The Preeminence of Data

Nature abhors anachronism, although it makes for good Sci-Fi

Preface: Although this post is about model railroading, it applies to any sort of model-building hobby.  Whew.  Glad that’s out of the way!

You may have gathered by now that one of my main hobbies is model railroading.  In fact, several of my others tie into it, directly or indirectly.  And amongst model railroaders, there is a well-known maxim known as Rule No. 1.  Rule No. 1 states quite simply, “It’s MY railroad!”.  In case you haven’t ever been around model railroaders, they can be quite an arrogant lot.  The worst of them are what we call “rivet-counters”, those annoying people who delight in finding the minute flaws in other people’s work.  These people are avoided and vilified, unless of course you need to farm out a modeling project that you yourself don’t have time or skills or tools for.  Then, occasionally, they have a certain usefulness.

Anyway– Rule No. 1 was formulated as a defense against rivet-counters.  When someone tries to correct the errors of a fellow model-builder, at last resort one can always fall back on Rule No. 1, often followed by an emphatic expletive. Ultimately, it’s my hobby and I will do it the way I want to do it, dang it!  Rule No. 1 is useful, and realistic, and a great tool for ending an argument, because whatever else a rivet-counter may be, in his heart he acknowledges the jurisdiction of the rule, even if he feels compelled to display his superior knowledge about the other guy’s work.  It’s the 38th parallel of the hobby world; you simply do not cross it.

But, as it turns out, Rule No. 1 is wrong.  Flawed.  Untrue.  A veritable sham.  A big, fat lie.

What? you cry.  How can it be a sham?  It IS my hobby, isn’t it?  <grabs torch and pitchfork>

Your Honor, the defense would like to call its first witness.  Mister Name-of-the-Hobby, would you take the stand?  Thank you.  Do you swear to pretty much say whatever I want you to say?  Very well.  Now, sir, would you please state for the record, your name?

Name-of-the-Hobby.

Isn’t that just your phony name?  I want you to tell us your REAL NAME!  Let me remind you that you’re under oath!

<squirms> Model railroading.

Louder!  So that the jurors in the back row can hear you!

MODEL RAILROADING! <sobs>

Thank you .  No further questions.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we have just established that the name of this hobby is “Model Railroading”.  That implies that it’s building small models of real railroads.  If you’re not doing that, you’re playing with a toy trainset on the living room floor.  No, people, a model is a realistic and accurate representation of something else.  (Except for those “models” in the fashion biz, which are not detectably real in any sense of the word.)  So, therefore, a “model” railroad is supposed to represent a “real” railroad, accurately.  Even so-called Freelancers are building their fantasy worlds using non-fantasy railroad equipment, because if they didn’t, it wouldn’t feel convincing.  In fact, unless they create a convincing backstory for their free-lanced empire, it would be highly uninteresting.  So, even a made-up model is an accurate representation of a fantasy.  Yes, this sounds weird, but it is true.  I have to thrash this expiring nag so that I can move on to the real point I’m aiming at.

So you think it’s your railroad?  But the fact is, you are making a copy of someone ELSE’s railroad.  Somebody in the real world, with real trains and real employees and real stockholders and a real board of directors… and a real CEO.  And guess what?  It’s HIS railroad.  Not yours.

I can just see Mr. CEO telling the board, “See Rule No. 1, guys.”


OK.  Say I am trying to build a small version of something real (or fantasy). For now let’s stay in the real world. Well, we must now ask the question: How?  How do we know what to model?  Well, I like the Union Pacific / Santa Fe / Nickel Plate / Whatever.  Nope, not good enough.  How do you KNOW what to model?  Well, I bought this train online that was painted for the Rio Grande– that’s good enough, right?  Maybe not.  How do you KNOW?

One simple word: Research.

Refer to my previous series on building the USS Midway, and ask me how much RESEARCH I conducted in the course of that project.  Let me tell you, it was massive. More hours than I can possibly count!  Far more than I spent actually working on the model itself.  Like they told us in grade school: Do your homework.

“Oh come ON,” you say.  “Like, duh?  Isn’t that obvious?  OK, fine, I’ll go buy a book about this railroad I want to model.”  Well, that’s a good place to start.  After all, it’s hard to do actual research if you don’t know what questions to ask.  But there’s a lot more to do.

