Visiting Stony Beach

The Stony Beach grain elevator

It has been a long time since I was in the Regina, Saskatchewan area… August 2015, I guess!

A member of my wife’s family passed away and we had to travel to Saskatchewan for the funeral. We spent a few days in Regina to attend the funeral in Moose Jaw, and to catch up with her extended family, who are scattered across the western provinces. It’s funny how weddings and funerals are where the family comes together.

Since we were there for a few days, I negotiated some time to go railfanning for two mornings. I had my eye on the former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool grain elevator in Stony Beach, as well as a few elevators relatively near to Regina. I had already been along the Stewart Southern Railway and photographed the elevators down to Stoughton, but there are plenty more near Regina to see.

I set out before sunrise, headed for Belle Plaine, Saskatchewan, then north to Stony Beach. The CP main line runs through Belle Plaine and they have a yard there to service the Mosaic potash mine. I spotted a pair of CP switchers working the yard.

CP 3031 and 3048 at Belle Plaine

It was still pretty dark, so I used ISO 3200, f/4.0 and 1/40s as my camera settings to get some kind of photo.

It was quite cold outside, below -20C, so many of my photos were taken from the car. Given the low light, I used the window’s edge or the side mirror as a “tripod” to rest the camera’s lens on for some stability so I could use low shutter speeds.

A short drive north from Belle Plaine brought me to the hamlet of Stony Beach.

Stony Beach

The grain elevator at Stony Beach

I really like that old wooden elevator. Those Saskatchewan Wheat Pool logos almost look new!

Stored grain cars at Stony Beach

Stony Beach is on the CN Central Butte subdivision between Regina and Moose Jaw. There’s a spur just west of here to the giant Mosaic potash solution mine at Belle Plaine.

I saw an old church and what might be an old railway section building in the town as well. I wrote a bit about it on the blog The View From Here.

Might be a railway building?
Might be a railway building?

After I was done taking photos there, I headed back south to the CP main line. I paused there to take photos of a new industry at Belle Plaine.

Ilta Grain

Ilta Grain and their locomotive
Ilta Grain and their locomotive

Ilta Grain completed this new state-of-the-art specialty crop cleaning and processing facility in late 2016. This is nearly identical to one near Saskatoon. Ilta purchased four facilities from Parkland Grain in early 2012 and Belle Plaine was their 7th.

Ilta Grain at Belle Plaine
Ilta Grain at Belle Plaine

They appear to “stuff” containers with product, as there are quite a few containers on site. Companies have been shipping specialty grain in containers for the past several years. CN is promoting it. I found this article from 2007 discussing the technique.

The Belle Plaine facility has a 120 car rail car loop and their own locomotive, HLCX 3839. Note the odd horn above the cab.

HLCX 3839 in Belle Plaine
HLCX 3839 in Belle Plaine

HLCX 3839 is a GP38-2, originally built as Conrail 8276 and wearing a blue “Operation Lifesaver” scheme. It was acquired by Helm sometime between 2006 and 2010 and painted into their generic solid red scheme.

After photographing the locomotive, I carried on west toward Moose Jaw.

Pasqua

The G3 grain elevator at Pasqua
The G3 grain elevator at Pasqua

I knew that G3, the company that used to be known as the Canadian Wheat Board, had built a new grain elevator near Pasqua. I took this photo of the Pasqua grain elevator from the highway. Note the grain cars in the loop track. They had a CP locomotive on them, presumably doing some loading.

I spotted an eastbound intermodal train, so I decided to turn around and chase it back toward Regina. My thought was to get it passing the grain elevator at Pense.

As I drove past Belle Plaine again, I saw a Union Pacific locomotive coupled to a CP locomotive in the yard. No time to get it!

Unfortunately for me, the highway was pretty slippery so I wasn’t able to safely drive at the speed limit. At a reduced speed, I made it to Pense not much before the train arrived. I parked and ran with my camera to try to get the elevator in the shot.

Alas, I didn’t have time to change lenses so I still had the “long” 70-200mm lens on. This didn’t allow me to get the elevator and train together, so I settled for a shot like this. It’s unfortunate that I caught it with the support for the safety lines right above the loco.

CP 8771 passing the Pense grain elevator
CP 8771 passing the Pense grain elevator

I panned the lead locomotive, CP 8771, as it went by.

CP 8771 at speed
CP 8771 at speed

As the train kept rolling past, I kept backing up to try to get the whole elevator in the shot. The mid-train locomotive, CP 8509, rolled by in a cloud of snow. By the time the tail end locomotive came into view, I was far enough back to get the elevator in.

CSX passing the Pense grain elevator
CSX passing the Pense grain elevator

The tail end locomotive was CSX 3445. This is a GE ET44AH, which is a lot of letters! (Evolution series, Tier 4, 4400 horsepower, AC traction, Heavy). According to Wikipedia, the “H” is a CSX-specific designation for locomotives that have very high tractive effort at low speeds.

I just liked how it looked in the blowing snow.

Snowy times for CSX 3445
Snowy times for CSX 3445

After the train passed, I walked back to my van. I dug into my pocket to get my car keys out…

No keys.

I checked my other pockets…

No keys.

I said a bad word, then tried to decide what I would do next. I had to be back in Regina by 10:30 AM and here I was in Pense at 9:30 with no car keys.

