photography advice

Cuesta Pass Railroading: Return of Freight

During August of 2021, Union Pacific began a bridge replacement project along the Santa Barbara Subdivision near Narlon, California (Vandenberg Air Force Base; between Guadalupe and Santa Barbara). The original bridge, built in 1896, spanned the San Antonio Creek and was 720-feet long. Due to the age and condition of the bridge, replacement was necessary in order to prevent future, unplanned service disruptions along the Coast Route. 

Blueprint for the new San Antonio Creek Bridge. Courtesy of the California Coastal Commission.

During the replacement project, a hard closure of the Santa Barbara Subdivision was in effect at Narlon. No trains, including Amtrak’s Coast Starlight or Pacific Surfliner could traverse the route. Amtrak trains were annulled (canceled). Fortunately for Union Pacific, there is only one regularly scheduled freight train that travels through Narlon. The “Guadalupe Hauler”, or more simply “The Guad”, runs twice a week between Van Nuys and Guadalupe. It services many agricultural and industrial customers in the Santa Maria region. Some shipments include time sensitive, refrigerated produce cars. 

With the line shutdown at Narlon, Union Pacific needed to detour The Guad. The only detour option was to send the train north towards San Luis Obispo (SLO). Once in SLO, The Guad would head north over the infamous Cuesta Pass. 

Cuesta Pass is a 16 mile stretch of track which crosses the Santa Lucia Mountains between San Luis Obispo and Santa Margarita. Cuesta Pass is commonly known as the most difficult stretch of railroad on the entire Coast Route. It highlights five tunnels, many tight curves and a maximum grade of 2.2%. 

During the Southern Pacific era, it was common to see freight and passenger trains traversing Cuesta Pass. Unfortunately, today is a different story. Union Pacific rarely utilizes Cuesta Pass for freight traffic, opting to send “thru trains” (from the Bay Area to LA) via the Central Valley and Tehachapi Pass. No local trains service this region either. Therefore, the only regularly scheduled rail traffic on Cuesta Pass is Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. 

Cuesta Pass is home to some of the last remaining searchlight signals in California. These signals, installed in the 1940’s, were part of the second CTC (Centralized Traffic Control) project on the Southern Pacific network. SP installed CTC on Cuesta Pass due to an increase in rail traffic during World War II.

In April of this year, I drove to San Luis Obispo to photograph the searchlight cantilever located at North Serrano. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Amtrak’s southbound Coast Starlight was the only train in a 24 hour period. I was fortunate to capture an image but felt as if there was more. When I heard The Guad was detouring, I knew I had to make a trip. 

On a cold and rainy April afternoon, Amtrak’s southbound Coast Starlight passes the searchlights at Serrano as it tackles the infamous Cuesta Pass.

Leaving my home in Northern California, I decided to take the scenic route via Highway 1 between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. I arrived in San Luis Obispo a day early so I would be in position to shoot The Guad the following morning. On Sunday, August 15th, 2021, I hiked up to the Serrano cantilever. The cool temperatures and scenic hike through the golden California hills made for a picture-perfect morning. 

Within 15 minutes, the whine of two EMD locomotives echoed throughout Cuesta Pass. Soon after, the UP 1139 appeared, dragging nine cars passed the searchlight signals at North Serrano. The UP 1139 was recently assigned to the El Segundo Local in South Los Angeles, where it picked up a unique assortment of graffiti tags. 

Union Pacific 1139 leads The Guad passed the North Serrano Searchlights.
UP 1139 sporting a South Los Angeles paint job.

As The Guad headed north for McKay, I repositioned to above Tunnel 11 near Chorro. Within a couple hours, the sound of dynamic brakes broke the peaceful silence. The Guad reappeared, hauling an impressive 28 cars down the steep Cuesta Grade towards San Luis Obispo. 

Union Pacific 4101 prepares to enter Tunnel 11 as it guides a 28-car train down the Cuesta Grade.

Once the train arrived in San Luis Obispo, it tied down for the night. The following morning, a fresh crew came aboard and took the train to its final destination of Guadalupe. 

Union Pacific 4101 passes the Oceano Dunes as it heads south along the Santa Barbara Subdivision.
After a lengthy detour, The Guad arrives in its namesake destination.

