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Capturing Trains in the Mojave Desert with Sigma’s 150-600mm F5-6.3

Siberia? Bagdad? Exotic places? Yes! Klondike? Sounds like an ice cream lovers dream! Would you believe locations with names like those exist in the desert? In the south-east corner of California, the Mojave Desert sprawls out from Barstow toward the Colorado River and beyond. San Bernardino county (America’s largest county in square miles), contains an interesting yet vital conduit to American and International trade- the BNSF Needles Subdivision. Each day upwards of 100 Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) trains of international trade cross this void like a continuation of the vast Pacific Ocean just crossed! Throw around any superlative you want; Huge, Vast, Immense, Gigantic, Monumental… The size and scope of the desert and BNSF’s operation across this desert is all these things. THIS IS THE BIG SHOW! The desert is deceptive and is anything but flat. With long grades the Needles Sub taxes both man and modern machine, to keep traffic moving on this modern mainline.

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© William Beecher 2016.

Running at the grade, this BNSF hotshot streaks thru Amboy making a run for Ash Hill. The Sigma 12-24mm F4.5-5.6 DG HSM lens, on my Canon 7D Mark II, at 1/40th of a second accentuates the deep blue skies and colorful locomotive creating a spirited moment. It’s Ash Hill where angles and potential are limitless!

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

Luckily for the observer Route 66 was built on the footprint of Ash Hill, and much “Americana charm” still exists along the Road and Railroad. Roy’s famous Motel and Café in Amboy is just a sampling of another time in America history. Today the road, now called the “National Trails Highway” tags the tracks like a personal companion. Draping almost the entire length of the Subdivision, the historic road is never further than viewing distance away for on the Needles Sub.

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

For me this location has it all. Between Amboy, and the top of one of the steeper parts of Ash Hill is a station called Bagdad. From this perch, you can stare east as the desert and mainline falls rapidly below your vantage before rising towards another mountain range on the horizon at Cadiz, over 20 miles distant. One by one they appear, sometimes 2, 3, 4, 5(!!) trains can be seen coming and going at one time! This view is like none other in the country.

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

From the time a headlight of a westbound is detected, until the time they march up past in run-8 (full horsepower), 40 minutes could pass!

This the perfect environment for the use of the SIGMA 150-600mm Contemporary lens. BNSF train H-BELBAR leans into the grade 3 engines exhausting hot breath, in full throat. Very manageable size and weight, this lens has solid construction with internal zoom elements. I’m impressed by the lens’ sharpness throughout its entire focal length. Complete with internal optical stabilization, I use this lens handheld well into waning available light, where a scene can still be sufficiently lit until the last drop falls behind the horizon. Again this is one of those lenses that is always on one of my bodies, ready. And I used it constantly in the environs of this trip.

Moving upgrade to Siberia the double track line splits so the north track can gain elevation at a gentler slope. The track is is already substantially higher at the point of divergence. A bridge over a dry wash show’s once proud signs of the past and excitement of this locations uniqueness by current artists like Twenty-Seven (Duce-7).

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

A fast moving eastbound on the south track streaks by in the foreground, meanwhile a heavy westbound struggles up the north track. This view shows 2 trains meeting at Siberia. The Sigma 150-600 Contemporary F5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens was the right choice for this sequence. The rapidly falling eastbound container train has a break in its loadings and I am able to grab this interesting view of the slow moving freight between the fast moving containers in the foreground. Sometimes opportunity unfolds fast, be ready!

Meanwhile the eastbound clears and I am able to get a shot of the ancient “Santa Fe” stencil on the south tracks bridge, as the heavy westbound struggles out to gain elevation around a huge dry lake. Again the flexibility and manageability of the 150-600 Contemporary lens allows me to go vertical for the composition, hand held.

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

The Cadiz turn is always a train I watch for in the late afternoon on Ash Hill. This job always has interesting motive power and today is no exception. Stocked with 6 freshly rebuilt and washed locomotives, following “elephant style” (nose to tail). Heat is dissipated thru the fans on the roof as all 6 units hold back tonnage on the south track, in this strong telephoto view.

© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016
© William Beecher 2016

“Ash Hill” proper is the top of the grade, and is the location of this westbound stack train, laying back over a rare stretch of tangent (straight) track. Sigma’s 150-600mm Contemporary lens easily compresses all 4000 feet of moving commerce in one sharp image, with great depth of field at F-13.

Railfanning in the desert can be dangerous, but common sense like bringing and drinking lots of water, using sun screen, wearing appropriate clothing and covering your head from the sun will mitigate most problems. Train speeds are rather low on the hill, so multiple shots can be had of the same train if something strikes your fancy, or chasing juicy light. Yet use caution near tracks as there are plenty of places on the Needles Sub that do host freight trains moving 70mph! Most adjacent land is wide open, with few fences much less people to chase you out, the government owns most of it anyway and can put on quite the show between trains at the Marine Corps training ranges which stretches for miles along the southern boarder of the railroad and road between Cadiz and well beyond Ludlow. The fact that this is Route 66, wide-spots of what little civilization is left, tend to be right along the BNSF mainline anyway. With all the Americana type charm, people trackside and roadside with camera gear is common, which strangely makes this one of the few places where railfans tend to fit right in! See you trackside!

 

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