I tried to remain calm. I retraced my steps – easy enough in the fresh snow – and thank goodness, I found my keys.

Car keys in the snow
Car keys in the snow

I’m glad the snow wasn’t deeper!

Once I was back in my van, I figured I still had some time – provided I didn’t lose my keys – so I headed back to Belle Plaine to try to photograph that Union Pacific locomotive I saw earlier.

What’s UP in Belle Plaine?

By the bins
By the bins

When I arrived, the two locomotives were in motion, slowly rolling west through the yard. I went to a nearby crossing to photograph them as they passed.

UP 5527 at a rural crossing
UP 5527 at a rural crossing

They appeared to be backing onto a string of grain cars. There were quite a few people in safety vests on the ground observing. I think there were some trainee conductors in the mix as there were some green vests there. I didn’t linger and, out of respect for their privacy, I didn’t photograph the people there.

That was the end of the railfanning morning for me. I headed back to Regina to meet up with my family.

Just One More Thing

The life celebration for my wife’s grandmother, Helen Cooper, was very moving and there were a lot of laughs. I like that format a lot better than a traditional funeral. I think it’s better to celebrate someone’s life. Helen was quite a character. Here she was in 2009 listening to Lady Gaga with my youngest son.

Just wait to the next day of railfanning… a trip down the CP Weyburn subdivision!

Generosity and Thievery

CP 8144 splitting the uprights
CP 8144 splitting the uprights

I’ve always thought that photos are for sharing. I’ve never seen the point of taking a photo, then keeping the negative (or digital file) to yourself and never showing it to others. If that’s your thing, great. It’s everyone’s choice, but my choice is to share.

Sometimes, though, sharing can backfire. Here are a few stories.

Misunderstandings

I was recently approached by a non-profit organization looking to use some of my photos for their outreach program. I fully support this organization’s mission and I agreed to share some of my photos. I won’t name this organization.

However, while we were in a negotiating state, they went ahead and used one of my photos without credit.

I never thought any malice was involved, but I was angry that said photo was used without any credit, despite being assured that credit would be given for all photos used.

I emailed them, they emailed me, and the misunderstanding was cleared up, but their share and my initial reaction were both poorly done and the damage was done.

I’ve learned a lesson from that, and it’s this: approach these situations with generosity in my heart, rather than miserliness.

Every photographer has been offered “credit” for use of their photos, rather than actual payment, but in some cases, credit is all I want. I’ve shared photos and stories with a few Canadian rail magazines with the understanding that I will be paid nothing, other than maybe a free copy of the magazine.

Anyway, I was in the wrong, and I messed up a chance to work with an organization I respect. I have to earn that back.

CN 2315 at Newton, MB
CN 2315 at Newton, MB

Outright Thievery

I’ve written more than 2600 posts on Confessions of a Train Geek and a dozen or so here so far. My posts have been stolen a few times. In the past, sites have taken the lead part of the post and posted it on their own site, with a link to my site. I think that might have helped them with Google at some point, but now it doesn’t.

You may have noticed that some of my previous posts referred to a certain Australian site, who copied several dozen of my posts in their entirety, and posted them on their site, photos included. I’m not linking to that site or any articles, because I don’t want to give them any boost in Google.

I tried reaching out to them to politely ask to have them taken down. I emailed, I messaged on Facebook and on their own site, and I even called and spoke to someone in friggin’ Australia. Nothing happened, and every message was been ignored.

What finally worked was commenting on my posts on their site. Their administrator messaged me and we had a short conversation. They agreed to stop reposting my articles but they haven’t taken the old ones down. I’m still not happy but it’s not worth my time to pursue it further.

By the way, mine was not the only blog they are stealing. The excellent North Country Trains is another, and so is Model Railroad Hobbyist.  I’ve reached out to both of them to let them know.

Generosity, Rebuffed

A railway company recently reached out to me to ask for permission to use one of my photos on one of their web pages. My normal inclination is to ask for a payment for use of the photo, as I believe if my photo is used for profit, I should be paid for it. In this case, I decided to be generous and not ask for money… just credit.

I said I would be happy to allow my photo to be used for this web page, as long as I was credited somewhere on the page with a link back to my site. No money needed to change hands, just a little credit.

I was told that wasn’t possible, but that I could enter their photo contest if I wished.

I don’t generally enter photo contests, because the rules of most photo contests stipulate that they can use your photos for any purpose they like, without compensation. See my rule above about for-profit use of my photos.

Needless to say, I asked for compensation, and they went with another photo instead.

Generosity, Accepted

Recently I had another request to use a photograph of mine. This was from a specialty magazine, basically a non-profit or not-for-much-profit magazine, and they wanted to use one grain elevator photo to illustrate an article.

I made the same offer to them that I did to the railway company above, and the magazine agreed to give credit including a link to my web site, and they’ll send me a copy of the issue it gets used in. I’m happy.

It’s Not All Bad

I don’t want to sound like I’m ungrateful for the opportunities that come my way. I’m grateful, but I want to be treated fairly.

It’s not all bad. You can read about some of the “good stuff” – including my first physical print sale – over at one of my other blogs, Photography Side Hustle.

Late last year, I was contacted to license several of my YouTube videos. That was new to me and the funds went toward my new drone. That was nice!

