Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Three States, Three Steam Locomotives

Strasburg Rail Road; Paradise, Pa.; December 4, 2015
Tourist railroads all across the U.S. and Canada are benefitting from the commercialization of Christmas (okay, let's not open all the negatives of that can of worms and focus on the positive) and that means Santa Claus trains or something similar are a huge part of a railroad's bottom line. And for the railroads that rely on steam, that means steam operations at night. And for the railroad photographer, that opens up a lot of photo possibilites (see, I told you we'd get to the positive).

I had the chance to photograph three steam operations in three adjacent states -- all on one weekend. The Strasburg Rail Road in Pennsylvania operates one "The Night Before Christmas" train each Friday evening in December. The Wilmington & Western in Delaware doesn't run night steam powered trains, but its locomotive is necessary to keep the steam-heated coaches on the daytime trains warm, and that means the locomotive is fired up over the weekend. And the Black River & Western runs several "The North Pole Express" trains each Saturday and Sunday in December, including one departure each day after dark. Let the photography begin!

The Strasburg Rail Road only operates one train a night on one day a week, so that meant I needed to make more than one trip to Lancaster County. On Friday, December 4, I photographed the train (above) as it passed through Cherry Hill (the sign on the station says "Population 17 More or Less;" the onboard narration explains that it's more when the train gets there and less when the train leaves, although the popularity of the corn maze Cherry Crest Farm keeps the population pretty high in the fall). This was actually my second choice of where to shoot that night, as I had wanted to do the shelter at the railroad's picnic area at Groff's Grove; alas, winter track work had the area around Groff's all torn up.

The next weekend I had a three-railroad strategy all in place. Friday found me back at the Strasburg for the prime shot on the railroad -- the bridge over Pumpkinville Turnpike (actually a dirt farm lane) near Paradise. I checked in with the landowner during the day and got permission to be on his property, and began my set-up at about 6:30. Like the previous week, the power was Strasburg's ex-Norfolk & Western 4-8-0 pulling a monster 11-car train. The engine runs tender-first on the outbound trip, giving me a chance to test my flashes and set-up. On the return to Strasburg, No. 475 put on quite a show climbing the grade out of Paradise. As it crossed the bridge I fired the shot and had the first steam locomotive of the week in the bag.
Strasburg Rail Road; Paradise, Pa.; December 11, 2015
Wilmington & Western's ex-Mississippi Central 4-4-0 No. 98 was next on the list, scheduled for Saturday night. The locomotive has a mechanical issue that keeps it from moving under its own power, but the railroad needs the steam it produces to charge the steam lines in the coaches for its daytime runs. With No. 98 needed to provide steam on Saturday and Sunday, it would be hot overnight on Saturday, so the railroad scheduled a night photography event. Volunteer Tommy Gears rounded up antique trucks and actors and it created quite the scene. The shoot took place at the W&W's shop in Marshallton.
Wilmington & Western; Marshalltown, Del.; December 12, 2015
A second view shows the combine loading, a passenger boarding, and the railroad crew chatting.
Wilmington & Western; Marshallton, Del.; December 12, 2015
With the wide shots out of the way, we moved in closer for some detailed shots. The locomotive crew looks on as some female workers tend to the 4-4-0. During World War II it was not uncommon to find women working in rail yards while many men were away.
Wilmington & Western; Marshallton, Del.; December 12, 2015
With the women decked out in their railroad worker attire, we retreated into the railroad's shop for some more "Rosie the Riveter" scenes using an under-restoration 0-6-0 as a backdrop.
Wilmington & Western; Marshalltown, Del.; December 12, 2015
That brings us to Sunday night. Black River & Western has "The North Pole Express" running throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday, but three moves are done after dark. The 5:00 train leaves Flemington for the North Pole (actually, Ringoes where the railroad's shop is located). It then departs the North Pole at 7:00 to head back to Flemington, although the locomotive runs tender-first, making the shot less than desirable. Finally, the empty train deadheads from Flemington back to Ringoes sometime after 7:30. I had done some static night photography with a diesel at the abandoned Hunterdon Concrete plant just outside Ringoes, and set up there for a non-static steam shot on December 13. Black River & Western uses an ex-Great Western 2-8-0 that used to haul sugar beets in Colorado.
Black River & Western; Ringoes, N.J.; December 13, 2015
When doing night photography, you really need a "prop" of some sort so you don't have just the train peeking out of the darkness. The Black River & Western is not loaded with props -- a couple of nice bridges are either hard to access or blocked by trees -- so you have to improvise. For the 7:30 deadhead move I wound up at Toad Lane, once again just outside Ringoes, where a convenient grassy knoll gave me some elevation for a shot coming across the grade crossing.
Black River & Western; Ringoes, N.J.; December 13, 2015
With only one weekend left before Christmas, I may not get many more opportunities to shoot steam at night this year. But I have enjoyed getting some fun images this year!

