Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Frozen Tundra of the South

As a recently elected to the Board of Directors of the National Railway Historical Society, I ventured south to Charleston, South Carolina, to attend a board meeting on January 9-10, 2010. While I briefly considered flying, I decided that I wanted to see a few things along the way, so I loaded up my iPod with some great tunes, downloaded a few trainwatching guides, programmed the scanner and headed south on the evening of January 7. The night was cold, and I encountered some snow showers below Baltimore. I met up with my brother Bruce at a motel in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where we'd begin the next day's photography.

Day 1: January 8, 2010 -- Ashland Interlude
See the photos in Photo Line

Virginia Railway Express provides commuter rail between Fredericksburg and the nation's capitol, but only one train would head north after daybreak. With the sun attempting to pop out after the previous night's snow showers, we had trouble finding a location that might provide nose lighting on the locomotive (which pushes from the south end of the train) and was out of the shadows of the trees that closely hug the track. We weren't sure if Amtrak's Auto Train had gone north yet (Julie at Amtrak's toll-free number said it hadn't arrived yet at Lorton, about 30 miles up the track). We finally found a place in the woods and snapped the northbound VRE train pushing northward.

After that the sky clouded up again and snow -- heavy snow (and not in the forecast) began falling. We went to VRE's Leeland Road station about four miles above Fredericksburg and in fairly short order we got a northbound CSX coal train and a southbound Amtrak train. We then moved to the nearby overpass for a view of a northbound Amtrak.

The ultimate goal for the day was to get to Ashland, a quaint town where the tracks roll through the middle of the main street downtown on a private median. But on the way to Ashland is the town of Doswell where the former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac (the line we were following) crosses the former Chesapeake & Ohio. the C&O is now operated by the Buckingham Branch Railroad, and they had a local train working Doswell. We also got a northbound train rattling the diamond on the former RF&P. Meanwhile, a solid line of crystal clear sky was working its way in from the west, so we beat feet down to Ashland.

We started off in Ashland with a badly-lit northbound train. Talk on the radio, however, indicated that a bad switch several miles north at Milford had southbound trains blocked. Once the switch was fixed, a parade of two Amtrak trains and two CSX freights came through. Nice.

Next up was a very poorly lit northbound, but we could hear him talking to a southbound up the line. I had never gotten the shot of a train passing the church at Gwathmey, two miles below Ashland, so while Bruce stayed in town to get a shot near the Ashland station, I headed to Gwathmey for the southbound. Just below Gwathmey the freight met a northbound (and once again poorly lit) Amtrak train.

The day was winding down, and long shadows were creeping it at Ashland. With one more Amtrak southbound on the schedule, we headed back to Doswell, which was more open. Before Amtrak arrived, a northbound local freight appeared and stopped to work the Buckingham Branch interchange. Then in was time for Amtrak, and then it was time to hit the road. Bruce headed north back to New Jersey, and I headed non-stop south to Charleston. Okay, I made one stop -- I had to get a taco at South of the Border!

Day 2: January 11, 2010 -- Empty Palmetto Rails
See the photos in Photo Lines

Ah, the warm south -- not! The fountains in front of the Charleston Place Hotel had ice clinging to its horses. After two days of meetings, it was time to head north and I was anxious to explore what is known as the Lowcountry in South Carolina. I had several stops I wanted to make along CSX's ex-Atlantic Coast Line trackage. Since this was the I-95 of the rail world, I figured getting trains at most of the locations would be a snap.

It was sunny and pleasantly warm(er) as I stopped next to a signal bridge just south of the Charleston Amtrak station in North Charleston. I hoped to get one freight going south before I had to relocate to find better lighting for Amtrak's northbound Palmetto. Sadly, all that came was a light engine move (with the engine running backwards) and a local freight (with the engine running backwards). Amtrak was nearly on time, however, so I pushed north hoping to find a wide open spot to shoot a broadside of the train.