The Future

I’m going to continue to share my photos and videos, with a spirit of generosity. I’m sure there will be more thievery – it’s the Internet, after all – but I’d rather share and take that chance than keep my photos hidden on a hard drive.

Thanks for reading.

Zoom Is A Railfan’s Best Friend

A Canadian Pacific Railway train stretching across the prairie
A Canadian Pacific Railway train stretching across the prairie

I think one of the best tools for a railfan photographer is a zoom lens.

With a zoom lens (aka a telephoto lens), you can get a vastly different perspective than you can with a wide angle lens. The “reach” of a zoom means you can isolate the subject from a cluttered background, or photograph a train that’s far away without compromising quality.

As an example, I offer the above photo of CP 8826 leading an intermodal train between Indian Head and Sintaluta, Saskatchewan. I took that on January 30 as we were traveling toward Regina.

I had my Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens on my Canon 77D DSLR camera , with my iPhone 8 Plus for the wide angle view. I photographed the train with the camera as it approached, then switched to the phone to get a few wide angle shots.

The same train, photographed with an iPhone 8
The same train, photographed with an iPhone 8

I hope you’ll agree that the lead photo – taken with the telephoto lens – is a more interesting photo. I like the phone photo just fine, but it’s a pretty common “wedgie” photo, taken by thousands of railfans everywhere. There’s nothing unique about it.

I know you can “zoom” on your phone or camera to crop in, but that’s not a real zoom and you are sacrificing image quality. It’s called “digital zoom” and it’s basically cropping the photo as you take it. You really should have optical zoom, like a zoom lens.

Some of the better digital video cameras have some impressive optical zoom, like this Sony AX53 video camera. 4K video and 20X optical zoom. Impressive!

Downsides

There are a few downsides to having a zoom / telephoto lens on your camera. The first is a lack of flexibility. More than once, I’ve been “caught” with a telephoto lens on and there’s no time to switch lenses. You can get around that with a lens that covers a very wide range, like a 28-300mm lens or the popular 18-135mm lens if you’re a Canon user.

The second downside for a zoom lens is increased shakiness / decreased sharpness when you’re “zoomed out”. Photography has many “rules” and one is the Reciprocal Rule: your shutter speed should not be slower than the inverse of the focal length. So for my 70-200mm lens, zoomed out to 200mm focal length, I should not shoot at slower than 1/200s.

I will readily admit that I break that “rule” all the time.

Would You, Could You, With a Fox?

A very grainy fox
A very grainy fox

Check out this cute fox I photographed near Belle Plaine, Saskatchewan – at 1/25s at 200mm focal length. This wouldn’t have been possible with a wide angle lens, or a phone’s camera.

The image is very grainy, because I photographed it at a ridiculous ISO of 6400 because it was before sunrise. 1/25s, f/4.0, 200mm, ISO 6400… pushing everything to get some kind of photo.

What you don’t see is that I threw away at least half of the photos I took of the fox because they were not sharp at all. When I’m photographing with a zoom lens at a slow shutter speed, I take “extra” photos with the expectation that I will delete a lot of them because they are not sharp. I’m fortunate that I’m not back in the film days when you wouldn’t think of doing that!

I encourage you to consider getting a real zoom lens. It will be a powerful tool to help you take more interesting photos, and to get photos that you would otherwise not be able to take.

New Cars for the Rocky Mountaineer

The Rocky Mountaineer is getting some “new” cars. On January 21, 2019 I spotted this pair of cars in Symington Yard in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I recognized these cars as belonging to the Charlevoix tourist train operation in Quebec.

Closeup of RMRX 202

The “RMRX” reporting marks on these two cars (RMRX 201 and 202) told me that these now belonged to Rocky Mountain Railtours, the owners of the Rocky Mountaineer.

The Charlevoix tourist operation was purchased by Group le Massif in 2008. Previously it was a shortline, le Chemin de fer de Charlevoix (CFC). Group le Massif operated a ski mountain and wanted to run a tourist train. They purchased two ex New Brunswick East Coast Railway RS-18 locomotives, NBEC 1821 and NBEC 1868, to pull the train.

I guess that didn’t work out, as the conventional passenger train has been replaced by two pairs of DB Class 628.1 diesel multiple unit (DMU) self-propelled cars.

Baie St. Paul
Train de Charleoix self-propelled cars. Photo by Brad Fagan.

These cars are former Southern Pacific Pullman bilevel cars. They were refurbished and the second level was removed. Photos I’ve seen of the interiors show a very open car, with some reinforcing beams in the upper portion and lots of light through the large windows. I imagine that’s why the new owners were interested in them.

This video gives you the “onboard experience” of those cars, plus a few exterior views while they were in service.

There is writing on the side of the cars, from the poem “Complot d’enfants” (Plot of Children) by Canadian singer-songwriter Félix Leclerc.

“Nous partirons seuls, loin, pendant que nos parents dorment. Nous prendrons le chemin, nous prendrons notre enfance, un peu d’eau et de pain et beaucoup d’espérance. Nous sortirons par l’horizon.” My rough interpretation is that it is a plan by children to sneak out (taking some bread and water) and go exploring the world.

I spotted two more of these cars on January 29 in Symington – RMRX 405 and a generator car, RMRX 302.

RMRX 405 in Symington Yard
Generator car RMRX 302 in Winnipeg, Manitoba

The large vents on the side, and mufflers on the roof, show that RMRX 302 is a generator car. Notice the emergency cutoff valve to the right of the rightmost vent.

