Railfanning 6-16-18: NS Safety Train, 13R with the Reading Heritage Unit, and 203

Today was a red-letter day for railfanning in 2018! My original plan was to wake up early and take advantage of the Eastern sunlight for a few morning trains. Unfortunately, when my alarms went off at 6:30am, my desire to stay in bed and continue sleeping grossly overruled my desire to go railfanning. I eventually got out of bed at nearly 2pm, and assumed I had missed it all... until I saw online that the Norfolk Southern Safety Train was still in Hagerstown, MD, manifest freight 13R with the Reading heritage unit had only just left Hagerstown, and an empty coal train with the Wabash heritage unit was still sitting in the siding at Gainesville after parking there the previous night.

I made a hasty breakfast and took a quick shower (as I planned to meet a friend for dinner in the evening) and headed west on I-66, which the B-Line... roughly follows. I reasoned that I probably wouldn't be able to beat 13R to Front Royal or points further, so I opted to set up shot at Marshall, VA, about halfway down the B-Line, and one of the few spots where the afternoon sunlight is decent enough for eastbound trains. Indeed, I was right that I wouldn't beat the train to Front Royal, but shortly after Front Royal, 13R got stopped by issues with PTC, with 947 and even 203 stacking up behind it. This of course meant that the afternoon sun angle was a little too far west by the time the train arrived, running VERY slowly. However, I still managed some decent shots that I'm rather pleased with:

I barely had enough time to grab some water and change positions before 947 came roaring through, hot on the heels of 13R. The crew was very enthusiastic with the waves and with the horn.

I wasn't entirely pleased with my images of 947, so I decided I'd leapfrog the train to the curve at Powell Junction near Manassas, VA, which was guaranteed to provide me with some quality evening lighting. Unexpectedly, I also passed train 13R; I saw it from the highway snaking through the curves at Broad Run. I arrived at Powell Junction while the freight was calling the signal at Wellington, approximately six miles away. This gave me a bit of practice with the available light to make sure I'd capture something better of 947, but the images of 13R turned out quite well themselves!

947 was following 13R as closely as possible down the B-Line. As soon as the switch was clear at Powell, the dispatcher threw it to immediately give a high green to the safety special to pass 13R on Track 1.

Despite its higher priority, at no point on the B-Line did intermodal train 203 pass 947, even though the dispatching system's Auto-Router kept lining 947 into sidings (apparently this was because it was following 13R a little too closely). 203 had nothing too special for power or cargo, but it did have a very friendly engineer!

Not long after 203 had passed, I got a text from a friend that she was ready to meet me for dinner in Chantilly, which isn't far from Manassas. However, there was one more heritage unit in the area that needed photographing. NS train 741, an empty coal re-route, had been parked in the siding at Gainesville for nearly a day, with the Wabash engine second in the consist. I drove around back of the Cabelas near the siding, but the lighting was atrocious. So, I parked up and began walking over to the other side of the tracks, when I was stopped by yet another train! 228 was running later than usual, and roared through Gainesville. I wasn't prepared to photograph it at all, but I still tried for something a little bit artsy. Practice makes perfect!

Once 228 had passed, I walked to the spot overlooking the swamp on the opposite side of the tracks from the Cabelas, and found that the engines on 741 were just a BIT too far away and the angle just wasn't quite right. So, I did something incredibly stupid, which was to pull over on the I-66 on-ramp (the traffic was pretty light, in my defense!) to jump out, snap a picture, and jump back into the truck. Was this a poor choice? Yes. Do I still want to get a better shot of 1070, in motion and leading, when I can? Yes. Am I going to check it off my heritage unit list? VERY yes!

As always, video is linked below. Thanks for reading and enjoy the pictures!

RF&P 101 Finale 5-19-18: Final Excursions for the GP7

On Saturday, May 19th, 2018, I woke up even earlier than I do on work days to drive nearly 3 hours to Dillwyn, VA. Why? Because after 65 years of service, (33 with its original owner, and 32 with the Buckingham Branch RR) Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad GP7 #101 was slated for retirement. The engine was rebuilt by RF&P in the mid-1980s using the frame from sister engine #104, and was then leased to the Buckingham Branch Railroad. The engine has served both her leaser and the Old Dominion chapter of the NRHS quite well, hauling wood chips and passenger excursions for each respectively, but at long last, the BB has acquired sufficient power to replace the old geep, which will likely be placed on static display in the beginning of June. As a result, a final series of excursion runs on the 17-mile Dillwyn branch were scheduled, and despite the gray and wet weather, I made the trip to see the old engine run one more time.

The trip began reasonably enough; the train was only travelling at about 10mph, which made leapfrogging it from crossing to crossing very easy. Myself and about five other cars of railfans were having a great time. Then I got to my most anticipated shot of the day; a small trestle over a now-swollen creek, not far from the James River. I parked, walked in to the trestle, set up my shot and waited...
and waited...
and got eaten by mosquitoes, and waited...
and waited...
and threw stones in the swollen creek, and waited...
and waited...
and after about an hour, I reasoned that by this point, the train should have passed me in both directions. My cell phone battery was nearly dead (I had no reception to find out what had gone wrong) so I gave up and opted to return to the depot at Dillwyn, where I found the train had been sitting for a time. It turned out that the excursion encountered high water just a mile or so from my location, and reversed direction earlier than expected. Some of my still images hadn't turned out as I well as I would have liked, but I still chose not to chase the afternoon trip; a fairly wise decision, as I later learned that engine 101 experienced a malfunction, and a second diesel was added in front of it to complete the excursion run. 

Currently, I'm hoping to return to Dillwyn at the beginning of June for a second chance at photographs, and hopefully 101 will be in working order by then, ending its career on a high note! Pictures and video are shown below, and as always, thanks for reading!

Railfanning 5-19-18: NS 12R, Amtrak 20, 214 (with a UP trio!) and 203

After spending my morning chasing one of the final excursions for RF&P #101, I opted to take a leisurely drive home by stopping at various locations along the way to railfan Norfolk Southern's Washington District. My trip north on US 15 brought me close to the tracks beginning around Orange, VA, and I hopped off on some side roads to try and get a better shot. I had seen photographs from other railfans taken at railroad location Winston, where a group of signals govern the control point of the tracks splitting in two northward before reaching Culpeper, VA. I parked up and didn't have to wait long before train 12R came through:

Afterwards, I doubled-back 10 miles down the single-track line to another point where the tracks split in two, or merge into one for northbound traffic. The entire Washington to Atlanta mainline was double-tracked until the 1980s, when dispatchers and management found that they could make do with alternating 10-mile sections of single track and double track (fun fact: dispatchers were asked to give this technique a try by putting electrical tape over the tracks on their CTC boards. When it was determined that alternating single and double track would work, the tracks were physically removed both from the board and in real life). This way, trains could meet each other without either train having to come to a complete stop. This principle was demonstrated to me at Rapidan, where I watched Amtraks northbound Crescent, running quite late, rip through on Main 2, followed closely by intermodal train 214 on Main 1, which had been overtaken by the Amtrak and was now picking up speed again. I was hoping for a shot with both trains in the image, but thanks to the efficiency of 10-mile double-track, 214 did not have to wait at the stop signal at this interlocking point as I had hoped.

Usually, once I've bagged three trains on the Wash, I call it a day. The line only sees ~15 trains a day, most of which pass through at night. However, as I was driving home, now on US 29, I caught a glimpse of 214's tail through the trees, and my scanner (which I hadn't bothered to turn off yet) informed me that the train would be changing crews at Bristow. This would give me ample time to set up a second shot of the train at Gainesville. So, I did!

