Sunday, January 26, 2020

A Photo Worth Saving

The following article was written by our son. We hope you enjoy it!


During my younger days, railroad photography was quite the hobby for me. As much as I would have liked to aspire to heights of Richard Steinheimer and Ted Benson, my work was amateur at best. I was really interested in capturing the 3 quarter view roster shot of locomotives or freight cars for modeling purposes. However, I still would snap action photos, and did my best with composition while trying to capture the "point in time" consists.

My film of choice became slides. Kodachrome 64 was preferred, but would also shoot Ektachrome or Fujichrome depending what was available. I tried to keep the film speed low (64 or 100 was preferred) in hopes of keeping film grain as small as possible.

But, there were those times that I would get rebellious and go for 200 or even 400 speed films in hopes of capturing even more images. But at times, a heavy price was paid for that convenience.

Take the above photo for example. Take back in April of 1997, it shows a westbound Santa Fe helper set, lead by Burlington Northern SD40-2 #8040, splitting the block signals at Bena siding in the famed Tehachapi mountains. They are passing an eastbound Southern Pacific train that has just had it's helpers added to the rear, and is about to begin the ascent up the mountain.

Back in 1997, this was a ho-hum shot. Nothing spectacular, other than a BN unit in helper service, taken on a cloudy day.

Fast forward to today, some 23 years later, and the shot now has some historical significance. As we know, both railroads are no longer around, having been merged into larger class 1 roads. The locomotives are mostly gone, Bena siding has been ripped out, and manned helpers have given way to remotely controlled DPU helpers.

While the above photo has content significance, the technical side of the photo is a disaster. Taken with high speed film, there is significant grain showing. Plus at the time, by camera equipment wasn't the best. Thanks to the available lighting at the time, the photo is dark and flat.

Looking to see what could be done to help this photo out, I first started by scanning the slide using my Plustek scanner and Vuescan software. It was scanned at 3600 dpi into a TIF file with just a few small Vuescan adjustments.

Looking at the raw TIF file, I knew I had my work cut out for me, with the biggest issue being film grain and noise. So I did some research on the internet, and DeNoise AI by Topaz Labs kept coming up in various photography forums as a really good denoise filter.

Did some research on the Topaz Labs website, and they offer a number of plugins to PhotoShop, in addition to a updated all in one software called Topaz Studio 2. You can try out their software for 30 days free, so I took them up on their offer.

The above photo shows my results. It's better, and in my opinion presentable now. But what is really amazing, at least for me, is how well Topaz Studio 2 did using the built-in AI Clear filter. It did a good job at reducing noise while adding some sharpening. The modified photo was then re-exported out to a TIF, and brought into PhotoShop Elements for exposure and color corrections.

My reality is that I have many more slides like this with noise and grain problems. While the photo quality isn't that great, the content is, and therefore worth saving. All photos have value as it captures a point in time that in just about all cases, can not be recreated. Thanks to this workflow, it looks like I now have a path to improve those technically less than ideal photos.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Black Mesa & Lake Powell Railroad

While on a family vacation back in December of 1981, we stumbled across the Black Mesa and Lake Powell railroad in northern Arizona. Situated east of Lake Powell, the railroad moves coal from a mine loading facility near Kayenta to the Salt River Project Navajo Generating Station just outside of Page.

This is beautiful high desert country with plateaus and valleys, but be forewarned that chasing the BM&LP will not be easy. Public access is limited to a few public highway crossings, with most of the railroad being on private property or the Navajo Indian Reservation. However, there is few mile stretch where Highway 160 parallels the tracks southwest of Kayenta.

Train frequency is limited to a few trains a day, so it really becomes a matter of "being in the right place at the right time". That's what happened with us when we shot these early morning photos.

A few things to note about the railroad. It is totally electrified, using General Electric E60 locomotives for power. Besides the 6 original units built for the BM&LP, they also picked up another batch of E60's from Mexico.

The railroad itself is landlocked... meaning that it has no connections to other railroads. Given the remoteness of the railroad, it's understandable. It also means that any locomotives or cars need to be trucked in / out.

Finally, built in 1973, this was the first railroad built in the country to use 50,000 volt AC power.

One final site seeing note. Glen Canyon Dam is located just outside of Page, and is worth a stop. It is an impressive structure, and something that more than likely will never be built again in this country. Also, Lake Powell itself is immense and offers many recreational activities.

Our first photo is of a loaded train waiting for it's turn to leave the mine loading facility. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time, as the locomotives are well lit in the December early morning sunlight. Winter is a beautiful time of year in the high desert, with plenty of clear skies. However, it does get cold, and it does snow.

