It was a damp day back in 2005, when I made this 400mm view using my recently acquired Canon EOS-3 with a rented 100-400mm Canon image stabilizer zoom l.ens
In the lead was Irish Rail 185 (known in some circles as ‘Super Bo-Bo’ which delighted observers because it was missing the cowling around the exhaust and produced more sound than others of its class).
Sugar beet was loaded at Wellingtonbridge, County Wexford and transported by rail via Waterford and Limerick Junction to a processing plant in Mallow, County Cork.
In this view, exposed west of Kilsheelan, County Tipperary, by using a long telephoto lens, I compressed the train of very short four-wheel beet wagons into a virtual snake of rolling beet.
The millennium was coming to a close. I was just back in Ireland after a few months wandering. I arrived by ferry from Holyhead the night before.
The short days of winter offer moments of stunning low sun against what can often be a stark Irish environment.
It was the height of Irish Rail’s annual sugar beet campaign, so Denis McCabe and I headed first for Wexford (Wellingtonbridge to be specific) then worked our way west, finishing the day at Clonmel, County Tipperary.
Although, we come for the sugar beet, a side attraction were a pair of timber trains that were unloading there.
I was working with three cameras. One was a Nikon loaded with Ilford HP5. Ironically, most of those black & white photos have been squirreled away in my files for the last 16 years.
Here’s a sample of what I did that afternoon at Clonmel. Pretty neat in retrospect, however, what was more significant for me photographically was that this trip inspired a half-decade of intensive photographic adventures to document the sugar beet campaign.
It was nearing the end of Irish Rail’s final beet season, which ironically turned out to be one of the busiest campaigns.
Toward the end of the day, my friends and I had positioned ourselves near milepost 90 on the South Wexford line at the top of Taylorstown Bank on the climb up from Wellingtonbridge.
Irish class 071 number 073 was lifting an estimated 775 tonnes of sugar beet and had been in run-8 for several minutes; the roar of its 12-645E3 diesel drowning out the sounds of birds and sheep in the surrounding fields.
The train was at a crawl when it reached the top of the grade. I made a sequence of photos using three cameras. This was made with my N90S with a 400mm Tokina lens fitted to a Manfrotto tripod.
I felt that the 400mm view was the trickiest to pull off, and honestly I considered this among my experimental attempts, as I fired of a whole series of images in rapid succession. I made a more conventional view as the train got closer.
Irish Rail’s Sugar Beet season was a busy time for me, photographically. The season began in early September and usually ran through early January, depending on the volume of the harvest. In the early 2000s, I’d typically be in Ireland from late-October through the early weeks of the new year.
While I’d miss the brighter, dryer, warmer days early in the beet season, I’d make up the difference by photographing on the dark, wetter, colder days in November and December.
The atmosphere of the beet season is what I remember. The dampness, the muck, the dirty old four-wheel wagons. The sounds of General Motors diesels accelerating out of passing loops, and working in Run-8 on wet track.
Irish Rail’s staff were always friendly, and between trains there would a welcome cup of tea in a signal cabin or gate keeper’s shack.
Over much of the route traditional mechanical signaling was still the rule. The slap of lever and the thunk of a semaphore blade falling into place was the sign that something was about to happen.
And there was the smell of the beet. Especially in the fields around Wellingtonbridge, County where beet was grown.
The last laden beet train rolled towards Mallow, County Cork in January 2006, a little more than three years after I made this image.
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.
A Classic Photograph from A Dozen Years Ago Today.
It was just 12 years ago—December 8, 2001—that I stood in the damp grassy field overlooking Taylorstown Viaduct, Co. Wexford, to make this image of freshly painted General Motors 141s leading an empty sugar beet train toward Wellingtonbridge.
Sugar beet season typically ran from late September until just after Christmas and was a great time to make Irish Rail freight photographs. Operations were focused on loading trains at Wellingtonbridge and tended to result in a series of daylight movements over the scenic South Wexford line.
Between 1999 and 2006, with the help of my Irish friends, I made dozens of trips to photograph, record and experience the sugar beet season. The weather wasn’t always fine; often it was dark and rainy but there were sunny moments like in the scene pictured here.
Unfortunately, sugar beet operations ended in early 2006, and a few years later Irish Rail closed the line between Waterford and Rosslare Strand to regular traffic. The bridge and tracks remain, but movements on the line are now very rare. The locomotives and wagons were scrapped a few years ago.
Between September and January Irish Rail moved sugar beet from a loading facility at Wellingtonbridge to a processing factory in Mallow county Cork. In the last beet season, six days a week Wellingtonbridge loaded six to seven trains.
This was Irish Rail’s most intensive freight operation and operated with a fleet of ancient looking four-wheel beet wagons.
Short sidings at Wellingtonbridge required the shunting of most laden trains. On this frosty clear autumn afternoon, I made a variety of images on Fujichrome with my Nikon F3T to capture the atmosphere of this operation.
What sticks in my mind were the background sounds of conveyors dumping freshly harvested beet into the old wagons and the signal cabin with its mechanical signals and Victorian-era electric staff machine and bells. The scene is all quiet today.
General Motors Single Cab Diesels Wander Far and Wide in their Final Years.
In their final few years of service, Irish Rail 124 and 134 worked a great variety of services. For me, simple knowing these two engines were out there, made photographing Irish Rail more interesting.
Sometimes I knew where they were, other times one would appear unexpectedly. Occasionally they’d get paired together and stay that way for a while, but more often than not, they’d be paired with one of the 141/181 class Bo-Bos.
All of my images of 121s at work were made on film (slide and black & white negative). By the time I’d acquired my first digital camera, old 124 and 134 were no longer active.