Let’s take the subject of anachronism, which is where you place two things from different times into the same scene, impossible in the real world but all too common in model-building and in Doctor Who episodes.  Say, a nascent model railroader and his buddy are having the following conversation…

I’m going to build a layout based on the Plywood Pacific!

  • When?

Starting today, I think.

  • No.  I mean, when in time are you going to model the PP?  What era?

Oh.  Well… I hadn’t really thought about it.

  • Well, what kind of equipment do you like?

Um, well, steam and diesels I guess.

  • You do realize that diesels replaced steam, right?  They usually didn’t run together much, except during the transition era.  And that would only be a few first-generation diesels and a few very late model steamers. You’d have to research the details though.

Oh.  When was the transition era?

  • Depends.  On the PP, that could be any time between say 1940 and 1958.  Pretty wide mix.  Lots of change during that time, too.

Great!  I have a Central Pacific 4-4-0 American that I want to run with a BNSF ES44C4.  I can do that in the transition era, right?

  • <starts banging head against wall>

But, the Plywood Pacific tycoon decides to do research and discovers that the 4-4-0 locomotive ran in 1868 and the ES44C4 was built in 2011.  He wisely concludes that these probably shouldn’t even be in the same house, much less on the same track at the same time.  He selects the late transition era to model, which will limit his choices of rolling stock and motive power, but allows him to run an occasional steam locomotive with his mostly-diesel fleet.  Anachronism averted.


So now we come to two real-world examples of how research sometimes looks.  A fellow Rio Grande fanatic and I recently started a conversation on the subject of the road’s GP40 fleet. These diesels are interesting to us because they were numerous, had long lives, came in several waves, and often received a number of modifications over time.  This last item was the subject of an ongoing discussion, where we started noticing odd little quirks on this unit or that, segued into trying to detect patterns, which led to noticing even more oddities and unique features.  Finally, I started to realize that what was needed was a “comprehensive” catalog of detail changes over time for the entire GP40/GP40-2 fleet.  So I began scouring the internet for images of each and every locomotive, all 103 of them.

I learned so much.  Now, keep in mind that the oldest of these locomotives was built in the mid-1960s, but some were not acquired until the early 1980s.  Shortly after that the Rio Grande merged with the Southern Pacific, and eight years later with the Union Pacific.  All of these changes of ownership meant that the locomotive fleet’s standards also changed.  We’re talking about appliances, mostly– headlights, horns, plows, that kind of thing that modelers obsess over.  But the biggest learning for me was to discover how many modifications were made by the Rio Grande itself, prior to any of the mergers.  Which, in turn, has implications for our modeling efforts.  It tells us what configurations of the locomotives can be run during particular time periods.  Research which yields data which drives choices and ultimately leads to better realism.  And that is one of our main goals, after all.

A second example involves contemporary Amtrak paint schemes.  For those who pay attention to such things, Amtrak has gone through five major schemes (or phases) on its western equipment since the 1970s; four since the inauguration of the double-decker Superliner fleet.  (I’m not talking about locomotives here; that’s a separate subject.)  The current scheme is called Phase IVb because it’s essentially a modified rendering of Phase IVPhase IVb consists of a blue stripe with alternating white and red pinstripes above it– two pairs in all. But it also has a half-width white strip above the top red stripe, something that Phase IV did not have.  Phase IVb was rolled out somewhere around 2006.  Now, at first glance it just looks like they just removed the large SUPERLINER script, but there’s a lot more to it than that– such as that little white stripe mentioned above.  However, at a distance the changes are not that significant…

… until you start looking closely.  And I don’t just mean the differences between the phases, but even the differences within the phases.  Thanks to my entry into the digital camera world in 2007, I obsessively take photos of Amtrak trains whenever I can. Lo and behold, I discovered that there are differences between cars wearing Phase IVb.  Why?  How?  When?

Research.

Long story short, I plowed through my photos and extracted data on car numbers, shades of numerals, shades of the Amtrak “Travelmark” logo, and most importantly the date and place of these observations.  Gathering this data allows me to, ahem, track the trends over time and see if they make any sense.

