Monday, January 31, 2011

Banner Day at Guilds Lake

BNSF switcher in northwest Portland's Guilds Lake industrial district.

Guilds Lake in northwest Portland is the best remaining example of the city's once-numerous switching districts: highly industrialized areas served by a dense rail network. Another local photographer, Alexander Craghead, is working on a photography project to document the remnants. As industry has declined around downtown Portland, most of these switching districts have been abandoned or disappeared altogether. Guilds Lake manages to hang on, but just barely. Rail service is down to once-a-week (more or less), with only one major customer, the Holman Distribution warehouse on Luzon Street. Two other customers receive semi-regular shipments, Industrial Export (INDEX), a steel distributor on St. Helens Road, and Chemical Distributors, Inc. (CDI) on Industrial Street.

In three attempts to photograph this operation in 2010, I got skunked once and twice found the train switching at Holman, but never the other two customers. Today, the BNSF switch job had work at all three main customers, including this unusually busy (for 2011) move at INDEX, where they brought in two gondola loads of steel and picked up two empties.

Thanks to Kyle Weismann-Yee, another local photographer and the guru of current rail switching operations in Portland, without whose on-the-scene research efforts I never would have been able to photograph any part of this operation.

Amtrak and Singer Hill Steps

Amtrak Cascades train no. 504 passing the Singer Hill steps in Oregon City.

Today I tried an angle that I've been examining for a while, during each one of Maureen's and my frequent walks up and down the Singer Hill steps. The view is looking up the hill from near its base by the municipal elevator, as northbound Amtrak Cascades train no. 504 streaks past on its way to Portland. The steps were part of a 1936-37 Work Progress Administration project. While we enjoy the convenience of the elevator, we more often prefer the steps for the exercise. Last fall, I took two friends who were having dinner with us to this same spot as another Cascades train, no. 507, went by in the evening. They thrilled the train's speed and proximity, and we all enjoyed the fleeting voyeuristic experience of peering into the lighted windows of passing passengers, our paths crossing for just that single moment as they continued on their southbound journey and we went home for dinner.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Back on (the Short) Track

Loading paper into a boxcar at the Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City.

Rail activity has returned to the "short track" in Oregon City's Blue Heron paper mill. Contrary to my concerns expressed on January 17, on Thursday the track was cleared and that night the OC Switcher spotted two cars for loading, which was going on today. Am I exhibiting OCD tendencies by paying so much attention to a single industrial siding? Probably. But the Blue Heron mill and its nightly switching by a Class I railroad's local freight train are anachronisms of 21st century railroading. They are vestiges of an earlier age, an age when local rail freight service was more common, and America itself was centered more on primary industries.

Oregon Trunk

Distributed power units on the rear of the BNSF's Vancouver to Barstow freight train at Shearers Bridge, Oregon.

Today's excursion into the Columbia Gorge included a side trip on the Oregon Trunk (OT), the BNSF line that runs north-south through the middle of the state. All indications pointed to two southbound trains in daylight, an auspicious line-up for this scenic but lightly-traveled line. In fact only one materialized, the Vancouver to Barstow train, and we waited another two and a half hours for a second train that never came. Just another day on the OT.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Along the Willamette

Union Pacific's Portland to Hinkle freight train along the Willamette River in downtown Portland.

Today's morning fog lasted well past lunch but cleared in time for this late afternoon view of Union Pacific's MPDHK, the Portland to Hinkle mixed freight, departing Albina Yard along the Willamette River in downtown Portland. The Steel Bridge is on the right, while the Portland Memorial Coliseum, home of the Trailblazers, is in the background at left. The spires of the Portland Convention Center are visible in the background at center. Just ahead of the train is East Portland Junction, where it will make a left turn into Sullivan's Gulch for the one percent grade up the Graham Line, parallel to I-84 and eventually the Columbia River. (Which just happens to be my destination for tomorrow.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Switchers in the Fog

OC Switcher along the Willamette River in Oregon City.

As I was sitting down to my computer at 6:30 this morning, I was surprised to hear a horn outside that sounded distinctly like one of UP's SW1500s (the technical term used at Portland's Albina yard is "little switchy engine"). Guessing correctly that the OC Switcher was making a late switch down at the Blue Heron mill, I headed out into the morning fog. After just missing them twice in the mill, I finally caught up to them as they were departing town, running along the river on their way back to Clackamas.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Singer Creek Falls

Singer Creek falls and Union Pacific locomotive in Oregon City.

