One of the first standard types of automated visual grade crossing warning was the automatic flagman, a signal commonly known as a ‘wig wag’. [This was] adopted as a standard crossing device by the American Railway Association in 1923. A standard wig wag is actuated by a track circuit and consists of a paddle with a red lamp that gracefully swings back and forth in a horizontal pattern when a train approaches [and] usually accompanied by a bell . . . [at one time] the wig wag was the preferred type of grade crossing protection in the Midwest and far west. [They were] largely supplanted by modern flashing signals and crossing gates.
I was traveling with Marshall Beecher on the morning of August 3, 1996, when I exposed this view of Wisconsin Central’s southward freight ANPR-A approaching a grade crossing on the former Chicago & North Western line in Fond du Lac. This line saw less traffic than WC’s near by former Soo Line mainline over Byron Hill, but the attraction was these antique signals. Notice my use of selective depth of field.
It was a rosy red sunset on Friday July 10th. Jupiter and Venus could be seen in the western sky.
Tracking the Light reader Douglas Moore told me that the signal cleared to green shortly after I headed away and CSX’s Q437 (Framingham, Massachusetts to Selkirk, New York) manifest freight passed in darkness.
I exposed this image using my recently purchased Fujinon Aspherical 27mm pancake lens. This is one compact and very sharp pieces of glass.
I’m hoping the combination of a sharp lightweight lens with relatively fast aperture will serve me well in low light.
General Electric delivered Conrail’s ten C32-8s in 1984. These were a group of unusual pre-production DASH-8 locomotives, and earned the nickname ‘camels’ owing to their humpback appearance.
I’ve always liked these distinctive locomotives and I had ample opportunities to photograph them on Conrail’s Boston & Albany route in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In March 1988, I was skipping class at Rochester Institute of Technology and photographing along the former Erie Railroad in New York’s Canisteo Valley.
In the afternoon, light rain had changed to snow. I was set up by the semaphores at milepost 308 west of Rathbone, New York and caught Conrail’s westward doublestack train TV301 roaring through the valley with nearly two miles of train in tow.
In the lead was C32-8 6617, an old favorite from my travels on B&A. I find it hard to believe that this locomotive was less than four years old at the time.
The old Union & Switch Signal Style S semaphores were decommissioned in January 1994.
As a photographer working from the ground (as opposed from the locomotive cab), finding situations that illustrate some of the less common aspects in the rule book can take lots patience.
Study this image, there’s a lot going on here: Norfolk Southern’s westward symbol freight 23K holds the mainline at Rock Glen, New York where it will meet the eastward 38T. The dispatcher has lined 38T through the siding, and as a result the home signal displays a red-over-yellow-over-green aspect—‘Medium Approach Medium’ (rule 283a).
The ‘Medium Approach Medium’ aspect effectively tells the engineer of train 38T, that the train is lined and has a favorable signal (clear) for both this crossover as well as the next crossover, and that both are ‘medium speed’ (not exceeding 30mph) crossovers.
At the far left is the old Erie milepost that tells use we are 371 miles from Jersey City (the traditional eastern end of the line). The named location on the timetable conveniently coincides with the map and so the western end of the siding is called ‘Rock Glen’ for the western New York town of the same name. On many modern railroads, the timetable might simply refer to this control point as ‘CP371’.
At one time this was a traditional double track mainline with directional running in the current of traffic. Erie converted the route to single track with passing sidings and centralized traffic control-style signaling.
I don’t know for certain, but based on the current siding arrangement that is slewed around the home signal, I would guess that at some point after the time of original installation the siding was lengthened. Take note of the siding signal.
Among the peculiarities of Erie’s CTC style signaling was the use of home signals at sidings with the lower head located much lower than the top head. In effect this is an exaggerated arrangement that omits the center light featured on signals with three lights, such as on the signal on the right.
Erie wasn’t alone in this style of signaling, Southern Pacific also used low signals like this, although unlike the Erie, SP didn’t assign speed aspects.
In modern times, re-signaling by Conrail and Norfolk Southern has resulted in changes to traditional signaling practices. In some locations the lower light was raised to a point just below the main light. While more recent re-signaling has resulted in the outright replacement of searchlight hardware with modern color lights.
When I made this view, Rock Glen was among last places on the west end of the old Erie route that still featured this classic signaling arrangement. I was eager to make an image that featured the signals set up for a meet.
Presently I’m working on a book called ‘Classic Railroad Signaling’ (to be published by Voyageur Press) that will focus on traditional hardware including semaphores, searchlights, position lights & etc. This is a work in progress and comments are welcome!