Why did I care?  Because I wanted to print some decals and re-letter some model Amtrak cars to match the modern era paint scheme, and I had to get it right, that’s why.  Simply recycling the art from Phase IV would have been a mistake, as it turns out.  The colors are just plain different, and there are variations.  (The IVb stripes are a different shade of blue from Phase IV.  The color of the numerals and Travelmark were initially light blue, but were difficult to see against the stainless steel car bodies, so they were gradually replaced with darker versions.)  Having the data enables me to create authentic artwork, and to apply it in authentic combinations to the model railcars.

The Data makes an accurate representation of Reality possible, and therefore more convincing. Plus, it gives you a story to tell to the visitors to the layout who ask, Why are the colors different on these two cars?


I know you’re dying to ask: do I operate my Rio Grande GP40’s with my Amtrak Phase IVb Superliner cars?  No.  I don’t.  That would be an anachronism, and therefore abhorrent.  But if I chose to do so?  Please refer to Rule No. 1.

It’s My railroad.

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Fish the Dime?

Time is short, and so is this article

If life has taught me anything at all, it’s that time is fluid.  Stretchy.  Compressible.  Short moments that last forever, and years that pass in a blink.  As The Doctor (in Doctor Who, the weird British sci-fi series that itself has become somewhat eternal) would say, it’s a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey thing.  But mostly, for those of us who lack a time machine, time basically accelerates… with time… and before you know it, your whole life is behind you.

Now, technically, everyone’s whole life is always behind them.  Since, you see, the future has not happened yet, therefore it does not exist, therefore all the life that anyone has is that which they’ve already had, therefore their whole life is behind them, always.  But– that’s an argument against myself, and as a rule I don’t allow that, so we’ll dispense with the technicalities and move on!

Where was I?  Oh, yes.  So, there’s this thing, this trap, that many of us fall into.  This trap where we say, “When I get all this other stuff sorted, I’ll take the trip.  I’ll remodel the spare room.  I’ll learn the piano.  I’ll write that book.  I’ll bungee-jump the Royal Gorge.  After I get all this other stuff sorted.”  (I’m using “sorted” in the British sense, which means that I’ve been watching too much of The Crown and Doctor Who and The Chronicles of Narnia again.  Maybe it’s British entertainment that’s my personal trap?)  In other words, we allow the mundane to control our existence, and we allow that which is special to slip away.

I’ll use my wife’s aunt and uncle as an example.  During their entire marriage, he worked long hours and put everything into his job, not spending much time with his wife (except just enough moments to generate a bunch of kids).  Saving all the fun for when he retired.  Sacrificing the present for the future, which I suspect included their relationship, which I also suspect may be why she smoked and drank.  So, one day, the future finally arrived, it was time for him to retire, and he did so– just in time for her to be found with cancer.  In a matter of a few short months, she was gone.  So remind me: why was it that he worked so hard all those years and spent all that time away from her?

Well, maybe Uncle Jack preferred to spend time at work than with Aunt Kitty.  If so, then good for him, although I bet Aunt Kitty didn’t prefer that.  Not unless she liked to drink alone or something.  Even if he was living his preferred life, she wasn’t, and suddenly it was gone.  So maybe the lesson to learn here is, take charge of your own dang life.

I think that Jack and Kitty’s story provide a multifaceted object lesson, but the overall summation might be, don’t let time slip away.

Well, that’s all very cheery stuff, Jim (you say).  I come here to read about hobbies and modeling, and you’re laying this heavy philosophical crap on us?

Stay with me.  This has application of a positive nature, and I’ll give you an example from my own hobby set, railroading.  You see, I dearly love to ride trains, especially in scenic places like the mountains of Colorado.  The top of that heap is the line west of Denver on the Moffat Line (now owned by Union Pacific and served by Amtrak).  Starting in 1993 I started dragging the family up from New Mexico to ride the erstwhile Ski Train up the mountain and back, at least once a year.  Eventually I started getting the dreaded “not again!” response from people, and I reluctantly gave up on the idea.  Then in 2009 the Ski Train was abruptly cancelled and I lost that opportunity, forever.  So, let’s list the regrets from this.  Do I regret the 10 or 12 trips we made to ride the train?  No.  Do I regret giving up the trips while they were still possible?  Yes.