Driving north, I passed the dragging defect detector at Goose Creek along U.S. 52. This would start talking on the radio once a train passed over it, so I made note of the mileage. Before I got to Monck's Corner, the detector, now about ten miles behind me, went off. I had a ten-mile lead on Amtrak. Crossing the tracks on a bridge at Monck's Corner I noticed a depot to the north -- that would be where I would make my stand. I snaked through town and down to the depot, only to discover the angle that looked so promising from the bridge (a quarter mile away) was quite cluttered. What to do . . . Amtrak was closing fast.

I decided that I would press my luck and try to make Macbeth ahead of the train. I snaked back out through town, drove north on 52 and made the left turn for the one-mile trek into Macbeth. It wasn't as open as I would have liked, but when I opened the car door I could hear horns to the south. This would be the shot, like it or not. It didn't frame up half bad, and I snagged it. Without any freights in the immediate forecast, I decided not to wait at Macbeth and pushed on to the next target on my list.

The next place I wanted to reach was Etta, just north of St. Stephen (and called the best train watching location in South Carolina). The town of St. Stephen looked like it might have a depot, so I swung onto the main drag off U.S. 52, wandered to the tracks and -- yup -- there was a depot. After snapping that, I headed into Etta where the tracks cross the Santee River on a long bridge. This would be worth a wait, so I turned the scanner up (I'd hear trains calling signals miles away) and eased back for a nap. Taking a nap proved to be too easy, as the radio stayed quiet. After about an hour, the sun had pretty much moved out of position for a good shot, so I headed back north.

Lane had good potential for shooting, and I could hear a maintenance crew talking on the radio north of town. I wandered up and found a work train sitting waiting for a signal to go north. I continued on, stopping at Kingstree to shoot the Amtrak depot. By now the work train was on the move, but it was coming directly out of the sun. With no light on the nose and practically no light on either side, I settled for a shot of the train passing the Railroad Auction.

Lake City looked big enough to have a depot, so I followed the old highway into town and found a station, along with an Atlantic Coast Line caboose and observation car on display. Still no trains. The small town of Scranton had good possibilities, but still no trains. A decaying depot was still standing in Effingham a few years ago (according to reports), but investigation showed that all that was left was a concrete platform.

Finally I arrived at Florence, the end of my planned itinerary. I had been following the railroad for 80 miles and six hours, and other than Amtrak and the work train I hadn't seen much else. So much for it being a busy railroad. At Florence I found the old ACL depot and headquarters building (now used by a hospital), and the new Amtrak station next to that.  I had about twelve hours of driving left to do, so I prepared to head north. As I left Florence, the first southbound freight left town heading into the territory I had just fruitlessly followed. Some days you're the windshield, and some days you're the bug.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Below L.A.

In late October we had some family business to tend to in San Diego, mostly involving getting an aunt's house ready for sale, as she no longer needed it (small house -- actually what we used to call a trailer). Mom and brother Bruce boarded Southwest out of Philadelphia, heading for Los Angeles. On Monday, October 26, we went to a taping of The Price Is Right, then headed down to San Diego in the evening. Upon arrival, we found that the local church had already done most of the work, and a friend of my aunt's was willing to drive Mom around to take care of paperwork. That left me and Bruce with four almost totally free days to explore deep Southern California. Woo hoo!

Day 1: October 27, 2009 -- Sprinting Along
Photos at Photo Lines

An ocean fog had blanketed much of the coast around San Diego, so after trying to figure out what to do we headed inland to Escondido, the eastern terminus of the diesel-powered light rail Sprinter service to Oceanside some 22 miles away. We started at the Escondido station, getting a few photos. Since service is only every 30 minutes, we decided that moving from location to location by auto (instead of riding the train) would maximize our photo output. After several shots at Escondido, we moved on to the Nordahl Road station for a few trains.

At the Cal State station in San Marcos, we opted not to shoot at the station (lack of parking being one reason), so found a perch just east of the station that gave a nice elevated view of the railroad. Most of the line is on an old ex-Santa Fe branch (and indeed there is still freight service to Escondido), but the light rail line at San Marcos is on new right-of-way, eliminating a lot of grade crossings (freight still uses the original right-of-way).

At the San Marcos Civic Center station we shot a train or two passing the junction where the western end of the new right-of-way joins the original line. A long passing siding goes through the Palomar College station, so we got a few shots there, then finished up at the western end of the double track at CP Missy (named for parallel Mission Boulevard).

