Well. I don't think I need to bore you with world events as of late. I think we all get the gist.
So, furloughed, no classes, no work, and really anything else going on, there hasn't been much to talk about. It's been depressingly quiet for the most part - until somewhat recently, at least.
If you've seen the Gallery lately, or my Flickr or Instagram, you might have noticed a few new shots crop up. A few things happened in the last two months which have given me a few nice photo opportunities. Shameless shoutout where I ask you to follow me on either or both of the aforementioned platforms - stuff appears there first almost always. Links to those (and others) in the sidebar.
So, let's start from the beginning.
The Quarantine Effect
Coincidentally, that's the name of the latest series of DJ sets I've been doing, but that's not what this is about. In saying that, there's a few new DJ sets I've posted recently, so... go listen to those! (hint: they're fresh under the Music tab)
With nothing else to do in this quarantine business the last few months, I turned back to Trainz a bit. I'm still doing that, though I've not got plans to put out stuff or do anything too seriously with it. It's just a bit of a timekiller since uh... that's all I've got for the most part. Here's an example of what I've been in doing in-game these days:
Before you ask, no, Trainz is not returning to SMWorks in any way. I still plan to remove the "Legacy" pages later this year. I've already hidden a few as it is. When that time does come, I will expand on it in another post here.
While doing things in Trainz, I got in contact with a few folks - or rather, they got in contact with me. Long story short, I've made a few new friends in the area which has been truly great and a real breath of fresh air. It wasn't long after meeting these guys online that we came to the realization that the N&W 2156's return trip was taking a route literally in my back yard.
So, we did some planning, and on June 13th, we met up at Tolono.
Would you believe me if I said I've never shot anything at Tolono until that day? It's true. Turns out it's the place to be - and it certainly was, a month ago.
Return to the Chase
I haven't chased anything since last fall, back in 2019 with the 261. Nothing has been running due to the obvious, so with a unique move such as this, I finally got the chance to get out of the house and do something truly fun again.
For some backstory: the National Transportation Museum in St. Louis loaned out a massive piece of their collection, the Norfolk & Western 2156, to the museum in Roanoke, VA, some five years ago. This was in time to have N&W 2156, 1218, and 611 meet up as the "Big Three." It was like a trip back home for it, essentially. 2156 is an N&W Y6a class, a 2-8-8-2 articulated locomotive. It's more of a slower, drag freight engine - unlike the Big Boy, for instance, with a similar wheel arrangement. Big Boy is more medium/high speed freight generally, while these Y6 classes were built for the steep grades of the Appalachians and to be able to haul coal over them, where emphasis was placed on tons to be pulled rather than speed. The loan to Roanoke was a 5-year lease, and it ended a few months back. There were no shenanigans this time like with 1218, and 2156 was transported back to St. Louis via NS over a five day period.
On the second to last day of its trip, it would come through Tolono, IL, head into Decatur, then head south. Not shooting this wasn't an option - I had to give it a go, and so did my newfound friends. We made some tentative plans beforehand, then headed out.
At Tolono, I met up with my new friends and we got ready for our little chase. While we waited for the train, labeled NS 957, we had plenty of time to talk and catch a westbound. It was great to meet in person and do some railfanning - I don't get out of the house much these days because of the obvious, so it was a great change of pace.
Thanks to ATCS, we knew when trains were coming - and it became quite clear that NS 957 was the next westbound. Directly behind the 25mph train was NS 21T - if you look very closely in the above shot, you'll notice that due to the gradients (and probably a bit of Earth's curvature) allow you to see both 957 and 21T - despite the fact they're on the same track, one after the other!
It's easier to see here with this nice Adobe Bridge highlight. I don't know about you, but that's pretty damn neat in my book.
Soon, NS 957 was on us, 21T hot on its heels. We got ready to shoot, and watched it come on through.
I forgot just how much of an adrenaline rush I get when doing this sort of thing.
Though 957 was only doing around 25mph, we didn't want to risk being stuck on the wrong side of the tracks and potentially missing an opportunity to shoot it between Tolono and Decatur, so we were on the side of the tracks without good light unfortunately. But it was quite a sight to see 2156 nonetheless!
Immediately after 957 rolled through, we jumped in ours cars and got moving. The difficulty with this little chase was there were no roads that directly paralleled the track 957 ran on - we would have to take a large triangle. If you remember anything from geometry class, you'll know that we were taking the longer route.
