Freight Trains

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Back in my previous life as a locomotive engineer for the Santa Fe Railroad (now BNSF), I fell in awe of locomotives and trains in general. Although that was decades ago, I still love to hear the distant blare of air horns and feel the rumble of horsepower and wheels turning from these diesel-electric monsters. Yes, they burn fossil fuel unlike many transit trains on the east coast or in Europe, but there are three thousand miles to cover between New York and California which makes electric trains across America impractical. Besides, it is unlikely that electric locomotives can efficiently produce the horsepower needed to pull a 100 car coal or grain train. So, for now, diesel-electric is the main freight locomotive used in America, Canada and Mexico.

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I had a difficult time coming up with a title for this post as there are so many good songs about trains and railroads that I wanted to use. Since I couldn’t make up my mind, I thought of Iron Horses as this was the name given by our Native American ancestors when they first encountered the steam locomotive. However, the rail-line linking of the east and west in 1869 had devastating consequences for their way of life so I didn’t want to celebrate a cool name with such negativity. The past cannot be changed, but there is no denying that the trans-continental movement of freight plays a huge role in almost every segment of our lives.

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In the first two photographs, the westbound grain train is waiting for a mixed-freight eastbound train to pass so that it can proceed. There was track work being done east of here so trains had to share one track for a short distance. This double track runs from Chicago to San Bernadino and handles millions of tons of freight each year.

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Cabooses were replaced by signalling devices which feed the engineer with vital information about the amount of compressed air in the brake lines at the end of the train. As the eastbound leaves us behind, the westbound starts his movement. Destination unknown, but it will be up to speed within a few miles.

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Night Moves or Locomotive Breath

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Both titles are from songs. The first by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band and the second by Jethro Tull. However, this post isn’t about songs, but night trains and a special photographer by the name of O. Winston Link. The titles simply fit the subject rather well, and the songs were fun to listen to back in the 1970s.

This a lengthy post due to the explanations and sampling of Winston’s photographs. I have never shot glossy photos and shared them on the web so I tried various methods to keep off glare and shadows, and at the same time reveal as closely as possible the accuracy of the chosen photos. I sincerely hope I have done Mr. Link a justice by sharing his unique photography techniques and expertise. I recently came across Link’s book, Steam, Steel & Stars (published in 1987) at a garage sale! The excellent descriptive text is by Tim Hensley. It is a treasure.

If you like trains, especially steam-driven trains and anything related to railroads then this book is sure to please. Link was a successful commercial photographer in New York and loved steam-driven trains so much that he created a five-year project of shooting the Norfolk & Western Railroad in various settings-all at night in the late 50s and early 60s. During the 1950s and 60s, the N&W was the last remaining Class 1 railroad in the United States to utilize all steam-powered locomotives. Diesel-powered units were already becoming standard on most lines. Winston’s photographs not only capture the steam engines in many unique and well thought-out locations, but also give us a time freeze of Americana during this period. The book contains 90 duo-tone images. I have narrowed my selection to 9 plus a bonus shot.

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Winston Link would go to great extremes to capture his scenes which remind me of moving Norman Rockwell paintings. He would spend weeks scouting out the exact location for his camera and series of flash spot lights-all the while maintaining his regular career. He traveled extensively throughout the N&W’s area of operation; parts of Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Maryland. Below is the bonus shot which shows some of the challenges and means to capture these bellowing behemoths. His spot lights fired in unison were a unique invention and the master control was never out of his sight. Some shots required thousands of feet of cables running across streets, rivers, and on buildings. Passion would be a word to describe O. Winston Link’s love affair with steam-powered trains. He composed great images which not only show cased his beloved trains, but tell a story about rural life in America fifty-plus years ago. Winston can be seen on the left of the spot light photo, next to an assistant. After hours of setting up, there would often be hours of waiting for a train to rumble by. Link’s work has been exhibited in prominent art museums in America, England, France and in many private exhibits. In my humble opinion, O. Winston Link was a true artist, and a clever one at that. Interestingly, his book was printed in Italy. Thanks for taking the time to view this post. I hope you enjoyed it and will look further into Link’s photography.

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