Dark to Light

Welcome to Dacotah
Welcome to Dacotah

I went railfanning early in the morning of October 20th, 2019. I had set my alarm for my usual weekday 6 AM wakeup, but I ended up waking up at 5:10 AM, so I started out earlier than expected.

I had no particular destination. This is usually not a good idea for me, as I would rather have a “mission” in mind so I at least accomplish something beyond wandering around trackside. I had a nebulous thought about heading to Gregg or Harte to fly my drone over the elevators there, but nothing was firmed up.

Pleading the First

Starting out on the CN Rivers subdivision is never a bad idea, so I headed up there. As I approached the tracks, I saw there was a westbound oil train passing by. I just saw the tail end so I knew there was no chance of catching the head end, especially in the dark at 6:15 AM!

However, I did see a glow to the west indicating an eastbound train approaching on the other track. I pulled over and grabbed a few shots of CN 8931 East as it blew by in the dark… and it was dark.

First of several
First of several

Camera settings were ISO 1600, lens wide open at f/2.8, and panning the train at 1/40s shutter speed to try to pull something out of the dark.

It’s not going to win any awards, but I was happy to get a half decent photo out of it. The Canon 77D does a nice job of focusing even in near pitch dark conditions. My old T1i would never have focused under those conditions. Camera technology keeps getting better and better.

Wait a Second

Streaking at Mile 14.4
Streaking at Mile 14.4

As I drove west in the dark, I saw the signals at Diamond were lit, and the west facing signal on the north track was green over red. I squinted toward the horizon and saw a headlight a few miles away. Train time again!

I set my 77D up on the tripod and set it for a 2.5 second exposure, ISO 100, f/2.8 to get a moderately long exposure. I fired one test shot to ensure the signals were lit OK, then waited for the train to come. As it rolled past, I took a number of photos.

I think I bumped the camera on the first shot. The signals in the foreground have a kind of “double exposure” look to them. The focus was right – I can read the “144 S” plate at the bottom. The next shot didn’t have that look to it.

Streaking
Streaking

The train was a general freight train, with a bunch of “junk” on the head end. I noted there was a string of ballast cars followed by a boxcar with blinking red lights at each end. I grabbed a few shots of the boxcar with my phone but they are terrible. My iPhone takes great photos when the subject is well lit, but it does not do a good job in the dark.

UFO sighting?
UFO sighting?

I kept taking long exposure shots of the train as it passed. The stars were out and I was trying to get an exposure with the train and the stars. I was taking 30 second exposures and that was enough to bring the stars out. The sky was starting to turn blue at 6:30 but just barely.

Stars and Autoracks
Stars and Autoracks

The photo above took some serious editing. I really like how the autoracks blurred into a continuous “car” below the stars.

It became clear to me that the train was slowing down, so I thought it might be stopping short of Hall Road, a mile or so to the east. After the train finished rolling past, I packed up and drove that way. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to confirm that, and sure enough, the tail end with its blinking end-of-train device was just barely over the crossing.

On the other end, I found CN 2289 and company waiting patiently. They inched closer to the crossing but eventually came to a stop. They were facing a blinking signal, maybe in transition to a green but not showing anything like a “go” yet.

It was a good opportunity for more long exposure photographs.

CN 2289 and company in the dark
CN 2289 and company in the dark

Oh, and that boxcar with the blinking lights? It was a mid-train distributed braking boxcar, CN 0050. I took this shot out the drivers’ side window with no tripod, so it’s not very sharp at all… still better than that cell phone pan!

Distributed braking boxcar CN 0050
Distributed braking boxcar CN 0050

While they were sitting there, a westbound container train came whooshing by, making the third train I saw that morning.

I Don’t Know. He’s on Third, And I Don’t Give a Darn

Streaking by CN 2289
Streaking by CN 2289

I made no attempt to pan the westbound train. Instead I backed up to get a wide view of the four locomotives, and the long exposure (30 seconds) at f/4.5 and ISO 200 yielded a sharp scene with no detail of the moving train other than some streaks of light.

While the train was passing, I did take some iPhone shots near the crossing of the passing container train. They turned out better than I thought they would. They aren’t nearly as sharp as the DSLR photos but, as long as you don’t look at them too closely, they’re much better than no photos at all!

Blurring by the crossing
Blurring by the crossing

By this time I had picked up my camera and tripod and moved it to the crossing as well. I took a few photos of the standing train, which turned out to be really interesting (to me). The train shows through the wall of containers because of the gaps between cars. The cumulative effect is a ghostly view of the locomotives behind a continuous container train.

Ghost train
Ghost train

That was all well and good, but I didn’t want to linger any longer. There were more trains to see, and I still had some vague notion of getting to Gregg. Off I went, westward on the Trans-Canada Highway.

I had some hope of catching that westbound container train again.

I pulled off the Trans-Canada Highway into Dacotah to set up for the container train. I figured I had plenty of time. As I was waiting there, I heard a horn… to the west. I barely got my camera turned around before an eastbound grain train slammed through.

The Firth of Fourth

New CN grain cars, headed east
New CN grain cars, headed east

I have no idea what the power was on this train, as I had no time to set up. I think I had my DSLR on the ground while I was swinging the video camera around, and I had no time to pick it up before the train blasted through the railway crossing.

The train was mostly new CN grain hoppers – maybe all new – so it may have come from one of the on-line grain elevators like Knox or Bloom. They weren’t wasting time!

Both the photo above (toward the sunrise) and the photo below (showing the crossing) were taken at 1/4 second exposure, handheld. I have pretty steady hands but I usually take several and keep the sharpest of the bunch. You wouldn’t do this with film!

Grain cars at Dacotah crossing
Grain cars at Dacotah crossing

Here’s the video for the grain train:

The Third Train Revisited

It wasn’t long after the grain train passed that the westbound container train came rolling along. It turned out to have CN 2857 in the lead.

CN 2857 West at Dacotah, Manitoba
CN 2857 West at Dacotah, Manitoba

They didn’t waste any time either!

I took a video of that train too, as I had originally intended…

CN 2857 West at Dacotah

After the train passed, I packed up and continued west.

Next stop… Elie! READ ON

Just One More Thing

I’m currently reading How Music Works by David Byrne. You may know David Byrne as the leader of the Talking Heads, or from his collaborations with Brian Eno. The book is part music history, part David Byrne autobiography, and part music theory. It’s really interesting and thought provoking. I know nothing about music other than I like to listen to it.

I have a lot of train books in my queue, so I’ll be swinging back to my main genre soon. I bought Forgotten Saskatchewan by noted photographer Chris Attrell recently, and that’s probably the next book I’ll read.

(I earn a small commission on these Amazon links if you purchase something using them, at no additional cost to you)

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