2020: The Year of the Deathstar
In years past, when asked about the things I take photos of, I always answered with trains - of course - but always specified something to the effect of: "only really interesting ones, like steam engines. I would never go chase a diesel because they aren't very interesting."
Well, suffice to say I don't say that anymore.
I happen to live at an interesting railroad crossroads of sorts. The old east-west line, owned by too many companies in years past to list but including the New York Central, Penn Central, Conrail, and now Norfolk Southern, certainly acts as a bit of a dividing line in town. But it's the north and south mainline of the Illinois Central that is the true split. It literally divides the town in half and is very much a focal point in the town. In fact, this mainline is the reason the town exists at all.
The Illinois Central went through many changes over the years, including a rebranding into the Illinois Central Gulf after its merger with the Gulf, Mobile, & Ohio, but its parent company finally dumped the railroad on its own in the 1980s. Finally, the IC was on its own again, and ready to rebrand. The new Illinois Central saw a dip back to its classic black paint, but with a new set of logos - a big "i" overtop a circle made up only of parallel lines. The birth of the Illinois Central Death Star.
You may wonder, why is it called "deathstar?" The answer comes just from the look of the logo. The dot of the "i" on the upper half of the circular logo sort of looks like the superlaser on the Death Star from Star Wars. Plus, the parallel lines that make up the paneling on the moon-sized battle station feel a little similar to the IC logo as well.
The paint is almost painfully simple. Black from top to bottom, spray on white numbers on the long hood, the "Illinois Central" text on the cab, and a deathstar logo up on the nose - a bit of white along the frame (later yellow after CN took over), and that's it. Some would call it too simple, but frankly, its simplicity is what makes it so appealing to me. It feels like a bold statement - they know what they're about, they don't need to make some fancy paintschemes with multiple colours and different designs. All black, logos and lettering. Nothing more.
The IC deathstars are still around today - 37 of them, in fact. 26 are SD70s and see regular mainline service. This is down from about 258 (give or take a few) when the IC was taken over by CN two decades ago. It's the SD70s that are of particular interest to me.
The last locomotives acquired by the IC were the SD70s. 20 were acquired in 1995, 1000 through 1019, and 20 more in 1999 - 1020 through 1039. Four were wrecked on July 10th, 2005 and duly scrapped, ten repainted over the years. The remaining 26 wander around the CN system - but about two years ago, a good chunk of them were hauled back home to, well, Homewood. A number of the SD70s were working on the old Bessemer, but as of this year, most of them - in fact I believe only 1022 remains running there as of writing this - have been pulled off of the Bessemer and seem to be migrating back to home rails.
Home rails, of course, being the Illinois Central mainline from Chicago to New Orleans... which just so happens to bisect Champaign neatly. This past year has seen more deathstars running in and around town than I've ever seen in my life, which has granted me the golden opportunity to shoot every one that I can.
There has been rumour these past few years of the SD70s and other CN 70 and 75 series engines being rebuilt into SD70ACCs. It's not totally clear if that really is the future these old workhorses are going to end up in, but it certainly remains a possibility. Thus, my goal is to shoot as many of them as I can before they're gone.
It's almost a guarantee these days that A408 or A407, the daily south and north trains between Centralia and Kirk Yard in Gary, IN, will host one or two deathstars on them. Not to mention, other daily trains in and out of Champaign have netted multiple catches in the mornings and afternoons. A407 and A408 are the real stars though, as they're roughly midday trains and I can often find them at the start or end of my lunch hour at work. I even see deathstars and other trains rolling through the railyard during work hours as our warehouse is just across the pond from it - literally!
Two weeks before Christmas, I was called into work on a Sunday - orders had piled up and some extra hands were needed to help pick, pack, and ship them. But, as it turned out, we managed to take control of the situation pretty quickly, and by my usual lunch hour - about 1pm - my boss was telling us that if we wanted to take off early, that was perfectly fine. I thought about staying and getting a couple extra hours in, but I decided I was tired enough already and wanted to call it a day, and I took that offer and headed out early.
On my way home, I was listening to a few songs, and decided I wanted to hear a few more before I got home. A little break, essentially. So, coming up near the southern end of the railyard, I decided to do a lap around the yard and see if there was anything interesting hanging out. At the southern end, nothing at all - not even a plain CN motor or anything, just no train at all. But at the north end...
A407, the daily northbound train out of Centralia, was sitting near the Leverett Junction signals, ready to go. In its lashup was not one, not two, but three deathstars - and a CN zebra C40-8M!
I immediately texted a photo to my friends and one of them replied with "I will be there" - I ran home and grabbed my camera and scanner. By the time I was back, my friend was already there, and the train was still there. Normally, a cloudy day with a train like this would be painful, but this helped a lot, as the sun is to the south during these winter months and would make shooting this train impossible. We knew we were going to shoot it here and at least in Leverett itself, but after that, well, we weren't sure.
As soon as the train left a few minutes later, we knew the chase was on. US 45 parallels the IC mainline for a long, long time, and that gave us the perfect opportunity to chase A407 north until we just couldn't anymore.
IC 1035 was our leader, backed with IC 1003, CN 2412, and IC 1033. Almost as soon as the train cleared Leverett, he got up to track speed and stayed that way for a while. It made our chase pretty hectic, especially because of the intersections in Rantoul, but we managed to make stops along the line - sometimes pretty bold ones! - and get shots.
This next one looks like the train was photoshopped in, but here in Chebanse, the darkness made for a hell of a difficult time pulling a shot. I'm still learning how to shoot in darker environments like this, but hopefully in time I'll get it down. It sort of looks like a blue-screen model put in a scene like in the original Star Wars movies - a bit fitting, no?
On Thanksgiving day, I heard the EJ&E heritage unit was coming north, and on my way down to spot it, I happened across IC 1020 and CNIC 1009.
I followed IC1000 from Champaign to Tolono some months back, where CNIC1009 also joined it, as did the CN 100 GEVO 3233 - the latter has since been repainted into one of CNs new veterans units! You can also spot this train in a picture earlier in this post, "Smile For The Camera" - named as such because of the smiley face drawn in the dirt on the deathstar logo.
Not every time I spot deathstars do I find myself with enough time to set up for a proper shots, or enough space to even get a decent one. Sometimes, the shot just doesn't turn out properly. Even if I can't get a nice shot, I still like to take a shot regardless. Here are some of those catches -
I've seen even more of the deathstars over the last year. My interest in them really began when I saw the two late last year pulling the Dash 8s down to Centralia.
The last decade has seen the demise of most interesting motive power in the US. The eras of clapped out leasers are gone thanks to PTC, and even the C40-8Ms are now dead in the water as their frames sag and they lack PTC. Interesting paint and heritage power has been retired en masse or repainted to one of the fairly boring Class 1s. Yet still, these deathstars continue to soldier on. They're different from the usual power - straight SD70s and an old paint scheme, one that still holds up today even. It's a change of pace from the usual day-to-day railroading, and they're part of a railroad that made a lot of history during its time.
I also just think they look cool as hell.
Only this past year have I really started to get into shooting regular railroad operations and not just special excursions or events. I have the IC units to thank for that, as they're something to look forward to seeing in a typical day-to-day railroad operation. Some find these motors boring or don't like them at all, but for me, I'll always enjoy them. I hope they continue to operate in the future, but only time will tell.
At any rate, I've enjoyed more deathstars in 2020 than the previous 21 years of my life combined, and I hope to find even more through 2021.
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