Trains

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”.

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Summer Days in Northern Arizona

Why were we in Arizona?

With a short break in the baseball season, my dad and I jumped in the car and took a trip to Northern Arizona. One of the primary goals of this trip was to visit the Grand Canyon, which I had never seen before. The weather forcast was looking good so we headed off to the Southwest.

Since not everyone reading this knows railroad terminology, let me explain a few things first. The BNSF Seligman Subdivision is the set of tracks between Needles, California and Winslow, Arizona. This set of track is part of BNSF’s Southern Transcon, which is a high speed route for trains traveling between Los Angeles and Chicago. This route is famous for seeing up to one hundred trains per day. It was also made famous by the Santa Fe Super Chief that ran this line between 1936 and 1971. You can still ride this route on the Amtrak Southwest Chief.

 

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BNSF trains operating along the Seligman Subdivision cross through the Hualapai Indian Reservation near Peach Springs, AZ. The Hualapai (or Walapai) have a unique way of brining income to their reservation. The northern border of the reservation goes up to the Grand Canyon, which allows the Walapais to earn income through tourism. While many tribes rely on casinos, the Walapais rely on “Grand Canyon West” (home of the skywalk) and the only one day rafting tours through the Grand Canyon. Even with this source of income, life of the reservation is hard.

Much of the Seligman Subdivision is paralleled by Route 66. The stretch of Route 66 between Kingman and Seligman does not see much traffic since Interstate 40 provides a much faster route. Some believe the movie “Cars” was based on this stretch of road. In the movie, Radiator Springs is a small town located along an old bumpy highway in the southwest. Peach Springs is very similar to this in real life.

Our Experience in Arizona

We ended up spending three days in Arizona. Here is what we encountered.

The first day (July 12) saw us driving from San Diego, CA to Williams, AZ. As we were driving along Interstate 40, we saw train after train go flying by. By late afternoon we were Kingman and met up with David Carballido-Jeans (slug96). David lives along the BNSF Seligman Subdivision and is an expert Transcon photographer. To see his photos, click here. Unfortunately, traffic levels were low on this Sunday afternoon. We were lucky to capture a few shots before heading to Williams.

The next day we woke up early and planned to do some shooting between Williams and Flagstaff. Unfortunately clouds to the east were making the light difficult to judge, meaning the clouds kept going in and out. Along with this light problem, the train traffic was again lackluster. We decided it was time to head up to the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon

It takes approximately an hour and forty-five minutes to drive from Flagstaff to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We arrived to perfect temperatures and a relatively small crowd gathering at the visitor center. We quickly decided to start hiking east along the Rim Trail. Monsoonal moisture was bringing thunderstorms to the area, which made for great texture in the sky. It also made for some interesting lighting conditions on the desert rocks. Here is what we were able to capture.

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After a full afternoon visiting the South Rim, we headed back to Flagstaff. Thunderstorms made for an entertaining evening around the town.

An Epic Afternoon Along the BNSF Transcon

Unfortunately, the following morning did not go as planned. I was hoping to get more opportunity around Flagstaff, but the clouds were still ruining any chance at good light. We headed west towards Seligman, Arizona where we planned to catch an eastbound track geometry train. A great shot was setup with good light and a cool composition, but a westbound train came flying by on the near track right as the eastbound train passed by. This blocked out any shot of the eastbound train. With no other train coming, we drove to Kingman to grab lunch and regroup.

After lunch, we met up with David again. Since I had been having terrible luck, I was hoping the expert could show me around. Of course with David’s help, we ended up having an excellent afternoon between Yampai Summit and Hackberry. We got some great light and a ton of trains to photograph. It was just an awesome afternoon trackside. Once there was no more light left in the sky, we made the long drive from Kingman to Barstow. We arrived in Barstow late that night.

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To see a map of all the locations I photographed, click here.

Headed Home

We woke up early the next morning and began heading home. On our way, we stopped at Tehachapi. We ended up shooting a BNSF stack train at Monolith and the UP ‘Brooklyn Trailers’ at the Tehachapi Loop. With all of those “shots in the tin” (-Peter Lik), we headed home. It turned out to be an awesome trip with a lot of photo opportunities. I hope you enjoy the photos.