At the time when these photos were taken, the only locomotives on the railroad were the original six E60's from General Electric. The E60's from NdeM in Mexico won't arrive for another decade or so.

Here's another E60 photo, this time on an arriving empty train from Page. If you look at the prior photo, you'll notice a cab air conditioner on the lead unit, whereas this unit doesn't have one. Probably why it is a trailing unit. The high desert can be equally as hot in the summer, so I imagine the crew appreciates the air conditioning.

Here's one of the BM&LP hoppers. I believe this is one of the cars built by Ortner. I also believe gravity dump was used at that time for unloading. Besides the Ortner cars, BM&LP also used hoppers built by FMC,

Our final picture shows the loaded train at the mine loading facility. This is wide open country, and the train seems dwarfed by the sheer openness of the land.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Flat Car Repurposed

Back in 2015, I was exploring Eastern Iowa looking for remnants of the long abandoned Chicago Great Western Railway. According my research on Google Earth, there was a small trestle that looked to be within viewing distance of a county gravel road in Lamont, Iowa.

Having found the gravel road, I made my turn and noticed a "Bridge Out" sign next to the road. I figured I would follow the road until I either found the CGW trestle, or was stopped by a large gap in the road where a bridge once stood.

I didn't have any luck finding the CGW trestle, but I did come across "Road Closed" signs blocking the road, and ahead was an old single lane truss looking bridge that was in the process of being dismantled.

Since I was there, and I had camera in hand, I decided to record a few pictures of the old bridge before it was completely torn out. As I was taking a few detail shots of the bridge remains, I noticed what looked a couple of upside down flat cars laying in a ditch on the other side. While this peaked my interest, time was running short, and I needed to continue journey.

About a month later, with Iowa highway map in hand, I found myself on the other side of the now torn out bridge. Laying there in the ditch next to the gravel road were two 89 foot Trailer Train flat cars.

The flat cars had been stripped of all appliances. With good sunlight, I proceeded to take detail shots of the undersides.

After all, how often is a modeler presented with fully lit under frame shots. This was a first for me, being able to record bolster, cross member, and floor reinforcements.

As I was clicking away, it became more apparent that these Trailer Train discarded cars were going to be somehow incorporated into a replacement road bridge. Iowan's are known for practicality and metal working, so it seemed like a plausible possibility. Time would tell though.

As my time was drawing to a close, I wanted to record the reporting marks and car numbers, should a record of the car's dispositions be needed. Unfortunately, Spring had sprung in full force, and the native Iowa grasses and weeds were starting to shroud the car sides. But, there was enough showing that I could somewhat capture the car's identifying marks.

It's now 2 years later, and the "Bridge Out" sign next to gravel road has long since been removed. For about a year now, I've meant to stop and see the new road bridge, and more importantly see what became of those 89' flat cars.

As I had theorized 2 years prior, the flat cars were indeed used as a road deck for that replacement bridge. And much to my surprise, the bridge retained much of that flat car look, complete with reporting marks, car number, and even the Trailer Train logo.

Looking like something we modelers would do in scale, the bridge builders simply sliced and spliced the flat car decks together to form the bridge road deck. I've seen similar application of decommissioned flat cars being used as bridges, but the use was limited to private roads and railroad access roads. This is the first time that I've seen such a use on a rural county road though.

Once again, time was drawing to a close. As I drove out to the main road, I couldn't help but think that the last time Lamont saw a TOFC flat car was back in the early 70's just before the Chicago and North Western railroad suspended service on the former CGW line. It's ironic that some 40 years later, TOFC service (that's Tractor on Flat Car) returns to Lamont.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Dubuque Local

The Canadian National runs a local out of Dubuque, IA that serves industries west of town. Making stops in Peosta, Farley, Dyersville, Delaware, and Manchester, this local often draws a pair of 4 axle locomotives, although that isn't always the case. We have 3 such rather unique examples for you.

In May of 2009, we captured this lone CN SD40-2W making a pickup of empty center beam flatcars at our Dyersville team track. While not ideal for the engineer, this local is running long hood forward for it's westward trip. As we can see from the photo, the local consists of one load, either to be dropped off here for our local truss manufacturer, or being spotted at a lumber yard in Delaware.

