Railfanning Tips

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Railfanning Tips

Postby Franklin Gowen » Tue Nov 14, 2006 8:38 pm

Hey, folks! I'm an East Coast railfan, and am about to embark on a trip to Chicago for a wedding and an impromptu family reunion. I haven't railfanned in "Chicagoland" in over a decade, and find that my trip has enough slack in it for one or maybe two days on the rails. One of these days will probably be spent with my son, riding the CTA and the Metra diesel lines.

The other day, God willing, is for the South Shore line. "Insull Lives!"

Here's what I'm trying to plan for. I've taken the long, long ride to South Bend many times before, but never got any decent photos of the train from the outside. On this trip, I want to hop from train to train and photograph like crazy.

Here's the limiting factor: my wife will very likely have our car while she's doing visiting of her own. That means I probably won't be able to railfan by car. I know the South Shore Line has a very modest schedule outside of rush hour, and that there are a lot of meets at sidings. I have to hop from station to station with enough of a time cushion to get my bearings, check the lighting angles, etc. before the first (probably "only" ) train comes into camera range...and remember to take off the darn lens cap first...

I hoped to arrive at Randoph St (Millenium, *whatever* ) in time to ride Train 207 (8:00am departure) east to Gary Metro Center, arriving at 8:52am-

2) photograph Train 14 from South Bend (929am)-

3) ride Train 7 (936am) east from there to Miller (942am)-

4) photograph the South Shore/CSX (B&O) overpass east of Miller, then hike back to station to see Train 116 go west at 1106am-

5) ride Train 107 (11:17am) east to Michigan City/11th Street (11:50am)-

6) photograph as much of the endangered street-running segment as I possibly can-

7) photograph the CSS Michigan City Shops at Carroll Avenue---safely from public property-

8) find a nice place for a tasty lunch!

9) see Trains 18 (1242pm) & 118 (235pm) westbound, and Trains 9 (215pm) & 109 (415pm) eastbound-

10) catch Train 20 (433pm) westbound out of Michigan City, riding to Hammond (542pm)-

11) photograph eastbound Trains 215 (613pm) & 117 (638pm)-

12) catch wesbound Train 220 (702pm) back to Randolph St, Chicago (742pm).

[letting fingers rest from much typing]


Okay, now for the questions that determine if the above plan is desirable/workable:


A) Did the Millenium Station overhaul result in having a place there where one can buy a decent breakfast, or at the very least some quality coffee and pastries or bagels?

B) NICTD website says weekday ticket agent hours at Millenium start at 9:00am. Are there automated ticket vending machines I can use if riding Train 7 (or earlier), or can I pay via cash on the train? The NICTD website is vague on this important point.

C) Is Gary Metro Center safe to hang out at after the morning rush hour? Is there a staffed waiting room there? Lavatory? Any amenities in the neighborhood?

D) How safe is Miller? From what I recall, there wasn't much of anything nearby. How far away is the bridge where CSS crosses over the CSX Garrett Subdivision? Is that rumored barbecue shack still open across the street from Miller? ALSO: is the Insull-era "Ideal Section" catenary segment still in existence? I Think it was very close by at a location called Wagner. Is that easily walkable from Miller?

E) What is the exact street alignment that the South Shore uses thru Michigan City? Between trains, I'll be on foot so this definitely matters to me.

F) Are there any railroad block signals along the Michigan City street-running segment? Those would be a great prop to spice up a photo.

G) How far of a walk is the "11th St" stop from the CSS shops at "Carroll Avenue"?

H) What vantage points for interesting photos exist at the Shops, which don't involve trespassing? Is the Carroll station actually within the shop complex - can "civilians" like me use it to board and alight from?

I) Would it be unrealistic to even think of trying to approach railroad offices at Carroll and inquire if it's possible for me to sign a blanket liability waiver in order to take photographs closer to the rolling stock?

J) Was Hammond station rebuilt? I remember low platforms in 1995. Are they high now? Is there an enclosed waiting room there? Is the Hammond station still reasonably safe? I'll be there at the tail end of evening rush hour - it'll be dark by then.

K) I considered going to Hegewisch instead of Hammond on my way home that evening. Are the high platforms done yet? Is there anyplace nearby to get a snack & a hot beverage? Is the area outside of the station safe for a clueless traction foamer?

My family is leaving on Thursday morning for the drive to Chicago. I'd ***greatly*** appreciate any advice you can give. I'll have only a limited ability to get internet access during my trip, but feel free to add more data if you can. I will probably try to do my South Shore marathon on Friday, 11/24. I wanted Wednesday, 11/22 but it conflicts with family plans.


