Thursday, May 27, 2010

Summer Times

One of the things that often strikes me is the cost of growing up.  We move from a child's simplicity to an adult who is full of stress, strain, and the burden of too much information.  From relaxed summer days of fun and few cares to gripes about heat and humidity, the endlessness of yard work, and the ever present journeys to and from our 'real' jobs.  As another summer unfolds in the Northern Hemisphere, allow me to journey back in time to a few fond memories of summers many years ago.  Perhaps it is the lack of adult work loads and stress that makes these memories stand out and seem so pleasant.  

I haven't always been an avid photographer.  My real love for the hobby started in high school, but my first pictures come from the summer of 1990.  As with many summers through the mid 90s, I spent a couple of weeks in Lafayette, IN with my grandparents.  That summer an old Brownie camera was unearthed and film scrounged from a local photography shop.  In general, summer days there were always fun for a railroad buff like myself.  Lafayette sits at an intersection of several significant railroads:  the Wabash, the NYC, the Monon, and even the Nickel Plate.  By 1990, only two were making much noise through the city limits near the grandparent's house.  These were the Norfolk-Southern version of the Wabash and the CSX version of the Monon Lines.  Still, traces of predecessors were everywhere.

One of the best photos taken by the old Brownie camera was of a NW General Electric running one of the few stretches of double track on the old Wabash main.  A recent summer thunderstorm has passed, leaving everything looking clean and shiny.  

While the Wabash was most easily viewed from my grandparent's house, the old Monon lines through town were always of particular interest.  My Grandpa and I would take early morning walks downtown to see what action there might be on this most unusual piece of street running.  Although relocated off of 5th street in the later part of the decade, 1990 still saw trains operate as they always did:  right down the middle of the street.  Speeds were slow and the traffic tie-ups could be quite impressive if a long freight was caught meandering through town.  The old camera again caught some CSX predecessor action that summer:  A Family Lines GE is entering the street running, pulling freight through the heart of downtown Lafayette.

In those days, other predecessor roads were easier to spot in the mix of freight cars.  A GN box drifts down the street somewhere behind the old Family Lines GE.  There's a lot of history in these two old pictures:  mergers, abandonments, corporate struggles, and lost identities...although a child's view through an old point and shoot camera reveals none of those.  It's takes years, travels, and the sights and sounds of abandoned Pacific Extensions to bring all of that into focus.

The old Monon line was also Lafayette's link to the national passenger rail network.  The Chicago to New York Cardinal called there in the 1990s, and still does today.  A couple of summers after my initial work with the old Brownie, I found myself upgraded to a Pentax Spotmatic.  Loaded with film on another Indiana summer day, a trip was made with Grandpa downtown to watch the passenger train through.  On the point that day, another image of the times:  Amtrak's venerable F40PH locomotive.

The cardinal was always an interesting train.  It operated, as it does today, tri-weekly.  On days off, it was substituted by a local Chicago to Indianapolis only run.  Days where the Cardinal called at Lafayette were special because it was the "long distance" train, complete with diner and sleeping car equipment.  I recall several interesting things about the train in those days.  The roar of the F40 is one of them as it continued providing electrical power to the train even during the stop.  The diner exhaust fans and smells of breakfast were another:  the morning schedule into Lafayette put breakfast at just the right time for french toast on 5th street.  I always thought the passengers were a lucky group. 

On many days, the Cardinal would be incorporated with equipment heading to or from Amtrak's main shops in Indianapolis.  As such, locomotives with paint patches, extra passenger cars, even dead heading commuter cars, all saw their way down 5th street at one time or another.  Amtrak's prototype Viewliner sleeping car was another frequent guest on 5th street.  This car, produced by the Indianapolis shops, served as the model for all the subsequent Viewliners purchased for use on the single level trains of the East.  Here, the cardinal slips down 5th street with the Viewliner nestled in to the usual long distance consist.

Of course, the CSX version of the Monon can actually be noted for something else that is quite interesting.  Even after the street running was removed, many upper quadrant semaphores still spanned the single track main south of Lafayette.  In 1990 I had no idea that these were there, but by accident, in the summer of 1998, I found a several beautiful examples.

My grandpa had passed by that time, but a friend and I visited the old Lafayette stomping grounds nonetheless.  Our fortune took us to these old relics, still in service out among the cornfields of the beautiful Indiana countryside.  CSX has been slowly removing these old mechanical signals, but they still evoke a strong reaction from me.  They literally span decades of political, economic, social and world change.

As with many memories, time seems to bring fondness and we are blessed that even those experiences which seemed terrible are oft mellowed by passing years.  As another summer unfolds across the U.S., these are just a few of the old memories that occasionally churn through my mind in the midst of all my responsibilities that take over life's perspective more than they should.  I'm always thankful for these images and memories of another time, and strive to keep a perspective that even in the midst of being a grownup, there are wonderful benefits to a healthy and humble view of life.  

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Long Standing

As the days drag into weeks, oil continues its rush from the Gulf floor to the ocean above. The politicians point fingers, the residents along the Gulf Coast question response times and commitment, and the coastline waits for the slick to make landfall.

Amidst the chaos and noise, the economy of the region hinges on the effects and success of the spill containment. Oyster beds dot the area, shrimp fishing is common place. These are the economic realities that coexist with the environmental impacts.

The world economy thrives on readily available oil products that move cars, heat homes, even form the backbone for the many plastics that are relied on every day. In 2008 the U.S. Department of Energy reported that 28% of the U.S. energy use was consumed by the transportation sector alone [1]. Much of the transportation sector consists of internal combustion engines operating on the Otto or Diesel cycle. The staggering consideration is that many of these engines are only 35 to 40 % efficient [2]. For every gallon of gasoline consumed, nearly two thirds is wasted.

The remnants of one alternative is a long standing one, found out under the big skies of Montana. Now just a relic left in only a few places, the Milwaukee Road's electrification represents a different choice. In the photo above, the old line-side poles coexist with the catenary poles along an old stretch of mainline. Trains have not passed this way since 1980. Electrified trains have not passed this way since 1974. To many, the Milwaukee's decision to cease electrification cost the company its existence: on the eve of the fuel crisis of the 70s, the highly efficient electric lines were turned off, the powerful locomotives sidelined and scrapped.
This brought America's Resourceful Railroad back into line with all of its competitors and counterparts, ending the alternative means of propulsion at a time when it was, perhaps, most critical.

There are decades that span the gap between the crisis in the Gulf and the Resourceful Railroad's path to the west coast. Yet, at least in my mind, the events are linked in some strange way and the decisions that have been made have unarguably led us to this point. What will the next several decades hold? Is there any room for the long standing alternative still seen in lonely stretches of the West? Perhaps. Although it is unlikely that a Little Joe will be under wire any time soon.

1)EIA. Annual energy review 2007. Technical report, Energy Information Administration,, 2007.

2)C. Ferguson and A. Kirkpatrick. Internal Combustion Engines. John Wiley and Sons Inc., second edition,