Railroads and the Moving Image

For as long as people have been making motion pictures, they’ve been recording railroads.

JUST A FEW YEARS AFTER the invention of the first motion picture camera, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière produced one of the first commercial films in the world, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station—it featured a train pulling into a depot and passengers disembarking. Railroads were popular subjects for early filmmakers because trains moved and made fascinating subjects. That trend continues today. But despite that popularity, videography has never gotten its proper due within the railroad art community. Every year, Trains, Railfan & Railroad, and this organization hold photography contests or publish stories that examine artists who paint the railroad landscape. For all the time we dedicate to interpreting and analyzing still imagery, we rarely discuss moving images in the same manner—and that’s despite the many challenges of creating them that can lead to engaging commentary.

But what makes a great railroad video? Conversations with a number of notable videographers revealed a multitude of answers, from capturing a diversity of angles to recording quality sound.

“It’s one thing to go out and shoot video of trains but to make something relevant to the viewer you have to tell a story,” said David Busse, a retired journalist and Pentrex videographer, adding that a good clip has a combination of wide shots, medium shots, and tight shots, which helps keep the viewer engaged. “I love the shots of a big steam locomotive coming down the tracks but I also want shots of the crew on the ground working on the locomotive. That’s just as cool and as interesting as the train itself.”

“In general, when I shoot a video, I am looking for three things—scenery, sunlight, and sound,” said videographer Joe Fusco. “When choosing locations, I first ask myself—what will the backdrop be? What will be in the foreground? The next question is what will the lighting look like at the time of day the train comes through? Both of those questions are more photographic in nature, but a huge aspect of videography/cinematography is sound. The third and final question I ask myself is what will the scene sound like? Will the engine be working hard or coasting? Will they likely blow the whistle? Is there a river in the background that will provide ambience?”

For years, there was a high barrier for entry when it came to videography. For starters, the equipment needed to shoot and edit video was expensive. It was also harder to share video with others when compared to still images. But these barriers are starting to crumble. Just about every digital camera can shoot video now and even contemporary smartphones can capture high-quality footage. Most new computers come with some sort of basic video editing software. And websites like YouTube and Facebook have also made it considerably easier to share moving images with a wider audience. While challenges remain, C. Vision Productions videographer Mike Savona believes the field of railroad videography is growing by the year.

“There’s really no excuse not to take video these days,” he said.

Those interested in the craft of railroad imagery can only hope that more take Savona’s advice. While still photos can capture evocative moments, the combination of sound and movement can mentally transport the viewer to another place, helping those who pursue the craft convey the excitement and drama of railroading that we love so much.

“N&W 611 on the Mainline – Roanoke Excursions” by Joe Fusco

“Home” was the word that was stuck in my head when filming Norfolk & Western 611 in and around Roanoke, Virginia. Mainline steam operations are rare, and even rarer still is the opportunity to see a locomotive run where its builders intended it to—mere feet from the shops where the engine was originally constructed.

Naturally I wanted to play up the fact that 611 was home. I opened the video with the rhythmic sounds of the engine’s air compressor set against the text, “ROANOKE, VA”, followed by a handful of backlit scenes showing 611 idling in front of its birthplace. To drive the point home, I included a shot of its builders plate, which proudly displays Roanoke’s name. I chose to go with some more abstract and backlit shots at this location because, in all honesty, many of the other (accessible) angles of the Roanoke shops are a bit less than photogenic. I was pleased to be greeted with such bright early morning sunlight and I knew I wanted the first few frames of the video to be dramatic.

Once the 611 was on the move, I prioritized two things—capturing the 611 working hard, and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The trips heading toward Lynchburg presented a challenge—what was once open fields and mountain vistas has now become a heavily closed-in “tree-tunnel.” Any opening in the trees was a potential photo location. Otherwise, I tended to shoot more telephoto on this end of the line. A highlight of the Lynchburg side of the line was a pair of ex-N&W signals still standing—now since removed. One of my favorite shots to this day is the telephoto angle I got of 611 visibly climbing the hill through the arch-bridge overpass at Bedford. I love the fact you can’t see the locomotive at first, as the engine slowly (at a brisk pace of forty miles per hour) reveals itself under a cloud of smoke and steam.

