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A Long Day in the Feather River Canyon…

On March 3rd, 2018, I ventured into the Feather River Canyon. With a grain train, MNPRV and ANPMI all due out of Portola in daylight, along with several BNSF trains coming on/off the Gateway Subdivision, things were looking good. The weatherman called for snow showers throughout the day, with the main “storm” arriving at dusk. To my surprise, UP was not utilizing the bronco escort service between Keddie and Intake. Although the day’s precipitation amounts were low, the ground had become very saturated due to several intense winter storms in the days prior.

BNSF 7797 races up the Canyon Subdivision at the Rock Creek Trestle.

The morning started off like most do, lots of maintenance of way. An eastbound BNSF train was feeling the full affect of the work crews. After getting stuck behind an Elsey-bound work train which was playing around in Oroville, the crew was starting to get low on hours. They would need a “straight shot” to make it up the canyon. Unfortunately a work gang at Pulga was in the way, with a foreman requesting “just another 15 minutes to clear up”. It seemed to take more like 30-45 minutes…

I did a calculation and found that the BNSF train averaged under 20mph between Mounkes (MP 173 on the Sac Sub) and the Rock Creek Trestle. That is over 75 rail miles. The crew and dispatch decided to take a chance and make a mad dash for the siding at Virgilia. The train made it just in time and a new crew was waiting at the crossing. They wouldn’t move for another 8 hours or so.

Once the BNSF train was stopped at Virgilia, I drove up to Keddie expecting a westbound UP and the eastbound BNSF. Somehow, the UP 2636 West (grain train) snuck by me near Paxton. Things were still looking good though, considering a couple UP trains were about to leave Portola and the BNSF was waiting to head east.

After an hour or so at Keddie, I heard Dispatcher 57 radio the UP 2636 West. She asked, “hey are you guys still on the move there?” The crew responded with “yes mam, but all of our intermediate signals have been red since West Virgilia.” She then responded with “okay, I have you lined down to Pulga so you shouldn’t be seeing any colors.” Shortly after, the crew toned up dispatch and reported they had come across a rock slide just east of Belden. They were traveling at restricted speed (because of the red intermediates) and were able to stop the train.

UP 2636 stopped just before a rock slide east of Belden, California.

Dispatcher 57 started making calls to the MOW crews. At this point, it was early afternoon. She got ahold of Ken Ross, who provided at 16:30 ETA. Until then, the line was jammed.

Here is a list of trains stopped by the rock slide:

UP 2636 W Grain Train @ East Belden

UP 8136 W MNPRV @ Keddie

BNSF 7797 E QBCKDJ @ Virgilia

BNSF XXXX W Baretables @ Quarry Road (Keddie)

UP 7508 W ANPMI @ Blairsden

Also in the picture was a work train, ethanol train and grain train east of Portola as well as another eastbound BNSF train headed for the canyon.

Because the baretable train was stopped at Quarry Road, the BNSF 7797 had nowhere to go. They would have to wait until the fleet of westbounds had cleared before they could head for the hi-line.

Since nothing was moving, I headed towards Belden to get a look at the slide. Sure enough, the UP 2636 was stopped just east of the slide. An hour or two later, Ken Ross showed up and began clearing the rock slide. Within an hour, the rocks and damaged slide fence had been cleared.

Late in the afternoon, maintenance of way equipment arrives at scene and begins clearing the rock slide.

Because of the delay, the crew of the grain train was running low on hours. Unfortunately, their train was too long to fit into any sidings. The decision was made to pull down to Tobin where a new crew would meet the train in approximately 30 minutes. At this point, the main brunt of the storm had descended upon Belden.

In the “blue hour”, the UP 2636 heads west through a snow storm at Belden, California.

Eventually, the rest of the trains would fall in behind the grain train, making the slow, snowy journey down the canyon.

Nothing is easy up here.

Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy the photos. Winter in Northern California can spell trouble for the railroad. With hard work and grit, the trains keep moving and the railroaders keep “Building America”.

New Technology on the Shasta Route

The Route

Once operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Shasta Route connects California and Oregon by rail. It was the route traveled by the famous “Shasta Daylight”, back when passenger trains were luxury travel. Scenic views of the Sacramento River Canyon and snowcapped Mount Shasta were often featured in railroad advertisements.

Today, the Shasta Route is still a thriving artery for rail traffic. Lumber loads traveling from mills in Oregon are often seen on southbound trains. Along with four or five manifests (trains with all kinds of cars) per day, the Shasta Route also sees a super high priority Z train  traveling between Brooklyn, Oregon and Los Angeles, California. Amtrak’s Coast Starlight even uses these tracks, although it usually passes through during the middle of the night.

Along the Shasta Route lies a quiet railroad town called Dunsmuir. Trains traveling along the Shasta Route will crew change here, before heading north to Klamath Falls or south to Roseville. It is a nice place to stop for lunch and watch trains slowly pull in and out of town.

The Adventure

On the morning of October 26th, 2016, I met up with my good friend Kelly Huston in Chico, California. We loaded up the car and headed north towards the Shasta Route.

Kelly and I make up a unique team. Kelly recently became an FAA licensed drone operator. He has an incredible ability to read flight conditions and get the drone where it needs to be. I can assist Kelly with drone operations, but more importantly it is my job to know the “when” and “where” for the shot.

Shooting with a drone has some unforeseen challenges, such as timing. It usually takes a minute or two to get the drone from the ground in to position. Drones also have a limited battery life, meaning you cannot be flying for more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Therefore, you need to find the perfect window of time to get the shot. That is easier said than done when shooting a moving subject such as a train.

