I Drove All Night, Part 1

No matter where I go I hear
The beating of your heart
I think about you
When the night is cold and da-ah-ark
I drove all night to get to you
Is that all right?

Cyndi Lauper

I’ve been trying to photograph the Milky Way for some time now. My wife and I have gone out aurora chasing a few times this spring and, although we have had success photographing the aurora, I haven’t been able to see the Milky Way. I think the two main reasons why we didn’t see it is because the moon was out, and we didn’t stay out late enough.

I was watching the weather forecast for the night of May 7-8 (2021) and it was predicting a very clear night, and almost a new moon. Hmm. I figured this was my best chance in a while to get the Milky Way, so I got my gear together and left the house just before midnight.

The Plan

My intention was to railfan along either CN or CP west, then head to the Gregg and Oberon grain elevators to photograph them against a starry sky… hopefully with the Milky Way in the shot.

This would involve several hours of driving, since Oberon is just over 2 hours away from Winnipeg by car. I told my wife that I would be home by noon, as I wanted to do some sunrise railfanning on my way home.

It was going to be a long night – but a very productive one.

Chasing CN 2824

Not much to see here
Not much to see here

As I approached the CN main line along Wilkes Avenue, I saw a westbound freight train. I got to Diamond just ahead of it and jumped out to catch them approaching the east-facing signals at the diamond. I quickly set my camera up for the proper exposure for the signals, which meant that the locomotive was super dark.

I plan to write a post about night train photography soon, but I’ll say now that photographing trains at night involves a few decisions – freeze the train or let it blur? expose for headlights or for ambient light?

In this case I set the exposure for the signals, and since I was holding the camera in my hands, I had to have a decent shutter speed to avoid blur. I used 1/160s at f/5.6, which meant I needed a tremendously high ISO of 6400. This is a shot you absolutely couldn’t do with film as I don’t think you can buy ISO 6400 film.

Back to the story. I leapt back into my car and beat it westward over the gravel road trying to get to the next major crossing at highway 424 before they did. Driving on gravel roads at speed is challenging and I’ve never done it at midnight before. Let’s just say I wasn’t driving at 90 km/hr as staying on the road was more important than catching the train.

I did manage to pull ahead of the locomotive after a couple of miles, and I arrived at the highway 424 crossing as the lights came on and the gates started coming down. I quickly changed my camera’s settings to expose for the headlights and took a reasonably sharp photo of CN 2824 as it approached the crossing.

CN 2824 at night
CN 2824 at night

The camera settings weren’t a lot different – 1/250s at f/5.6 and ISO 6400.

I changed settings to record the gates coming back up after the train went by.

Code red
Code red

Time to carry on west…

I drove westward on the Trans-Canada Highway, passing Elie, and I chose to exit at Fortier to set up by the signals at mile 36.8. This is a nice spot because there are signals facing both ways, both visible from the crossing.

I didn’t have much time to wait before CN 2824 West would come through. I put my camera on the tripod and set up for some longer exposure photos.

Fortier 1 – Westbound

CN 2824 West, again
CN 2824 West, again

The image above is what film people might call a double exposure. I photographed the “background” scene as a long exposure photo – 10 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 100 – then photographed the train as it passed through at 1/10s to get a bit of blur. I then combined the two images in software later.

As the train rolled on past, I switched back to shooting long exposures to get some stars in the background.

Stars above
Stars above

This was a 20 second exposure, f/2.8, ISO 800. I lit the foreground a bit with the light in my camera to try to illuminate the telegraph pole and wires. I like how it turned out, with the red signal on the north track showing “through” the train and the distant telegraph poles lit red by the east facing signal.

Note that the west facing signal on the south track is green. This is a pretty good indication that another train is coming…

After the train passed, I pointed my camera at the sky and took some photos. The Milky Way was starting to show – at 1 AM.

Here comes the Milky Way
Here comes the Milky Way

Soon a distant horn brought me down to earth, and I set up for another train.

Fortier 2 – Eastbound

Shot of the night?
Shot of the night?

I am very happy with how this one turned out. This is another “double exposure” but the stars really turned out well this time. The trick is to keep the shutter open long enough to get them, but not so long that they start to blur. About 20 seconds seems to be the sweet spot for my camera and lens.

I have no idea what the locomotive numbers were on this train! I’m pretty sure it was an intermodal train.

Here’s a long exposure view of the train – a white wall under white stars.

White wall under white stars
White wall under white stars

I noticed that the west facing signal on the north track was now yellow, so I elected to stick around for a few more minutes to see if another train was coming. I was rewarded by another eastbound train.

Fortier 3 – A Second Eastbound


This was not a double exposure – it was a single shot at 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200. If you don’t have headlights in the photo, you can go for a longer exposure.

Time was a-wasting and I wasn’t getting closer to Oberon by standing at a crossing in the middle of nowhere. I continued west on the highway, circling around Portage la Prairie.

South of the highway, I spotted a series of bright lights just before Bloom on the CP main line. I took the highway 305 exit south and found this in the back track at Burnside.

A Grinder at Night

LMIX 604 in Burnside
LMIX 604 in Burnside

Loram grinder LMIX 604 was in the back track, accompanied by a few hi-rail trucks.

This thing was BRIGHT.

It was sitting there at 2 AM, roaring away, in the former grain elevator track.

I had a decision to make – stick around to see this, or continue on to Oberon. I couldn’t afford to wait here too long or the sun would start to make its return. Decisions, decisions.

In the end I elected to stay. I had always wanted to see a rail grinder at night and this was the first opportunity I’d had to see one.

You can decide for yourself if I made the right decision…

It became obvious that they were waiting for a CP train to pass before they would come out onto the main line. I went back to the crossing and set up to record it. Soon an eastbound train came rolling through at 2:05.

Burnside – Eastbound

You can see one of the attendant trucks by the signal box.

After a bit, the flotilla came out onto the main line. I recorded a short video of the grinder crossing highway 305. This is a good indication of how bright the lights were on that machine!

It looked like they were heading west, so I drove west with the intention of catching them doing their grinding. I found a crossing a few miles west and waited… and waited…

Eventually I grew tired of that and doubled back. They were back in the Burnside back track!

I don’t know what happened or why they returned to the back track. All I knew was that I had spent enough time there, and it was time to move on.

Read Part 2

Just One More Thing

I follow Rebecca Watson aka Skepchick on YouTube. She’s smart and funny and you should follow her too. I can’t find where, but I’m sure it was her (she?) who recommended a book, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. You may know the movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. He won a Man Booker Prize for this book.

I borrowed it from the library and read it in one evening. Wow. What a book!

It’s narrated by an English butler who is setting out on a road trip from the estate he manages, maybe his first “vacation” ever. Along the way you learn a tremendous amount about what he thinks of the butler profession, about his former employer, and about him. I don’t want to give the plot away, but it has some powerful messages and the author tells a really engaging story.

You can buy it on Amazon or maybe find it in your local library like I did!

I’ve ordered another book by the same author, Never Let Me Go, and I look forward to reading that soon.

(as always my Amazon links are affiliate links, meaning I earn a small commission when you purchase something using that link)

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