Not Optimal

Sometimes when you’re out taking photos, things just seem to “click”. Pun intended.

Sometimes, though… everything seems like a near miss.

A Good Start

On the holiday Monday – Terry Fox Day, August 3 – I got up early to get some sunrise photography in. I headed up to the CP main line and headed west. When I reached Rosser, I drove across a crossing and looked west – headlight in the distance!

I quickly backtracked to a handy crossing and set up for the approaching eastbound train.

Green light, GO TIME
Green light, GO TIME

I selected that location because it was just out of the no-drone zone around the Winnipeg airport. I would love to fly my drone closer to the Viterra grain elevator seen above, but it and the crossing just to the west of it are in the no fly zone.

With my drone in the air, and camera in hand, I recorded CP 5008 East as it hurtled past on its way into the city.

CP 5008 solo
CP 5008 solo

It was a short and fast train. The photo above is a little overexposed, with the just-risen sun reflecting off the nose of 5008 a bit too much. I liked the drone view better.

CP 5008 drone video

After recovering the drone and waiting a bit to see if an eastbound was coming, I carried on west. I drove all the way to Marquette with no sign of another train. At that point, I had a decision to make – keep west along CP or drop down south to the CN main line. I chose CN.

Marquette is straight north of Elie. A short drive brought me there, and I checked the CN line both ways before stopping at Tim Hortons for a rest room break and a muffin. Back on the hunt, I drove west through Oakville and on toward the siding at Nattress.

I decided to see if there was a way I could get closer to the automated rail inspection portal at Nattress. Back in December 2018 I managed to see it from a distance, but I felt I could get closer.

Not Optimal

Waiting their turn
Waiting their turn

As I drove past the community of Newton, I saw a train stopped at the location known to CN as Nattress. Note the airplane in the very top left corner of the photo for later.

Nattress is just east of the bridge that crosses the Assiniboine River. The CN Rivers subdivision has two tracks between Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg, except for that bridge. Trains sometimes stop at Nattress to wait their turn to cross the bridge, and that’s what this train was doing.

It was clear to me that an eastbound train was coming… but when? And where should I photograph it?

In hindsight, I should have stayed put and shot it right there… but I “got greedy”.

Just east of the bridge, there’s a nice curve in the tracks that the morning sun really lights up nicely. I photographed a train there back in December 2018 and I wanted to do it again with the warm morning sunlight. I drove past the stopped train, intending to get to the curve before the eastbound train came.

Well, I didn’t get very far before I noticed a train passing behind the stopped train. Too late!

I executed a quick U turn and raced back east. I quickly decided that I would try a shot at the road crossing in Newton itself.

I got to that crossing a good 30 seconds ahead of the train, only to find that the view wasn’t that great at all. It is basically a tunnel of trees and you really only get one shot as the train is almost at the crossing.

The best I could manage
The best I could manage

You can see there’s still a bit of brush obscuring the locomotive, but the light on the train was very nice. I feel I would have done better to shoot it passing the other train, but we’ll call that a lesson learned. At least I photographed it!

As soon as the head end passed, I went back to my car to ensure I got the westbound train before it started moving out. I paused to pan the tail end locomotive, shiny new CN 3904.

CN 3904
CN 3904

Back to Nattress, to the west end to get the train.

But first…

Planes Galore

C-FHRD doing its thing
C-FHRD doing its thing

There were two different spray planes doing their thing in the area. I’ve never seen more than one operating at a time. Clearly they had their separate airspaces mapped out and knew what they were doing.

Aircraft C-FHRD above and C-GJBH below are both Air Tractor AT-502B spray planes, owned by Jonair out of Portage la Prairie. More than a thousand of these workhorse planes have been made.

Air Tractor C-GJBH
Air Tractor C-GJBH

C-FHRD was spraying fairly close to where I was standing, so I could photograph it easily and repeatedly. C-GJBH was farther away, but I photographed as it as it flew by me, presumably heading to refuel and reload.


