Transportation; Railroads; Railways; Railway Photography, that’s what I photograph. Right?
But what’s the actual subject? What should I focus on? More to the point; what is interesting? And, is today’s interesting subject going to be interesting tomorrow?
Looking back is one way to look forward.
Yet, there lies a paradox: When I look back over my older photos, I regret not having better skills to have consistently made more interesting and more varied images. And also, for not being more aware of what was interesting.
The lesson is then is about skill: learn to vary technique, adopt new approaches and continually refine the process of making photos while searching for interesting subjects. (The searching is the fun part!)
A truly successful image is one that transcends the subject and captures the attention of the audience.
So, is railway photography really about the subject?
Tracking the Light posts new material every morning.
Of my older black & white images, I feel this is among my most successful compositions. For me it goes beyond simple documentation of the railroad, yet captures the essence of Northeastern railroading in the early 1980s.
I’m standing in the ruined shell of the old Boston & Maine tower at Johnsonville, New York, where the line to Troy had diverged from the route to Mechanicville and Rotterdam.
In the tower’s broken windows, I’ve framed a distant eastward B&M freight (operated by Guilford Transportation Industries). The railroad, like the tower, is a shell of its former glory, having suffered from decades of decline. Yet, the trains still roll.
The stark, yet diffused November light adds to the scene and backlights the train illuminating the locomotive exhaust. Although the train is small, it is clearly the subject of the photo. The eye is immediately drawn to the locomotives and only later explores the rest of the image. I was particularly pleased with the placement of the old railings inside the tower.
For many years I had a 5×7 inch black and white print of this image on my wall.
Amherst Railway Society‘s Big Railroad Hobby Show show is pure sensory overload. Everywhere you look there’s something or someone that seizes your interest. An old friend, an F-unit, a trolley buzzing underwire, video of a steam locomotive, the sounds of trains.
I exposed several hundred photos in a few hours, but after a while my mind began to numb. Railways of all kinds in all directions.
In July 1983, on one of my first solo-trips by automobile, I visited Bangor & Aroostook’s yards at Northern Maine Junction. My friend Bob Buck had recommended this location because at the time the railroad was very accommodating of photographers.
You could sign a release and pretty much have the run of the place—so long as you stayed out of the roundhouse. The railroad had a guestbook and a gift shop. The employees were friendly and would answer questions.
I think I was there on a weekend, because the Bangor & Aroostook was quiet. There was dead line filled with F3A and BL2s that garnered my attention, but nothing was moving.
I asked one of the railroaders if there was anything running; he replied there wasn’t, but he’d find out if anything was coming on Maine Central. A short time late he came back to me and said there was an eastbound close.
Maine Central’s line bisected Bangor & Aroostook’s facilities, and I waited on the south side of the main line to favor the sun. After a little while, a lone former Rock Island U25B hauling two piggyback flats rolled by with its bell ringing and strobe lights flashing; this was the East Wind (New Haven, Connecticut to Bangor, Maine).
I made several image with my Leica 3A, but I wasn’t impressed. One engine? Two cars? Four piggyback trailers? No caboose?! I said to the Bangor & Aroostook man who had waited with me, ‘Not much of a train, was it?’ He just shrugged. I don’t think he was impressed either.
What I had witnessed was Guilford’s early 1980s effort at capturing high(er) value piggyback traffic. The theory behind trains such as Maine Central’s East Wind was that by speeding schedules and lowering operating costs, the railroad could compete with highways for more lucrative time-sensitive shipments, rather than merely settle for low-priority low-value bulk-commodity traffic.
In retrospect, although the train didn’t impress me at the time, I made a valuable record of that early period after passage of the 1980 Staggers Act, when railroads were trying to break into new markets. It was also the first caboose-less train I’d seen, and gave me a hint of what was to come in the future. The U25B? That was a bonus.
Contrasting Views of Indiana Railway Lines, June 2004.
In a world of railway mergers and consolidation, we can divide railway routes into groups; survivors and losers. Some lines have prevailed while others have been abandoned and ripped up.
Of course, we can further divide surviving lines. There are lines that continue to function as busy corridors, while others may only exist in fragmented form, or as downgraded local routes. Often fragments have been sown together and so now old railway line serve routes that may be very different than as originally intended.
Putting these concepts on film presents a puzzle and a challenge.
