The former Pennsylvania Railroad Middle Division is one of the busiest freight routes in the eastern United States. On November 5, 2001, Mike Gardner and I spent the afternoon on Middle Division photographing Norfolk Southern freights.
The combination of pastoral Pennsylvania scenery, low November sun, and steady parade of freights made for lots of opportunity to make interesting railway images.
I’m always looking for a new angle. Here I worked with light and shade to sculpt scenes that captured the character of the place as well as the trains passing through it. I exposed these images using my Nikon F3 with Fuji Provia 100F.
Tracking the Light posts new material every morning.
The afternoon of July 26, 1993 was one of those lucky times when everything falls into place.
Fellow photographer TSH and I had hired a Chevy van at the San Francisco airport and drove to the shore of the Great Salt Lake, then worked our way back following Union Pacific’s Western Pacific route across Nevada.
Near Wendover (on the Utah-Nevada line) we came across a struggling westward coal train. One of its locomotives had failed, and it was making poor progress. It had three manifest trains stacked up behind it.
Armed with this knowledge, and having the best light of the day ahead of us, we drove west to the famed Arnold Loop, where Western Pacific’s engineers had designed a sweeping curve to maintain steady elevation. (Running west from the Nevada-Utah line the railroad ascends a continuous 35-mile 1 percent grade, and crests at 5,907 feet above sea level, 15 miles beyond Silver Zone Pass.)
While not a complete circle, such as that used further west at the Williams Loop near Blairsden, California, this loop arrangement is an excellent place to photograph trains.
To the east is the wide expanse of desert punctuated by Pilot Peak some ten miles distant.
We got ourselves in position; cameras loaded with Kodachrome 25 and planted on tripods, and a clear blue dome above us. To the east we could make out the four trains in the distance, seeming to crawl over the landscape like tiny worms. Soon the first of the trains was upon us. These followed every ten minutes or so for the next 45 minutes.
I’ve used my images from this day in several books and calendars. This one slide is well published.
We were spoiled by the experience. The next day on the Western Pacific wasn’t as productive. Such is the luck of desert railroading!
It had been a busy morning at Byron. This southward freight had made a meet and was just coming out of the siding, so I had ample time to make images of these SD45s.
As the train grew close, I made a couple of final images on Kodachrome with my Nikormat FT3 and 28mm Nikkor Lens. I took this low view with a wide-angle to get a dynamic photograph.
I was Editor of Pacific RailNews, and we often had a need for photographs with lots of sky to use as opening spreads. It was a style of times to run headlines, credits and sometimes text across the top of the image. I had that thought in my mind when I made this particular angle.
I was also trying to minimize the ballast and drainage ditch that I found visually unappealing, while making the most of the clear blue dome and allowing for a dramatic position for the locomotives relative to the horizon.
Variations of this image have appeared in print over the years.
I was interested to find this collection of Maine Central locomotives at Boston & Maine’s East Deerfield Yard in September 1984. At the time, Guilford’s gray and orange livery was still a novelty.
Using my father’s 21mm Super Angulon on my Leica 3A, I composed this somewhat unconventional view of the ready tracks. This lens was a favorite of mine at the time. I still use it occasionally.
The composition works despite being foreground heavy and exposed on the ‘dark side’ of the locomotives. The image nicely integrates the infrastructure around the locomotives while offering a period look.
At the time I was studying photography at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and made regular visits to photograph the Boston & Maine.
Fifty years ago, it would have been pretty neat to see a Burlington GP30 at Pennsylvania Railroad’s Enola Yard. Yet for the context of that photo to be fully appreciated, it would help to have the location of the locomotive implied in the image.
A few weeks ago, Pat Yough and I were driving by Norfolk Southern’s Enola Yard and spotted this SD70ACE. These days, BNSF locomotives on Norfolk Southern and CSX are not unusual occurrences. Not in Pennsylvania anyway.
After a tight image of the locomotive, I stood back and made a few views intended to convey location.
