Saturday, March 29, 2008


I learned a new term for what I and many trainfans do--"foaming."

I'm guessing it's because we tend to foam at the mouth at the sudden strident ringing of a bell at a crossing, because we froth a bit every time we see a red and white striped gate lowering, and irritated motorists speeding up to beat it through.

Me, I've had my fair share of foaming, all this last Friday.

For the past two weeks the KATLB (a very impressive domestic-traffic stack train) has been off it's usual route and passing through our humble little Boyce as frequently as three and four times a week. It passes right in front of my office, and I get to watch three, four, somtimes five big UP engines struggling to haul the load up to speed after it crosses out of the Alexandria city limits. And, true to form, I foam. I foam because I can't get out there to chase it, a dog at an SUV's wheels.

Yesterday, arriving back at the office from lunch I found myself in the questionable position of having a little overtime on the clock. I knew I had to burn it off, but knew that it'd make a good excuse. When a text from Vulgar Wizard south along the line told me that the KATLB was headed toward me, five engines strong, I leaped into action. Begged the boss to let me flee for a few minutes to a) chase a train and b) burn off my last little bit of OT. She relented, and I exploded out the door like a racing dog released from it's box.

Now, one day I'm going to learn that trains don't function according to normal physical rules. A distance that takes any other train any other day to travel in eight minutes doesn't apply when you're actively chasing/spotting a train traveling that same distance. I roared off on the bike up into Boyce, got set up at what has been a past favourite spot (on the main street road that leads by the Boyce Co-Op) and waited. And waited. And waited some more. I test-framed shots. I walked up to the track to stare longingly down them for headlights. I walked on the giant stack of old ties that are stacked there awaiting pickup later. No train.

Fearing I'd already burned half an hour of my fifteen minutes, thinking that something untoward had happened (perhaps the train had taken MacArthur Drive instead?) I headed back toward work, dejected. Fretting, and distinctly not foaming I headed back. About half-way up Hwy 1 I saw--yes, you got it. Headlights, and a distinctive smudge of blue-grey smoke. I locked up the back tire, swung the bike around in the middle of the highway and headed back into Boyce at a good clip.

I arrived in time for nothing but simple setup--no artful setup, no playing with layout, just get there, get the helmet and gloves off, secure the bike and get the camera out NOW!

The Tropicana cars were at the front of the consist this time, rather than their accustomed spot somewhere in the middle but it gave me ample opportunity to frame a nice shot of deep well cars with some deep blue PacerStacktrain boxes in.

(You can read the Yahoo Groups discussion I inadvertantly started concerning the rerouting of the KATLB here.)

I arrived back at work fifteen minutes over my intended time but utterly bubbling over with enthusiasm and leftover adrenaline. Finished my day's work up with a manic smile constantly threatening to erupt across my face and as the clock slowly turned toward five I began to hear a distinct, heavy rumbling from southwards.

Knowing I'd not be so lucky as to catch something truly important I didn't get into too much of a rush as I packed and settled my gear. Perhaps I CAN be taught eh? Well, I was slow and stable until I saw a pair of big SD90MACs creep into view, heded into Boyce. UP 8047 and 8225, and directly behind them? Bronze coal cars, each with a heap of black mineral showing above the gon's walls. The Rodemacher coal shipment. The chase was back on!

I got into Boye with plenty of time to spare and took up a new favourite shooting position: stopped on the shoulder of the Hwy 8 overpass that leads out of Boyce and into Colfax. Again, thank heavens for a bike because I can fit my beauty comfortably in that lane with room for me to move around her and not bother traffic, which while not steady nor heavy is still fairly frequent.

She approached slowly, (I matched her speed through Boyce at just over 40mph) letting me set this shot up.

I don't know what it is but there's something in me that thrills to the sight of a miles long series of identical rolling stock. Chalk it up to foaming and leave it at that. Watching the local GPs doing run-through carrying a week's production of tankers from UTLX gives me the same thrill as seeing all those rotatable coal gons.

Here's where the learning part comes in.

The UP was moving slow, naturally. I got well ahead of it to what I thought was the entrance to Rodemacher, and stopped. There were two Sheriff's deputies there directing traffic at the spot where the tracks cross Hwy 1, and I thought for sure this was the spot that it was going to cross. Then I saw the sign: "Boise Cascade." The lumber plant. I panicked. I got flustered. I realied I didn't really KNOW where Rodemacher WAS, and that this wasn't it. So, I hopped back on the bike and went further up into Boyce, thinking I'd soon see it.

*sigh* Yeah, I'm not the brightest bulb in the box.

I knew if I hung a right at the entrance back onto the interstate it'd bring me back, after a time, to the UP line, way back in redneck country. I'd been there before with Vulgar Wizard--right around Patterson Ln is some lovely, quiet country, very scenic, very picturesque. So I hastened down there, got onto Patterson, set up a beautiful shot with tracks and bike and signal tower with it's red light glowing and two horses with a foal. I was so proud! Two "iron horses" and some real horses in a single shot, with a good sky and lots of green trees. Triumph!

I heard engines approaching. I readied. I steadied. I heard engines moving away, and the signal light went out, along with my hopes. Rodemacher Power Plant, it occurred to me, must be BEHIND Boise Cascade.

Cursing and spitting I tore back up very poor roads to get to the intersection where I'd passed the officers, and sure enough, the road is blocked by...wait for it...coalers. Headed to ROPS, which lies BEHIND Boise Cascade. I arrived just in time to see UP 6066 pushing across the intersection.

He CAN be taught! And since I knew which general direction it was headed, I figured I'd see if I couldn't let it point out the location of ROPS for me. I rolled back up Hwy 1 to the four-way stop and this time turned LEFT. I drove all of a quarter mile and saw a big sign: W. Donner Rodemacher Power Generating Station. *sigh* It's the hard lessons that you remember the best.