Click below to see previous signaling posts including:
On May 16, 2001, I was on my way from Dublin to Kilarney by train. Rather than take the most efficient route, I aimed to wander a bit on the way down.
I changed trains at Ballybrophy for the Nenagh Branch to Limerick, then traveled from Limerick to Limerick Junction where I’d time my arrival to intercept the weekday 10:34 Waterford to Limerick cement train.
At the time I was making good use of my Rolleiflex Model T to document Ireland and Irish railways in black & white.
I’d process my negatives in my Dublin apartment and make 5×7 proofing prints at the Gallery of Photography’s darkrooms at Meeting House Square, Temple Bar. Often, I schedule one day a week for printing.
Over the course of a half dozen years, I exposed several thousand black & white images, and made hundreds of prints. Sometimes I’d give prints to friends on the railroad. On more than one occasion I’d later visit a station or signal cabin and find my work displayed on the wall.
However, most of the prints remain stored in boxes. While this may help in their preservation, it doesn’t allow people to enjoy the images.
Here I’ve displayed just a few photos, where instead of scanning the negatives, I’ve scanned prints and this shows both my cropping of the image and the borders. I developed a distinctive border style for my square images that I felt worked well with the format.
In the dozen years that have passed since I exposed these photos, Limerick Junction and the trains that serve it have changed dramatically. The semaphores, cement trains and Class 121 diesels are all gone.
I exposed this image on the evening of August 20, 2010 of a westward CSX stack train at CP431 in Depew, New York. What makes this photo interesting to me is the former New York Central signal bridge and searchlight signals.
Since I made this photograph, CSX has replaced many of the searchlights on the Water Level Route with modern color light hardware. While I’m sorry to see the old signals go, I’m not surprised.
Back in the 1990s, I wrote an editorial in Pacific RailNews (when I was editor of that magazine) warning enthusiasts that searchlights were on their way out, and explained why. At the time, searchlights were very common.
The photo is timely. This year I’ll be authoring a book tentatively titled Classic Railroad Signals to be published by Voyageur Press. It will be a follow up to Railroad Signaling, that I wrote several years ago, and will feature a variety of classic American signal hardware:
Semaphores, Searchlights, Positional Lights and Towers, of all varieties.
This will be a great book. I’ve been researching and photographing the subject for many years!
Happy New Years to you! May it be a great year for your photography.
This comet photo is timely as this year I’ll be authoring a book tentatively titled Classic Railroad Signals to be published by Voyageur Press. It will be a follow up to Railroad Signaling, that I wrote several years ago, and will feature a variety of classic American signal hardware
Here, a potpourri of images illuminated the net; covering everything from unit oil trains to obscure eastern European transit. So, looking back, 2013 has been a productive and busy time for Tracking the Light.
My original intention with Tracking the Light was to disseminate detailed information about railway photographic technique. Over time this concept has evolved and I’ve used this as a venue for many of my tens of thousands of images.
Among the themes of the images I post; signaling, EMD 20-cylinder diesels, Irish Railways, photos made in tricky (difficult) lighting, elusive trains, weedy tracks and steam locomotives are my favorites.
Since March, I’ve posted new material daily. I’ve tried to vary the posts while largely sticking to the essential theme of railway images. I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts and will tell your friends about this site! There’s more to come in 2014!
Twilight, apparently, may strictly defined by the specific position of the sun below the horizon.
‘Civil Twilight’ as defined by the National Weather Service, is ‘the time at which the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon.’ Key to this period is that ‘there is enough light for objects to be clear distinguishable.”
I’ve always used the term in a more general sense to indicate the time of day when there’s a glow in the sky (before sunrise or after sunset). I suppose, the more appropriate title for these evening photographs would ‘Dusk at Bellows Falls.’
Anyway, it was the end of day’s photography in October 2004, when Tim Doherty and I visited Bellows Falls to witness the arrival of Guilford Rail System’s WJED (White River Junction-East Deerfield) freight.
This train worked interchange from Vermont Rail System’s Green Mountain Railroad and I made a series of atmospheric images at the passenger station. In the lead was a former Norfolk Southern high-hood GP35, a rare-bird indeed.
Bellows Falls is one of my favorite places to make railway images. I’ve been visiting as long as I can remember. My family had been taking day trips to Bellows Falls, and some of my earliest memories are of the tracks here. But, I’ve rarely made photos here at this time of day.
Twilight? Dusk? Evening? How about: dark enough to warrant a tripod, but light enough to retain color in the sky?