Photographing freight trains on Cuesta Pass can be a difficult assignment. The rarity of freight traffic combined with historic searchlight signals and beautiful scenery can make for unique images. I am looking forward to the next opportunity to photograph trains along this unique stretch of railroad. 

Thank you for reading my blog! If you have a question, please leave me a comment below. 

jakemiillephotography.com © 2021 

We All Start Somewhere

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Tonight’s Throwback

So I was just recently going through some of my older photos on Flickr, and believe me, MY EYES HURT! It really shocked me I even took these photos, and then somehow thought they were good enough to post. What was I thinking?!?

Well we do all start somewhere. Most people cannot pick up a camera for the first time and start capturing compelling content. Becoming a photographer takes work.

So let me show you what I am talking about. Here are some of the images that were still posted on my Flickr as of October 2014. Warning: These could cause pain to the eyes and possible blindness.

Just look at the beautiful colors, composition and photographic ingenuity!

 

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Please take some time to wash out your eyes.

Now, back to business. You might ask “Jake, why did you post these in the first place?” Well that’s a great question and one that will help you understand what I am trying to get at. See, back then I had a much different mindset. The only thing I was focused on was documenting “cool” railroad equipment. I didn’t care how the image looked, what the light was like or how I could edit the photo, all I wanted was the image. This gave me something to look back on and go “wow that was cool!”

Notice a theme with these images? All of them have “unique” or “rare” equipment. The first two have heritage units, which are a huge deal in the foamer community. The next photos depicts a freight train on Cuesta Pass and the final two show vintage equipment. All of these things made me post the photo even though the photo itself was terrible. I thought this equipment was more important than the photo.

 

The Transition to Railroad Photography

Now you might be saying “well the equipment IS cooler than the photo” and if you are saying that, cool! You obviously have a strong passion for trains and you should keep that. This next bit of advice is for folks looking to make the transition from “equipment documenter” to “railroad photographer”.

Like I said before, we all start somewhere. I guarantee when you first start out, the reception will not be warm. You might here “This photo will never be on RailPictures” or “This, this, and this are wrong with the photo”. It happened to me and many others out there.

And this brings me to my first point: Don’t be defensive. 

It is easy to say “this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about” or “screw him, he’s just a terrible person”, but by doing that, you potentially cut yourself off from quality advice. I’ll tell you a story from when I was just starting out. I remember Steven Welch telling me “you need to learn the railroad” and “your photos are horrible”. For awhile I was defensive and arrogant. I thought, no way are my photos that bad and I certainly know the railroad. Luckily, I eventually came around to listening to him. He ended up teaching me the basics on composition, lighting and the railroad. By listening to him (and others of course) I was able to vastly improve my photography. So don’t get mad, start listening!

Next you need to: Want to learn. 

Photography is like anything else. If you want to succeed, you have to want to learn. This will require time, energy and resources ($$), but can be worth it in the long run if you truly want to improve your photography.

 

What To Do Right Now

1. Go watch videos about photography. Go to youtube and watch a ton of free videos or buy a program done by a professional (I recommend CreativeLive).

2. Find photographers you like and view their work on a regular basis. Constantly view photos you like and that style can slowly come to your work.

3. View photos that are not of trains. To be great at railroad photography, it helps to know the basics of other kinds of photography (landscape, environmental portraits, photojournalistic approach).

4. Then ask yourself “what elements of this photo do I like or dislike”. Do your own critique. Figure out what you like, then go find a way to capture it. To this this day, I still view at least 100 photos a day.

 

Now there is a lot more that goes in to becoming a good photographer and I’m sure I’ll touch on those in future tech tips. But the last point I wanted to make was about keeping a quality portfolio.

Like I showed you above, there are a lot of images on my Flickr that should be in the trash. This is a good reminder that you need to occasionally go back through your portfolio and delete the “trash”. Deleting photos can sometimes improve your portfolio as much as adding photos. So if you’ve been shooting for awhile, go back through and take a look. Don’t end up like me!

What do you think? Do you edit your portfolio often? If you find some laughable throwbacks share them with me. I’d love to see them!

Comments, questions, concerns? Leave a comment or hit “Contact Jake“! I love to hear from you guys.