Railroaders, Railfans, and “The Letter”

on Wednesday, January 28, 2015

It all started innocently enough. In May 2010, two friends and myself drove north from the Twin Cities to the Twin Ports with the idea of photographing trains on the former Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range lines now owned by Canadian National. For the first couple of hours we trooped around the area shooting what we could, and then learned there was a southbound ore train on the former Missabe that would be delivered to BNSF Railway. This was an unusual move, so we moved to intercept the train, which was lead by fresh CN SD70M-2 No. 8895.

The first couple of shots were uneventful, but then something strange happened. We would be set up to take a shot, and right when the train approached our location, the conductor would open the front door and stand out on the front of the engine and wave at us. The first time it happened we thought maybe he was inspecting something. Then it happened a second time, and then a third. That’s when we figured it out: he was making a deliberate attempt to ruin our photographs.

Since we all found this a bit shocking, we tested our hypothesis by hiding near a crossing so we could not be seen, then jumping out a virtually the last second to try to get a shot without him and the open door. I’ll give him credit: the guy moved quickly because at virtually the last instant that door would come open again.

To say we were upset would be an understatement. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and we had driven more than 200 miles to have some fun and pursue our hobby. I had been taking railroad photos for 38 years at the time of this incident, and had seen railroaders do a lot of things over the years to screw up a photo, such as opening the front door at the last second, turning off headlights, and the dreaded toilet paper out the window. I had always turned the other cheek when this happened, but this time, as newsman Howard Beale said in the film Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

So, when I came home I wrote what CN employees across Northern Minnesota would soon dub “The Letter.” I wrote to the superintendent in charge of the lines we had photographed, describing the events, the open door, and the employee. The employee in question apparently failed to take into account we had cameras. I made sure to enclose a large print of the person in question standing in the doorway of No. 8895.

I got a nice letter back from the official thanking me for bringing this to his attention, and assuring me the issue had been “taken care of.” If only that had been true.

I checked with a couple of my friends at CN who were privy to what happened, and apparently it was not pretty. The crew indeed got called on the carpet, and when the incident came up they immediately attempted to blame us! They said we were trespassing and driving in a reckless manner, neither of which was true, since we shot from grade crossings and the train wasn’t going very fast so “reckless” driving wasn’t needed. Plus it was surprising to learn how the crew would know how we were driving, since the area where we were chasing didn’t have parallel roads.

It didn’t end there. A couple of months later I got a phone call from a rail union representative from Duluth. He said, “You never should have written that letter, it caused a lot of bad feelings,” and went on at length to say that his guys did not like being photographed and just wanted to be left alone.

I told him I wanted to shoot the train, not the crew, and if they would just stay in the cab, I would not photograph them. Further, I said, we were just pursuing our hobby. “How would like to be out deer hunting, and you were lined up to take a shot at a buck, but every time you did somebody stepped in front of you and you were unable to pull the trigger. That’s how we felt,” I told him.

He was undaunted, and insisted his people just wanted to be left alone. I told him that the hobby was growing; there are more photographers than ever, so no, we are not going to go away. It was a pretty tense conversation. I learned later that “The Letter” was posted in CN lockers rooms throughout Northern Minnesota.

Now, five years out, there are still repercussions from The Letter. There are a couple of crews on the former Missabe lines that take cruel delight in messing with photographers. They have been known to take toilet paper and string it out the windows, shut off ditch lights approaching crossings where we are standing (a big safety no-no there), even “cleaning” the cab windows with big paper towels as they pass us. Luckily with the advent of digital photography and Photoshop, most of these problems can be fixed, but having to put up with all this strikes me as juvenile. Now when we head north to shoot trains, it is with a mix of excitement and dread.

Now I know what many of you railroaders are thinking: I could have gotten those guys fired. Of course, that was not my intent, but I did want to get them to stop doing what they were doing. We weren’t doing anything wrong, and yet they insisted on messing with us. So I took action. I should add one of the fans with me that day was a conductor with a Class I railroad. He had some pretty unprintable comments about what he thought of the crew and their actions, and he thought writing a letter was an appropriate action.

I have heard of other incidents where fans turned in crews for thing like this, and they  nearly have been fired. My getting a photo is certainly not worth a person’s job. On the other hand, if they would just stick to their job and refrain from such extracurricular activities, there wouldn’t be any trouble in the first place.

So, was I wrong? I’ll leave it to you to be the judge. Should fans just ignore incidents like this when they happen – or should do we do something? I’m open to your ideas and suggestions.

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