I’ve always liked to make macro views of railways. Examining the texture, colors, and shape of the equipment, track and structures allows for better appreciation of the subject.
One of the best times to make close ups and detail photographs is under dramatic lighting; low sun or stormy light, where richer qualities make for more pleasing tones. Even the most mundane and ordinary subjects seem more interesting with great light.
Yet, detailed views can also make use of dull days when by focusing on texture and using extreme focus can compensate for flat lighting.
Irish Rail made for an especially good subject for detailed images, in part because there was so much antique equipment to photograph. Well-worn infrastructure is inherently fascinating. Here out in the open metal has been doing a job for decades and often it shows the scars from years of hard work, like an old weaver’s time weathered hands.
I’ve made hundreds of Irish Rail close-ups over the years. Here a just a few. Look around railways near you and see what you find! Sometimes the most interesting photographs can be made while waiting for trains.
Irish Rail’s 2003-2004 didn’t go as planned. Just as the season was gearing up, the Cahir Viaduct on the Limerick Junction-Waterford line collapsed under laden cement train, closing the line and forcing the detour of sugar beet trains via the much longer Waterford-Cherryville Junction route.
This complication for Irish Rail was a boon for photographers as it resulted in sugar beet trains running in places where they didn’t normally go.
This was especially timely, because the portion of line from Athy to Waterford West was still under control of traditional signal cabins with mechanical semaphores and the electric train staff system. But not for much longer! An all-color light mini-CTC control system was being installed and was finally commissioned in Spring 2004.
I began the morning of November 29, 2003 in Dublin, where it was cold, dark and very wet. It was one of those days where horizontal rain is the norm and it never gets bright enough for the street lights to shut off.
Despite the bad weather, a fellow photographer and I headed toward Cherryville Junction by road with visions of intercepting sugar beet trains on their diversionary route. Somewhere between Kildare and Cherryville, the ever-elusive NIR 112 (on long term loan to Irish Rail) roared uproad with an empty beet train returning from Mallow to Wellingtonbridge.
We reversed direction, and went to Kildare, where I exposed a ‘record shot’ of the train. My exposure was noted at f2.8 1/8th of second. (What some of us would call ‘f-dark at a week’ meaning; ‘hopeless exposure for a moving train.’)
Undaunted we pursued this unusual train toward Waterford, taking advantage of crossings with other trains on the single track line. Near Thomastown, we passed through a front.
This was like a line drawn across the sky! To the north it remained foul and dark, to the south clear, cold and bright! We made our way to an overhead accommodation bridge on the Dublin side of Thomastown station where I exposed this view of the train approaching the home signal.
I count this among my truly unusual Irish railway photographs.
In the damp evening gloom on July 18, 2003, Irish Rail’s signalman at Clonmel awaits the arrival of the Waterford-Limerick passenger train. He holds the metal staff that will authorize the train to proceed over the line to Tipperary.
Often the most telling railway images don’t emphasize a train. In this photo, the Irish Rail General Motors diesel and Cravens passenger carriages are incidental. Here: the evening light, poised signalman eying the approaching train and quiet rural station tell the story.
I exposed this photo on Fujichrome Sensia 100 using my Contax G2 rangefinder with 28mm Biogon lens on a Bogan tripod. It was part of a series of images I made that evening at Clonmel of the signalman, the station and passing trains.
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.
The BIG CHASE: Pan American Southern’s EDRJ, November 2013.
In yesterday’s post, I waxed nostalgic about the old Boston & Maine, illustrating it with images made around East Deerfield on November 21, 2013.
One of the highlights of the day was midday westbound freight, train symbol EDRJ (East Deerfield to Rotterdam Junction) that departed the yard on the Hoosac Tunnel route.
One of my favorite railway activities in the 1980s was a good westward chase on the old B&M. Nothing made this better than a good consist of locomotives. Last Wednesday was like stepping back 30 years. (Sort of).
As we’d say, ‘To the River’ (meaning ‘to the Hudson’).
Although we only got as far as the Vermont-New York state line before the light faded, the spirit of the chase (and chases from year’s gone by) was with us.
Thinking up new ideas everyday takes a lot of effort, so today, I’ll rely on clichés and old ideas with a new twist to fill the gap.
Back in the day, in the 1980s, I’d wander up to the Boston & Maine at East Deerfield where I’d photograph trains on well-worn rights-of-way led by first and second generation EMDs. I was thrilled to find freight trains on the move!
