random thoughts on railroad photography, railfanning, technology, and such

Entries from January 1, 2012 - January 31, 2012


Cajon Pass Chase Map

An Affinity for Maps

I have always had a huge interest in maps for as far back as I can remember. In all of my pursuits over the years, maps were either a necessary tool to accomplish the task at hand or an adjunct to augment the experience. As a child I had a massive aeronautical chart of Los Angeles hanging on my wall and I would study it for hours. Through that exercise I garnered an appreciation for distance and topography, as well as infrastructure and the historical aspects of the places listed before me. Soon maps became part of me and I would seek out and go to map stores like some kids would go to record stores or arcades.

Today’s version of the Thomas Bros. Wall Map of LA and Orange Counties.Over the years I used everything from aeronautical charts, which were relatively cheap and accessible, to USGS topographical quads which were ideal but hard to get and very pricey for a teen earning but $1 a week allowance. As I grew older and made more money, (I have been working full-time since I was fifteen), I was able to afford better maps. Eventually I was able to hang on my wall the crème de la crème of maps — the Thomas Bros. Wall Map of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. I used it while listening to the local police and fire agencies on my scanner to track incidents and the like — I was the envy of all map nerds no doubt.

Birth of the Chase Map

As is the case the with all of you, I suspect, my life is now intertwined with maps on a daily basis, thanks in large part to the advent of GPS and the adoption of consumer-oriented maps from companies such as MapQuest and Google. I couldn’t be happier — or so I thought.

As far as rail activities are concerned, the consumer-grade mapping efforts leave a lot to be desired. The railroad representations tend to be very generalized and lack detail and, in most cases, accuracy. Obviously there is also a lack of rail-specific data pertinent to the “chase,” if you will. In most cases you can’t tell the difference between a well-traveled rail line from one that sees only seasonal traffic, or even one that may have been removed years ago. I have made attempts to offer more rail-centric content or disclose more reliable sources in the past. Despite the apparent convenience, one can’t rely solely on these consumer-grade maps, particularly when you are researching a new line that you are unfamiliar with.

I learned through the years to research lines that I intended to shoot from a variety of sources and ultimately developed techniques and skills to cull that data into a very detailed map specifically created for me. To wit, below are two examples of my work that I created for our trip to shoot BNSF’s Seligman Subdivision back in April of 2011. The first one contains an overview map and all the locations, addresses and phone numbers of key points along our route. Also included are a copious amount of radio frequencies for various local, state, and federal agencies along the way so I know what is going on wherever we might be. The second map shows a more detailed railroad map with topographical detail because it is what I used to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of the Kaibab National Forest through which the Seligman Sub runs. (Click on each image for a larger view in a new window.)

Our “Planning Map” showing key locations and address info, radio frequencies, and our tentative schedule and plan that we used for our Seligman Subdivision trip in April of 2011.

BNSF’s Crookton Cut-Off - A detailed map I made complete with control point locations, milepost markers, and potential access points.

As the title element of the second map shows, this is the point that I referred to these maps as a “chase map.” So how did we avail ourself of the content of these maps whilst on the road? Through the use of an iPad, of course! In a post regarding the planning of the Seligman Trip, I explained the method: 

PDF Maps iOS App | Avenza Systems IncThe beauty of this mapping solution was that I now had a custom map that held all of the information in one location and could be quickly referred to using one of our iPads. To accomplish that I exported the maps as Adobe PDF files and transferred them to the iPad. I quickly found out that the native iBooks application was rather slow at rendering the large files. I searched for a solution and found a great application from Avenza Systems, Inc. called, appropriately enough, “PDF Maps.” This application pre-renders the maps, which increases their storage size on your device, but the trade-off is lightning fast rendering of the maps. Perfect, just what I wanted. Oh, did I mention that it is also free?

This solution worked extremely well for us during the trip and I quickly fell in love with PDF Maps. It soon became the staple of my mapping applications and I loaded it to the gills with all the maps I wanted and/or created.

Coming Up Short

Soon I discovered that there was a shortcoming to my chase maps. The net effect of my solution was an electronic version of a paper map — not a mapping solution, per se. This was fine with me but not everyone is proficient at reading maps and discerning their present location.

In fact, I learned that most had little interest in learning to read maps because their telephone has a map that shows them right where there are. That was a very good point. This solution wasn’t fully leveraging all of the capabilities of most devices today which tend to be GPS-capable.