After yesterday's discovery about Singer Creek falls, today I decided to try a different angle with them, this time from street level in downtown. Curiously, Maureen likes this photo a good deal more than I do. I like the spot, but I'd like to try it again with some motion blur in the train and water. Incidentally, in the enlarged version, "Railroad Av" is legible in the street sign above the stop sign.

Monday, January 24, 2011

From the Bluff

Union Pacific freight train and Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City.

Another day, another photo of a freight train from the bluff in Oregon City. This is a wider, horizontal version of January 10th's post, and it's the same train, the daily Portland to Roseville freight. In this view, you can see part of the walkway along the edge of the bluff, a city park that essentially comprises my backyard. And for the record, the walkway and railing jut out here, so I'm not standing on the far side, perched precariously on the edge of the cliff (not that I've never done something that for a photo). Not much to add to this view, but I did make an interesting discovering today about the water feature that I mentioned in my January 18th post. According to Oregon City's website, the manmade waterfall that relocated Singer Creek was built in 1936-37 through the Works Progress Administration.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Vernonia Branch

Abandoned trestle at Tophill, Oregon.

This abandoned trestle in western Oregon ends abruptly after crossing state highway 47, six miles north of Buxton. From 1922 this line was part of the United Railways and connected the Oregon-American Company's sawmill in Vernonia to the national rail network, via the town Banks. The mill, which was the line's primary reason for existence, closed in 1957 and all rail service ended in 1969. Today this line is the Banks-Vernonia rail trail, a paved, 21 mile recreational trail. A series of switchbacks bypass the remains of this trestle, which was damaged by fire in 1986.

Rex Hill

Trestle on Rex Hill near Newberg, Oregon.

This impressive pile of timbers is one of many large wooden railroad trestles in western Oregon. This one stands on a Portland & Western line near Newberg, on a grade called Rex Hill. Currently, the line is only used for storing freight cars and sees no regular traffic. Once part of Southern Pacific's empire, in the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s it hosted the SP's "Red Electrics" -- interurban electric passenger trains that provided frequent service between Portland and several communities in the Willamette Valley, extending as far as Corvallis.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rush Hour

Union Pacific's Lake Transfer freight train at Portland Union Station.

So here's the deal. You're working second trick at the West Tower of Albina Yard in Portland, Oregon, and you have a mess on your hands. It's 1630, and the Lake Transfer, the train that takes cars from your yard to the Portland Terminal's Lake Yard on the other side of the Willamette River, hasn't left yet. The crew has been on duty since 0630 and they're normally gone by mid-morning. Not today. So their 100+ cars are still choking your yard in the late afternoon, and if you don't get them out soon, that crew is going to die on the federal hours of service law and you'll have to wait for a new crew to arrive before all those cars leave your yard. Not good.

So, you launch the Lake Transfer. It only has to go a couple of miles before it gets out of your hair and becomes the Portland Terminal and BNSF's problem. Now, it's not a small train, and it doesn't move very fast, so while it's slowly dragging itself out of your yard, your next two problems arrive in the form of two southbound departures: the first, and most critical, is power for the nightly Z train out of Brooklyn Yard, a very hot train that carries UPS trailers and a guaranteed departure time. It's not going anywhere until its locomotives get from your yard to Brooklyn. And then you have a southbound train of flatcars heading for Eugene, which is currently sitting on the main line. These trains need to leave.

They can't leave, though, because the Lake Transfer has ground to a halt with its rear end still fouling your all-important 901 control point, the bottleneck through which all these departing trains must pass. The Lake Transfer has stopped because BNSF's Vancouver Terminal dispatcher hasn't cleared it through Portland Union Station yet. That's because Amtrak Cascades service no. 514 is set to depart any minute, and the BNSF dispatcher doesn't want to risk delaying it by clearing the slow-moving freight ahead of it.

Problem is, Amtrak is waiting for a late-running bus connection. So while it sits, the Lake Transfer sits, the train of flat cars sits, and the all-important power for the Z train sits. And if that power doesn't get to its train soon for the guaranteed departure time, phones are going to start ringing and the voice on the other end isn't going to be wishing you a pleasant good evening.

