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Thread: Decatur

  1. #1
    mlhazemaster Guest

    Default Decatur

    Most people, at some time in their lives are faced with a challenge, a quest or monkey on their back. It is something that they just need to do. One such monkey jumped on my back in October of 2008 and remained there for six months.

    Story and photos
    R.R. Conway

    Attachment 3662
    KCS 73D - The F unit that turned into an obsession.

    I had the pleasure of living in Kansas City, Missouri for three years before heading back to my hometown in the suburbs of Chicago during the spring of 2000. While I was in Kansas City, I took full advantage of the variety and sheer volume of rail traffic the area had to offer, but I spent most of my time on the Kansas City Southern.

    There was a lot to like about the KCS in the late 1990s. Most of their locomotives were equipped with oscillating headlights which is by far the best safety device a locomotive could have.

    Attachment 3665
    KCS southbound south of Grandview, Missouri with Gyralite equipped 617 on the point.

    From Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico, the KCS faced every type of operational challenge ranging from slow terminal operations to mountain grade territory. The volume of traffic insured that there would be plenty of action.

    Like most railroads, the KCS has modernized its locomotive fleet beginning in the late 90s and in doing so they seriously diminished my interest in the railroad. Not because they phased out one of my favorite locomotives, the SD40-2. Not because they eliminated the five and six unit lashups that I loved to see and hear. And last but not least, it was not because they eliminated the variety of motive power that could be seen on their trains. No, modernizing their locomotive fleet was a wise business decision and one that most heavy hitting railroads made around the same time, but on the KCS it came with a heavy price for me.

    As someone who has spent the last 32 years in the right hand seat of a locomotive, I can tell you that an oscillating headlight saved my life. We were running eastbound one dark night with a former Frisco GP38-2 on the point and as we approached a rural grade crossing west of Milledgeville, Illinois I noticed a truck carrying home heating oil on an intercept course with our train. As the truck came up to the crossing I could see that the driver had no intention of stopping. As I pulled on the horn valve I watched the beam of the Pyle Gyralite sweep over the cab of the truck. Instantly the driver locked up the brakes and stopped within feet of the tracks as we crossed the road in front of him.

    My appreciation for oscillating headlights goes much farther back than our close call with the oil truck and it had a lot to do with my interest in the KCS in the first place. But as the new KCS power began to arrive, it was painfully obvious that they lacked one very important safety appliance. To make matters worse, the KCS began a wholesale slaughter of perfectly good oscillating headlights on their older power. With a bland gray paint scheme and rusty plates where Gyralites once were, I became completely disgusted by the KCS and had no desire to spend any more time on the railroad. I left Kansas City and their namesake railroad and went home.

    Attachment 3666
    New KCS power arrives on Rich Mountain, but without oscillating headlights.

    It has been said that time heals all wounds and with the unveiling of their modern rendition of the “Southern Belle” paint scheme, I found myself taking notice of Kansas City Southern again. I will admit however that each KCS train I see still brings out some anger in me. I still can’t believe that a well managed railroad like the KCS could make such a royally stupid decision and eliminate the best safety device ever put on a locomotive. But the new paint scheme takes some of the sting out of it and the KCS crews will have to live with, or die from that decision.

    With my interest in the railroad somewhat renewed, I ventured out of Kansas City during an annual gathering of life-long friends and headed south on the KCS. It was on October 30, 2008 that I first found KCS F7A #73D on display at Decatur, Arkansas. After spending the day with the Alcos of the Arkansas and Missouri, friends Tom, Phil and myself returned to Decatur to set up for a night photograph of what we hoped would be a “Meeting of the Belles”. We waited for most of the very cold night and saw nothing.

    Attachment 3667
    Tom and Phil keep warm as we wait in vain for action.

    Two nights later, after a day on Rich Mountain, we tried again. This time we had a southbound show up, but it had Union Pacific 7106 on the point. To add insult to injury, a Southern Belle unit was in the trailing position.

    Attachment 3668
    With UP 7106 on the point, we were disappointed and out of time.

    The vacation was over and it was time to head back home to Chicago without getting the shot. As the long and relentless winter gripped the windy city, I was amazed at how often I found myself thinking about the 73D. The desire to get the “Southern Belle” shot had turned into an obsession. I spent most of the winter analyzing the photo I took of UP 7106, figuring out how I would reposition the strobes for the maximum effect. I also noticed that 73D’s number boards were hardly visible and thought about how cool they would look if they were illuminated. Then I thought about how the shot would have looked if the headlight and class lights were lit.

