This was not a good day. Not at all. I was really looking forward to it, my first chance in a long time to get in a full day of fanning out in the open country, something that I really enjoy. Unfortunately all I managed to do was to put on a whole lot of miles to see only a handful of trains, and break the camera! Things definitely could have gone better.
My goal for the day was to do the BNSF Mendota Sub. Definitely not the busiest of the BNSF’s three lines into Chicago, but it does have a couple things that I really like: coal trains, and SD70’s. Tell me that any of those are on the way and you’ll see me reaching for my camera and car keys. On the down side the Mendota Sub can be really slow at times depending on where the coal trains are. Some days they’re one right after another, other days they’re all off somewhere else: at the mines, the power plants, in transit but not in Illinois, and the sub can be very, very dead. There’s no way to know what’s up in advance, you just have to hit the road and see what fate will give you. Today I rolled snake-eyes.
My basic plan for the day was be trackside at dawn, and when I say trackside I mean out in the country beyond the burbs. That means an early start, which means getting up early, and that’s where things first went wrong. For whatever reason I didn’t sleep well, lots of tossing and turning was involved, and I got up feeling like I’d been thru a wringer. I was in a fairly good mood though; I had a great forecast (unlimited sun) and a definite urge to do some photography. I hit the road around 5:45, still full dark, but perfect for the one part of these trips that I hate, driving thru the suburban sprawl. It used to be that once you crossed the Fox River you were out in the country; farms, fields and small towns. No longer. Now it’s mile after mile of strip malls that look exactly like the ones you’d passed a short distance back. I find it depressing and if I could get thru it in the dark and before the rush hour, so much the better. Passing thru Montgomery I paused to pick up a breakfast sandwich from McDonalds. Big mistake. I don’t know why but it landed in my stomach like a brick and just sat there. Great, now I had to deal with that on top of being groggy from lack of sleep!
I landed trackside with the BNSF at Plano around 6:45. Sunrise was still fifteen minutes off, which was cool since the countryside really doesn’t open up until past Somonauk. There were a lot of new signals up, some in service, some not. The new masts on the east side of Sandwich were impressive, they tower over everything, I guess that it’s to raise them above a clutter of stop lights on neighboring Rt34. It’s sad to see the old signal bridges go, they really add character to the line.
It wasn’t until I got to Somonauk that it got light enough to make it worthwhile to check trackside, but all I found were red boards and no headlights. I finally hit pay dirt at E 23rd Rd; a dead eastbound unit coal was parked to the west on Main 2; I hadn’t seen it from Somonauk because its headlights were off. Luckily for me the sun had just come up so I pulled off to get a few long distance shots from the crossroad:
07:02 a.m. – LaSalle Co / E 23rd Rd
BNSF e/b unit coal dead on the main
BNSF 5907 ES44AC
BNSF 8904 SD70MAC
Wow it was cold out! Actually no, but after a summer with a near record number of 90 degree days, the 40’s were a shock! I was sure glad that I brought a jacket along. Even with a 400mm it was a reach to the parked train from E 23rd Rd, so I just got a couple ISO 800 shots in the low light. I could see another headlight to the west; great since I probably could get a good shot of whatever was coming passing the dead coal train. Unfortunately the new train just sat there and a careful look thru the 400mm (Note to self, bring binoculars along next time!) revealed the reason; the new train was on the same track as the one in front of me, meaning that it was parked too! Drat! Oh well, stuff like this happens a lot on this stretch of the Mendota Sub, it’s just something you have to deal with it.
I moved down the road to get some close up shots of the dead train.
It wasn’t really a fruitful visit, I had to deal with a nasty pole line, plus the land along the right of way was messily overgrown; it’s probably going to take a couple good killing frosts and a snow storm to knock things down. It was too bad because the low angle light made the engine’s reflective markings really glow. I got a few shots pretty much just to record and moved on.