Now this is not to say that PDF Maps doesn’t support GPS technology, it does and does it very well. The problem lies in the fact that MY maps weren’t GPS-enabled, or more accurately georeferenced, so the PDF Maps app couldn’t show me where I was on my maps.

In Search of a Solution or “HOW MUCH is that Doggy in the Window?”

I began to research how I could convert my .PDF Chase Maps to a georeferenced .PDF file (or georeferenced .TIF file as well) which is what I needed. It turns out that is SO much easier said than done.

There are quite a few mapping applications available that will export content to a georeferenced .PDF or a GeoPDF® file. However, these applications tend to be high-end, enterprise-centric and, thusly, cost an insane amount of money — well outside of the budget of THIS one-man shop to say the least. In some cases, I am talking thousands of dollars.

Since our Arizona trip of April, 2011, I have been a “man-on-a-mission,” trying to find a viable and affordable solution to making my Chase Maps the best they can be. In light of my research and findings, I began to feel like “David vs. Goliath.”

Trials and Errors and Esri, Oh My!

Thanks to the bountiful amount of information accessible on the internet, I learned of almost all of the players in the Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) space and so began the long process of trial and error with their various programs and offerings. That effort began to feel like I was trying to find my way out of a housing tract and each road that I ventured down, while looking promising, ultimately was a cul-de-sac and did not lead me home. (I can’t even count the number of iterations of the Cajon Pass Chase Map that I have made with various products.)

Eventually my attention turned to the variety of products offer by a company called Esri, (pronounced as a word, ‘ez-ree’). Esri is one of the largest, if not the largest, providers GIS products and data.  Their flagship product is called ArcGIS and it is a comprehensive suite of applications.

Esri produces one application in particular that peaked my interest, ArcGIS App for Smartphones and Tablets. Esri describes the ArcGIS App as a product that “lets you navigate maps, collect and report data, and perform GIS analysis. It is a part of the ArcGIS system and is a great way to

  • Discover content by browsing map galleries from ArcGIS Online or leverage services from your existing enterprise GIS.
  • Display maps and capture information.
  • Develop a custom application or brand your own application specific to your business needs.
  • Extend your GIS to a wider audience.”

“Hmm, interesting,” I thought. I began to evaluate the opportunities that this app brought to the table. I would have to most likely rebuild my map, yet again. “Like I haven’t done that a dozen times already!”, I reasoned.

If Things Aren’t Working, Change Your Approach

At this point I began to reassess my approach to making a map that I could be proud of. Instead of having my map and trying to find something that would allow me to geo-encode it that I could afford, I opted to start with a platform that was georeferenced out-of-the-box and build a map with that solution.

ArcGIS App

Since the ArcGIS App was merely a consumer of GIS content and not an authoring solution, I needed to find a way to create content for it. The natural choice was to peruse the Esri catalog for possibilities. I found a web-based offering called ArcGIS Explorer Online that was capable of producing content that could also be consumed by the ArcGIS App. The stage was set.

Making the dive into ArcGIS is like moving from the minor league team to the majors. It is a whole different environment than what I was accustomed to. It took a few weeks for me to get my bearings with respect to the terms, capabilities, and methods of a true GIS platform. After literally reading a few books I began to create what eventually became the Cajon Pass Chase Map described below.

The Different Way

Being a creative individual, the first point I realized about the Esri solution, at least for the web-based Explorer, was the fact that there is no creative latitude available. One is limited to the base content that Esri makes available through their web services. About the only true custom content available was to upload vector-based data called “shapefiles.”

It became apparent that I must sacrifice creative control for functionality. However, I soon discovered that there are several benefits, over and above what the PDF Maps solution offers, to using the Esri solution:

  • Multiple clients available (Desktop browser-based, Apple iOS, Android, Windows 7 Mobile)
  • Support for different user-selectable base maps.
  • Support for layered content. The user can turn data on or off.
  • Since the content is internet-based, I can update the map and the user will get the latest content each time they use the map. No need to re-download a file if the map changes.

The last bullet point also is a con, per se. Since the content is web-based, you cannot use it in an offline capacity. You need internet access to see the map. I figure that since more and more smartphones and tablets are in-use each day, and most are internet-capable, this fact is outweighed by the “current content” concept so I proceeded with the project using the Esri ArcGIS platform.