In June 2004, I was exploring western Indiana with Pete Ruesch and with his help I exposed these two photographs. The ‘winner’ is a sunset view of Norfolk Southern’s former Wabash mainline at Marshfield, which serves as a heavily-traveled long-distance freight corridor. The ‘loser’ was a recently abandoned vestige of New York Central’s Egyptian Line at the Indiana-Illinois state line.
Both were exposed with Nikon cameras on Fuji color slide film.
Southern Pacific 2472 Entertains its Public in May 2008
Back in May 2008, I was researching for my book Railroads of California, when I visited the Niles Canyon Railway and made this photograph of Southern Pacific 4-6-2 No. 2472 at Sunol.
This Baldwin-built heavy Pacific was a fine sight that attracted thousands of visitors to the railway. To the delight of its fans, it powered excursions over the line between Sunol and Niles Station at Fremont.
I’ve made lots of photos of 2472 over the years; and one of these images from the 1990s is the cover of my recently released locomotive anthology titled Classic Locomotives published by Voyageur Press. By contrast, the photo display here is focused on the engine’s fans rather than the locomotive itself.
Incidentally, This old Baldwin has been one of my favorite locomotives for years, and coincidentally, when my mobile phone provider issued my cell phone number about ten years ago, it was these four digits I was given. Although the phone company had the right idea, they gave me the prefix for the Prairie wheel arrangement rather than that for a Pacific.
On Thursday (December 19, 2013) I made these photos of Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Commuter trains on the old Fitchburg route.
For some 35 years, Electro-Motive F40PH diesels have worked these lines. MBTA’s early F40PHs supply head-end power from the 16-645E3 prime mover by running the engine at high rpms. The result is a high-pitched scream that has given these locomotives their nickname.
Replacement locomotives are on their way and the first have already arrived. How much longer will these old screamers work the Fitch? Bets anyone?
Three elements of this image interested me when I exposed it on April 7, 1989.
The Union & Switch & Signal Style S upper quadrant former Erie Railroad semaphore; New York, Susquehanna & Western’s former Burlington Northern SD45; and the unusual grade separated mainline, where the eastward track is on a higher level than the westward line.
I could write in detail about anyone of these three things. And someday I will. But not now.
Instead, I’ll examine the composition in a effort to offer a lesson on observing change.
The reason I made this photo in the way I did was specifically to juxtapose the signal with the locomotive. The grade separation not only offered added interest, but facilitated the over all composition because it allowed the locomotive to be relatively higher in the frame while enabling me to include the entire signal (complete with base of mast mechanism and subsidiary boxes/equipment) without producing an unbalanced image.
Today, none of the main elements in the photo are in place. If you were to visit Canaseraga, New York (located about 10 miles railroad-west of Hornell on the former Erie Buffalo mainline) you would find that the semaphore is gone; as is the old eastward main track. If by chance there’s an SD45 in the photo (unlikely, but not inconceivable) it would be on the close track.
In other words, the essential components of the image have changed to such a degree that there is little reason to consider making a photo at this location. And that’s the point!
When photographers (myself included) make railway images, they consciously and unconsciously include (and exclude) line side infrastructure which helps define and structure the photographs.
Changes to railway infrastructure alter the way we see the railroad, and thus the very way we compose and plan photographs. By anticipating change, we can make more interesting images and preserve the way things look for future viewers.
When trackside make careful consideration for those elements you may include or deliberately exclude. Might you be missing a potentially great image by trying to avoid some wires or litter along the line? Is an old fence potentially a graphic element that not only will help located the photo in the future but also key to a dramatic composition?
It is these types of thoughts than can make the difference when trying to compose great (or at least, relevant) railway photos.
I’m often asked, “How do I find trains to photograph?”
The short (and not especially enlightening answer) is that I pay close attention to the railway. (Whichever railway I’m photographing). Here are some basic tips:
1) Always pay attention.
2) Carefully study the details of the operation you wish to photograph: Learn when crews are called, how far they normally work, and what is expected of them en route. How long does it take to make a brake test? How long to make a station stop? How long to make a set-out or pick-up? Where are passing sidings and what are the distances between them. Learn about train weights, locomotive performance, and rates of acceleration and braking. Learn grade profiles and how these can affect train speeds. Find out about slow orders (both temporary and those in the timetable). Keep in mind, a scanner can only help you when you understand the information it provides.
3) Use these details to find out how they may affect when trains run.
4) Learn to distinguish good information from poor information.