I pushed on west, zigzagging back and forth across the tracks to keep an eye on things. The line was dead; I wasn’t picking up any scanner chatter, which wasn’t good. I found the second dead coal train parked at E 17th Rd under great light and much closer to the crossing than the last one. Time for some photos:
07:34 a.m. – LaSalle Co / E 17th Rd
BNSF e/b unit coal dead on the main
BNSF 8889 SD70MAC
BNSF 8977 SD70MAC
Good spot, the neighboring field had been harvested so I had a clear view of a great subject, SD70MAC’s! Too bad it wasn’t on the move. I poked around and shot a number of angles; sunny side, dark side, head on, across the field, stuff like that. Nice catch but also stuff that I’d done before, this wasn’t the first time I’ve found a train parked here, so I moved on in search of something new and different.
Next stop was Earlville. I poked around looking for photos; at first glance Earlville looks like a great place since there’s lots of stuff to play with; crossovers, signal bridges, old brick depot (with a new bright red roof), UP Troy Grove branch crossing, but in reality it’s a mess courtesy of the BNSF signal department which maintains a base in the depot and stores literally tons of stuff along the right of way. I was less than impressed. I ended up camping out at the far west end of town more or less just to wait and see what might happen. The right of way there was liberally decorated with shipping containers holding new signal gear, which looked like an interesting photo subject to play around with, but between my lack of sleep and that darn breakfast sandwich I was so fogged out that I just couldn’t come up with anything imaginative.
In the mean time I still wasn’t picking up any hint of action, which was getting really worrisome. Amtrak’s Carl Sandburg and Illinois Zephyr were due thru around nine and I can usually track their progress by listening in on the dispatcher routing them around freight traffic. Not today, the airwaves were dead meaning that either they weren’t running (extremely unlikely) or there simply wasn’t anything to route them past. This was not good.
Time passed, I got bored and headed west looking for a halfway decent spot to the catch the Amtraks, but didn’t find anything inspirational. Since the grain rush was on I was hoping to find a train loading at the Northern Crossing elevator west of Meriden, but it was dead too. I was definitely batting zero this morning! I began to pick up some scanner chatter involving the Amtraks, but it was only about how they were going to get past each other and nothing about freights. It did light a fire under me to find a spot to catch them, so I headed back east checking out the grade crossings along the way for photo ideas. I finally found what I wanted at E 11th Rd just west of Earlville; driving towards the tracks I saw a good across the field broadside shot where I could catch the entire train passing. Definitely not brilliant, but it raised my spirits a bit that I’d come up with something other than a wedgie! I couldn’t see down the tracks from my photo spot, so I camped out at the grade crossing figuring that I’d high tail it down the road when a headlight appeared. As it turned out I didn’t have to wait long, air horns sounded and a headlight popped up to the west; the Illinois Zephyr was on the way. Then air horns sounded to the east too; it was the Carl Sandburg! Oh great, after three hours of waiting everything was going to be done and gone in just a few minutes! The eastbound I-Zephyr was going to arrive first, but instead of making a run for my broadside shot I stood my ground on the off chance that it would meet the Carl Sandburg within shooting distance. Time to catch the action:
09:08 a.m. – LaSalle Co / E 11th Rd
Amtrak e/b Illinois Zephyr
AMT 19 P42DC
I got a variety of wedgies, but no close up shots with the Sandburg since it was still passing thru Earlville. I did catch a going away shot of the Zephyr with the Sandburg’s headlight in the distance. Then it was back to the car and down the road for a broadside of the Sandburg:
09:10 a.m. – LaSalle Co / E 11th Rd
AMT w/b Carl Sandburg
AMT 58 P42DC
I popped off two shots as the train went past and I’m glad that I did since my first try planted a pole across the nose of the locomotive!
