Visions of the Southwest

Over the course of this year I’ve been lucky enough to get a chance to ride quite the array of long distance Amtrak trains and see some of the most stunning vistas our country has to offer. There is simply no better way to see the great landscape of America than a journey by train. While I certainly find beaches and mountains beautiful, I’ve found myself most impressed by the rugged landscape of the American southwest, as seen on both the Sunset Limited and, most recently, the Southwest Chief. There’s just something about the striated red rock formations I find ruggedly beautiful.

I will refrain from saying too much about the Southwest Chief itself, and let a collection of photos I captured along the way tell the story. The dining car, the lounge car, and the roomette all enjoyable portions of the journey, but that can be experienced in many other places. The views from the windows, however, are unique to this trip and are what I made an effort to record. Enjoy a small collection of my favorite visions of the Southwest onboard the Chief – from stations to rock formations, and a few views of the train as well.

Visions of the Southwest

Visions of the Southwest

Visions of the Southwest

Visions of the Southwest

Visions of the Southwest

Visions of the Southwest

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Adventures in Mongolia, Part 2

Welcome back to our feature of photos from Mongolia, this is part two of the three part series. In our previous post, we got a chance to see some of the territory and the noteworthy curves and switchbacks that make the Trans Mongolian line interesting to ride and view. In this post we’re going to take a few visits behind the scenes to see some of the people that work to make this railroad run.

It’s worth starting out our feature about people with the photo below:
Welcome to Mongolia!
You’ll obviously spot yours truly in the center, to my right is Temuulen, who served as my driver and guide while in Mongolia. He’s an avid photographer of many things, including trains, and knows all the best spots for photographing the Trans Mongolian line. On the far left is Natsagdorj, Temuulen’s father, and on the right is Vasiliy. Both Natsagdorj and Vasiliy work for the railroad, they are two of Mongolian Railway’s track defect experts, or as you’d more officially call them, Head Engineers of the Road Diagnostic Center. Vasiliy is from Russia, but has been in Mongolia working for the railway there for the past 22 years. Natsagdorj studied at railway universities in both Russia and Mongolia, and has also been working for the railroad for 22 years.

Here’s an updated map, showing the places we’ll be visiting in this post with red dots:
Part 2 map

Kholt

In our previous post we got to see some trains around the Kholt area, this time we visit the small platform (complete with an old, abandoned signal house on the hill above), and get a chance to meet the local dispatcher. Trains through this area aren’t using any type of Centralized Traffic Control, instead a local dispatcher controls the siding outside, and when a train arrives nearby, heads outside to visually report its passage and log the consist’s rear car number and time of passage. On the station platform is a small, raised raised spot which the dispatcher stands on to observe the passing train. Next to the spot is a long sign that reads цэг хяналмын, which translates to control point.

Kholt
Kholt KholtKholt

Khairkan

Although another small station along the line, Khairkan is slightly more noteworthy than Kholt in that it has a building that doubles as a dispatch office and a small waiting area for passengers. Similar to the dispatcher shown in Kholt, the dispatcher here controls a small amount of local territory, and goes outside to observe trains when they pass. Local dispatchers keep in contact with a central dispatching office in Ulaanbataar, where traffic plans are created and new dispatchers are trained. Upgrades to a Centralized Traffic Control are planned for the area, in which case these local dispatcher jobs will become obsolete and the central office will instead control the train traffic from afar.

Khairkan
Khairkan Khairkan
Khairkan
Khairkan
Khairkan

Backshops

As one would expect, the main backshops for the Mongolian Railways is the capital of Ulaanbataar. Much of the equipment and work completed there reminds me of other shops I’ve seen at Amtrak and around the world – from the heavy overhead crane, to the truing of rail wheels. Unlike what I’m used to at work, there didn’t seem to be much in terms of PPE requirements.

Ulaanbataar shops
Ulaanbataar shops Ulaanbataar shops
Ulaanbataar shops
Ulaanbataar shops Ulaanbataar shops
Ulaanbataar shops

On the Road

Not everything I did while in Mongolia was railroad related. One can’t miss some of the more traditional touristy things while visiting the country, including sleeping in a ger, or riding a horse. In the case of the first, ger is the Mongolian word for “home” – and is basically a round tent that’s really not too bad of a place to rest your head. The center of the one I stayed in had a nice wood stove to keep you warm through the night, and yes, it was electrified. You can charge your cell phone in a ger… though you do have to go elsewhere to use the bathroom.

Ger camp

Not far from the camp was the Aryabal Temple, which was built in the early 1800’s by Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhists. It was destroyed by communists in the 1930s, and restored in 2007. The temple is located on the mountain, and requires climbing 108 steps to reach it.

