Challenger Comes to Des Moines

June 22 and 23


Saturday, June 22

My grandkids had seen my video clip from the Challenger's trip out of Boone eastward last week, and I'd promised to arrange for them to see the real thing when the loco came to Des Moines.  Saturday afternoon looked like our best opportunity, as the train came south from the Twin Cities, scheduled to be in Des Moines at 7:00 p.m.

It's been very warm and humid in central Iowa the last few days, so I went through my visual memory's inventory of locations on the Spine Line near Des Moines.  Enterprise looked like a good choice, with plenty of shade and a grassy spot on the west side of the tracks.  I told my daughter Sarah to pack some snacks and plan on leaving around 4:00.  Early in the day, I'd heard a 40 mph slow order issued for the entire Mason City and Trenton subdivisions due to the heat.

Because the UP's posted schedule called for a 2:00 p.m. stop in Mason City and then left five hours to go the 100 miles or so to Des Moines, I thought it would be best to try to keep track (so to speak) of the train's progress.  I sent an email to the MNRail list requesting that subscribers "OS" me, and I got replies from several list members.  The train was out of South St. Paul at 0805 and left Mason City at 1335.  When I saw the latter message, around 2:15, I called Sarah and told her that I thought we should get everyone in the Jeep and leave town at 3:00 instead of 4:00.

It was 90 degrees with a fairly strong south breeze and a light overcast when we reached Enterprise around 3:40.  There was already a small crowd on hand, a mix of foamers and lay people, killing time and visiting with one another.  Just before 4:00 I heard 3985 clearing their warrant as they passed the junction at Nevada.  Then the Shipley detector reported a "hot box" on axle one, which I'd heard happen several times before with the steam loco.  The Des Moines yardmaster called the train and relayed a message about a stop they were to make for pictures in Elkhart, "...at the table...T-A-B-L-E", spelled out as if it were a station name.  Tim (you can call me Ray) is always entertaining on the air.

About ten 'til five the steamer came into sight, causing many in the crowd to leave the shade and rush toward the rails.  The hard-core railfans, who had tripods set up in carefully chosen camera locations, began a loud chorus of complaints and were generally ignored.  Actually, many of the non-fans have a right idea - don't even bring your camera, just get trackside and soak up the sight, sound and smell as she blasts by!  I think the only way to get clear shots in a location like this would be to bring a step ladder!  Personally, I'm not really that concerned about getting pristine pictures and can usually just make the people part of the story.

We loaded up the kids and briefly joined the parade back toward I-35.  We took time for a restroom stop and then went south on Delaware.  On the radio I heard that 3985 was stopped at Broadway, and even at our leisurely pace, we managed to see them cross Broadway and Hull Avenues.  The train stopped just south of Hull Avenue where buses were waiting and discharged passengers.  I did observe a number of people standing around waiting for their rides, since the train had arrived almost two hours before the UP's advertised time.

We circled over the Guthrie overpass to have a look and then found a parking space near the Hull Avenue yard office so we could walk in for a closer look and some pictures of the engine.  On the way down the ballast toward 3985, I spotted Mr. Lee, in conversation with a man adjusting his britches.  We joined the crowd at the head end, the kids got some pictures and learned how the engineer had to carefully move his loco just a fraction of a turn of the drivers so that the bearings could be reached.

We were all happy to take cover back in the air conditioning.  I'll bet it was blistering up in that cab this afternoon!


Challenger Day Six - Sunday, June 23

This is heresy, I know, but I was kind of glad to see the circus leave town.  I love watching the big steamer go by, but when you zoom out and get the bigger picture, taking in the traffic, crowds and unpleasant weather, it's not quite as much fun as it might be.  Today's excursion turned out to be well worth the effort, though.

On this Sunday morning I left Indianola at 6:45 and drove to Carlisle.  It was 70 degrees and very humid, headed for another afternoon in the 90's.  I'd made up my mind to get another digital video clip of the train passing and had mentally picked out a spot where I thought I'd have good light and a fairly clear shot as well.  Of course, the last time I got pictures here was in the middle of the winter - today the sunlight was on the other side of the rails!

I drove southeast on Hwy. 5 and looped back toward Carlisle a couple of times, looking for a place where I could shoot from the north side of the tracks.  A grade crossing a couple of miles south of the Carlisle siding was already well occupied, but on my second run back toward the city, I spotted a farm field access that was down in a little cut and fairly hard to see from the highway.  I drove down in and backed the Jeep into position on the north side of the rails, pretty well blocking access by any other vehicles.  I settled in and worked on the Sunday crossword, monitoring the radio conversations at Short Line yard in Des Moines.

