Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Book Review: Trains and Grains (Volumes 1 and 2)

Trains and Grains, at the La Salle, Manitoba grain elevator. Sadly no train came along to complete the picture.
This is a review of Trains and Grains Volumes 1 and 2 by Eric Gagnon. I've been eagerly awaiting these two books since Eric announced them back in September 2017. I love both trains and grain elevators, so it almost felt like these books were written for me... or at least people like me.

I'll put a few disclaimers here - I received these books for free as a "thank you" for writing the foreword for volume 2. I also consider Eric a friend. I wouldn't let either of these stop me from writing an honest review. Finally, I received no compensation for writing this review nor do I receive anything for recommending the books, and Eric didn't ask me to write a review. 

These two books are centered around Eric's visits to Manitoba and Saskatchewan between 1976 and 1986. Eric's aunt and uncle lived in Portage la Prairie and he did a lot of railfanning during the days he was in Portage. Later, he visited many of Saskatchewan's elevators, realizing that they were disappearing fast.

Eric had so many photos to share from that decade that he split them into two books!

Volume 1

Volume 1 is subtitled "Trackside Observations in Manitoba 1976-1986". The first half of the book features trains that Eric recorded in and near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba during that period while visiting his aunt and uncle. Eric is a meticulous record keeper and the captions of the many black and white photos are detailed, interesting and absolutely alliteral, again and again.

The train photos were shot from a variety of angles, most from the ground, with some overhead views from the Tupper Street overpass.

The second half features a variety of short articles, such as:
  • Grain car consists
  • Details on CN, CP, federal and provincial grain fleets
  • Several pages of colour photos
  • An article by Mark Perry on "Working CN Grain Wayfreights"
  • An article by Charles Bohi on Prairie train stations
The foreword is by Randy O'Brien.

This is a great book, chock full of interesting photos and interesting details. It took me a while to read due to the dense information content, and I plan to read it again to catch the things I missed the first time.

Volume 2

Volume 2 is subtitled "Grain Elevators in Manitoba and Saskatchewan 1976-1986". The first portion of the book talks about the history of the grain industry in Canada, and how grain elevators are built and operate. This section is relatively brief, and more than half of the book features black and white photos of grain elevators from Eric's trips to Manitoba and Saskatchewan to document many of the wooden elevators still standing.

The foreword is by yours truly.

I would honestly consider volume 2 a companion to volume 1. There is a lot less text in volume 2 and I read it much faster than volume 1 because of that. I don't consider it any less valuable, though!

Photography

The photographs in this book are what I would call "documentary". They were clearly taken with the intent of documenting the trains and grain elevators - and the scene around them. These are not "coffee table" picture books full of lovely sunset photos.

That doesn't make them any less valuable - in fact, I would argue they are more valuable than "arty" photos because they thoroughly document the trains and grain elevators of an era long past.

Reference

These books are fantastic reference materials for anyone interested in understanding the mid 1970s to mid 1980s railroad scene, and especially for the modeler (like me) who wants to run realistic trains. I was surprised by several photos - for example, a few stock cars were still in evidence, even though I had thought the railways were out of the livestock business by then.

The grain elevator photos are especially valuable as many of these elevators simply do not exist today, so there is no opportunity to see them in person. Volume 2 in particular provides a way to experience the elevators of the past.

Summary

Both of these books are well worth purchasing by anyone interested in Canadian railway history or Canadian grain elevators.

You can buy the books from Eric at https://trainsandgrains.blogspot.com/ - the order form is there, or you can email Eric using the email at top right of that page.

See my other book reviews

Friday, June 08, 2018

Making Pictures


I like to think about the craft of photography more than the mechanics of it. I think the thought process that goes on before you press the shutter button matters a lot more than what you do right at the instant of making a photo.

Don't get me wrong - you need to know how to use a camera to take good pictures. However, once you've achieved competence in using your camera, the real magic comes from your ideas on what photos you'd like to take. Or should I say "make"?

Making Pictures

I was listening to Lionel Strang's podcast "A Modeler's Life" and one of his guests, Blair Koostra, is a prolific railway photographer who has been published in TRAINS and elsewhere. One word that Blair used frequently really resonated with me. He talked about making photographs, not taking them.