The poor ‘ol B&M had seen better days. New England had been in industrial decline since World War I. It was my understanding that the old phrase ‘it’s gone south,’—meaning ‘it’s gone to the dogs’—originated when New England’s textile industries began closing and heading to the Carolinas and Georgia. (Never mind Southeast Asia, China and what not).
Guilford Transportation came about and melded Maine Central with B&M and briefly with D&H. For a few years the railroad was really busy. Traffic was on the upswing, new intermodal trains were introduced, and run-through locomotives from D&H, Maine Central, as well as Norfolk & Western/Norfolk Southern became common.
Then a souring passed over the scene. ‘All that glitters is not gold’, as they say (paraphrasing an English poet), and the well-trodden paths to the Hoosac Tunnel and along the Connecticut quieted for a time.
Things changed again with the dissolution of Conrail. Now Guilford is Pan American Railways and Pan Am Southern. Metallic blue paint has begun to replace charcoal and orange. And traffic is on the rise.
Yet to me, while there’s been some changes, the old B&M is a throwback to another time.
Yes, there’s a few new signals, some new welded rail here and there, and some nice fresh ties. Many of the old searchlight signals and signal bridges are gone and here and there the tracks have been trimmed back. But the B&M has the appearance of retro railroad. It’s like classic rock with spin.
Last week, on November 21, 2013, my old friend Paul Goewey and I went up to East Deerfield. It was like old times. First and second generation EMD diesels were moving freight in every direction while decaying vestiges of New England industry could still be found at every turn.
Just sayin’ it seems to me that at the end of the day, it is what it is, and MORE!
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.
Old General Railway Signal Semaphores In Corn Country.
CSX’s former Monon was among the last bastions of semaphores in automatic block territory in the United States. I made this image on the morning of June 24, 2004. While the line only saw a few trains in daylight, there were enough moves to keep the signals busy.
I wrote about this signal installation in my 2003 book, Railroad Signaling, published by MBI. This has since been reprinted as a softcover book. See: Quayside Press.
In the late 1980s only a few active semaphores remained in New England. One of the best places to see them was at the crossing of former New Haven Railroad lines in Walpole, Massachusetts.
I made this photo of a new Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority F40PH-2 leading an outward train on the Franklin Line on the afternoon of March 2, 1988. The attraction for me was the contrast between the new locomotive and the ancient signal.
A variation of this image appeared in TRAINS Magazine some years ago. I exposed it on Kodachrome 25 using my Leica M2 with a f2.0 35mm Summicron.The combination of clear New England light, Leica optics, and K25 film enhanced the scene.
On the morning of November 4, 1987, I made a speculative foray to P&L (Pittsburgh & Lehigh) Junction near Caledonia, New York. At the time I was living in nearby Scottsville, and I’d occasionally check P&L to see if anything was moving.
P&L Junction had once been a very busy place. Here the original Genesee & Wyoming had connected with Lehigh Valley, Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh, a branch of the Erie, and New York Central’s so-called ‘Peanut Line.’By 1987, the only railroads left were G&W and its Rochester & Southern affiliate.
I was fortunate to find a southward train and I made this image of a southward G&W salt train heading across the diamond with a vestige of the old Peanut Line (that G&W used to reach a couple of miles into Caledonia). A classic ‘tilt board’ crossing signal protected the diamond.
Today, it seems that G&W railroads are everywhere. I even saw a G&W company freight in Belgium a couple of weeks ago. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined that this New York state short line would reach so far!
I was driving from Erie, Pennsylvania back to Waukesha, Wisconsin after a week of photography on the former Baltimore & Ohio in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
West of South Bend, the Chicago, South Shore & South Bend runs parallel to the former New York Central ‘Water Level Route’ (then operated by Conrail).
I’d found a lightly used grade crossing, where I photographed a few Conrail freights. I didn’t have a South Shore schedule, but hoped I might see something roll over the old interurban electric line.
Ten years earlier, I’d taken a memorable trip over the line from Chicago to South Bend. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, my father had made many images of the South Shore, and I was always fond of the line, despite having missed its operation of antique multiple units and Little Joe electrics that had made the line popular with photographers.
As daylight faded, I notice that the old Union Switch & Signal color signals facing me suddenly changed from displaying yellow to red. This indicated to me that something was about to happen. And, sure enough, a few minutes later I could hear a train clattering along.
I found a low angle to feature the richly colored sky and I made a single exposure on Fujichrome 100 using my Nikkormat FT3 with 28mm Nikkor lens. This remains one of my favorite railway photos: for me it captures the essence of South Shore’s interurban electric operation. I’ve used it in various places over the years.