Ok what next? I still wasn’t picking up any signs of action in the area so poked around a bit, looked over the UP’s Try Grove line north of Earlville, and even took off east to check on the two dead coals to see if anything was happening with them. I tried for some long distance across the field broadsides with the E 17th Rd train, but they didn’t work due to a lot of heated air between the subject and myself. I even checked on the train at E 23rd just to make sure it was still around since if anything was going to happen it would have to happen there first. No such luck, it was still dead as a doornail. Back west I went where I revisited the train at E 17th Rd for some 300mm head on shots, more or less out of desperation to do something.
I landed back in Earlville where things were still dead, so I alternated between camping out in town, checking on the UP Troy Grove line, or driving around looking for photographic inspiration. Maybe I should have stayed put, returning to downtown after one of my jaunts I took a turn a bit too tight and my camera rolled off the passenger seat and hit the center console with a load bang before ending up on the floor. Now that’s happened before with no consequence so I wasn’t too worried until I pulled off and discovered a small problem; the viewfinder was broken! The manual focusing marks were all askew and while the autofocus seemed to be working, all I could see was a blur! The best case scenario: the manual focusing screen had gotten knocked loose, which was something I could fix on my own. The worst case scenario: the camera’s pentaprism had gotten knocked loose, meaning a visit to the repair shop. Either way it was something I couldn’t deal with until I got home. Luckily I had another camera body with me so my day wasn’t at an end.
I began to pick up scanner chatter; apparently two westbounds were on their way out of Montgomery so I settled in at Ottawa St in downtown Earlville. Not the greatest spot, the eastbound view left a lot to be desired, but since I was dealing with westbounds it wasn’t a great concern. Time passed and a westbound green board popped up on Main 1 followed a few minutes later by the sound of air horns to the east. Cool, time to finally catch some action!
12:08 p.m. – Earlville IL / Ottawa St
BNSF w/b unit coal
BNSF 5774 ES44AC
BNSF 9576 SD70MAC
NS 9912 Dash 9-40CW
NS 7611 ES40DC
I caught a wide angle wedgie of the train before getting artsy and trying for some reflections in a nearby store window, along with some speed blur shots of the passing coal cars.
Cool, my first freight action of the day and it only took 6 hours! Not a record though, I once waited eight hours on the Aurora Sub and then got six trains in about fifty minutes!
Back to waiting. I found an odd widget lying on the ground, sort of a tuft of orange plastic strands attached to a six inch nail, very puzzling. I’d seen strands like this sticking out of the ground at rural grade crossings but hadn’t a clue as to what they were, and I have to admit that I still don’t! Obviously they have something to do with the signal circuit, but what?
There were other tufts sticking out of the ground in the area, but if they were attached to nails I couldn’t see them, and I wasn’t about to starting digging to satisfy my curiosity. Were they for grounding? Static electricity disbursement? Aardvark repellent? If so it’s very effective, I’ve seen nary an aardvark around.
Time passed and another headlight popped up to the east. Time for my second freight of the day:
12:25 p.m. – Earlville IL / Ottawa IL
BNSF w/b merchandise
NS 9545 Dash 9-40CW
NS 7715 ES40DC
For variation I got a couple tight almost head on wedgies. Nice to see the NS set, they’re not all the unusual on this train, but it’s been a while since a caught a pair.
Time to kick back again. Maybe I should have taken a nap, but after seeing a couple guys across the way examining a cross bow while periodically looking my way I decided to keep my eyes open. The tracks were dead and more importantly the scanner was dead too; if there was anything out there the dispatcher would have been alerting the westbounds to their presence.
As it turned out that was it for the day. I waited a while longer but when the air waves stayed stubbornly silent I decided to cut my losses, head for home and assess the camera. Strange day, but as I said at the start, not totally unexpected. Stuff like this happens, and in this case I just happened to catch a really dead day on the sub. Hopefully there will be a lot ore trains next time, and I won’t drop things!
Post Script: As for the camera it turned out that the only thing jarred loose was the focusing screen. I spent some time fiddling with it the next day, and while it took two tries it seems to be back up to speed. I’m definitely going to give it a test run locally before entrusting to anything big.
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