And if any of you ever travel to Pennsylvania to ride the Philadelphia & Western, the OTHER "last interurban", I'd be happy to help you in return!
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Postby railohio » Tue Nov 14, 2006 9:37 pm

I can't answer everything but I'll do my best.

A) Err... Pass! (This isn't starting off too hot, is it?)

B) You can pay onboard with cash without a penalty if there is no open ticket agency at the time you boarded.

C) I don't think so. From what I remember of the line over the summer I wouldn't bother railfanning without a car west of Dune Park. Your mileage may vary, however.

D) Ditto.

E) The tracks follow 10th Street from Sheridan Avenue to approximately the Amtrak diamond. From there it follows 11th Street east-west through town. At Michigan Blvd. the tracks shift to a private right-of-way the rest of the way to the yard.

F) There is one that makes a good afternoon shot two or three blocks west of the Franklin Ave. crossing.

G) I've not walked it myself but it's definately possible. Seems to be about a half-hour jaunt to me.

H) You can shoot from the platform at Carroll Ave. without a problem and from any of the streets that cross the yard complex. You can also shoot from the Roeske Ave. overpass that is a block east of the station platform.

I) Probably, but since when has simply asking gotten anyone in trouble?

J) Pass.

K) Seems to me like Hegewisch was a better neighborhood than Gary or Hammond though I'll defer to someone more local for a final say.
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Postby railohio » Tue Nov 14, 2006 9:42 pm

How could I forget the most important part, lunch!

The former Michigan Central station on the lakefront is a lovely restaurant now. It's a few blocks north of the South Shore but probably the best bet for lunch downtown. Just follow the signs to the Amtrak "station" and you'll have no problems finding it. Otherwise there are some fast food options out by the shops at the intersection of Carroll Ave. and Michigan Blvd. but nothing to get excited about.
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Postby PRRGuy » Tue Nov 14, 2006 9:59 pm

Holy cow..thats a busy day..

Ok I'll try and answer most of those questions.

1:) Yes, there's a Starbucks that opened last week and a place for other snacks,donuts etc. Also, there's a Subway upstairs and around the corner..

2:) If the ticket offices aren't open..and even if they are..you can always buy tickets on the train..However, if you buy it on the train while the ticket office is open at the station you boarded, at will cost you 1.00 extra.
(Also, the ticket offices only take personal checks or cash, no debit/credit cards)
3:) Gary is safe to hang out, they have their own security there. and it is possible to view the old B&O/NYC station and both of those mains from the platform.

4:) I've never spend any real time in Miller but it doesn't look like its that bad of a place. The B&O bridge is a short walk from the platform, you may even be able to view it from the station. The BBQ shack is open, "Tadman" once visited there and posted on it.
Wagner no longer exists on our Timetables, it's now Wilson..or more specific West end of wilson. When the new Odgen Dunes station was built, the 2 sidings were joined with a crossover in the middle called "Paul's crossover" This siding is on the other side of the B&O bridge

6:) I believe the Street trackage was already best answered.

7:) Yes, there are block signals along the street trackage. There's signals on both sides of the Amtrak(NYC) diamond plus one at the very west end of street running where the track goes into Sheridan siding. I believe there's another intermediate signal between Amtrak and 11st station. Another WB signal is located at Michigan Blvd.

8:) I imagine that it would take 30 minutes or so to walk to the shops, be warned this is a slightly rough part of town, I wouldn't walk there at night. However, if you choose there are taxis to call to get there also.

9:) The carroll ave station platform is not in the shops yard but it is a public station that anyone can board/depart from and you do see most of the west end of the yard from there, I've never seen anyone get chased out of the parking lots or platform area, usually there's no problem as long as you stay out of trouble lol The walkways along the building on the south side of the RR tracks also offer some good photo spots.

10:) I'm not sure about a waiver, but it wouldn't hurt to ask about it in the ticket office.

11:) Yes, the Hammond stop was rebuilt, it now has a coffee shop open during morning rush hour, High level platforms and gaunlet tracks. Usually, there's no problems, also the NICTD Police are based in the new East Chicago station.

12:) No, the High levels in Hegewisch aren't done...almost but not yet, opening day is supposed to be the 19th. Hegewisch has a coffee shop open all day, everyday. Georgia has some famous coffee in there. Yes, the station is safe to railfan, I've done it at work many times. M-W-F the IHB runs a freight in the evening across the CSS and the NS's NKP line always has something..(Roadrailers,Autoracks) usually NS is switching autoracks for the nearby Ford plant.
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Postby PRRGuy » Tue Nov 14, 2006 10:06 pm

I should also mention the Gary-Metro center also has a few places to grab snacks, one cafe-type place and a ticket office.

