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Catch a Fallen Flag


Catch a Fallen Flag

by Patrick Harris


Before beginning to write about my experience with photography, I would like to provide a little background and philosophy. I grew up in an Atlantic Coast Line/Seaboard Coast Line and Central of Georgia/Southern town in southeast Alabama, a town called Troy. I used to spend many afternoons at the station with Mr. Deal, the stationmaster, as well as Johnny and the other two members of the local switch crew.

Troy usually hosted at least one switcher, typically an SW7 or one of SCL’s VO-1000 rebuilds, with occasional guest appearances by an ALCO S-unit rebuilt with an EMD 567 prime mover (or some other such EMD engine). I was invited to ride with the crew on their puttering and shuffling of the cars, mostly pulpwood racks and woodchip cars of various mongrel ancestry. To this day I can still smell the Azalea blooms (with their squadrons of bumble bees) and the smell of fresh cut pine and pine chips. Those were idyllic times and firmly set in me the desire to photograph and model trains.

In those days – the mid 1970s – film and developing were nearly beyond my reach financially, so I have only 5 or 6 sets of color and monochrome prints to show for my many days and hours at the station at North Three Notch Street.

Other things like school, and later work, took me away from the hobby. By sheer accidental contact with the May 1994 edition of Railroad Model Craftsman at a book store, the bug bit again, and bit hard. I now could afford film, developing, and models–and have indulged all those vices with a vengeance since.

The primary philosophy behind what I choose to shoot comes down to two prongs of the fork: I shoot what interests me, and I shoot what is rare or unusual. I would suggest to any rail photographer that the first trick to successfully recording rail history, is to shoot as much as you can reasonably afford, and shoot as often as possible.

Carry a camera, even if it is a disposable in the glove box of your car, in your briefcase, in your backpack. NEVER be without a camera and film.

The hobby we pursue is largely what I think of as a memorial to things lost. Folks in the 1970’s mourned the loss of the Erie, New York Central, Pennsylvania, Atlantic Coast Line, Seaboard Air Line, Central of Georgia, Tennessee Central, Great Northern, Northern Pacific, SP&S, the Burlington, and even the then-unlamented Penn Central.

Many small, loved short lines had been swept away by economic hard times. Steam was long dead and gone (Freedom Train, NW 611 and the Southern Steam Program notwithstanding), electric interurban swept away. In the 1980’s funerals were held for the Southern, SCL, Western Pacific, Missouri Pacific, N&W, Chessie and others. The 1990’s saw the demise of the Rio Grande, Southern Pacific, BN, Santa Fe, C&NW, Illinois Central and Conrail. We forget, though, that funerals should be as much for the living, as to remember that which we have lost. What then, do we do?

The answer guides my shot selections. Of course I shoot because I enjoy doing it. But there are serious reasons why I photograph fallen flag equipment whenever it presents itself to me, regardless of whether I model that particular road or not. I recommend the same to any other rail historian and photographer, first because we have a commitment to the rail community to preserve images and information as thoroughly as possible.

Secondly, one never knows when one will be inspired to create a few models of a particular road to represent its presence on our own lines. Even if you didn’t like Conrail, if you model any road that interchanged with it (and most did), you need a few CR models to make a realistic car roster. Third, equipment painted for CR was likely to have been PC, NYC, PRR, EL, RDG or any of the other component roads, so the car info itself is useful even if the paint scheme does not appeal.

I thank Dave Casdorph, editor of Freight Car Journal, for teaching me that. In 1994, in CSX’s Osborne Yard, I passed up an Erie Lackawanna mill gondola to shoot a CSX C40-8W. Will I ever see it again? Wildly improbable that I will ever see that gon again, especially since the CR split. I have probably seen the SAME C40-8W multiple times since then. A painful, costly lesson for me. First, know how to prioritize. Secondly, BUY AND BRING ENOUGH FILM TO SHOOT ALL DAY. I always have at least six rolls of film handy because I may shoot two rolls on just one train.

The Shoot

Besides having sufficient amounts of film to lens whatever may pass by, it is vital to have your film developed properly to make the information useful. Those who shoot slide film, or use a digital camera, may pass this by because this applies primarily to 35mm film development. I will not recommend a particular developer; that is up to the individual, but there are standards you should demand to get the best. First, avoid send-off services. The photos are printed by a high-speed machine in a lab that processes as many as 50,000 photos a day, and they cannot adjust for light, shade, or properly center your shot.