But now, I can remedy the situation!  Thanks to Amtrak– and I can’t believe I’m thanking Amtrak for anything– there’s a new service over the same route, called the Winter Park Express.  This (2018) is the second full year of service, and I took the initiative to book a trip.  And yes, we’re making a family event of it.  After a hiatus of 14 years, we will be riding through the Tunnel District once again.  Hopefully not for the last time, either.

I’m making an effort to apply this principle to other areas in my life.  I realize that I have wasted literally decades in needless frustration staying with depressing organizations, simply because I felt too guilty or duty-bound or just plain loyal to find a better situation.  No more.  Next time, and the next, I will simply, and without bitterness, move on.  I refuse to get sucked into the drama of other people’s bad choices.  I choose to decide where the boundaries are, and to respect them.  Love is one thing; needless self-imposed misery is another!  Getting a little far afield from riding trains here, but it’s connected in the sense that I just don’t want to waste any more of my time on pointless futility.  The larger share of my life is behind me now (even if you ignore the second paragraph in this essay).  My time is precious.

But, in the main, Time is an unsympathetic teacher, a terrible taskmaster, and a cunning trickster.  As we age it quietly speeds up on us.  If you’re not careful, you can fritter it all away.  You have to remember to actively look for chances, else they will simply… pass you by.

Some smart Roman dude once said, Carpe Diem.  Seize the day.  Avail yourself of opportunities.  Don’t let the moment pass by.  Take the trip.  Remodel the spare room.  Learn to play the piano.  Write that book.  Bungee-jump the Royal Gorge.  You can sort the laundry when you get home.  There’s all the time in the world to take care of the mundane stuff.

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Stories from Trackside

Sometimes, memories without cameras to help preserve them are the most vivid of all

In an earlier post I discussed of memories and nostalgia as it relates to our leisure pastimes.  It turns out I’ve had several such moments related to railfanning in which I found myself sans camera, and all I had to remember them with was my own senses.  Here’s a selection of a few such events.  Maybe this will inspire you to dust off your own recollections and relive some of those magic moments of your own.

Sledding and Surprises

It was the winter of 1978 and I was a senior in high school.  I had a good friend, Curt, and the two of us were oddly obsessed with snow– and sledding on it.  One Saturday morning we decided to load up his VW and go west until we found something white to slide on.  Not our first such attempt; on a previous occasion we had gotten clear up into the Indian Peaks wilderness west of Boulder in a (vain) attempt to find snow.  Now, a couple of months later, we reckoned that we had a better shot at it.  I guided the expedition to a place west of Rollinsville, in the upper reaches of South Boulder Canyon.  We followed the snowy gravel road through the steadily-falling snow past Tolland and pulled over just east of a railroad overpass.  I knew the area pretty well, since even as a child I’d been obsessed with the Moffat Tunnel.  We were just a couple miles east of the tunnel and it was a good hillside for sledding.

[Google earth: 39°54’08.21″ N 105°36’50.30″ W]

Being both in the prime of youth and reasonably fit, we steadily built a toboggan run from the top of the hill down towards the road.  This was no mean task considering the deep and drifting snow, the cold air, and the elevation– right at 9,000 feet.  By the way, I use the term “toboggan” only loosely; our only equipment was a couple of Mini-boggans.  Remember those?  A rolled-up piece of stiff plastic with a hole for a handle in one end, suitable for getting oneself intimately acquainted with the ground, and getting killed during the introductions.  They were almost large enough to hold a fourth-grader, or to cover everything between my collarbone and my knees, if I were careful.  Anyway, the snow was falling in huge flakes and we were completely covered in it.  The day was dim due to the thickness of the clouds and density of the snowfall.  And yet, not long after our arrival, I was able to plainly hear the muffled call of train horns down the valley to the east.  I’d secretly hoped we would see a train or two, and my wish was to be fulfilled in the most unexpected way.

The tracks here follow a sweeping S curve that brings them from the south to the north side of the broad valley, climbing all the while to reach the upper bench where the tunnel is located. Much of that climb is hidden back in the trees, so when the headlights finally shone through the snowflakes I was amazed to see that the train was led by an F unit.  A string of F units!  In beautiful golden orange paint.

