Train Spotting?

Photo: screen capture, January 5, 2021.

The photo is not exactly mine, what with Trains Magazine and and the city of Rochelle, Illinois, all having a hand in maintaining a web cam at a city park designed for rail fans. The screen capture was from that video feed.

Where, you might ask, are the trains?

Why must a train be in the shot for it to be “railroad photography“? Well, there’s probably no good reason except that trains and most especially locomotives are what interest consumers and makers of railroad photography. I confess: The few times I’ve done railroad photography, that is mostly what I’ve done as well. Except that as time goes by, I’ve become more attracted to things incidental to the trains and the locomotives. This is a good example of what I might like to do more of, should I ever again escape my apartment.

In this screen capture, the figure at the diamonds (track crossings) is a maintenance-of-way employee checking the tracks for anything that needs attention right now and not tomorrow. This is the crossing of two mainline routes, travelled each day by several dozen trains on each track that might collectively weigh-in well north of 300,000 tons (a 10,000 ton train would not be unusual) bouncing across the intersection at anywhere up to maybe 60 miles per hour. Care to contemplate what kind of foundry hammer that is? This is a spot in the tracks that needs almost continual maintenance and inspection. And yes, they do occasionally throw up their corporate hands and replace the intersection with new rail and roadbed. (It was amazing how quietly the trains crossed for the first few weeks afterwards.)

The weather was at the tail end of an ice storm. Fog and ice rest like — what? A blessing? A faerie spell? A blanket? Ice can be a serious business, even derailing massive trains, so maybe like an existential weight? Or even a curse, perhaps. One New England railroader is said to have chanted: “Snow, snow, beautiful snow. Damn the stuff! See it come!” Ice is no less.

I think of ice storms as Kentucky winter weather though maybe the label Ohio River Valley would do as well. (After all, I’ve only been in Kentucky once in my life, in the summer, so my label lacks authenticity.) It is simply that when a winter weather disaster hits that part of the country, it seems to be ice rather than snow, more often than not. What with climate change, I keep on expecting ice storms to become more common in northern Illinois and winter 2020-2021 seemed to agree.

On this cold, foggy and icy morning, it is not just the track wear that is being checked but also any build-up of ice, mostly that which was knocked off of trains pounding across the diamonds. IIRC, not long after in the day a crew with a small “Bobcat” tractor, leaf blowers, shovels, picks and other “implements of destruction” (as Arlo Guthrie might sing) spent a few hours clearing the tracks and the flangways.

Just another day in paradise.

UP 4014 Arrives

West Chicago is nowhere near the end of the Earth. You can’t even see it from there. But for the car-less, it is a bit of a trek from Rogers Park. What brought me to West Chicago on a beautiful Friday, July 26? It was the nearest stop on the 2019 grand excursion of Union Pacific 4014, a steam driven locomotive of brobdingnagian dimensions. Actually, most railway equipment is gigantic these days, but UP 4014 is among the few examples of equipment from before the 1960s that more than holds its own.

The Union Pacific is the only one of the half dozen or so (depending on how you count them) major North American railroads that has always had at least one active steam locomotive on its equipment roster. UP 4014 is a recent reacquisition, having been parked in static display at a California railway museum until 2013. Since then, Union Pacific restored it to operating condition. The locomotive was originally delivered to the Union Pacific in December, 1941. It was retired in December, 1961. While the Union Pacific’s two steam locomotives mostly serve a public relations function, they have occasionally moved revenue freight… which also serves a public relations purpose.

UP 4014 is also an example of a locomotive designed specifically for mountain railroading. The Union Pacific has a tradition of large, powerful locomotives intended to move freight over the continental divide. Some of them have been truly exotic, such as their experiment with gas turbine technology. UP 4014 is mostly unique because it is huge.

The locomotive’s visit to the Chicago area has got to be one of the most photographed events in the area this month. Here is my contribution to the flood:

UP 4014 approaching West Chicago. Photo by Roman.

At this point, UP 4014 was moving at a leisurely pace, no more than maybe 20 miles per hour. Yeah, it can do 60 easily, even though it was intended for long, slow, heavy trains up and down mountain grades. In fact, steam locomotives develop more power at higher speeds, exactly the opposite of diesel-electric locomotives, and that is one of the reasons steam became obsolete on U.S. railways.

The conduits in the foreground are for natural gas pipes. In freezing weather, they feed gas to fires that prevent the switches from freezing.

UP 4014 emerges from beneath an overpass just east of the West Chicago station. Photo by Roman.

These days, trains do not “chug,” but they did back in the day. Actually, steam locomotives make a variety of sounds. On this occasion, UP 4014 was making sounds more like a “chuff” and those were pretty quiet chuffs, especially when compared to the churning motor of a diesel – electric locomotive. I was surprised at just how quiet the machine was. Even the whistle was more musical than loud, and the engineer was leaning on the horn in a determined attempt to get folks to look up from the image on their cameras or phones.