So many SD75I locomotives!
So many SD75I locomotives!

I arrived at the 31W road crossing, just around the curve from the rail inspection portal. It’s not visible from the crossing but it’s not far away.

I thought a bit about how I wanted to record the train. Since it coming out of the low sun, a head on shot would be horribly backlit. I tried to get an angle on it so the sun would at least light the side of the train, even though the nose would be in darkness.

It turned out OK, I think. Here’s the video.

CN 5632 West

The train had four locomotives, three of which were either SD70I or SD75I locomotives. The spoiler was Dash-9 CN 2674.

You can see the curve I was talking about in the photo of the tail end below.

The end
The end

I was pretty pleased with that train.

Now… to find the portal!

Swing and a Miss

Road 31W continues north of the crossing and terminates at the Assiniboine River. There’s a side road to a local business and another side road that Google Maps shows leads to the portal.

I drove to the end of 31W, turned left on to the road to the portal, and immediately decided that I would not drive on it. It is narrow and heavily rutted and didn’t seem car-friendly.

I parked and decided to walk. I grabbed my camera and cell phone and took about 20 steps before I heard the throb of an approaching locomotive.

Dang it!

I ran back to my car and made for the crossing.

As I approached, I saw a transport truck pulling out of that local business I mentioned. If it wasn’t there, I would have stopped short of the crossing and jumped out, ready to get the shot at the curve.

I didn’t want to block the truck’s path to the crossing. I didn’t know how close the train was, so I drove through the crossing – whose gates were up and lights were dark – and parked just off the road. As I did that, the lights came on and the bell went ding ding ding.

Dang it!

I jumped out and ran up to the crossing to do the best I could on the “non sun” side. I was definitely not running through the active crossing!

CN 2865 at Nattress
CN 2865 at Nattress

CN 2865 was leading a container train around the bend.


You might be asking yourself, “Steve, why are you beating yourself up about this? It’s a fine photo.”

Or maybe you think the photo sucks 😉

I personally think the photo above is fine, but I’m a little peeved that I could have had a significantly better photo from the other side.

We make choices based on the best information available at the time. Knowing what I know now, I would stop short and block the crossing, because that truck had no chance to get through before the train anyway. The thing is that I didn’t know that then, so I acted on available data.

I guess this is a roundabout way of saying that I think I made the right choice in this instance, but I’m annoyed that I got caught on the wrong side of the tracks. I console myself by telling myself that if I had walked just a bit farther down that road, I wouldn’t have had any shot at all at the train.


While the train was rolling on by, C-GJBH was doing its spray runs. Here it is doing a turn “over” the train. It was probably over a field on the other side of the river, but I like the effect.

C-GJBH flying "over" the train
C-GJBH flying “over” the train

CN 2256 was a DPU locomotive in the middle of the train.

After that train passed, there was a lull in traffic. I spent my time walking around, trying to listen for the sound of an approaching train between passes by the spray planes. They aren’t quiet!

I had to leave by around 09:30 to make it home by the time I agreed upon with my wife. I was eyeing my watch for the 119th time at 09:20 or so when I heard a train horn to the east. Train! But, a westbound in the morning! Still – train!

Another Westbound

CN 2342 West
CN 2342 West

I decided to move. Since I had photographed a westbound at the crossing, I thought maybe relocating a little east would provide a more interesting shot since the track has a little curve there.

I set up at a private crossing and photographed the approaching train across a field.

After the head end passed, I took a “going away” shot. I think I like this better than the shot above.

Mile 49
Mile 49

The crossing I was at before is just visible between the mile 49 sign and the locomotive.

The train had CN 2342 on the head end and CN 2685 in the middle of the train, for those keeping score at home.

This train was a little weird. It had general freight on the head end, some double stack containers in the middle, and then more general freight (mostly autoracks) on the tail end. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that before.

Once that train passed, it was time to head home.