Once again, I was ready to head home at this point, but the scanner again informed me that perhaps I ought to wait; 214 would be meeting 203 just up the line. 203 is a favorite of mine, and I threw my cares out the window and parked up at the crossing at Wellington (where I typically film westbounds, rarely eastbounds) to see one more train for the day. Admittedly the consist of 203 wasn't terribly special, but it was still one more train in the books for the day:

A link to a YouTube video from today is provided below, and as always, thanks for reading!

03-30-18: Make VRE Interesting Again

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Ever since the VRE roster became completely standardized with the final delivery of the Sumitomo/Nippon-Sharyo Gallery coaches, my interest in photographing commuter trains has heavily diminished. Seeing as they all look practically identical, I find them about as interesting as subways. Having mulled on this for a time, I decided to challenge myself to "Make VRE Interesting Again" by finding some artsy angles and taking some long exposures to jazz up my images. To facilitate this, I made the morning trains my target, both for the morning sun angle AND to take advantage of the darkness before the sunrise so the headlamps and trim lights on the cab cars (which face North, leading the trains for the AM rush) would stand out a bit more. 

I started out at Rolling Road station, just east of Burke, VA, as I hoped the shorter platform would give me less clutter in front of the lead coach. It kinda worked, kinda didn't. I also opted for long exposures, as short exposures wouldn't take in nearly enough light for the scene. The results aren't stellar, but good enough for me!

While I made a donut run in between the 6:08am and 6:48am trains, the natural light went from dark to the pre-sunset "blue hour," which still allowed for some shots accentuating the lights on the platform.

After the 6:48am train, I was expecting the southbound deadhead run to pass by well before the 7:08am train, however it actually *delayed* the 7:08am train, as it came down the same main as the Northbound trains, crossing over in front of the 7:08am train at the Burke crossovers just South of the Rolling Road station. Although I had planned to take bridge shot of the 7:08am train, I was now stuck, having waited for my shot of the southbound train, which didn't even turn out that well. Nevertheless, I made the best of a less-than-ideal situation and tried what I did on the 6:48am train, but with slightly better lighting.

Next, I walked up to the Rolling Road bridge from the station, which took about ten minutes. I really wanted a straight-on nose shot of the orange striped cab car leading the train towards DC. As you can see in the first picture of this blog, I captured one good shot with the blue engine still rounding the corner; a nice contrast to the silver Gallery coaches. In this shot, the whole train is gathering speed on the straightaway.

I also tried a trestle shot at Lake Accotink, but the clouds were uncooperative, so I'll have to try that one another time.

Thanks for reading, please enjoy the pictures!

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Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum 11-12-17

My early morning on November 12th, 2017 was spent documenting Southern Railway #4501 as it departed Grand Junction, Tennessee, bound for Georgia. After the steam excursion left, I found myself in a quiet yard full of historic railroad equipment. I immediately set my sights on Tennessee Valley Railway Museum's fine collection of ex-Southern diesels, which includes SD40-2 #3170. This engine was restored to its Southern paint scheme by successor Norfolk Southern, and shortly was donated to TVRM after about a year of it running around the modern NS rail system. Rumor has it the engine needs a bit of mechanical work, but externally it is in gorgeous shape.

My stroll through the display yard was then interrupted by the arrival of TVRMs Missionary Ridge Local, the passenger service that hauls tourists 3 miles up the line to the East Chattanooga depot and Soule shop complex. I sprung the extra $20 for a cab ride, and was welcomed into another beautifully restored locomotive on the TVRM roster. Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia Railway GP38 #80 was recently purchased at auction from Norfolk Southern, and repainted into its original colors. 

The engineer was a delight, and so were the sights and sounds from the cab as we rolled over multiple bridges and through the Missionary Ridge tunnel. I declined the option to leave the cab to join the tour group inside the Soule shops, which I slightly regret as I could have seen Southern E8 #6914 under restoration. However, I did get a shot of a couple more ex-NS engines, including Southern #5000, the first GP38-2 bought by the railroad. 

After my cab ride, I spent a chunk of dollars in the gift shop, and aimed my camera at a few more interesting pieces of rolling stock in the yard. The crown jewel shot from the day was the upward-nose shot of Southern GP30 #2594. I had many books on railroads as a young child, and a similar picture of another Southern GP30 really captured my imagination back then, and perhaps helped spark the Southern as my favorite railroad. Admittedly, I had to climb a bit on the adjacent GP38-2 #5044 to get the right angle, but the results were worth it!

Once I had my shots, I reluctantly returned to my truck and set out for the 10 hour drive home. My Southern trip had been a considerable success, and as I drove out of the parking lot, I was already plotting my eventual return to this part of the country. There's plenty more railroading to see down here, and I brim with anticipation as I think about my next journey to Southern territory. Look ahead, look South!

Thanks for reading, please enjoy the pictures!

Summerville Steam Special 11-11-17: Southern 4501 in the Georgia Countryside

Veterans Day 2017 was another red-letter day for railfanning in my book: I finally checked another steam engine off my list. Southern Railway #4501 is 2-8-2 Mikado type engine, and was the first engine to pull excursion trains in the Southern Railways steam program that began in the late 1960s. When Norfolk Southern ended the steam program in 1994, engine 4501 returned to its home at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and operated for a couple more years until it reached the end of its FRA certification. Because the museum had two other perfectly functioning steam engines, overhauling 4501 was not a priority for well over a decade. However, in 2011, Norfolk Southern revived its steam excursion program, and sought the use of TVRM engine 630 as part of the lineup. Seeing the opportunity to run their larger steam engine, TVRM began work to restore 4501 in time to participate in the 21st Century Steam excursions, and the locomotive came back to life in late summer of 2014. The engine participated in the final year of Norfolk Southern's 21st Century Steam program (2015), and now lives a life of considerable leisure, hauling tourists on the 3-mile line within the museum grounds, and occasionally pulling longer excursions down the Chattanooga & Chickamauga Railway to Summerville, Georgia. Capturing one of these longer excursions was the main purpose of my trip to North Carolina and Tennessee in November of 2017.

From my hotel room across the river in Chattanooga, I could hear the mournful whistle of 4501 echoing across the valley. I knew that the train wasn't scheduled to leave until 9am, and these whistles I was hearing at 8am were merely the engine running from the shops at East Chattanooga to the boarding platform at Grand Junction, but I still raced through breakfast and hurried down to my first spot of the day: just outside the southern portal of the Missionary Ridge Tunnel, a pre-civil-war engineering marvel. I was joined by a handful of other railfans who had made similar multi-hour journeys to view this gorgeous steam locomotive in its natural habitat, and we were treated to an incredible show as the old Mikado blasted out of the tunnel.

Up until this point, my only experience with chasing steam excursions was with N&W 611, which runs the full 40mph permitted by Norfolk Southern for old equipment on their mainlines. As such, I raced ahead to my next spot on the southern edge of the Missionary Ridge. I waited for a few moments, and then became concerned that I had missed the train, and once again drove like a maniac to reach my third scheduled spot of the day in Rock Springs, Georgia... where I waited for well over half an hour for the train to show up. The line from Chattanooga to Summerville is fairly well maintained, but 4501 prefers to maintain a slower pace to give passengers a smoother ride.

Rock Springs is a popular photo spot thanks to the S curve ending next to an old abandoned house, and a grade crossing with two crossbucks instead of modern flashers and gates. This made a nice frame as the old engine roared through, with the whistle clipping the mic on my camcorder!