The Rocky Mountaineer already runs generator cars with its current passenger trains, so this will look right at home.

Generator car on the end of the Rocky Mountaineer, Kamloops, BC, May 2017

I reached out to Rocky Mountain Railtours via their Twitter account and they confirmed these were on the way to Kamloops.

My 2014 Canadian Trackside Guide says they had 10 cars – two cab-coaches, two generators, and six coaches, probably organized into two trainsets. Most of the cars were built for the Chicago & Northwestern, then went to METRA, the Chicago commuter rail organization. The two generator cars were built for CN, then ran on VIA and then Amtrak.

  • 201, cab-coach, originally CNW 171
  • 202, cab-coach, originally CNW 175
  • 301, generator/baggage, originally CN 9260
  • 302, generator/baggage, originally CN 9280
  • 401, coach, originally CNW 81
  • 402, coach, originally CNW 86
  • 403, coach, originally CNW 91
  • 404, coach, originally CNW 102
  • 405, coach, originally CNW 109
  • 406, coach, originally CNW 111

I’m excited to see these cars in service, once they have been repainted and refurbished for the Rocky!

Just One More Thing

I am currently reading On Photography by Susan Sontag. It is a very thought-provoking series of essays on photography by the acclaimed American writer. Expect to see some quotes from her soon!

VIA 2 And Much More

VIA 2 at sunset
VIA 2 at sunset

On August 30, 2018 I went out in the evening to catch the eastbound VIA Rail “Canadian” coming into Winnipeg. It was a beautiful evening, and I was hoping to get a nice sunset.

The Rivers Subdivision Parking Lot

I hit the road a little early and caught my first train, CN 2962 East, stopped at Hall Road… around mile 11.

CN 2962... waiting... waiting...
CN 2962… waiting… waiting…

The next train I found was CN 8834 East, stopped near mile 15.

CN 8834 - stopped
CN 8834 – stopped

The third train I encountered was CN 2202 East, stopped at mile 18. It basically was just coming to a stop.

CN 2202 East
CN 2202 East

There was a storm on the way. Look at the photo above – grey, cloudy sky. The photo below, taken 10 seconds later – some blue.

I thought this tank car looked interesting, since it has no valving at the top. It has a “1951” placard, which is refrigerated liquid argon.

This cloud made me a bit nervous.

Fortunately, there was no problem with the weather other than some brisk winds.

I decided on a new location, around mile 22 or so of the Rivers sub. I had never been past mile 20.5 in this area. There was a small private crossing that seemed perfect to wait for the train.

VIA 2

VIA Rail's "Canadian" at sunset
VIA Rail’s “Canadian” at sunset

VIA 2 came rolling along at 7:20 PM – about an hour late. They were really moving!

VIA 6433 in the lead
VIA 6433 in the lead

I thought I’d try a pan shot as it went by, but that… didn’t go well.

Not my best work
Not my best work

The “going away” shot was better but not as sharp as I would have liked.

Pretty good
Pretty good

Here’s the video for the train – short and sweet.

After they passed, I threw my gear in the car and headed east. I wasn’t exactly chasing VIA, but I made an effort, since I had to go that way anyway.

As I drove east, I saw that VIA 2 wasn’t going very fast. I had some good green lights and I was able to get to St. James Junction ahead of the train.

VIA 2 Redux

You can see that the light was getting low, and of course I was shooting toward the sun. I did my best!

I did manage to get my video camera set up – here’s the video.

VIA 2 through Winnipeg

After VIA passed, I decided to head over to the Waverley Street crossing to see how the overpass construction was going. You can read about the project here. It’s basically digging an underpass under the CN Rivers subdivision to remove the level crossing.

It was budgeted to cost a ridiculous $155 million, but things went well so far and it is now forecast to cost “only” $121 million. I still think there are so many better things to spend that much money on, but nobody asked me!

A shoo-fly diversion was put in to divert rail traffic while a new rail bridge was put in. That is done and the trains are now running over the new bridge. There’s still lots of road work to be done and the underpass is a long way from being completed.

Waverley

CN 8957 passing through the construction at Waverley Street
CN 8957 passing through the construction at Waverley Street

As I parked, I heard a train coming by. I shot CN 8957 going through the construction mess. I ran over to take more photos as the westbound train continued by.

Mid train unit passing Waverley Street
Mid train unit passing Waverley Street

In the photo below, you can see the shoo-fly diversion behind the last grain car.

The tail end of the train, with the shoo-fly visible
The tail end of the train, with the shoo-fly visible

After the train passed, I took a few photos to document the area, then headed back to my car. Another train came rolling by so I snapped a few photos from a distance.

CN passing the construction
CN passing the construction

It was a successful and fun evening of railfanning!

Just One More Thing

Early in the morning of February 4th, CP train 301 derailed near Field, British Columbia between the Spiral Tunnels. The three crew members on board (engineer Andrew Dockrell, conductor Dylan Paradis, and trainee Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer) all died when the majority of the train derailed, and the lead locomotive plunged off a bridge more than 60 metres into the Kicking Horse River.

There’s a GoFundMe page set up to raise funds to support their families. Please consider contributing.

My condolences to their families.

