Hoosac Tunnel—Morning Luck.

Good luck, bad luck; it’s all relative. Over the years I’ve made many visits to the Hoosac Tunnel. I recall a visit with my father in the mid-1970s, back when the way to East Portal was a dusty dirt road. We waited patiently for several hours, and eventually gave up.

The other day, a fellow photographer Tim Doherty and I drove up to the tunnel on spec, but with the anticipation of catching an eastward train. The rumor-mill had circulated reports that Norfolk Southern’s New York Central heritage locomotive was leading an eastbound.

We arrived at the tunnel, investigated a few angles, and were about to leave again, when the signals lit up: green-over-red-over-red.

The signals lit green-over-red-over-red: clear. A train was lined east, and very close. No time to waste.
The signals lit green-over-red-over-red: clear. A train was lined east, and very close. No time to waste.

As many of you know, I’ve authored a book on signals, and I know a little bit about the subject. The aspect displayed was clear, and since this was on the home signal for a siding, that means it was lined by Pan Am’s dispatcher in North Billerica. More to the point, the signal was dark when we arrived, and I know from previous experience that the signals here are approach lit.

The circuit for the signal at East Portal is relatively short. This meant we only a had couple of minutes to set up. Failing to recognize this could have cost us the desired photograph.

I needed some time to get ready: Exposure was problematic. There was a patch of sunlight immediately in front of the inky black of the tunnel portal, while part of the stone facing was also lit. Complicating matters, either condensation or exhaust was emanating from the tunnel portal causing a gauzy ill-defined patch at precisely the location where the locomotive would exit.

A bit of mist or exhaust was exiting the tunnel portal. This would complicate my exposure.
A bit of mist or exhaust was exiting the tunnel portal. This would complicate my exposure.

After a minute or two: a dull roar, followed by the gleam of the headlights, and soon the grade crossing bells were ringing. I set my camera manually, but I was cautious not to underexpose too severely, as a black locomotive against the blackness of the tunnel could be difficult to rescue in post processing.

When the locomotive exited, the combination of the ditch lights, headlight and white ‘raccoon stripes’ made for a slightly brighter front end than I anticipated. But I only had a few instants to make my photographs and if I wasted time trying to refine the exposure, the moment would be lost.

I exposed a burst of images with my Fujifilm X-T1 digital camera, knowing at the time the exposure was too bright. I then popped of a couple of color slides with my Canon EOS-3 with 100mm telephoto. I think my slides were closer to the mark (regarding exposure) than the digital images.

Notice the gauzy haze which make the headlights seem a bit fuzzy.
Notice the gauzy haze which make the headlights seem a bit fuzzy.
As Pan Am Southern train 14T emerged from the east portal of the Hoosac Tunnel, I exposed a burst of digital images. At the time of exposure, I knew I was over-exposing the image, but I'd rather risk slight over exposure in this situation, than allow a black locomotive to sink into the shadows of the tunnel.
As Pan Am Southern train 14T emerged from the east portal of the Hoosac Tunnel, I exposed a burst of digital images. At the time of exposure, I knew I was over-exposing the image, but I’d rather risk slight over exposure in this situation, than allow a black locomotive to sink into the shadows of the tunnel.
This image was made a moment or two after the first. Some nominal adjustments for exposure in post processing compensated for my slight over exposure on site. The lesson: always expose using RAW because this captures more information.
This image was made a moment or two after the first. Some nominal adjustments for exposure in post processing compensated for my slight over exposure on site. The lesson: always expose using RAW because this captures more information.

After the fact, I worked with the Camera RAW file to balance the exposure; and so my end result is pretty good. I’ll be curious to see the slides when they return from the lab.

Our bad luck? The night before, the locomotives for this train had been swapped out at Binghamton, NY, and so we caught a fairly ordinary Norfolk Southern Evolution-Series GE diesel instead of the one-of-a-kind New York Central-painted heritage locomotive.

Oh well: total elapsed time at Hoosac Tunnel, less than 15 minutes! So, I’m not complaining.

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