My game of leapfrog continued, and I landed at my fourth spot, south of Lafayette, Georgia. This location had a modern crossing system, complete with electronic bell; a sound which provided a stark contrast to the brass bell and steam whistle of the 4501. I was also able to pull off a zoom-shot of the engine approaching through a tree tunnel of sorts.

In the first picture, you can see an arm waving out of the cab of the engine. This is because some dingbat of a woman was standing IN THE GAUGE behind me to get her own shot. After the train had passed, she asked me about any good spots with tree tunnels and curves in the area. I had to reply that I didn't know, for two reasons: Firstly, because she was clearly an idiot for standing in the gauge and I didn't want to help her continue to be an idiot, and B: because I only had my spots for the day listed in my GPS as "Spot 1 South, Spot 2 South, Spot 3 South" and so on, and I had no idea what the next location actually looked like. However, it did turn out that my next spot had the two ingredients she was after: tree tunnel and a curve. And a crossing for some whistle action, to boot!

A couple of video-only locations later, I arrived in Summerville, GA, to a COMPLETE madhouse. There was some sort of Veterans Day festival centered around the arrival of the steam train, and I found myself trying to shoot video while surrounded by people who had zero respect for anyone with a camera. I could slightly sympathize as most of these people were....well, normies... not railfans, and therefore weren't familiar with concepts like the photo line. On top of that, the lighting was absolutely terrible while the engine was on the turntable. Given that I was hungry, and my truck was thirsty (and so was the steam engine, as it was taking on water from a fire hydrant when I left) I frequented the local Bojangles and gas station, then set up for my next shot at the bridge in Trion, GA. By this point in the day, the sun was almost directly overhead, and the lighting on either side of the bridge wasn't particularly good (note that the face of the engine is in shadow) so I took the opportunity to make a few roster shots of the historic passenger cars in the train.

I then, once again, overestimated the speed of the train, and found myself waiting in Chickamauga, Georgia with a fair bit of time to kill. I had thought my spot would be overrun with fellow photographers, but instead I only had two, both of whom made sure to stay out of my shot. The result is, I think, one of the best pictures I've ever taken:

After snagging this beauty, I made a couple of unscheduled stops; the first was a spot along Missionary Ridge that I had tried in the morning, but chickened out as I thought I had missed the train. The second was a crossing near the run-down industrial district of Chattanooga, where a nice open field provided a backlit shot of the engine nearing the end of its run.

Finally, I arrived back at the depot in Grand Junction, yet again a bit far ahead of the train. Thankfully, the depot is situated adjacent to a busy Norfolk Southern mainline, and I was treated to the passing of a couple of freights while waiting for 4501 to arrive. The engine spun its drivers a bit on the sharp grade at the east end of the depot, and immediately upon arriving, the museum's Tennessee, Alabama & Georgia Railroad GP38 went to work switching the passenger consist for the next day's steam special.

At this point, I was entirely out of camera batteries, my phone was almost dead, and I was unbelievably tired after 11 hours of train chasing. I stopped at a steakhouse on my way back to the hotel and had a very pleasant meal to cap off a wonderful day of railfanning.

The next morning, I had planned to actually visit the grounds of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, but I arrived early for one more look at Southern 4501 before it departed for Summerville again. The TAG GP38 had clearly been busy with the coach consist, as the entire train was now Tuscan Red, rather than a mix of paint schemes. As much as I prefer a mis-matched consist on an excursion train, I was VERY tempted to chase the train through the rolling Georgia countryside again, but time would not permit it. So, I settled for a variety of close-ups on the engine, and a short video of the train departing Grand Junction.

As always, thank you for reading and enjoying the pictures and video!

Strasburg Railroad #89: 10-13-17

Strasburg 89 has its tender topped off for the days runs. The engine will use half a ton of coal on each 4.5 mile round trip from Strasburg to Paradise and return.

For the second weekend of October, I opted to treat myself to a mini-vacation. With school back in session, my teaching workload has increased, and I decided I could use a little break. So I headed up to Strasburg, PA to take the Hostling tour offered on Friday mornings during the warmer months of the year. I was hoping for number 90, or perhaps 475 one more time before it goes down for its FRA 1472-day overhaul. Instead, I was treated to number 89, which recently returned from its own overhaul, having last operated several years ago. While at first I wasn't entirely thrilled, I quickly warmed up to the cute little Canadian engine and found it to be very photogenic!

During our tour, the yard crews were busy arranging the day's freight delivery, as well as shuffling historic freight and passenger cars in preparation for the weekend runs. This meant we were treated to a couple runbys of 8618, an ex-NYC switch engine that is typically used to haul the freight on the Strasburg Railroad. I also had the good fortune of a brief cab ride while 89 pulled 90 out of the enginehouse! 90 had just had its fire lit in preparation for running trains over the weekend, while 89 would be taken out of service after today's trips for some minor maintenance. But for now, the little 2-6-0 was fired up, and we got to watch as the crew blew down the boiler, blew out the stack, and wiped the engine clean for a day of hauling tourists in the Amish countryside.

While I'm normally not all excited by *riding* trains (especially since I've ridden the Strasburg railroad many times before), buying a ticket on this days train gave me a bragging right: I have now ridden behind all four steam engines on the Strasburg roster! 90 when I was a little kid, 31 when I was in my teens, 475 last year, and now 89. A friend pointed out that I haven't ridden behind their live-steam Thomas the Tank Engine, and I hope to keep it this way, as I am not willing to brave the crowds of Day Out With Thomas for such a small accomplishment x)

Please enjoy the pictures, thanks for reading, and be sure to check out my next blog from the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, located just across the street from the Strasburg Railroad.

The Powhatan Arrow 5-27-17: N&W 611 Excursions out of Roanoke

 N&W 611 charges upgrade alongside Norfolk Southern train 29G.

N&W 611 charges upgrade alongside Norfolk Southern train 29G.

May 27th was another red-letter railfanning day for me. In 2015 and 2016, the group that operates N&W 611 had brought the magnificent J class up to Manassas, VA (near my home) to operate excursions on the B-Line to Front Royal, VA, and back. However, for unknown reasons, this excursion route was excluded from the 2017 season. So, I packed my bags and happily drove the 3 hours to Roanoke, VA, to see the engine in the habitat it was built for!

Saturday would be spent chasing the engine for the full day, and I had purchased a ticket to ride on Sunday morning, followed by more chasing in the afternoon, until I had to head home for work on Monday. For the Saturday morning trip, I caught the train at four locations; Webster, Lowry (in both directions), in between Thaxton and Montvale, and Bonsack. Webster was crowded with people, which made for good conversation while waiting for the train toarrive. Then it was a far race ahead of the train to secure a spot directly over the tracks on the road bridge at Lowry. After the eastbound run passed underneath, I opted to stay and photograph the train from a different angle, and managed to get some practice as NS train 22A rolled through ahead of the excursion. I don't normally run as soon as the engine passes, but in this case, I was anxious to get west of Thaxton to photograph the engine on a banked curve there. I arrived seconds before the crossing activated, snapped my shot, and then ran back to my truck to again race ahead of the train to Bonsack, where I wanted to redeem the reverse curve video shot I bungled last year when my tripod broke. Thankfully the excursion hit a slow order on the way up the grade, so I ended up with plenty of time to wait, but of course, hindsight is 20/20!

Rather than fight with the traffic in and out of downtown Roanoke, I instead opted to head back to the hotel for a short while, then I hit up a local Chik Fil A for lunch. My first choice of spot for the afternoon trip was more overgrown with vegetation than Google Earth had suggested, so instead I opted for a long straightaway where we could see the train coming from miles away.