You'd think that having grown up here in Illinois my whole life that I would be familiar with the thin roads between fields - but not really, honestly. I'll just say this - I'm glad I was in the middle of our little convoy when racing over those roads, because I would not have taken them at the speed we did otherwise! I'm not sure what the legal speedlimit of those roads actually are, but I guarantee you we weren't adhering to it.
After our 80+mph run through the fields, we arrived at Bement. Specifically, we parked up on the west end, right by a pub at the end of Wilson St and next to the small NS facility. We didn't have to wait long for our train - hardly ten minutes. At Bement, the NS trackage changes to double track. We couldn't have gotten any luckier.
21T was running late, and only getting later thanks to the 25mph 957. 957 was pushed onto the northern track, 21T took the southern track. We had parked on the northern side.
When we spotted the headlight in the distance, I zoomed in as far as I could with my lens and then did the same on the image on my camera. What I found was another set of lights on the other side of the oncoming train. It didn't take much longer to verify what I saw, and we quickly realized that we had a side-by-side "racetrack" sort of situation!
Surprisingly enough, 957 overtook 21T. I was practically laying on the gravel to grab my shots.
It's quite something to get a view like that of a monstrous 2-8-8-2. As soon as 2156 itself passed me, I rolled over and caught it as it was going away. The light was quite favourable.
What a sight. Bement was fantastic. However, we were presented with a problem.
21T was rolling through now, and we had to cross the tracks in order to get to our next spot - the old Wabash bridge in Decatur. 21T was huge, and waiting for it to pass, as it was still accelerating, was not an ideal option.
As we got to our cars, a there was someone stood outside the pub we had parked near, who was also near the tracks - probably there after wondering why we were parked there. He seemed to know what we were up to - he called to us and pointed west and told us if we really hurried, we could beat both trains and cross the tracks. We got the gist, thanked him, and hurried onto E 900 North Rd and flew, passing 957 quickly. We easily beat both trains to Milmine and continued on our journey. That was quite a rush - I think I broke a speed record for my car when I had to pass someone else to keep up with our little convoy!
You'd think, again, that having lived in Central Illinois my whole life I'd have heard of the bridge at Decatur - but again, no! I've barely even been to Decatur for that matter.
Thankfully, my friends were plenty familiar with the spot. We got there in plenty time enough - first ones there even - and had our spots ready early. Once again we weren't on the ideal sun-side, but there were difficulties in getting to that spot with enough time to spare. Rather than risk it, we got to our spot, where plenty of others began to show up as well.
957 arrived at the Wabash bridge shortly after, and granted me the shot "Flashpoint" - what a sight that was to see it roll over the bridge.
Our next, and final stop, would be the old Wabash depot, at the diamond. We easily beat the train there, as it had to stop and wait for an eastbound freight. Light was falling quickly and my dim-lighting photography has never been particularly good - it didn't help I was out of practice for most of this chase, either.
At any rate, after the eastbound passed us, 957 was given the green and rolled on through. I believe it also saw a crew change in Wabic, near us.
If I had been smarter I would've gotten my tripod out, but by the time that idea came to me, there wasn't any time. Nothing worth working with from our last viewing, but it was a fine sendoff nonetheless. We watched 957 carry 2156 away towards St. Louis, caught another westbound - possibly 21T? - and chatted about the day. It had gone pretty well all things considered, and it was great to have finally done a chase again. We hung out for a little longer in Decatur, then as night truly fell, we all headed back to our respective homes.
The Storms at Tolono
It wasn't much too long after the chase of 2156 that I got a headsup I might be able to catch the PRR Heritage unit heading westbound if I headed down to Tolono. I had a choice: go to Tolono and catch something - where we knew via ATCS there were at least three trains I could see if I left at that moment - or sit at home and do really nothing.
Twenty minutes later, I was sitting at Tolono watching dark clouds begin to cover up the sky. To my west, an eastbound sat beyond the CN diamond awaiting its turn to cross. The signal bridge for westbounds stood right in front of me, and as it gained permission to move, the clouds continued to darken brilliantly.
Lately I've been learning more about signals. I've quickly come to be a fan of them in photos used as a framing device - now I really had a good opportunity to do that for myself. The NS motors I saw were rather grimy and certainly don't pop the way another railroads paint might in a shot like this, but I think I got quite the nice result out of this eastbound.
I caught one of two westbounds, but the photos didn't come out too well - lighting was definitely not working out in my favour, and I've still been out of practice. Once it had passed, the weather really started to pick up. The clouds were definitely rotating, and the rain was fast approaching. The wind was insane, as well - the storm was definitely here.