CN’s New Power

Over the past few years, CN’s traffic has grown significantly, which has led to a need for more trains to move this traffic. This means more locomotives and more crews. CN has been hiring and training new conductors all across Canada and the US, and they’ve been buying new locomotives and leasing locomotives as well. This article will talk about CN’s new, and “new to them”, locomotives.

260 New GE Locomotives

CN 3807, one of CN's 260 new locomotives
CN 3807, one of CN’s 260 new locomotives

In late December, CN announced that they would purchase 200 new locomotives from GE Transportation. These locomotives are Evolution series locomotives (GE ES44AC and ET44AC) and are produced at the GE Manufacturing Solutions facility in Fort Worth, Texas. The locomotives were to be delivered starting in 2018 and continuing through into 2020.

The first of these locomotives, CN 3806, rolled out of the plant in early June 2018. This was not the first ES44AC that CN owned. They received 22 of them (CN 2984-2999 and CN 3800-3805) starting in the fall of 2017. Presumably CN was happy with their performance!

CN's new locomotives feature the "aboriginal affairs" logo
CN’s new locomotives feature the “aboriginal affairs” logo

In September 2018, CN announced that they added 60 more locomotives to that order, for a total of 260 locomotives.

I expect to see these new GEs a lot trackside! The crews seem to like them.

Leased Road Power

Citirail leased units CREX 1518 on a CN oil train
Citirail leased units CREX 1518 on a CN oil train

CN also leased a lot of road power in late 2017 – around 100 locomotives. These included new ES44ACs from Citirail (see above), ex Santa Fe SD75Ms from Progress Rail, and a variety of locomotives from GE Capital Leasing.

Ex Santa Fe SD75M now owned by Progress Rail
Ex Santa Fe SD75M now owned by Progress Rail

I’m told that a fair number of these units were “less than reliable”, but when you’re power short, you take what you can get. CN recently started returning some of these leased locomotives.

GECX 9130, ex Union Pacific UP 9369
GECX 9130, ex Union Pacific UP 9369

The profusion of leased locomotives has been very exciting for railfans! It has been very interesting to see the variety of power on CN this past year, with many trains having at least one leased locomotive. Now that the big GEs are arriving, the leasers will go back, but it was fun while it lasted.

Blog partner Eric Gagnon wrote of an earlier time when CN leased a lot of locomotives – between 1994 and 1998!

Leased Switchers

GATX leased locomotives on the Stewart Southern
GATX leased locomotives on the Stewart Southern

CN has also started leasing some switching locomotives. I’m told they have leased around 40 blue GP38-2 locomotives from GATX. I haven’t seen any on CN, but they are the same look as the locos I saw on the Stewart Southern Railway.

CN’s current switcher fleet is getting very long in the tooth. Their own GP38-2 fleet is pretty old, and judging by the look of the humpyard dogs in Symington Yard here in Winnipeg, in dire need of refurbishment. They have some GP9s remaining but they are also dwindling – and old – and most of CN’s GMD1s have been retired.

Here in Winnipeg – and elsewhere – a few SD40 locomotives have been repurposed as hump units but there aren’t many of those either.

One of the major problems is that no major locomotive manufacturer is offering new 4 axle locomotives. Republic Locomotive offers their RX500, but I don’t know that they can produce enough locomotives to replace the switcher fleets of any Class 1 railway.

There are plenty of companies remanufacturing existing locomotives, and I think that’s the way CN and others are going to have to go.

What leased or new locomotives have you seen? What’s your favourite?

Eight Locomotives, One Train

Eight locomotives, one train!
Eight locomotives, one train!

Saturday, September 5th, 2018 was a big railfan day for me – and not just for flying my drone.

OIL and Foreign Power

The Rock Island Lives!
The Rock Island Lives!

My youngest son was busy downtown for a while mid-day, so I had an hour and a half on my hands. As I usually do, I drove up to the CP yard to see what was going on there. I found an ex Rock Island car in the yard, now lettered FURX 815447. There was an ex Chicago and North Western car, AEX 21874, a few cars down. There wasn’t anything else going on in the yard.

Normally I would go to the CP shops to see if there was anything interesting there, but there was a long, stopped, oil train in the way. Oil train… hmmm… sometimes there is some foreign power on those, especially on CP.

Sure enough, there were a pair of BNSF engines on the head end on the west end. Unfortunately, there was a big fence in the way…

BNSF 7226 and 9656 in Winnipeg
BNSF 7226 and 9656 in Winnipeg

I like those “Executive” BNSF units.

BNSF 9656 in Winnipeg
BNSF 9656 in Winnipeg

This colour scheme was adopted by the Burlington Northern starting in late 1990. It was applied to some of their business train units, and then new SD70MAC BN 9401 came out with the new scheme. BNSF 9656 is one of that fleet of SD70MACs with the “Grinstein green” and cream colours.

Parked SD90MAC locomotives in Winnipeg
Parked SD90MAC locomotives in Winnipeg

There are still some CP SD90MACs parked in the west end of the yard, near the intermodal facility. 30 of those long-parked units are being rebuilt by Progress Rail into SD70ACU locomotives.

I waited for the train to move, hoping it would get rolling before I had to pick my son up. Fortunately, it did get rolling…

Double-length oil train leaving Winnipeg

It ended up being a double-length oil train – the two BNSF units on the head end, a buffer car, a string of oil tanks, a buffer car – then two more locomotives and more tank cars! The two locos were UP 5552 and CP 8770.