(As an aside, keep in mind that I was not a “connected” railfan, or a railfan in any real sense of the word, at this time.  I hadn’t seen an F unit in a decade, since I was a child, and had no idea that any still existed.)

I can see the scene now, some forty years later, like a movie playing in my head.  The train in its matching golden paint rounding the curve below us through the dim light, diesels muttering, snowflakes glowing in the headlights.  Mixed in with the power was something that looked like a steam locomotive tender. Behind this was a passenger train, painted to match the locomotives, and even then I recognized them as being old heavyweight cars.  I stood dumbfounded at this relic from the past, and recorded the scene in memory as it clattered around the curve towards Moffat and was lost from sight.

Later I learned that this was the Ski Train; the F units were the F9 trio normally assigned to the Rio Grande Zephyr; that the strange car shaped like a tender was in fact a steam generator car.  Furthermore, I’m 90% sure that this was February 26th, the day of the Moffat Tunnel 50th Anniversary ceremonies being held just up the hill from us. This is why the F units were on the Ski Train that day.  If only we’d known!

But that snowy morning during my last semester of high school, all I knew was that I’d gotten to watch a rare and beautiful railroading scene.


 

Nocturnes

When we were newlyweds in Boulder, night-time drives in the mountains were often a thing.  Not infrequently these would put us in the proximity of railroad tracks.  (This is hard to believe of me, I know, but nonetheless true.)  Two such excursions come to my mind, brief little episodes that I still see in my memory.  Considering that it was completely dark and no photograph would have worked had I even tried it, my memory is all the recording device we have on it, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Nocturne the First: One such evening, guessing early 1983, we drove up above Boulder and onto the Gross Dam road. This gravel road winds around and crosses South Boulder Creek below the eponymous dam, climbing the south side of the canyon where it crosses the Rio Grande’s right-of-way and ultimately emerges on Colo. 72 below Wondervu.

[Google Earth: 39°55’45.25″ N 105°20’36.51″ W]

This particular night we parked north of the tracks to see if there might be a train coming by.  Shockingly (considering my luck most of the time), a we soon heard a westbound train approaching in the darkness.  Even more shockingly, I remember most of the details.  It had several locomotives up front, 38 piggyback flatcars, and a helper shoving on the rear.  A lot of power for not much train, I remember thinking.  Too dark to see much of anything, but the scene conveyed the message that the business and drama of railroading goes on continuously, even in dark, remote places.

Nocturne the Second: Another meeting was more deliberately designed.  It is entirely possible that it was the same night as the story above, but I really can’t tell you one way or the other!  We (I) wanted to watch the Rio Grande Zephyr on its descent into Denver.  This is definitely early 1983, probably February.  At the time we were borrowing my parents’ 1972 Suburban, as our own Mustang II hatchback had recently bent a rod one cold morning.  This night we drove the gas-guzzler down to the Blue Mountain Road crossing, on the south shoulder of Coal Creek Canyon’s mouth.  South cheek of the mouth?  Right canine tooth of the mouth?  Sorry, I got lost in the mixed metaphors.

ST84_12
Same location, same locomotive, different train, different time and date. Here No. 5771 leads the Ski Train past Blue Mountain crossing in March 1984, during daylight.

Rabbit trail!

OK, back to Blue Mountain road.  From there you can watch trains descending from Tunnel One and loop around the canyon mouth until they pass you and round the corner towards Clay siding.  We parked on the south side of the track and watched the show.  Finally the train passed close by us– headlights on, Mars light flashing, and white class lights illuminated on F9 No. 5771’s cheeks (there’s that word again).  Why the class lights were on I do not know, but I swear they were.  Maybe just to get more illumination on the front of the train?   At any rate, this night’s train was incredibly short.  All three F units and the steam generator were up front, followed only by a combine, one dome coach, the diner, and the dome/obs.  It was a mid-week run during winter so I suppose this wasn’t too surprising, but I usually observed the train on Saturdays when it was filled out with most or all the cars available.

Within a couple of months the Rio Grande Zephyr was no more.