Now, there's one more little detail in this scenario. The Lake Transfer has the option of going another half mile or so before it reaches the red signal that BNSF won't clear until Amtrak departs. If it moves that extra half mile, it will clear 901 and you can start to run trains. The problem is that it will then be blocking Front Avenue, a downtown Portland street that's running heavy with commuters heading home to their spendy condos that stand on top of the former rail yards all along Union Station.

So, what do you do?

Well, tonight West Tower decided to run the Lake Transfer. With a healthy dose of horns for the Front Avenue crossing, it crept into Union Station and stopped at the big red light at the far end, and like angry water behind a dam, annoyed commuters piled up on both sides of the Front Avenue crossing. The Z train's power got its green signal at 901 and headed for Brooklyn, with the train of flatcars following a few minutes later.

All in all, it worked out pretty well. The late Amtrak bus arrived and its connecting passengers came hurrying onto the platform and into their train, which pulled out just a few moments after the Lake Transfer came to a stop. Once it was gone, the Vancouver Terminal dispatcher cleared the Lake Transfer into Lake Yard, and it was moving again shortly. Total time blocking the Front Avenue crossing was about 15 or 20 minutes. You got to run your trains and those commuters got to complain about the railroad for awhile without having their evenings totally ruined.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Oregon City Crossing Typology

Mini-typology of grade crossings in Oregon City.

Yesterday's post reminded me of my on-going project of photographing grade crossings. The project employs a photographic technique called a typology, where similar subjects are photographed in an identical manner to make for easy comparisons. (Railroad equipment roster photographers have been doing this for decades.) The German husband-and-wife photography team of Bernd and Hilla Becher popularized the style with their views of industrial buildings in the U.S. and Europe made from the 1960s onward. Jeff Brouws, a contemporary photographer and past presenter at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art's annual conference, introduced me to the typology.

In my case, I photograph railroad crossings by standing on each edge of the crossing and looking straight down the track. I always use a 35mm lens with the horizon slightly below the middle of the frame, and for visual consistency I always shoot on cloudy days, which is no problem in western Oregon. I try to exclude cars and any other traffic.

The top two photos in this mini-typology are the verso and recto views of the 10th Street crossing of the Union Pacific main line. The bottom two photos are the verso and recto views of the route 99E (McLoughlin Blvd.) crossing of the switching lead for the Blue Heron paper mill, which is visible in the lower right photo. The lower left photo shows the one block of street-running along Main St., which carries the Oregon City Switcher on most nights. These are the only two road-railroad at-grade crossings in Oregon City, so I was limited to this small group of four images today. Most typologies would include several grids, each with perhaps nine or sixteen photos.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Down the Gauntlet

Southbound Union Pacific freight train in the grade crossing gauntlet of Portland's near east side.

There are 11 grade crossings in the span of 1/2-mile on the two main tracks of Union Pacific's Brooklyn Subdivision in the near east side of Portland, Oregon. The neighborhood is a mix of industry--both active and abandoned--and redevelopment, and most of the new restaurants and cafes give a nod to the industrial heritage in their decor and style.

Grade crossings intrigue me as the only real interface between the railroad and the vast majority of the population in contemporary society. For most, the train is an inconvenience when they get stuck behind one at a crossing, and it seems those few minutes are so important that they're worth risking life, limb, and property for so many drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians who try to beat the train. Never mind that those inconvenient trains help keep consumer prices low on everything from electronics to food to clothing to energy. The Association of American Railroads reports that 43 percent of the nation's freight moves by rail, which is more fuel efficient than trucking or air freight.

The train in this photo is Union Pacific's Brooklyn Transfer, normally a nocturnal job that shuffles cars from Brooklyn Yard in southeast Portland to Albina Yard in north Portland, and back. It mainly handles intermodal cars moving between the two yards, and occasionally its work takes long enough that it returns to Brooklyn in daylight, as was the case this morning.

Through the Trees

Amtrak Cascades train no. 509 passing through Oregon City.

I've been intrigued with this location, a five-minute walk from my apartment, since moving to Oregon City four and a half months ago. The pedestrian stairs that descend the bluff next to the municipal elevator make a 90-degree turn in front of a stream that stair-steps its way down the hill through an urban water feature. The tracks appear briefly through the trees, with the streets and buildings of downtown beyond. Maybe it's the result of a memorable illustration in The Polar Express (the one with the wolves), but I've always been captivated by the image of lighted train windows passing through barren trees. I don't think I've quite found the best composition at this location yet, so I'll keep trying.

