Saturday, December 22, 2007

These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things

I know the title of this blog mentions "CenLA," that word standing for Central Louisiana, but one of my favourite places to spot is actually in a city two hours north--Monroe. At least it's central north. *S*

Monroe isn't the prettiest town in the state, nor is it the oldest. It's certainly not the biggest city around, but what it does have is trains, and as an added bonus it doesn't have the sort of traffic and crime and difficulties that can be found in, say, New Orleans. For all it's diminutive size (it feels about as big as Alexandria-Pineville, honestly) it's got a sizeable and busy KCS yard that leases a lot of rail time to folks like NS and BNSF and quite a few miles of UP tracks too. Add into the mix a surprising amount of storage facilities and industry shipping by rail and you've got a nice place to see lots of rolling stock.

Vulgar Wizard and I went there Friday to see what we could get into. The day promised very little, unfortunately. I can only assume the sun rose because we didn't actually SEE it until almost 3pm. The day was damp, foggy and cold, and all-together rather bleak. Undaunted (well okay, a little daunted) we pressed on. Our original goal was two-fold: 1) stop at the West Magenta KCS yard near US Hwy 165 and I-20 and 2) go visit the KCS swing bridge across the Ouichita River near Trenton St.

Imagine our surprise and then dismay to find that the swing span was wide open - open not to allow waterway traffic through but because repair work of some sort was happening on the span. Two barges as well as the incredibly dense fog swathing everything in grey cotton promised to damped our spirits. The lesson here, though, is not to give up and to forge forward and hope for the best. With that firmly in mind instead of a train I got--a crane.

Hey, at least it rhymes.

(You can see the other two photos in this set on my Flickr page.)

From there we roamed. Vulgar Wizard seemed to have a hankering to be driving rather than staying put in one place, and the cold and damp reinforced the wisdom of that decision with me. So, nice warm truck cab it was. I believe we were headed down Louisville, lead by my native guide VW when we got into a block that seemed to be mostly warehouses and storage facilities, nearing the 'bad' part of town when we rolled over a crossing. I automatically glanced out the passenger side window and saw nothing but a nest of old, weed-choked spurs leading to various warehouses and a few boxcars that I made note of to return to later if pickings were slim. VW, however, made a sort of giggle/snort/noise of excitement and suddenly we were screeching into a parking lot.

At my office we have one of those great big, super nice wall maps that is produced by the state itself. It's made of thick, heavy paper covered over with a sort of plastic coating and shows everything you could want to know about the state, including the railroads, their routes and their owners of record. Way up at the top of that map, close on the heels of Arkansas with lines extending into Arkansas and Mississippi is a meandering little short line called the AL&M.*

The Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi Railroad company is called a "short line" because their reach doesn't extend into the thousands of miles of track realm. On a map that seems to have every line marked "UP" or "KCS" it's nice to see another acronym. Being a trainspotter and this line being fairly close, naturally I've wondered about it. I wondered if it was owned by some big company, or if it kept it's own equipment, had it's own livery, that sort of thing. Being me I forgot about it completely on the one day I traveled into it's sphere of influence.

It took VW's sharp eyes to see the little pair of GP diesels, one clad in dark green and white livery, the other in orange and yellow parked on a spur beside a warehouse.

The first thing we did, of course, was to walk all around, oohing and aahing. VW spotted the bell and couldn't resist giving the clapper a good swing. The resulting peal sounded wonderfully loud in the cold air.

I spotted the build plate on the orange and yellow-liveried engine and marveled that a machine built by GM in 1964 could still be in such nice condition, and we looked at every little bit of those two machines that we could without getting off into the gumbo mud on the backside. As excited as I was and as cold and foggy and damp as it was it still didn't take me long to secure my camera with VW and climb that ladder. Ostensibly my reason for being there was to take some interesting photos of the engines, which I did, and which are on the Flickr set here. The other reason is because VW asked if I wanted some photos of me on the walkway.

