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Are We There Yet?

August 22, 2012

Sundays are our designated day to travel to Pasadena, on the east side of Houston, to visit my mother. To the extent I can work in a bit of railfanning en route, it can be a win-win situation.

It’s typically a 30 minute drive from Sugar Land, but depending on traffic, the drive to Pasadena can take over two hours. Traffic jams on Sunday? Not really.

The time required to make the 25-mile drive to Pasadena can vary wildly due to rail traffic. Sometimes there’s not much rail traffic and it’s a quick trip. Other times there are trains that need to be photographed, side tracking me, turning a quick trip into a long, slow slog. Much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife.

This particular Sunday, July 22, 2012, was special because I knew that UP ES44AC 7400 (Komen Foundation Pink Ribbon unit) was leading the eastbound “juice train” , ZLCAT-20, with an ETA into the Sugar Land area in the afternoon. The plan was to leave the house shortly after the train showed by the scanner at Lissie. Lissie is MP 61, about 35 miles west of Sugar Land. A Z train should take, at most, an hour to cover that distance.

UP 7400 was by Lissie at 1348, earlier than I would have liked because the sun was still too high. As we were preparing to depart, I heard the DS tell the ZLCAT to hold up at Rosenberg to allow traffic to clear up in the Houston terminal.

Good. A delay will allow the sun to drop, creating better light for the shots I had in mind. After hearing the DS tell the 7400 that he would move them shortly, that was our cue to head out. We left home around 3:20, expecting to see the ZLCAT by 4:00 PM, after which we would go to Pasadena.

It seemed like a plan.

We were in Stafford (MP 20) when the detector at MP 15.6 announced a train. Not knowing whether it was an eastbound going away, or a westbound coming toward us, I took the safe course and set up at the west switch of Missouri City (CP SA019). It was the right call, as a headlight came into view. Shortly thereafter,  at 3:44 PM,  UP SD70ACe 8365 blew by with an IHOSA intermodal train.

UP SD70ACe 8365 at Missouri City TX with an IHOSA intermodal train.

UP SD70ACe 8365 at Missouri City TX with an IHOSA intermodal train.

Back in the film days, I would never take a going-away shot of a train. At best it would be back-lit, at worst I would be shooting into the sun, and it would be a wasted slide.

Additional shots, however, in the digital era are virtually free. As such, I almost always take going-away shots like this. I actually like them because the “bad light” creates some cool images. I really like the contrast of the below shot, and the different, dynamic “feel”  of it compared to the first two shots.

UP SD70ACe 8365 at Missouri City TX with an IHOSA intermodal train.

I really didn’t want to see a westbound because I knew that it would only serve to delay the eastbound Z train and its pink ribbon locomotive. But I knew that it would have to go by me eventually!

I was encouraged when I heard the IHOSA call a diverging approach at CP SA025. That told me that it was going in at Sugar Land, clearing the way for the eastbound ZLCAT.

My plan was to photograph the 7400 on the Terminal Sub, somewhere between West Junction and San Felipe. The tracks run north-south through there, offering a chance at decent light for the ZLCAT and its special lead unit.

I drove toward West Junction. Not liking any of the shots around there, I continued north. I finally stopped at CP LF372, the Bissonnet crossovers. By this point it was pushing 4:15 PM, and still no hint of UP 7400. I was getting a little antsy, as we had things to do in Pasadena, not the least of which was getting some dinner.

Finally, I heard the detector at MP 15.6. All right! I told my wife that the train I was waiting for would arrive within 10 minutes, and we’d hit the road to Pasadena shortly.

I set-up between the crossovers. The headlight appeared in the distance. As it got closer, something didn’t seem right. As I was composing, focusing, and tripping the shutter at 4:34 PM, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing- a KCS intermodal. Not that anything’s wrong with that.

KCS SD70ACe 4029 and intermodal train at Houston TX

Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting that! I didn’t even know that KCS 4029 was even out there. All I can surmise is that it had been on the main somewhere between Sugar Land and Harlem and it was first to go east once the IHOSA went in at Sugar Land.

OK then. UP 7400 had to be next. And it had to be right behind the KCS that had just gone by. I gave that rosy forecast to my wife. She was actually OK with waiting as she was on the phone with her sister. Thank goodness for calling plans with unlimited minutes!

The next train didn’t trip the 15.6 detector until 5:08 PM.  I told my wife that this had to be it, that regardless, we were leaving after this next train went by!

I set up at a different location for the next set of images, wanting to work the signals at the south end of the Bissonnet crossovers into the frame. Finally, UP 7400 leading the ZLCAT-20, came into camera range at 5:19 PM

UP 7400, the Komen "pink ribbon" unit leads ZLCAT train at Houston, TX

UP 7400, the Komen "pink ribbon" unit leads ZLCAT train at Houston, TX

UP 7400, the Komen "pink ribbon" unit leads ZLCAT train at Houston, TX

More going-away goodness:

53′  CSXT and UMAX containers are fixtures on the ZLCAT and ZATLC trains. Click here for UP’s web page about the UMAX UP/CSXT partnership. They also have a short online video here.

CSXT and UMAX 53' containers on ZLCAT train

SD70ACe 8353  brings up the rear of the ZLCAT.

The train cleared up at 5:20, nearly 90 minutes later than I had anticipated.  Then again, I did want to catch the train with the sun low in the sky. So I guess it evens things out, right?

We finally arrived at Mom’s place just before 6.  All said and done, the 25 mile trip to Pasadena ended up taking about 2  1/2 hours, a new (low) speed record for me!  Fortunately dinner was good and all was forgiven. Enough forgiveness, at least in my view, to stop on the way back home later that evening to photograph a westbound KCSM manifest at Stafford!

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