I only use one-hour services with a person printing each roll by hand. Most on-site one-hour services can adjust for density (the amount of light/dark contrast in the photo), add or subtract blue, yellow and magenta. This matters tremendously, and such adjustments can turn a poor photo into one that is useful. A photo with too much “light” can be saved by increasing density. A shot on an overcast day can be salvaged by reducing density and “lightening” the shot. Either of these activities may alter somewhat the perceived color of the car/loco being shot, but each person sees color differently so it all is relative to a degree.

I use a polarizing filter on my lens to remove some of the excess sunlight (especially that bounced directly into my lens, but more on camera angles later), and with Fuji film (my personal choice) that seems to shift it slightly to the blue, so I often have to have some blue removed from the photo, which most processors can do.

Summer sunlight often adds a bit of magenta, especially late in the day when haze or dust in the sky can cause a perceived color shift because the sunlight is passing through the ‘prism’ of dust and debris. This occurs very commonly in urban areas in the late summer.

When I first go to a lab, I have them develop one roll to see what the technicians’ strengths and weaknesses are, then work with them to ensure they get the photos “right” in my perception.

Most are very willing to assist (if not busy) and will try very hard to get the cars centered and the color right. It is VERY helpful to bring along what you consider a good photo for the technician to use as a guide in what you are seeking. Offer guidance, answer their questions, be a resource. I usually try to wait for the pictures to be done so that I can address questions they have–and the technician will often do mine first because I do! (hopefully not to get rid of me sooner!)

It also does not hurt to buy the technician an occasional coke or bottle of water–show that you appreciate their effort for you. Do not, however, expect them to work miracles. If you take a poor picture, live with it. If the lab is unwilling or the work not up to standard, take the time to try a few until you find one that suits your needs. Shop around! If you have spent hours eating diesel dust to get pics, don’t lose them in the printer at a foto-mat.

I would wrap up this segment by noting I am not a professional photographer, and I do this when I can on the weekends and when I am on the road. Nonetheless, I have managed to shoot some 30-35,000 photos since Summer of 1994. The only way to learn how to shoot train photos is to get out there, burn film, and make adjustments until you are happy with what you are getting out of the experience in regard to clarity, color and detail. You don’t have to be the best, you just have to have fun!

The Yards

In New Orleans, I prefer to shoot the yards and trains in the eastern part of the City. This would include the CSX Gentilly Yard, the New Orleans Public Belt (NOPB) France Road Yard, and the Norfolk Southern Oliver Yard. Occasionally I wander to the KCS Yard along Airline Highway, and lately have made a jaunt or two to UP and BNSF’s Avondale Yard, but the bulk of my shots have been made in the East.

Before going to ANY yard, contact the railroad police that work that area. CSX requires anyone photographing at the West (railroad South) or East (railroad North) ends of Gentilly Yard to sign a “I-promise-I-won’t-get-decapitated-by-a-train-and-if-I-do-it’s-my-fault” agreement. The CSX railroad police are friendly and courteous IF you follow their rules. Simply put, STAY OUT AND OFF railroad property. If you shoot at the Jourdan Road end of the yard (compass West, RR South), stay off RR property.

There are plenty of great vantage points along the tracks that keep you safe and the RR police happy. The crews should NOT be talked to while working–their safety and their attention to work depend on us staying out of the way. If an employee approaches you, be courteous and listen–you might learn something. To get properly signed in, drive in the southern entrance to the yard, proceed east on the asphalt road to the center of the yard. The RR police are in the blue sheet metal building in the front, and you can simply ask for the officer on duty. Introduce yourself, state your intent of photography for modeling or historical purposes, and ask to sign the waiver. Once you have been around shooting for a while, the crews will recognize you as will the RR police special officers, and not only will you not be bothered, extra eyes will ensure your safety.

Safety is not only avoiding getting chopped up by rolling cars and engines, but keeping a wary eye for vagrants. The Gentilly Yard has a LARGE number of transients making their way from Florida to Texas and California, as well as Mexico, and the reverse route as well. Most vagrants will shun the attention , but others may try to approach you.

Avoid contact, and if need be simply get in your car and leave or contact the RR police. Many vagrants hang out under the Jourdan Road overpass, waiting for a westbound over the Huey P. Long bridge to the UP Avondale yard. Some have been known to live for periods of time in the hobo jungle under the Almonaster fly-over at Almonaster and Jourdan Road, which will be directly behind you when you are shooting. Do not be afraid, but do be cautious. If you carry a cell phone, store or carry along the number to the RR special agent office. Also be aware this area is under the jurisdiction of the Harbor Police department. They also are generally courteous and don’t bother railfans, but if they don’t know you by frequent sighting you may get rousted. Keep your cool, explain yourself and generally they will leave you alone. Your presence actually makes their job a bit easier–one more set of eyes on the area makes crimes against RR equipment less likely.