Eventually I finished my map — at least version .1!

Therefore, Without Further Ado, Allow Me to Introduce…

…my Cajon Pass Chase Map, Version .1.

The map can be accessed via a web browser via this link, or via the ArcGIS mobile client by searching for the Cajon Pass Chase Map through the interface. The following images depict the map, running on an Apple iPad, and highlight some of the key features:

Chasing Steel’s Cajon Pass Chase Map showing one of “Joe’s Map Notes” active.

Clicking on the third icon from the left on the toolbar reveals the various basemaps that you can choose to use for the map.

The “Overview” button will call up a dialog box which contains a series of buttons. The “Content” button shows the map’s layers and offers an opportunity to turn on or off layers as desired by the user.

The “Legend” button displays a legend that identifies the various colors and symbols seen on the map.

The fifth icon from the left displays the map’s bookmarks. I have pre-loaded some for you.

If This Interests You As Well

Web GIS: Principles and Applications on Amazon.com

During this exercise I learned a lot about maps, mapping, GIS, and the various software products that are available for both Windows and Mac clients and I have read several books on the topic.

I can highly recommend this book. I have not finished it yet but I can already say that it is money well spent and is well ahead of other books on the subject. It is extremely readable and presents the material in an easy to understand way that is suitable for newbies and geeks alike. It is entitled Web GIS: Principles and Applications by Pinde Fu and Jiulin Sun, ESRI Press, ( 158948245X 978-1589482456 October 15, 2010).

Your Comments and Feedback are Requested

If you have got to this point in this post, then you must have some level of commitment or interest in the topic so i hope you can offer your insight by providing feedback and/or comments to me either regarding my mapping efforts or about GIS in general. My hope is that some GIS pros will read this and can help guide me by providing advice as appropriate. Thank you for your time.


A Short Seasonal Sojourn to Siberia

Cabin Fever

Despite being on vacation for nearly two weeks during the Christmas holiday, I had yet to venture trackside at any capacity. My time was filled shopping for Christmas gifts, preparing the house for the holidays and entertaining our guests. Eventually Christmas came and went, followed closely by New Years, and, at last, my time had come. It was time to chase some steel before I had to return to work and I began to consider possible destinations.

I ran through some of the options in my head. After considering Tehachapi Pass, Cajon Pass, and the Sunset Route, I settled on my favorite BNSF’s Needles Subdivision. It was NOT summer and the weather was beautiful — I couldn’t resist.  However this time I would try a new spot that has been on my list for sometime but I never had enough intel to attempt it. This was time to see if I could get there.

That place was between West Siberia and Klondike, on the normally westbound track as it ascends the grade of Ash Hill replete with the requisite s-curve to gain elevation. I checked the sun angles for the time period during my trip and it seemed ideal. My plan was set. I packed up my gear and got but two hours of sleep before my restless spirit took hold and I was off chasing the sunrise.


As it seems to be the norm these days, I missed being in a good spot for the sunrise. I must have messed up my drive time or the calculations thereof. Oh well, on to Siberia. After a steady push, and a refueling stop or two for me and my truck, I eventually reached the turnoff that lead to the summit of Ash Hill.

I spent a few minutes surveying the scene and checking the traffic on the computer. Nothing was in sight or would be for some time. This was the perfect time to get into position so I did just that. I returned to the pavement of the National Trails Highway and continued east towards Siberia.

Eventually I crossed the tracks at West Siberia and found myself on virgin ground, at least for me. I took the road that I had previously surveyed with the help of Google’s satellite map and arrived at my intended destination after a slow and deliberate drive. I had to drive as far as I could up a mountain, and then continue on foot, to gain elevation over the track otherwise my photos would show a whole lot of earth and not much else.