Monday, January 17, 2011

End of the Short Track?

Detail of the Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City.

The "Short Track" is the name of a siding within the Blue Heron paper mill complex in Oregon City. It comes off the main switching lead that runs through the center of the mill and makes a 90-degree turn into a covered loading platform in the space of about 100 feet, and then ends near the bank of the Willamette River. It has room for two 50-foot boxcars.

The curve is the equivalent of about a 15 inch radius in HO scale, which is to say, incredibly sharp. It's so sharp that cars must be pulled or pushed around it only one at a time to avoid derailments. The sharpness has also required the services of SW1500 locomotives, which have very short wheel bases. Because of this, Union Pacific has kept three SW1500s in Portland, two of which are regularly assigned to the "Oregon City Switcher," the job that serves the mill every night except Saturday.

A few days ago, I noticed rolls of paper stacked on the Short Track inside the loading dock. At first there were only few, so I thought it might be temporary. However, the stack has continued to grow. To my knowledge, no boxcars have been spotted on the Short Track in 2011. Rumors have been circulating for several months that Union Pacific was pressuring the paper mill to stop using the Short Track and move all of their operations to the Long Track, which enters the mill complex on the other side of the main switching lead. I have yet to hear any confirmation, but it appears those rumors might have been true.

If so, and the Short Track is indeed no longer in use, Union Pacific will be able to stop using its aging SW1500s at any time. They are unique as being some of the last switch engines used on a local freight train that operates over the main line of a Class I railroad. The whole operation in itself is rather unique in the 21st century, as Class I railroads have been moving away from local freight operations for a few decades.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tacoma Freight

BNSF Railway freight train passing the Temco elevator in Tacoma, Washington.

While returning home from the 2011 "Tracks in the Snow" weekend, I enjoyed tours of Seattle and Tacoma rail facilities thanks to my guides, Steve Eshom and Robert Scott. We made our last photographs of the day at the Tacoma Export Marketing Company's elevator and dock along the south end of Tacoma's water front. Approaching in the foreground is BNSF's daily freight train from Pasco to Tacoma with a long cut of loaded lumber cars directly behind the locomotives. The elevator can hold three million bushels of grain, or about seven trains' worth. The adjacent sidings can hold three 110-car grain shuttle trains, which typically arrive from eastern Washington, Montana, and North Dakota. The bulk carrier Four Mogami in the background can carry nearly five trains' worth of grain.

Despite a lot of rain and no new snow in the mountains, I really enjoyed my first visit to Stevens Pass, and I look forward to returning soon. Thanks again to Steve and Robert for hosting me throughout the weekend, to Ross Fotheringham for organizing the event.

Pineapple Express on Stevens Pass

BNSF empty grain train crossing a creek near Skykomish, Washington.

The Pineapple Express is not the train in this photo, but a winter weather event in the Northwest that occurs when the jet stream is positioned to bring warm, wet air into the region. That's been happening here since the middle of the week, and is supposed to intensify overnight. Snow levels have risen to 9000 feet and up to six inches of rain is expected in the mountains by Monday, with strong potential for flooding and landslides.

I spent another day exploring the former Great Northern Railway's main line with Robert Scott, Steve Eshom, and other attendees of the annual “Tracks in the Snow” weekend, organized by Ross Fotheringham. It was a quieter day on the railroad, with only about half the traffic of yesterday. We first went east to cloudy but dry Trinidad Loop, then worked our way back west, where the rain abated for a few hours. Just before the next deluge started, we caught this empty grain train ascending the west slope of the pass, crossing a creek near the Foss River bridge, just west of Skykomish.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

East of Leavenworth

BNSF Railway intermodal train from South Seattle to Chicago passing orchards near Cashmere, Washington.

It's been a surprisingly good first day of photography on Stevens Pass in Washington's North Cascades. I'm traveling with Robert Scott and Steve Eshom, who know the pass well. A warm front has left unseasonably warm temperatures across the region, and the rain came down in buckets this morning on the pass. In the afternoon we went east, into the orchard country along the Wenatchee River east of Leavenworth, Washington, where we found more favorable weather. BNSF's Scenic Subdivision was busy today, making for an eventful day of photography. The Great Northern's mainline hosts primarily intermodal traffic, and we saw several trains of double-stacked shipping containers, including this one near Cashmere, a South Seattle to Chicago Z-train, the hottest eastbound on the line.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

And More Grain at Portland

Bulk carrier Premnitz at CLD Pacific Grain's O'Dock in downtown Portland.