Hard as it is to believe, in a complete afternoon we only covered about a third of the line. That just means we have to try again sometime!

Day 2: October 28, 2009 -- Pacific Breezes
Photos at Photo Lines

Just a few months previous (March to be precise) we had been in California for Winterail in the Bay Area, but included Southern California in the trip. We had spent a day in the Del Mar area, but persistent ocean fog made for a less than fully productive outing.  Today was different. We arrived in Del Mar under sunny skies and immediately knocked off a scene that we had gotten skunked on in March -- a Pacific Surfliner passing a very expensive house on the coast.

Del Mar is located about 20 miles north of San Diego and is in the heart of where the Santa Fe followed the coast from below San Juan Capistrano southward. Today it sees frequent Amtrak service (the trains are push-pull with the locomotives on the south end) and Coaster commuter service between Oceanside and San Diego (push-pull with locomotives on the north end).  After successfully getting our southbound Amtrak train, next up was a San Diego-bound Coaster. Since it would be pushing (and thus the locomotive's headlight would be out), we opted for a broadside shot with the ocean as a backdrop.

A northbound Amtrak train would catch our attention next, with a northbound Coaster following. The Coaster sure looked good along the cliffs! After another northbound Amtrak, we left the cliffs and headed north of the old Del Mar station (no longer used as such) for a few more trains.

We worked our way up to Oceanside, where Coaster service ends and Metrolink service into Los Angeles begins, plus the Sprinter comes in from Escondido -- Oceanside's station hosts passenger trains from four different operators! We found a nice hill to shoot the Sprinter from just west of downtown, but were just a few minutes late getting into position. We put that shot into the memory banks to try again later in the week. After shooting the Sprinter in the station, we headed to the bridge just north of downtown and shot a southbound Amtrak.

Unlike Amtrak and the Coasters, Metrolink doesn't seem to run its locomotives consistently on one end of the train, so it's a guessing game if you'll get a locomotive or cab car leading. We hedged our bets and set up for a broadside on the bridge.

We hadn't been to San Clemente in -- gosh -- 18 years (hard to believe), and wanted to shoot there. Unfortunately, since our last visit things had changed. There's a lot more fencing and trees between the tracks and beaches and we found shooting there to be challenging. We just barely caught a southbound Amtrak, then got a going-away view of a northbound Amtrak followed by a very nice view of a southbound Metrolink train. A few more Amtrak trains and a Metrolink (cab car leading, but ncie shot) rounded out our San Clemente visit.

For a grand finale, we headed back to Oceanside to get those pesky what-end-is-the-engine-on Metrolink trains. A broadside of a northbound (with the locomotive pushing) rounded out the day.

Day 3: October 29, 2009 -- Clang Goes The Trolley
Photos at Photo Lines

The San Diego Trolley ushered in the new era of streetcars and light rail when it started in the early 1980s. Since then, dozens of cities across North America have followed San Diego's lead and put in new rail transit systems. Despite its status as a pioneer, however, I had only gotten a few token shots of the system in the past. Today would change that. We'd spend a day riding and photographing part of the trolley. (Trolley is a bit of a misnomer -- it sounds quaint, but this is one modern light rail system.)

We parked the car at the Arnele Avenue station on the far north/west end of the combined green and orange lines (since we were staying near El Cajon on this trip) and boarded a northbound car to get to the end of the line. After a stop at Gillespie Field (end of the orange line) we went on to the end of the green line at Santee Town Center, one of a few stations located adjacent to a mall (this sytem really knows where its customers want to go!). Retracing our route back towards San Diego, we stopped at Amaya Drive for a few shots. I could see a young transit cop talking on a cell phone and, sure enough, when he was finished he wandered over to us. "You can't take pictures of the trolley," he said. "There's no law against it," I replied. "I was on the phone with my sergeant and he said we can't have people taking too many pictures." "Why?" That led to the standard 9/11-security-terrorist speech. I tried not to roll my eyes. "There's no law against it. We're out here all day, and if your sergeant has a problem with that he can come find us." With that, the transit cop wandered off. Never did see another one.

