Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Unicorn Moment

(This post is mirrored on my regular blog.)

You see, last weekend I had a moment. And as moments go, it was A Moment. A Unicorn Moment.

Actually it was a lot of moments, more like a coupla hours worth of moments, but you know what I mean.

Okay, so last weekend we've got, miracle of miracles, a hot air balloon flight planned. David, our mentor and pilot and owner and all 'round swell guy wasn't nearly as far south on his job as he'd figured he'd be, and since he'd put in two weeks of 16 hour days doing insurance adjustment work in storm-ravaged areas, and since he had a paying customer...well, David was ready to fly.

So fly we did. Jim and I and VW and Cookie all went out and did the balloon thing, which now that Fall is coming closer is much nicer than it's been as far as sweating goes. We wrapped up the success of the flight with breakfast at Leah's Pie Shop in Lecompte, and since VW and I had planned on some trainspotting afterwards, she got out her flat black brain bucket with the chrome flames on it, hopped on the back of Black Betty and we headed to the local KCS yard in Latainer.

Now, I'll be honest--I was a little worried. Latainer Yard isn't the busiest yard you could imagine. Far from it. It's small and remote and not that heavily trafficked, so I was afraid we'd be let down. Well, I was wrong. Thankfully.

We got there and watched a huge pair of SD70MAC engines, very clean in their KCS grey and red liveries spend about an hour turning two very long consists into a whole yard-full of cars split hither and yon. Even got some VERY cool shots of them working.


We got to talk with a conductor who was out there busily tearing trains into pieces, and he told us that while he broke down these two and turned them into others there were two more due into the yard in the next hour or so. VW and I, being game, stuck around. I'm glad we did. When the pair of MACs were out of the way I'd glance down the southern rails, hoping to see lights. Well, I missed their arrival but when I saw a splash of red, black and yellow I nearly peed myself. Not just any old KCS engines but a pair of Retro Belle SD70ACe's had pulled in, resplendent in their 1940's Southern Belle paint.

Pair O'Belles

I managed to hold my pee long enough to hail the conductor, who told us that it was a recrew layover, and they'd be leaving again in about an hour, or as soon as he got the second consist broken into pieces and his big pair of MACs out of the way.

Well, being true foamers and since we'd each gotten 100+ shots of the grey MACs VW and I drove quickly back through sleets of lovebugs to LSUA to get some liquid refreshment, sit in the shade for a while and then head back at noon thirty for the real party: the exit and river crossing of the pair of Belles.

Like all things involving trains, there was waiting. Trains don't move on a moment's notice, and the pair of Belles and it's dead-heading third engine were no different. The crew arrived. They did paperwork. They were taxied out to the machines. They got onboard and did their checks. They did them again. Finally the crew bell rang and it pulled up.

Control House

There it sat while ice was brought on board, luggage was loaded, and the rest of the three-man crew boarded. Then they waited some more. VW waited impatiently, taking photos of the engine, the control house, the rails, flowers, love bugs, each other and our sweat. They ticked. They grumbled. They did all the cool things trains do except move.

But mercifully, finally, before I lost VW to wandering in the adjoining cotton field, our train moved forward.

Leaving Latainer


The main reason we stuck it out? I knew what was ahead. Not just several miles of fairly open track but a bridge. A huge bridge, a concrete and steel arrangement that crosses the Red River from Alexandria into Pineville and thence onto CP Mallin and the diamond that I talk about constantly, and on to Monroe and all points north. My Unicorn Photo was up there, just waiting to be set up.

When I first started foaming well over a year ago I knew of this bridge. This massive white concrete monster with it's miles long lead-up and steel trellis. I knew that if I could catch a train on top of it with the weather right it'd be a shot to be truly proud of. I tried several months ago with the KCS Business train, KCS 1 but was foiled by torrential rains. This time the sky was blue and clear, and nothing shy of a broken leg was going to stop me.

VW and I rode along, with her skillfully balancing herself on the pillion seat of my bike while I did my best to pace the rolling train, watch for traffic and keep the ride steady enough for her to snap photos. HER work can be seen here, including the pacing shots and the shots she took at the bridge setup.

