photography

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 

Newest Photos Added

It’s summertime! I just finished up another awesome semester at Chico State. Now that classes are over, I can focus more on creating, editing and sharing my images. Instead of staying up late to work on managerial accounting homework, I can stay up late posting photos. What an awesome time this is!

I recently posted a number of new photos to the website. You can find all of them in my portfolio on jakemiillephotography.com. I thought I would take a minute to share with you some of my favorite images from the most recent upload. Take a look and tell me what you think!

The Spectacular Feather River Canyon 

An eastbound BNSF baretable train crosses the Rock Creek Bridge in the Feather River Canyon.

An eastbound BNSF baretable train crosses the Rock Creek Trestle in the Feather River Canyon.

This image is special to me for a couple of reasons. First off, it shows just how spectacular the Feather River Canyon is. I am so lucky to live 45 minutes away from this epic place. There is nowhere like it. I am also lucky that I can share these places with good friends. On this day, I had a good friend come along with me and experience what “the canyon” is like. I couldn’t have asked for a better day.

Searchlight Signals: A Fading Piece of History

A pair of Norfolk Southern units lead a Union Pacific military train passed the north switch of the Anita Siding (north of Chico). A rare dwarf searchlight has since been removed.

A pair of Norfolk Southern units lead a Union Pacific military train passed the north switch of the Anita Siding (north of Chico). A rare dwarf searchlight has since been removed.

Recently, I have been focused on capturing searchlight signals. Back in my childhood (which wasn’t too long ago), these signals were everywhere. Due to Positive Train Control (PTC) legislation, these signals are being replaced system wide. It is only a matter of time before there are no more searchlights left. I was able to capture this image at the north end of the Anita siding (north of Chico, California) a week before the searchlights were removed. Included in this photo is a rare “dwarf” searchlight.

Western Pacific Lives!

Union Pacific 1983 rolls passed the Keddie Wye as it serves as a DPU on a westbound stack train.

Union Pacific 1983 rolls passed the Keddie Wye as it serves as a DPU on a westbound stack train.

For those of you who are involved with railroads, you know what makes this photo special. Let me explain it for the people who don’t know. The Western Pacific Railroad (“WP”) originally owned and operated the Feather River Route, until it was purchased by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1983. In 2005, Union Pacific painted a commemorative locomotive to honor the Western Pacific Railroad. This unit is known as UP 1983 and is seen above crossing the Keddie Wye, a well known junction originally operated by Western Pacific. There is nothing quite like seeing “WP” on old WP trackage. To learn more about the Western Pacific Railroad, visit http://www.wplives.org.

I hope you enjoy my new photos. Let me know what you think! Am I missing any awesome locations?

-Jake

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.

 

Tech Tip: SunCalc

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Finding That “Perfect Light”

One of the hardest things to understand as a young photographer is the concept of “good light”. Other photographers will often throw phrases at you like “High Sun!” or “Backlit!”. You’re going to want to learn light as quickly as possible as it will make a dramatic change in the quality of photographs you are able to capture. Luckily, there is an app for that!

SunCalc is app that can help you accurately measure the sun’s angle right on the internet. Once you get comfortable with how to use it, you will know exactly how and when you can take incredible photographs, with awesome light. Check out these examples where SunCalc helped me capture that perfect light.

So I wanted to capture a train coming around this cool curve at Oroville. I wanted light on both the front and side of the locomotive,  so I knew I needed a good light angle. I went on to SunCalc.com to see when the light angle would be the best. I selected the date I was shooting, which happened to be January 20th, 2014. Then, using the sun slider at the top of the page, I moved the sun angle. After playing with the slider for a few minutes, I found the perfect angle. I marked down the “perfect” time along with the bookends of “good” time. You’ll learn quickly that a train won’t always show up right at the “perfect” time.

My “perfect” time ended up being right about 15:45 (3:45pm) but I knew I would get a pretty nice shot anywhere between 15:00 (3pm) and 16:30 (4:40pm).

