Where's the Camera?

Posted by George Hamlin
on Tuesday, August 01, 2017

In places where there are still active passenger stations (think Amtrak and commuter trains), you’ll often find railfans there, observing their favorite subject matter.  In today’s world, it’s not likely that you’ll be able to obtain information about operations other than passenger trains (agents/operators employed by railroads other than Amtrak are long-gone, with rare exceptions), but between the internet, including social media, and technology, including scanners and more recent marvels such as ATCS, which shows essentially a dispatcher’s view of the railroad, a fair amount of movement information can be obtained in many cases. 

Of course, on relatively busy lines, just showing up and waiting has its merits, also.  Think the BNSF “transcon”, or the Norfolk Southern’s former New York Central main east of Chicago, for example.  And on lines with multiple daily Amtrak movements, such as the former RF&P (Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac) you’re pretty much guaranteed seeing at least something on the move, in many cases in reasonable proximity to the scheduled times.

In addition to observing, many of those drawn to trackside will carry equipment with which to make a record of what they observe.  Mostly this involves photography (still and video), although I’ve observed, occasionally, people making sound recordings, as well. 

 While freight trains don’t always run with even the timekeeping reliability of Amtrak, there often are general patterns of service that can be learned by observing over time, including for individual trains.  Typically this works best with priority movements such as ‘hot’, or priority, intermodal trains, but there are others, as well.  Between Florida and northern New Jersey, back when it ran as an exclusive, single-shipper and commodity operation, the northbound Tropicana “Juice Train” would typically transit northern Virginia in the afternoon.

A pleasant spot to sit and wait for this was the station in Alexandria, not far south of Washington, DC.  An advance indication, in the form of a radio transmission picked up on a scanner, or even the aural warning from the south as the train drew near, was cause to stand up and get the camera ready.

On January 14, 2010, CSX train Q740 was nicely lit, as you can see in the photo above.  Another fan was going to be in my shot, although I didn’t find that objectionable, and he gave a nice highball to the crew as the locomotives passed us.

But…what was he doing?  Where was his camera?  And what’s that in his hand?  Closer observation indicates that he’s making a written record of what he’s seeing, just as I’m in the process of making a visual record, via the mode of still photography.  I don’t know precisely what was being noted, but from the view of preserving the present for history in the future, his viewpoint and methodology were certainly as legitimate as mine.

It’s useful to point out that an individual who probably did more than anyone else to promote railroad photography, including both straightforward illustration and more creative techniques, would have felt a kinship with the man taking notes here.  That gentleman is none other than David P. Morgan, the long-time (1953-1987) Editor of TRAINS.  While the output of his camera was only rarely published in the magazine (and his use of the camera was probably rare, also), by featuring the work of photographers like Steinheimer, Hastings, Shaughnessy, et al, he provided the impetus for advancing the craft, and art, of railroad photography immensely.

But had he been here with us on the Alexandria station platform, his tools of choice for recording this scene would have been pen and notebook; I would love to know what his evocative commentary about this would have been.  Yes, there are many ways to be a railfan in the field; some just aren’t seen as often as others.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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