Sunflowers and the PDC

Steam engine #3 ready to take the train to Grosse Isle…?

I went up to the Prairie Dog Central early Saturday morning (August 3). I wanted to make a donation to help support the PDC and its operations, so I arranged to meet with the General Manager, Paul Newsome. We ended up sitting in the office with Jeff Livingstone, the Operations Manager, and I (re)joined the PDC with a family membership. I also made a donation.

Paul took me around the shop area to show me the changes they have made since I was last there. There have been a lot of incremental improvements, in crew comfort, car maintenance, and more. The PDC started running trains in 1970, and they have been operating from their current location since 1998. They have been fine tuning since then, working hard to make every aspect of the operation better for their customers and better for their crews. They are a class act.

Soon it was train time. Ex BNSF GP9 1685 had already pulled the passenger cars from the shop and spotted them in front of the train station. 1685 has a special relationship with Winnipeg, having originally been Midland Railway of Manitoba #2, then Burlington Northern Manitoba Limited #2, then finally BNSF 1685. She spent the vast majority of her time in Winnipeg, interchanging with CN and CP. After retirement in 2009, she sat idle in Minneapolis until she was donated to the PDC. Eric Gagnon’s Trackside Treasure has an excellent article on her.

Steam engine #3 was backed onto the train in readiness for departure. That was my cue to drive on and set up to take some photos!

The Plan

I really wanted to get some drone photos and video of the train. Consulting the NRC’s drone site selection tool, I knew I had to wait until the train got north of the Perimeter Highway before it was far enough from the Winnipeg airport for drone operations.

Driving up the road paralleling the tracks, I noticed a field of sunflowers. Bingo!

I drove down the side roads on both sides of the field, and chose the one that I thought would give the best angle. The PDC’s track goes basically north-south, and since it was late morning the sun would be on the rear of the train.

I decided that the “going away” shot would be the best light, so I positioned myself so that the sunflowers would be in the foreground, with the train in the background, partially lit by the sun. The PDC leaves at 11 AM so you would be dealing with high sun and shadows no matter what.

Getting Underway

I waited until 11 AM but the train didn’t leave. 11:05… 11:10… then the steam engine started chuffing ahead by itself. I guess there was some kind of issue with the locomotive, as they ended up swapping it with the ex BNSF 1685.

That was accomplished quickly and the train got underway. I’m sure the passengers were happy to get moving and get some airflow into the coaches! It was a HOT day.

With my video camera humming away, I used my telephoto lens to capture the train passing the sunflowers.

BNSF 1685 and sunflowers
BNSF 1685 and sunflowers

I photographed each car as it went by, but the real prize was the whole train – with grain elevators in the background as a bonus.

The Prairie Dog Central, and sunflowers
The Prairie Dog Central, and sunflowers

Mission accomplished! I was very pleased with that image, but I couldn’t wait around, as I had more shots to do!

Thank You – Next!

I wanted to be sure to have enough time to get my drone in the air, so I didn’t spend a lot of time leapfrogging the train as it rolled toward the Perimeter Highway. I did pause to take video once, using my phone on top of my car, supported by my GorillaPod. It worked pretty well, although it was a little bouncy. I don’t use the GorillaPod very often, but it was a quick way to set up without having to take time to set up a tripod.

I used my telephoto lens to capture the end of coach 107 with the Prairie Dog Central roundel and marker lamps.

Droning On

I drove onto highway 6 to get into the “drone zone” where I could legally fly a drone. I found a nice one lane side road north of Gordon, and set up there. You wouldn’t know it today, but there used to be a Manitoba Pool grain elevator in Gordon. Today it is a small collection of houses and a post office box.

Anyway, the train came trundling along and I took a few telephoto shots “into the sun” before concentrating on the drone.

It looked pretty good from the air! Again, the high sun meant a lot of shadows.

Snap from the drone video
Snap from the drone video

In retrospect, maybe I should have flown the drone higher to get more of a “top down” view. I was leery of flying the drone too close to the train, given that it was full of people.

Canadian drone regulations say I can’t fly closer than 30m to “bystanders” with my basic license, and also I can’t fly closer than that to “advertised events”, which I think would include this. Still, a higher perspective would have de-emphasized the shadows. Is “de-emphasized” a word?

Side note: I usually look at the photos I take with a critical eye, trying to decide if there was a way I could have improved the photo. I don’t do this to beat up on myself, but as a way to take better photos. I think it’s important to not be arrogant and assume you get the perfect photo every time; there’s always a way to improve a photo, even by an imperceptible fraction. It could be something as simple as standing a few feet to one side to get a slightly better composition, or it could be a drastic change of perspective to get a “going away” shot instead of a “coming” shot. Try something different.

OK, back to the train. After the Gordon shot, I wanted to get one more view before they arrived at Grosse Isle. Just before the town, there is a short stretch of former highway that can only be accessed from the town itself. This is where the train robberies happen, and I wanted to scout that out for a potential future photo shoot.

I got to the location well ahead of the train. I saw there were transmission lines in the background, which couldn’t be helped, but at least they were far away from the drone so there was no concern about flying in this area. This was far from the highway so I could fly on either side of the train without being near cars.

I set my video camera up and had the drone ready to lift off from the weedy, crumbling asphalt. I was mindful of the battery on my drone, not wanting to run it down too soon. I had one more drone opportunity in mind.