On the evening of June 26, 2013, I arrived at East Brookfield to find Dennis LeBeau observing CSX’s undercutting operations immediately east of CP64.
Over the last few years, CSX has been improving its former Boston & Albany route between Selkirk Yards (near Albany, New York) and its Worcester, Massachusetts terminal.
Conrail improved clearances on the line in the mid-1980s and began running international containers on double-stack trains in 1989 (I first photographed an eastward Conrail double-stack in Spring 1989). However, CSX’s desire to run larger domestic containers on double stack trains has required further clearance improvement.
Once complete, the Boston & Albany route will be clearance compatible with most of CSX’s former Conrail mainline, which should allow for more traffic to be sent to Worcester. The clearance improvements are coincident with the recent closure of Beacon Park Yard at Alston, Massachusetts in favor of expanded facilities in Worcester.
On Wednesday evening, CSX had every track in East Brookfield occupied, as it cleared equipment from the mainline to allow east and westbound freight to pass (Amtrak had cancelled train 448 (Boston section of Lake Shore Limited). Once traffic had passed, work crews resumed their re-ballasting of the recently undercut mainline.
I was one of a half-dozen civilians observing the activity. Late in the day, the sun emerged from a cloudbank to provide some soft lighting and I kept three cameras busy, documenting the changes.
Infrastructural Views Fresh From the Digital Cameras.
The other day, I landed at Midway where I was met by Chris Guss. We immediately set to work making images of America’s most railroad intensive city. It’s been nearly two years since I was last here; and nearly 30 years since my first visit. Time passes and much has changed, yet there are many vestiges of old railroads.
There’s always a wheel turning in Chicago, but these pictures are more about the railroad infrastructure than the trains themselves. There’s a book in this somewhere.
On August 17, 2003, I traveled by train from Zagreb, Croatia to Belgrade, Serbia. This was a six-hour journey. While the train departed on time, it took a diversionary route around Zagreb to avoid track work on the mainline. On the way out of town, I noted a variety of stored General Motors diesels and a pair of 2-10-0s in a goods yard. Before long the train was 27 minutes behind schedule.
I made a number of photos, including this one, looking out the back of the train. Generally, Croatian Railways (Hrvatske Zeljeznice) maintained their track to excellent standards. Some HZ mainlines, such as this one, are electrified at 25 kV at 50 Hz, others with high voltage DC overhead, while many other lines are worked with diesels.
Approaching the Serbia frontier, the train was reduced to a crawl. This area was still showing the ravages of war. Passing Vinkovci, I noted a large yard full of derelict freight wagons, but also saw that line-renewal was under way.
Serbia had just eliminated visa restrictions for American and EU passport holders, so I had no difficulties with the border inspection. The heat, on the other hand, was memorable!
Belgrade was fascinating, but I’ll save that adventure for some future post. Two years later (to the day), I was back in Croatia again, and on that trip explored the line to Rijeka.
Going back to at least the 1980s, a group of us would convene in Palmer on Friday evenings. It used to be that after closing Tucker’s Hobbies on Fridays, Bob Buck would come down for dinner along with customers and friends from the store. Afterwards, we’d head over to ‘the station’ to watch the railroad.
I recall seeing Central Vermont’s old Alco RS-11s on sultry summer evenings, belching clouds of exhaust and sparks, while we waiting for the parade of westward Conrail trailvans (intermodal piggy-back trains); TV-5, TV-13, and etc. Back in the day, I’d make night shots with my Leica 3A. That seems like a long time ago.
This past Friday, a group of us convened at the usual spot; Doug and Janet Moore, Bill Keay, Rich Reed and myself. After a few trains, Doug and Janet were the ‘heroes’ as Bob would have called them; they headed home and a little while later the signals at CP83 lit up. To my astonishment, the ‘C’ light was flashing (the small lunar-white light between the main signal heads). I rushed for my cameras . . .
The signals at CP83 are approach-lit. So, when the signals light, it means that something (usually a train) has shunted the circuit. Among other things, CSX’s CP83 governs the switch at the west end of a controlled siding that begins at CP79 (about four miles to the east). When the signals light with a high green, it means a westward train has been cleared to continue past CP83.
Conrail installed the present signaling system back in 1986 when it converted the Boston & Albany route from directional double track under Automatic Block Signal rule 251 ( ‘signal indication will be the authority for trains to operate with the current of traffic’) to a largely single main track system with controlled sidings and governed by Centralized Traffic Control-style signals with cab signaling.