Also, when you leave Hegewisch (EB) and Hammond (WB) try and grab a spot on the south/east side of the train as you may be able to grab shots of IHB or CSS in Burnham Yard.
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Postby Tadman » Wed Nov 15, 2006 10:42 am

Gary: You might want to skip Gary and go straight to Miller. There are no easy photos at Gary because it's an island platform with full-width buildings at either end. The station is a boring place, and has no interurban charm.

Miller: Spend a little time at Miller, then move on to Ogden Dunes - this is a nice spot to fan because the ex-NYC main is right next door, so the traffic is much higher. There's also a decent quickie mart across US12 that I always stop at for a drink or snack. The rib shack is still there as of August, but those places are not always open or reliable.

Michigan City: In MC, the walk between 11th and Carrol will take a while - on a train that moves about 20 mph, it's timed for five minutes. Near 11th, there is Albano's Pizza five minutes walk south on Franklin (the cross road) and the pizza and sandwichers there are excellent. Also, toward the lakefront, there is the Shore Line brewery, and that's good too. I've soured on the swingbelly's restaurant in the old MC depot. Also, if you want some Amtrak pics on the swingbridge, there's a good restaurant called Bridges with a full view of the swingbridge. McDonalds or KFC are a few blocks from Carrol Avenue.

Hammond: I don't dislike Hammond, but I'm a big fan of Hegewisch for the same reasons I like Ogden Dunes - traffic. NS has their ex-NKP auto yard there, and there's always an SD40 or something banging around autoracks, and a road train comes through fairly frequently too. Just southeast is the CSS Burnham yard, which I've walked to many times. Also, the trackmobile at MacSteel is always moving around - that's across the NS yard. There is a Burger King at the Burnham/Brainerd intersection, the main intersection at the depot. Don't forget the IHB yard around the corner.
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Postby SlowFreight » Wed Nov 15, 2006 10:02 pm

Gary:

All I can speak for is the yard waiver. CSS has had cinder dicks (rr term for police) in the past to chase folks away, but when I've called NICTD's corporate office with other inquiries, I found that at least their CFO was very friendly and helpful. I would pass on asking the ticket agents anything and call their headquarters this week or next and explain what you're looking for. I would highly recommend asking if you could arrange for a cab permit for at least one of the runs if they seem receptive to any kind of permission. They will probably appreciate your asking in advance more than anything. I wouldn't bother with Anacostia and Pacific, though, since they don't technically own much of the property.

Of course, as others have mentioned, the road overpass gives such a great vantage, you really don't need to tramp through the weeds for cool shots unless they're willing to give you a tour inside the shop building.

BTW, have you ridden the new airport extension? It's a trippy ride...
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Postby railohio » Wed Nov 15, 2006 10:09 pm

I forgot to ask before, why do you say the street running is endangered?
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Postby dinwitty » Wed Nov 15, 2006 10:50 pm

There is talk of moving the run a different route, some ideas say going north on the Nickel Plate or running south.

Nothing is firm its just idea stages, but this talk chatter has gone on for quite a while, but for the while, SS runs thru the streets of MC!!..ookaaay?!
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Postby Franklin Gowen » Thu Nov 16, 2006 3:34 am

To all who have replied, thank you!


W.R.T. street running "running out of time," the buzz I've heard on the railfan gossip circuit is that the city would really like it to be rerouted. I can see why. That's why Michigan City is the focus of my one-day South Shore photo blitz.

Maybe I'll scrub my plan of stopping in Gary during my morning ride out to Miller. I may make a short stopover in Hegewisch instead. Heck, I may even be the first out-of-the-area railfan to use and to photo the new high-level platforms in detail... :-D While the nearby freight traffic would be a nice bonus, it's not necessarily the main reason why I'm there.

Ogden Dunes...an interesting possibility. Hopefully NS will oblige with some traffic..but sice I'd be there on Black Friday, I doubt I'd see much. If only there was another schedule frequency eastbound between Trains 7 and 107! If I stopped at Ogden Dunes via Train 107 eastbound, I'd have to use Train 9 to get to Michigan City. The wait for 9 would consume too much of my available time before the sun starts getting too low. It is indeed hard to railfan the South Shore Line via the train itself when all you have is one day, and with ever-shortening hours of sunlight as well! :(

If I can finagle an additional half-day away from my family, I'd be very tempted to ride out to Ogden Dunes (or maybe Dune Park?) on Train 9...coming back to Chicago on Train 20, at 5:04PM. I'll have to ponder that.

Glad to hear that the shops complex can be photographed from ground level and from overpasses without needing to do anything foolish. I am happy to know that.

