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

Entries from January 17, 2010 - January 23, 2010


The Features You Are Requesting...

I have received a lot of emails and comments about the website and first off, let me thank everyone who submitted a comment or email.  I have read each and every one and I am still in the process of replying to them all.  It is a big part of this process because one of the reasons I set up ChasingSteel.com was to give back and share my passion with you all and yours with me.  Through your comments and feedback I find the inspiration to work a little longer and shoot a little bit better.  I learn the mistakes that I make and, hopefully, learn from them.  I enjoy the stories you all have shared involving railroads or trains in your lives.  I have a new appreciation for just how many folks, the world over, like trains.  To date, ChasingSteel.com has been visited by railfans and photo hounds from 56 different countries around the world!  Thank you all.

As part of the feedback, we received some input regarding features people would like to see implemented.  The following list is what I have been asked for or about and a status or response for each request:

  • Steam Photos - Sorry I don’t currently have many steam shots in my catalogue.  I do have some of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad but doesn’t everyone?  I’ll dig them out someday and see how they look.
  • Other Photographer’s Work - This concept is something I have always planned to do.  Maybe it is a version 2.0 upgrade to ChasingSteel.com.  I have to evaluate the bandwidth and storage requirements of such an endeavor in detail and see if I can swing it.  I am talking to a few folks about their collections today.
  • Prints for Sale - This is also something that we plan to do, probably sooner rather than later.  In fact we are currently evaluating printing houses and services.  Look for this soon.  (What does soon mean to you?  For me I’ll say around March…)
  • My Equipment Details - I have been asked to provide a list of what I gear I use.  I’ll be happy to put together some data on this.  I use more than just cameras and lenses in pursuit of my passion.  I can detail the tracking gear, GPS devices, vehicles, cameras, tripods, software, and fun techno-gear that I consider essential for me.  I’ll work on this.
  • Recommended Sites and Links - Some folks are looking to find the “gems” out there in the vastness of cyberspace.  I can share the sites that I follow and rely on to feed me the info and inspiration I crave.
  • Railfan Guides - I kind of worked on something recently similar to this.  (Look for a post on Cajon Pass soon.)  As for a full-blown guide, I’ll have to chew on that one.
  • Railroad News - This one I need too!  I want a convenient way to gloss over the railroad-relevant headlines.  So guess what?  I worked on this one last night!  It is now online and is listed above in the menu bar as, appropriately enough, “railnews.”   See below:

You can change the keyword for the articles that interest you by clicking on the key from the list:

Let me know what you think of the “railnews” tab and it’s functionality, as always!

Look for changes to come ChasingSteel.com as I able to make them happen.  Thank you all again for the requests and feedback!


What Happened to Rail Travel and Railroads in America?

My friend is leaving today for a business/pleasure trip to Juarez, Mexico.  (I know what you’re thinking - Juarez?  You mean the toughest city in the world?  Yes, but that’s the business part of the trip and NO it is not THAT kind of business!)  He is not the most comfortable flyer so he approached me about the possibility of taking the train - which, in America, means Amtrak.

Really?  I thought “really?” about someone taking a train ride?  I guess I was surprised.  Do people still do that?  I sat down with my friend and explained the “nuances” of travelling by train on Amtrak today.  (I think we all know that, unfortunately, travelling on Amtrak these days is very Greyhound-esque.)  I encouraged him to secure a roomette so that he might have an opportunity to stretch out in style and really enjoy the trip.  He agreed to do it and I hope the recent storms here in the southwest does not mar his trip.

All of this got me thinking about the decline of railroad acceptance as a first order of passenger transport in the United States.  Once America had hundreds of “named trains” providing first-class transportation across the country.  Trains with names like El Capitan, the California Zephyr, the Super Chief, to name a few.  Today, Amtrak may or may not have services that carry those names but, today, those names certainly do not carry the “service” they once did.

I was doing some research on the subject because I thought it would make for an interesting blog post and might serve to illicit memories of some of the readers of this blog to a by-gone era when things, at least in this respect, where a lot better.   I came across this Op-Ed article from the New York Times by Paul Kennedy.  Mr Kennedy is a Dilworth Professor of History and director of International Security Studies at Yale University.  While it doesn’t necessarily reflect the service levels of trains it does follow a similar thread by discussing the lack of acceptance of passenger rail travel today by most Americans.   It also gives us Americans an idea of where the rest of the world is on the subject.  Therefore, I am passing it along and recommending that you give it a read. 

Published: January 5, 2010
America’s preference for highways and airports over modern rail transportation will make the country increasingly look so 20th-century.

Oh, the Lessons That I Have Learned!

Unreal, heck even surreal at times.

The last week has been one heck of a ride.  I thought I went out, as I have done countless times in the past, to enjoy a chase and beautiful scenery with Deb but it became so much more.  So what, it was a very long train, one the likes of I have never seen in thirty plus years of paying attention.  Turns out it was a monster.  But it was a monster in more than just size.  It’s very existence changed me and my world in unimaginable ways.  And yes, you are partly responsible for it too.  Let me explain.

The “chase” itself was typical.  The results, of course, weren’t.  I had not posted any of my videos from previous trips onto the web for others to consume.  This train was different and I know that there were people, fans and the general public alike, that would have liked to have been able to see it go by.  (I think we all enjoy watching a train pass - more on than later.)  So I intended, at the onset, to make sure to get a stationary video of the train passing.  If you have read my previous posts then you know that I took that opportunity at Fingal, CA.  I thought the video came out nice, despite the fact that I shot it in portrait mode instead of landscape, so I created an account on YouTube and posted the video so that fans and you might get to see the historic train.