Now, I'm not the sort of person who necessarily LIKES photos of myself. I don't see myself as being particularly photogenic but this was a fairly rare opportunity. Naturally, I took advantage, and she snapped the portrait.

It took an alert VW to catch a photo of me turning to visually pinpoint a distant air horn like a pointer spotting a partridge in the brush.

(The complete set of photos including the pair deadheading back through the yard can be seen on Flickr here.)

The rest of the day offered ample opportunity. We ended up camped right inside the KCS West Magenta yard and got to watch the operations there at great length. And we were rewarded almost immediately: not only did we get to watch a KCS-liveried EMD40-2 cut a consist of cars onto various spurs we were also treated to a massive mixed consist lead by NS 9603 (a DC9-CW) and a pair of resplendently decked out BNSF prime movers (a Dash 9-44CW and third in line was an ES44DC.)

(More photos from the West Magenta KCS yard can be seen here.)

This being Louisiana in winter the clouds and fog lifted as it was nearing time to head back, but undaunted we kept our eyes open and were amply rewarded: sitting on the line parallel to 165 was NS 9513 leading a rather shabby NS 8738.

We were of course required by Trainspotter Code to give chase, so we did, following her for the better part of the line and getting a few more photos along the way.

(A few more photos can be seen at the Flickr set here.)

All in all a very full day, rewarding and profitable as far as filling up an SD card in my camera goes. One of the things I like most about the West Magenta yard there in Monroe is that there's such a variety of liveries on it, from companies leasing rail time to companies trading back engine hours and miles. I've seen engines liveried in BNSF 'Warbonnet' paint, UP yellow and black, KCS grey and Retro Belle schemes, Conrail blue and NS black and white in the course of one day, not to mention a whole range of engine types and styles. I can only imagine what a full day of simply sitting on the I-20 overpass slope would bring.

* The AL&M is now operated by the G&W (Genesee & Wyoming,) whose website can be found here.

Also be sure to visit Vulgar Wizard's Flickr account to see HER views of these engines and more.

(some links are currently disabled until all photos are uploaded, sorted, stamped, filed, indexed, briefed, debriefed and numbered.)

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Sucess: Very High Price Tag

Sometimes I'm too much of a kid for my own good.

Coming home late, getting dark out and as cold as my maiden great-aunt, somehow a two mile long train of empty autoracks pulled by a massive beast of a SD70-AC slips my attention. I see it just before turning onto the road home, instead I wheel about and go roaring off up the interstate for a dusk rendevous, giggling in my helmet like the little boy I am.

I find a favourite spot in Boyce, my last chance place before trees hem in tight, and realise autoracks are empty, SD70 hogger is using all 5K horsepower at his disposal and is doing 50+ mph.

Must hurry. Adrenaline kicking in hard, knowing I won't have but a small window of opportunity.

Find new spot.

Find better spot.

Find even better spot on steel ladder of grain silos; climb halfway up, hurting my knee with every pounding footfall on the steel steps. Almost crash face-first into metal mesh gate blocking entrance to the very top. I turn, steady myself on the cold steel railing, and aim. Grit teeth and yank lens cap off. Ten feet off the ground, I've got a nice view down onto tracks.

The train comes into view FAST. Took the first photo: fail. Too excited to turn flash off, so all I get is a distant reflection of the "shield and wings" Scotchbrite decal on nose of SD and four headlights glowing in the dark with pool of light on the ground about twenty feet in front of me. Second shot never fired; foolishly left flash up, didn't think to switch to Manual. Engine roars past, opportunity gone into the dark night.

I hadn't let my adrenaline-addled brain remember that the Manual setting was preset from last time with fstop at 16 and shutter on Bulb. The autofocus was unable to 'see' the train so it refused to release the shutter. The engineer saw the first flash and hit a very short toot of the horns at me as he roared by. I waved, climbing down the ladder with my hopes crushed. My first 'night' shoot ends in failure. So I thought.