I think there is a big idea there. When you take a photograph, you are simply recording what is in front of you. When you make a photograph, you are thinking about what you want the photograph to be, and taking steps to realize your vision. I like that a lot.

Continuous Improvement

In every vocation and every hobby, you get better at what you do with practice. You level up. Sometimes this is imposed on you - you get reassigned to a new position at work, or your boss gives you more responsibilities and you have to learn more skills - and sometimes you do it yourself by getting training or watching videos on YouTube or whatever.
CN 5761 in Edmonton, Alberta, June 2010, with blown-out sky
Many times, people get complacent and hit a plateau where they don't improve. It's comfortable to get to "good enough" and stay there, and in many cases that's perfectly fine. I'm "good enough" at some areas of my work and that's fine, but in many areas of my professional life and my personal life, I'm not satisfied with "good enough". My photography is one of those areas.

CEMR 5396, Oak Bluff, Manitoba, December 2017 - sky not blown out
A guest on another podcast, the excellent Afford Anything podcast, quoted a hero of theirs, Roman Mars, who said, "right now I'm embarrassed by the work I did last year, and I'm hoping that a year from now, I'm embarrassed by the work I'm doing right now."

Amen to that.

I'm embarrassed by that photo of CN 5761 above, from 2010. There was no excuse for blowing the sky out (pure white sky), but I did it. I had the exposure wrong, and I couldn't figure out how to expose it properly. I ended up either blowing the sky out or composing my photos to not include sky at all.

Contrast that with the pair of CEMR locomotives, taken with the same camera. I exposed it such that the sun wasn't blown out, yet the locomotives weren't a dark mass of shadow. My technique has improved in seven years!

Details Matter

CN 8930 at Diamond outside Winnipeg
I really try to think about what I can do to make the best picture. How should I compose this for maximum impact? What can I include in the photo to increase interest or better tell the story? More importantly, what can I leave out of the photo?

Have a look at the following pair of photos of the Fredericton train station. See what's different between the left and right photos.
Compare and contrast
I took the left photo, then walked about ten feet and made the right photo. I processed both the same, except that I cropped the right one a bit to remove a shadow. Can you see how the right photo is a better photo? There's no shadow coming from the bottom of the photo; no fire hydrant and yellow poles in the shot. Less distraction = more impact.

Now that I think of it, I could have laid my camera on the ground and tried that angle. There's always an opportunity to make a photo just a bit better.

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed

Don't be satisfied with one photo. Try a different angle. Lay down on the ground. Shoot through something as a frame. Try it from the non-sun side. Turn your camera 90 degrees. Turn it 45 degrees, even.

Sometimes it just won't work out. I know I've come away from some photo outings, feeling like I didn't get any decent shots, like it was just a waste of time and megabytes. Like it was pointless.

Those days happen.

Use those days as a determination to do better next time, to try something different, to take a fresh approach or try a new location. Something will change, and you'll get some magic.

Just get out there and try.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

CP Derailment Near Rosser

Derailed containers near Rosser, Manitoba
Late in the afternoon of May 29, 2018, around 4:45 PM I think, an eastbound Canadian Pacific Railway train derailed between Rosser and Winnipeg, Manitoba. About 13 double-stacked container platforms were blown over by strong winds.

Local railfan Felix Lesiuk passed by the scene before the highway was closed and took some photos. He graciously gave permission for me to post a couple. There are more on the Winnipeg Model Railroad blog.
CP derailment scene. Photo by Felix Lesiuk.
Truck and kingpin - a rare sight. Photo by Felix Lesiuk.
I was initially unaware of the derailment. After supper, I went out for a bike ride. When I returned home, I checked my email and a friend in the area had sent me a message about the derailment (thanks Sheldon!). It was 8 PM at this point. I grabbed my camera bag and rushed up north toward Rosser.


I arrived "on scene" at 8:40 PM. Highway 221, which parallels the CP Carberry subdivision, was blocked off just over 5 km west of the Perimeter Highway (road 3E), where the head end of the train was.