Have you ever traveled to the Grand Canyon? If so, feel free to share your photos in the comments.

 

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

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.

 

Story Behind The Image: Alone with Snow in the Canyon

A BNSF train crosses the Rock Creek Trestle on a snowy day in the Feather River Canyon.

A BNSF train crosses the Rock Creek Trestle on a snowy day in the Feather River Canyon.

When I first started shooting trains, it was always me and my dad. We both had variety of responsibilities every time we went out. I was in charge of finding the trains, the location and capturing the shot. My dad was mainly in charge of driving and making sure I didn’t do anything that could kill me. As many photographers know, when the scene begins to develop in front of you, its hard to keep track of everything else going on. Anyway, my dad and I worked great as team.

As I moved up to Chico State, I took on all of the responsibilities. I became the photographer, tracker, navigator, driver, risk manager, etc. Things were a lot different and I struggled on my first few trips. One time, I drove all the way up to Graeagle which is about two hours and fifteen minutes away from Chico. As I got out of the car to check the shot, the door closed behind me. I quickly realized my keys were laying on the seat, and the door was locked. After a few minutes of hurling expletives at myself for being so stupid, I decided to call for help. Unfortunately, in this part of the mountains, cell service can be bad to nonexistent. I ended up having to hike up to Highway 70 where I was lucky enough to get a call through to AAA. Eventually a tow truck came out and managed to get my door open.

The reason to tell that story is to show you how I was way outside my comfort zone. Before, I never had to worry about getting locked out, calling for help, or driving. My entire job was focused on capturing the shot.

Crazy Weather or Winter Wonderland

A couple months after that incident, I was again heading up into “The Canyon” (Feather River Canyon) to shoot some photographs. The date was December 7th, 2013. The night before, an extremely cold storm blew into Northern California. It was so cold in fact, it started to snow in Chico which is located only 250 feet above sea level. I knew the canyon was about to become a winter wonderland.Snow in the FRC

I remember my mom calling me and saying “Jake, this weather is pretty crazy. Make sure you stay in Chico the next couple days and avoid the icy roads.” At that point, I had already made up my mind that I was going to shoot some photos. I played it off well and the next morning I was on my way up into the mountains.

The first snow I came across was near James, California (900 feet). I remember being surprised at how much snow was actually on the ground as I winded my way up Yankee Hill. Lucky for me, the chain controls that were in affect at Pulga when I left Chico, had been moved up to Belden, so I kept on slowly driving the winding roads, constantly worried about ice.

Rock Creek Trestle

I soon found myself sitting sitting at the Rock Creek Trestle, deep in the Feather River Canyon. A westbound BNSF train was out of Keddie and it was just a matter of time before it showed up. As I sat there taking in the scenic views and watching the snow slowly fall to the ground, I thought to myself “How lucky am I to be here?” Most people don’t get to live only an hour away from a place like the Feather River Canyon or truly get to enjoy it doing something they love.

As I continued to sit in my truck waiting for the BNSF train, my experience became even greater. Suddenly from around the bend in the canyon, flying right above the water came a Bald Eagle. Bald Eagle’s are known to migrate to this area during the winter, but seeing one can be a challenge. As quickly as it appeared, it disappeared off into the distance. The inner-photographer in me was disappointed I wasn’t ready to get the shot, but I was also happy on some level I got to view the majestic bird in person, and not through a viewfinder.

A few minutes later, I began to hear a faint rumble. It grew louder and louder until four BNSF locomotives came screaming across the Rock Creek Trestle allowing me to capture the image.

I still don’t know weather it was cooler to capture this shot or have the awesome experience I had in the canyon that day. But when you combine both, it definitely goes down as an incredible day.

What About You?

What was your first experience with photography outside your comfort zone?  I’d love to hear about what you did and how it turned out.  What did you learn?  Leave a comment below and tell your story!