Continuing with the recent grain theme, since it is grain season, a swing through downtown Portland today yielded this image of the bulk carrier Premnitz taking on a load of export wheat CLD Pacific's O'Dock. At right is the dock's trackmobile, helping to unloaded covered hoppers.

I'm writing from the Cascadia Inn at Skykomish, Washington, where I'll be for the next three days. The plan was to photograph BNSF's Stevens Pass in the snow, but it looks more like rain, which is what's coming down outside as I type. We'll see how it goes. Off for night photos!

More Grain in Portland

BNSF grain train at East Portland Junction.

The flow of grain continues through Portland at a rapid pace. Both downtown grain elevators, the O'Dock pictured here and Irving just to the north, are currently loading boats. Late this afternoon, a loaded BNSF grain train entered Union Pacific trackage, coming through Union Station and across the Steel Bridge, from whence it proceeded to Albina yard. Plenty of BNSF grain is unloaded on the UP side of the river, as this photo shows, but this was the first time that I have seen a solid BNSF unit grain train take this routing. Usually I have seen BNSF grain cars come across the river in the manifest of the UP's Lake Transfer train, which makes a daily interchange run between the two railroads' yards. Today's competition between the UP and BNSF dates back to era of James Hill on the Great Northern and Edward Harriman on the UP, but cooperation also happens.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Railroad Crossing

Pedestrian railroad crossing at 11th Street in Oregon City.

This pedestrian corral railroad crossing is at 11th Street in downtown Oregon City, on the Union Pacific main line. The crossing was closed at some point in the past and the street terminated on either side of the tracks, yet this curious arrangement remains for pedestrians wishing to cross the railroad here. The 11th Street crossing no longer appears in the FRA's online database of railroad crossing data, but the walking path is still protected by crossbucks with stop signs. Locked gates protect both ends of the street, and on the east side of the tracks, these railings create a zig-zag queuing area, much like you'd find in the line for an amusement park ride.

More often, when I've seen closed crossings, they are completely closed, with no legal means provided for pedestrians to cross the tracks. Two pedestrians crossed here during my brief visit this afternoon, so perhaps this concession was warranted. Currently, there are only two at-grade crossings in Oregon City: 10th Street crosses the main line one block south of here, while Main Street crosses the stub switching lead of the Blue Heron paper mill at 5th Street. Additional pedestrian-only crossings exist along 1st Avenue, in the southern part of town near the Willamette River.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Portland Freight and the Oregon City Bridge

Union Pacific's Portland, Oregon, to Roseville, California, freight train at Oregon City.

As high pressure passed over the Northwest prior to an approaching storm, we enjoyed a cold but clear day in Portland. This afternoon, Union Pacific's daily freight train from Portland to Roseville, California, is seen passing the Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City on its southbound trek. This train comes through town almost as regular as clockwork every afternoon (hence, if I'm able to keep up this blog, you'll be seeing a lot of it this year). Not long ago--as recently as 2006--three or more freight trains departed Portland each day for California, but since the economic downturn of 2008, a single train has been able to carry the southbound load.

In the background at left is Oregon City's historic bridge over the Willamette River. The 1922 structure is one of many in engineer Conde McCullough's legacy of graceful concrete arch bridges in Oregon. On Saturday, January 15, the Oregon Department of Transportation will close the bridge for 21 months to replace its aging, cracking concrete. Vehicle traffic will detour via the nearby I-205 bridge (the green structure in the background at center), which will also host a shuttle bus for cyclists and pedestrians. Many businesses in downtown Oregon City worry about how the closure will affect their customer base.

Maureen and I have frequently discussed the bridge closure and its impact on the community. I've been surprised by the intensity of her reactions to the closure. Afterall, I'm the one who loves transportation infrastructure here. Shouldn't I be the most excited? The conversations have reminded me that she has quite a passion for transportation, too, and especially its societal effects. Her enthusiasm comes in concentrated doses when an issue such as this one comes to a head, while mine is spread more evenly, as I'm constantly analyzing the movement of goods and people, and how that impacts society. Why else would I even attempt to post daily photos and thoughts about railroads?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Nocturnal Coast Starlight

Amtrak train no. 14, the northbound Coast Starlight passing Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Oregon.