Honestly, the idea of applying for a cab-ride permit never would have occurred to me. I may call NICTD at Dune Park later this morning and plead my case. My only real fear is wondering how I'd be able to get to Dune Park to complete necessary paperwork prior to the (projected) day of my trip. Thanksgiving is next week...and I'm very likely going to only have "Black Friday" for my South Shore adventures. I doubt their business offices would be staffed, on account of the holiday weekend. Regardless, thanks for the idea. I will try to gather my courage and contact them.

I am re-examining my original itinerary for the day, and may make some changes. East of Gary, there are only a few trains to make use of during the daylight hours for prime lighting of good photographs. Some of the suggestions & counter-proposals you have made are tempting.

A few additonal new questions for you:


1) Is "Black Friday", 11/24 going to be a regular weekday schedule? If it's downgraded to a Saturday schedule, my plans are toast. Everything hinges on this point!

2) Are there any additional revenue runs planned for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving? I know Metra is running additional diesel psgr. trips that day.

3) Would a radio scanner be of any assistance while 'fanning the South Shore? Does CSS still operate by timetable and train order, sent & acknowledged via radio? What FM frequencies are used most often?

4) Does any South Shore freight run during mid-day, Mon-Fri hours between Miller and Michigan City? I believe that CSX interchanges at Miller. I would LOVE to photo a CSS freight - even a pair of light engines - on the M.C. street-running segment!

5) If I was to take photos in the CSS portion of Millenium Station Chicago, would I be hassled by security? I would not be using a tripod, and probably wouldn't even be using a flash unit. I'm hoping to get some moody, "atmospheric" photos of CSS cars at the bumper blocks, plus the destination signs on the platforms themselves.

6) To "PRRGuy": are you still working as a collector? If so, do you think you'll be working on Friday, 11/24? If that's the case, I'd like to introduce myself. If it's OK with you; I do not want to be a bother while you are on-duty. Feel free to post publicly, -or- send me a private message, in care of this forum. Please let me know if you'll be working Train 7 eastbound that day. I may ditch my plan of riding 207 to Gary and then transferring to 7 -- iinstead, riding 7 directly from Chicago to Miller.
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Postby railohio » Thu Nov 16, 2006 8:25 am

1) It's a weekday and it's not a holiday itself. I'm 99.83% sure it'll be a regular schedule.

2) Er... Pass?

3) Channels 60 and 83

4) There's supposed to be a westbound that leaves Michigan City in the late morning or early afternoon. That gets people excited because they can catch it farther west in the better afternoon light although I've not done the western half of the line to care much about that.

5) Pass.

6) Pass! :-D
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Postby Tadman » Thu Nov 16, 2006 9:51 am

Regarding your concern about NS obliging at Ogden Dunes - they will oblige frequently - that's the ex-NYC water level route and it's quite busy. It also hosts CP, IHB, Amtrak trains. About a mile west there's always a few trains being shoved into the port of indiana.

Black friday is regular weekday schedule and the trains are PACKED. There is extra cars on some trains, but no extra trains that I'm aware of. It has to do with getting them thru the interlocker at Kensington - it's tight and in their infinite wisdom, the railroads removed on of the tracks in the 1980's (when we all thought trains were going the way of the horse and buggy).

I hear scanners are illegal in Indiana, but I'm not sure, and I won't turn you in. Might not want to walk into the NICTD office with one, though.

As for freight - all freights run as extras on CSS, but around lunch a drag leaves Burnham and heads west for who knows where. Around four, two light engines go blasting through the dunes westward. I don't know what they are going to pick up. Freight is a good bet mid-day, while less passenger trains are run.
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Postby MikeF » Thu Nov 16, 2006 11:03 am

Regarding the railfan buzz about the end of street running in Michigan City -- the city has been trying to get the trains out of the street for well over a half century. It may happen in our lifetimes, but as dinwitty said, nothing is firm at this point.

Tadman wrote:I hear scanners are illegal in Indiana

Scanners are illegal in motor vehicles in Indiana without an amateur radio permit. Outside of vehicles, they are perfectly legal. Listening to one on the train would probably be considered a "suspicious activity," though.

Probably won't be hassled by security while photographing the interior of Millenium Park Station as long as you don't make a nuisance of yourself. If someone does confront you, politely explain what you're up to and they should be willing to let you continue.
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Postby Tadman » Thu Nov 16, 2006 7:21 pm

Mike's right about pics in randolph - they're all over flickr.com and railpictures.net, just be polite about it.
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Postby byte » Thu Nov 16, 2006 9:03 pm

MikeF wrote:Listening to one on the train would probably be considered a "suspicious activity," though.


This is true. A way around this is to bring a backpack and a pair of headphones or earbuds with you, and put the scanner (connected to the headphones) in the backpack, and string the wires out to your head. If you have a big heavy winter coat with pockets in the lining you can always stick the scanner in there, too. Lots of people wear their iPods that way.
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