreshing change of pace on the Staples Sub. The SD40-2's I expected to dominate the railroad forever are pretty much no more, with the exception of transfer, yard, and short distance service. Not so long ago, this was a fairly common site on one of my Saturday morning trips to Staples (which are pretty much history as well!)

At the very least, these road numbers have been usurped by GE's, along with a place on the hot trains operated by the railroad.

In some cases it's more than just the railroad itself that has changed. Wadena is a prime case, where the former feed and seed plant that made for a nice photo backdrop is no longer. Many's the time that I waited for a train to show up so I could try and work the mill into the photo. Those were pre-ATCS and in some cases pre-scanner days as well. It all worked on this day:

The idea that there would come a day when catching a pair of green 40's on a V train would pass never crossed my mind when I tripped the shutter.

A lot of the change is in motive power. Of course the SD40 series dates back to the 60's and 70's, older than many of the fans out chasing them (not me, though). Everything has it's day in the sun, and those engines day was longer than most. However just being newer is no guarantee of a long career. Here's a string of power that stopped to rest in Wadena one day a few years ago. Of the nine units shown, only the MAC is still doing what it was intended to do that day. I believe the SD60's and 60M, along with the warbonnet, are going, going, gone from BNSF. Not sure what happened to the maroon leaser, and the 40's on the tail end might be sporting numbers borrowed from a former SD9 or somesuch and a horsepower downgrade.

Here's one more that will likely never be repeated. This has always been a favorite of mine, not because of the quality, but because I remember how lucky I was to get the chance. While on a trip to Cloquet, with little time to spare, the train showed up at just the right time. This trio of EMD's will likely never polish the rails of the Brainerd Sub again.

A look back sure can reveal a lot of changes, even over not so many years.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Odd Power on the 8

Thanks to an early morning heads up by Steven Welch and a text from Jer I had advance notice of yet another late Empire Builder headed back to Chicago. These have been getting pretty routine so I may have passed on it but both alerts included information of an unusual lead engine for this area. With that I decided to head out.
Rather than drive all the way to Staples, I decided to try and get him just west of Wadena as the tracks climb out of the Leaf River Plain. I heard the detector at MP 174 announce the pending arrival of the train just before I reached my chosen location. The wait for a train was very short.

The photos above and below were shot as the train raced up the hill. It was kind of fun seeing something unusual, especially on the ever-consistent Builder.

My last shot is intended to be a better view of the Dash 8 leader and an opportunity to compare it to the Genesis unit trailing. One thing I noticed when processing this shot was the fuel tank. To my eye it's shaped like the tank on an EMD rather than the "slab sided" tanks most GE's sport.

And with that it was back home. Thanks again for the heads up guys!