Friday, December 11, 2015

611 Homecoming

Norfolk & Western 611; Vicker, Va.; July 3, 2015
In our last post we explored the former Norfolk & Western mainline east of Roanoke, Va. The line is now operated by Norfolk Southern, but still features some uniquely N&W characteristics. In this post we are going to flash back to July 2015 (just a few months ago) when a very special visitor was on the line. The Virginia Museum of Transportation and Norfolk Southern teamed up to bring N&W J-Class No. 611 back to mainline rails for the summer. The big 4-8-4 ran trips out of Alexandria and Lynchburg in Virginia, but the red letter trips were six that were run over the Fourth of July weekend -- trips that took No. 611 back to its old home rails out of the city it was built in, Roanoke.
Norfolk & Western 611; Christiansburg, Va.; July 5, 2015
By steam locomotive standards, No. 611 is not old. It was constructed by the N&W in Roanoke in 1950, and by 1959 it was retired. In the early 1960s it was donated to the Virginia Museum of Transportation and displayed throughout the 1970s. In 1982 it was restored to take part in the original Norfolk Southern Steam Program, and powered the last trip for the program in 1994 before returning back to VMT. Norfolk Southern started the 21st Century Steam program in 2011, and the Fire Up 611! campaign started in 2014 to raise funds to have 611 join the program. It made its earlier this year.
Norfolk & Western 611; Shawsville, Va.; July 5, 2015
When the Roanoke trips were announced, I knew I had to get down to Virginia for the trips. Each day over the long weekend No. 611 would power two trips -- a morning trip from Roanoke to Lynchburg and return over Blue Ridge Summit and an afternoon trip from Roanoke to Walton over Christiansburg Hill. It was going to be a great weekend. Both lines have a lot of Norfolk & Western era color position light (CPL) signals, especially east of Roanoke. These are being replaced by more modern technology as railroads install Positive Train Control on their routes.
Norfolk & Western 611; Webster, Va.; July 5, 2015
I knew there would be crowds down in Roanoke chasing the trips, just as I was, but I wasn't expecting quite that large of a crowd! On the first day, July 3, the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the N&W near Bonsack must have had 100 people on it. Cars lined the roads along the tracks through Webster. We caught the train at Webster, then went ahead to Forest, near Roanoke for a shot. Forest has a nice CPL signal, so after the train went by heading east a few of us started organizing a photo line for the westbound trip, which made for a nice photo.
Norfolk & Western 611; Forest, Va.; July 3, 2015
After the stop in Roanoke, we headed west for the Walton portion of the day, pausing at Riverside near Elliston. Wet rail and a heavy train had 611 working hard as it blasted past us on a nice curve.
Norfolk & Western 611; Riverside, Va.; July 3, 2015
The train had slowed down considerably thanks to the grade, and that allowed just about every chaser to congregate in Shawsville. While the photo doesn't show it, there were several hundred people in the small town to watch the train pass through. It only went through at about five miles an hour, thanks to the grade and wet rail.
Norfolk & Western 611; Shawsville, Va.; July 3, 2015
The slow speed allowed us to get ahead of the train again. Montgomery Tunnel, a classic N&W location, was under construction for a clearance project, so we bypassed that and headed for the CPL signals in Christiansburg.
Norfolk & Western 611; Christiansburg, Va.; July 3, 2015
After the train turned at Walton, we caught it coming under the old N&W coaling tower at Vicker (top photo of this post). Fading light at this point encouraged us to call it a day.