Nocturne the Third: It’s now Spring 1984.  Though we lived in Boulder, we had won some contest on a radio station for free ice cream cones down in Westminster at a shop I no longer remember.  As dead broke as we were, any chance for something to do was welcome.  By now we were driving an incredibly unreliable 1971 Renault R10.  This car is worthy of a blog post of its own– the adventures we had in that vehicle when it broke down at the most inconvenient times would fill a book.  It was French, and looked French, and it attacked us without warning, so we dubbed it Kato, after Inspector Clouseau’s sidekick in the Pink Panther movies.  Adopt a Peter Sellers accent and shout “Not NOW, Kateau!”  and you get the idea.  It would break down and we’d yell “Not NOW, Kateau!”

Yes, I know, technically the Kato character was Asian.  Don’t quibble with me.

Well, this night Kato was operating within parameters and we collected our free ice cream cones without incident.  The night was young so I decided to go visit North Yard.  [Google Earth: 39°47’26.84″ N 104°59’57.81″ W]  At that time, access was not nearly as restricted as now.  I drove right up onto the gravel road along the west side of the yard and we just watched and listened to the activity for a while.  The sun was down but the yard was brightly lit by the floodlight towers; the steady throb of diesels and the rattle and pop of yard activity formed a constant background of sounds. As we sat there, we noticed a caboose rolling along to the north, all by its lonesome (the switcher must have kicked it down the track).  This looks interesting, we thought, so I began pacing it next to the tracks.  The caboose was perhaps a dozen tracks from our side of the yard, not terribly close to us; the yard was fairly clear of cars and obstructions that night.  We followed our quarry for quite a ways at about 15 MPH, when suddenly BANG! the caboose slammed into the back of a string of cars.  I mean, it was really moving when it reached its train.  Now, I realize that rolling stock is pretty durable and all that, but this seemed a bit… sloppy… on the part of the switch crew.  But, no matter.  I’ve seen baggage handlers who treated my suitcases no better, and those aren’t made of heavy gauge steel.


Business Train at Coal Creek

Have you ever made a decision that later had you asking yourself, What the heck was I thinking?

April 1989– We were visiting family in Boulder again.  I invited my cousin “Dan” for an obligatory train-chasing morning. This time I decided not to take a camera– “I’m spending too much on film on this stuff” I told myself.  We went up to Coal Creek as usual, parked and walked up near Tunnel One.

[39°52’44.87″ N 105°16’37.97″ W]

Well, guess what?  An officer’s special was operated by the railroad that morning.  I stood there dumbfounded and watched a pair of GP40-series locomotives lead a train consisting of three gold-painted streamlined passenger cars.  A vista dome, a flattop car [I now know it was a diner], and a very familiar-looking observation car.  These were, in order, lettered CALIFORNIA, UTAH, and KANSAS.  And there I stood, thirty feet from trackside, watching this priceless photo-op roll past me, with no freaking camera!

What the HELL was I thinking?  #KicksSelfInTheButt!

Pretty sure “Dan” gave me a pretty thorough heckling over it, too.  Thanks for rubbing in the salt, Cuz.

Yeah, sure, I saw this trio many times on the Ski Train in subsequent years.  But not like this.  Not alone.  Not in 1989.

I learned my lesson about taking a camera with me, after that.


Post-Merger Lash-up

Signals
Searchlight signals on the Joint Line in north Colorado Springs. The rails were very, very quiet that day. That’s Cheyenne Mountain poking through the clouds in the background.

A brief vignette, this.  We were in Colorado Springs to attend a Phil Keaggy concert in October 1996.  This was about a month after the Union Pacific – Southern Pacific merger, and we were staying in the La Quinta just off Austin Bluffs / Garden of the Gods Road.  Being adjacent to the Joint Line, one would expect that there would be constant trains going by, but that was not the case.  I haunted the tracks for a half hour one day when I had some free time, with no success.  Then, the final morning of our stay, I happened to hear the rumble of approaching diesels, and ran for the car where I thought the camera was.  Turned out I had left it in the room on the second floor.  I knew I did not have time to retrieve it before the train arrived from the south, so I simply ran across the street and watched the train.

[Google Earth: 38°53’43.21″ N 104°49’36.93″ W]

The head end consisted of eleven– count ’em, eleven– locomotives.  Nine were Southern Pacific and mostly pretty tattered-looking.  The other two were D&RGW tunnel motors.  I noted their numbers: 5390, 5411.  The SP units were far too numerous (and frankly not interesting enough) for me to note all their numbers or even their types, other than being pretty much all EMD products.  The Rio Grande being my first railroad love, I paid more attention to these two.