This photo, taken later in the day on my second visit to this location, shows the general lay of the land from my mountainside perch:

SIBERIA-KLONDIKE - The setting sun illuminates the s-curve of BNSF’s trackage near Klondike, CA.
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

I decided to focus on taking some video first so I set-up my gear and I didn’t have to wait long for the first few trains to arrive:

SIBERIA-KLONDIKE 1 - A BNSF four unit intermodal train negates the s-curve as it climbs Ash Hill near Klondike, CA on January 2, 2012.
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.
BNSF 7478 West - BNSF 7478 (GE DASH ES44DC), BNSF 7395 (GE ES44DC), BNSF 5168 (GE DASH 9-44CW) and 6738 (GE ES44C4) are all in Run-8 as they pull this westbound hotshot intermodal consist through the s-curve near Klondike, CA on the Needles Subdivision.
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

SIBERIA-KLONDIKE 2 - A BNSF three unit intermodal train negates the s-curve as it climbs Ash Hill near Klondike, CA on January 2, 2012.
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

It Turns Out That I Am Not a Mountain Goat Afterall

After spending sufficent time to photograph and shoot video the trains through this area I sought a more level footing from which to ply my skills. I decided to take a short run further east to East Siberia and give my aching legs a break. Here is a panorama shot of the sweeping curves that can be found at East Siberia:

East Siberia Panorama
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

The first train to greet me at East Siberia was a massive grain train. I thought, ever so briefly, about chasing this behemoth back to the s-curve near Klondike which would make for a compelling photo. “Nah, not gonna do it.” As so, here are two shots of the mega grain train at, and only at, East Siberia, California along with a baretable moving east.

BNSF 5418 West - BNSF 5418 (GE DASH 9-44CW), BNSF 5013 (GE DASH 9-44CW), and BNSF 5229 (GE DASH 9-44CW) are up front of a heavy westbound grain train negoiating the s-curve near East Siberia, CA on BNSF’s Needles Subdivision on January 2, 2012.
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

BNSF 5418 West 2 - BNSF 5418 (GE DASH 9-44CW), BNSF 5013 (GE DASH 9-44CW), and BNSF 5229 (GE DASH 9-44CW) are up front of a heavy westbound grain train negoiating the s-curve near East Siberia, CA on BNSF’s Needles Subdivision on January 2, 2012.
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

BNSF 7228 East - BNSF 7228 (GE ES44DC) and another simliar unti are relagated to “baretable” duties as they bring a string of empty intermodal cars through the OS at East Siberia.
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

Onward To Amboy

Eventually a lull in traffic developed that left me restless. I decided to head further east to seek out the trains. This effort brought me to the trains and to Amboy, California:
BNSF 7282 West - BNSF 7282 (GE ES44DC), BNSF 6755 (GE ES44C4), and BNSF 5507 (GE DASH 9-44CW) bear down for the climb out of the Amboy Sink with a westbound intermodal train at Amboy, CA.
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

Westbound “California Coal”
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

I planned to shoot the sun setting over s-curve near Klondike so I opted next to back west to get into position. Along the way the traffic became plentiful once again and I took advantage of it by staging at the crossing just east of Bagdad, California:

Short and Stout - BNSF 7391 (GE ES44DC) leads six other units, and a DPU on the rear, on the point of this very short westbound manifest consist out of Amboy, CA.
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

Three Trains from the Crossing Near Bagdad, CA - I caught three trains pass the crossing just east of Bagdad, CA. The second train in the video has a vintage warbonnet unit on the point and two more buried in the consist and the train is a manifest train to boot! Old school railroading again!
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

BNSF 528 East - BNSF 528 (GE DASH 8-40BW), BNSF 523 (GE DASH 8-40BW), BNSF 541 (GE DASH 8-40BW), BNSF 542 (GE DASH 8-40BW), and BNSF 160 (EMD GP60M), a rare lash-up these days, provides the horsepower to this eastbound manifest train through Bagdad, CA and reminds me of railroading from yesteryear.
[1/2/2012 - Needles Subdivision] © 2012 Joe Perry. All rights reserved.

S-Curve Sunset

As previously stated I intended to shoot the sun going down behind the s-curve so I made my way there in sufficient time to do so. I set-up my tripod and made a series of shots and waited. However, no train showed up before the sun went down so I was left with the shot at the top of the post — sans train.

Next up I wanted to try and do some night signal photography so I went back to Siberia. When I arrived I started to set-up my tripod and I proceeded to pull one of the legs completely out of the tripod! Damn it! This is the third tripod that I have broken. What gives? Doesn’t anyone make a DURABLE tripod?

Without a stable platform, or a sufficient backup, I was forced to head home, which I did. I felt the day was productive and I, as always, was eager to do some post-processing and evaluate my efforts.

Until next time.