The torrential downpour appeared a minute later and I retreated to my car. A few minutes later, the last westbound came through, and there was no PRR to speak of. It was good it didn't come around, honestly, because there was too much rain for me. So it goes!
A Day in Springfield
Not long after the storms, I once again met back up with my friends from earlier and we spent an afternoon and good chunk of the night sitting in Springfield to hang out and catch some trains. Specifically, we stuck around in Hazel Dell to spot some NS traffic, as well as the slightly distant UP and two-time Amtrak. There wasn't tons of trains - and we didn't have ATCS with us this time - so we relied on scanner info (did I mention I bought a scanner? I bought a scanner, great investment!) and just listening for distant motors. Worked out pretty well, I'd say, as we caught a few trains and had a good time. Light wasn't with us for lots of it, but that's alright. Not every shot is a winner, sometimes just seeing something and grabbing a shot - good or bad - is enough.
Here's a few things we caught at Hazel Dell:
We learned on scanner a southbound UP would be coming through, so we elected to head into Springfield itself and visit the Amtrak station to shoot it. I ended up with a not-so-great shot of the head end, but two not too bad shots of it going away!
Back at Hazel Dell, we caught only one more train in the daylight. I feel like I might be able to work with this shot... maybe.
Not long after, one of my friends had to take off, so after saying goodbye, it was just two of us left to catch some more stuff we heard on scanner. We kept saying "no more than 15 minutes" then we heard on scanner something was close and we'd keep extending. Kept doing that until it was way, way, too late...
The good news? After literally years, I finally got to practice light painting / long exposures again. There's an old photo (two, even) on here and my Flickr called "Follow The Light," which was my first out-of-the-classroom experience with long exposure. I haven't done anything since then. Turns out, I've still got it!
It's been so long since I've done this stuff, and I'm so glad I got to try it again. For being so out of practice with it, it was so exhilarating to check my camera after the exposure finished and see the resulting images while the trains roared past. It was also a time to teach my friend how to do the same thing as well - it was a great time.
With three light painting shots under my belt, plus seeing some strange MOW equipment roll by with the strangest, saddest horns I've ever heard, we called it a day and I returned on home, memory card full of new photos and some great memories.
Heritage Heat (ft. Tolono)
Illinois, and much of the US, has been seeing some exceptionally hot days lately. It's been unbearably hot - still in the 80s at night, even! There has been no escaping this heat.
So, of course, that's the perfect time to try to track down some heritage units. I've never caught an NS heritage unit, and I barely caught UP 1995 (which I guess is temporarily OOS, so that's rad). With little else to do these days... why not?
I made three trips to an isolated crossing just east of Tolono over the span of two weeks - each time, with a heritage unit en route. Wabash, Reading, and original Norfolk Southern.
Wabash and Reading were total busts - their trains didn't get anywhere close until after nightfall, and then there'd be no way of catching them in a shot. As much as I enjoyed long exposure earlier, doing that with heritage units feels a bit like wasted potential.
So while those were failures, I did end up seeing other trains and nabbing some successful shots that I've added to the gallery here. The downside is that all that time spent waiting ended up granting me some sunburn and drenching me in sweat. It honestly felt like I was on fire at times - the third try was much cooler and much better, though, so thank god for that.
Turns out, third time is genuinely the charm. As the sun fell closer and closer to the horizon, slipping in and out of clouds... one final set of headlights appeared to the east.
At 135mm, I grabbed a shot as it crested the last small hill before it would hit my crossing and zoomed in.
No black and white - it was red.
I've never shot a shortline before, fun fact. Unless you count TC&W, but I don't.
So, an old friend I've had online for years works for Motive Rail, which operates the grain elevator in Heyworth and interchanges with CN. They run two ex-IC GP10s and an ex-SP MP15AC on former Illinois Central trackage. For IC fans, it's a great thing to see. It may not be deathstar black, but it's IC at heart.
My friend let me know ahead of time when they were running their next train and I came out to shoot it.
So, waking up early for the first time in a long time, I went up to Heyworth and followed the train south down near Clinton. It was a pretty hot day, and I wasn't the only one shooting, but it was a productive day for sure. Nice to finally shoot something more interesting like this, and also nice to finally meet up with my friend after all these years.
All in all, it was pretty fun. "Paducah Power" is my favourite shot of the whole day for sure - I guarantee I probably looked like a twat fiddling with my camera on the ground there, but the shot was well worth it. Wapella made for a few nice shots, for sure.