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The effects of the California Drought are still being felt. Near Lakehead, California, a Union Pacific manifest crosses the northern section of Lake Shasta.

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A Union Pacific manifest traveling from Portland, Oregon to Roseville, California crosses Mears Creek on a cool fall day. Heading south from Dunsmuir, the train follows the Upper Sacramento River through rugged mountain territory.

 

What do you think?

Will drones change the way we think about photography? Imagine all the images that have never been seen before. Where would you like to take a drone?

 

The Day of the FRC Derailment

The Call

Ever had one of those morning when you’re trying to sleep but your phone keeps ringing? You play off each call as just another spammer until it reaches that certain point where you know someone is trying to get ahold of you. Well that was me this morning. Once I mustered up enough energy to roll over and check my phone I read “Wake up dude”!

What could possibly be so important that I need to interrupt my morning of sleep? Well it was the fact that a grain train derailed in the Feather River Canyon and I needed to go get photos.

Time was already running low as it was 11:30am and I was 2.5 hours away from the derailment. It’s amazing how fast your light will disappear on these winter days. I raced around packing up all my gear making sure not to forget anything super important like the camera or the computer. Shortly after I left Davis to make the long drive up to The Canyon.

On Scene

After a long drive that was made longer by PG&E construction (yeah PG&E, great day to shutdown the highway), I was on scene of the derailment. In terms of location of the derailment, it couldn’t have happened in a much better place viewing wise. Right across the river from the downed rail cars was a very large turnout, allowing employees and passerby’s the opportunity to safely park and view the wreckage. If you’ve never been to The Canyon, just know most parts put you right between the speeding traffic of Highway 70 and the rushing waters of the Feather River.

So now that I was on scene, it was time to get to work. I immediately started shooting photos as I knew my light was just gonna get darker and darker. Using my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 II and 24-105mm f4, I was able to capture some impact shots of the derailment. In this instance, it was really important to have a good camera body and solid glass. Lighting conditions were not conducive to photography.

The derailment itself looked a lot worse than it actually was. Because the derailment happened towards the rear of the train, the crew was not hurt. Inside the overturned cars was corn from Nebraska which does not present any kind of biohazard or threat to the river. Also, because the cars fell so far away from the tracks, Union Pacific only had a few cars to remove from the scene before they could relay the rail line. This means the backlog of trains was soon moving again. On the day of the derailment, UP did utilize Donner Pass as a detour route for many trains headed towards the FRC. This will give cleanup crews larger work windows to get everything cleaned up.

The derailment occurred along the UP Canyon Subdivision, also known as the “Feather River Route” or simply “The Canyon”, at approximately mile post 265, “Rich Bar”. This area appears especially treacherous do to the steep rocky walls of the Feather River Canyon.

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What if?

The biggest hit the railroads will take because of this derailment is the “what if?!?!” factor. Over the past couple years, there has been a large fight between railroads, the government, and environmental groups over the increase of crude oil shipments. There has been a lot of attention given to the BNSF crude oil trains that travel the Feather River Canyon once or twice a month. Many groups fear that if a crude oil train derailed like this grain train did, it could have catastrophic effects on the Feather River and its ecosystem.

These groups are already asking the “what if?” question to the media and I will bet that this is just the beginning. What eco groups don’t know is that railroads have been asked to haul hazardous materials through the Feather River Canyon and other environtmetaly sensitive areas for decades. The only reason this became an issue is because of the derailment in Lac Megatic and the media fire storm that ensued.

At this point, both the railroads and environmental groups have evidence to why their side is right. It’ll just take time to get this issue settled where it should be, the courts.

Back On Scene

So what should you do if you are asked to photograph a scene like this? Well it can be a challenge since shooting a still subject can be a lot different than shooting moving trains. My first piece of advice would be to explore. Check out every angle, get high and low, look for things that might be visually interesting. Great photographers don’t get cool shots by zooming in and out, they get them by moving their feet. Unfortunately, there was not much room for me to move around at this scene.

Also, make sure you shoot Raw (especially in difficult lighting circumstances). When I arrived on scene, the entire area was under canyon shadows. These shadows can cause your white balance to get funky so you’ll want to be able to adjust it in photoshop (if needed). Raw allows you to do that.

Lastly, talk to people. Get a sense of the scene. Find out who might be able to point you to a good spot or someone that can give you information that you’ll find helpful. If you’re in a derailment situation, chances are other people have been around there longer than you have and know more about what’s going on. Talk to those people.

Wrapping It Up

This derailment looks big in a number of ways. First is it just looks like a big derailment. You won’t see eleven cars clinging to the cliffs like that everyday. This derailment has also added heat to the “crude by rail” debate. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.

Give me your thoughts. Should oil trains be allowed to travel through the Feather River Canyon? What are the risks and alternatives in your mind? Also, have you ever seen a derailment? If you have, I would love to see the photos.

 

Cool Stuff: New Forum for Nor Cal Photographers

North State Photographers

There is a new place for photographers in Northern California to share their photos and interact with other local photographers. This place is North State Photographers.

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North State Photographers is an online community dedicated to photographers who are located in and are dedicated to showcasing the beauty of Northern California. We’re open to all skill levels of photographers, so feel free to register and join in the conversations.

The best part of North State Photographers is it is open to any kind of photography that shows off Northern California. This will give you a place to showcase not only your railroad photography, but other photos you might shoot as well. This will allow you to share your photos with “experts” in other photography fields and get appropriate feedback on your images.

Also, this website is run by a great group of photographers. Not only do these guys take great photos, but they are able to keep online groups focused and drama free.

This website is meant for you as a photographer, so what are you waiting for? Register, Comment and Share!