During a temporary schedule change due to track work between Albany and Eugene, Amtrak's northbound Coast Starlight is frequently passing through Oregon City after dark right now, allowing the opportunity for night photographs of this train that normally runs in the mid-afternoon. When it comes to rendering moving trains as streaks of light, I have a particular fondness for the visuals of the twin red rear marker lights on Amtrak trains, in addition to the green lights next to the doors of the Superliner cars.

Those lights are seen here on a reverse curve along the Willamette River just south of downtown, next to the horseshoe-shaped Willamette Falls. The 40 foot high natural falls were instrumental in the development of the area, providing an early source of power for flour mills and later hydroelectricity and paper mills. The two paper mills still operate, one on either side of the river, casting their glow on the scene and their exhaust plumes into the chilled night sky.

Portland Sunset

Union Pacific freight train along the Willamette River in downtown Portland, Oregon.

Union Pacific's Kansas City to Portland intermodal train rolling along the Willamette River at sunset in downtown Portland. Covered hoppers of grain fill the adjacent sidings, waiting their turn to unload in the Irving elevator in the background, which would receive another ship later in the evening. Across the river, the silent hulks of flour mills stand as a reminder to a time when most of the nation's grain was still milled domestically. The I-405 Fremont Bridge soars across the river in the background. 

The train is only a few miles from its destination in southeast Portland's Brooklyn Yard, following a three-day run across most of the continent. Often it carries several boxcars of beer immediately behind the power, but today it is a solid string of containers. The clouds are evidence of changing weather in the Northwest, with a major snowstorm predicted for the coming week.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Sellwood Tracks and Bridges

Willamette Shore Trolley tracks beneath the Sellwood Bridge in Portland, Oregon

This convergence of tracks and bridged roads is at the west end of the Sellwood Bridge in Portland. The railroad, which runs along the west bank of the Willamette River, dates back to the 1887 narrow gauge line Portland & Willamette Valley. Most recently, it has hosted the historic cars of the Willamette Shore Trolley, although their website and ticket office in Lake Oswego ominously announce that the trolley is not currently operating, and give no definitive timeline for the resumption of services. In the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s, these tracks were part of the Southern Pacific's "Red Electric" operation that extended as far as Corvallis, an attempt to compete with the Oregon Electric's successful passenger service between Portland and Eugene. The rise of the automobile and the Great Depression ended passenger service on both lines. Freight service lasted here into the 1980s. History may yet repeat itself, as the line has been studied for potential streetcar or light rail service.

Streetcars also figure into the history of the Sellwood Bridge. The Sellwood is the only Willamette River crossing between the Ross Island Bridge at the southern end of downtown Portland and the I-205 bridge connecting West Linn and Oregon City, a distance of 11 miles. Since cracks were discovered in the bridge in 2004, its weight limit was reduced to 10 tons, preventing large trucks and buses from using it. Older bridges in downtown Portland, such as the Hawthorne, were built to handle heavy streetcars, allowing them to still carry the loads of today's vehicles. The newer Sellwood Bridge was not built to carry the heavy streetcars of the early 20th century, and today it faces an uncertain future.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Amtrak at East Portland

Amtrak's Empire Builder at East Portland Junction.

Every morning (unless it's really late), the Portland section of Amtrak's westbound Empire Builder arrives at Portland Union Station, and every afternoon it departs heading east. In between, the four-car consist turns around by taking a spin on the wye at East Portland Junction. That usually happens around the middle of the day, but today it happened much later -- just a few minutes before train's scheduled departure time of 4:45 p.m. After a day of clouds and fog, the sky parted just enough for the setting sun to cast a pink glow over downtown and the West Hills, reflected in the Willamette River.

At left is Portland's one-of-a-kind telescoping lift bridge, the Steel Bridge, while the Broadway Bridge is visible in the background at right, itself noteworthy as the longest extant Rall bascule bridge. CLD Pacific Grain's O'Dock dominates the middle of the scene, its small yard filled with covered hoppers of export wheat for unloading at the elevator. Next week, the grain will be loaded into a ship bound for Asian markets. The O'Dock is the farthest upriver facility on the Willamette, and loads one or two vessels per month.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

UMAX Containers

UMAX containers rolling south through Oregon City.