Our next stop was the elevated Grantville station, where we were able to get some nice telephoto shots of the trolley passing Jack Murphy (I refuse to call it Qualcomm) Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers. From there, we paused at the Stadium station (also elevated) for some more shots.

At the Old Town Transit Center the green line ends and the blue line begins. We spent several minutes here waiting for an Amtrak train and a Coaster to come by on the parallel main line. One operator wanted her picture taken in her trolley (whatever happened to that "no photos" stuff we encountered earlier) and another operator acknowledged that a lot of "foamers" worked for the transit system. Friendly people.

Continuing on into downtown San Diego, we stopped at the ex-Santa Fe depot to shoot Amtrak and some streetcars. A Coaster was also in the station, getting ready to head north. The area around the Amtrak station is target-rich, and we found plenty to see and photograph here.

Across the street from the Amtrak station is the busy America Plaza trolley station, a transfer point between the orange line back to El Cajon and the blue line on its way to San Ysidro. The downtown area provide a lot of shooting opportunities.

The area around the Convention Center in San Diego is full of nice buildings that make for a good photographic backdrop, so after finishing downtown we hopped on an orange line train and rode it to its terminus (which just happens to be near the Coaster maintenance yard). Riding back, we got off at the Convention Center station to shoot streetcars, and even got a northbound Coaster coming out to go to the station. Nice.

Time was rapidly not getting on our side and we had to get back to El Cajon. Just to be different, we rode the orange line back. This has more street running in the city than the blue line, and it passes through some of the grittier parts of town. It was quite a contrast to the area by the Convention Center. We rode non-stop to the Grossmont Transit Center, passing old railroad stations in Lemon Grove and La Mesa (and even a steam engine on display in the latter).  At the Grossmont Transit Center, where the green line rejoins the orange line, we headed away from our final destination, returning to Jack Murphy Stadium to get a few shots that the light hadn't been quite right to get in the morning. Believing that to tell the whole story you need to photograph people interacting with the transit system, I shot a passenger buying a ticket from a vending machine. After finishing up at the Murph, we headed back to Arnele Avenue and our car for the return trip to El Cajon.

Day 4: October 30, 2009 -- Heading To the Harbor
Photos at Photo Lines

We needed to bid farewell to the San Diego area on this day and get back up to Los Angeles for the flight home. After taking care of some loose ends in the morning, we set out and took care of some photographic loose ends. First up was getting a trolley passing the steam locomotive on display in La Mesa. Then, using a timetable for a guide, we intercepted a couple of Amtrak Surfliners, one near Sorrento Valley and another at Carlsbad. At Oceanside we stopped to get the shot of the Sprinter from the bluff that we had not quite gotten right a few days before.

We had a motel reserved near Los Angeles International (preparing for an early-morning flight the next day) so we dropped Mom at the motel and Bruce and I headed for San Pedro. Bob and Diane Gallegos (from Milwaukee) were also in California, so we met up it them to chase the San Pedro streetcar around. Primarily a tourist operation, the streetcar serves the cruise ship dock area of Long Beach, bringing back memories of the old Pacific Electric that used to serve San Pedro.

Bob grew up near Long Beach and knew his way around, so after getting the streetcar we set off exploring the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Despite it being a prime target for terrorists smuggling in small thermonuclear devices (according to the press), the Ports have a surprising number of public access points to watch containers being unloaded and to watch the Port's railroad, Pacific Harbor Line.

We came across a ship unloading containers from CSX; these weren't containers full of Chinese imports, but rather empty containers for domestic use that were constructed overseas (domestic containers are larger than ocean-going ones). We all clicked away at the stack of new containers and got some great stock images of port activity.

Finished with the containers, we headed towards Anaheim Street looking for Pacific Harbor Line action. We were rewarded with a train crossing the bridge onto Terminal Island, which we shot from a marina. We later caught up with a BNSF train on its way out to ITS.

All good things must come to an end, and that was the case for our trip. Bob and Diane, like Bruce and I, had dinner plans, so we said farewell and went our separate ways. A nice dinner, a short night, and it was back on Southwest to Philadelphia, leaving sunny California behind.

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