The marked location "2.77 km" is where the train was, on the west side of Winnipeg. The 2.77 km is the approximate length of the train.
The location
A closer look:

The local fire department was manning a blockade on the east end, with CP Police right behind them. I parked down road 3E then walked up to the barricade to take the photo above. The firefighters eyed my camera and cautioned me to be safe. I assured them I would stay on the public roads outside their perimeter.

Down highway 221
The train was headed by CP 8764 (which I last saw in Spillimacheen, BC), with a mid train DPU (CP 9769) and a tail end DPU.

There were about 8 or 9 autoracks in front of the tail end DPU and all were still upright, along with a couple of doublestacks.

I was glad to hear that nobody was injured, and there seemed to be no concern about hazardous materials. The road was blocked off so the cleanup crews could work without interference from passing cars.

There were a fair number of people gawking from their cars but I don't think anyone was walking around like I was. I talked to two gentlemen from a nearby farming colony who were pretty curious about the situation.

It looks like about 13-15 platforms blew over right behind the mid train locomotive. Lots of equipment was on site and cranes were in operation, with more arriving while I was there.

Reinforcements arriving
I brought out the long lens to get some shots from the grid roads around the train.

CP 8764 and emergency crews
I walked north up road 3E to get some decent angles. The 70-200mm lens was earning its keep.

Farther

Nearer
I tried the road parallel to the highway, a mile north. You can see track panels on a truck trailer in the photo below, ready to install to patch up damaged track.
Note the track panels on the truck trailer on the right.
I took a video of the train, using my long lens and my monopod for a little stability. It's still a bit jerky but a lot better than it would have been hand-held.
It was getting fairly dark by this point - about 9:15 PM.
Looking through the bottoms of the cars
Working at night
I cropped the heck out of the above photo to show this worker cutting a doublestack apart. I guess they can't be unlocked in that position...
Cutting a doublestack of containers apart
I tried the west end of the blockade, but it was a long way from the train and there really was nothing to see from there.

I decided that I had all the shots I could get, so I wrapped up with a few more from the head end and prepared to leave.
CP 8764 and a fire truck
A few more photos of the scene...
The blockade and the train
As I was getting in my car, I heard CP 8764's horn blow. I watched as the front end of the train slooooowly crept forward, dragging the front end of the train behind it. This was 9:40 PM.
Pulling through the crossing
I headed for home after that.

Everyone on site was very professional and were working hard to clear the wreck and restore service. It's unfortunate that this happened just before the CP engineers and conductors went on strike. Fortunately they quickly reached a tentative agreement and they are going back to work.

News Links

See Also

Monday, May 28, 2018

Making Lemonade

#GOJETSGO
You know the old saying, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade?" Sometimes as railfans or as photographers in general, we appear to have limited options on what to photograph. Maybe you live in an area where there's only one train a day. Maybe you can't travel to "interesting" places and must make do with what is in walking distance. Maybe, like me, you find yourself by a train yard with only one locomotive in it. What do you do?

Make lemonade!

I had about an hour to spend at CP's main Winnipeg yard this past Saturday afternoon. I arrived at the east end of the yard at 1:15 PM and I saw this scene.
Obvious 3/4 wedgie
Newly rebuilt unit CP 8143 was on one end of an oil train. There were a few grain cars behind it, no
other locomotives in view, and nothing moving. snore

I decided to take that as a challenge and I sought to find more photographs than the obvious ones I took above and below.
Obvious side roster shot
I walked around a bit - staying by the roadside, no trespassing! - and I found this angle with a track panel lining up the locomotive.
Thinking outside the (cardboard) box
Not bad... it would have been better without that cardboard box, but I couldn't go move it without trespassing.

It's always good to include a "sense of place" in your photographs. I found this angle with the Winnipeg Cold Storage building in the background.
Winnipeg Cold Storage
No doubt about where that photo was taken!

Zooming in to focus on details never hurts...
The new Golden Beaver
You saw the Winnipeg Jets flag and the locomotive as the lead photo in this post. I have a Jets flag on my car, and I used it with the locomotive to make a statement.

Don't be afraid to use props!

I saw a few opportunities with the freight cars behind CP 8143... starting with the buffer car itself, BNSF 808686.
BUFFER SERVICE ONLY
So you're saying we shouldn't try to load grain into this car any more?