5) Never assume anything without good solid information.
6) Don’t assume that everyday is the same (but always learn from the passage of trains, make careful notes as to the times trains pass and how long it takes for them to get between stations, and why.).
7) When interpreting schedules, find out how a specific schedule is to be used by the railway in question.
8) Know what questions to ask, and find the right people to ask.
9) Don’t assume that because someone works for a railroad that they are up to date on operations. Railroaders are like photographers, if three of them answer a question, you’ll get four answers.
10) Don’t expect railroaders to: ‘tell you when the train is coming.’ (see number 9).
11) Remember: on a railway plans will change, trains may be delayed, and no day is ever exactly the same (except in Switzerland).
12) Never assume there isn’t a train coming; you’ll be surprised.
13) When a train passes take the time to learn about it. Was it a regularly scheduled move? Was it an unscheduled extra? Was it running to schedule or was it hours late? Is it scheduled to run daily, three times a week or once a year? IF it runs daily, is it scheduled for the same time every day? If it doesn’t run at the same time, find out why.
14) When nearby a railway always use your ears. LISTEN! One of the best tip-offs that a train is approaching are the sounds it makes. Listen for whistles, engines working upgrade, as well as the sounds of braking, and cars clattering. Listen for switch points being moved or other tips that something may be about to happen.
15) Learn a railroad’s signaling and how its signals are expected to normally work. No two signaling systems are exactly the same. Learn when ‘red’ means a train is coming and ‘green’ means one is not (and vice versa!) Also, when ‘yellow’ means you just missed the train you were hoping to see.
16) Remember, a train is coming (but so is Christmas).
17) Put all of the pieces to puzzle into play.
18) Be patient.
19) Be persistent.
20) Take notes.
21) Accept that everyday is a learning experience.
More on finding Passenger and Freight trains in future posts.
View of a Line 40 Years after Closure; Abandoned but not Lifted.
Pennsylvania’s East Broad Top is among the most fascinating railways in the eastern United States. Largely built in the 1870s to tap coal fields in the Broad Top region, it was constructed to the three-foot gauge standard and remained that way until closed to traffic in 1956.
A short segment at Orbisonia operated steam excursions from 1960 until 2011, but the remaining portions of the railroad have sat derelict in the mountains since it closed as a common carrier. Although unused, much of the track remained in place. Especially interesting were the tunnels at Sideling Hill and Wray’s Hill.
In September 1996, Thomas M. Hoover and I made a project of exploring EBT’s disused lines and facilities. I also made several trips to photograph the railroad’s excursions.
Low Sun at a Hackneyed Location—Nine Years Ago Today.
On the evening of October 12, 2004, I exposed this photograph from the popular ‘waste too much film bridge’ at the west-end of Guilford’s East Deerfield, Massachusetts yard. I’ve made hundreds, if not thousands of images over the years from this spot. I’m not alone.
I’d followed a local freight (ED-4?) from the Hoosac Tunnel east on the old Boston & Maine Fitchburg line. This was the locomotive from the local. Having dropped its train in the yard, it has come to the west end and will reverse into the engine house tracks.
The shaft of light of the setting sun made for an opportunity. Rather than make a standard view, I opted for this wide angle image that features the locomotive’s high short -hood. This was one of the railroad’s second-hand GP35s noted for this arrangement. (short/long are used to describe the hood length, while high/low the height, thus the contradictory sounding description).
The low angle of the sun allowed for light across the front of the locomotive, while the rest of the scene is draped in shadow. You can see the shadow of the bridge I’m standing upon in the distance.
At one time, just about every town in North America had at least one railway station. Tens of thousands of station buildings dotted the continent. Most were small. Often railroads would have their bridge and building departments draft standard station plans of various sizes and apply these where appropriate.
Steward, Illinois is a village on the former Chicago, Burlington & Quincy several miles east of Rochelle (where the CB&Q crossed the Chicago & North Western). It has been many years since this small standard-plan station hosted trains. It survives as a tie to the era when the railroad was the town’s lifeline to the outside world.
The May 1949 Official Guide of the Railways lists CB&Q train 52 stopping here at 7:32 am eastbound, and train 49 stopping at 10:51 pm westbound, while a mixed train could make a stop on request (no time listed).
Now the station has little to do with the main line running nearby. Dozens of BNSF Railway long distance freights pass daily. There are no passenger trains on this route—not since Amtrak assumed most long distance passenger services in 1971. But Steward probably had lost its local train long before then.
