Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mullan Pass and Patience

Story and Photography By Justin Franz

In October 2005 when I made my first trip to Montana, railroading here was in a storm of change between past, present and future. While the main purpose of the trip was to visit family and look at the University of Montana, an underlying goal was to shoot Montana Rail Link’s SD45s on Mullan Pass. Unfortunately the invaders had already arrived in the form of SD70ACe’s and on our one day there, they were the motive power of choice for helpers. I soon accepted the fact that classic images of 45s in helper service would be a subject absent from my slide collection.

Fast forward to President’s Day Weekend, 2008. With friend and fellow UM freshman Cameron Chapman offering a seat to Helena with him and his father Ed to shoot MRL, I really couldn’t refuse. So with a few rolls of film and an empty memory card I headed east on Friday, February 15, under mostly cloudy skies. While the weather wasn’t great, trains were moving and hopes of a successful weekend were high. But upon arriving at Elliston, where helpers on westbound trains usually cut off, just after sunset, everything changed. Sitting on the mainline, having just pushed a westbound freight, was three SD45-2s and an SD40. All the sudden six rolls of film didn’t look like enough.

Below are a few digital images of my weekend on Mullan Pass, one spent waiting and hoping for the combination of sun and SD45s. When you’ve waited three years, what’s another three days?

While there were SD45s, the SD70ACes remained the perfered helpers over the weekend. Here set of Ace's roll down hill at East Austin, Montana.

Close, but no cigar: On Saturday afternoon the 45s finally took to the hill, but under mostly cloudy skies. Those "Classic Images" would have to come another day.

On Sunday morning it looked as if it would finally happen, so we thought. Standing at Tobin we found blue skies to the west on Mullan Pass, and SD45s leading a train to the east! Between them however was this soal crushing scene, a derailed tank car.

By early afternoon the tank car was rerailed and dispatchers in Missoula opened the line up to let eastbounds that had been sitting on the hill to enter Helena. A eastbound BNSF grain train is just east of town, at Tobin.

Strike Two: With the line cleared MRL sent that long awaited westbound to the hill; with an SD70ACe on the point. It was sunny, but it wasn't what we were hoping for.

A westbound grain train storms by the station sign at Blossburg. The next day dawned clear, but again the first two trains of the day on the hill would find the SD70ACe's on the job. It appeared that I would again fail in my quest for 45s on Mullan Pass, until......

Victory: After three years, and three days, I finally shot a set of MRL SD45s in helper service, under screaming blue skies on President's Day. An hour or so before sunset the four classic EMDs grind their way up hill in this digi grab shot, just before droping the Canon XTi to burn the classic image on Kodachrome.

Special Thanks to Ed and Cameron Chapman, Eric Vernado and Montana Rail Link.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Unsettled Weather

Photos By Justin Franz

As a student in the journalism program here at the University of Montana, I find I get some nice perks. One of those is being able to scan slides. Here are two of the first batch I scanned. I’m still trying to figure the thing out and these were touched up in photo shop to meet the quality of the original slide, but none the less hopefully you enjoy.

With Glacier National Park in the background, an eastbound BNSF train heads across the plains near Grizzly, Montana in October, 2007.

While the day started out sunny, it didn't end that way for the crew of Montana Rail Link's Polson Local, seen here in blizzard conditions near Evero, Montana in October, 2007.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Back Under Big Sky

Photo By Justin Franz

After five awesome weeks back east, that included many a memorable day trackside, I’ve finally returned to my temporary home here in Montana. Unfortunately, with school work, a life to lead and other photography duties in photojournalism classes, time spent trackside hasn’t been as plentiful. Not to mention the less then perfect weather that has planted itself right over western Montana for the past few weeks. But that’s ok, there will be plenty of time to shoot later on in the semester, especially when the grunge of winter is replaced with the greens of spring. For now, I shoot what I can. Saturday evening was one of those times as my roommate, Dylan Peck (check out his photo-blog at, and I went out for a impromptu night photo session around Missoula. One of the targets was the former Northern Pacific depot in downtown, now owned by Montana Rail Link parent company, Washington Corp. With its classic design and NP ‘Monad’ adorning the sides it’s a reminder of Missoula and western Montana’s rich railroading past, present and future. One I hope to capture on film, and pixels, in the next three and a half years.