The Shot that you Didn't Plan to Take

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, September 4, 2023

When there’s even a modest amount of time to plan the shot you’re going to take of a train at a familiar location, it’s generally easy to narrow the possibilities down fairly quickly: where to stand; what focal length lens to use; what to include in the frame; and probably the most important, what the light will let you do.

It probably won’t surprise most readers that I’ve taken a lot photos in, and nearby, Boyce, Virginia, in the northern portion of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in largely rural Clarke County, during the last several years.  While the Norfolk Southern has provided many colorful locomotive consists, including its own heritage/special colors units, as well as colorful “foreign” power on numerous occasions, the majority of the railroad’s operations at this location come in the “monochrome”/any-color-you-want-as-long-as-it’s-black&white livery. 

This is both a curse and a blessing.  The former applies if you’re looking forward to a bright, sunny-day shot of colorful motive power; the positive aspect comes from knowing that if you want to try something different photographically and it doesn’t work, a variation of the old adage about streetcar timing in large cities (“another one will be there in a few minutes”) applies, although the wait often is “slightly” longer in most cases for freight trains, although the basic principle still applies.

By being in the vicinity on multiple occasions, including different times of day and seasons, I’ve learned that the Main Street grade crossing in Boyce can be utilized to get high-key/contrast shots of southbounds in the late afternoon as they pass in and out of patches of sunlight as the railroad enters its narrow passage between the Fox and Pheasant home décor store and Charles Snead’s Architectural Woodwork enterprise.

Accordingly, with the knowledge that premium intermodal train 27A was likely to transit Boyce soon, this became the choice for the photo location at about five PM on August 26, 2023.  Shortly, 27A’s horn sounded for the grade crossing at milepost 45, followed by its appearance on the first of the two reverse curves that define the railroad’s path through Boyce.

As planned, it found an initial “sunspot” at the previous grade crossing, Old Chapel Avenue, immediately north of milepost 46. 

This was followed by a retreat into the shadows,

and then, nearer to Main Street, by a brightly-lit photo opportunity before achieving the second grade crossing.


Having succeeded in getting what was planned, I instinctively turned around to watch the train’s passage.  As is often the case currently, its length, reported to be 13,000 feet, meant that the rear of the train was still in a 40 miles per hour permanent speed restriction about two miles north.  At my location, 27A was in the process of rolling through a “sag”, in the form of a pair of very short 1.1 percent grades, with the upgrade beyond the Main Street crossing.

As you can see in the top photo, power was being added, as indicated by the exhaust plumes on the locomotives, apparently not to resume track speed, but simply to maintain existing forward progress, from the perspective of velocity.  Had the exhaust not been so visible, I probably would not have noticed this; once seen however, my brain urged me to raise the camera again and photograph the scene, inelegant with multiple visual obstructions, notwithstanding.

A calendar shot?  Probably not, but I’m glad that I was able to get this view of modern-day heavy-duty muscular railroading in progress.  Running a 13,000-foot train apparently requires attention to detail beyond simply leaving the throttle in the same notch as the undulating countryside goes by.  And by the time 27A’s EOT device had crossed Main Street, it looked like track speed had been achieved again. 

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