The next morning found us at the CPLs at Montvale for the Lynchburg run. The sun was out, then went back under a cloud. We could hear 611 approaching as it tackled the Blue Ridge grade, and we thought we were skunked. But amazingly the cloud cleared about 20 seconds before the train's arrival and we got 611 splitting the signals in fantastic morning light -- probably the shot of the trip.
Norfolk & Western 611; Montvale, Va.; July 4, 2015
From here we negotiated the outskirts of Bedford and made it to the overhead bridge in Lowry with just a couple of minutes to spare.
Norfolk & Western 611; Lowry, Va.; July 4, 2015
From here we headed back west towards Roanoke to set up for a shot on the "must do" list -- passing the CPLs at Blue Ridge. Blue Ridge requires a bit of a hike to get into, and is almost in the middle of nowhere. Imagine our surprise when we got to the signals and found 30 other people already there! There were some anxious moments, though -- as we were monitoring 611's return from Lynchburg via cell phone from others along the route, a slow freight train came out of Roanoke and trundled upgrade on the track between us and where 611 would be. Eventually we could hear 611 whistling as it got closer, but the freight just kept on coming. Finally, the last car of the freight went by and less than 30 seconds later 611 came flying down the hill.
Norfolk & Western 611; Blue Ridge, Va.; July 4, 2015
From here we headed for another shot on the "must do" list -- westbound at the coaling tower at Vicker. Despite being distracted by some freights on the former Virginian Railway that parallels the N&W, we arrived at Vicker in plenty of time for the shot. Once again, the train would be battling bad sun on the way back to Roanoke, so Vicker was the last steam shot of the day.
Norfolk & Western 611; Vicker, Va.; July 4, 2015
The next morning, July 5, we joined the throng of people on the Blue Ridge Parkway overpass at Bonsack. Our last day of 611 started with a fine sight as the train negotiated the S-curve.
Norfolk & Western 611; Bonsack, Va.; July 5, 2015
From here we made an attempt to get greedy by getting ahead of the train at the CPL signals at Villamont. Parking was -- ummmm -- interesting on the one-lane dirt road back into the signals and it did take some time to get everyone untangled once the train went by. Still, the shot was worth it.
Norfolk & Western 611; Villamont, Va.; July 5, 2015
There wasn't much one could do with the delay in getting out of Villamont, so we headed to Lowry to await the train's return. We had shot off the bridge here two days earlier when the first trip went east -- now we were shooting at ground level as the train went west.
Norfolk & Western 611; Lowry, Va.; July 5, 2015
Back to the "must do" list -- we left Lowry and headed straight for the CPLs at Webster. That shot appears earlier in this post. For the afternoon trip to Walton, we paused on the grade up Christiansburg Hill at Wabun to enjoy the sights and sounds of the train working uphill.
Norfolk & Western 611; Wabun, Va.; July 5, 2015
Another shot at Shawsville followed by another shot at Christiansburg (both photos appear earlier in this post) finished off our westbound chase. With home beckoning, we set up for one final shot of the eastbound at Vicker, then reluctantly said goodbye to the Norfolk & Western and 611 for the drive back to New Jersey.
Norfolk & Western 611; Vicker, Va.; July 5, 2015

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

East of Roanoke

Norfolk Southern; Villamont, Va.; November 24, 2015
Our journey to Appalachia started with chasing the CSX Santa Train on the former Clinchfield Railroad, then took us to the coal fields of West Virginia on Norfolk Southern's former Norfolk & Western mainline. Staying with a Norfolk & Western theme, the final day of the trip, November 24, 2015, kept us on the N&W's coal artery to tidewater, this time east of Roanoke where the line climbs up Blue Ridge summit before heading to Norfolk. While much of the former N&W is seeing its color position light (CPL) signals replaced as railroads adopt Positive Train Control, the railroad east of Roanoke still retains many of the old signals. How long they will last is unknown, as Amtrak is looking to extend its New York-to-Lynchburg train to Roanoke, which will require installation of PTC on this part of the N&W.