Next stop was quite a ways away at the Montgomery tunnels, and I had this silly idea that if I got there early, I could beat the crowd. BOY was I wrong! There had to have been at least 150 people there, and one of the locals got so angry she walked in front of peoples cameras when the train came. She also remarked that she would block off the gravel area in front of her house, claiming it was her driveway (although in reality, much more of it was railroad property than she might like to think) and forbid people from photographing the train at that spot. Several railfans kindly informed her that an entirely different crowd would be back three more times over the course of the weekend, and then we all beat a hasty retreat. I made my way to the Ryan Road grade crossing, one of my favorite locations I caught the train at last year, and waited over an hour for the return trip to arrive. I then improvised, trying out a bridge shot I had seen from US 460 on my way west, and then one more grade crossing to top off the day.

I awoke with great excitement on May 28th, which quickly gave way to considerable panic. I had a ticket to ride The Powhatan Arrow behind N&W 611, a lifelong dream come true, but when I went to my truck to drive downtown, I found myself with a completely flat rear tire! Thankfully, UBER came to my rescue, and I arrived at the O Winston Link Museum (formerly the N&W passenger station of Roanoke) with about half an hour to spare. I had splurged for a dome class ticket, and found an empty seat across from a kind man from Canada, who was a railway engineer himself! We were quickly joined by a woman and her nephew (I think) and one couldn't ask for better seatmates. Our car hosts brought breakfast snacks and drinks for us, and gave a briefing about safety and the excursion equipment, and then we were off!

Our excursion took us past the Virginia Museum of Transportation, offering an angle on the equipment displays that one doesn't get by walking around the museum grounds. We then charged up the Blue Ridge grade, with an excellent view of the scenery and the engine from our dome car. "Summit View" was originally built for the Santa Fe, and went through several private owners, including Auto Train, before landing in the hands of Iowa Pacific, who have done a beautiful job restoring the car. I was surprised to find electrical outlets available at our table, and kicked myself for not bringing a charging cable for my phone, which was almost completely dead.

The excursion went by with only one hitch: our engineer seatmate, who was facing forward, observed an automatic signal dropping to red just before 611 passed it, which prompted an emergency brake application from the crew. Backing up to clear the block resolved the issue, and we continued on our way back to Roanoke. After we had turned in Lynchburg, I wandered several car lengths down to Warriors Rest, a commissary car that was being used as a mobile gift shop for 611 swag. I purchased a poster and some candy, then made my way back to my Dome Class seat, noting that many of the coach seats were empty. The 611 group had changed the Monday morning excursion to a Radford trip, same as the afternoon runs, and it was easy to see why, as not many coach tickets had been sold.

Of course, part of the excursion experience was spotting railfans along the way (we of course did our duty and waved back), and we saw many photo lines and vehicle chasers, including a gorgeous pink Cadillac we saw several times. The four hour excursion simply flew by, but the experience was worth every penny. After getting off the train, I joined the throngs of people walking down to view the engine that had just pulled our trip, and not only managed some clear photographs of the J, but several shots of our outstanding rolling stock.

After my long-awaited excursion trip in the morning, I snapped back to reality for the afternoon, and called AAA to add some air back to my tire. They arrived quickly, and I managed to arrive at my first photo spot of the afternoon with time to spare. I was greeted by NS Train 29G, and thankfully I kept my camera rolling for the whole train, as 611 came charging around the curve alongside the rear half of the train! The two trains continued to play leapfrog up the mountain, and given my damaged vehicle, I opted not to chase all the way to Radford as initially planned, but instead sit and wait at a road crossing west of Shawsville, and waited for the return trip. Sure enough, I could hear air hissing out of the tire, which solidified my decision to stay put. Train 50V rolled by, nothing but empty covered hoppers destined for another load of grain out west, and then something peculiar; Hotshot train 201 came VERRRYYY slowly around the corner, and then stopped east of the crossing, shutting of its lights. A bit of investigation on Facebook train groups told me that all rail traffic had been halted around the excursion for safety. Not long after, the steam train returned and gave 201 a hearty wave as they passed. I did my best to get a shot of the train coming into view, then raced backed to my camcorder to pan-shot the engine as it passed. Of course, you can't beat the train, and my failure to pan smoothly is evident.  I then leapfrogged the special one more time, opting to try and get the whole train in shot one more time at the Elliston straightaway. I didn't quite get the whole train in the image, but if I might be so bold as to quote O Winston Link "Oh, what a picture I got!"

I ended up spending the night in Roanoke, as my rear tires both needed complete replacing, and I arrived at the shop too late to have the work done. I had hoped to catch the engine a couple more times in the morning, but I wasn't quite so lucky. Once my tires were replaced, I decided it was indeed time to head home, even though there was one more afternoon excursion to chase. I had captured all the angles I wanted, I had a great time, and most importantly, I finally got a chance to ride behind Norfolk & Western #611 on the famed "Powhatan Arrow!"

As always, please enjoy the pictures above and the video below, thanks for reading!

C&O Heritage Center 5-26-17

 C&O #614, the crown jewel of the Chesapeake & Ohio Heritage Center in Clifton Forge, VA.

C&O #614, the crown jewel of the Chesapeake & Ohio Heritage Center in Clifton Forge, VA.

On Friday, May 26th, 2017, I made a slight detour on my way south to Roanoke for the 611 Memorial Day weekend excursions. Just a half-hour west of I-81 lies Clifton Forge, Virginia; site of a CSX and Buckingham Branch freight yard, with the Chesapeake and Ohio Heritage Center at one end of the yard. My primary reason for visiting was to see the other "J" class engine living in Virginia: C&O #614. This J-3A class 4-8-4 was built in 1942, and served the C&O for a mere 10 years before being retired. The engine sat in a deadline for decades, eventually moving to the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1981, Ross Rowland exchanged Reading #2101 (aka American Freedom Train #1) which had been severely damaged in a roundhouse fire, for C&O #614. The engine was restored for use on the Chessie Steam Specials, then modified for the ACE 3000 coal-fuel experiments, and finally retired from excursion service in the late 1990's after a series of trips on New Jersey Transit lines. The engine sat at the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad for several years, before being moved to Virginia in the early 2000s. It is currently painted for the failed "Greenbrier Express" luxury passenger train venture, and sits exposed to the elements, awaiting its next call to action. Ross Rowland's group is working on plans to run the engine again, and will overhaul the locomotive once a proper mainline excursion service plan is finalized.


The rest of the C&O heritage center is comprised of four buildings, two sidings, and a loop of large-scale ride-on model train track.The main station contained offices and a gift shop, which I gladly patronized, acquiring a DVD copy of the Ross Rowland documentary. Adjacent to the station is JD tower, or "cabin" in C&O parlance. I believe this is a replica tower, but I'm not positive of that. It provides a great overhead view of 614, as shown above. In the large freight building is a series of model train displays and smaller artifacts, including an O scale display layout and some large-scale "live steam" models. Especially impressive was a model of an Allegheny; I've visited the real thing in Baltimore several times, but seeing it from 'above' in this way was enlightening. Even in 7.5" scale, it's still enormous. The O scale layout had many detailed models of historic C&O stations, hotels and towers. Activated by a push-button was a 2-10-4 pulling a coal train and a set of E units hauling a passenger train. The last building on the property was a moderately-sized shed, containing maintenance equipment and the large-scale ride-on train. 