Walking up the block to wait at the crossing I realise I've one more low-light opportunity: the cars themselves, roaring by in a frenzy of noise and buffet. I back up some twenty or so feet and take stock. The wind from the passage is freezing, rails are moving like nobody's business so the ground is vibrating my back teeth. I'm going to go for it. Raise the camera, shut off flash, walk through the pistol shooter's mantra: I fill my lungs with air, let it half out and hold. Steady my left elbow against my side, take aim carefully, and fire off two long exposures (10/13ths of a second, I find out later.) Second is juddery from so much ground vibration, but the first works far more beautifully than I could have dreamt.

Auto Racks

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Photographer's Rights

As much as it's bandied about, we as American citizens have certain rights that the law guarantees us. Even us photographers.

To date I've never been harassed by the police for photographing trains or railway areas, or for taking any photographs, to be precise. I've greeted and been greeted by employees of railways and have had really engaging conversations with rail crews and with maintenance personnel. I've seen numerous patrolling police officers while in pursuit of photographic opportunity, and thus far I guess I've looked innocent enough to avoid any grief worse than a cold shoulder from anyone. Courtesy and being open with security officers and employees about what you're doing can go a long way, but if things get out of control or become uncomfortable for you, remember that you have very specific and legally binding rights.

I think of the chances of my encountering police or security people in the same way I think of my motorcycle riding. There are two kinds of motorcycle riders in the world:

  1. Those who have fallen
  2. Those who are going to fall

If you pursue trains for fun and photographs then you will, at some point, encounter security officers of some sort if you haven't already. The sad fact is that in our post-9/11 world things are a little darker, a little scarier than they used to be, and we as photographers can come under suspicion for our actions. The trick to keeping yourself and your equipment safe is knowledge of the laws.

Here's a link to an excellent article in USA Today by Andrew Kantor. It tells in very plain language the rights you have as a photographer.

A much more in-depth examination of your rights as well as the excellent Photographer's Bust Card and the more in-depth book on the same subject can be found at Mr. Burt Krages' website. It is a single-page brouchure produced by a lawyer that you can download in PDF format and print for your personal use. I HIGHLY reccomend it; print many copies and keep them in your gear bag, hand them to your photographer friends. It gives very specific guidance on what you can and cannot do as a photographer.

This sort of knowledge is tantamount if you don't want to be illegally bullied into surrending your film, memory card, or camera equipment. Don't smirk--it was done to a friend of mine who was photographing the local Proctor and Gamble factory in Pineville one night some years ago. She was standing on the street with a friend, the security guard detained them both inside the building and demanded and obtained her film, ALL ILLEGALLY. I wish I had known about this card then, and had given her a copy. She had the right to pursue legal action against this person and the company for kidnapping, illegal search and seizure and theft of personal property.

The last thing I want to offer is a PDF version of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) Bust Card. This is a much more wide-scope piece of information in a pocket-sized form (it prints two to a page) that gives you very specific information about your rights when detained by police officers and what you should and should not do when interacting with police officers.

Like the ACLU Bust Card says: EVERYONE, even minors, has the right to courteous and respectful police treatment. Know your rights.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Patience Is A Virtue. It's Also A Necessity.

I guess I had a lesson handed to me again today. Perhaps I'll be able to internalize it.

I asked for today off a month ago, and as it approached I knew it was a day to be trainspotting. Any day off is a trainspotting day, isn't it? I was due for a rude awakening, though. When I woke up this morning at 5:45 I could hear the wind chimes outside ringing pretty forcefully. I let the dogs out and heard the rain falling, and heard the sound of my heart falling, too. As the sun came up I knew it was over--rain, solid clouds, nasty dreary. A cold front is pressing thru from Texas, and the back of my hand pressed up against the frosted bathroom window sealed it--cold with rain.

So, I had sort of given up on going out today for fun. I agreed to do errands this morning just to have something to do. So, I ran errands. Did a little xmas shopping and in general just sort of muddled about. I certainly didn't get in any sort of rush because I knew I'd just get home and have nothing to do. Well, I ended up on a whim going to Lake Buhlow to see if there were any KCS cars on the cutout, and boy were there. Two long cuts, plenty of pretty graffiti and railman sign, so I went trudging with my little point-n-shoot. Figured even with the heavy overcast at least I'd have SOME sort of train-related something to show for it.