The traffic at CSX is voluminous, which is to be expected since this is a major East-West gateway. While I suspect the traffic volume is less than Memphis, and certainly is less than St. Louis and Chicago, it still is substantial. CSX receives cars from and sends cars to Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern, New Orleans Public Belt (which also handles interchange between CSX and both IC and BNSF), and the Norfolk Southern. The interchange roads also used to include Southern Pacific before its merger with UP, Southern before the NS merger, and Missouri Pacific before its merger into the Union Pacific. During my first tenure in New Orleans, CSX greatly increased its container and trailer yard area (they are called “totes” here, a holdover from the days when this was an L&N yard–the tracks used to have little signs saying Tote 1, Tote 2), so stack and trailer traffic with UP is substantial.

Fallen flag cars such as the Missouri Pacific, Southern Pacific, Family Lines, Rio Grande and the Southern are very common. Gentilly Yard handles large volumes of tank car traffic due to this being the eastern end of the Chemical Coast with a riotous variety of tank car sizes, configurations and paint schemes. The large, six-axles buckeye truck tank cars are regular visitors here, and solid trains of molten sulfur tank cars are not strangers to the Jourdan Road crossing.

Large quantities of center flow and other bulk covered hoppers are present both because of the plastics industries west of New Orleans (the cars carry plastic pellets used to make plastic jugs, and for other purposes) and because they are being delivered brand new from plants in Georgia to lessors out west and to shops in Louisiana and Texas for final fittings and paint jobs. Woodchip traffic used to be rare here, but a new plant here in Louisiana requires them, and so that traffic has emerged (as per Mike Palmieri, editor of and, the latter being the Louisiana Railspot site). Sixty-foot cars abound, less for auto parts traffic than for carrying finished paper products. Steel coil cars appear periodically in batches, and mill gondolas are very common–especially the former Railgon cars. These examples barely scratch the surface of the rolling stock found. All in all, great variety, and in good quantity.

The Gentilly yard is flat-switched, and CSX generally uses a rotation of SW1500’s and MP15’s (with the occasional MP15T thrown in) to “kick” cars at the South and North ends of the yard. Most of the switching at the North end is deep in the yard (perhaps a quarter mile), but at the South end (the Jourdan Road crossing) the switch crew pulls out long strings of cars all the way across Jourdan road, allowing one to easily shoot whatever is being switched.

Many people are only interested in photographing engines, and there are plenty at Gentilly to shoot, but most are out of reach, deep in the heart of the yard at the inaccessible fueling racks. Motive power has included the usual gaggle of Union Pacific SD40-2 units, but lately the “Winged” SD70’s are making their presence here known in great quantities. The UP SD40-2’s often were of interest because they were often the ex-MP non-dynamic brake units, giving a bit of a change of pace in the faceless parade of SD40-2 units. UP often dispatched C30-7 and C36-7 “Humpbacks” across the Mississippi to Gentilly as well, and the Dash 8 and Dash 9 GE fleet is also making daily appearances.

When the SP was still independent, its four-axle GE fleet was their most common power smaller power, but their larger units most commonly were the ragged-out SD40/45 Tunnel motors in variously degraded paint schemes, as well as large numbers of the de-rated former SD45’s. My understanding of the reason for the large numbers of the B30-7 fleet here was that their pollution and noise was too great to meet the California standards, so they were stuck working East of Houston and North toward Chicago on the Cotton Rock.

I don’t know if that is true, but I was able to shoot nearly the entire SP B30-7 fleet here in New Orleans. CSX has largely standardized their fleet on GE six-axle power now, but the odd GP40-2 or GP38-2 will grace Gentilly with its presence, and SD40-2’s still arrive in clusters, but C40-8, C44-9’s and the huge newer CW6000’s are the mainstay of heavier trains. The CSX fleet of B36-7’s (mostly former Seaboard System units) are also mixed in and often bring in “tote” trains in solid sets of 3 or 4.

Very few non-“bright future” CSX paint schemes arrive at Gentilly any more. KCS sends over units in interchange service, and the oddball NS unit will appear on occasion, usually in company of UP units. Lease units are also commonplace, as has been the trickle of CR power in the post-merger period. Lots of different and colorful motive power to see and photograph here!

Gentilly is a feast for the rolling stock lover. I love both motive power and rolling stock, but Gentilly offers the rarity of a large yard that offers access to a large number of cars on a daily basis, so I have been able to shoot thousands of cars. The area is not scenic, so unless you have a great appetite for “roster shots”, the Gentilly Yard is not for you.

How to Get There



Photos by Patrick Harris. Copyright 2001. All Rights Reserved.