We got about halfway to the bridge site and I broke off, knowing full well soon he'd be doing 60mph and we still had to get set up, so we hauled ass. I dropped VW off on the highway with a nice view of the bridge as it arched up behind some houses and across Hwy 1, and I rode on up under the pilings and ran up the levee embankment to set up.

I'd told VW that he ought to be along in about ten minutes. I was off by eight. We had closer to TWO minutes. I had time to gain the top of the levee before I heard his horns sounding as he started the climb up the grade. I changed lenses faster than I ever dreamed I was able and aimed. I had about ten seconds to get the camera aimed and ready, and before I knew it the Belles were on me.

Red River Bridge - Unicorn Photo

And directly in front of me, the engineer no doubt laughing as he hit two very short blasts on the horns for the crazy guy who had been stalking him for the last hour or so.

Red River Bridge - Unicorn Photo

And then he was past, rolling steady up toward the steel trellis and across the river and gone into Pineville toward Monroe.

Crossing The Red

I remember the rest of the ride back to LSUA and home as a sort of golden blur, the way I always feel after achieving a goal. I remember hoping beyond hope that I'd pivoted correctly at the waist, holding the camera straight. I was terrified I'd blurred the shots, had the f/stop wrong, overexposed them, something, anything.

I'm glad I was wrong then, too. Next Unicorn? Beats me, but I'm sure it'll present itself soon enough.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008


It's always sad when someone gets hurt in a train accident. It's sadder when the rail officials try to spin it.

Associated Press
- Federal investigators worked Sunday to unravel the commuter train collision with a freight locomotive that killed at least 25 people, urging caution as a transit company blamed its own engineer for the horrific accident.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said it was too early to establish the cause of Friday's accident. Others, too, questioned the timing of the operator's move to affix culpability.

Metrolink announced Saturday — just 19 hours after the crash — that its preliminary investigation determined the engineer failed to heed a red signal light, leading to the collision with a Union Pacific freight train. The Metrolink engineer was among the dead, the NTSB said. His name has not been released. A total of 135 people were injured.

NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said Sunday that 11 investigators were at work, some of them picking through wreckage — inspecting the tracks, the equipment and the train signals — while others interviewed a Metrolink dispatcher. He said he didn't know if they were also talking to four surviving train crew members.

Williams said he couldn't confirm reports that the engineer was text messaging shortly before the crash, but said investigators would look into it.

A local television station reported that the engineer had exchanged a brief text message with a teenager. KCBS said the teen was among a group of rail fans who befriended the engineer and asked him questions about his work.

Williams couldn't say if the federal investigators would interview the teens.

"We're going to look into that, anything that can help us find the cause of this accident," he said.

Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said she would consider it "unbelievable" that an engineer would be text message while operating a train.

There was no change in the death toll Sunday. There were no new reports of any injured passengers dying at hospitals and the crash site had been cleared of bodies, said Lt. Cheryl MacWillie of the Los Angeles County coroner's office.

Tyrrell said Saturday that the company was stepping ahead of the NTSB in suggesting a cause of the accident because "we want to have an honest dialogue with our community." She said internal investigators had reviewed dispatcher recordings and operation of the trackside signal system.

Part of the railroad's safety system involves a series of signals that tell engineers whether the path ahead is clear. According to Metrolink, the engineer missed a stop signal shortly before the accident site — the last of three that would have warned another train was ahead on a single stretch of track. In that area, trains going both ways share track that winds through a series of narrow tunnels.

The NTSB did not rule out Metrolink's theory but will complete its witness interviews and review of evidence — which could take a year — before announcing conclusions.

NTSB member Kitty Higgins said rescue teams on Saturday recovered two data recorders from the Metrolink train and one data recorder and one video recorder from the freight train. The video has pictures from forward-looking cameras and the data recorders have information on speed, braking patterns and whether the horn was used.

The passenger train was believed to have been traveling about 40 mph.

So, millions of people every day text each other on their cellular phones while in CARS, vehicles that are not limited to a single set of rails. What makes you so certain your now-dead engineer would spend twelve hours a day in the cab of that engine being bored out of his skull likely enough NOT texting? Anything to get out of responsibility.

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