Sifting through my slides from their last five or six years, I’ve found numerous images of these engines. As I’ve mentioned previously, every time I saw one, I expected it to be the last time, so I made the most of every opportunity. Here’s a lesson: never expect that you’ll see something again; so photograph to the best of you ability when you have the chance.
During sugar beet season Irish Rail was tight for motive power, as the six to seven extra laden trains per day, plus returning empties, tended to tax the railway’s small locomotive fleet to its limits.
Beet season was always a good time to make photographs. During the 2004 season I was fortunate to catch surviving class 121 diesels several times working laden trains. The tuned ear could always pick out the sound of a 121 over the other classes.
On November 22, 2004, David Hegarty and I caught this mixed pair with 124 in the lead, hauling a laden beet train just passed Nicholastown Gates between Clonmel and Cahir, County Tipperary.
It was a hard pull up the bank from Clonmel to Nicholastown, and just east of the gates the line leveled out. We could hear the pair clattering away in run-8 for several minutes before they appeared. The gates were manually operated, and would be closed well ahead of the train.
The S-bend at Nicholastown was among our favorite locations on the line; I’ve made dozens of images here.
Exposed with a Nikon F3T with f2.8 180mm lens on Fujichrome slide film.
In 2003, Irish Rail operated its sugar beet trains via Kildare because the normal routing between Waterford and Limerick Junction was closed as result of a bridge collapse at Cahir, County Tipperary. On December 6, 2003, I was in place at Cherryville Junction (where the Waterford Road joins the Cork Road—a few miles west of Kildare Station) to catch a laden sugar beet train on its way from Wellingtonbridge, County Wexford to Mallow, County Cork. (Since there is no direct chord at Cherryville to allow a movement from the Waterford Road onto the Cork Road in the down direction, this sugar beet train would continue up to Kildare where the locomotive would run around, thus allowing the train to reverse direction for its onward journey to Mallow.)
It was a characteristically dull day. I was working with a Rollei Model T (120 size roll film fitted with a f3.5 Zeiss Tessar) and Fuji Neopan™ 400 film. Key to obtaining the desired tonality was my process. For developer I used Agfa Rodinal Special™ 1:32 with water for 7 minutes, then after dual fixing baths, Perma Wash™ for 3 minutes, and 10 minutes in running water, I toned the negatives in selenium solution (mixed 1:9 with water) for 9 minutes, then re-washed for 20 minutes in running water. (Warning: selenium is poisonous and should be handled with extreme care in a well-ventilated room). See: Installment 6: Black & White revisited; Old Tech for a New Era part 2—Secrets Revealed!.
One of my favorite late-season projects was documenting Irish Rail’s annual sugar-beet campaign. This combined many of my railway interests in one action-intensive activity. Sugar beet was delivered to the station at Wellingtonbridge County, Wexford and loaded into antique purpose-built four-wheel freight wagons. Trains typically weighed 775-Tonnes, and were hauled using Irish Rail’s General Motors diesels to a processing plant at Mallow, County Cork.
Wellingtonbridge was a quiet place most of the year, except in beet season when it was a hotbed of railway activity. A signal cabin at the west end of the platform controlled movements using a network of rods and wires to move points and set semaphore signals. The single-line between Wellingtonbridge and Waterford was governed using a traditional electric train staff system, and was often at the limits of capacity. As soon as an empty train would arrive, a laden train would take the staff and head west toward Waterford. Leaving Wellingtonbridge the line climbed sharply up Taylorstown Bank, and here GM diesels would roar away in Run-8 (maximum throttle) for several minutes to keep moving. Irish Rail prohibits sanding the rail, and on damp days (which are common to Ireland) the diesel’s would slip. While most of the time they’d make the grade, there were some hairy moments.
In 1999, I began photographing ‘the beet’—as my Irish friends called it, and continued my work until January 2006. Every season was threatened to be the last, and so it was little surprise when the operation finally ended after the 2005-2006 season. The reasons for this were complex, but were directly related to a withdrawal of European Union subsidy. The wagons were cut up as were many of the locomotives that hauled them. A few years after the beet finished, the South Wexford Line’s (Waterford-Wellingtonbridge-Rosslare) sole daily passenger service was suspended, leaving the tracks empty. Today the railway at Wellingtonbridge is dormant, so I have no regrets making pilgrimages to stand in frosty damp mucky fields on dark days, hoping for a bright moment as 645 diesels roared my way. I’d be there now doing the same if I had the chance.
I’m at Camphora in California’s Salinas Valley along Southern Pacific’s Coast Line, where some venerable ‘beet racks’ are being loaded; it’s near the end of the day, the sun is diffused by a fog-bank drifting in from the Pacific. These ancient old freight cars are the attraction. They’re on borrowed time. Although these still cary Southern Pacific lettering on their wooden sides, SP had sold them to Union Sugar, thus the USGX reporting marks at the ends of the cars. Not only are these among the last freight cars in revenue service that still feature wooden sides, but they are some of the last revenue cars still equipped with traditional friction bearings—virtually all other rolling stock rode on roller bearings.
Fade forward: within just a few years, not only were these old cars retired, but the sugar beet traffic dried up, and in 1996, SP itself was merged into Union Pacific. For me, looking at this image elicits synesthesia: the agricultural smells that accompanied beet growing fill my nose, and I recall the drive I had to make back to the Bay Area when I finished making my exposures.
In September 1992, I was working exclusively with a Nikon F3T, which was fitted with a ‘fast’ 105mm lens (f1.8) for this exposure. The fast lens allows me to work with slow film and my choice of wide aperture allows for narrow depth of field which sets off the end of the beet rack and loading equipment from the background. The wires help frame the image. As with many of my SP color photos, this one was exposed on Kodachrome 25 slide film, and even that has gone the way of the SP and the wooden-sided beet racks. Everything changes.