It sounded like the UP would be sending a grain load, and perhaps a track inspector, out ahead of the steam special.  Before either arrived, I was joined by a couple in a farm-ATV.  I kept them posted on the information from the radio and experimented with camera positions while we waited on traffic.  I ended up standing on the door sill of the Jeep in order to get a clear shot over the weeds.  I heard on the radio that the grain train was on the move at 7:43, and we saw it come around the corner and start up the hill toward us at 8:00.  They had to stop at the south end of the siding and throw the switch, so it was a few minutes before they were on the move again and came by us.  On the point were UP 7572 and 8100.

I grabbed a couple of quick shots of the grainer pulling off into the Iowa summer haze.  The detector just a mile down the line reported the grain load at 76 cars.  Looking over my pictures, I decided that I needed to be a little higher and closer to the rails - a 1/4 mile marker was right in my way.  If I hadn't had company I would have considered relocating the sign temporarily, but instead I found a mound of dirt to pull the Jeep up onto and then shot standing on the sill again, but on the high side of the car.

At this point Short Line almost sent a second grain train out.  The train had gotten a signal and was ready to go when, at the last minute, the dispatcher decided to move the passenger train instead.  3985 called the dispatcher to request a "Box 4" between mileposts 36 and 33 for a photo stop.  This would be just south of Melcher-Dallas, and after looking at my map and figuring the time, I decided to try to catch them there.  I did have a deadline this morning, I was due at a lunch with my in-laws and the rest of the clan in Des Moines at 11:30, but it looked like I'd be able to catch the photo run-by and still make it to the Calvin Manor complex in time.

We spotted 3985 in the curve southeast of Carlisle at 8:50.  After getting a few stills of them on the hill and crossing Middle River, I switched to video.

Here's the thing with this digital camera video:  You have buffer memory in the camera, rather like the RAM in your computer.  You also have the camera's more permanent storage card, rather like the hard drive in a computer, only quite a bit slower.  When you make a digital video clip, the pictures go to the camera's RAM until it fills, then that has to be copied out to the memory card.  On my Olympus 2100, you can take about 30 to 35 seconds (maximum) of video before waiting (for what seems like a very long time) for the copying to the memory card.

So, what's your point, Richard?  Well, you have to sort of guess-timate where best to start your video while thinking about what the scene will be like 30 seconds later, because that's when it will stop, regardless.  If you stop the recording prematurely, you can't restart until the frames are copied to the memory card.  Generally, that restart will be too late.  It's a one chance, do it right or lose it, kind of thing.  So here goes...

Here's a sample frame from the video, which turned out great.  I got the entire train (11 Meg .MOV file) as it passed at around 40 mph, a full grade crossing whistle sequence, and the buffer filled just after the observation car passed.  Dumb luck, or maybe "digital is forgiving" in deeper ways than we understand...

I already had the Jeep's 4WD cut in and the minute the train was by we jumped off the mound of dirt, tore across the farm grade crossing and up the grassy hill to the highway, leaving the ATV couple behind.  I hope she found the rush of 3985's passage merited another cigarette!  I found an opening, floored it and joined the fray southbound on Hwy. 5.  The Hartford detector said that the passenger train had 89 axles and was moving 45 mph.  When the line of cars got to the detour, a bumper-to-bumper crowd took off down the Palmyra pavement, running between 60 and 65 most of the way.  I wonder what someone just leaving for church might have thought?  There couldn't have been more southbound traffic if terrorists had threatened to nuke Des Moines.

Things spread out a bit and sped up another 10 mph when we got onto Hwy. 92.  I dropped it down to 10 over the limit in Sandyville and was passed by two vehicles.  I could now see the smoke from the loco north of Beech and found a pretty good crowd parked east of the highway underpass.  After the white-knuckle ride coming south, I was ready to be done with the chase, so I decided not to try for the photo stop south of Melcher.  Just past the underpass, I took the gravel south to one of my favorite train-watching spots, the wooden overpass at the south end of the Beech siding.

The engine was in sight by the time I'd parked and run to the bridge (The people in this picture are at Beech's main grade crossing and on top of the Hwy. 92 underpass - the crossing gate's about a mile northwest of my camera).  There were a couple dozen people, mostly non-buffs, waiting for the train on the Rock Island's old wooden bridge.  My intentions must have appeared very earnest because I was invited right up to the railing when I arrived.  In fact, the woman standing to my right, with a camera, panicked and moved away at the last instant - you can hear her on the video realizing that it will be "hot" when the train passes under us.  I stood my ground, with interesting effect.  Here's a sample frame and a video clip (3.6 Meg .MOV file) of the  train coming under us.  My favorite part is the youngster introducing the video by exclaiming, "Steam Engine!"  The loco was drifting downhill, so the clip fades to white - I'd hoped for a little more smoke!

I drove back to Indianola and took time to look over my pictures and videos.  A neighbor whom I'd invited over Friday night to see pictures of the train had also gone to Carlisle this morning and he came down the street to compare notes and images.  At 10:10 I heard 3985 exchange their "work between" warrant for a directional one that would take them from MP 33 to CP U365 (Allerton).  Their next planned stop would be for engine servicing in Trenton, MO.

That's It!