But I’ve heard steam locomotives before, in person, on video, on live streaming. This was not too much out of the ordinary. What did surprise me was the wave of heat from the locomotive as it passed. I had never experienced anything like that before from a steam engine. It was rather like putting your face several inches from a 100 watt incandescent light, and this was from across two tracks. It was totally unexpected.

Well, I was downwind as it passed…

Looking west, UP 4014 approaches the West Chicago station. Photo by Roman.

UP 4014 was pulling a 10 car train, plus 3 tenders and a back-up diesel for “protection,” as U.S. railway jargon would put it. UP 4014 originally burned coal as fuel, but as restored, it now uses “No. 5” fuel oil. (Is this part of the war on coal? Just teasing, Trumpettes. Relax.) The two extra tenders, however, are for water not fuel oil. Steam locomotives use copious quantities of water and, back in the day, they would need to stop fairly often to replenish their supply. Some railroads designed special lengths of track where locomotives could scoop water from a pond between the rails without stopping.

Photograph exaggerates the apparent length of the train, but it was still generous. Photo by Roman.

UP 4014 and train parked at the West Chicago station. It will leave on Monday after being on display in West Chicago over the weekend. Photo by Roman.

Passenger car trucks are something of a marvel. Photo by Roman.

Here comes my ride home. Photo by Roman.

Here are some additional photos from my visit to West Chicago that day. Click on any thumbnail to enlarge it.

The Bridge to Goose Island

These two photos were taken in 2003 and scanned in 2017. Several years after 2003, Chicago replaced the North Avenue bridge over the Chicago River and as part of the project also replaced the deck of this rail bridge to Goose Island so that it could be used by both trains and pedestrians. People had been using it as a short cut anyway. There was even a year in the 1990s when a homeless fellow built a shack on the span. It eventually burned, as I recall. Lately, I do believe these tracks have been abandoned. The last customer on Goose Island, a lumber yard, closed and the other remaining customer (scrap metal) moved. For a while, some of the trackage was used to store idle freight cars, but I believe the line is now inactive.

This was the last of what had been once a fairly dense network of railroads that complimented the Chicago River as a means of transporting freight. A number of railroad companies actually operated car-float services on the river, delivering railroad cars to isolated customers along the river by barge. These days the river is residential, mostly.

Looking south from North Avenue toward Goose Island in 2003. The one regular customer even then was a lumber yard just south of Division. Photo by Roman.

Looking south at the bridge to Goose Island and the Chicago skyline. The bridge in the picture was an active railroad bridge in 2004 but there are no longer any customers on Goose Island in 2018. Photo by Roman.

The last operator of the tracks around Goose Island was a switching railroad called Chicago Terminal. Aside from being a picturesque item for railroad geeks (street running and gritty industrial landscapes), the operation could be an excellent case study for how to extract every penny from a doomed operation.

During the final days of government micromanagement under the Interstate Commerce Commission,* it wasn’t unusual for railroads to be looted by management and shareholders, regardless of whether the operation was losing money or showing a meager profit. Generally the money was diverted from maintenance to be invested in new, unrelated businesses (as happened with the Chicago & North Western and the Illinois Central) or into dividends (as with the Rock Island). That is not what happened with the Chicago Terminal. Rather, the company inherited property easements on branch trackage that had no customers nor any apparent prospect for customers in the future. If you don’t use the easements, you stand to lose them, one way or another. What to do? Run trains on the track (including one truly epic “inspection” trip with a single passenger car). Park surplus freight cars on the sidings.

For the property speculators and entertainment venue business owners and retail businesses and home owners, this was a serious irritation, something you would likely complain about to the Alderman, and in Chicago, an Alderman is a serious player in negotiating land usage in the ward. If there had been any prospect of new rail customers on those branches, it would have been really foolish to step on these toes. On the other hand, as a “pay me to go away” maneuver, it was really rather clever.

For fellow geeks and foamers out there, this 15 minute 2017 video by “boxcarFrank” of the Chicago Terminal retrieving a dozen or so stored freight cars is an excellent last look at the railroad in operation. I’m not sure, but this video may document one of the last moves on that trackage, though the Chicago Terminal did have another switching operation in suburban Elk Grove Village.


* I phrase it this way deliberately. Usually, the abolition of the Interstate Commerce Commission is referred to as “deregulation.” This has ideological overtones and in any case is untrue. In point of fact, railroads are still regulated, but the Surface Transportation Board that replaced the Commission has far less authority over how the railroads are run.

Glenwood Avenue

The northern end of Glenwood Avenue in Rogers Park can be a bit confusing. A railroad runs down the middle of it. That’s not unheard of, except that the railroad (the Chicago Transit Authority) is elevated above street level so as not to obstruct or collide with street traffic; it’s not obvious to a new visitor that the street number you may be looking for is on the other side of the tracks. The tracks were not always elevated, but growing traffic congestion and accidents moved the Chicago City Council to demand that railroads elevate their tracks. While the ordinance was passed in 1907, the project elevating what is now the Red Line was not completed until 1922.