Aryabal Temple
Aryabal Temple Aryabal Temple

On the way back to Ulaanbataar was one of those tourist traps you’ll find in a lot of different places, because everyone likes animals. In this case, the animals for show were birds of prey. Of course, hunting with large eagles is a traditional part of nomadic Mongolian culture, so it definitely makes sense.

Roadside birds
Roadside birds Roadside birds
Roadside birds

Either my arms are severely lacking in strength, or the bird was a lot heavier than it looked.

This wraps up part 2 of our feature on Mongolia, in our next part we’ll take a look at another popular tourist site in the country, one of the more remote train stations along the Trans Mongolian Line, and some views from high in the air.

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Adventures in Mongolia, Part 1

Earlier this year I posted a collection of photos from some of my travels around the United States, mostly on Amtrak. While riding the rails here at home is always fun, I’m always curious about foreign rail systems, especially some of the more remote ones throughout the world. One such remote system I got a chance to photograph was in Mongolia. Many people have at least heard of the famed Trans Siberian Railway, which stretches from Moscow to Vladivostok (a distance of nearly 6,000 miles) – but that part of the route isn’t the entire story. There are a few notable branch lines, the primary of which is the Trans Mongolian line, which separates from the Trans Siberian near Ulan Ude, Russia, and goes south through Mongolia and eventually ends in Beijing, China.

Mongolia Travel Map

Last year I got a chance to both photograph and ride the line (yes, I have quite the backlog of photos to go through!) and experience the very interesting and unique landscape that is Mongolia. Beside riding the trains, I got to camp in a normal tent, as well as the traditional Mongolian ger, hike a little, ride a horse, and visit some of the tourist locations – like the giant statue of Chinggis Khan (Chinggis being the more exact transliteration of who we usually call Genghis in English).

Ulaanbataar

My Mongolian adventures started in Ulaanbataar, the capital city of Mongolia, which also happens to have the largest train station in the country. Not far from the station is also a locomotive heavy repair facility, which you’ll see in Part 2. Our photos here feature the city’s main Sukhbataar Square, as well as an intersection not far from the square – note the traffic congestion at the intersection, Mongolians are restricted from driving in the city on certain days based on the last number on their license plates. Despite the vastness of the country, nearly half of the entire population live in just this city. Additional photos show the main railway station and surrounding area in Ulaanbataar.

Ulaanbataar Ulaanbataar
Ulaanbataar station
Ulaanbataar Ulaanbataar

Khonkor

A lot of my travels didn’t take me far from Ulaanbataar, mostly because some of the most notable territory along the Trans Mongolian route is just south of the city. In order to traverse the mountainous territory south of the capital, the railroad curls in an almost never-ending set of switchbacks which are popular with photographers to the area. Khonkor is approximately fifteen miles southeast of Ulaanbataar, but over 600 feet higher in altitude. On approach to Khonkor, it skirts the towering Bogd Khan Mountain, which lies just south of the capital, and is visible in some of the photos below.

Khonkor Khonkor
Khonkor
Khonkor Khonkor
Khonkor

Bayan

About nine miles south of Khonkor is Bayan, where more switchbacks have taken us up another 400 feet in altitude. Some of the mountains that the train passes through provide perfect perches for train watching, or if you happen to be a cow, usually a great place to graze. Unfortunately before my visit, little rain had fallen and much of the grass was brown (also unfortunately, the rain decided to fall frequently during my visit, even to the point of flooding Ulaanbataar. Apparently Mongolians have few qualms about fording rivers or flooded streets with their vehicles). The land here is known as the steppe – an area made up of grasslands and shrublands that form a crescent around the Gobi Desert, which is located further south on the Trans Mongolian line.

Bayan
Bayan Bayan
Bayan
Bayan Bayan
Bayan
Bayan Bayan

Kholt

Six and a half miles south of Bayan you will find Kholt, about 260 feet higher than before. Just south of here is the highest altitude you’ll find along the Trans Mongolian, from here on out you’ll be slowly descending to 3,150 feet at the border with China. Similar to Bayan, this is steppe territory which is largely free of trees and pretty much anything else, for that matter. Looking at the desolate landscape makes you truly begin to understand how Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world. In fact, one of the few dwellings you’ll see in the Kholt photos are two houses close to the tracks, which were formerly for railway workers to stay in, but are now unused.

Kholt
Kholt Kholt
Kholt
Kholt Kholt

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this initial introduction to the Trans Mongolian route. I have two more parts planned for the future – the second, which will feature the Ulaanbataar shops, a train dispatching office, and some of the people that work on the railroad. The third installment will highlight the mountainous territory of the line from the air, and show some of the more remote places you can find along the rails.