UP 5552 in the middle of an oil train
UP 5552 in the middle of an oil train

I didn’t record the entire train as I was short on time. It was just another hundred tank cars anyway…

Droning On

First train photo by drone
First train photo by drone

In mid afternoon I went out west of Diamond along the CN main line to fly my new DJI Mavic Air drone. As I was unpacking it and getting it ready for flight, I heard a horn from the west and I saw that a grain train was approaching.

Up went the drone, and after I got the hang of flying it a bit, I took a few photos as the train went by. They were certainly nothing fancy, and neither was my technique – snap, rotate, snap, rotate, snap… but that Mavic is a great platform to take photos from!

CN 2644 and 2177 from the drone
CN 2644 and 2177 from the drone

These were JPEG photos, not RAW format. I’m hoping the RAW format from the drone will allow me to brighten the shadows more. We’ll see.

The "going away" shot from the DJI drone
The “going away” shot from the DJI drone

I had my video camera running on the tripod, and you’ll see and hear my drone buzzing around.

First “real” drone flight

The Eight

I packed up my drone and started heading east. As I approached the Perimeter Highway, I saw a westbound train rolling by. After a careful U-turn (the roads were slippery), I overtook the head end and saw that they had eight locomotives. This I had to photograph!

I tried to get far enough ahead of it to take video, but I was in danger of doing what I sometimes do – try to take video and photos at the same time, and do a poor job of both. I decided to just take photographs.

Here’s the consist of this 8 locomotive train. It had four SD70M-2 locomotives, one ES44DC, one SD60, one C44-9W (Dash-9), and a BC Rail C40-8M (Dash-8).

  • CN 2336
  • CN 8938
  • CN 5480
  • CN 8856
  • CN 8865
  • CN 2682
  • CN 8879
  • BCOL 4616

It was an impressive lineup.

Eight locomotives, no waiting - BCOL 4616 and company
Eight locomotives, no waiting – BCOL 4616 and company

As the head end receded, I saw they were meeting an eastbound oil train. I relocated a bit farther east so I could see the oil train approach.

More Oil

CN 3031 leading an eastbound oil train toward Winnipeg
CN 3031 leading an eastbound oil train toward Winnipeg

The oil train had CN 3031 on the head end, with an old SOUTHERN hopper car as a buffer car.

SOUTHERN 88845
SOUTHERN 88845

I watched the oil train roll by. In the distance, I saw something bright and yellow on the other end of the train. It turned out to be UP 8703, an SD70ACe.

UP 8703 on the tail end of an oil train
UP 8703 on the tail end of an oil train

I had to get another photo of that Union Pacific locomotive. They weren’t going very fast, so I was able to get to Hall Road and take a few panning shots of the UP loco as it rolled by.

I was pretty happy with this one
I was pretty happy with this one

It was a good day!

Just One More Thing

I just finished reading Burlington’s Zephyrs by Karl Zimmermann. I didn’t know much about the Zephyr trains other than the weird shovel nose power units, and the intimate relationship between the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy RR and the Budd Company.

This was a great book. Zimmermann went into great detail on the origins of the first Zephyr, its tours around the country, and the follow on Zephyr trains. Special attention was paid to the revolutionary Vista-Dome cars that the CB&Q and especially the California Zephyr were known for.

Highly recommended! Buy it on Amazon or find it in your local bookstore or library.

First Impressions of the DJI Mavic Air Drone

DJI Mavic Air drone
DJI Mavic Air drone

I’ve wanted a drone for a long time. I’ve seen drone photos and video from talented railfan photographers like Jeff Wizniak, and I appreciate the change in perspective that a drone can bring.

I had some “found money” late in 2018. I looked at a few different DJI drones – I considered a discounted Phantom 4 – but I decided on the DJI Mavic Air. I liked it for these reasons:

  • Very small size
  • 4K video
  • Control via remote controller OR phone/tablet
  • “Reasonable” price

The size was definitely important to me. It’s small enough when folded up that I can keep it in my camera bag all the time.

I expect to have it with me every time I go out to photograph trains, so that if the conditions are good and I am in an area where drones can be flown, up it goes. I know that if I have to think about bringing it, it’ll be left behind.

So… what do I think of it?

I like it. The size is good – what I expected – and it’s easy to bring along. So far I’ve only flown it a few times, with only one “real” flight where I consciously took photos with it, so I don’t have a good feel for battery life yet. I only have one battery but I expect I will buy one or two more. They are rated for about 25 minutes of flight, so one battery won’t be enough for any serious outings.

The photo quality is… well, it’s hard to know. The photos I took were JPG photos, not “raw” format, and it wasn’t a great day for photos anyway. You be the judge.

First drone train photos
First drone train photos

It’s backlit so it’s not going to be great, and since it wasn’t in RAW format, I couldn’t do a lot about the shadows. It’s a 12 megapixel camera, so it’s not going to be as good as my Canon 77D, but it has enough pixels for me.

My biggest frustrations to date have been with the controller and my phone.

The remote controller looks like a video game controller, with two control sticks and a few buttons. There is a cradle to hold your phone and a cable to connect it to the controller. I had a lot of problems syncing my phone to the controller, and reading through forums, I discovered that the supplied DJI cable is crap and you should use your own cable to plug into the standard USB port in the controller. Once I did that, I had zero problems connecting.