I drove in and stopped at the guard shack, and was in awe of the long curve of coalers laid out in front of me. (As as aside I strongly recommend this spot--beautiful grounds, lots of good light, amazing scenery behind and around, and trains of very regular frequency.) The old guard that met me was very friendly and no doubt could see my enthusiasm and let me take a few shots.

That huge black mound in the deep center background? Coal. A veritable mountain. 150,000 tons burned a day, I was told, and they're stocking up for the summer season. I was further told that the train pulled head-first into a large shed where a specialised crane releases each car, tips it into a huge hopper and replaces the cars one at a time, while the hopper loads the emptied coal into a conveyor belt that drops it way at the top of that gods-awful pile.

This was my favourite shot of the entire set, though. The train passes through what is essentially a 30 foot wide steel culvert. The road into the plant literally passes over it and the curve of the rails combined with the trees and the perfectly manicured rails with the plastically-identical gondolas makes this look for all the world like a kid's toy train set with a tunnel made out of a big chunk of dryer hose.

Next time I WILL catch a pair of engines in that curve. For now? Live and learn.

The complete Flickr sets of these photos can be seen at these links:

My account on Flickr


Rodemacher coal shipment

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Velocity = Profit

That's what a crew supervisor told me one morning early as I watched an SP unit pass the parked BNSF that was waiting for the crew he'd just dropped off. They were there to pick up five gangs worth of repair equipment, and the fog that morning was thick as fleas on an old hound.

You'll notice the ongoing theme here is repairs and fog. *s*

Union Pacific has been doing a lot of maintenance here of late, which has kept me from doing a lot of spotting. The traffic, you see, has been at a bare minimum; whole days have gone by without a single bit of traffic except for repair equipment. I was out one morning toward the end of the repair cycle and happened to start chatting with the crew super, a really nice guy indeed.* He told me that there were a total of five crews working at the same time on the same two stretches of road--the section around Alexandria leading to Rodemacher's coal-fired power plant and the section of road around Shreveport, a major hub for shipping out cars filled with quarried rock.

The immense weight of these trains, he told me, was responsible for a heavy deterioration of the tracks, so this massive effort was required to upgrade the ties, the substrate, crossings, everything but the rails. The speed limit, he told me, was down to an average of 20mph for these two areas, and "velocity equals profit." If the trains can't go fast then the money is held up. The crews working were costing Union Pacific, he told me, one hundred thousand dollars. A day.

Big money.

But now the ties are fresh, the rails are at the proper geometry, and the speed limit is up, up, up! Which makes it tough to catch trains, I can tell you.

This is one of the coal trains headed to Rodemacher. I'm pleased to report that the shipments, which I'm told come from coal fields as far north as Wyoming, are now passing through CP Mallin in Pineville and northwest into Boyce, where they used to pass through Shreveport to Rodemacher, then the empties would cross Alexandria and into Pineville via Mallin, thence back to Wyoming for a refill. This way, I get to see the fulls!

This SD90MAC surprised me, it's the first one I've seen in many months out here, and it's strange, hunchbacked look is always an odd, surprising sight.

Then there was this afternoon. Five o'clock came around, and I heard a train the crossing. I clocked out, meandered to the parking lot and saw...a stack train. Again, VERY unusual for this area and these tracks, but what with the repairs in place...voila! Heavier trains can now move faster through this area. Which this engineer was doing.

Three units up front, I've no idea what the numbers were because, well, I was being foolish. In several ways.

First, I'd forgotten the new speed limit, "fast" and the new mantra "velocity equals profit." While he passed the Rapides Station Road crossing at a meager 10 mph (I'm guessing the xing still needs some work to make it fully functional at speed) he goosed that 15,000 horsepower triad he had control over and by the time he'd reached Boyce he was doing a good 50.

Me, for my part, thought I'd do something a little different. Instead of taking the 'same old same old' shot (see the coal train above and some five or six other near-identical setups I've taken) I decided to be unique. I decided I'd park at the Boyce Post Office right alongside the Colfax exit overpass, hare it up the embankment and along the road, position myself over the rails and have a gorgeous (if not a little grey) shot of the entire stack train, spread out some two miles along a straight strip.

Remember our old friend velocity?

By the time I'd made it to the top of the embankment the UP was already signaling his long-long-short-long at the gin's crossing at the corp limit of Boyce and was pouring on the speed. I nearly fell into oncoming traffic after finding out that the guard rail was about two inches taller than my highest comfortable step, and then I realised just how FAR UP that ramp was.

End result being, I was about fifty feet and fifteen seconds short of getting my shot. What I did get was three blurry shots of trees and a patch of yellow and some concrete. And, as you can see, some shots of him moving away through Boyce at a very quick clip.

I think in that shot the engine is just about where I'd be standing if I'd just gone on into Boyce to the 'usual' spot and parked. *g*

Lesson learned? Sometimes you just can't get the good shot no matter how hard you try, but it's of paramount importance to keep your quarry's speed in mind. Objects in mirror can be traveling faster than they appear.

The upside? It's Spring again (check out all that green grass) and with freshly repaired tracks I've been seeing a LOT more traffic on the road, so that means more opportunity to spot, more opportunity to learn how to hare up that embankment and possibly very soon here a long-shot from the overpass of a full coaler or a stack train.

Hope springs eternal!
* Whenever possible, talk to crewmembers when you see them. You'd be surprised how welcome a new face is to most of them. I've been given more information about train operations and been invited into more cabs than I would have ever imagined, simply by being friendly and visible.

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