The other day, I was showing Tim Doherty some photo locations around Three Rivers, Massachusetts. I described to him how the railroad once had a spur into the old Tampax factory.
The spur (siding) had a switch off the mainline near the station (demolished many years ago), then crossed Main Street and made a sharp curve behind the liquor store before crossing Bridge Street. There’s still vestiges of this track today.
Back in 1984, Dan Howard was visiting from Needham and he and I drove around the Palmer area making railway photos (as you do). The prize of the day, was this photo of CV’s SW1200 1510 working the Tampax factory spur on the Bridge Street Crossing.
It is one of the few photos I have of a CV switcher working in the Palmer area, and one of the few times I caught a rail movement on the Tampax spur. (Might creative minds develop some accompanying humor ??)
This photo was exposed on Kodak Ektachrome 200 slide film with my Leica 3A using my 50mm Summitar lens. It was a sultry dull day, and not the best for photography. While this is not a world class image, it captures a scene never to be repeated.
Often I look to put trains in their environment by trying to find angles that show context. Not every railway scene is scenic. And, in the North East, more often than not, the environment around the railway is pretty rough looking. But that is the scene, isn’t it?
On Wednesday May 29, 2013, Rich Reed and I were making photos of trains on former Boston & Maine lines around Ayer, Massachusetts. Rich has lived in the area for many years and is well versed on the history of the area.
Among the trains we saw was this Pan Am Southern local switching a set of autoracks. In the 1970s, a GP9 would have often worked Boston & Maine’s Ayer local. Today, Pan Am Southern runs the railroad, and the local is a pair of Norfolk Southern GE six-motor DASH-9s working long hood first.
I made several images east of the Ayer station. One of my favorites is the view looking down the street that features a parked postal truck and cars with the train serving as background instead of the main subject. It’s an ordinary everyday scene, yet it’s part of the history, and someday it will be different. Everything changes.
Which of these images will be more memorable in 50 years time? Someone might wonder why the Post Office needed a delivery truck, or what all the wires were for. You just never know.
East Broad Top’s Baldwin-built Mikado 15 works northward from Orbisonia, Pennsylvania in September 1996. This is another of my favorite railway images, I’ve used it in several books and it was among those I displayed in my Silver & Steel exhibit in November 2008. It captures the first excursion over the line in several days, and the engine is working rusted rail, which adds to the timeless aura of a bucolic scene. EBT is fantastic; the soft yet clear sounds of the locomotive exhaust coupled with a distant mournful whistle followed by a whiff of coal smoke will send you back to a simpler day.
East Broad Top is a treasure, a railway frozen in time. The railway was a relic of another era when it ceased common carrier operations in 1956. Resuscitated by the scrapper that took title to it in the mid-1950s, today it is among America’s most authentic historic railways. I’ve made hundreds of photographs on the line over the years. However, due to difficulties beyond my understanding, the line didn’t operate its regular excursions last year. I wonder; might it re-open this year? Even without a locomotive under steam, EBT remains a compelling subject.
See my book Baldwin Locomotives for a host of classic Baldwin photographs and detailed information on East Broad Top’s Mikados among many other engines.
Ireland’s Bord na Móna (Peat Board) was the topic of my post, Gallery 8: Irish Bog Railways—Part 1 in November 2012. Yesterday, February 16 2013, I made another exploratory trip into the bog. Where previous investigations focused on operations at Edenderry, County Offaly, this trip was to the network that serves the Lough Ree Power Station along the River Shannon at Lanesborough, County Longford. Among the peculiarities of Bord na Móna’s narrow gauge operations are its temporary sidings laid out on the bog for the purpose of loading trains. Until put in place, these tracks resemble those of an oversized model railway and are in fixed sections held together by steel sleepers (ties), and often stacked in piles awaiting installation. The bog itself is spongy and wet, thus ill suited to permanent infrastructure. Since temporary track is only used at very slow speed for short periods of time, niceties normally afforded railway lines, such as grading, leveling, and drainage, aren’t considered.
This telephoto view exaggerates the undulating quality of a roadside Bord na Mona spur used to access an area of bog ready for harvesting. This particular section of track may be left in place for years to tap short-lived harvesting spurs.
This photographic adventure is among my works in progress; I plan to display more images of Bord na Móna in upcoming posts.