A Comedy of Errors

Indicative of how the day went

I went out railfanning early in the morning of March 23, full of hope for a good morning of photographing trains and flying my drone.

You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men often going awry… or, to more accurately quote the Robert Burns poem, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley”

At least the day started well.

A Good Beginning

I set out along the CN Rivers subdivision at sunrise. My thought was to get far enough away from the Winnipeg airport that I could fly my drone – either near Winnipeg or at Elie.

Under current drone regulations, you have to be 5 nautical miles from an aerodrome and you can’t fly in controlled airspace. You basically can’t fly a drone anywhere in Winnipeg at all without a special flight operations certificate (SFOC), and since I don’t have one of those… I have to get out of town to fly.

I stumbled across CN 2843 East right away. I wasn’t in the “drone zone” and I didn’t have time to deploy it anyway, so I just took photos.

CN 2843 at sunrise outside Winnipeg
CN 2843 at sunrise outside Winnipeg

I turned around and took the “going away” glint shot, which I like very much.

Boxcars at sunrise
Boxcars at sunrise

Lest you think CN 2843 was doing all the work, let’s not forget CN 2278 working hard as the mid train DPU.

CN 2278 as mid train DPU
CN 2278 as mid train DPU

That was exciting, and a good start to the day.


I carried on westward. I decided to set up at mile 16.3 at a lightly used crossing. It was too cold to stand outside and wait, so I sat in my car, listening to podcasts.

After a while, I got out to look for trains. There was a westbound coming, a lot closer than I would have liked!

I ran back to my car, grabbed my camera and drone stuff, then ran across the crossing and threw everything down, getting ready to get the drone aloft.

Drone… drone… where’s my drone…

It turned out that in my haste to get in position, I brought the drone’s controller but not the drone itself.

Well, shoot.

I put the controller down and took photos.

CN 3159 at the head of a hopper / centerbeam train
CN 3159 at the head of a hopper / centerbeam train

I always wonder if the crew is laughing at us railfans, fumbling with our gear as they approach. I hope not, but I wouldn’t blame them!

CN 3117 was the mid train unit on this train. It had hoppers on the head end, and empty centerbeam

After that fiasco, I decided to head west and maybe fly the drone outside Elie.

Operator Error

My drone
My drone

Around mile 18, I saw a headlight in the distance, so I backtracked to the same crossing at mile 16.3.

I unpacked the drone and got it aloft, and flew it west a bit to wait for the train to show up. Meanwhile, I got my still camera ready.

The train wasn’t exactly rocketing along, so I had to wait a few minutes. I stopped recording from the drone so I didn’t have several minutes of useless footage.

That turned out to be a mistake.

As the train approached, I turned the recording back on. I turned the drone as the train passed, then I took a few stills with my camera, then flew the drone up a bit.

CN 8856 leading the charge in the snow
CN 8856 leading the charge in the snow

It was about then that I realized that my drone wasn’t actually recording anything.

I had spent a few minutes carefully tracking the train, and flying the drone around, but not recording any of that.

I probably said a bad word. I turned the recording on and recorded the rest of the train. It’s in the video here along with the “before” video and a few stills.


You’ll note from the “thumbnail” above that the train had a bunch of distributed braking boxcars and containers in it. I think these were heading to Transcona for storage, now that it’s warming up and they aren’t needed.

Here they are, from the ground:

Distributed braking boxcars and containers
Distributed braking boxcars and containers

I was more than a little annoyed at this point. Two opportunities for drone photography – both missed. At least I got some flying practice with the last train.

Off to Elie.

Failure to Launch

As I approached Elie, I over took a westbound train. I thought I’d have enough time to get to the grain elevator on the west side of town to fly my drone there. I did, but…

When I went to launch the drone, it refused to launch – insufficient power! All that waiting in the air for the previous train to arrive drained the battery and I only had 25% power remaining. I knew it was low but I had hoped I would have enough to get up in the air and take stills, if nothing else. No dice.

Back to the trusty camera for a pretty backlit photo. I’m not in love with the Moire pattern in the sky.

CN 2432 and GECX 7367 at Elie
CN 2432 and GECX 7367 at Elie

Nice to see a cowl unit leading and a leaser too!

After the train passed, I headed to Portage la Prairie.

Chaos in Portage

As I approached the city, I saw a westbound CP train passing the Tucker grain elevator. I continued on the Trans-Canada Highway around the city to the west side. I meant to take the Can-Oat road off the highway so I could get right to the CP tracks and wait for the train, but I missed it. I took the regular exit instead.

I didn’t see the train yet, and I knew I would be shooting right into the sun. I thought maybe I could get to a crossing I knew where it was at an angle and the sun would be on the side of the train.

It turns out that I didn’t have time for that! One quick U-turn and I was driving back toward Can-Oat Road to try it there. I didn’t get there in time and I watched a CP locomotive and a UP locomotive flash through the crossing. No photos.

I drove toward the centre part of town, thinking I might see a train near the CN or CP stations. As I approached West Tower, I saw two trains – another westbound CP train and CN 2423 West, the train I saw in Elie.

I parked the car quickly and photographed the CP train – badly.

BNSF leading a trio of CP units
BNSF leading a trio of CP units

BNSF 9744 was leading CP 8122, CP 5039 and CP 6304.

15 seconds later, CN 2423 and GECX 7367 rolled by in front of me.

GECX 7367 trailing on a CN train
GECX 7367 trailing on a CN train

After those trains rolled on by, I went by the museum in the former CP station and noted that CP 2238 was the resident “Portage switcher”.

There was a string of CP ballast hoppers west of the overpass.

CP ballast hoppers in Portage la Prairie
CP ballast hoppers in Portage la Prairie

Grain Elevator Updates

The Oakville Pool "B" grain elevator, shortly before demolition
The Oakville Pool “B” grain elevator

As I dejectedly headed east toward Winnipeg, I took a few moments to update my photos of grain elevators along the way. I photographed the Viterra grain elevator just east of Portage (Tucker), and the former Oakville Pool “B” elevator above.

I’m glad I did photograph that elevator, because it was demolished within a week.

Just on the east side of Elie, I saw a westbound container train. I pulled off the road to take a long distance shot of CN 2962 West.

CN 2962 and 2892 heading west
CN 2962 and 2892 heading west

That’s a Wrap

I didn’t see any other trains on the way home. That’s probably for the best. πŸ˜‰

Although I had a string of bad luck and/or poor judgement, I did end up with a few photos that I’m happy with. It wasn’t a total loss.

7 thoughts on “A Comedy of Errors”

  1. You are experiencing many of the drone issue that I have as well when I first started out.

    I found the biggest difference to get used to was the amount of setup time for a drone shot compared to a regular dSLR shot.


  2. Hi DaveM, I agree – it takes a lot longer to get ready to take a photo with a drone than with a DSLR. Power on the controller, power on the drone, connect the phone, wait for everything to synchronize, launch… it’s a lot more than hitting the “on” switch!

  3. Hey Steve,

    In the shots with the trio of CP units and GECX, there is a plaque in the foreground. Any idea what it says?
    I’ve never seen that plaque when I’ve been watching trains in Portage.


    • Hi Sheldon, it took a bit of CSI-like image enhancement, but I can see it is about the Campbell’s Soup plant that used to be in Portage.

  4. Sometimes, the safe option is the best option. Also, having ATCS Monitor available while out is good. I have it indirectly on my phone, using Chrome Remote desktop. Of course it’s probably less useful outside the city, but still. In fact, the ATCS got me a GWWD catch recently.


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