This was my big book project for 2013, and I spent much of last summer researching and writing it. Yet, the real stars of the book are the contributing photographers and their outstanding work.
Over the years, I’ve been privileged to interview and work with some of the most accomplished railway photographers in North America. Significantly, TheTwilight of Steam focuses on evocative images exposed toward the era of revenue steam operations.
These were exposed when steam locomotives were still active, and not of excursion services after the end of the era. In many instances, I’ve included photos with steam and first generation diesels working together or side by side.
For this book, I’ve adapted my Tracking the Light concepts. In addition to simply writing about the locomotives, where possible I’ve included stories about the photographer’s techniques and experiences. I included details about their cameras and films.
Many of the photographers were very young when they began making dramatic railway images, and that is a great part of the story.
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.
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!
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.
Railway tracks are the defining infrastructure of this transport system. They are key to the whole technology as well part of the title of this Internet Blog.
Often, tracks are view as secondary to the trains that use them. Photographs tend to focus on the locomotives and cars, rather then the tracks themselves.
With this post, I’ve focused on the tracks. I’ve selected a few photographs from my archives in which the tracks are the subject: tracks leading to the horizon across a desolate desert landscape; tracks curling around a bend in the snow; tracks in the weeds and tracks catching the sunlight.
Tracks capture our imaginations, and the images of tracks can be timeless. Yet not all tracks are the same. The condition of the line and nature of the landscape is telling. I’ve made hundreds of images like these over the years; sometimes from trains, other times from the ground, or overhead bridges. The formula is simple, but the results vary greatly.
Often the thought of what lies beyond is the most intriguing. What lies around the curve or just over the horizon? It are images like these that inspire wanderlust for railway journeys. In days of yore, how many young men left home in pursuit of that the elusive view around the next bend in the tracks.
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.
CN’s Latest Alternating Current Traction Diesels ply the old Wisconsin Central.
There’s nothing like a shiny new locomotive; It will never look any better. Best of all, it’s really something new, not just the ‘same-old, same-old.’
Last week, Chris Guss and I were working CN’s former Wisconsin Central Limited lines in Illinois and Wisconsin where CN’s latest locomotives were plying the rails.
Until very recently, CN was the last major North American freight railroad to refrain from AC traction technology. First used on wide-scale by Burlington Northern beginning in 1993, by the late-1990s most big railroads had at least sampled AC traction diesels. Yet, CN kept ordering DC traction. But not anymore; today AC’s are the latest thing even on CN!
CN’s new ES44DCs look good working in pairs in the rolling Midwestern countryside.
Here’s a few photos I made over a two-day period in early November 2013.
On our second day, Pat Yough joined us for some of the photos and we also met up with Iowa-based Craig Williams near Fond du Lac while waiting for southward CN ES44ACs to emerge from some trees.
We were all on our way to one of the Midwest’s premier railway photography venues: Beecherfest (held near Milwaukee every year).
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.
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.
Two years ago today, I was visiting Britain’s preserved North Yorkshire Moors Railway. This is an amazing operation. The railway is worked with a colorful mix of preserved steam and diesel locomotives. Trains work on a regular schedule, traversing the sublime Yorkshire Moors. In addition to beautifully restored stations and signal boxes (tower), the railway is well accessed by hiking trails. This location was recommended to me by a member of the railway’s station staff at Goathland—and is only 10-15 minute walk from the station platforms.
This was a pleasant place to spend a crisp Spring morning. I could hear locomotive 92214 barking up the grade for several minutes before it came around the bend into view. Later in the week I had business attending the annual London Book Fair, which while interesting and necessary, couldn’t compare to my brief experience on the North Yorkshire Moors!
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.