Glenwood Avenue is also mildly unusual in that some of the original brick paving remains, albeit asphalt patched. Several other blocks of original brick paving exist elsewhere in Rogers Park. It hadn’t occurred to me until now that all of them that come to mind are North — South.

Looking south toward Lunt Avenue. Photo by Roman.

Looking south toward Lunt Avenue, but the west side of the tracks. Until a few years ago, this was still brick paving. Photo by Roman.

Looking north toward Estes Avenue. This block is still mostly brick paving. Photo by Roman.

I once met a five year old boy who was absolutely smitten by garbage trucks. It’s a fascination that I find just barely comprehensible. It’s big. It’s noisy. It’s powerful. It has all manner of moving parts. Check all those boxes, fine, but still…

Photo by Roman.

On the other hand, my cat Rainbow was always terrified of garbage trucks, even though (or maybe especially because) they were never visible from the apartment, just a terrifying roar with a ghastly stink. This makes far more sense: a monstrous predator with fetid breath. Even a cat’s imagination might be more alarming than reality… by a little bit.

Photo by Roman.

Comin’ to get you, kitty.


Roosevelt Road

Click on any image to enlarge it.

Roosevelt Road between State Street and Canal Street in Chicago is an extended overpass. In 2018, it provides a prospect for train watching tracks into LaSalle Steet Station and Union Station, including the AMTRAK yards. But it also provides a view of a pretty amazing stretch of vacant land once occupied by the Rock Island railroad and sundry industry. The bridge is decorated with bronze (I think) sculpture. It’s a pretty busy place, with considerable auto and pedestrian traffic… during the day, at least.


Nickel Plate 765

Nickel Plate 765 @ Roosevelt Road pulling into Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station, September 16, 2018. Photo by Roman.

Trainspotters won’t like it, but railroad photography has a lot in common with pornography. While trains ain’t sexual (for most of us, I assume), the photography is representing what is otherwise a sensual experience: the rumble and the roar of the Wabash Cannonball, as the song goes. The same for photographing sex. (Though if there’s a rumble and a roar, it’s probably theatre.) Likewise, there aren’t many camera angles that make sense for either trains or sex so the photography for both tends to be awfully repetitive. But there I was, along with a few dozen other enthusiasts and curious onlookers, on the Roosevelt Road overpass above the METRA tracks. We lined up on the south and north sides of the bridge, waiting in the sun for the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society’s restored steam engine, Nickel Plate #765, to come by on its fourth (and final for the season) “Joliet Rocket” excursion run between Joliet and Chicago on the old Rock Island tracks.

The camera most definitely got in the way of the experience. I’m almost sorry I brought it along.

For those who might be wondering, the old Nickel Plate railroad is now a part of the Norfolk Southern system. No. 765 is a member of the last generation of steam locomotives, built in 1944. It was designed for fast freight service, and performed well by all accounts, but diesel-electric locomotives proved more economical. Steam locomotives actually develop more power at higher speeds, diesel-electrics the opposite, making diesels more useful in more situations. By the time 765 passed under the Roosevelt Road bridge, it was probably travelling at around 10 miles per hour. You’ll note the METRA diesel at the tail end of the train. It provided electrical power for the passenger cars. I’m not sure if there’s any way of turning the train at LaSalle Street Station (probably not), so it may have piloted the train back to Joliet also.

765, incidentally, is a large piece of equipment, weighing over 400 tons. It’s big even by today’s standards. Back in 1944, freight cars were typically 30 or 40 feet long and carried… 50, 60 tons of cargo, IIRC. Imagining 765 at the head of fifty to a hundred of these smallish freight cars travelling at 60 miles per hour… Impressive. Plus back then freight cars were not equipped with roller bearings but had journal bearings lubricated  with oil soaked rags. They were seriously noisy compared to rolling stock today. Talk about the “rumble and the roar” thundering by in a cloud of coal smoke and dust!

I’d recommend Roosevelt Road as a train watching location in Chicago: hardly a news flash for local trainspotters but maybe useful for outatowners. There are the METRA Rock Island tracks, and just a block or so west, you’ll find the AMTRAK yards and the south tracks into Union Station. In the distance to the south, there’s the St. Charles Air Line. It’s easily accessible and there’s always something going on. Since much of it is passenger trains, it’s also scheduled.



Said the schedule board:
No. 15… (ambiguously)… Delayed.
No “E.T.A.”, only “Delayed”.
Side-tracked on a digression
Or hidden in an air pocket
Or towed to Toledo?
An interrupted transmission,
An uncertain interval
Before arrival.

— Yip