Chicago & Western Illinois Alco RS1 252 heads through the trailing-point switches that will lead her out of Dearborn Station and onto the main line, leading a late-morning commuter train to Dolton. High-end townhomes now inhabit this area, where passenger trains once ruled. Collection James E. Hubert
Camera Bag: Discovering the "Invisible Trains"
By Jim Boyd /photo as noted
How many "invisible"
trains have you overlooked in your photography? If you're anything like me, I'll bet there's a bunch. They're the ones you see every day and have probably never bothered to photograph, or they’re the ones that show up in the background while you’re concentrating on something else "more interesting."
The past few weekends, while trying to ignore the alternating heavy snows and dreary rain, I've been plowing my slide collection for some potential book and magazine article projects. And while I've been having a lot of fun churning through thirty years of photographic memories, I'm amazed at some of the stuff I didn't photograph. Take, for instance, those Santa Fe Fairbanks-Morse passenger switchers that haunted Dearborn Station in the 1960s. Rare birds, the 541-543, the only boiler-equipped H12-44TS switchers-that-looked-like-hood-units built by FM. They were always there, shuttling passenger cars between the depot and coach yard and hanging around the roundhouse.
But amid all the warbonnet F-units and night shots of E6s in the engine terminal, I could find only one picture of them, and that was an overhead view from Roosevelt Road where the FM was incidental to the scene and used only to "frame" the Super Chief departing in the background. The same applied to those Chicago & Western Indiana RS1s that worked alongside of them, but I have about three good shots of the Alcos.
That’s what I mean by "invisible" trains. They are those elements that you see but never bother to photograph because they’re too common and too readily available. It’s more fun to go photographically fishing for a marlin of an E6 than plink around with a fish-in-a-barrel switcher.
Back in the late ’60s I had the opportunity to do a lot of traveling while working for EMD, and on my road adventures I would take along the old Railroad Magazine state short line rosters and seek out all the exotic main line and backwoods action I could dig up. After three years on the road, I found myself back home in northern Illinois again — but looking at the old hometown in a whole new light. I checked out things like I was a stranger in a new town. I photographed the joint IC-C&NW "River Track" switching line and street running in Dixon, which I’d grown up with but never really documented. I remembered rumors of a former trolley operation at Lee Center and "discovered" the Lee County Central, with a four-wheel Whitcomb and a total of five track switches on the entire four-mile railroad! The Illinois short line roster showed Baldwin switchers on the LaSalle & Bureau County, and I made a concerted effort to find out when they ran and how to photograph them.
The opportunity to "rediscover" home was an enlightening one, and when I moved to New Jersey in 1971 I began immediately to explore my new turf. The colorful Lehigh Valley, Erie Lackawanna and Lehigh & Hudson River caught my immediate attention, but I kinda "blew it" by not going after the drab Reading RS3s until just a few days before they were replaced on the West Cressona coal trains. Of course, some efforts were wasted, like the Penn Central Long Branch E-units — Those ratliners looked awful and awfuler every time I went down to South Amboy or Bay Head to photograph them!
After a few years, though, I began to get lazy again, ignoring much of the Conrail, Amtrak and NJ Transit action while my attention was diverted to the Susquehanna and D&H. I hit the Conrail main lines pretty well and did some exploring, but I tended to miss most of the branch lines and switch jobs around home. It took almost two years of bumping over the branch at Sinking Spring, Pa., before it dawned on me that there was probably a neat little railroad under there (the Reading & Columbia article in the February issue was the direct result of that revelation).
Of course, in these days of instant mega-mergers, entire railroads can disappear overnight. I’ve been pretty casual about covering the recent CP Rail invasion of the Northeast, and now I hear that CP is withdrawing from all intermodal east of Buffalo and may be planning to pull out altogether. "Invisible" may also be a function of timing.
With springtime just around the corner, this might be a good time to look around and see if there are any invisible trains in your realm — the nearby industrial switcher that you never bothered to follow or main line local with the workaday GP38. How about those commuter trains that frustrate your morning drive to work by blocking the crossings in the middle of town? Or maybe that elusive branch line that only shows occasional flange marks in the crossing to indicate that it isn’t abandoned. Where does that industrial branch go and who does it serve? Have you ever gotten a picture of the switcher spotting that covered hopper of plastic pellets at that industrial park spur?
The problem with a lot of hometown railroading is that it often ventures out on weekdays when you’re at work or school. Getting the local action sometimes demands the same kind of strategic planning that a more distant trip requires. But in the long run, it’s worth the effort.
And don’t overlook the "supporting actors" in the railroad scene: the switch engines and little junk that putter around while you’re waiting for that brace of super cabs to get under way. And I haven’t even touched on the human element yet - the engineer in the cab of the hometown switcher or brakeman throwing a switch or the conductor checking his list. (I won’t rub it in by mentioning tower operators or station agents... Relay boxes, fax machines and dispatchers in Jacksonville just don’t cut it photographically today.)
It’s easy to slap on a tele and squeeze three units and a plume of exhaust into an S-curve on a mountain pass at twilight, but it takes some real insight to make interesting images out of the invisible railroading all around you. Think about it.
This "Camera Bag" column originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of Railfan & Railroad.