For the other side of the line, heading toward Radford over the Christiansburg mountain grade, I found myself focusing on scenery. Any angle that allowed me to dwarf 611 in front of a mountainside was a winner in my mind. The farm at Shawsville (permission obtained to shoot here) exemplifies this. Just beyond Shawsville at Basham Hollow Road, I set up a head-on shot with both tracks clearly in view. In the distance, we heard not only the sound of 611’s steam whistle, but also the rumble of an oncoming freight train. We were worried that the diesels may intrude and even spoil the shot. Such is life on an active, double-tracked freight mainline. However, things worked out much more interestingly than we could have imagined. The 611 was moving at about the same speed as—or maybe a hair faster than— the freight train. The freight train was pacing the rear of the 611’s train, just out of sight! The diesel engine’s ditch lights reflected off of the glossy passenger cars to create a sort of artificial glint effect—all while staying out of view. Pretty neat, I thought. Lastly, I wanted to conclude the video with a string of classic “zoom and pan” shots that exemplify 611’s speed and power, as seems to be a classic “railroad video” tradition. A couple of s-curves around Chrisman Mill Road did the trick—one of them even had a rock cut that served as a natural “amplifier” for 611’s booming exhaust.

To wrap things up, I included just one more shot of 611 in Roanoke, slowly bringing the train out of the wye into a scene that showed off a much more modern-looking Roanoke. I thought this was a fitting way to end the video—starting with a shot from 611’s birthplace with the antiquated Roanoke shops in the background, ending with Roanoke’s ultra-modern art museum in frame.

“The Little Engines That Could” by Kelly Lynch

I was invited to Maine to showcase the stellar cooperation and teamwork between Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum and the Wiscasset, Waterville, & Farmington Railway Museum. Going in, I knew I wanted to shoot as much as I could in 4K and at a high frame rate (120 frames per second) to really bask in the beauty of wintertime railroading, but I also had to run and gun for three days straight, with a fifteen pound set up (I came armed with the heaviest of Pelican camera cases loaded with a Canon C200, my Canon 5D for stills, a handful of lenses, and a DJI Mavic 2 Pro).

There’s a delicate balance coming from both the steam railroad and film industries. You know how long it takes to get an engine ready, what a crew has to do every morning or out on the line, and over the years I’ve found myself automatically anticipating or estimating what’s next and try to get in place, in focus, and properly exposed for it while determining any potential composition and movement that can help accentuate what’s there or what can help convey how you feel about it. Everything there felt like a storybook or a fairy tale and that’s what crept into what I was doing. That’s probably the time I feel the most creative outside the editing room—just thinking within a second or two “Okay, the conductor is going to walk this way after throwing the switch, his breath is going to hang in the air, the locomotive will pass behind him leaving a trail of steam, if I slowly rack focus on the 70-200mm lens I’ll catch him and can follow him from there and get a lengthy bit of usable footage if I film it at 120fps, hopefully, he won’t look at the camera and just keep walking…”

Sure enough, there’s a generously long shot of the conductor walking and it’s probably one of my favorite moments in the entire piece. No one asked him or directed him to do what he did, but I was just there when the wheel went ’round.

As a cinematic filmmaker, usually, it’s your job to assemble all of those elements and timing and lighting into a kind of constructed chemistry where you hope it all fuses together. Documentary film is a lot more like alchemy.

Maine was one of those projects where I was really lucky in my shooting ratio—nearly ninety-five percent of everything I shot was usable and there were generous opportunities for human interest, because while steam looks gorgeous in the winter, the people help place it, and convey the cold. There was a moment where the train departed and I held back to ride another locomotive to meet them and the crew was thawing switch points—and that was another example of making sure I captured all the elements, the drops of melted snow, the flame, the breath escaping, the flushed red cheeks on the faces of the crew. Taking beautiful images is one thing but I’m constantly editing in my head and thinking about what kind of coverage I need and hoping that whatever is unfolding in front of you gives you enough chances to nail it. Figuring out what shots will connect with others when you’re making them is a question always burning in my brain.

“Nebraska, Kansas & Colorado Railway on the Stormy High Plains”
by Mike Savona, C.Vision Productions

The Nebraska, Kansas & Colorado Railway is located in southwestern Nebraska and northeastern Colorado. Better known as the NKCR, this Omnitrax company operates over former Burlington Northern trackage. This program covers the western segment of the railroad on the former CB&Q “High Line” from Madrid and Grant, Nebraska to Sterling, Colorado.

The NKCR project was quite the adventure. It all started when we got word that the 20-cylinder units on Omnitrax properties would be retired in 2018. When replacements started showing up, it was time to start documenting what we could. We did indeed capture the last remaining SD45 in service, but the storms that followed overshadowed the locomotives. What was originally supposed to be a single trip to shoot a specific unit, turned into a small project. We returned twice more to capture additional footage to complete an overview of NKCR’s operations over the line.