As a result there are now only wayside signals at dispatcher control points such as CP83. CSX assumed operations from Conrail 14 years ago.
It’s rare, but occasionally a locomotive suffers a cab-signal failure, or a locomotive that isn’t cab signal equipped leads a train. There is a provision with the signal system using the ‘C’ light, to allow a dispatcher to authorize a train to proceed without operative cab signal.
CSX rule CR-1280A names the ‘C’ light aspect as ‘Clear to Next Interlocking’. This gives the train permission to proceed the full distance to the next block ‘approaching next home signal prepared to stop’.
Why am I going into such specific operational details? Because, I’m fascinated by signals, but also in the 27 years since Conrail installed this signal system I’ve only witnessed a ‘C’ light lit, three times. And, I’d never before seen the C-light lit at CP83. I’ve been to CP83 more times that I can count, so for me, that is a really unusual event. (I saw a shooting star that night too, but those are common by comparison!)
Fortunately, I had cameras handy, and, perhaps more to the point, I had my dad’s Gitzo tripod, which made this sequence of images possible. (Other wise I would have trying to balance the camera with stacks of coins on the roof of my Golf, but, we’ll save that for another event . . .)
I just wish that Bob Buck could have been there with us to watch the train pass. He would have enjoyed that.
All images exposed with a Lumix LX3 set manually at f2.8 for 15 seconds, ISO 80.
General Electric Genesis Diesels and Style T Semaphores.
Railways can offer tremendous technological contrasts. Among my photographic themes is juxtaposition of the oldest technology along side the most modern. When I made this image, there was roughly 60 years between development of the signals and the locomotives.
I made this image during an exploration with Mel Patrick of the former Santa Fe mainline across northern New Mexico and eastern Colorado. At that time BNSF still maintained many of the old Union Switch & Signal Style T-2’s dating from the steam-era.
The Union Switch & Signal Style T-2 was featured in my book Railroad Signaling published by Voyageur Press. Here’s an except from my text: “US&S’s T-2 is a three-position upper quadrant type with a top of mast mechanism. Typical semaphore height measured 22 feet 6 inches from the ground to mechanism.”
Traffic on this line was relatively light, with only Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and a couple of BNSF freights daily. Then, as today, most of BNSF trans-con freight was routed via the Belen Cutoff (through Abo Canyon) to the south.
About 10 months ago (July 2012), I started Tracking the Light. In the short time span since then I’ve had about 19,000 hits. While small numbers compared with Gangnam Style’s viral You-Tube dance video (with more than 1.7 billion hits), it’s a gratifying start. (BTW, there are some train scenes in Gangnam Style, so it isn’t a completely random reference).
In my introductory post, I offered a bit of my background with a taste of my philosophy on the subject of railway photography; ‘There is no ‘correct way’ to make photographs, although there are techniques that, once mastered, tend to yield pleasing results. I hope to expand upon those themes in these Internet essays by telling the stories behind the pictures, as well as sharing the pictures themselves.’
What began as an infrequent opportunity to share work via the Internet has evolved into a nearly daily exercise. In the interval, I’ve learned a bit what makes for an interesting post, while working with a variety of themes to keep the topic interesting.
Regular viewers may have observed common threads and topics. While I’ve made a concerted effort to vary the subject matter considered ‘railway photography,’ I regularly return to my favorite subjects and often I’ll post sequences with a common theme.
Occasionally I get questions. Someone innocently asked was I worried about running out of material! Unlikely, if not completely improbable; Not only do I have an archive of more than 270,000 images plus tens of thousands of my father’s photos, but I try to make new photos everyday. My conservative rate of posting is rapidly outpaced by my prolific camera efforts.
Someone else wondered if all my photos were ‘good’. I can’t answer that properly. I don’t judge photography as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Certainly, some of my images have earned degrees of success, while others have failed to live up to my expectations (It helps to take the lens cap ‘off’). Tracking the Light is less about my success rate and more about my process of making images.
I’m always trying new techniques, exploring new angles, while playing with different (if not new) equipment.
The most common questions regarding my photography are; ‘What kind of camera do you use?’ and ‘Have you switched to digital?’ I can supply neither the expected nor straight-forward responses. But, in short, I work with a variety of equipment and recording media. I aim to capture what I see and preserve it for the future. I try to have a nice time and I hope to entertain my friends.
One of the great features of Britain’s preserved Bluebell Railway is its exceptional attention to detail. Everywhere you look there is something to make the past, alive. Old advertisements, piles of luggage, semaphore signals, cast iron warning signs, and buckets of coal.
