Sunday, February 05, 2017

It's 3 AM, I Must Be Railfanning

Amtrak in Fargo


I've always wanted to photograph Amtrak's Empire Builder in North Dakota. It passes through Fargo and Grand Forks, both places that our family visits now and then for shopping. The problem is that it stops in those two cities in the middle of the night.

Train 7, the westbound Empire Builder, is scheduled to stop in Fargo at 03:24 and Grand Forks at 04:41, while train 8, the eastbound, is scheduled to stop in Grand Forks at 01:02 and Fargo at 02:18. If they're on time, they should meet somewhere between Fargo and Detroit Lakes, MN.

The Setup

We went to Fargo last month to spend the weekend shopping and just getting out of Winnipeg. We arrived on the evening of Friday, January 20th and spent the 21st shopping. As we were relaxing in our hotel on Saturday night, I checked the Amtrak app and noted that the eastbound Empire Builder was an hour late, meaning it was forecast to be in Fargo at about the same time as the westbound Empire Builder. A plan formed.

I discussed my plan with my wife. As usual she thought I was crazy, but was OK with me getting up in the middle of the night to photograph trains, as long as she didn't have to get up.

I laid out all my supplies before bedtime. A partial list:
  • Camera bag
  • Tripod
  • Coat, mitts, hat, scarf
  • Clothes
  • Cell phone
  • Car keys
It was foggy Saturday evening, given the mild temperatures outside, but I wasn't too concerned. I went to bed after setting my cell phone to alarm at 02:45.

The Journey

I awoke, dressed quickly, and snuck out of the hotel room without waking anyone. Good. I took the stairs down to the ground floor and headed out to the parking lot to find our van. After about 15 minutes of driving, I was at the Amtrak depot.

Amtrak station (L) and ex Great Northern station (R)
Amtrak's Fargo station is actually housed in the former Great Northern freight depot. The adjacent station building is occupied by the Great Northern Bicycle Company.

I parked on a nearby street because I didn't know the parking situation at the station. I think I would have been OK parking there but better safe than sorry. There was a fair amount of activity at the station, with a few cars idling nearby and some people were being dropped off at the station.

I went inside and asked the Amtrak agent which train was coming in first. He saw my camera and told me the westbound was arriving first, and said to watch out for his baggage truck when I was taking photos. I didn't plan on being on the platform and I told him that. My plan was to shoot from the crossings on either side of the station.

But First, A Surprise

I went to the North Broadway crossing to set up my tripod and camera. As I was getting ready, I heard a train approaching from the east. It turned out to be a BNSF manifest freight train led by BNSF 6069, 4602 and 8971. I took video with my iPhone.

After that blew through, I finished setting up to wait for the westbound Amtrak Empire Builder.

While waiting, I recorded a little video about how to focus your camera at night here!

The Westbound

The Amtrak train came along not long after the BNSF train went through. The train crawled up to the Broadway Drive crossing, with AMTK 113 sticking its nose into the crossing and keeping the arms down and the crossing active.
AMTK 113 in Fargo, North Dakota at night on the Amtrak Empire Builder
I kinda liked the fog's effect on the lights!

I always get asked what settings I used, so for the above photo I used a 2 second exposure at f/10 and ISO 100. I used the 2 second self timer on my camera (on the tripod) so I wouldn't move the camera by pressing the shutter.

I was playing with shutter speeds of 2-5 seconds when the train wasn't moving. I liked this exposure because with f/10 I could get enough depth of field to get most of the image in focus. A shorter shutter speed would mean I'd have to open the aperture up (e.g. f/8 or f/5.6) and therefore less depth of field.

After about 8 minutes they pulled forward a bit to spot the second half of the train at the platform.
Amtrak baggage car and Superliners in Fargo
That brought baggage car 61025 and the Superliners more into view.

After a few more minutes, they took off westward and that was the end of that train.

I walked around to get to the 4th Street North crossing to shoot the eastbound. On the way, I stopped to take a decent photo of the old Great Northern station. She's a beauty!
Ex Great Northern train station in Fargo
On to the other Empire Builder...

The Eastbound

Long exposure of the Amtrak Empire Builder arriving in Fargo, North Dakota
I shot a long exposure of the Empire Builder's arrival while recording video on my iPhone. This was a 15 second, f/13 exposure.

The train's head end stopped well across 4th Street in an inaccessible location. I elected to stay put and take a few photos of the Superliners gleaming in the available light. See lead photo for a black and white view of the Superliners.
Superliners on the move
They did a re-positioning move here too, so I took a brief photo of the move. The green lights on the side seem to indicate that the doors are closed. I saw them turn red for a bit while the cars were at the platform.

I shot video of their arrival but not of the departure.

Amtrak Video

I combined both trains into one video.


After the other Empire Builder left, I packed up and went back to my hotel to catch a few hours of sleep before going back out to railfan again. But that's another story.

I'm glad I made the effort to see the Amtrak trains. I'm not sure if I'll do that on every trip! I think I'll have to get out in Grand Forks to see the trains there, even though the Amtrak station in Grand Forks is much more modest than Fargo's.

Other Amtrak Posts


Unknown said...

Great post Steve! Love your night photography, especially the shot of "Superliners on the move." The brake indicator lights on the side of the coaches make for a neat effect in that photo!

DaveM said...

Congrats on putting sleep on the back burner for rail photography. The EB has been on my bucket list to photograph, but the closest point to its route to me is +1200km. :(


Canadian Train Geek said...

Thanks, RRRP! I'm liking night photography more and more.. I'll have to get out and do more of it once it warms up a bit.

Canadian Train Geek said...

Thanks, DaveM! It was on my list too but fortunately I am close enough to the Empire Builder to be able to take it in. I hope you catch it someday!

Jenn said...

Cool. I had to laugh because the first part is like a real life version of a math problem. Great photos!

Canadian Train Geek said...

Ha ha Jenn :) yes indeed, who knew those math problems had a real world use?!

BWBandy said...

I am not that dedicated to pursuing photo opportunities after midnight. I like the photos however I need my sleep.

Unknown said...

The Amtrak site says Fargo has 12 long term parking spots and is ambiguous about short term, so you probably made the right decision. You're quite right about Grand Fork's station, it's pure Amshack. However it has tonnes of parking and a long platform that allows the Builder to single spot.