As I roamed the cars I thought I heard a horn somewhere up the UP line and went running pell mell up to the diamond there at Control Point Mallin; nothing. Went back and finished my shooting, packed up and got a wild hair. I took a drive up the gravel road that leads off the pavement path to the Red River Oxbow boat landing. I'll warn you now--there's a really pretty spot up there just a mile or so, a big still body of shallow water and the KCS line passes right along the woods behind it, but it's going to be overgrown in summer.

Undaunted and still a little high from my 45+ tags found I drove back up and decided to explore the Oxbow boat launch. When I got there I realised I had forgotten how very close the Red River Junction Bridge IS from the boat launch, and there's a really nice little park there. So, cold and overcast and nasty be damned, I wandered out onto the little jetty of huge stones that make up a wave-break for the landing and hunkered down. I waited. And waited. Took some nice photos of leaves in the water and some rocks at the end of my little stony jetty and tried to photograph the little turtles who kept watching me with distrustful little eyes thrust just above the waterline, but no train came.

I had sat there maybe an hour before I heard a horn. I got the wild grin I always get when I think a train is near and got ready. And nothing showed. I figured I had heard a horn from a train going straight through the Texmo Junction and thence up Hwy 1 instead of it making the long turn to head to the river, and decided I'd head home. I had gotten all the way to the bottom of the O K Allen bridge when I saw it--the long shape of a train parked on the curve leading up to the Red R. Jct. bridge. I hustled down off the overpass and around to Stracener St., where I could get close to the rails. I found the end and for certain proved it--it was pointed toward the river.

The game was afoot! I hauled tail back, praying it'd not move before I got back to my perch on the stony lonesome. I settled down again, hunkered against the cold wind, flannel shirt buttoned up tight, and waited. It occurred to me that the sounds I'd been hearing after that horn HAD been a distant diesel engine; stationary, somewhere behind the trees. I sat and thought and thought, pummeling my brain, hoping that it would warm the rest of me. I finally made the connection, so to speak: the train on the Alexandria side was waiting on the siding there because there was another UP coming from Pineville into Alexandria and hence into the yard, and it held the track warrant, so the Alexandria side one was waiting out of it's way.

Sure enough, not ten minutes passed and I started hearing roaring and rumbling and a distant, lonely horn, and then the rattling of many axles crossing the Mallin diamond. I got all sweaty-palmed, changed shooting positions about ten times, and sure enough it hove into view, moving beautifully slowly across the bridge, perhaps all of twenty miles an hour.

Got lots of shots, dark due to the overcast but I got them. I particularly like how backing the gross focus out makes it begin to appear more and more like a toy train.

Finally it meandered past; I sat there giggling and I realised that it'd be wise of me to use the time to try the Manual mode. Next lesson--when time permits, fiddle about with your camera settings. I knew I had a fair bit of time to play (a train doesn't just leap into motion) so I went ahead and started adjusting. I shot a few test shots of just the bridge areas I planned on focusing on, found a nice ISO setting and waited. Didn't have to wait too long--I heard a single long blast on the horn and the bell rang out clear in the cold air, and the idling rose to a growl. I got ready, steadied on my knees and braced up against a several hundred pound boulder there, and sure enough it came creeping across at a sedate 10mph, smoke pouring from both engines.

The aperature being a shade more open this time helped the grey sky turn more white and the whole photo lightened up a bit. Nice. I CAN be taught.

The best part of this opportunity? The second engine in the line had been on fire at some time past, and still bears heavy black marks and scorching along it's flanks. Obviously this one hasn't been to the home shop for cleaning and fresh paint, and I wonder if there wasn't a little engine damage--notice how heavy the exhaust is in the first frame, as it begins to cross. This also makes me wonder how often engines catch on fire--I've seen several photos in the past of engines with serious scorch marks across their radiator areas.