The other problem I had with the controller was that it kept beeping at me, with no indication of why. Worse, I couldn’t actually fly the drone. I could auto take off and auto land, but that was it… no lateral movement or altitude changes were recognized.

More forum searching suggested that I needed to calibrate the controller. It’s a quick procedure to move the control sticks in all directions so the controller knows where the physical limits are. Once I did that, the beeping went away and it let me actually fly the drone.

My frustration with my phone is due to the rapidly failing battery in my iPhone 6. It basically shuts down whenever it is cold, within a few minutes of being in a cold environment. This can be a problem when you are flying with it! Ask me how I know…

In the video below, I launched the drone with the “auto takeoff” function in the app on my phone. In previous flights I used the auto land, but in this first “real” flight, my phone shut down so my only control was with the remote controller. I tried landing it but the drone is a little too smart for its own good…

First real drone flight

There are cameras on the front, back and bottom of the DJI Mavic Air for collision avoidance. The bottom camera looks at the ground and the onboard software decides whether it looks like a good spot to land. If it doesn’t think you should land there, it will resist – and if the app is online, it will tell you. In my case, it basically hovered when I was pushing the stick down to bring the drone to the ground.

I was seriously wondering what I would do if I couldn’t get it to land. I knew the battery would run out eventually, and the drone will land when the battery is critically low. That still didn’t seem like a good option to me.

Anyway, after a few tries, I got it to land by holding the stick down after it started resisting. The drone landed safely and automatically shut itself off. WHEW.

I’m working on the phone problem and I may end up getting a cheap Android tablet just for flying the drone.

Now I am waiting for warmer weather so I can go fly my DJI Mavic Air again! Much more to come…

Book Review: Railways: Their Life and Times

Railways: Their Life And Times

I received “Railways: Their Life and Times” as a Christmas gift in 2018. To be fair, I did ask for it on my Amazon wish list… and I’m glad I did.

I’m not sure why I initially put it on my list. The cover certainly doesn’t appeal to a non-steam fan like myself. I guess I saw that someone I trust recommended it.

The book is basically a book of semi-random facts about railways all across the world. Chapters on specific countries’ railways (e.g. Canada, Albania, Russia, the list goes on) are intermingled with more “themed” chapters like “Railways at War” or “The Gauge Question”.

It’s not a book that you read in one setting. It’s great to have on the coffee table, so you can pick it up, read a few pages, and put it down again to resume later that day… or week.

I think this book makes a great gift – to me – and it may make a good gift to a railfan you know.

Buy it on Amazon

As always, my Amazon links are affiliate links, meaning that if you buy something after following the link, I get a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Mission… Accomplished?

The new rail inspection portal at Nattress in Manitoba
The new rail inspection portal at Nattress in Manitoba

You may recall that I went out on a mission to find the new rail inspection portal at Nattress, west of Winnipeg. You might also recall that I didn’t find it.

Well, I did some research, and consulted a few people, and determined exactly where it was. Consulting Google satellite views, I wasn’t sure that I could get right up to it but I could get close. On a cold December 29 morning, I set off before sunrise to find it.

The Winnipeg West Parking Lot

CN 2615 and CN 5467 at Hall Road

I started out along the CN Rivers subdivision. As usual, there were a series of eastbound CN trains waiting to come into the city. CN is very busy these days!

The first of three trains was just past Hall Road (around mile 11). I was too lazy to get out of my car, so I just pulled off to the side and photographed it there. See above.

I should mention that it was pretty cold out. At this time my car was saying it was -17C outside. The Environment Canada web site says the air temperature in Winnipeg was -18C at 9 AM with a wind chill of -29C. That’s brisk.

The next train was an oil train at Wescana Street, around mile 15, west of the CN-CP diamond. This train had no buffer cars – not required in Canada – and had ex CSX unit GECX 7342 as the second locomotive. It says “CW40-8” on the side under the numbers.

CN 8947 waiting at Wescana Street, west of Winnipeg
CN 8947 waiting at Wescana Street, west of Winnipeg
GECX 7342 on an oil train outside Winnipeg
GECX 7342 on an oil train outside Winnipeg

The third train was just west of mile 20, with lone unit IC 2711 at the point.

A CN freight train with IC 2711 leading.
A CN freight train with IC 2711 leading.

I left the tracks and drove north to the Trans-Canada Highway to continue west. I passed Elie with no sign of trains.

CN 2259 East

Blowing snow!
Blowing snow!

As I approached Fortier (between Elie and Oakville), I spotted a train coming out of Oakville. I looked for a place to get back to the tracks for a closer look. In the prairies, there are cross roads every mile, so it’s not hard to find a road that meets the tracks. In retrospect, I should have gone one more road west to get closer to a bend in the tracks.

I stopped and fiddled a bit with my tripod, losing time. I abandoned the idea of video and just took stills as the train rolled by, casting a cloud of loose snow in its wake.

CN 2259 and GECX 7365 near Fortier, Manitoba
CN 2259 and GECX 7365 near Fortier, Manitoba

The train had CN 2259 leading, with leaser GECX 7365 behind it.

I did enjoy this BC Rail flatcar full of wheels.