It’s not what you see, but the images made of what you see.
My friend Bob Buck of Warren had advised me to photograph old freight cars, especially those from the ‘fallen flags’ (railroads that had merged or were otherwise lost).
I kept a keen eye out for the cars of Conrail’s predecessors, which were a special interest to me.
In July 1984, I was passing Conrail’s sprawling West Springfield Yards on my way to the Boston & Albany ‘West End,’ when I saw this old New York Central ‘Early Bird’ 50ft double door car.
By that time, New York Central had been gone 16 years, and I was only 17, so the time seemed like a lifetime to me. Following Bob’s advice, I dutifully exposed a three-quarter view of the car. One frame. That is all.
In retrospect, I wish that I’d taken a few more images of the car. Today, I’d focus on the car and make some detailed views. Looking back on this car today, what I find noteworthy was that it still had its catwalks, an accessory that had been out of favor for years by the time I’d exposed this image.
New York Central 50-foot boxcar at West Springfield, Massachusetts, July 1984. Exposed with a Leica 3A with 50mm Summitar lens.
For me the old Boston & Albany West end is hallowed ground. This was the first true mountain mainline in the modern sense. The line was surveyed in the mid 1830s and by 1839 trains were working over Washington Summit.
Over the last 30 years I’ve made countless trips to photograph this line and it remains one of my favorites. Yet, I rarely come up here in the winter.
On Friday, February 7, 2014, my father and I went up to Huntington to catch Amtrak’s westward Lake Shore Limited, train 449. Not far behind was CSX’s Q427.
This freight runs daily between Portland, Maine and Selkirk, New York via Ayer and Worcester, Massachusetts. This day it had a pair of General Electric Evolution-Series diesels of the type that have come to characterize modern freight operations on the Boston & Albany route.
Since the train wasn’t making great speed, we pursued it on Route 20, stopping to make photos at opportune locations. At CP 123 (where the line goes from single track to two-main track) Q427 met an eastward freight holding at the signal. We continued upgrade ahead of the train.
I remembered that there’s a gap in the hills at Chester which allows for a window of sun on the line that lasts late in the day. So we zipped ahead of the train.
At Chester, Pop set up his tripod to make a hi-resolution video of the train climbing. I positioned myself with my Canon EOS 7D with a telephoto lens to make use of the window of sun against a dark background.
As the train grew closer I also exposed more conventional views with my Lumix LX3. The heavy train took more than two minutes to pass.
In 1992, I was living on Haight Street in San Francisco, just a short walk from this location. One August morning, I got up early to make photos of Muni’s light rail cars exiting the Muni Metro on Duboce in the sunrise glint light.
For this image, I’ve used the trees at the left to shade the front element from direct sun to minimize flare. Although it was a clear morning, the sun was tinted by pollution that I remember as being a common effect in the Bay Area, especially in the summer.
My goal was to catch a car taking the wye from the J-Church line heading west on the N-Judah line, which was a common way for Muni to position cars in the morning. While I did make that photo, I felt this image was actually a better picture.
It shows an inbound J-Church car turning toward the subway portal with an N-Judah car outbound.
Although, I commonly used Kodachrome at the time, for this image I used Fujichrome 100 (before the introduction of Provia), which I processed myself at the photo studio where I worked in South San Francisco. Among my studio duties was running E6 transparency film. We used a roller transport machine and mixed the chemistry on site.
Yesterday (February 7, 2014), after several months of testing, Amtrak’s new ACS-64 Siemens built ‘Cities Sprinter’ locomotive 600 made its first revenue run on Amtrak train 171 (Boston to Washington).
My dad and I went to Milford, Connecticut on the North East Corridor to catch the new electric. Pop made some B&W photos with his Leica M3 from the east end of the platform. I worked the curve at the west end with my Canons.
I popped off a couple of slides with the EOS 3 with a 100mm telephoto, and exposed two bursts of digital images using the Canon 7D with 20mm lens.