One More


As I passed Oakville on the Trans-Canada Highway, I spotted a westbound container train in the distance. I pulled off to take a long distance photo. It has quite a bit of heat haze but I was able to determine that it was CN 2236 / CN 2542 / CN 2454.

It was nice to see one of the Dash-8 cowl units (2454) back in operation. They were (almost?) all sidelined during the traffic lull caused by the global pandemic.

Six Trains, Some Waiting

Despite being annoyed at getting less than optimal photos, I think the outing was a success. I photographed six trains and I took a few photos that I’m very happy with. Also, it was a nice day to be outside. I’m calling it a win.

The trains I saw

Just One More Thing

Just a reminder that my new book, “Lions and Lambs”, is now available on Amazon. Visit this page to learn more or go here to buy it.

10 thoughts on “Not Optimal”

  1. I once discussed this with the late, great Jim Shaughnessy. Taking a picture of a moving train is a hit-or-miss situation, and parked trains are a lot easier. With a moving train, you frequently end up with shots that are less-than-idea. I personally have several of trains on bridges where I timed it wrong or got greedy and instead of one perfect shot got several shots with the engine behind center, behind a tree, blurry, or something else because I wasn’t set up for the shot I wanted. Thankfully, in the digital age we aren’t wasting film.

    And, in 20 years or so we may just be thankful we have ANY shots at all. For my layout, I am having trouble finding photos of certain locations and would be happy even with the not-perfect ones that someone might have taken in 1984 but then threw out thinking they weren’t the best. Live and learn.

    • Hi Benjamin, yes, landscape photographers have it easy compared to us! We have to photograph a landscape but we only have a few instants to do it in. I think train photography is more like bird photography or sports photography where you have to capture a certain moment.

      I’m learning more and more how valuable the “mundane” photos are for people. What seems everyday becomes rare and then is gone. I try to take photos of the most mundane things – crossings, industrial views, etc. – because I know I’ve wanted shots like that from “days of yore” that cannot be repeated.

  2. If I had a nickel for every not optimal shot I have taken, I would be very wealthy. Getting good photos of moving trains is not easy, especially with how the vegetation continues to be allowed to grow in and reduce sight lines and vistas.

    • Hi Eric, it’s too bad we don’t get nickels for those! I’m just finishing reading “Nicholas Morant’s Canadian Pacific” and wishing I could have trains stop where I want the photo to be taken like he did…

  3. If you’d been on the sunny side of that train, you might not have got the ‘plane above, train below’ shot. I think you came out ahead on that.

  4. Still mightily impressed by the length of the trains. Also impressed by the stability of the drone. That opening video might have been taken from a rock solid cement silo! – no movement at all. Great technology. Not impressed by the flat landscape – but six trains – hard to complain about that. All the photos look good. My train fix for the week. I remember being lucky on a branch line and getting one photo of a train with 6 revenue cars and thinking it was a long one. Longest train I ever saw on the Owen Sound Sub was a hay train from years ago – probably about 40 cars!

    • Hi Jim, the trains certainly are long around here. I wouldn’t want to be the conductor who has to walk half the train to fix a broken knuckle or cut out a bad order car.

      Drones are amazing. The intelligence built into such a small package, with great cameras… they are a wonder.

      A hay train? I haven’t heard of such a thing before… except maybe when there was a drought in the West and hay was shipped from the east, a few decades ago.

  5. A great day of shooting trains; the drone shot was very good and rock steady, my favourite being the train/plane shot. Not often we get to do that. And while I wait for CMQ trains, I just finished reading the Ontario Northland Story which I found very interesting. Learned a lot about the history of the line that I couldn’t find anywhere else.
    To Jim Griffin; is the Owen Sound Sub completely gone now ?
    Thanks for sharing Steve.

    • Thanks, Steven, it was a good day indeed. I’m glad you liked the book.

      I see that CP is running their own power over the former CMQ now. CP back in the east! Who would have thought it?


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