The full-size rolling stock on the track nearest the museum grounds was very well-kept. It included a combine coach, dining car, and a pair of cabeese. The inside of the dining car was set with authentic C&O china, some of which depicted Chessie, the C&O mascot cat. The baggage section of the combine coach had period luggage and shopping boxes, and the seating section had VERY comfortable reclining chairs. Of the two cabooses, one was modern and one was older, and the difference in size (and the size of the people they were built for) were stark. Further back in the yard was unrestored equipment, including several passenger cars, troop sleepers, boxcars, and an auxiliary water tender for 614. Adjacent to the Clifton Forge station building was a fully restored GP7 and flatcar.

Overall, the museum made for a pleasant visit; a delightful rest stop not far off the road to Roanoke. 

A Good Day for Odd Leaders 7-18-17: Monongahela Heritage, UP, and GoRail Units

On Tuesday, July 18th, I got word that NS train 228 had the Monongahela Heritage unit leading, followed by 35Q with the GoRail engine. I've already caught the #8025, and I'm not terribly interested in SD60Es (which the GoRail unit is), but does one really need much of an excuse to go railfanning? Armed with knowledge, I made my way towards Gainesville just in time to watch 211 pass with a CEFX leaser sandwiched by two NS. Drat! I then witnessed a hy-rail truck get on the tracks and proceed east, which indicated that I had a while to wait before the next train.

Once I heard 228 trip the defect detector at MP 19.7, I shuffled down to the Godwin Road crossing between Manassas and Bristow to set up my shot. The sun was almost directly overhead, but I wasn't terribly concerned as, again, I already captured this unit on pixels some months ago.

228 rolls south after passing through Manassas, VA

After 228 passed, I opted to take a nap before setting up at Powell Junction for 203. I was a bit nervous standing on the median strip (less concerned about the traffic and more concerned about law enforcement showing up and telling me to get lost!) but it turned out this was a brilliant location, as I got a lovely shot of 203 leaning into the curve at Powell and subsequently knocking down the Approach signal before a crew change at Bristow.

Finally, it was time to set up for 35Q. I planned a going-away shot for this train at Gainesville, so I could A: include the green signal in the shot, and B: not show the ugly cab of the SD60E in charge. About five minutes before the train arrived, the crossing experienced a false activation which lasted roughly 30 seconds. I didn't think much of it, and happily photographed and filmed the passing manifest, which came with some extra horn action from the engineer! 



My original plan was to fade out on the crossing gates going back up after the train had cleared. However, much to my surprise, my camera battery died before the gates went back up. After a good ten minutes of the gates remaining down, I opted to call the phone number posted on the crossing for such situations. The nice woman on the other end took my name and callback number, and I described the problem. Before hanging up, I asked if I could please cross the tracks because my truck was on the other side and I was ready to go home. Unfortunately, I was specifically instructed to NOT cross, as the tracks were "still active" and the woman on the phone was unable to verify that no trains were coming.

Thus began a long waiting period, during which I weighed my options. I *knew* that no other trains were nearby, and it was technically safe to cross. However, A: suppose NS police arrived just in time to see me walking through the down gates, and B: if they arrive and the gates are still down and I'm gone, they have my name and callback number, and they'll *know* I walked through the gates illegally. Given that this was my first interaction with the railroad proper, I wanted to be a goody-two-shoes. I also noted that my phone battery was running low, and a lighting storm was approaching from the west. While in the middle of deciding that I would cross "illegally" if my phone ran too low or the storm got too close (some safety decisions trump others, after all!) the gates finally went back up...45 minutes after 35Q had passed. The time wasn't completely wasted, as I did manage to get a couple of artsy shots of the crossing during my wait, and after all, I DID have a good day's railfanning, now with a story to tell!

As always, please enjoy the pictures and video, and thank you for reading!

The Last Circus Train 5-1-17: RBBB Blue Unit through Washington, DC

On May 1st, 2017, I set out for a historic, but bittersweet, railfan outing. The last fully-loaded circus train would be passing through Washington, D.C., and I had set the whole day aside to chase it south through Virginia. The Blue Unit had just finished its run of shows in Baltimore, and was heading for Charleston, West Virginia, for the second-to-last stand ever in the history of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. The Red Unit was in the process of finishing its final shows in Rhode Island, and that train would be split up shortly after the final loadout, with cars being shipped to their new owners, saving for the flatcars which first carried the production equipment home to Florida.

The train departed Baltimore in the late morning after several delays with switching and locomotive issues, finally reaching the Potomac River (border between D.C. and Virginia) in the afternoon, after I had spent a fair five hours waiting for the train in blistering sunlight and heavy winds. I have yet to decide if I'll upload my "Circus Train Pre-Game" videos (several other trains through the CP Virginia interlocking adjacent to Long Bridge Park) as the wind was so violent, it nearly took a bite out of my camera multiple times! I actually gaffer-taped my tripod to the railing to ensure that it wouldn't fall over while I was taking still images.

 This is why I always carry some gaffer tape with me. You never know when it'll come in handy!

This is why I always carry some gaffer tape with me. You never know when it'll come in handy!

Without much fanfare, though plenty of attention from the dozen railfans and various park-goers, the Blue Unit entered Virginia on CSX rails, and would soon transfer to Norfolk Southern at Alexandria, only a few miles south. I made the foolish mistake of trying to see the train at Van Dorn Street, where it was scheduled to sit for a few hours before continuing towards Lynchburg and points west. Instead, given that the train was already behind schedule, a brief stop was made to drop off the CSX crew, and then the train highballed out of the yard. I did my best to catch up, but unfortunately the train was late enough that evening Rush Hour traffic had begun, and I soon realized there was no way I would catch up to the train. I wasn't planning on Long Bridge Park being the last time I would see the circus train, but at the same time, I'm grateful I got to see it at all. Two more circus trains would pass through Washington D.C., but both would be devoid of people, merely ferrying equipment back to home base in Florida, stopping along the way to drop off passenger cars heading to new homes. And so, I bid a tearful goodbye to the Greatest Show On Earth, carried by the Greatest Train On Earth, for 146 years of American entertainment. May the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus rest peacefully as we treasure their legacy.

Below is a photo gallery and YouTube video link, and as always, thank you for reading!

Circus Train 4-3-17: Red Unit Chase from Petersburg to Lynchburg, VA

 The Red Unit of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus approaches the Petersburg Amtrak station behind two CSX units.

The Red Unit of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus approaches the Petersburg Amtrak station behind two CSX units.

Monday, April 3rd of 2017, was a red-letter day for railfanning in my book. At the beginning of the year, news came out of Florida that Feld Entertainment, parent company of the last circus travelling by train in America, was shutting down both units of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey touring circuses, effective in May. Citing declining ticket sales and rising operating costs, Feld felt the shows were no longer financially viable, and made the difficult decision to bring an end to a 146-year-old American tradition. Thankfully, the railfan community stepped up with a plethora of information regarding the final moves of both the Red and Blue circus trains, both of which were reduced to east coast tour dates following the cancellation decision. I made darn sure I got time off from work to see both circus trains one more time, and the Red unit was first on my list.

The show wrapped up in Hampton, VA the previous night (see my blog post about the circus wagon loading) and would depart the CSX yard at Newport News for a long trip to Wilkes-Barre, PA. I spent the night at a hotel in Ashland, as the original route called for the train to travel north from Richmond to Alexandria, where it would transfer to Norfolk Southern and travel south to Manassas. However, the schedule changed somewhat last-minute and instead called for CSX to hand the train off to NS at Petersburg, VA, where the train would head west to Lynchburg, then NORTH to Manassas, where it would take the B-Line to the H-Line and exit Virginia for the last time in the wee hours of Tuesday the 4th.