By the way the 20mm on the 7D has a field of view equal to about a 35mm lens on a traditional 35mm film camera.
The new electric sure looked nice! I’ll be keen to see the B&W photos and slides when they are processed.
After 171 passed, I made a few photos of a Metro-North local, then Pop and I went over to inspect the recently opened Metro-North station at West Haven, where we made a few photos of passing trains.
Watching trains today, it seems that graffiti is omnipresent. Hardly a freight passes without heavily tagged cars in consist.
Railcar graffiti isn’t a recent phenomena. Traditional chalked tags have appeared on cars for generations. I recall photographing a tag that read ‘Edward Steichen knew’ back in the mid-1980s, and I first noticed spray-painted graffiti on the New York Subways in the 1970s.
Yet, the proliferation of large colorful spray-painted murals and haphazard spray tagging has only become widespread on mainline trains in the last couple of decades.
While freight cars are the most common canvases, I’ve see locomotives and passenger cars tagged as well.
Nor is the phenomena isolated to the United States. Train graffiti is a worldwide occurrence. I’ve photographed heavily tagged trains in Poland, Belgium, and (wouldn’t you guess?) Italy! (Among other places).
Almost every photographer I’ve met has an opinion on graffiti.
Would you like to leave a comment? Tracking the light is interested in your opinion(s). See the comments section toward the bottom of the page.
New England Central at Montpelier Junction, Vermont.
A freshly scrubbed GP38 led a pair of Pennsy passenger cars in a classic old-school whistle-stop campaign tour of Vermont.
On August 28, 2010, my dad and I drove to the Georgia high bridge (near St. Albans, Vermont) to intercept a New England Central special train hired by gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie.
It was a sunny warm summer’s day, and we made numerous photos of the special as it worked its way south.
This pair of images was exposed at Montpelier Junction, where the train made a stop for the candidate to make a speech to his supporters. Traditionally, this was where Central Vermont met the Montpelier & Barre.
I used a telephoto for these views in order to emphasize the bunting and flags that marked the train’s distinctive qualities. Several of my photographs of the train appeared in Private Varnish.
Here we have an instance where everything came together nicely.
On Friday January 24, 2014, I’d got word that Amtrak’s heritage locomotive number 822 was working the westward Lake Shore Limited, train 449
This was the second time in a ten-day span that I’d be alerted to a heritage locomotive on this run. As noted in my January 18, 2014 post, Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, the weather wasn’t cooperative on my previous attempt at catching an Amtrak heritage locomotive.
By contrast on January 24th it was clear but very cold. I opted to make the photo at West Warren, where it’s nice and open and there’s a distinctive landscape.
Normally, Amtrak 449 passes East Brookfield at 1:30pm, and Palmer about 1:50pm. West Warren is roughly halfway between them, so I aimed to be there no later than 1:35pm
As it happened, 449 was delayed on Charlton Hill and passed more than 15 minutes later than I’d anticipated. Other than resulting in my nose getting a bit cold, this delay produced little effect on the photograph.
I opted for a traditional angle because I wanted to feature the locomotive as the primary subject this scenic setting. I picked a spot on the road bridge over the Quaboag River where I could make a view that included the old mills and waterfall, as well as a side view as the train got closer.
Working with my Canon EOS 7D fitted with a 40mm pancake lens, I set the motor drive to its fastest setting, and exposed three bursts of images as the train rolled east on CSXT’s former Boston & Albany mainline.
Since the camera’s buffer will quickly become saturated when making multiple photos in rapid succession, I was careful to wait until the train was nearly where I wanted it in each of the three sets.
Old Pointless Arrow and the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Ah Springfield! Probably best known because of the Simpson’s cartoon set in a mythical city of that name. Could be Springfield, Massachusetts, or Illinois, any of a couple dozen other cities with this common name.
On April 5, 2004, I met Tim Doherty for lunch and we made a few photos in Springfield.