A few cars down, I saw a Canadian Wheat Board logo between two tank cars.
Would be better without the graffiti
Speaking of tank cars...
UTLX 675953 - The Tank Car People
I spotted the old Robbs Glass building and wanted to include it in a photo. While I was walking there, a CP switcher came rumbling out of the yard in a cloud of smoke.

Smokin'!
The switcher pulled ahead, then a belt-pack-wearing worker walked back to uncouple battered MP 652005 from a tank car. That was my signal that it was time to move on.

I hope you've enjoyed this little batch of lemonade, and you can take some inspiration for turning your own photographic lemons into lemonade.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Stainless at Sunrise


When I was going to sleep Sunday night, I checked VIA's web site for the current position of VIA 1 and 2, the west and eastbound "Canadian" trains. They have been consistently late all winter and this spring has been no different. VIA 2 is due in at 20:45 on Sunday night, but last night it was showing an arrival time of around 06:30 or around 10 hours late. I decided to get up a bit early on this Victoria Day Monday to see if I could catch it coming in at sunrise. Eastbound trains at sunrise... nice.

I woke up at 05:25 and checked the web site, and sure enough, it was showing a 06:45 arrival. I threw on some clothes, left a note for my wife (who sadly is working today), and hit the highway. I figured I would get to the CN line, then head west to Diamond to wait there for VIA 2 and shoot it in the wide open prairie.

As I took the exit for Wilkes Avenue, that plan was shot all to heck when the lead engines of VIA 2 shot by the nose of my car.

I took a hard right and brought my Civic up to speed in pursuit of VIA 2. Since they were within city limits, they were down to a reduced speed, so it was actually possible to catch up to them. I'm not sure what the speed limit for them is, but I overtook them in the 90 km/hr zone and crossed the tracks at Elmhurst Road.

I pulled to the side, threw the car in park, and jumped out with my camera and sprinted to the crossing. As I arrived, the lights started flashing and the bell started ringing. This didn't deter one approaching motorist, who gunned it through just before the gates started to drop.

I did some quick settings changes - low light, gotta go with ISO 1600, need a decent shutter speed, try 1/800s, f/8 aperture to get enough of the train in focus - fired a test photo, checked it, exposure looked good, let's go...

VIA 6449 at sunrise
VIA 6449 and company looked pretty good in that morning light!

I fired off several frames as the train approached, then banged a shot off for every car so I could get the full consist. There's no art in the recording of numbers, just a quick pan and click for every car to get the number or name off the side.

Skyline 8516
Back to "art" mode for the "going away" photo, the EVANGELINE PARK looking very nice in the golden sunrise.
VIA's Evangeline Park at sunrise
It wasn't the location I wanted, but you take what you can get, and I'm glad I actually caught VIA 2 this time. I tried this stunt a week or two ago and missed VIA 2 by about 30 seconds, so I'm grateful that I "got the shot".

After the adrenaline faded, I headed west along the CN line to see if anything else was around. CN 8875 East was stopped just short of Hall Road, presumably waiting for their turn to enter Symington Yard.
CN 8875 East
That face... these SD70M-2s mean business. There's no curves anywhere, just brute power.

This train wasn't going anywhere for a while. I drove along the train, looking for a DPU engine, but the two at the head end were the only locomotives on the train.

At the highway 334 crossing, I photographed the train all stretched out along the prairie.
Sunrise train
There were tons of red-winged blackbirds around, so I photographed a few of them too. They are very talkative and it was nice to hear them chirping and see them fluttering about.

Red-winged blackbird
I also saw one of these - not sure what it is, but it's cute!
Pretty bird
I decided it was time to head home, so I hit the highway back to home and back to bed for a little while. It was a nice way to start off Victoria Day.

How's your day?

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Halifax and Southwestern Railway Museum

CN Lunenburg sign
In October 2017, I visited the excellent Halifax and Southwestern Railway Museum in scenic Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I had always wanted to visit and I had the opportunity to do so, so I took it.

The museum is billed as "a railway display of Nova Scotia's South Shore". It is located in a former industrial building (here) on highway 3 directly east of Lunenburg.