After this time those two units spent most of their time around Helper, Utah, where I managed to photograph the 5390 in November 2001, five years later.

Nothing but memory to help me remember the roll-by, but it’s still fresh in my head.  The last days of the Espee / Grande combo, or the first chaotic days of the UP regime, depending on how one looks at it.


Now I have a very nice digital camera– have have some kind of digital camera for 10 years now– plus there’s always a cell phone camera if one gets caught completely unprepared.  Such camera-less moments happen rarely these days.  Back when incomes were less and film was a real cost to consider, it was far more likely for one to get caught short.  As it is, I am hoping that I actually remember all these stories aright.  But on the other hand– who’s going to prove me wrong? <wink>

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Beware that Nostalgia, Folks

It’s the dead bringing you back to life. Or else, just sentimental bushwa.

So I’m going to make some sweeping generalizations in this post.  For many people, hobbies have a strong overtone of nostalgia.  I’ll go so far as to say that nostalgia is the driving force behind many of our efforts and obsessions– a drive to recreate (often in miniature) that which no longer exists.  And if you’re not careful, you can become that person who’s always making statements like “The first time we did such-and-such was in nineteen ought-six, when you were only eleven years old.”  I even say things like “I remember that this song was playing when we were doing X and Y.”  In other words, if you allow your nostalgia to get the best of you, you might just turn into… me.

I know what you’re going to say next.  Sentimental bushwa! I chase trains because I love the excitement of seeing new/old/classic/different equipment.  Or, I photograph/model/study navy ships because I find the latest warfighting technologies fascinating.  Or, I fly ultralights or I GoPro myself base-jumping off of bridges for the rush of it, for the immediate thrill.  Fill in your own blanks.  And I do not argue, not one little bit!  But this is my point.  Once that experience is complete, what do you have left from it?

Memories.

Even if it’s captured on film or digital media, what you did yesterday has now become an event from the past.  It’s history.  It’s experience.  It’s a memory.  And, if it’s something you enjoyed, it’s a fond memory, which is just the first milepost on the road to nostalgia.

This is even more pronounced when you find yourself aging and no longer are able to bungee-jump the Royal Gorge or free-climb the Bastille.  Or, when the thing that you chase or photograph or study or admire has ceased to exist– for whatever reason.  Now, all you have left is your photos, or videos, or memories of something that you can never have again.

That wistful feeling you got when you read that last sentence, and thought about it?  Bingo.  Nostalgia.  One of the most intoxicating and most painful facets of human life.

I have a friend who’s a total Route 66 nut.  (I mean this in the clinical, not the pejorative, sense.)  He has collected an astounding amount of relics and Americana from the Mother Road.  He’s building a replica of some gas station from Texas in his front yard.  He knows everything about it.  He loves everything about it.  He also does a fair Elvis impersonation.  He’s almost worse than I am about railroads.  OK, he IS worse.  And what do you think drives his obsession?  Um, Duh.

In a strange way, when it comes to nostalgia about the past, it’s the dead bringing you back to life.  My friend the Elvis singer is never so alive as when he’s talking about his stuff, and what he’s building, to re-create the spirit of Route 66.   And maybe that’s the appeal.  Through our nostalgic hobbies, we are somehow transported to another time, another place, a time and place where we were having a magical experience, a moment when we were… happy.

Don’t get me wrong here.  It’s not that we are necessarily unhappy now.  But to be transfixed in a happy moment– this is what some hobbies are all about.


Let me walk you through one example of how this occurs.  I’m a self-confessed railfan and rail hobbyist, amongst a number of other things.  I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and had always liked the Rio Grande railroad just south of town.  I could actually hear the trains on the mountain as they came and went on the old Moffat line.  Well, when I was 23, my wife and I relocated to New Mexico, a long ways from Boulder.  This was in the pre-internet age, pre-digital cameras, pre-email.  And though I liked to take photos of trains, I could not afford to spend a lot on film or film processing, so my pictures were far fewer than today.  I was also not connected in any way to the railfanning community; I did not even know that such a community existed.  All my information was gathered in little snippets– a newspaper article here, an article in a hobby magazine there.

