Sunset Limited: Los Angeles to the Salton Sea

I’m now a day behind in blogging due to reasons I’ll reveal in the next post, but I’ll start with Friday’s events, as that’s where I left off.

After a full day of events on Friday, I wound up sleeping in a lot later than I had anticipated.  My original plan was to make it to Union Station extra-early, go across the street to Philippes and get a french dip, and spend a few hours shooting the station.  In reality, I wound up getting to the station with just enough time to check my suitcase, grab an overpriced (yet still pretty good, just not $11!) bagel sandwich from the restaurant in the station, and hop on the train.

We passed over the concrete-lined LA river, and I shot these photos out of the window of the moving train:

Shooting out of the window of a moving train is tough.  I think I’m getting better at it because my shots out of the window are becoming more consistent.  I’ve got three and a half more weeks to nail the technique, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  1. The tinted window will act like a giant ND filter.  My guess is it adds about two stops.
  2. The train is moving pretty fast, so that ND filter effect will be seriously detrimental to achieving the necessary high shutter speeds without cranking up the ISO.  I try to shoot at 1/1000 of a second at the minimum.  Usually this means I’m shooting wide-open at f1.4 of f2.8 depending on my lens.  I bring up the ISO if I have to.
  3. The window is filthy and the tinting has a strange optical quality that doesn’t jive with anything I thought I knew about optics.  Also, don’t expect anything to be tack sharp.  Any L-quality lens will be brought down to about the quality of a Holga with a plastic lens.  Actually, don’t really expect anything to be sharp at all, and just rejoice when it is.  There will always be a vignette.

But, sometimes all of these things come together and produce an image with a certain quality that you just can’t get any other way, just like using a Holga with a plastic lens.  Here’s a good example:

Shortly after the industrial area, we made our first stop in Pomona.  Pomona seems so much further away by car.

Pomona is a depot.  I wasn’t quite sure of the difference between depots and stations until now.  At a station, the train will stop and hang out for a little while to let passengers stretch their legs and smoke.  A train will only stop at a depot if there is a passenger with a ticket booked in advance getting on or off.  Most of these depots we just blow right past.  We did stop at this one though, and I was hoping to get off and shoot a bit of this really amazing building.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to, so I took a picture of the conductor instead:

Back on the train, I decided to camp out in the lounge car for a little while.  I practiced my shooting-out-the-window technique, but the landscape wasn’t that interesting anymore.

I think this little girl was imitating me:

She has a great smile though:

The scenery got a bit more interesting as we approached Palm Springs.  Wind turbines as far as the eye could see.

We did get to stop for a leg stretch at the Palm Springs station, so I shot more wind turbines.

This is Kevin.  He was one of the crewmembers on my train:

After we pulled away from Palm Springs, we made our way along the edge of the Salton Sea.  The Salton Sea is a place I’ve been meaning to visit for a very long time now, and another one I got to see from the train first.  I get invited to go out there a lot, but every time it conflicts with something else.  I’ll make it out there soon I’m sure.

I also finally got to shoot out of the back of the train:

At some point, I became obsessed with trying to shoot these telegraph lines out of the window and keep them in focus.  This was made dramatically easier by the fact that the train was slowing down.  At one point, we came to a stop, and I got the composition I wanted:

Now that I’m looking at it, I don’t really like it that much.

Possibly because I was staring at it for awhile.

After an hour of watching the same view, the passengers started getting antsy.  Kids were getting (more) annoying, passengers with stops coming up started to wonder when they would get there, and the smokers were looking for a fix.  Kevin opened the door to the luggage hold door on one of the coach cars for the smokers to light up and I shot some pictures of the sun setting behind the train.

Around this time, the conductor came on over the PA and announced that one of the locomotives had “lost traction” and they were trying to fix the problem.

You can see some official looking guys “fixing” the problem here…  I couldn’t see much of what was going on, even with the 200mm lens, but I think they’re just scratching their heads and wondering what to do.

I should give them more credit than that though, but the whole situation didn’t seem like it was handled appropriately.  The crew deserves more credit… most of the passengers were amazingly pissed off at this point, and they kept their cool.

Here’s that pole again.  It’s getting a bit later in the evening now.

And here are it’s brothers:

Half an hour later I decided to hang out in the last car.  I shot this freight train as it went by.  Look at the sun in the sky…  you can get an idea of how long this sucker is.  There is also an engine in the back helping to push it.  It probably took 7 or 8 minutes to pass completely.

Returning to the luggage hold with the open door, I shot the last remaining light of the day over about a 15 minute period.  In the desert, it gets dark FAST.

This was about five minutes later:

I changed my exposure to get the traffic reflecting off of the stainless steel train cars:

We sat around for another hour or so after dark.  Apparently they had to have a mechanic come out from some “nearby” town, an hour drive away.  I don’t know if the mechanic did anything useful, because the next announcement was that we were leaving one of the locomotives behind, and we’d pick up another one in Maricopa to help pull the train over the southern Rockies.  Around 10pm we left, now three hours behind schedule.  We were told we might be able to make it up by San Antonio, and I was hopeful.

At 2am, we stopped again.  Apparently the legal amount of time that the conductor (or engineer, I don’t recall) could be on duty was up, and for liability reasons, we had to wait for a new conductor to drive in from the next depot to fill in.  Two hours later, we left again, but by then I’d fallen asleep.

2 Responses to “Sunset Limited: Los Angeles to the Salton Sea”

  • David Gunn Says:

    Your initial engine woes, all 214 minutes of them, were due to the failure of its #4 traction motors in engine 205. This is a General Electric Genesis-series locomotive, designated P42DC. Amtrak has about 200 of them. Read about the engine here: and traction motorors here:

    Engine 205

  • David Gunn Says:

    The hours of service laws are not a function of liability, but rather a compulsory safety requirement imposed by the Federal Railroad Administration. The only liability issue they involve is that fines levied for violating hours of service rules are directed at the individuals, not the railroad, which may not compensate them for the fine, so that employees are highly motivated to comply with the law.