Here's where the mistakes started.

I watched for a few minutes, then realised it was moving so slowly that I had a pretty fair chance of getting to the KCS/UP Control Point Mallin diamond in time to get a photo of it there too. I made an ankle-breaking run back to the truck and hauled tail back out of the winding road thru the park. And there I made my first mistake--I was moving so fast I missed the turn onto the little gravel and sand road that leads up to the control point's access area so I had to go on a little further and set up on the road, shooting back into it with the forest as a backdrop. NOT what I had planned, but it worked. I got a few nice ones and a wave from the engineer, and headed home.

That's when I made the second mistake--I didn't go back to the jetty and wait some more. There was a THIRD train moving in the same direction. It must have been idling just behind the second because it was in the curve headed toward the bridge not a mile behind the tail of the first when I saw it, again, at the base of the O K Allen bridge. Talk about disappointed. The only way I could have made the exit ramp and MAYBE gotten turned around and hustled back in time for a photo or two would have involved me driving a fellow motorist off the road, so I went on home and promised myself a longer trip out there, this time with lunch packed, a good book, a pipe, and maybe a warmer coat.

More of this set and full versions (3000 px wide) of the above photos can be seen on my Flickr account here.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Take The Night Train

Who doesn't enjoy a parade, especially at this festive time of year?

The family and I attended the local Xmas parade last weekend, down on Main St. in Pineville. We ended up standing right outside the gates of my alma mater Louisiana College, listening to the bands warm up and watching the local motorcycle police officers perform some close-order precision driving as the precursor to the parade. It was some 70 degrees out, not exactly winter weather but it was still a great deal of fun to be there, looking forward to an evening of candy throws and floats full of smiling children.

I spent six years at LC earning two degrees. I was a commuter so I drove under what used to be a crumbling, low, ill-drained rail overpass there on Main St. at least twice a day every day for those six years I was in school. Never once did I see a train on it. The tracks run around behind and alongside the school, servicing the cresote plant there right off Hwy 28. Never once did I see a train while out and about on the campus. At the time I wasn't an avid spotter but I think I would have been struck by something so loud and obvious. Now the bridge is clean and new and fresh, and I pass that way only rarely, but I have yet to see a train on it.

The night of the parade made up for all those lost opportunities.

The parade had just gotten good and under way, the police well up Main St. and the first of the floats making their way into the procession. That's when I heard it. The distant, unmistakable wail of a train horn. I had joked with the family when we first arrived that it'd be quite funny if a train came by while I was standing there with camera ready, and we all had a laugh over that. What were the chances, after all? And I heard it again. That long wail echoing out across the street, carried on the still, humid air.

There's certain sounds in nature and around us that make us feel various ways. Hearing that train horn ring out made me feel excited, yes, because a train was coming, but it also made me feel sad. There was such a lonely emptiness in it, the sort of sound that a wild animal would make when it realised it was alone in the dark. I thought about the conductor and engineer sitting there in the front, the conductor in his chair to one side, the engineer behind his control board, both of them following the bright cone of light cast from over their heads, and behind them the noise and heat of the huge diesel engine, and behind that, stretching off in the dark, their cargo.

Two men, lit only by the instruments in front of them and perhaps a little stray light from the headlamps, alone in the night. I wondered what they were thinking, what they were feeling. Were they tired? Lonely? Excited to be headed toward a new destination or weary at the thought of another night on the road without their families, far from home and hearth. When the first of the three engines appeared on the bridge I couldn't help but ponder: did they pause for a moment in their private thoughts to wonder what was happening below them, there in the street? A whole panorama revealed and taken away again in an eyeblink--a broad flash of golden-orange sodium arc light, and in the streets all coloured lights and movement, a snatch of bright brass horns heard over the roar and groan of all that machinery, the glint of a string of beads tossed from the eager hand of a smiling child perched on a float, caught forever in mid-flight, never landing in that upturned hand forever reaching.

