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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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Trains & Modern Photography: Stitching and Panoramas

If you’re a frequent viewer of this site, then the subject of today’s Trains & Modern Photography post is something you’re probably familiar with – panoramas. The most generic definition of a panorama is an wide view of an area, in which you can see in all directions. For my Metro-North Panorama Project, I used the definition loosely, featuring at least one photo per station that used the technique of stitching, thus giving the viewer a photo that provided a far wider view than one could capture in a single photo’s frame. Using modern technology like Photoshop, one can take multiple photos around a central axis point – either on a tripod, or by standing in the same spot and rotating your body, while holding the camera at the same angle for each shot – and combine them. This technique is called stitching, and is one of the most common methods of getting high quality and high resolution panoramas.

If this is a technique you’ve always been interested in trying out, or you’re just curious to see how exactly one makes a panorama (especially one featuring a train) – from camera to computer – read on.
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Spring Thaw on the Saratoga & North Creek

This past winter was long and cold for all of us, and thankfully everything is finally beginning to look bright. Upstate in the Adirondacks the Saratoga & North Creek Railway was hard-hit. Normally operating several snow trains a few weekends during the winter, much of February’s service was entirely cancelled due to the extremely cold weather. Prior to the cancellations, one train that did run broke down heading southbound, necessitating a school bus to carry all the passengers back to Saratoga.

I had been planning to photograph the railway in the snow, but the lack of trains cancelled those plans. Instead I visited in April, catching the Spring thaw along the line, with just a few bits of snow remaining along the banks of the Hudson. Although minimal freight operates on the line, I didn’t see any, only capturing the two passenger trains that operate each day.

Tourist trains have operated on this line since 1999, but the Saratoga and North Creek has only been running since 2011, operated by Iowa Pacific Holdings. They’ve only been carrying freight since 2013, a business they’d like to expand, as they’re losing money on their tourist trains (no doubt the harsh winter and cancelled trains did not help). Historically, the Delaware and Hudson Railway acquired this line in 1871, and ran on it until 1989 (an abandoned portion of the line, including a bridge, can be seen in a few of my photos).

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Trains and Modern Photography: The Joys of GPS

One of the best tech secrets of modern photography is the ability to never have to write down in a little notebook where you were when you took a photo in order to remember later. Many folks have GPSes in their car, but they aren’t only for getting directions from place to place. A GPS device can also record the very place you were standing when you took a photograph, and save it into your camera’s EXIF data. For those that spend time traveling and chasing trains, a GPS is extremely useful. Photos that have GPS data recorded are known as “geotagged” – and to the modern photographer, it’s the best thing since sliced bread!

Since I’ve mentioned EXIF data, it is certainly worth mentioning this other wonderful part of modern photo. EXIF stands for EXchangeable Image File format, which is basically a way that a photo’s metadata is saved. Each photo taken with your camera has this data, which usually records the date and time the photo was taken (provided you have this set correctly in your camera), the camera make and model, and the settings used to capture the photo – usually the mode setting, ISO, aperture, and exposure. In some cameras you can set specific copyrights (my camera adds my full name and website address to the EXIF data) or other messages. If you have a GPS device linked to your camera, GPS coordinates for when the shot was taken (including the altitude in some instances) are also recorded.

Getting GPS data on your camera

So how do you go about getting your camera hooked up to a GPS device? Many new cameras are coming out with GPSes built right in. One of the reasons why I fell in love with my main camera, the Canon 6D, is the built in GPS. The Sony SLT-A99, Nikon D5300, Canon 7D Mark II, Pentax K-5 IIs, and Pentax K-S1 are all examples of DSLRs with built-in GPSes. If you don’t have one of those, however, that does not mean you are out of luck. Most manufacturers make external GPS loggers that connect to your camera. The good thing about these devices is that they add the GPS coordinates directly to the photo’s EXIF data. However, they cost about $200 dollars for one actually made by Nikon or Canon.

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Introducing our new project – “Trains and Modern Photography”

For more than a hundred years trains and railroads have provided an interesting subject matter for photographers. In the earliest years cameras were clunky and few, often in the hands of a professional. As the years went by, especially after the introduction of photographic film, cameras found their way into a railfan’s arsenal in increasing number. We’ve come a long way since then. The modern world has technology abound, and a camera is now found in just about everyone’s pocket, thanks to cell phones. For those serious about photography, technology has opened so many doors, and has made the art of railroad photography even more interesting. While many of the underlying principles have always remained the same, images that could never be captured before are now possible. Railfanning via a camera mounted on a flying drone would likely have been beyond the wildest dreams of early photographers, yet it is one way that people are capturing images of trains today.

A very early railroad photo
A daguerrotype considered one of the earliest known railroad photographs, circa 1850. Via the Center for Railroad Photography and Art.

I consider my upbringing to be on the very bridge of old-school photography and the “modern” technology world. I grew up shooting film, and in art school was expected to develop my own negatives and prints (admittedly, I hated it). Likewise, I remember getting my hands on my very first digital camera as a freshman in high school – it was a clunky beast, taking a 3.5″ floppy disk to save just a few photos. It wasn’t until I was in college that I got my very own digital camera (a simple point-and-shoot), and I didn’t get a digital DSLR until after I had graduated. I never fully enjoyed photography much until I had gone full digital, and since then I’ve attempted to embrace all the newest tech that I can get my hands on.

Grand Central Construction
Image from a glass plate negative of Grand Central Terminal’s construction. From the Library of Congress.