Coming and Going

For this location, I elected to shoot stills with the drone instead of taking video. You can see the “coming” and “going” shots above and below. I did a bit of editing to both photos to boost the shadows, and also to reduce the glare coming off the former highway in the foreground. That asphalt is really bright from the air! A graduated filter in Adobe Lightroom took care of that.

I chased the train with the drone for a bit to get the shot below. I didn’t want to fly the drone right into town – not safe, as I wouldn’t know who was below the drone – but I caught up with the train enough to take the photo.


At this point, I was hot, hungry and thirsty. It was time to fuel up.

I parked my car along the road, and visited the vendors at Grosse Isle. Many of the passengers disembarked to eat and see the many sights in the town, while some rode the train into the wye to visit the prairie tall grass there.

At Grosse Isle, you can get hot dogs or hamburgers, drinks, ice cream, and PIE! Also, there’s live entertainment and a few vendors selling wood carvings and other interesting items.

Grosse Isle, August 2018
Grosse Isle, August 2018

There’s quite a collection of historical buildings in Grosse Isle. They have the former CPR Gunton station as well as the former CNR Emerson station, a caboose (without trucks) and a few other buildings I have yet to investigate.

One smoky dog and diet Coke later, I was feeling full and hydrated. A piece of pie completed the lunch.

It was time for the final drone flight.

On the Wye

Turning on the wye
Turning on the wye

They turn the locomotive on the wye in Grosse Isle. This wye used to be the start of the CN Inwood subdivision.

Currently, there is a short stub at the tail of the wye, which appears to have a boxcar in it. The passenger cars are dropped on the south leg of the wye, then the locomotive turns on the wye, and couples up to the other end of the train for the return trip to Inkster Junction.

During this operation, passengers who rode the train get off and have a tour of the prairie tall grass there. I believe they walk back to Grosse Isle on their own.

I took several photos from my drone of this operation. I didn’t want to fly into the wye because I knew there were people in the area.

BNSF 1685 and the Prairie Dog Central on the wye
BNSF 1685 and the Prairie Dog Central on the wye

Here’s a few views of ex BNSF 1685 showing some roof detail including the “torpedo tubes” on the roof. These are the air tanks, which are located under the frame on standard GP7 and GP9 units. For units that pulled passenger trains, the water tanks for the steam generators were located under the frame instead, so the air tanks had to go on the roof. Other Geeps were equipped with a large fuel tank, like 1685, leaving no room for the air tanks under the frame.

Aerial view of BNSF 1685
Aerial view of BNSF 1685

By the time 1685 rolled past, my drone was just about out of battery power and was complaining about it. I landed the drone, then picked up my camera to capture the train coming off the wye. I like this head-on view.

BNSF 1685, head on
BNSF 1685, head on

I threw everything in the car, then drove down to the south end of town to capture the train pulling past the “P.D.C Grosse Isle” station sign.

P.D.C. Grosse Isle
P.D.C. Grosse Isle

That was the end of the day for me, as I had an errand to run before heading home. It would have been nice to chase it back to Inkster Junction with the sun on the nose, but that was not to be. Maybe next time!

The Video

The Prairie Dog Central video!

I hope you enjoy the video I made, splicing together a few scenes and a little commentary at the front end. Feel free to skip over my yak yak to get to the trains. 😉

Just One More Thing

My blog used to be called Confessions of a Train Geek, and I have a confession to make about the Prairie Dog Central.

When I first moved to Winnipeg in 2009, I fully intended to volunteer at the PDC and help run trains. I thought it would be fun, and I wanted to be in the operating crew and eventually work toward becoming a brakeman. I did that kind of work on the Salem and Hillsborough in New Brunswick, way back when, and I wanted to do that on the PDC.

I did volunteer there, a few times late in the 2009 season. Early in 2010, I took rules training with the intent of volunteering for that season… except that I never did.

As part of my new job, I was traveling to Arizona every month for most of 2010, for a week each time. This didn’t leave much time for volunteering, as I had a young family at the time and I wanted to spend time with them rather than “play trains”. I know, excuses, but that was what was going on.

Anyway, I felt terrible for taking the training and never using it. I was embarrassed and so I stayed away from the PDC. Occasionally I would run into people from the PDC and they’d ask when I might drop in next. It got to be a “thing” with me, honestly.

I still don’t have a lot of time to volunteer, for a variety of reasons I don’t want to go into. I made that clear when I was at the PDC this month, and they understood. I do want to help but I can’t do it in volunteer hours. I can give some money and I can help promote the PDC. We all do what we can.

That’s my confession for today.

Please do visit the Prairie Dog Central if you’re in Winnipeg. You won’t regret it. Visit your local railway museum. Donate time, money, or material to support your hobby. Thank you.

6 thoughts on “Sunflowers and the PDC”

  1. Steve –

    We appreciate the time you spent at the S & H as a volunteer when you were here in New Brunswick – The railroad no longer operates and the tracks and bridges have been dismantled – It now has become an interesting Museum with lots to see and do with short rides on a pump car – motor car ride with hay wagon – and everything is open for all to see – Your Blog is most interesting as we are learning more about the West with
    your pictures and stories – With best wishes.

    • Hi Richard, I enjoyed my time at the S&H. Times have changed and it has evolved into the New Brunswick Railway Museum, a fine institution and well worth a visit. It was always a pleasure to work with you.

  2. Some nice photos. I like the wye shots. It’s tough to get the time to volunteer with working and family responsibilities. I always over pay for any trip I take on a tourist line or make a donation if I’m passing through the area. I have a few more years to retirement and then I’ll be able to do more.


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