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The Never Ending Journey, Part 3: Photos from 2018

Nearly six months later, I’ve come to set the record straight – I’m neither dead, nor has this site been shut down. I’m still out there (somewhere), traveling, with a camera in hand. Last month I logged over 7,500 miles on the train, saw a lot of cool places, and met some awesome people. Here are some photos I liked from along the way…

New Orleans
New Orleans

City of New Orleans crosses the Manchac Bridge
City of New Orleans crosses the Manchac Bridge

City of New Orleans crosses the Manchac Bridge
City of New Orleans crosses the Manchac Bridge

Sunset Limited crosses the Bayou des Allemands
Sunset Limited crosses the Bayou des Allemands

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A Farewell to Summer – Amtrak’s Return to Grand Central

Labor Day has come and gone, schools have started back up again, and we find ourselves in the waning days of summer. The much-hyped transit “summer of hell” has also finished – and many seem to think it was a lot more swell than hell. For anyone with an interest in trains, it was always going to be rather swell. Amtrak would be making a return to New York City’s cathedral of railroading, Grand Central Terminal, after being gone for more than a decade. We welcomed the Empire Service trains with both open arms and camera shutters. I caught the trains in various locations along the reroute, and am presenting some of my favorite shots from the duration here. Until the next time…

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Hot fun, Late nights. Documenting Penn Station Renewal.

It may be hot, but down in the bowels of New York’s Pennsylvania Station it’s not really hell. Befitting the city’s well-known nickname, nobody here is sleeping at 2 AM – the renewal of Penn Station is a round-the-clock job. On the night of July 21st anticipation has been steadily building for the final placement of one of the many puzzle pieces of the station’s new track infrastructure. Switch 69B – everything is named numerically based on it’s position, with letters indicating the facing direction – is a massive piece of hardware that was assembled outside the station. In the cover of darkness it will be rolled in on its side, due to its width – when laid flat it is wide enough to foul the tracks on both sides.

With the last Amtrak train in the house at 1:40 AM, there’s a brief lull until the first morning departure at 3:25 AM. It’s in this window that the switch is laid flat just beyond the mouth of the Hudson tunnels and loaded onto Amtrak’s Portal Krane-1, which will bring the heavy piece to the correct spot and lower it into position on the already prepared track bed. PK-1, as it is abbreviated, is a Transformers-looking beast, with movable legs that allow it to “walk” the switch into position. It’s controlled by a complicated looking panel mounted to the body of the operator – I can only think of it as a joystick on steroids, and idly wonder if the fellow is any good at video games.

The night’s anticipation reaches its peak as PK-1, fully loaded, begins moving at 2:23 in the morning. When the vehicle reaches the right position next to the empty track bed, the operator controls PK-1’s legs to gradually shift the position of the switch. After several lateral shifting motions, the switch hovers in the appropriate spot just above the track bed. After trimming pieces of the already laid rail to accommodate it, the switch is finally lowered into position.

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

Concurrently, another team is hard at work on the other side of the station’s tracks. Most of the infrastructure for Track 10, including rails and ties, third rail and catenary have all been removed for a complete rebuild. Here, too, anticipation mounts for the arrival of the cement truck for the night’s pour. Word comes on the radio that the truck is on the move, enroute to the Empire tunnels, complete with police escort. Of course, Amtrak’s cement truck is a hi-rail vehicle; before long it will slowly roll down adjacent to Track 10, ready to encase the already installed wood ties.

Several photographers have gotten the chance to document the milestones happening in Penn Station, and I am lucky enough to be one of them. If you have seen Amtrak’s Media Images site or the new NYP Renewal Update video, you may have already seen some of my photos. Now, perhaps, they feel a little bit more real. If you’re like me, you may gain a new respect for the hardworking folks renewing the station, investing quite a bit of sweat in the wee hours of the morning.

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Credit for all photos: Amtrak / Emily Moser. For more Amtrak images and videos, please visit the Amtrak Media website.

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The Never Ending Journey, Part 2: More Photos from 2016

2016 has been bookended by two major moves for me – early in the year I was settling in to a new place in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area, and at the end of the year I find myself settling in to a new place in the Buffalo, New York area. Busy seems to be an understatement when you find yourself traveling through at least 18 different states, and spending the equivalent of nearly three months in different hotel rooms. Of course, throughout it all I kept my camera by my side. This post roughly continues where Part 1 left off – but I’ve aptly attempted to bookend it with Harrisburg, and the Buffalo – a true reflection of 2016.

Snow falls on the Keystone Corridor in Middletown
Snow falls on the Keystone Corridor in Middletown

Another cloudy day as the Conrail heritage unit passes over the Rockville Bridge
Another cloudy day as the Conrail heritage unit passes over the Rockville Bridge

I lived in Camp Hill for nearly a year, and I finally made it a point to take a photo of the old station...
I lived in Camp Hill for nearly a year, and I finally made it a point to take a photo of the old station…

Continuing off from the previous Never Ending Journey post, my road trip back from Atlanta led us to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where I heard that the Secret City Scenic would be ending operations. Sadly, their operating agreement was not renewed, and they would no longer be permitted to run trains. Since we were not far, we dropped in to see the final excursions, and snap a few photos.

