Patience and Persistence; Last Light and the Last of their Kind

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, April 16, 2018

If you photograph trains with any frequency, you’ve probably developed at least a modest amount of patience already, whether you wanted to or not.  Unless you’re near places like the Northeast Corridor; BNSF’s “Racetrack” west of Chicago; or the Powder River Basin; it’s probably become apparent that there can be long waits between trains in many instances.  While this can be shortened by arriving at the photo location “just in time” for the shot, this often is less than prudent, as on occasion even late trains have been known to make up time, and to arrive at the chosen spot sooner than expected.

In reality, the “JIT” approach probably works well only with passenger commuter operations, which a) run on published schedules and b) typically don’t depart each station prior to the advertised time, although even here there are exceptions, along the lines of “Train may depart this station prior to the scheduled time if all work has been completed”.  This typically applies to stations near the end of the line on outbound (afternoon/evening) runs, since relatively few passengers board commuter trains at intermediate stops on the journey away from whatever large city they have originated from, although, as always, there are exceptions to this rule.

Patience may also be required earlier in the process, with respect to lighting conditions.  If you’re looking for a sunny, well-lit shot, clouds and/or precipitation may force postponement of the day’s planned activity. For that matter, lighting may even force the photographer to wait weeks or months, until seasonal conditions, in the form of the sun’s position in the sky, provide the desired lighting conditions.  Sometimes this is as simple as waiting for the change between Standard and Daylight Saving Time; this can be particularly applicable to outbound commuter trains.

This was the case with the photo above, taken on March 23, 2018.  Prior to the spring change to DST, the arrival of SEPTA train 9251 at Newark, Delaware, the final stop on its outbound (from Philadelphia) journey, sunlight simply won’t be present.  While this theoretically allows over half the year to work with, from a photography perspective, by the time of the Summer Solstice, the combination of a higher (further north) sun angle, and terrain with a higher elevation north of this site, as opposed to west combined with summer-season tree foliage conspire to limit “well-lit” shots here to a fairly narrow time window, from a seasonal perspective.

The good news, of course, is that there typically is plenty to see here at this Northeast Corridor location from the late afternoon into the early evening.  However, on weekdays, the arrival of SEPTA 9251 is worth waiting for, since it provides the sole opportunity for a “well-lit” shot of one of SEPTA’s AEM-7 locomotives at this location.  Since their replacements, Siemens ACS-64 “Sprinters”, have already begun to arrive, the return of favorable lighting conditions near the Fall Equinox may not be relevant any more for the “Toasters” (a common nickname for the AEM-7), which are the last of their kind, since the other U.S. users of the type, Amtrak and Maryland’s MARC commuter agency, have already retired their fleets.

This brings up the issue of persistence.  I’ll start with an analogy to sunsets.  Once the sun goes below the horizon, most people who are watching, or photographing, the event head for home, or wherever else they’re going next.  However, the best color may not appear for another 10-15 minutes; sometimes even longer.  Leave, or put the camera away, and you’ll miss it.  By the way, this works in reverse for sunrises; the best color can be well before the actual moment the disk of the sun crests the horizon.  Of course, there is no guarantee that an individual sunrise/sunset will produce nice color at all, but it’s worth knowing when this might occur. 

While I think that the optimal lighting for SEPTA 9251 at Newark is still several weeks off, I’ve now gotten an acceptable, sun-on-the-nose shot (although the side lighting could have been better), which, as noted above won’t be possible in a year’s time, and probably less.  During the layover between 9251’s arrival, and 9254’s departure back to Philly, there was some nice glint light to photograph; now, however, even the occasional patches of sunlight on the rails to the north have been consumed by the shadows, so isn’t it time to leave?

I have observed situations like this where there are pockets of light left above the rails, but there’s no way to find out except to wait, although this needs to be approached with the thought that even this hope may be In vain.  Finally, 9254 heads north; slowly, and in shadow.  And then, two things occur:  the next outbound SEPTA movement, 9257, appears, and the sun illuminates both trains, briefly.  I’m glad that I persisted this time.

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