After spending a morning at Ashland trying out different camera techniques, I drove south to the Petersburg Amtrak Station, to await the arrival of the circus train. The station agent was very friendly, and every time he passed by to load baggage or speak with other railroad employees, we would briefly discuss the progress of the circus train, which was, as always: slow. The train left Newport News just after 9am, following an Amtrak Regional train, and negotiated its way through the state capitol around noon. I had misjudged the exact routing of the train, and felt foolish that I missed some golden photo ops around the Richmond area, but hindsight is 20/20! Finally, after waiting for a few hours and passing the time with several Amtraks and enjoying the calm quiet of the Petersburg station, I heard the circus train sound off for the nearby grade crossing!

Usual practice for the circus train is to have the flatcars (loaded with wagons and vehicles) towards the end of the train so passengers in the coaches can get a smoother ride. However, to expedite interchange with NS, the flatcars were riding at the front of the train for this first leg on CSX. That way, at Petersburg, the engines could simply run around the train before proceeding west on the Norfolk and Blue Ridge districts, rather than performing any switching in the middle of a rather tight schedule.

Since I was told the area around the yards at Petersburg isn't entirely friendly to railfans, I moved a few miles away to the railroad location "Jack" on the ex-N&W mainline. While waiting for the circus train to finish its interchange to NS, an intermodal train sped by with a standard-cab dash 9 leading the way. These standard-cab GEs are getting rare, so seeing this was an extra cherry on top of the day's circus pie!

Not long after the intermodal train passed, I got word that the Red Unit was on the pull from Petersburg. Sure enough, the headlights appeared around the corner moments later, and I was fortunate enough to get the entire mile-long train in one image, both coming and going! Unfortunately I fumbled with my new camcorder a bit, so only a zoom video shot is available from this angle. My only real regret is that I didn't capture on pixels a gentleman who raised his beer bottle to me as he passed; what a way to live and travel!

The train had reached full track speed by the time it was done passing me at James, and now the "chase" part of the chase was really on! Zooming west on US 460, I could see the silver snake through the trees as I did my best to get ahead of it. Over the course of about 15 minutes, I eeked out a lead and, having already passed one planned spot, I spotted a group of railfans set up at a private grade crossing. I managed to park my truck and plant my tripod with only a few seconds to spare!
 

I would like to give a special shoutout to the fellow railfans I met at this location. As I scurried up to the photo line, one man told me the train was almost there, and put his finger over his lips. I nodded, gave him a thumbs up, and planted my tripod as quietly as I could. Nobody said a word as the train roared past, no sound but the clickety-clack of the wheels and the snippity-snap of the shutters as history rolled past our group. Once the EOT passed, everyone waited several seconds while those of us taking video recorded a little extra to edit at the end of our clips. We all then said our polite goodbyes, and briefly discussed that we might run into each other again down the road. Alas, it wasn't to be, but it was indeed very pleasing to have such a professional railfanning experience with others. Thank you, strangers!

Moving west, the next stop was Crewe, VA, both for me and for the train. I found a good spot on a small bridge over the east end of the yard, but the rain was starting to take a toll on my camera. Due to lower light from the clouds, the shutter speed on the camera automatically lengthened itself, causing a lot of motion blur. Still, I was able to nab some good shots as the train passed under the bridge, and even managed to get up-close-ish with the tail of the train as it was stopped in the yard.

I also managed to catch the train as it began to leave Crewe, but mostly only with my camcorder as that's all I had time to set up. The train was already beginning to move when I parked. I also got an image of a young local boy watching the circus train pass by, waving to the circus workers in the windows and vestibules. Truly a classic American scene, not to be repeated.

It was at this point that the skies began to open up, having threatened rain for the better half of the afternoon. I scrubbed one spot I had picked out online, as a local resident posted several signs insisting that no parking is to take place near his driveway (probably tired of railfans trying to capture the last of the N&W Color Position Light signals before they are removed from service due to the onset of PTC) and found a private crossing not too far away. Though I did my best to frame the train with the still-standing CPLs, I opted to actually watch and let my camcorder do the work as the train passed me just west of Burkeville, VA.

 The circus train approaches through increasingly heavy rain, framed by soon-to-fall N&W CPL signals. Their replacements can be seen with signal heads turned 90 degrees. They will face the correct directions when placed into service.

The circus train approaches through increasingly heavy rain, framed by soon-to-fall N&W CPL signals. Their replacements can be seen with signal heads turned 90 degrees. They will face the correct directions when placed into service.

It was around this time that the going got very rough. Heavy rains made driving difficult, and I encountered many ruts in the road that, when full of water, would jerk the steering wheel to the right or left without warning. I had to slow my chase considerably, and began driving in a very tense manner. I decided the best thing to do would be to get way out ahead of the train for a bit, so I could get some driving out of the way and then relax for a few moments while awaiting the train. I'm not sure exactly how I stumbled upon it, but I found a "Railroad Lane" that led directly to the tracks, and offered a small open meadow for filming the circus train as it approached the crossing. Once again, the poor lighting let my stills camera down, but my camcorder captured a great scene!

My next, and ultimately last stop of the chase, was the Kemper Street Amtrak station in Lynchburg, VA.The train changed crews in Montview Yard, and then slowly crept past the station platform, illuminated only by lamp posts. It then stopped for a moment while waiting for the nightly Amtrak regional to clear the single track just north of Lynchburg, which gave me a good moment to ponder the historical significance of what I was seeing. This was the Red Unit's final fully-loaded run through the state of Virginia. Next time it came through would be the absolute last, having dropped most of its coaches at Oak Island Yard in New Jersey, slowly and sadly transporting the circus wagons and equipment back home to Florida. Though few museums and railroads have formally announced their acquisitions, most of the equipment was successfully sold at auction or donated, offering future generations a chance to at least get a glimpse of what a circus train was. My heart goes out to the cast and crew, who are not only losing their jobs, but their homes, their families and friends, and indeed their entire way of life. Many of the performers were born into circus life, growing up on the tour, joining the show at a young age, never knowing a "normal" life with a stationary house on a regular street, with travel being only an occasional treat. As the train jerked back to life and slowly continued its journey north, I was overcome with a profound sadness; one of the last circus trains, a tradition spanning nearly a century and a half, over.

My original plan was based around the circus train passing through Lynchburg around 4pm (according to it's schedule), giving me ample time through the evening to chase it up Norfolk Southern's Washington District on my way back home to Northern Virginia. However, as is always the case, the circus train feels no need to adhere to its own schedule, and moves with no sense of urgency whatsoever. As a result, I found myself in Lynchburg at 9pm, completely exhausted, nearly falling asleep at the wheel. Given that, I'd like to take this opportunity for a shoutout to my friend Chip, who graciously offered his guest room to me last-minute so I wouldn't have to spend the night asleep in my truck. Or worse, had I tried to drive home while so tired... could have been dangerous!

Of course, there is one more massive shoutout to give: All the wonderful people who called the circus (and the circus train) home! My heart goes out to those who are losing so much of their way of life. Cast and crew of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, please know that America loves you and treasures your legacy!

Thanks for reading, please enjoy the pictures above and the video below.

redunitwagonlynchburg

NS #12R and #214 5-14-17

214atthoroughfarerd51417

Another stressful start to the delightful hobby of railfanning. Just as I got on I-66 heading west, I heard NS 12R call the signal at Powell Junction in Manassas. Frustrating, as I wasn't going to be trackside for another 15-some minutes. While I initially considered running all the way to Delaplane, I decided to take my chances getting off at the Haymarket exit. While I considered stopping at the crossing on Route 55, but I saw no safe place to park OR stand. So, I trekked a little further to the hiking trail parking lot at Broad Run. Planted my camcorder tripod with about 3 minutes to spare! Surprisingly, there was enough wind to knock over said tripod halfway through the train going by, hence the cut in the footage.