Museum Entrance
When you enter the building, you'll see a replica ticket counter, with a gift shop to the right and the museum entrance to the left. Behind the ticket counter, the station agent's office looks very realistic.
The station agent's office
Once you pay the entrance fee, you'll get a ticket, stamped for Yarmouth and punched for the current date. Check mine out!

The entrance to the museum portion is built to look like an antique railway car for the Halifax and Southwestern. In the photo below, you'll see Duane Porter, the friendly curator of the museum. I've corresponded with Duane a few times and it was great to finally meet him in person.

Duane is a super nice guy, very dedicated to preserving the history of the railway, and a great tour guide too!

Duane Porter and the Halifax and Southwestern Railway Museum
Inside the "car", you'll sit in one of the authentic railway car seats and view a short video introducing the railway and the museum. Once you see that, you can proceed through into the museum itself.

The museum features many model railway scenes of the former Halifax and Southwestern / CN railway, complemented with many, many signs and other items from the railway itself. Numerous photographic displays explain portions of the railway and its history.


The model railway scenes are very detailed and, I presume, accurate. I never saw the railway lines when they existed, but I trust they accurately represent what used to be here.

This winter scene shows Bridgewater. The iconic station is visible in the distance.
Model railway scene of Bridgewater, NS in winter
Some scenes are really "lit" and can be viewed with lights out.
By night
There are numerous displays throughout the museum, including one with railway dishes, one with keys and a timetable display that I drooled over.

Brief History of the Halifax and South Western Railway

The actual Halifax and South Western Railway ran from Halifax to Yarmouth along the east coast of Nova Scotia. It was incorporated in 1901 by the dynamic duo of William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, who later created the Canadian Northern Railway. Mackenzie and Mann purchased the charters of a few paper railways in Nova Scotia to help cobble together their railway.

The line was complete by the end of 1906. The railway started at a junction with the Intercolonial Railway in Africville (Halifax) and wandered along the eastern shore through Chester, Mahone Bay, Lunenburg, Bridgewater, and Liverpool before terminating at Yarmouth on the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia.

It became part of Mackenzie and Mann's Canadian Northern, which went bankrupt and was acquired by the federal government in 1918 and became a part of the new Canadian National Railways (CNR).

The CNR built a new passenger station in Halifax after the original station and area was destroyed by the Halifax Explosion. This new station, and the new tracks through the railway cut across Halifax, meant that the H&SW line now started at Southwestern Junction, very near today's Fairview engine servicing facility.

Under CN, the railway consisted of four subdivisions:
  • Chester, from Halifax to Liverpool, with a junction in Bridgewater to the Middleton Sub (109.1 miles)
  • Yarmouth, from Liverpool to Yarmouth (136.6 miles)
  • Middleton, from Bridgewater to Bridgetown (66.9 miles) with a junction with CP's Dominion Atlantic Railway at Middleton
  • Caledonia, from Calendonia Junction to Caledonia (21.9 miles) 
Lunenburg itself was served by a 7.7 mile spur from "Blockhouse".

Traffic on the railway declined, and in the late 1970s it was proving to be very uneconomic. In 1982, the Yarmouth, Middleton and Caledonia subdivisions were abandoned. The majority of the Chester spur was abandoned in the early 1990s, and only a small spur remained to industrial parks. By late 2010, all tracks of the Halifax and Southwestern Railway were gone.

The railway was served by SW1200RS units, and later MLW RSC-14 locomotives. The Middleton subdivision was especially light and CN's unique RSC-24 locomotives were known to operate there.

Visit the Museum

The Halifax and Southwestern Railway Museum
The museum is located at 11188 Highway #3, just east of Lunenburg (see Google Maps). In the extended summer season, from May 1 to October 31, it is open Monday to Saturday from 10 AM to 5 PM and on Sundays from 1 PM to 5 PM. Please visit their web site for updated details.

PS - The late David Othen wrote a book on the last 25 years of the Halifax and Southwestern. You can buy it at Blurb as a book or eBook. Other books on the railway include Along the Tracks (of the Dominion Atlantic and the Halifax and South Western Railways) by Tony Kalkman, and a reprint of Summer Resorts Along the Road by the Sea, originally produced by the railway itself.  (some of these are affiliate links - I earn a small commission when you buy it through that link, at no additional cost to you)

PPS - Check out my list of Canadian railway museums!