I know many heads turned to watch it pass--did they in turn look out of their windows far above us to see us, a sea of pale ovals, wondering faces turned toward their passage? Did they wonder what we were thinking of them?

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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Diamonds Are Forever

One of the fun things about railroad photography, for me at least is the variety of things there are to SEE on and around railroads. And primary amongst those things is interchanges. Places where trains change directions, where they turn off the main line, where they can, with some small ease head in another direction entirely. My litany of rails isn't complete without mentioning one other thing--places that rails cross more on the perpendicular rather than the parallel: diamonds.

If you've not seen one up close, a diamond is a floating piece of track. Yes it's spiked and bolted and otherwise attached to the very long wooden ties that run under it but it's separate from the welded-solid lines that lead up to it, and is attached to the rails that lead into it with massive bars of hard rubber, giving it just a little flexibility. And it's LOUD. When you pass four or six or two hundred axles across the gaps and each axle is bearing some seventy plus tons there's a certain clatter made. Musically so; the rhythm of steel wheels moving across cracks, the clickety-clack that was lost long ago when rails stopped being separate pieces and began to be welded and polished together into continuous stretches. If you get the chance, haunt a diamond if only to hear it sing to you, to watch it flex and move and shift like a dancer.

The best part of diamonds for me is that unusual nature. The second best part is the opportunities. This particular diamond is located in Pineville, just behind Lake Buhlow at Control Point Mallin. It's the crossing of not only two lines going in very different directions but it's also the crossing of two company's lines. If you're a black and white photographer you'll find there's tons of opportunities for interesting design arangements also.

At Mallin, KCS and UP lines cross in one spot; there's two of everything there it seems. There's also a nice trio of short side spurs that serve as a storage area for KCS's cars which often presents nice opportunity for up close, relaxed, unhurried photographs of varied cars and graffiti. But let's not forget why we're there--trains from two different companies. I went out last weekend with that very intent heavy in mind. I wanted to wait long enough to see both UP and KCS equipment. What I got wasn't what I bargained for.

I arrived fairly early, had just enough time to get settled in and get the camera out and ready when I started hearing a horn off in the distance behind the trees. I found the sun, positioned it over my right shoulder and got ready. But of course the key to photography and train photography particularly is waiting. So, I waited. And waited. I kept hearing that horn in the distance, never seeming to come closer or move farther away. Waited some more, and repeated my mantra: "Patience is the hallmark of a good photographer."

I never saw that UP--I can only assume it was parked just a mile or so up the track, honking and hooting to beat the band and annoy the fire out of me and when it got tired of that it moved off. But, being patient and knowing that I had all morning to wait if I cared to, I waited. And was rewarded.

The rumbling in the ground was the first clue to an approaching train on the KCS side. The headlights were second, as the wind was up good and was blowing toward the approaching train, thereby keeping the engine noises at bay. The sound finally joined the headlights that glowed bright even in the strong morning light. I started grinning, that grin that only a ten year old boy can truly make at the approach of a train, and framed my shot on the diamond.

Imagine my surprise when in the viewfinder I saw not the old KCS white and red nor the newer grey and red livery but:

Black and white.

Apparently Norfolk Southern owed KCS some engine hours or some mileage, because there was NS 2638 pulling hard, and her engineer hitting the horn in a series of short blips and waving.

And better yet?

A SD70-ACe in Retro Belle colours, KCS 4041, clean and resplendant as they all seem to be.

I only wish my continuous shutter was faster. I could have taken dozens of shots of that beautiful engine passing through. You'll notice that the sun is in the wrong bit of the frame. I was rushed and forgot to place myself appropriately but the sun was, fortunately, nice and straight and high.

Here's the previous attempt; again I was surprised by the train. This time I was too busy listening to the arguing rail employees over at the control point equipment and found myself on the wrong side of the sun as the train was on me too late for me to leap the rails and reset myself.

Next time I'll be ready. I promise you, there will be a next time. Mallin point is a prime shooting spot. Treat yourself to it.

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