TRAINS cover breaks new ground

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Monday, November 9, 2009

Trains November 2009 coverby Matt Van Hattem, Senior Editor

If you’ve ever stopped to glance at the cover of a fashion magazine (admit it — we all have), you may also know that the “photo” is often a composite of different pictures of the same model, knit together seamlessly with the magic of photo editing software.

At Trains magazine, we usually strive for realism on our covers. That doesn’t mean we won’t, say, remove a patch of dirt from the lead engine’s nose. But to do much more would mar the integrity of the photo and incur a lot of letters from sharp-eyed readers. They know railroading too well — and they can spot a fake a mile away.

That makes the cover image for the November 2009 issue of Trains (at right) all the more revolutionary. Not only was the train not real, but the “image” was actually a composite of three different photographs, and some imaginative photo editing from our art director Tom Danneman.

Why take this path? We felt it was the most exciting way to get across the idea of something that U.S. railroading has not done in over a quarter-century: Run mainline freight trains hauled by electric locomotives.

There’s been a lot of debate about U.S. electrification recently, and in the November 2009 Trains author Scott Lothes does an excellent job examining the issues and assessing what it might take to string catenary wire over today’s busy freight lines.

Scott’s good work presented us with a challenge: How do you illustrate something that doesn’t exist?

One idea was to go retro, and show a classic electric-hauled freight on the Pennsylvania Railroad or the Milwaukee Road — U.S. railroads that disappeared long ago.

But our November issue was devoted to technology, and what’s happening today. So a historic photo on the cover wouldn’t convey the overall tone of the issue.

Another idea was to show a European or Asian freight train under wire. (Scott talks about the incredible investments made by Russia and China in electric-powered freight trains.) But the article’s main focus was what it would take to see this technology here in America, and we wanted to keep that front and center.

So we embraced the third alternative: A fantasy mainline unit train under wire, but something that looked recognizably “American.”

How do you create such a thing?

Amtrak Northeast CorridorAmtrak’s Northeast Corridor was the place to start. The HHP-8 electric locomotives from Bombardier that pull Amtrak’s Northeast Direct trains have a distinct look. Could we somehow show one hauling a freight train?

The Corridor sees mainline freights under wire, albeit hauled by diesels. Would it be possible to combine photos of a Northeast Corridor passenger and freight train?

Tom Danneman gave me the parameters: Get two pictures — one freight, one Amtrak — in the exact same location, on the exact same track, and at the exact same time of day.

Sounds simple, right? Wrong.

For one thing, the photo still had to have the “breathing” room a magazine cover needs for the Trains logo plus our cover lines.

Now to find a photographer. I asked two good East Coast shooters if they had images already on hand that we could combine. No such luck.

One of the photographers, Michael S. Murray, scored a Photo of the Week on our Web site of a Norfolk Southern freight on the Corridor in Delaware (magazine subscription required to view). Could he get a passenger train there? Not really, he said. The problem is the Amtrak trains typically use a different track.

Still, Michael liked our idea and sent in more images from different public locations for Tom and me to look at. (It’s important to note that Michael never compromised safety or the railroad operations.)

However, either the locations were too busy for the cover (too many bridges or other background distractions that would not allow you to read the cover lines), or the trains were on different tracks, which would make the photo editing difficult and the final image look too awkward.

Time was running out. We were about to give up.

Norfolk Southern train 67VThen Michael sent a photo of Norfolk Southern train 67V (at right), an empty unit train that hauls crushed stone, rounding the Northeast Corridor’s big curve at Eddystone, Pa. I showed the photo to Tom. He agreed — the composition and location worked perfectly. Could Michael get a shot of an Amtrak train there?

He didn’t have one on hand, but quickly went back on a summer afternoon to make some. He sent several Amtrak images from his trip that day, and we found a perfect match for the freight.

Now it was time for Tom to apply his artistry.

“I had only one thing to worry about,” Tom explains. “Jim Wrinn, Matt, and I were thinking that Union Pacific would be a good railroad to have on the cover, and since we knew the electric would be towing a unit train, what better backdrop than one that resembled a UP line in Nebraska or Wyoming?

BNSF Railway at Sandhills Nebraska“For that, I dug into my own collection of photos, and chose a backdrop that I thought looked quintessentially Nebraska. I ended up using a portion of a photo that I had taken on the BNSF Railway out in the Sandhills of Nebraska. The barren, treeless landscape could be almost anywhere in the western plains.”

Tom adds: “I also used some photos from my own collection for the Union Pacific herald, numbers, etc.”

Only one question remained: Could everything be stitched together realistically?

“The biggest challenge was working around all of the wires and catenary to have the Nebraska sky and scenery showing behind the train,” Tom says.

So there you have it: Instant cover! In truth, the whole process took about a month. Along the way, we had a lot of support from editor Jim Wrinn and our publisher, Kevin P. Keefe, who let us run with the idea and take a risk.

Before we went to press we showed the image to Michael Murray. “A thing of beauty,” he said. “If this hobby were golf, I’d feel like I just won the Masters.”

Editor's note: Watch a video of how Danneman combined elements of the three images to arrive at the final cover.

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