Because of my love of photographic technology, and a suggestion by a reader, I’m going to be starting a new feature project on this blog – namely a column entitled “Trains and Modern Photography.” The column will feature both modern photographic technology, like the aforementioned drones, to GoPros, as well as modern techniques, like panoramic, high dynamic range, and timelapses – all from the perspective of a railfan. Though it will be of most interest to the photographer, I hope that everyone will be able to enjoy it, essentially seeing the “behind the scenes” of how great photos are made.

Modern tech in a classic setting at Grand Central Terminal
Modern tech in a classic setting at Grand Central Terminal

So that is about it for this introduction… look for the first “Trains and Modern Photography” post tomorrow, represented by a light green dot, which you’ll see now added to the category list on the right bar of the site. If you happen to have any suggestions or ideas of technology or topics we should cover, shoot me a message or just comment below!

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Whippany Railway Museum’s 50th Anniversary, and big things for April

If you’re not familiar with the Whippany Railway Museum, it is a great little spot that works to preserve some of New Jersey’s railroad history, and is likely where you’ll find the next generation of young railfans, riding in historic train cars and meeting up with Santa and the Easter Bunny. The museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and in order to celebrate they’re offering things like a railway hobby show, and 1956 prices on excursions. On Sundays where no excursions are taking place, the CNJ club car “Jersey Coast” will be hosting some photography exhibits.

My article in the April issue of Railfan & Railroad
My article in the April issue of Railfan & Railroad

If you haven’t heard already, I have a pretty big article in April’s Railfan & Railroad Magazine, featuring my explorations of the railway in Chornobyl’s Exclusion Zone. On April 26th, the 29th anniversary of the Chornobyl Disaster, I’ll be showing my photos from that adventure at Whippany, along with some copies of the magazine. So be sure to check out the April edition of Railfan & Railroad (which if you’re a subscriber, started mailing last week), and come out and visit Whippany for their 50th anniversary, and my showing of photos on Sunday, April 26th!

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Mott Haven in the 1960s

Keeping the trains clean – A look back at Mott Haven Yard

Early last month some alarms were raised about an Amtrak traveler that rode from Penn Station to Albany that was infected with measles. Any poor sap riding that train who failed the common-sense milestone of getting vaccinated could potentially have been exposed. Occurrences such as these in the modern day are far less common, but in the early 1900’s health became a subject in the forefront of train riders’ minds – especially when trains often carried the (generally perceived) “dirty” immigrants out west. Today Mott Haven is only a small yard facility operated by Metro-North, located where the Hudson Line diverges from the Harlem and New Haven Lines. Historically, however, the yard was far larger and played more of an important role for trains entering and exiting New York City – and for many years it was the major point where train cars were kept clean and disease-free. A 1905 issue of Harper’s Weekly featured an article about how railroads prevented the spread of disease on their train equipment, and featured the cleaning crews of Mott Haven, which provides an intriguing look back at the Mott Haven facilities of yesteryear.

The Mott Haven wye in 1908
The Mott Haven wye area in 1908, note the turntable and large yard area for storing trains.

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Winter 2015 – A Collection of Snowy Photos

Hopefully by now winter is waning, and yesterday’s snow storm will be the last big event of the season. It feels like it has has been a long winter – and one rife with cancellations, train delays, and even a full transit system shutdown. Despite the headaches, snow can of course be beautiful (in moderation!). Here’s a collection of some of my favorite photographs that I took this winter season, on Metro-North and beyond.

Who else is ready for spring?

Also, are you following I Ride the Harlem Line on Facebook and Instagram? Many of these photos appeared there first!

                       

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The Night of the Bus – North White Plains

I Ride the Harlem Line has never been much of a news website. While we’ll certainly talk about (and give commentary on) current events, we’re not really the place where you should be checking for breaking stories (if such a term hasn’t completely been shot to death by 24-hour news). Therefore, we don’t need to recount to you what happened last week. A truly sad event, that undoubtedly could have been prevented if one followed what ought to be common sense – don’t stop your car on railroad tracks. Ever. Instead, the proud Harlem Line ground to a halt and six people lost their lives.

Departure board at White Plains
By morning, the departure board at White Plains looked like this – all trains originating in Southeast or Wassaic were listed as cancelled.

North White Plains was just one spot where the men and women of Metro-North kept a railroad moving – even when there wasn’t quite a railroad to run. Riders were forced to take buses from North White Plains to Pleasantville and vice versa, bypassing the crash in Valhalla. The station was sufficiently far enough from the crash to hear the constant drone of helicopters swarming over the normally quiet Valhalla, but nonetheless still swarmed with news vans and reporters.

I spent that Wednesday evening in North White Plains, as my husband was one of the employees directing riders onto buses and helping them find their way home (or in the case of many Rangers fans, to the city to see their team win over the Bruins). Here are a few photos from that night…

                 

  
News reporters Greg Mocker of Pix11 (complete with man purse) and ABC7’s Anthony Johnson on scene at North White Plains…


By 7 PM the consist involved in the crash had made the short journey south to North White, and is pushed back into the yard. With that out of the way, workers could spend the night readying the track for a full train service restoration the next morning…

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Valladolid, Mexico’s Abandoned Station, and the High-Speed Trans-Peninsular Rail Project

As an escape from New York’s winter cold, I recently spent a week in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Considering that I like to visit diverse places such as Alaska in the winter, and Chernobyl, a beach locale like Mexico sounds relatively normal trip. The area doesn’t have much in the way of trains, either, which sounds really normal. However, a few hour trek toward the ruins at Chichén Itzá on the libre (free road), as opposed to the cuota (toll road), will yield you an encounter with a lone grade crossing just west of the city of Valladolid. This rail line extends from Valladolid to Yucatán’s capital of Mérida, and although freight runs are semi frequent, regular passenger service is long gone. Many of the former train stations are abandoned and in disrepair, such as the one in Valladolid, which I found after a bit of poking around.

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