Not long after 12R passed, I could hear 214 approaching the crew change point at Bristow. I really wanted a shot at the crossing at Route 55, but there really wasn't anywhere to stand that wouldn't be dangerous. Thankfully, the nearby Thoroughfare Road had much less traffic AND a better place to stand! While I was waiting, a local paused to ask why I was sitting in my car by the side of the road. When I replied that I was waiting for a train, he was happy to tell me about the many steam excursions he saw pass in the 80s, always running down to the crossing when he heard them whistling through Gainesville. Before he continued on his way, we both agreed what a shame it was that those days are gone. Shortly after, I heard 214 call the signal at Gainesville, and set up up my shot. I managed to frame a very satisfying shot of the train rolling through the curve, and opted to cut the footage in half again by panning to the opposite view.

Though I wanted to wait around for 35Q which had entered the B-Line after 214 passed me, other commitments pulled me away from trackside. Thanks for reading, please enjoy the pictures and video!

Artsy Ashland Morning 4-3-17: Creative-ish shots before a day of chasing!

Before my much-anticipated circus train chase on Monday April 3rd, I had a little more time to kill before the train left Newport News. While I was waiting for trains, I started to read up on railfanning photography tips and, given that I wasn't filming (saving camcorder batteries for the chase!) I was able to focus on taking better still images. It started with CSX Q-401, slowly grinding south after waiting for a northbound train to clear.

Getting trackside in the early morning, there was plenty of fog laying around, and I thought I might attempt to recreate a shot I saw of Amtrak's Auto Train in a book from the 1980's. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the right angle without trees and vehicles blocking too much of the view, and B: the train was running over an hour late. However, this meant that I stood on the sunlit side of the tracks, and I took the opportunity to practice my zoom shots... I'm very satisfied with how this turned out!

Next up was another Amtrak service, who's identity I don't recall. My guess would be a Northeast Regional service, but given that many long-distance Amtraks are now placing their Viewliner baggage & sleeper cars at the back of the train, I can't be certain. Framing turned out nicely though!

Last was a northbound CSX freight. I was too far away from my scanner to hear the train's ID; all I know is that it was quite a long train with some interesting power (the pictures of which didn't turn out well) and a wide variety of freight cars. Apologies for this blog post not being as detailed as others, but such is life. Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Circus Wagon Loading 4-2-17: Ringling Brothers Red Unit circus train loading process

The shot I drove 3 hours to get: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey wagons being loaded onto the train, a process soon to be confined to the history books.

On Sunday, April 2nd 2017, I drove 3 hours from my home in Northern Virginia to one of the easternmost points of the state, Hampton, where the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus was finishing up a run of performances at the Hampton coliseum. My intention was to film the loading process of the circus wagons, which along with the rest of the circus, was something amazing about to be confined to the history books. The larger circuses began traveling by train as early as the 1860's, and for the past few decades, Ringling has been the last one to transport their massive shows by train. With the final curtain falling on the 146-year show in May of this year, I simply HAD to watch the "circus style" train loading process happen one more time. The Blue Unit of the circus was coming to my hometown, and I would have just followed them down the street to the flatcars, but all the wagons were to be trucked out of town because of the short distance to the next stand in Baltimore, rather than loading them back onto the train for a mere 40 mile journey. Hence, I drove to Hampton, to follow up on a tip from a former circus employee on where the flatcars are usually staged for loading up the wagons.

Upon arrival, I found the roustabouts already in the process of building the ramp. The six metal segments (3 per side) were being placed by bobcat loader and brute strength onto metal stanchions perched on the rails, leading from the first flatcar to the edge of the grade crossing. I began filming, and was almost immediately told off by one of the crew members who did not wish to be on camera. Not wanting to be troublesome, I turned the camera away from him, and eventually relocated across the street where I would be out of the way of the crews.

With the ramps in place, a nearby pickup truck was the first vehicle onto the flatcars, towing a generator trailer behind it. The roustabouts then began selecting wagons one or two at a time, towing them over to the grade crossing with a "Harlan," a small tractor typically used to tow baggage carts at airports. The Harlan would position the wagons in line with the ramp, then get out of the way so the bobcat loader could push the wagons from the rear and the crew could connect the new wagons to the last wagon in line on the ramp. Next, the bobcat would push at the back with the pickup truck pulling at the front of the cut of wagons until the last wagon in line was completely off the grade crossing. Once the cut reached about 8-10 wagons in length, the bobcat loader continued to push the cut all the way up the ramp, the pickup truck's tires squealing at the heavy load, and the entire procession moved slowly down the string of flatcars. Upon reaching the last empty flatcar, the pickup truck and wagons would be tied down, while the bobcat loader turned around and drove back down the remaining empty flatcars to the grade crossing. There, the process would repeat all over again with different wagons and different circus vehicles pulling at the front of the wagon cut, continuing into the wee hours of the morning until the flatcars were all loaded.

While this was going on, a locally contracted towing company was bringing the wagons two at a time from the venue. The venue was only a few miles away, but it was far enough through busy streets that towing the wagons with the Harlans wouldn't have been terribly safe or efficient. The tow trucks would stage the wagons on the side of the road, ready for the roustabouts to pick and choose what would go up the ramp next. The loading order is partially determined by what needs to be unloaded first/last at the next stop, and sometimes the flatcars will be switched by locomotive after loading, to ensure the right equipment is in the right order for the arrival at the next venue, which in this case was two states away!

I had wanted to stay and watch quite a lot of the loading process, but given that the head crew member wasn't keen about me with my cameras, I beat a hasty retreat while the first cut of wagons was headed down the string of flatcars (I didn't want to be present when the crew came back, lest they felt the need to give me a piece of their mind!). Satisfied with the images I acquired, I drove back to my hotel room in Ashland, looking forward to a full day of chasing the circus train through Southern Virginia the following day!

Pictures are provided below, along with a link to a short YouTube video of the loading process. As always, thanks for reading!

Norfolk Southern OCS 4-11-17: Finally caught it after 10 years!

 A photograph I've been waiting a decade to take: Norfolk Southern's Office Car Special through the Virginia countryside.

A photograph I've been waiting a decade to take: Norfolk Southern's Office Car Special through the Virginia countryside.

Every major railroad maintains a fleet of passenger cars to be used for business and special events, such as the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Masters golf tournament. In 2007, Norfolk Southern overhauled a quartet of EMD F-units to assign as regular power for their train of business cars. Underneath the classic carbodies, the engines are built to GP38-2 standards, with the outside painted in a scheme reminiscent of the Southern Railway's "tuxedo" black and gold. While these engines have existed for roughly a decade now, I've never had a chance to catch them pass through...until now.

The Masters golf tournament took place in Augusta, Georgia, over the weekend of April 8th-9th. The OCS train left Altoona and went west to Ohio before turning south, a departure from the usual route straight down the Piedmont region, as there were passengers to be picked up in Columbus. However, the route back took the train up the easternmost NS main line, which included the Washington District and the B-Line; my home railfanning turf! I've always missed this train when it came through, either because I was busy or I simply wasn't aware it was headed my way. This year, not only did I find out a day in advance I could expect the train, but I already had the whole afternoon off to wait for it!

Thinking I could get a neat "S curve" video, I posted myself in Delaplane, VA. The OCS was unoccupied for the return trip to Altoona, which meant it didn't move with much priority. During my wait, I was able to catch two mildly interesting intermodal trains: NS 228 with a fantastic horn, and NS 211 with a Ferromex unit leading the way. Unfortunately, I was set up to shoot a westbound train, so my eastbound shots weren't terribly well lit.