The NS mainline can be viewed on ATCS Monitor -- telemetry is sent from switches and signals along the line to the dispatchers' office to show dispatchers which way the switches are thrown and what the signals are displaying. This telemetry can also be picked up by the ATCS Monitor program and a pseudo-dispatcher display can be seen on a laptop computer. This allows one to see if there are any trains anywhere between Christiansburg (west of Roanoke) all the way to east of Lynchburg, and if trains are out there it displays which way they are heading. ATCS showed us we'd have a westbound train first, and, with CPL signals as our primary photo prop, we caught it at Villamont (above).

The next train on the screen was also a westbound. The short winter days and low sun were producing long shadows, so some of the CPL signals we wanted to get were unshootable early in the morning; we settled for the "backside" of the CPLs at Webster for the second train.
Norfolk Southern; Webster, Va.; November 24, 2015
We really wanted eastbound trains to take advantage of the morning sunlight. But our next train was yet another westbound. We caught this one at Bonsack.
Norfolk Southern; Bonsack, Va.; November 24, 2015
With nothing showing on the ATCS Monitor, we took advantage of the quiet railroad and headed into downtown Roanoke to see what was happening at the former Virginian Railway station in town. The building is under restoration by the Roanoke Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. A couple of coal trains were sitting at the station.
Norfolk Southern; Roanoke, Va.; November 24, 2015
A lot of the space in this area was at one time taken up by railroads. Indeed, a scrap yard was located near here that had four former Norfolk & Western steam locomotives residing in it well into the 21st century. A lot of the tracks -- and the scrapyard -- are now gone, replaced by an expanding medical center. Fortunately, all four of the N&W steam locomotives found new homes where they can be cosmetically restored. Only one remains in Roanoke, however.
Norfolk Southern; Roanoke, Va.; November 24, 2015
We had fought a bit of traffic getting into town, so we decided to leave town and head back east by way of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which had an entrance close by. Getting to the Parkway involved going up Mill Mountain, home of Roanoke's famous giant star that looks down on the city. We briefly stopped at the star to observe downtown; the Hotel Roanoke, once owned by the N&W, is in the center of the scene.
Hotel Roanoke; Roanoke, Va.; November 24, 2015
Finally we had trains showing up again on ATCS Monitor, and the sun was still good for those elusive eastbounds. The Blue Ridge Parkway dumped us off on U.S. 460 near Webster and we continued east from there. We got our first eastbound train splitting the CPL signals at Montvale.
Norfolk Southern; Montvale, Va.; November 24, 2015
The shadows were retreating from the tracks as the midday sun got higher. As the sun swung around to the west we headed back to the signals at the west end of the crossovers at Webster and got a train with a Union Pacific locomotive on the point.
Norfolk Southern; Webster, Va.; November 24, 2015
The day was growing short and the trains were getting scarce again. With one more westbound on the computer, we headed east into downtown Bedford to get it passing the CPL signals there. We wanted to be in Staunton, Va., by sunset and it looked like no trains would get to us on the N&W before we had to make our break. It was time to head north.
Norfolk Southern; Bedford, Va.; November 24, 2015
With changes happening all over the U.S., especially when it comes to older railroad signals, there's no telling what the former Norfolk & Western will look like when we get back down here again. But back in July, these old sentinels saw a familiar face, as former Norfolk & Western J-Class steam locomotive No. 611 went past them on a series of excursions. We'll look back at those trips in our next post.

Photos from this post can be purchased here.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Quiet Coal Fields

Norfolk Southern; Keystone, W.Va.; November 22, 2015
On the way back from photographing the Clinchfield Santa Train, I headed into the coal fields of West Virginia, specifically the Pocahontas District of Norfolk Southern. McDowell County, West Virginia, is one of the most economically depressed areas in the United States as the world moves away from using Appalachian coal.