A year later (May 2010), the Dubuque local is "borrowing" a BNSF SD70MAC for power. Again, with a single unit running long hood forward, the westbound leg of the trip will not be ideal for the engineer. Given that there aren't any cars visible on the mainline behind the power, this is another over powered local. With only a single car in tow, this locomotive is handling more like a sports car, as it's normal assignment is handling 14,000 ton coal trains out of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

Back in 2010, the BNSF would hand off a loaded Powder River coal train to the CN in Sioux City, IA. The CN would run the train across Iowa to East Dubuque, Illinois where there was a rail to barge transfer facility. Our guess is that this single BNSF unit was the DPU on a coal train, and instead of leaving it in East Dubuque, it was brought across the Mississippi River to Dubuque.

In July of 2016, the Dubuque local is making good use of a CN SD75I and a former GTW GP38-2 for power. Again, we are in Dyersville, and the local is picking up a rather sizeable cut of empty center beam flatcars. And once again, both locomotives are facing the wrong direction for the westbound trip.

The only place to turn locomotives close to Dubuque is at the wye at Manchester. Given that the Dubuque local usually terminates is westward trip there, if the locomotive(s) are facing the right direction for eastbound movement, the crews will forgo turning the power in favor scooting back to Dubuque and completing any en route switching.

Monday, June 27, 2016

A Couple of Prototype Observations

Remember sometime back when Model Railroader magazine did a series of articles on passenger trains you can model? The articles were based on prototypical short trains that would fit the average home layout. Well, we bring you a freight train that you can model. The above BNSF northbound train was captured in May of 2016 at East Dubuque, IL. Consisting of three road engines and two hopper cars, this train would fit nicely on even the smallest home layout.

While sub-lettered for the BNSF, the former Santa Fe warbonnet C44-9W is still carrying it's original lettering and number. Not bad considering the BN and the ATSF merged almost 20 years ago.

Here's the caboose for this very short train. BNSF 1528 is a GP28M and was rebuilt from a NP GP9 by the BN.

Here's something from our son. He photographed the above two ES44AC's in June of 2016 after they assisted a loaded grain over the summit at Palmer Lake, CO. Manned helpers on the Joint Line between Denver and Pueblo were once common place, but have become much less frequent since the advent of DPU's.

Here's the interesting thing though. These helpers were cut off the rear of the train... ON THE FLY! Our son couldn't believe it. Neither could his friend who is a local railfan. Quit frankly, we couldn't believe it either. But, it really happened.

As to how it happened, the boxes attached to the front handrails and plugged into the MU cable had something to do with this feat. At the time the rear helpers were cut off, the conductor was in the cab, so the couple pin was mechanically pulled by the boxes. The photos were taken with a cell phone, and it was late in the afternoon (and in the shade), so the photos aren't be best quality, but you can see device, and what looks like a FRED attached to the brake hose.

So the next time you're looking for something unique to model, give this a try. With DCC, this prototype practice could actually be done in model form.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

At the Central City, IA Show

Displaying our kits and sample builds at the Central City, IA show. If you are in the Cedar Rapids area, come on down to the show. It's located at the Central City High School in Central City, and is open until 3:00 pm CDT.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Rebuilding of 2nd Street Crossing

Last month (Aug 2015), the Canadian National rebuilt the 2nd Street grade crossing in Dyersville. Well, since the crossing is right outside our front door, we decided to document the rebuilding process with photos. It took several days to rebuild the crossing, and was interesting to watch. Our son, who worked for Amtrak for several years as a conductor, added some additional information when he viewed the photos.

Here is the crossing before the rebuilding started. Rubber crossing inserts had been used the last time the crossing was worked on.

Here's a closer shot of the rubber crossing inserts. If you look closely at the center portion of the inserts between the rails, you'll see a darker color. That's from the locomotive pilots scrapping the rubber insert. Why? A soft spot had developed in the roadbed underneath the crossing, and when trains went through at track speed, there was enough of a bounce to cause the pilots to hit.

Here's a photo of the pedestrian crossing before replacement. Wooden inserts had been used. We would watch bicyclists ride across the tracks using this crossing, and it was not a smooth ride!

A contractor has already made a cut into the street asphalt. Everything from the cut to the track will be replaced with new asphalt.

MOW crews are starting to build the replacement track panel. New ties and rail are being used.

Here's another view of the track panel. Assembly is mostly complete. If those ties look longer than normal... you're right... they are. You'll see why a little later.

A few days prior to the project starting, a couple of pallets of new tie plates were dropped off at the site.

Some of the longer ties have been removed from the new track panel. Crews must have measured out the actual new crossing inserts, and determined they needed to reduce the number of long ties.

Here's the completed track panel with standard ties added to the ends. Notice the difference in length between the long and standard ties.

Here's a closer view showing the difference in length between the long ties and the standard ties.