    Finally, on April 25, 2009, Phil and I returned to Decatur. With permission from the city, we spent the day preparing the 73D for nightfall.

    Attachment 3672
    Phil is getting the Belle ready for the ball.

    Phil got busy cleaning the paint oxidation off the nose with some heavy duty paper towels and some spray cleaner while I set about the task of illuminating the 73D’s headlights, number boards and class lights. In contrast to our previous visit, the weather was much warmer and working in the nose of the unit was very uncomfortable.

    Attachment 3669
    During our work, Phil found a box which had “Sweet Thing” written on it. From that moment on, the 73D had a name.

    After about four hours of work, the 73D looked beautiful with her lights illuminated. Her windows were clean and the paint on her nose was no longer dusted with the white oxidation caused by years of facing into the hot Arkansas sun. We took a few moments to admire our work before we touched up some little details on the unit and pulled a lot of weeds from the area that would surely show up in the photo.

    The hot afternoon gave way to evening and the scanner indicated that there was at least one southbound train coming our way. The transmission was broken and difficult to hear, but we were able to determine that the train was about 80 miles away and was identified as KCS 4103. Phil’s eyes lit up as he announced “That’s a Belle unit!”

    At first, I was happy to hear the news, but as I began to figure the running time for the train my elation quickly faded as I realized the train would arrive before the sun would be fully set. I would have to deal with a partially illuminated sky which could, or could not work to my advantage. My mind began to race with all kinds of exposure options and “what if” scenarios before I finally settled down and decided to wait until the train actually got there before I drove myself crazy with speculation.

    Attachment 3670
    Had our southbound not been delayed, this could have been the lighting we would have had to work with.

    With our work on the 73D completed, we sat down and relaxed in front of the F unit. She seemed to smile at us as her headlight formed two circles of light on her outer headlight glass. I sipped my frosty beverage and tried to imagine how many trips the 73D made over Rich Mountain as the scanner crackled to life again.

    Once again the transmission was broken and scratchy. The dispatcher switched his radio to a different transmitting tower and suddenly came in clear as a belle. The communication revealed that the train had stopped after encountering some rough track. A few minutes later, the crew reported that the lead locomotive had passed over a broken rail weld. The dispatcher wasted no time and told them to stay where they were until the track inspector arrived. Phil and I looked at each other and smiled. The delay, though unfortunate for the railroad, was a blessing for us because we knew that there was no way the train would arrive before dark.

    KCS 4103 south finally arrived in Decatur at 11:00pm and after praying the “Shepard’s Prayer” * I mashed the shutter button on my camera.

    Attachment 3671
    The Meeting of the Belles.

    I had finally gotten my “Meeting of the Belles” shot and the monkey immediately departed from my back. Where it went from there I don’t know, but rest assured it has found a new host somewhere in this great big world.

    *The Shepard’s Prayer – Made famous by Alan Shepard, the first American in space… “Dear Lord – Please don’t let me f*ck up!”
    Last edited by mlhazemaster; 08-17-2009 at 08:03 PM. Reason: Removed stray thumbnail image.

  2. #2


    I like how you gave us a little background material to start with, giving context to the main point of your essay. Good writing, good photography, the shot of your buds in the car a night is a railfanning classic!

    I vote to approve.

    Martin Burwash

  3. #3


    Nice story and images to illustrate, enjoyed reading it. Vote to approve

  4. Default

    Very entertaining! Nice photos and good to know that the 'monkey' is gone. I like the photo of the frustrated railfans in the car - classic. The final photo of the 'Belles' is well done and a nice finish.
    Get Out There and Shoot!

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Feb 2006
    close to Lake Ontario in Burlington, ON Canada

    Default Colourful Belle(s)

    Ahhh ,this essay takes the cake!

    I agree with Martin.
    The photo at the conclusion is great yet the photo
    of the autombile with the two people in it
    harks back to the Winston Link photographs
    in the past. Two young people in a Buick convertible
    waiting while the fuel tank is filled, with a N&W
    steam locomotive passing.

    Tis essay is so different yet so very poignant
    of things past and things in the future.

    I vote for acceptance.

    Bryce Lee

  6. Default


    I am very happy to see your new contribution. Just the sort of thing we need on RailroadPhotoEssays!

    I like the photography and the story behind them that makes the pictures have context. I hope to see more from you in the future.

    Glen Brewer
    Glen Brewer

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