The first trip we made to the NKCR was in July 2018. On our main day of shooting, the forecast called for thunderstorm development late in the evening, so we made arrangements to be rested, ready, and with the train if any storms worked their way into the area. The morning was fairly uneventful, with a few shots captured of NKCR SD45 7427 leading the eastbound local towards Grant, Nebraska. After a nap in Ogallala, we headed back out in search of the afternoon crew. By the time we caught up to the train in Holyoke, Colorado, a large cluster of fairly strong cells had already formed to our west and south. One issue that presented itself was that the sun had been blocked by the expanding storms. Although it initially appeared unlikely that we’d see any light on the train before the end of the day, the sun dropped below the clouds a few minutes before sunset. That shot became the thumbnail for the video. From there, we began focusing on capturing the storm with the train. With the light fading fast, and the train traveling at forty miles per hour for much of the trip, it became a somewhat stressful chase. Luckily, the train rode the northern edge of the storms the entire way to Sterling, allowing us to continue capturing footage until dusk.

Once the first trip was completed, it was clear that additional footage was needed to create something worthy of an audience. The second trip was done exactly one year after the first. On that day in July 2019, the crew made the same westbound run to Sterling with a small block of loaded grain hoppers, just as they had done a year earlier. We then returned in June 2020 to capture operations east of Grant, which hadn’t been done on either of the previous trips. After a successful third mission, the footage was handed off to Chris Laskowski at C. Vision for processing and project development.

My favorite thing about the project was being able to present the evolution of a storm through a series of runbys. On that stormy evening, we were very grateful that NKCR had an afternoon crew to keep the train going into the night.

My least favorite thing about the project was the lack of variety in the scenes. There’s not much to include out there, and they have a limited number of locomotives. Not to say it wasn’t a worthwhile subject, but it’s something you have to work with the best you can.

“The Amazing Looping Railroad You’ve Never Heard of Before” by Drayton Blackgrove

When most people think of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM), freight rail doesn’t typically come to mind. Known for preserving historic rail equipment and for hosting excursion trains behind the famous Southern Railway 4501 and 630, TVRM’s freight operations are often overshadowed by these steam locomotives. Indeed, few people realize that TVRM’s revenue freight business is much of what attributes to their success, both as a museum and as an employer in the Tennessee Valley region. TVRM operates three freight railroads: the Tyner Terminal Railway, the East Chattanooga Belt Railway, and the Hiwassee River Railroad. The Hiwassee line only sees one freight move every year (on average). Its primary source of revenue is car storage in Copperhill, Tennessee where TVRM has a small yard capable of storing about 200 freight cars. The Hiwassee line features a unique loop where long trains run over themselves on a bridge.

The special revenue freight move was a last-minute request of the customer, so for those of us wanting to document this rare train down the Old Line, there wasn’t much time to plan. Fortunately, I had spent enough time documenting TVRM’s passenger train to know that a 1.5-mile hike was required in order to fly a drone above the loop without losing signal or line-of-sight. With no roads nearby to provide access, I hiked in with two other members of TVRM who had foreknowledge of the move. Since the speed limit for freight on the Hiwassee Line is only ten miles per hour, we had plenty of time to hike back to the loop.

Near the bottom of the looping grade, along the banks of the Hiwassee River, we waited patiently for the train. The loud roar of the non-turbo 645 EMD prime movers could be heard for miles. As the rails started to hiss and pop, I launched my drone in anticipation of getting the video of a lifetime. As the train approached the wooden bridge atop the bottom loop, I pressed the record button. Flying ahead of the locomotives on the bridge, I slowly moved my drone to the side and out of the way of the slow-moving freight. The crew knew my flight plan ahead of time, as it was coordinated with TVRM the day before.

As the train circled around Bald Mountain, I prepared to slowly drop the drone into the treeline above the bridge so that the viewer could see the locomotives passing underneath the train itself. I had not attempted this before, since a ninety-car train is required at minimum to loop itself. The timing worked out by sheer coincidence. It was truly the perfect shot and I’m glad it worked out because if you’ve never photographed the Hiwassee Line before, you’ll quickly learn that it’s only possible to capture one scene between the loop and Reliance before the train reaches its destination.

Additional resources

This page accompanies “Railroads and the Moving Image,” an article by Justin Franz in Railroad Heritage 2021:4. Support from the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society’s William D. Middleton Research Fellowship helped make this project possible. Use the links below to watch clips or purchase films mentioned in the article. The subheadings in this list correspond to the those in the magazine.

A short history

The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station

The Haverstraw Tunnel

Leaving Jerusalem by Railway

A Trip Down Market Street

From phantom rides to cab rides and free rides

Commercial productions

Train to Everywhere

The craft of videography

Winter on Marias Pass