A visit to Union Station found a westward CSX freight with a Conrail blue General Electric DASH8-40CW rolling through.
Later, we went down to an footbridge near the Basketball Hall of Fame to catch Guilford Rail System’s elusive EDPL (East Deerfield to Plainville, Connecticut) freight.
In 1982, Boston & Maine bought several Connecticut-based former New Haven Railroad operations from Conrail, and EDPL was one the only remnants of that transaction. At the time, the freight ran once a week. Catching it was a matter of planning and good luck.
I exposed these photos on Fujichrome Velvia 100F (RVP100F) color slide film using my Contax G2 rangefinder with a 28mm Biogon lens. The film was processed locally in Springfield at ComColor, which back then offered a 2-hour turn-around time for E6 films (processed and mounted).
In 2008, ComColor ceased processing E6 film. At the time, I was told my rolls were ‘the last run.’
I made this photo when I was a senior in high school. Paul Goewey and I’d planned to meet some friends at Springfield Station, and then drive north to photograph Boston & Maine at Deerfield.
While we waited for the others to arrive, I exposed a series of images of Conrail on the former Boston & Albany mainline. At the time, Conrail regularly stored locomotives between runs on track 2A in the station (at right). On the left is a set of light engines led by Conrail 6608, one of ten C30-7s.
More interesting is the locomotive trailing 6608, a relative-rare former Erie-Lackawanna SDP45.
The trip to the B&M was very successful and I exposed two rolls of 35mm Kodak Panatomic-X ASA 32 (Kodak Safety Film 5060) with my Leica 3A, and a couple of rolls of 120 B&W with my dad’s Rolleiflex. I processed all the film in the kitchen sink, using a crude formula of Microdol-X. I sleeved the negs and made 3×5 size proof prints.
The 120 negatives have been in my files for three decades, but the 35mm negatives had vanished. I have a photo album from 1985, with many of these images, but for years was vexed by the loss of the 35mm negatives. As a rule, I don’t throw photographs away.
The other day, I found a carton with school papers and photographs. There, at the bottom was an unlabeled crumpled manila envelope. What’s this? Ah ha!
It was chock full of negatives from 1984-1985. All missing for decades, many of them unprinted.
I scanned these negative strip on my Epson V600 scanner. Using Photoshop I cleaned up a few minor defect and made necessary contrast adjustments, then exported a reduced file size for display here. A photo lost for nearly three decades can now be enjoyed in through a medium I couldn’t have foreseen when I exposed it.
For me, SEPTA is one of the most photogenic American big city transit systems. Sure, other cities have their charms, but Philadelphia has a lot going for it; variety, accessibility, interval services on most routes, real time displays at stations, visual cues to its heritage, interesting and varied equipment and etc.
On January 16, 2014, my brother Sean and I, spent an afternoon and evening wandering on SEPTA’s rail systems making photographs. I had a minor agenda to ride a few pieces of the network I’d not yet traveled on.
I worked with two cameras; Lumix LX3 and Canon EOS 7D, but traveled relatively light (no film body or big telephotos)
All of the lines we traveled were well patronized (some at standing room only) and yet everything seem to run to time. SEPTA’s staff were friendly and helpful. (Especially when we were running for trains).
Amtrak 449, in sun and rain; one day and the next. Last week, I was over in East Brookfield visiting the LeBeaus to do some videography for a music video. Dennis LeBeau lives a block from the Boston & Albany (CSXT’s Boston Line).
I said to Dennis, “I’m just going to nip down to the bridge to catch 449. It should be getting close.”
“Passes here every day at one-thirty. I’ll join you in a minute.”
I phoned Amtrak’s Julie (the automated agent: 1-800-USA-RAIL) to find out if 449 as on time out of Worcester. As it turns out, it departed Worcester Union Station 4 minutes late.
Worcester is at CP45, East Brookfield is CP64. It takes 449 about 25-30 minutes to run the 19 miles.