 Early bookend (15:00)  

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 Perfect Timing (15:45)

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Late bookend (16:30)

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So I packed up my gear and headed trackside for the afternoon. I ended up getting very lucky as a MOW (Maintainance of Way) work window was just clearing up, meaning a backlog of trains were headed my direction. The first train came at 16:11 (4:11pm), right in my window of “good light”. I think the light this shot turned out very nice. What do you think? (Let me know in the comments below.)

 

An ethanol train from the midwest rumbles through Oroville, California with the Sierra Nevada Mountains providing the backdrop.

An ethanol train from the midwest rumbles through Oroville, California with the Sierra Nevada Mountains providing the backdrop.

We’ve All Shot In Bad Light

I’ve certainly done it. A number of times in fact. Now my reasoning varies from “I’ve never been to this location before so I’ll shoot everything I see” to “This train is just too cool not to photograph”. And at the end of the day, shooting in bad light is fine, if you want to “document” whatever it may be. . But when you want to take your photography to that next level, you’ll need to be shooting in good light.

Here are some shots I’ve taken in bad light. Notice how in the first shot, the nose (front) of the locomotive is completely in shadow. That is not very attractive considering the photograph really does feature the nose. Now check out the second shot. The side of the locomotive is dark because of shadows. Again, not very attractive to the eye!

 

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To avoid taking shots like these, use the SunCalc like I did in that first shot. Once you become more comfortable out in the field, you will learn how to quickly “read” light, and SunCalc won’t be needed as often. But until then, use SunCalc and capture that train in perfect light!

What About High Sun?

Now you might be wondering, how can SunCalc help me with “High Sun”. Well first you’ll have to understand what exactly “High Sun” is. If someone says, “that shot has high sun”, they are saying the sun was at an extreme angle, causing bad shadows across your train along with overall unattractive light. High sun is usually only a problem during the summer months when the sun passes overhead around 1pm. This graphic might help you understand sun angle.

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Here is an example of a shot taken during a high sun time vs a shot taken during late afternoon light. Look at the difference light makes!

 High Sun

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Late Afternoon Light

 

“Well how can SunCalc help me with high sun?” I have a general rule which seems to work well when trying to figure out if I’ll be shooting in high sun or not. If the angle line (in SunCalc) is less than half of what the sunrise/sunset line is, then you will be shooting in high sun. Let me show you what I mean using the following example.

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Notice how the orange line is about half the length of the yellow line? That means high sun will be starting right about 11:00am this time of year. Generally, anything shot before 11:00am will not be affected by high sun, while anything shot after 11:00am will probably be affected by high sun. Now of course, there is a big difference between shooting at 11:01 and at 1pm (when the sun is at its highest angle this time of year), but it gives you a general time frame to work with. If I were to go shoot around Chico on August 9th, 2014, I would want to spend my time shooting trains between sunrise and 11:00 and then from 3pm to sunset. This would allow me to rest during the period of bad light and focus all my energy when there is good light.

Can you see the unattractive light in the following shot? Notice how the sun angle has created very unattractive shadows on the side of this train. Also notice how the rail is completely covered in shadow. These two clues, along with the overall look of the picture tell me this was taken during high sun. Could you imagine how nice it would have looked in good light?

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Do Not Be in Denial

It is hard to accept as a young photographer that you have to wake up early and stay up late for good light. In an ideal world, the best light would come during the middle of the day, allowing us to sleep in and then get home for dinner. But getting yourself out during the best light of the day is crucial if you’re wanting to take your photography to the next level. Capturing an awesome scene is only “good”, capture an awesome scene in amazing light is “great”.

So get yourself out there! Get up early, rest during high sun, and then capture more amazing content as the day draws to a close. If you capture something “great”, I would love to see!

How about you? What are tricks for calculating “great light”? Which photo of yours do you think has the best light? Let me know in the comment below.