A Railfan Modeler’s Manifesto

My dad and I took this series of photos in Steilacoom on what appears to be a cold, late fall or early spring morning. That’s me standing on the rip-rap in the blue jacket but I’m unsure of the exact day or even year. I’m 99% certain we’re looking at the Coast Starlight though if this is before May of 1997 it could be the Pioneer. I had that jacket for ages so it doesn’t provide much of a timestamp however I don’t think I look old enough to be in high school. Based on that alone I’d say it’s pre-’97.

My best guess would be that this is sometime in the early to mid 1990’s. After 1991 for sure since F40PH 384 didn’t have ditch lights in ‘91 and probably before ‘94 since by that time there would have been a lot of P40’s roaming around and a solid consist of F40’s would be rare. Yet there was at least one period in the late ‘90’s when the Starlight was temporarily operating with two to three F40’s. So that rather ruins my assumptions. I had hoped to confirm the date by correlating the damage to 384’s nose with other images online, but those that I’ve been able to find show 384 with an undamaged nose. Of course this whole issue would be moot if I bothered to date my film but that wasn’t the sort of thing I thought about back then.

That’s me on the riprap in my blue coat just south of Bridge 14 on BNSF’s Seattle Sub.

These photos were scanned from prints because I long ago lost track of the negatives (probably threw them out not knowing any better) and the prints were developed without a lot of TLC by whatever commercial processing facility the local Safeway or Albertson’s used. The first two photos, taken by dad, are decent. Probably taken with his SLR. The lighting obviously wasn’t great that day but there wasn’t much in the way of post-processing required after scanning. The next two, taken by me, were worse but salvageable. I was definitely using either a shitty point-and-shoot, or worse yet, one of those disposable cardboard cameras. It’s amazing to me that not only are they usable photos but they survived two decades languishing in an envelope before my mom found them and convinced me to sort through them one day when I was home on a visit.

Despite their flaws these photos are a window into a time and place that while not exactly gone for good has certainly changed dramatically. The F40’s are scrap. Maybe one or two survives but I wouldn’t be surprised if all three are razor blades. With the closure of the Abitibi newsprint mill in 2000 the yard where the boxcars are spotted is empty most of the time though it occasionally serves as storage for MOW equipment. The north end of the gravel pit in the background is now a Scottish links style golf course that in recent years hosted the US Open. The barge loading pier, barely visible to the right in the first two photos, was demolished and a water treatment plant has been built at the south end of the pit. The hillside above the tracks has many more houses filled with the lucky few who can afford such a great view of south Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountain range. If photos could convey sound they would be a lot louder than the current scene and not just because todays P42’s are relatively silent compared to the howl of a solid set of F40’s. Back then, just a little beyond where I was standing, the engineer would begin blowing the horn for the pedestrian crossing at Sunnyside park and would sound it again shortly thereafter for the crossing at the ferry landing a mile south. Now, due to complaints from the transplanted homeowners on the hill the crossings have localized horns and the trains rush through without so much as a peep.

I think my dad took these first two photos. He was usually with me on these excursions since I couldn’t drive yet.

I’ve never worked for a railroad and haven’t had any real desire to do so. I don’t have any immediate family in railroading either. I enjoy riding trains, but as a form of transportation, not so much as a recreational pursuit. Standing by the tracks and taking in the scene while a train rushes by at 50 miles an hour is the essence of my relationship with railroads and as I go about planning my layout I tend to go about it from that point of view.

Model railroading from a railfan’s perspective is hardly a new concept. I think Pelle Søeborg is probably the best example of a modeler with a similar mindset. His track plans are minimal and flow through scenery. He generally includes a single town with a yard and a couple of small industries and across the room (or just outside of town) a large plant of some type. He has enough staging for a few run through trains and a local. His emphasis is on building structures and scenery, weathering and detailing rolling stock and recreating the “feel” of his railfanning trips to the US. To me, his layouts are perfect. They look like the real world. There’s nothing added to maintain interest, nothing additional that isn’t part of his experience in the world. When he finishes a layout he keeps it for awhile, then tears it down and starts fresh.

Here’s my first shot.  The composition is actually decent, though I was clearly using some sort of point-and-shoot or maybe even a disposable camera.

Layouts like Pelle’s always hold the most interest for me precisely because they strip out a lot of the stuff that layouts designed for operation tend to have. Engine facilities, intermodal terminals or other major industrial sites (places that the average person doesn’t have access to) are certainly interesting, but don’t really play a part in the story I’m trying to tell.  They’re also very difficult to model in a way that represents their expansiveness. Too much track and too little scenery, or key locations and details placed specifically so that they are accessible for switching purposes always look a little off. Smaller layouts that do manage to incorporate a realistic operating plan with a balanced track to scenery ratio and good detail often don’t resemble the sort of railroading I’ve been fortunate enough to experience in my time trackside. I want to see long trains with multiple locomotives moving fast.

I do plan to include some opportunities on my layout to do more than just watch trains running in circles. There will be a small yard with a short branch that will lead into my workshop where I will eventually build a 6’ long module depicting Boise Cascade’s (later Rainy River’s and eventually Abitibi’s) West Tacoma paper mill. A UP local will bring cars to this two track yard and a pair of GE switchers (a 50 Tonner and a 45 Tonner) will haul cars to and from the mill where they will be spotted with the additional assistance of a Track-Mobile. Otherwise though, I just plan to build up a fleet of rolling stock and locomotives that will allow me to run abbreviated but otherwise accurate versions of the BNSF, UP and Amtrak trains that travelled over the Seattle Subdivision between Tacoma and Vancouver, WA. The trains will run in sequence out of staging, around the layout and back into staging.

Might have been standing a little close…

I’ve been working on this rambling post for days now and I think this is as good a place as any to end it. I’ve been doodling track plans and I think I’ve got some workable ideas. Now I just need to get the basement renovations complete so that someday I’ll once again be able to watch three battered F40’s scream along Puget Sound with the Coast Starlight in tow.

– Chris

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