When the train parked up, that was the day, and I headed for home. On the way out, I spotted headlights down one of the crossings, and I spotted this guy hanging out in Clinton. Quite a nice day for some IC action!
A Day Out With BNSF
Very recently, and in fact in the middle of writing this post originally, I went on a day trip with the same couple of guys I chased 2156 with. The plan: check out the BNSF transcon, former ATSF, and see tons of traffic. It was a fun trip!
We met up at Normal and caught an Amtrak not too long after we all arrived separately. The station here is actually remarkably nice, as it happens. Feels quite modern - all it would take is some catenary and it could pass as European.
After we watched that come and go, we made our way up to Streator. The route we'd be taking today would have us start there at Streator, then rock along the transcon, catching stuff as we went, and into Chillicothe. The final destination would be Edelstein Hill, particularly on the famous Houlihan's Curve.
We hung around at Streator for a while - there isn't much traffic in the morning. At a certain point, though, then trains start to flood the system, and it becomes nearly nonstop with small breaks here and there. So we waited, checked out the old ATSF station there, and eventually made our way to the diamond once a few trains were seen to be headed our way via ATCS.
We caught four trains here at the diamond, three BNSF and one UP, and then we had a bit of a lull. So we grabbed some gas, had some navigational issues, and went to Ancona. Very nice superelevated curve there with a signal bridge in the background... prime shooting spot.
I haven't mentioned the heat, but boy it was hot all day that day. When that train came flying around that curve at damn near 70, it provided a very welcome blast of cool air. Felt quite nice, probably dropped the temperature a good 15 or 20 degrees.
We caught just that one at Ancona before we left. The idea from here on was we would go for Chillicothe, and if something popped up on the way, we would try to venture over to the tracks and catch it. Well, as it happened, something did come up on ATCS and we came to a crossing near La Rose to shoot it. Nice little spot, actually - great lines of sight and signals nearby. We shot two trains here.
Once both had flew on by, we headed over to Chillicothe once more. We learned a train would be coming through very shortly, so we made our way to a nearby park that sat just beside Iowa Interstate tracks. BNSF crossed those, as it happens.
Blink and you'll miss it.
We were hardly there for a minute when that came on through. For an added bonus, we also got word that an Iowa Interstate train had a track warrant for the very track I stood on to take the above shot. Well, geez, who are we to say no to that?
So, we ran on down to the old Rock Island depot in Chillicothe, which was in great shape. They've done a fine job of restoring and maintaining that. We had parked for hardly two minutes when we could see the headlight in down the tracks. The train worked its way through peoples yards and plenty of crossings before coming right before us.
Talk about good timing! One after another, BNSF to IAIS... good stuff. It was a fairly short train, with a number of hoppers and a few tankers, which then disappeared. We grabbed a quick shot or two of the depot on its own, then headed back to the cars to return to the transcon.
A little meandering around Chillicothe later, and we made our way to the end point: Houlihan's Curve on Edelstein Hill.
We hung around here the rest of the day. A lot of people that drove by would wave, a few even stopped to ask what was up or just say hello, more or less. One particularly amusing encounter was when a car pulled up in front of us. The guy in the passengers seat rolled down his window and asked, "You guys looking for trains?"
"Sure are," we replied.
His response? He held up his own DSLR and said, "Me, too!"
Some time later, a couple of guys in a truck pulled up and asked us what we were up to - the usual thing. When they left, one of the guys said, "Be careful out here! You never know what happens at night on Santa Fe Road!" in an overdramatic voice that radiated humour. It sounded a bit like trying to tell a scary story at a campfire, as it were.
After a while, one of my friends took off for home. It was down to two of us - just like in Springfield a few weeks before. We caught just a few more trains before dark started to really set in.
As it got darker and darker, we decided we would catch at least one train in low light to once again practice the light-painting long-exposure stuff like before. We returned to Chillicothe briefly though, as hanging out on the side of the road there at night is a bit unnerving. Got gas and whatnot as well, and chatted until ATCS told us the train was proper close. We hurried back to the curve, but we had misjudged our timing and by the time the train came by, my camera wasn't fully set up yet. There was yet one more to come, though, so we decided as long as it didn't take too long to get here, we would try one more time.