You hear the clunk of a rod moving a signal blade from red to green, followed by the shrill guard’s whistle and the slam of a wooden door. Then a mild hiss as the automatic brake is released and the sharper hiss from the locomotive as it eases off the platform. Yet, the Bluebell experience isn’t all about its locomotive, or its trains. The Bluebell is a railway experience.
The time warp ends when you arrive back at East Grinsted, where you insert your ticket with its magnetic stripe into automatic barriers, then board a modern electric multiple unit with sealed windows, plastic décor and space-age loos that look like they belong on the set of Star Trek.
The Bluebell Railway is Britain’s first standard gauge preserved steam railway. It dates from the early 1960s, and for more than 50 years has offered excursions over a scenic portion of former Southern Railway, ex London, Brighton & South Coast Railway. Today the railway runs from East Grinsted to Sheffield Park (south-southwest of London), and includes a relatively long tunnel.
Bluebell, like many of Britian’s steam railways, is a fully functioning preserved line, complete with stations, signal boxes (towers), authentic period signal hardware (including semaphores), engine sheds and lots of staff (presumably mostly volunteers), all of which contributes to the appearance of an historic British railway. In other words, it’s like a time machine!
On Saturday April 20, 2013 David Hegarty and I traveled from London by train via East Croydon to East Grinsted. It was a beautiful clear bright day. Bluebell had just recently reopened its line for connections to British rail network at East Grinsted.
While not especially photogenic, I found the new East Grinsted transfer a big improvement for reaching the Bluebell. On previous visits, I’d hired a car and drove directly to Horsted Keynes—a mid-point station on the Bluebell. All things being equal, its nice to arrive by rail.
It was interesting to travel behind steam (British Railways 2-10-0 class 9F) over newly laid track. We spent a full day wandering up and down the line by train. At one point we went for a long hike following signposted footpaths to a known good spot (what friends like to call a KGS). I’d found the spot, north of Horstead Keynes, about 10 years ago.
Biggest challenge to making photos on the Bluebell is their operating practice of locomotives facing north, which can present some difficult lighting angles considering most of the line is on a north-south alignment.
While on the topic of the former Erie Railroad, I thought I would post this unpublished view of brand new New York, Susquehanna & Western Dash8-40Bs working a Delaware & Hudson freight on Conrail’s former Erie route between Hornell and Buffalo, New York.
The new units were ordered by NYS&W during its brief court-ordered operation of D&H between 1988 and 1990.
I started following this train earlier in the day. It was a typical western New York morning, with fits of sun bursting through a deck of thick gray clouds.
That’s the reason for this unusual composition: for a moment the sun emerged to flush the front of the bright yellow GE’s. I made a spot decision to photograph the train more distant than I’d originally intended.
At that time, Conrail was only maintaining the old number 2 track (eastward mainline) for 10 mph. Most traffic was routed on the number 1 main (traditionally the westward track) that was in much better condition. However, by Spring of 1989, Conrail’s Erie route was bursting with traffic. To avoid congestion, Conrail’s dispatcher opted to keep this D&H train bumping along at 10mph, while westward traffic stayed on the faster track.
East of Canaseraga, the Erie line was in characteristic grade separated arrangement that probably dated from Underwood-era improvements in the early 20th century. If I write my book on the Erie, I’ll be finally able to confirm this fact.
In the early 1990s, Conrail reconfigured this portion of the Erie. It replaced the traditional directional double-track with a single-track main and centralized traffic control-style system. The change resulted in abandonment of the number 1 main at this location, and spelled the end for the steam-era Union Switch & Signal Style-S upper quadrant semaphores.
Just for the record, I made several closer views of this train.
Southern Pacific’s Donner Pass crossing was one of my big projects. I’ve called this ‘the mother of all mountain grades,’ other authors have simply described it as ‘The Hill’.
I wrote in my Southern Pacific book:
“Where other SP mountain crossings can claim steeper grades, heavier traffic and more sinuous track arrangements than Donner, no other grade is as old or as formidable as this storied mountain crossing. Donner’s exceptionally long eastbound grade—96 miles—rising from near sea level in California’s Central Valley to a summit 7,000 feet high in the Sierra, would test the mettle of any railroader, but what places Donner in a class by itself, is exceptionally harsh, and often unpredictable, winter weather.”
I made my first trip over Donner in my white Toyota Corolla on the final leg of my drive to California, yet I was already well acquainted with the pass through the photos of Richard Steinheimer. In October 1989, I began exploring the pass.