It turns out that somehow the media got wind of the train and it’s monster length and that’s when things got crazy.    I was first contacted by NBC News in Los Angeles, CA on Wednesday evening, January 13, 2010.  They had seen the video on YouTube and wanted to run it on the 11PM news that night.  Wow, that’s cool, I thought.  Heck, who wouldn’t want their video shown on a major news network?  Well, it turns out that railfans don’t.  I didn’t know that at the time.  

No sooner had I finished my phone call with the producer from NBC then I received an email from a reporter with the Los Angeles Times.  (Do these guys work in the same office or have some secret Twitter arrangement?)  He had seen the video and said it was the cleanest he saw and wanted to discuss it with me and perhaps link to it on the Times website.  It was a crazy few minutes for sure.

At least the Times reporter took the time to talk to me about the experience and how I came to shoot the video.  Clearly he wanted more than just a graphic to showcase HIS story.  He was interested in MY story, however, I was caught up in the moment and didn’t realize what was about to happen.

NBC aired the video, as they said they wanted to do, however, their “story, ” in my opinion was not complete reporting.  They opted to stress the wait time one would experience at a grade crossing and the politicians “concerns” over the train instead of the whole reason Union Pacific ran the test train or the significance of it.  I was dismayed.  I learned at the point that while I gave consent to NBC to use my video it was still their “story.”  I wished I had been given an opportunity to provide input to the story.

I subsequently found out that the LA Times had also run an article on the train that very same day by the very same reporter.  I became concerned.  I read the article and felt that the Times reporter, which also mentioned the “political” concerns predominately, did at least give both sides to the story and apparently was willing to do more research, hence the email to me.

After the NBC news segment aired, the “noise” about the test train and my video elevated.  You see, at this point I was being associated, since it was my video, with the viewpoint of the mass media on the subject and worth of the train.  This was not my intent.  In fact, my views are almost diametric to those of the “politicians” and some of the general public on the subject.

Here’s my stance:

  • Railroads are VITAL to our nation’s economy and infrastructure.
  • Railroads, and train crews specifically, DO NOT want to block crossings for any reasons, if at all possible.
  • Emergency vehicles are being blocked every day in the US by even the smallest of trains today.  (I bet that motorists block more fire engines and paramedics than trains do annually.)
  • Stopping distance of train is determined by tonnage and speed of the train NOT the LENGTH of a train.
  • Railroads have a vested interested in ensuring that the trains they move over their lines are safe.  They do not want to create any situation that might cause a stoppage in movement of trains over their territories.  That would be bad for business.
  • The railroads are in the railroad business.  Wouldn’t they know how and why to do this?  If increasing capacity and/or reducing costs is an end result, isn’t that good for shareholders and aren’t they becoming more economically viable which is good for us all?
  • People are in that much of a hurry that they can’t wait a few more minutes at a grade crossing so that they can get on to the freeways which are already gridlocked?  The grade crossings are the joint responsibility of the municipalities in concert with railroad approval.  The city has the right to build an over/underpass if they deem it necessary.  The grade crossing complaints should go to the city councils not the railroads.  The railroads have been around for a very, very, very long time in comparison to local streets and such.  Also, don’t commuters already plan their routes based on traffic patterns and avoid certain stretches of surface streets or freeways at certain times of the day because of congestion already?
  • There are concerns about the length of such a train when the crew has to walk the train to determine the extent of any issue should the need arise which caused the crew to stop the train.  Obviously this would need to be addressed.
  • While there are also concerns about the reduction in number of crew starts and I respect those concerns but I am in no position of offer an opinion.  (Yep, that is perhaps a first!)

Based on the aforementioned points, it should be apparent why I had issues with the media propping up their stories with my footage.  In the railfan circles I learned of another individual who had his video used, in the exact same manner, by a competing station here in Los Angeles all without his consent!  

Now I began to worry about the end result of the LA Times inquiry about using my material and story in their next article about the “Monster Train.”  Historically, us railfans have been portrayed in the mainstream media as complete morons who never got over the model trains we had as kids.  I was determined to help shape this next article, if I could.

Fortunately, it turned out that the Times reporter, Rich Connell,  was a good reporter and did his investigation and followed where it led him.  Over the course of that week we had numerous emails and phone calls about the train and me.  Perhaps my nudging helped but I sense that it propably was not entirely necessary in this case.  

As a previous blog post indicates, I had no prior knowledge of Rich’s article “going to press.”  It appeared online first and then in the print edition the next day.  The only way I discovered it was the number of hits on my website went through the roof.  My heart skipped a beat.  (Which is not good due to a quadruple bypass and seven stents that adorn my life sustaining organ!)  The article was published.

I read the article.  Wow.  Very good.  Better than I thought it would be.  It was about me and my “adventure.”  Cool.  It did mention the “other” items but in a realistic and tempered way.  Outstanding!  What a relief.

I have to take my hat off to you Rich.  You wrote an insightful and good article.  And it is not just me saying so.  Read the comments on my Guestbook page or the posts on the main railroad board and you will see the “community” of railfans applaud the article.  You have done us proud.  Thank you Rich and thanks to Mark Boster for making me look half-way handsome!

So I learned this from it all:

  • Understand the context in which your material will be presented.
  • Politicians don’t know what they are talking about, mostly.
  • There are good reporters out there who want to tell the WHOLE story and not just get ratings.
  • My right side is my better side!

Overall I am grateful for it all because not only did I learn a lot about myself and the way the media functions, I also got to meet so many people like you.  I received a lot emails and comments during the last few days and I am overwhelmed by the positive comments and response, in general, to my efforts to host chasingsteel.com.  I appreciate the fact that you have taken your time to visit and read my rants, such at this.  I am also humbled by the stories you all have shared with me and the great things you have said to inspire me.

OK, I realize there is one more thing I learned:

There are a lot of good and constructive folks in this world.  Heck, even some of them are not railfans!  Who knew? ;-)