Last run of the Secret City Scenic in Oak Ridge, TN
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Riding the Tunnelbana – the painted caves of the Stockholm Metro

It’s been about a month since the site has gone on hiatus (hope you didn’t miss me too much!), I figured it might be nice to slowly bring things back with a post about some of my most recent travels. If you happened to read the piece that Atlas Obscura wrote about me not too long ago, you may remember me mentioning that one of the transit systems I’d really love to visit was Stockholm, Sweden’s Tunnelbana (Metro). In between ending my old job and starting my new one at Amtrak, I actually took a journey to Sweden so I could finally visit the system, known for its transit art, for myself.

Though the Tunnelbana has a wealth of stations filled with interesting art, it is some of the stations located deeper underground that have captured the interest of many riders and photographers. As a unique design choice, during the excavation of these stations the bedrock was left exposed, creating the feeling that you are deep inside a cave. Each cavern is painted wildly by an array of artists – some in pink camouflage, and others in bright primary colors. While some are clearly unnatural, others evoke a real sense of a hidden cave – painted in subdued colors with primitive illustrations of a mammoth and of the sun. And even others create an interesting interplay between the rough exposed rock, and walls of colorful polished tiles. Suffice it to say, the Stockholm Metro is quite an interesting, and exceptionally unique system.

Words, of course, can’t adequately describe the varied – and in some cases, downright wild – decor of these stations, so let’s take a little visual journey together!

Tensta

Tensta

Tensta

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Public Art on the Green Line – Nancy Blum

It has never been a secret that I am a lover of transit-based art. One of the reasons I enjoy the light rail in Minneapolis so much is due to the abundance of art. The system’s newest line, the Green Line, has two very cool stations that were designed by artist Nancy Blum (she actually did three, but the two I’ll feature today are arguably the nicest on the line). You may be familiar with Blum, as she’s been mentioned on this blog before. One of her previous public art installations can be found through the Arts for Transit program on our very own Hudson Line. The mosaics at Dobbs Ferry station are her creation.

For her work in Minnesota, Blum designed work for the East Bank and West Bank stations, located on either side of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. At West Bank you’ll find the work Immigration/Migration, which features birds fabricated out of stainless-steel, and wire mesh etched with patterns. The etched mesh is certainly my favorite, as it is extremely subtle. The patterns are just barely visible under normal light, but when direct sun rays hit the mesh, the pattern is extremely bright and really shines.

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Following the Northstar – Minnesota’s Commuter Rail

During my first visit to Minneapolis several years ago, I took lots of photos of the new Hiawatha light rail line (now known as the Blue Line), but completely missed out a chance to check out their commuter rail. On my more recent trip to the Twin Cities, I made sure to see the Northstar. A few trains in the state have used variations on the name Northstar, including a now-defunct Amtrak train, a name which derives from Minnesota’s nickname as the North Star State, as it is the northernmost of the contiguous US states. Although it might not be glowing, this Northstar, is hard to miss, painted in an attractive blue, yellow, and red scheme.

In terms of transportation systems, the Northstar is relatively young, with passenger service starting at the end of 2009. Operating on an already-existing BNSF freight line, money was invested to purchase equipment, build stations, and to construct a maintenance facility near Big Lake. The line stretches from Target Field in Minneapolis, where it connects with the light rail, to Big Lake in the north. Although hopes were for the line to continue all the way to the city of St. Cloud, just north of Big Lake there is a several mile stretch of only single track, and it would be a significant expenditure to add another track so the line can continue to accommodate both freight and commuter traffic. Instead, bus service called the Northstar Link carries passengers from Big Lake to St. Cloud.

There are a lot of comparisons one could make with Metro-North – the most obvious being the overpasses used on the line. Along the Hudson Line there are severe limitations on the height of freight trains due to low bridges and overpasses. The line on which Northstar runs, being mostly freight, in contrast has very high overpasses to allow the plentiful freights to pass underneath. Another leg up the Northstar has over Metro-North is the fact that each passenger coach is equipped with wi-fi, something customers here have been wanting for years. On the other hand, service on the Northstar is very limited, focused around commuting hours with an occasional extra train for baseball games and concerts at Target Field. Much of this limitation is due to the frequent freight on the line, which can often delay trains (especially Amtrak’s Empire Builder).

All in all it was an interesting trip to see another one of the country’s commuter rail systems. Enjoy a collection of photos from Northstar:

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