Situational Awareness

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, September 14, 2020

Railroad photography often reflects the old adage about flying: hours and hours of sheer boredom, punctuated by moments of stark terror, although “terror” needs to be modified to “moments of significant insight”.  Like hunting or fishing, rail photography often includes long periods of waiting, followed by brief, concerted action, particularly if you want to feature an actual moving train in your shot.

This doesn’t have to be “useless” time, however.  When you’re with others of like mind, camaraderie and conversation often develops, to help pass the time.  A sole practitioner of the art?  Many people deal with this by bringing along reading matter to be perused, or music to entertain.  Food and beverage consumption isn’t out of the question, either; it’s also probably a safer time for this activity than mid-chase.  With today’s communication devices, this often proves to be a good time to catch up on items as diverse as world events; sports in progress; gossip; and the now-ubiquitous “social media”.

On the other hand, it also can be useful to both walk, and look, around your current location.  You’ve probably come into the place with a pre-conceived idea about the shot that you want, but this can be a good opportunity to see if there are other possibilities.  Zoom lenses are a pretty common feature for many people now; take a look at combining changes in your physical location with different focal lengths on the camera; there probably are numerous possibilities, either for now, or perhaps, for future reference.

It’s also an opportunity to examine the infrastructure that is literally surrounding your projected photo location; sometimes there are features that escape a quick glance.  For example, the grouping of three tracks in the photo above, in Berryville, Virginia, at the control point of the same name on Norfolk Southern’s H-line (Hagerstown, Maryland to Roanoke, Virginia) has a story to tell.

Furthest away is the main line.  In the middle is the signaled passing siding that runs from Audley, about two miles to the north, to this point.  Nearest is an industrial spur.  Each of these entities is visually distinctive:  the main sits on ballast that is higher than the siding; the ties are both newer, and spaced more closely than those in the siding.

The siding is no slouch, even with its vertical deference to the main; rail weighing 136 pounds per yard that carries a 2011 date is in use here.  Finally, the spur, which seems to get little or no use at this point, has rail whose well-weathered rails' provenance cannot be determined visually, but has the look of probably being well short of suitable for mainline use at this point.  Railroads cascade old mainline rail to low-speed/tonnage secondary and tertiary uses as it ages, enhancing the investment made in it when new.

Disclaimer: I’ve been in this area many times, and hadn’t noticed this visual grouping before yesterday, based on the publication date for this blog.  The current configuration of the industrial spur dates from April 2012, when I spent the better part of a day watching and photographing the project to extend the siding in this vicinity, which included the demolition of the former Norfolk & Western CPL (color position light) signals facing southbound train movements that stood about 400 feet north of this spot.  Didn’t notice what became this photo then, or since, until now.

So, when you’re out in the field, and waiting, take a look around; you may be surprised at what you can see (and photograph) by looking at the seemingly familiar carefully.  And, things change over time, the Berryville CPLs providing an example.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the time isn’t coming when this picture won’t be possible, because there used to be a spur there … but no longer.

Photo:  George W. Hamlin

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