At one point I phoned Steinheimer to ask his advice on making photographs of the pass. His kindness to me told me more about the man than his thousands of wonderful photographs. He spent a least an hour on the phone and inspired my efforts. In later years I occasionally encountered him working SP rails, and he always acknowledged me.
Fellow photographers aided my efforts: Brian Jennison, whom I met in the snow on Donner, and former SP dispatcher J.D. Schmid—known for his skilled use of light to expose Kodachrome slides.
While I’ve explored many of the difficult to reach locations on Donner, for this essay I’ve chosen a favorite image made at one of the most clichéd places, the easy-to-reach Soda Springs grade crossing.
I’d been up on the pass early; I found this westward train led by a Denver & Rio Grande Western SD45, complete with classic dual headlight arrangement. Soda Springs offered nice more ‘glint’, and the train is bathed in an ethereal blend its own exhaust and ground fog illuminated by the rising sun. The details make this image for me; the warm morning light provides atmosphere, while the searchlights on distant SP signal bridge mimic the vertical pattern of the SD45’s headlights.
Between 1989 and 1994, I made more than 50 trips to photograph Donner, and perhaps another dozen since then. Despite my many books, most of these Donner Pass photos remain unpublished. Stay tuned . . .
On this day in 1996, I was on a whirlwind tour of Chicagoland with the late Mike Abalos. We began our photography at Santa Fe’s Willow Springs yard and worked our way east through the industrial areas south of the Loop. My primary interest was photographing the myriad varieties of signaling active in the Chicago area, and Mike was just the man to get me to all the right places. This image was made near the end of daylight at State Line Tower. Throughout the day I was primarily using Kodachrome 25,working with my Nikon F3T, so this hastily composed photo was no exception. I was more interested in capturing the old Baltimore & OhioColor Position Light signal than the CP Rail train about to pass it.
B&O’s unusual Color Position Light signals use a single-head to display all aspects. Key to interpreting the signal is the position of the white light that modifies the basic aspect. A ‘clear’ aspect is represented with two green lights in a vertical pattern (mimicking an upper quadrant semaphore) with a white light directly above them; when the white light is directly below the two greens, the aspect is ‘medium clear.’ With conventional color light signals a ‘medium clear’ may be represented with a three-head signal by red-over-green-over-red, or on a high two-head signal as red-over-green. The essential difference between ‘clear’ and ‘medium clear’ is the maximum speed allowed through an interlocking. A ‘clear’ aspect permits maximum track speed while a ‘medium clear’ limits speed typically to 30 mph. While fading light isn’t the best time to photograph moving trains, it is however a great time to photograph signals (because the signal lights appear brighter in comparison with ambient conditions). Thank you Mike!
It’s late, it’s dark, and it’s bitterly cold (ok, it’s been colder). I’m tired and I’m in Palmer where I’ve made countless thousands of images. I left my tripod at home. However, I’ve been eying the odd wintry textured sky, and then the CSX home signal at CP83 clears to a high green. There’s a train coming west, and it’s not too far away. As always, I’ve got my Lumix LX-3. I dither for a couple of minutes. No, I should make a photo. I’m here, there’s no good excuse not to. So, I walk to the South Main Street overpass. This was rebuilt in the 1990s in a manner ill suited to photography. A high concrete parapet combined with a chain link fence blocks most places I’ve like to work from. Yet, the fence proves my salvation. (I’ve done this before, now what did I do?)
I wedge the Lumix into the chain-links, using the fence to hold my camera. I set the exposure using Aperture Priority (A on the dial), and as explained previously (see: Installment 4: Lumix LX-3—part 2: Existing Light Digital Night Shots) I use the toggle switch to manually override the exposure, setting it to +2/3. This will compensate for the evening’s relative darkness and lighten up the gloomy sky.
I hear the westward train approaching. It’s about a mile away rolling under the Tennyville Bridge (Route 32). Looking west, I make a test exposure at about 7 seconds, but manage to jiggle the fence in the process. My exposure is spot-on but the is photo softened by blur—no good. I try again, but this time the auto-focus can’t find a focus point and the picture is worse.
Now the lights of the train are illuminating the signals. I’d better get it right this time. I make two more exposures. While the first is too dark, the second is spot-on. In this one, CSX’s Q427 (a manifest freight that originates on Pan Am Railways and is destined for CSX’s Selkirk, New York yards) is racing toward the signal. I’ve got it. It works. Yea! Success. I can go back to my car and thaw out, and never mind CSX’s westward Q119 following two blocks behind.