This afternoon a solid wall of navy blue passed through Oregon City, 19 feet high and over a mile long. It consisted of 184 brand-new, empty UMAX shipping containers. UMAX is a domestic interline container program between the Union Pacific and CSX railroads. The containers are manufactured in China and shipped to Portland, where they are immediately loaded onto trains and taken to Los Angeles, where they are placed into service. Why not ship the containers directly to the Port of LA-Long Beach? Why, to take advantage of Oregon's lack of sales tax, of course!

On a climatic note, after opening with three days of unseasonable sun, 2011 has reverted to more typical weather in western Oregon. The clouds rolled in yesterday and the damp, familiar gloom of Portland winters returned today. Thanks to Kyle W-Y for the heads-up on this train.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Pudding River

Amtrak Cascades no. 507 crossing the Pudding River at Aurora, Oregon.

Just two days after blogging about my current preference for daytime photography, I submit my first nocturnal entry of the year, southbound Amtrak Cascades train no. 507 crossing the Pudding River just north of Aurora, Oregon. The train was running about 10 minutes late after waiting in Clackamas siding for a much later-running northbound Coast Starlight, train no. 14. I had first scouted this location back in October, and this was the first time I had returned since then. The river was much higher, requiring some careful scrambling through the brush along the bank and a little bit of clearing work with my trusty Swiss Army knife.

The Pudding River is a tributary of the Mollala, itself a tributary of the Willamette. The Pudding flows 62 miles out of the western foothills of the Cascades before joining the Mollala near Canby. When discussing rivers, "meandering" is an often over-used adjective, but in the case of the Pudding, the term hardly does it justice. As it wanders through Willamette Valley farmland, the Pudding has more horseshoes than the Kentucky Derby, as this map shows.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Flow of Grain in Portland

CLD Pacific's Irving elevator along the Willamette River in downtown Portland, Oregon.

Morning errands at the print shop and camera store afforded me the opportunity to take a look around downtown Portland, as the hum of industry returned on the first Monday of the new year. The flow of export wheat through the city continues, arriving from the prairies by rail, truck, and barge, for transloading onto ocean-going ships, many bound for Asian ports.

In the photo above, Oregon Pacific Railroad no. 501 unloads a few of the many covered hoppers full of grain at CLD Pacific's Irving elevator, one of two grain elevators on Portland's downtown waterfront. Arriving trucks are visible at lower left, while the northern approach to the I-405 Fremont bridge is visible in the background. At far right, an interchange ramp swings above Interstate Avenue and the Trimet MAX light rail Yellow Line. The hard verticals and horizontals of transportation infrastructure dominate the entire frame, yet the natural course of the unseen Willamette River (to the left) lends its graceful curve to the built environment.

Glendale, Oregon

Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad tracks and cars in Glendale, Oregon, on January 2, 2011.

In 2011, I hope to make at least one rail-related photo everyday and share it on this blog. Not likely, right? Actually, impossible, given that I made zero photos on New Year's Day. (A shame, too, since I actually spotted a decent rail subject that went un-photographed for want of a camera during my walk.) Already relieved of any notions of a perfect record for the year, I'll do my best and see how long this lasts. The travel days will be easy. The real challenge will be how much I can mine from Oregon City on the many days when I stay home.

Undeterred, I press onward to January 2, where I paused to ponder the quiet tracks in Glendale, Oregon, while driving back to Oregon City after a holiday visit with family friends in Ashland. I visited Glendale five times in February and April 2010, each while photographing the pair of Central Oregon & Pacific (CORP) trains that met there on most weekdays to swap cars before returning to their respective terminals of Dillard and Medford. 

There would be no trains on this sleepy Sunday afternoon. In fact, there may never be afternoon trains in Glendale again. For years, the CORP trains have ran at night in the dry summer and fall months to minimize fire dangers, but they always reverted to daytime schedules during the wet winters and springs. This year, daytime trackwork in Glendale has kept the trains on a nocturnal schedule (evidence is visible in the recently-turned foreground ballast), and rumors circulate that night operations might remain permanent. I hope not. Despite a great love for night photography, lately I've been finding more satisfaction in a well-composed daytime view than in the most evocative night scene. Continuing north from Glendale through Cow Creek Canyon, I counted myself lucky to have seen and photographed daytime trains there in the previous year, and can only hope to have that chance again. In the meantime, though, I wouldn't completely rule out a camping trip later this year....