Since it was nice bright afternoon, I opted for a broadside view that shows a few of the houses in town. At 1:39, Dennis shouted to me from the road bridge, “He’s around the bend.” I was poised to made my photograph with my Lumix LX3.
This can be tricky since there’s really only a split second to get the train in the right place. If the camera isn’t cued up, all I’ll get is a photo of the baggage car. But I was ready, and put the train precisely where I wanted it.
The train glided through town. I turned to make a few going away views with my Canon, and said to Dennis, “You know that never gets old. I’ve been photographing that train since the 1970s.”
Dennis said to me, “I’ve been watching it since it was the New England States Limited, with New York Central E8s!”
A day later, I was in Palmer (CP83). The word was out that Amtrak 145 (one of the Genesis P42s in heritage paint) was working 449. The weather was foul, but since I was in town anyway, I figured I’d give the train a roll by.
It was stabbed at CP83 by a southward New England Central freight going into the yard, which allowed ample time for photos. Such a contrast in days. Pity the heritage P42 hadn’t worked west a day sooner.
Pan Am Railway’s EDMO roars west on the Boston & Maine.
It’s almost like stepping back to the 1970s; three EMDs powered by turbocharged 16-645 diesels working under searchlight signals with a carload train.
This is a nice contrast to the parade of double-stack containers and unit trains that characterize most American mainlines. While the details of the motive power have been altered since they were built, the spirit of the operation reminds me of watching trains more than 35 years ago.
If you think about it, as point of comparison, if in 1979 you were to see 35 year-old motive power and a traditional freight train that probably would have been either steam engines, or EMD FTs leading 40-ft cars.
Sure, you could argue that Pan Am’s paint scheme is a relatively recent development, and the locomotives have been modified since the 1970s (the lead former Santa Fe SD45-2 had its 20-645E3 swapped with a 16-cylinder engine among other changes), but that belies the point.
The other day, I had a few packages to send out. I’d delayed going to the post office until after the school buses were out, using the logic that if I waited, I wouldn’t get stuck behind one on the way back.
On the way into the PO, I heard a distant whistle. And while at the desk, a train rumbled by.
New England Central’s (NECR) former Central Vermont line runs on a slightly elevated gradient behind the Monson, Massachusetts PO. This is on the climb up State Line hill, and heavy trains make a good racket coming though town. This freight, however, wasn’t very heavy and the engines weren’t working too hard.
I made an expeditious exit after mailing my packages, and started south on Route 32. No sooner than I was south of town, I found myself looking at the back of a school bus!
And this bus then stopped, as required, at the South Monson grade crossing.
I could hear the southward climbing. It had already gone through. Fortunately, once over the tracks, the bus driver kindly pulled in to let traffic around. I sailed southward, and arrived at State Line crossing. Once out of the car, I could hear the train working.
Although the light was fading, there was enough to work with. While, I’d left most of my cameras at home, I had my Lumix LX3 in my coat pocket. I set up a shot immediately south of the Massachusetts-Connecticut state line, and included the granite marker at the left of the image.
After the train passed, I followed it to Stafford Springs, where I made a few more photos. As it turns out, these NECR images are my first railway photos for 2014.
Mount Shasta looms more than 90 miles to north, as Southern Pacific’s most famous locomotives races railroad west through along Hooker Creek (near Cottonwood, California).
I exposed this image on September 2, 1991. Southern Pacific had organized the historic streamlined engine to make a public appearances in the Sacramento River Canyon as a goodwill gesture following a serious derailment at the Cantera Loop which spilled toxins into the river above Dunsmuir. The railroad had hired me for two days to make photographs of the PR event.
Brian Jennison provided transport, and the two of us spent a long weekend making numerous images of SP 4449 with the matching Daylight train. I borrowed Brian’s 300mm Nikkor telephoto for this dramatic image. SP ran one of my photos in their company magazine, Southern Pacific Bulletin.
