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My First Train Chase!

March 5, 2010

In the summer of 1978, I was working at a photo lab in McAllen, in far South Texas, trying to save some money before I went to UTEP.

The counter of the store just happened to face the Missouri Pacific branch line that served the west side of the Rio Grande Valley, so I’d get to see the McAllen local just about every day.

This local originated at the MP yard in Harlingen and ran to McAllen, about 30 miles to the west. The crew would eat lunch in McAllen before taking their train back to Harlingen.

One day I heard the distinctive ( not in a good way)  single note horn of the local doing its work in McAllen. I didn’t pay it much attention because I knew it was just another GP7, GP9, or GP18, all of which had become tiresome after months of the same thing every day.

When the train finally came into view, I instantly knew something was different. Instead of a Jenks blue Geep, the local had a red, white, and blue Geep! Bi-centennial GP18 1976, to be specific.

In the span of two seconds, I went from ho-hum to holy cow! to damn it! The coolest engine I’d ever seen and I was stuck at work.  And my camera is at home. How wonderful.

My only hope was that the local would have work heading back to Harlingen and I could try to catch it after work.

Getting to 5:00 P.M. took an eternity. At 5:01 I was in mad-dash mode to get home, grab the camera, and start the chase.

After 45 minutes of driving through McAllen, Pharr, San Juan, Alamo and Donna (and cursing at every red light on Business 83) I finally caught up to the train at Weslaco, but traffic lights just kept killing me. Nothing is more aggravating than driving a new Mustang, yet being unable to get ahead of a train doing a lousy 30 mph.

I was finally able to get ahead of the train and got my first shot of the train crossing a large drainage canal between Weslaco and Mercedes. I knew that my late afternoon shots of an eastbound train were going to be sketchy, but I kept going east, if for nothing more that to watch the first bi-centennial unit I’d ever seen.

As dusk approached, I was going to try one last shot. I pulled ahead of the train, looking for a spot for my last shot of this train. I chose  the Hwy 77 overpass over the MP tracks, on the west side of Harlingen.

Now that I was ahead of the train, it took its sweet time to arrive at my location, As the headlight finally came into view, all I could think about was to hold the camera steady, because I had never hand-held such a slow shutter speed, with a moving train to boot!

MP bi-centennial GP18 powers the McAllen local at Harlingen, TX on Aug. 11, 1978

When I got the slides back, I was underwhelmed with my shots of the train, especially the ones where I was virtually shooting into the sun. This was the only shot that I thought was marginal, and barely so because I let the crossing signal partially block the engine.

Today, nearly 32 years later,  this slide is among my favorites because it’s the first bi-centennial unit I ever saw. Little did I know it would be the last time I’d see a bi-centennial engine.

A very proper subject for my first train chase….

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2010 11:52 am

    Based upon my brief review of this pic it looks like the front half of the train is made up of insulated boxes and refrigerators. A classic Rio Grande Valley mix.

  2. Rick Malo permalink
    January 13, 2011 2:00 pm

    I love this MoPac stuff! I never got to see the MoPac bi-centennial. It is a CLASSIC MoPac geep!!! Air filter, spark arrestors, and AAR-B trucks. The old power had character. The new units get boring after a while. Thanks! I’ve been enjoying them all.

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