Well, while we waited, my friends car sort of hiccuped and died. Battery just said good night and killed itself for some odd reason. We spent a whole ton of time trying to figure out what the hell just happened, but to no avail. No amount of trying to jump it would work, either. His car was just not having it. To add insult to injury, when the train did come by, the shot didn't even come out well. It wasn't even worth staying for the second train in the first place. The utter lack of light out there meant focusing was hell - impossible automatically, and difficult manually - and the train was moving much slower than I anticipated, resulting in the exposure ending while the train hadn't even gotten halfway through my viewfinder. A shame.
With the train passed, we packed up our camera gear and put all focus towards trying to figure out what the hell was up with his car, but to no avail. After quite some time, we had no choice but to close it up as best as we could (because of course, couldn't close the sunroof or even lock the thing without the battery working) and had to leave it there for the night. He would then come back in the morning with his dad to figure something out. We took anything of importance/value, tossed it in my car, and I drove him home before heading back to my home myself.
Though it was a sour ending to an otherwise great day, the good news is that just a few hours later (yeah, we were out there long enough that dawn meant just a few hours... yikes) he returned to Chillicothe and got the car going again. Nothing damaged or stolen, either. So it all ended up working out nicely in the end!
When everything was said and done, I came out of the trip with a very nice haul of photos and quite a few memories. It was a pretty great day.
Wrapping It All Up
It's been nice to get out of the house a bit with some of these recent little trips, as well as getting in more practice in shooting. I don't photograph stuff as much as I should or wish I did, really. I've decided that I want to really get better with manual mode and as a result, I've been working exclusively in manual lately. Every photo in this post is manual, for that matter! There are a lot of shots that I've taken in automatic, and I'd like to do away with automatic entirely. Auto works well a lot, but going full manual lately has really helped me slow down and really go for the shot I want. Makes me think about the shot a lot more.
Something you've probably noticed in this whole post is the little black border around most photos, and also the fact that their colours are pretty muted except for named photos. That's because while I also switched to manual, I've also made the full switch to exclusively RAW shooting. If memory serves, all the photos I've posted on this site before 2020 were shot in just the largest size of Jpeg that my camera allows. I did some fiddling around before the 2156 chase and, thanks to having learned a lot more about photo editing, decided to give RAW a whirl for the chase. RAW only, no Jpegs. Quite a change to go from auto-shooting Jpegs to manual RAWs, but the results have been worth it. Editing photos is much easier, a more pleasant experience, and I spend more time creating a better shot. Fewer to pick from in a given set, but that means that whatever photo I do choose is going to be better now. More thought put into each shot.
The one downside is that to show off shots, I have to take a screenshot of their preview in Bridge, hence the border and the fact the colours are rather dull. It's a nuisance, but well worth it considering what the final shots turn out like now.
You've also probably noticed the site updated recently. I decided that with a whole new series of shots coming in lately, with new standards and editing styles, it would be prudent to give the site a freshen up to match. The homepage finally gets new artwork after a year and a half, the Photos page gets a more condensed preview for the big four trips, and gets you to the main gallery sooner. Music page has a few more links, About page got some updates, and I've started pulling stuff out of the Legacy pages. One of these days, I'm going to just yank the entire Legacy page off of the site permanently. Don't be surprised if that whole section disappears one day.
Bonus! In November, I'm shooting the Soo Line 1003 at the Trains Magazine photo charter! I've never done a photo charter in my life, but seeing as there hasn't been much steam for me to shoot (and the SOU 401 in Monticello is down for its 15-year rebuild, so there won't be anything near here for a while), I wanted the chance to try something new and see something new. Provided nothing changes, that should be a fun trip to take and get some nice shots out of.
So, we'll see what the future holds. I've got no other trips lined up outside of 1003 in a few months, but I'm sure something will come up. I'll definitely have to catch some more stuff near home one of these days, too. There's stuff I want to do, but those trips will have to wait until things are a bit closer to normal. It would also be great to have a job again. I am taking this fall semester off though - already felt like I was in a rut school-wise, and with Covid, classes would just flat out suck. Hopefully things are better by next semester and I can knock another couple of classes out of the way. This is the first fall in my entire memory that I won't have school of any kind. Weird.
Anyways, that's me. Been a weird few months, and I'm sure the next few will be equally weird, if not more so (November is gonna be... something, I know that much). At any rate, thanks for reading! Who knows when the next post will be - I've quickly learned I should never predict the future or make promises with this sort of thing - but I'll see you then.
Be safe, wear a mask, and as always...
Hello, my name is SM, and this is where I write.
This little blogspace is where my thoughts go - whether it's talking about a photography trip or a DJ mix, this is where it all ends up.
SMWorks isn't free to run! Consider sending a little support our way if you can.