While SP’s public runs ran from Redding to Dunsmuir and beyond to Black Butte, after the train returned to Dunsmuir, it would run light to the wye at Tehama for turning. It was on this portion of the journey(s) that I made some of the most dramatic photos because they occurred in the evening when the lighting was most pleasing.
I’d chosen this angle to feature Mt. Shasta. Unfortunately, owing to the time of year, the famous volcanic cone wasn’t covered with snow in its higher regions.
This photo has appeared in books, and I’ve used many of the images from the trip in publications. SP 4449 remains one of my favorite locomotives.
Amtrak 449, the Lake Shore Limited with E8As near Palmer.
For my eleventh birthday my father gave me a 1930s-era Leica 3A and a role of film (with more to follow).
Every so often Pop would gather my brother Sean and I into the car and head over the Boston & Albany (then Conrail) to wait for Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. Back then, the train was still running with heritage equipment and typically hauled by fairly tired E8As.
If we were really lucky we might catch freight too.
On this day in summer 1978, we drove to Palmer. I think we’d started up the Quaboag River Valley, but realized we might not have time to reach Warren before the westward Lake Shore came roaring down the valley. So we reversed and picked a spot near milepost 81, not far from the Route 20-67 split (east of town).
We didn’t wait long. I could hear pairs of twin 12-567s working before the headlight a appeared at the bend near the old barn. And then there it was!
“I see it!”
I made several exposures with the Leica. Unfortunately, in my panic to capture the train passing I shook the camera, so the head-on view is a bit blurred.
I processed the negatives from this adventure in the kitchen sink and made prints that I placed in a homemade photo album. The negatives were well processed and have survived in good order. I scanned them a few weeks ago. My notes from the day appear to have gone missing though.
Does anyone even remember friction bearings? By the 1990s, these were all but a forgotten technology, replaced with the omnipresent roller bearings. Southern Pacific’s season sugar beet racks were once of the few exceptions and continued to work until about 1992 with the old technology.
However, prior to that in January 1988, I had a class project at the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, New York) that involved making photos of railroad workers. I’d arranged through the Rochester & Southern to spend time around Brooks Avenue Yard.
I spent a lot of time there, relative to what was required of me for the class.
At one point the general manager, or someone in the know, directed me to a rip track where workers were packing friction bearings. This was really an arcane aspect of railroading.
I exposed a series of black & white negatives in the 645 format using my father’s Rolleiflex Model T. It was a dull cold day. I think I was using Verichrome Pan (rated at 80 ISO) to get a period effect. I used a wide aperture, probably f3.5, which gave me shallow depth of field.
Verichrome was a difficult material to work with in low light and my negatives were very thin.
To make the most of these photos I used an unusual printing technique: I intentionally printed the photo darker than normal, then used a potassium-ferrocyanide solution to bleach the highlights. I did this both across the print in a tray, and using a cotton swab on select areas such as the around the journal boxes.
The result is more or less as you see it here. This print has been in a box since 1988 and has hardly ever seen the light of day. (Incidentally, in case the name doesn’t suggest it to you, potassium-ferrocyanide is decidedly unhealthy, so use it cautiously, if you must.)
I don’t think my professor was especially impressed with my results. What did he know about bearings anyway?
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!
I was visiting Philadelphia for the holiday season. I’d just got my Lumix back from Panasonic following a warranty-repair and I was happy to make some photos with it.
A wander around Center City on December 30, 2010 with my family made for ample opportunities to exercise the shutter. Sometimes the ordinary scenes make for interesting photos, and over time these tend to age well; witness below.
This view was exposed on the platforms of SEPTA’s Market East station (the 1980s replacement for Philadelphia & Reading’s Victorian train-temple, Reading Terminal—today a convention center, sans tracks).
Here I found a pair of 1960s vintage Silverliners working the R3 service. These elegant classics were nearing the end of their working careers. After nearly five decades, the last of these machines were withdrawn in June 2012.