BCOL 990340 with a lot of wheels
BCOL 990340 with a lot of wheels

After the train passed, I continued on to Oakville. There were no trains in sight, so I carried on west along provincial road 331 through Newton to “road 31W”. This area is called “Curtis” on Google Maps, but if you head north on 31W you reach what CN calls Nattress.

Nattress

Not quite close enough
Not quite close enough

As I drove north on 31W I saw a train was rolling east. I knew I wasn’t going to get to the tracks before the head end passed, and the road was snow covered as you can see in the blurry photo above. I drove as far as I felt I could, then pulled over and jumped out to snap that long distance photo using my telephoto lens. It was CN 2263 East.

I saw the portal from that area, and took the lead photo of this blog post. Here’s a CSI-enhanced version.

A closeup of the rail inspection portal
A closeup of the rail inspection portal

I believe that’s a reflection of the lights in the portal visible in the “mouth” at right.

The eastbound train had a distributed braking boxcar on the rear. These are a common sight on CN trains in the winter. They have an air compressor in them to help maintain air pressure in the cold, and are now equipped with enough electronics that they behave like a distributed locomotive (DPU) for purposes of braking.

Distributed braking boxcar CN 0035
Distributed braking boxcar CN 0035

There’s a signaled crossing (with gates) on road 31W. I parked a bit south of that and walked up to the crossing. I noted a nice bend in the tracks to the west.

Seems scenic
Seems scenic

That had possibilities!

IC 2708 East

IC 2708 East at Nattress, MB
IC 2708 East at Nattress, MB

Soon I heard a train to the west. I set up the video camera (Canon T1i) on a tripod and waited for the train to arrive. It was led by IC 2708 and CN 2452.

It looked really nice coming around that bend! Since it was overcast, it didn’t matter what side of the track I was on, so I was able to take numerous photos of the train coming around the bend.

I think I like this one the best.

Rounding the curve at Nattress
Rounding the curve at Nattress

I took a few photos of the train as it passed. Not every photo has to have a locomotive in it… or so I’m told. 😉

#noloco
#noloco

It was a solid train of containers, except for the autoracks on the rear.

Autoracks at Nattress
Autoracks at Nattress
Here’s the video

Only a few minutes later, I heard a train coming from the east.

CN 3077 West

Here comes CN 3077
Here comes CN 3077

It was CN 3077 and CN 2036 leading a westbound general freight train.

No Thru Road
No Thru Road

This train also had a distributed braking boxcar, CN 0041. This one was in the middle.

Another distributed braking boxcar
Another distributed braking boxcar

The train disappeared around the curve, but there was another train following fairly close behind it.

CN 8839 West

CN 8839 West
CN 8839 West

It was another westbound general freight train, led by a pair of brutish SD70M-2 locomotives – CN 8839 and 8829.

The brutes at Nattress
The brutes at Nattress

I heard another train to the west, but I checked my watch and I was running out of time. I packed everything up in the car.

I was a little chilled after standing outside for so long, but I had bundled up pretty well. I had proper winter snow boots and thick socks and jeans on my lower half. I wore a T-shirt and hoodie and parka so my core was warm. I had a toque on my head and heavy winter mitts with Little Hotties hand warmers, so my ears and hands were warm.

The one part that wasn’t well covered was my face. When I sat down in the car, I noticed that my nose was pretty pale and numb. That’s not a good thing. I held a hand warmer on my nose for a couple of minutes, and then it turned red – a good sign. I’ve since purchased a balaclava and I will wear that outside on cold days like this to prevent that from happening again. I might look like I’m robbing a bank, but at least I’ll be warm!

CN 2600 West

There's always another
There’s always another

As I drove east along highway 331 toward Newton, I saw the crossing lights come on at the highway crossing. I pulled off to the shoulder and photographed CN 2600 West rolling by.

In the background of one of my photos, I believe I see a small grain elevator at the Elm River Hutterite colony. I never knew that was there… I’ll have to try to get another look some day.

A grain elevator - maybe?
A grain elevator – maybe?

That was five trains in 60 minutes – two eastbounds followed by three westbounds. CN is busy!

CN 2263 East, Again

That boxcar looks familiar...
That boxcar looks familiar…

As I approached Winnipeg, I saw a familiar distributed braking boxcar – CN 0035. The first train that I saw at Nattress was stopped just west of Winnipeg, in one of the “parking spots”. The head end was by Hall Road, with red-white-and-blue BCOL 4610 trailing CN 2263.

BCOL 4610 in Winnipeg in red/white/blue BC Rail livery
BCOL 4610 in Winnipeg in red/white/blue BC Rail livery

There was an interesting load on the train – some very long poles overhanging a flatcar, with a spacer flatcar on each side.

Some very long poles
Some very long poles

Summary

I was able to photograph the portal, so I’m calling it a win. Mission accomplished! Send the troops home!

But seriously, it was a good outing. I saw nine trains in just over three hours, so the quantity was good, and I now know Nattress is a good location for photographing trains!

See Also

Just One More Thing

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Breaking Trains News

Several days after I visited Nattress, there was a collision between two trains at mile 50.2. An eastbound and westbound train collided, and two locomotives from the eastbound derailed, along with eight freight cars from the westbound train. One conductor suffered minor injuries, but fortunately nothing more serious occurred. The location was about 0.5 miles west of the crossing I was at.