The asphalt contractor has removed the old asphalt, and the railroad has removed the old crossing inserts.

The old track has been removed from the crossing, and the excavator is digging out the old roadbed.

We are fast forwarding to new ballast being dumped on the replacement track panel. Due to timing, we missed out on the new track panel being dropped into place.

The flood pass has been completed. According to our son, a flood pass is where the center and track shoulders are dumped at the same time, with the goal of flooding ballast up to the top of the rails.

MOW crews now handle the movement of ballast hoppers at the job site using a hyrail vehicle. This saves the railroad an operations crew (engineer and conductor).

A ballast regulator is starting to even out the ballast, and getting things ready for the tamper to come in and level out the track.

Here's the tamper at work. Up in the control cab, a computer has a preloaded track profile that it's reading off of, and sending signals down to clamps that grab onto the track structure and lift... while vibrating fingers push ballast underneath the ties.

Here's the "business end" of the tamper. This was actually quite interesting to watch. According to our son, the tamper not only levels the track, but also adjusts for proper grade and even curve banking.

After the tamper makes a pass, the ballast regulator comes through and moves ballast around, filling in holes that the tamper created when it pushed ballast underneath the ties.

Here's a closer view of the ballast regulator spreading rock from the center and shoulders.

Meanwhile, the asphalt company is removing asphalt from the siding grade crossing.

All the old asphalt has now been removed. The crossing panels will not be replaced... just the asphalt up to the crossing. According to folks we talked to, the siding and the corresponding grade crossing belong to the grain elevator, but the pavement up to the crossing belongs to the city.

Here's another view of the siding grade crossing after the asphalt has been cleared.

The asphalt contractor has laid down the new asphalt. A roller and walk behind vibrator are tamping it down.

Another view of the finished siding grade crossing. Even the pedestrian crossing has new asphalt!

Back at the mainline grade crossing, the local out of Dubuque with ES44DC #2300 is making it's way west. It's under a slow order right now, as the new track structure is undergoing a real "load test". According to our son, getting a few trains over the new track actually helps settle it in place, and will bring out any irregularities in tamping. For the next several days, trains will be crawling over the grade crossing.

And if you're wondering, that's an SD60 behind the ES44DC. And yes... for around here... that's local power!

MOW crews have called it a day. There will still be more tamping and ballast regulating before the crossing panels are dropped down.

Here's another view of the new mainline track. Notice the old street asphalt.

Track welds joined the old mainline with the new track panel. Crews did a nice job grinding down the thermite welds.

One of the replacement rails carries a date stamp, along with some other markings that only MOW crews can decipher.

The signal maintainer is hooking up new crossing wires back to the signal shed.

A closer view of the new crossing wires.

The new crossing panels have been dropped off at the site. Wood panels are going to be used this time instead of rubber.

Here's a closer view of the new crossing panels. Notice the angle cut into the bottom front of the panels. We assume this is done to clear the tie plates and spikes on the track structure.

It's now 4 days later, and the tamper is back at work. With 4 days of rail traffic over the new track structure, adjustments are needed to the track profile.

Here the tamper is making adjustments to the new track panel.

Now the ballast regulator dresses the ballast, starting with the track center.

A pass is now made using the rotating "sweeper" broom.

The track shoulders are now dressed using the regulator wings.

Another view of the regulator dressing the track shoulders.

Making yet another pass with the center wing. Dressing ballast and getting the right roadbed profile is an art.

Making yet another pass dressing the shoulders.

From a head on view, a ballast regulator looks quite menacing... especially with that center plow wing.

And here's the final result of all those passes with the tamper and regulator. Looks like Class 1 track to us!

Crews are now dropping the crossing panels in place.

Placing another crossing panel.

It's now 3 days later, and the asphalt contractor has finished laying down the new asphalt.

Nice smooth new pavement for the drivers, and new smooth track for the engineers!

Close up view looking east. Signals in the background are for the west end of Dyersville siding.

Looking west. Those Wisconsin Central ballast hoppers are staged for the local to pick up.

Even the pedestrian crossing has new wood crossing panels and asphalt. Even Dyersville bicycle riders can enjoy a smooth crossing.

Our final shot is of an old rail section from the crossing. They cut the rail out on both sides of the old thermite weld. The rail saw actually clamps to the rail and makes a nice clean cut.

We hope you have enjoyed this photo series. It was an educational experience for us watching the crossing being replaced. We're not sure what the life expectancy is of the new crossing, but for the time being all Dyersville drivers will be enjoying smooth bump free crossing. Thank you Canadian National!!