I also learned the hard way about an issue with my new camcorder. Once the unit is powered on, you can close the screen flap and the camera will be on "standby" mode until you open the flap again. However, you must wait a few seconds for the camcorder to fully come online again before you hit "record," otherwise said button won't respond. Thus, instead of a 2-minute video of 211 with the Ferromex leader, I got a 4-second clip of myself saying "...OH FOR GODS SAKE." The video of 228 turned out well, at least:

Train 211 was set to meet 955 (operating symbol for the OCS) at Gainesville. While waiting, I heard the OCS crew call in NS police, concerned about trespassers on the tracks, who turned out to be fellow railfans looking for shots of the gorgeous passenger train. I was certainly not the only one out and about trying to photograph this train; many railfans were reporting the location as the train came north, others impatiently asked when the train would reach them, and still more appeared trackside near me. A big hello to everyone I met, apologies I didn't remember all of you.

One railfan observed that the sun angle wasn't quite right on the south side of the tracks. While I wanted to agree, I was also concerned about changing my position at the last minute, lest the train come while I'm trying to set my cameras back up. Sadly, he was right, as my first pictures of the train came out far too shadowed:

Once I got back in my car and took a moment to review my photos, I realized the lighting was indeed sub-par. Given that I refused to let my first catch of such a beautiful train be poorly lit, I elected to move further west on the B-Line to try again. After zooming down 66 and the back roads of Linden, VA, I came up on a spot where I had caught 611 last year. However, the lighting at this spot wasn't any better, so I got back in the car and drove further. I then happened across two of the best railfan photographers in the area, set up at a sweeping curve that was perfectly lit. I eagerly joined the photo line and had maybe one minute to spare before the rails began singing and the roar of the F units was heard just around the bend. As soon as the head end appeared through the trees, us shutterbugs began clicking away, all vying for that money shot, and I'm proud to say I got mine:

A video of the OCS is linked below. Thanks for reading, watching, subscribing, and enjoying!

Ashland Afternoon 4-2-17: CSX and Amtrak through the center of Ashland, VA

When I originally planned my chase of the circus train for April 3rd, the train was scheduled to come up the RF&P subdivision before changing to NS rails to continue west for its trip to Pennsylvania. I booked a hotel room in Ashland, intending to pick up the chase when the train reached there after departing Newport News. However, after making my reservations, the routing changed. Still, Ashland seemed like a great place to relax for a few hours before continuing on to Hampton, VA to watch the circus train loading. I caught several Amtrak trains and a few CSX freights, some of which had some interesting power!

The afternoon began with P079 hauling a pair of PV's, covered in my previous post. A while later, train Q415 rolled through. Although the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project now accepts doublestack trains, points further north do not, which meant that this train which began in New Jersey was largely trailers and single-stacks.

Shortly after Q031, the northbound P080 (counterpart to the southbound P079) passed by without much fanfare. Then came the treat: a doublestack train on the RF&P! 2017 is the first year that doublestacks have been permitted on the RF&P (which according to CSX, extends to the Virginia Avenue Tunnel in DC) and the show was not disappointing. I found that the containers on CSX were generally more colorful than the usual green and white of NS intermodal trains. Q130 was lead by engine #5500, the "Spirit of Cincinnati."

The RF&P is hopping with nearly as many Amtraks as through freights, as evidenced by three "P" series trains in a row. P195, a "Northeast Regional," P091, the "Silver Star," and P053, the famed "Auto Train" pounded over the many Ashland grade crossings in quick succession, with only the regional stopping for passengers.

During the onslaught of Amtraks, a CSX freight was seen coming to a stop at the end of the triple-track, where the line changes to double-track for the street-running portion of Ashland. The scanner revealed this to be train Q301, who was told he would be able to continue his journey as soon as the Auto Train passed. Sure enough, by the time the Auto Train engines hit the first crossing past the freight, the headlights came on and the long manifest drag began creeping to life, reaching my camera only a moment after the Auto Train cleared. Q301 had a GATX Leasing switch engine in tow, an MP15 that has apparently been on a bit of a tour of the CSX system lately.

Last but not least was train Q415, another lengthy manifest. The engine consist included the Chessie System "Bumper Sticker Unit," CSX's lame attempt at Heritage engines. I don't think these locomotives are even worth mentioning, I was MUCH more interested in the GP40-2 mother and road slug! 4 axle power out on the mainline is getting rare in the 21st century.

Video is linked below, thanks for reading and watching!

Amtrak PV's 4-1-17: Private Varnish on the way to North Carolina

"Super Dome" (Top), "Moonlight Dome" (Bottom Left) and "Silver Solarium" (Bottom Right) were three of the privately owned passenger cars I caught over April Fool's weekend.

Over this past weekend, I spent plenty of time trackside, and was able to catch six privately owned passenger cars (referred to by railfans as PV's, short for "Private Varnish") being transported on the tail of Amtrak's "Carolinian" from Washington, D.C. Union Station to Charlotte, North Carolina. From Charlotte, a Norfolk Southern local would tote the cars the remainder of the journey to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, where the cars will participate in the 2017 N&W 611 excursion season. Not shown are Iowa Pacific's "Summit View" and California Zephyr "Silver Lariat," both domes, which came south on days I was unable to get trackside.

An Amtrak train pauses at Alexandria Union Station in Virginia, seen from the King Street Station of the Washington Metro System.


On Saturday April 1st, I rode the Washington Metro to King Street Station, directly adjacent to Alexandria Union Station. There, I saw Milwaukee Road "Wisconsin Valley" Lounge car and the "Super Dome." I then got back on the Metro to Washington Union Station, hoping to find some of the other PV's waiting their turn to ride the Carolinian, which could only take two extra cars at a time. I didn't spot any of the Spencer-bound cars, but I did find "Berlin" and "Georgia Dearing" sitting on a far track with "Dover Harbor," the first two of which came in on Amtrak's "Cardinal" earlier in the week.

 Cars "Berlin" and "Dearing" sit on the far track at Union Station in Washington D.C. "Dover Harbor" and a couple of Amtrak cars are parked behind them."

Cars "Berlin" and "Dearing" sit on the far track at Union Station in Washington D.C. "Dover Harbor" and a couple of Amtrak cars are parked behind them."

The afternoon of April 2nd, I spent a few hours at Ashland, VA watching trains, biding my time until I would go to Hampton, VA, to watch the circus train load. Here, I saw the coach "Lake Pepin" and Baltimore & Ohio "Moonlight Dome," although I was only able to get a good picture of the dome.

Finally, on April 3rd, shortly after catching the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey "Red Unit" circus train through Petersburg, VA, I got an extra treat in the form of two California Zephyr cars on the tail of the Carolinian, which was right behind the circus train. Lounge car "Silver Rapids" and Dome/Observation "Silver Solarium" brought up the rear of the train in a very classy fashion. Video is linked below the final gallery of pictures, thank you for reading and watching!

Circus Train 3-20-17: NS #047 @ Gainesville, VA

After spending the whole day shivering with anticipation, and then three hours sitting in the dark after work, I caught the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Blue Unit circus train as it made it's way from Trenton, NJ to Richmond, VA, seen here passing through Gainesville, VA. The train would take the siding to meet 24Q before continuing down to Bristow for a crew change, then on to the state capital for a weekend's run of shows.

This was my first capture with my new video camera, which suddenly decided to go haywire on the autofocus moments before the train showed up. For manual focus, in the dark, first time using the camera, I think this turned out okay!