So in 1988 I became aware of an impending merger between the Rio Grande and  Southern Pacific railroads– a development I viewed with some dismay, although it seemed that the Rio Grande was going to be purchasing the SP, which might be OK.  I also read an article in Model Railroader about a fairly new, hot overnight piggyback operation  called the Railblazer that the Rio Grande was running between Denver and Salt Lake City and vice versa.  We were planning on visiting family in Boulder at Christmas, and I made it a priority to plan a “train-chasing” trip with my cousin whom I’ll call “Dan”.  I wanted to see this little piggyback train, and also see if the Rio Grande was even still the Rio Grande.  The merger was already a couple of months in the rearview mirror, after all.

So, early on the morning of Christmas eve, Dan and I met up and headed out to Coal Creek Canyon, parked by the overpass, and hiked up towards Tunnel 1.  Not having scanners and not knowing where exactly the Railblazer might be, we started over the top of the hogback pierced by the tunnel to wait for the train.  We had not reached the summit when we heard train horns up ahead– something had just hit the east switch of Plainview siding just up the hill.  Hurriedly we about-faced and hustled back down the hill to observe whatever was coming down the mountain.

Our timing was perfect.  It was indeed the Railblazer, and I captured one of my favorite rail photos ever in that split second (see the image at the top of this article).  I shot two more photos of the train from our elevated vantage point.

Railblazer 1
The Eastbound Railblazer comes into view, behind GP40 No. 3077 and GP40-2 No. 3116.

We stayed long enough to watch the train transit the curve in the mouth of the canyon.  I had no telephoto lens back then; this was using a 50mm fixed-length lens and ASA100 print film.

Railblazer 2
The eastbound Railblazer crosses the bridge in Coal Creek Canyon on 12/24/1988. You can see nearly the entire train in this shot.

Somewhere during this interval we had heard a train stopping down on Rocky siding to the southeast, quite some distance by railroad from tunnel 1, and we decided to move uphill from here and catch it coming out of the tunnel’s opposite end.  Like idiots we dropped down to the tunnel and walked through it– somewhat nervously, to be sure.  The most instructive thing we discovered was a dead deer midway through the bore, evidently cornered by a train and mashed up into tiny components.  Yeah, the smell was intense.  Makes you think about what you would do if you got surprised by a train in there.  What we did was hustle on through there as fast as possible!

Fortunately nothing else was trailing the Railblazer down the hill, so we had 20 or 30 minutes cushion before the westbound arrived.

D&amp;RGW 3130
The highest-numbered GP40-2 was leading this westbound freight as it rolled out of tunnel one on Christmas Eve 1988.

Well, eventually the train rumbled out of the tunnel, and I began shooting frames.  If I’d had a digital camera like I have now, this would have been a hundred or so; as it was I took three 35mm exposures.

Remember what I said earlier about the merger with Southern Pacific?  Well, the middle unit in the 5-locomotive consist was a harbinger of things to come.

SP 8550
A Southern Pacific SD40T-2 “Tunnel Motor” was the third unit on the front of the train. Within a few years, it would be rare to see a Rio Grande locomotive on these rails.

A train passes rather quickly, even at 25 MPH.  My third and final image was of the power as it roared away from us.  Behind was a long train of mixed freight.  I recall specifically that there were a lot of large tank cars lettered ANHYDROUS AMMONIA, and remember feeling glad that they did not derail while we were standing there!

DRGW 3051
The power was a real mix of heritage this morning. The leader was only 5 years old; the second unit was an ex-Conrail unit that was originally built in the late 1960s and painted for the Rio Grande in 1984. The SP tunnel motor was built in 1979. The two Rio Grande units at the rear date from around 1966, and are still in original paint.

So the train disappeared up the hill and we went back and had Christmas and life went on and the Railblazer was cancelled and the Rio Grande faded away and so did the Southern Pacific, and now all I have are six photographs and a bunch of indelible memories of a magical Christmas Eve morning many years ago.

Every Christmas season I remember this brief morning when I went out to see something new, and ended up capturing the end of an era instead.

Nostalgia.  It’s a killer.  actionroadlogobang