There wasn't much traffic on the former Norfolk & Western, and of the few trains that ran a lot were not coal trains. We did see a coal train heading east through the town of Keystone (above), but the coal mine just west of town was silent. A pair of Canadian Pacific diesels led another eastbound train out of the tunnel at Welch, but they were pulling auto racks.
Canadian Pacific (on NS); Welch, W.Va.; November 22, 2015
After dark a three-unit helper set headed west, looking to tie onto an eastbound coal train at Farm (west of Welch). The west-facing unit was Norfolk Southern's "Nickel Plate Road" heritage unit, one of 20 such units painted to honor the predecessor railroads of NS. We saw the special diesel exiting the tunnel at Big Four between Kimball and Welch.
Norfolk Southern; Big Four, W.Va.; November 22, 2015
Another of the heritage units was in the helper pool, as well. The Lehigh Valley heritage unit led a two-unit set of helpers west at Big Four, meeting an eastbound coal train at the tunnel.
Norfolk Southern; Big Four, W.Va.; November 22, 2015
Despite the loss of coal traffic, the Pocahontas District still sees a few trains. The line had its tunnels enlarged a few years ago to allow for the passage of double-stack container trains, as the route does provide a direct line from the midwest to the ports of Virginia. A double-stack train was heading west as it passed under the signals at Eckman.
Norfolk Southern; Eckman, W.Va.; November 23, 2015
Changes are coming to the railroad. Not only are traffic patterns shifting as coal diminishes, but the railroad's signal system is being upgraded for the implementation of Positive Train Control. This means the classic color position light (CPL) signals that were a hallmark of the Norfolk & Western are being replaced. At Keystone a set of CPLs stand with their modern replacements towering over them.
Norfolk Southern; Keystone, W.Va.; November 23, 2015
All around McDowell County are signs of towns that are shrinking. Schools and churches that are no longer used can be found in almost every town. A Norfolk Southern light engine set, heading west to help a train back over the grade to Bluefield, drifted away under the church at Eckman.
Norfolk Southern; Eckman, W.Va.; November 23, 2015
More locomotives are needed to bring trains east over the grade from Farm to Bluefield than are needed to take trains west. Thus, light engine moves are sometimes found taking locomotives back west to balance power. A westbound set passes under the abandoned school at Eckman.
Norfolk Southern; Eckman, W.Va.; November 23, 2015
When the Norfolk & Western built this piece of railroad, they didn't mess around. There aren't any large bridges on the line, as the railroad generally stayed in the bottom of the valleys and followed the river (the Tug Fork in particular). But when the river made a horseshoe bend around a mountain, the railroad simply dug through the mountain and met the river again on the other side. Thus, tunnels are numerous. A westbound helper set was heading into Hemphill Tunnel No. 2 west of Welch; at Hemphill the railroad goes through a tunnel, pops out briefly to cross the river on a low bridge, and pops back into another tunnel immediately.
Norfolk Southern; Hemphill, W.Va.; November 23, 2015
We weren't seeing many trains, especially loaded coal trains, so when a westbound helper set left Bluefield and passed through Welch it got our hopes up. Alas, an eastbound train never showed up for the units to push back east. The Nickel Plate Road heritage unit did the honors of leading the helper set west.
Norfolk Southern; Welch, W.Va.; November 23, 2015
Late in the afternoon of our second day on the "Pokey" we finally saw a westbound empty coal train emerging from the tunnel at Welch. The tracks exit the tunnel and immediately cross the Tug Fork.
Norfolk Southern; Welch, W.Va.; November 23, 2015
With the day winding down and the shadows in the mountains growing deep, it was time to head east. The sun was still peeking over the hills at Bluefield, where the Lehigh Valley heritage unit sat waiting for a helper call that did not come on this day. The large coaling tower is from the days when Norfolk & Western steam dominated the mountains. Now, it sits silent. Sadly, all of Bluefield and the Pocahontas District is silent for long stretches at a time, as coal only trickles out of the region.
Norfolk Southern; Bluefield, W.Va.; November 23, 2015
Photos from this post can be purchased here.

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Newton, New Jersey, United States

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