April 11, 2015
Carla was at the coast with her bunco friends for the weekend so I was looking for something to keep me out of trouble. I quickly settled on a quick trip north of Vancouver, Washington on the edge of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge to do some train watching. It’s about a 40 mile drive from door to door – so not bad at all for a chance to see the action on a pretty active line. One of the things that make this a great train watching spot is the nice parking area where you can get a good view of the trains without being too close to the tracks.
If you want to go there, head north on I5 from Portland (or south from Seattle) and take exit 14. Then head west on state 501 until you just enter the town of Ridgefield; turn left on S 9th Ave which becomes S Hillhurst road. Not too far down the road you’ll see an entrance to the refuge on your right. It’s a narrow, steepish dirt road. Go slowly around the curves to make sure you don’t wack into someone headed the other way. It’s not as nerve wracking as I just described it. It’s fine.
Just before you cross the railroad tracks and a bridge leading to the refuge, turn left into the open gravel area. Park and wait a few minutes for your first train. Look south (left) and you’ll see a signal tower that will give you an indication of what’s coming. There is a pair of lights for each of the two tracks. If you see a green light, then you’ll soon be seeing a train coming from the north. If the lights are red, then the track ahead is occupied, probably by a northbound unit.
In the picture you can barely see another tower with the signal lights pointing south. Just beyond this is a siding where a slower or lower priority train may stop. If you see a train stopped there, you’ll almost for certain be seeing a train coming from one direction or another in fairly short order.
This line is owned by the BNSF railroad but the Union Pacific has trackage rights over it. This means you’ll see orange (BNSF) and yellow (Union Pacific) locomotives power through. You’ll often see other roads’ colorsin the consists as well: red Canadian Pacific, black and white Norfolk Southern are frequent visitors here.
As soon as I parked I could here a set of UP locomotives powering up from the south so I quickly unpacked my camera and got a shot. Not a perfect shot – I keep in in “P” (program mode) to enable be to get a quick shot if one presents itself when I’m walking around. As soon as the train went by I reset my settings to get a better balance of shutter speed and depth of field. You can click on the pictures to get enlarged images that (I think) look much better.
Soon thereafter a southbound Amtrak Cascades train came zipping through. They are the fastest movers on this stretch of the line. This one has an older Amtrak locomotive on the front. Normally this train has a locomotive with the Cascade color scheme on both ends of the train. I imagine the dedicated loco had problems and this older unit was pressed into service.
My favorite railroad is the BNSF – successor to the ATSF Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe – whose “Transcon” line parallels Route 66 from Santa Monica to Chicago. They also have a northern trans-continental route that heads east out of Seattle through northern Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and into the Chicago hub. We took that route a couple of years ago when we took our ridiculously awesome train trip on the Empire Builder.
It wasn’t long before my anticipation was answered. (My second favorite picture of the day)
A bit later a Union Pacific train stopped “in the hole” – on the siding south of the control signals I mentioned above. You can get a better view of the southerly signals in this picture. After waiting for a bit it slowly got under way and crossed over from the siding to the main track. (My favorite picture of the day)
Before it got very far a BNSF train came up on the other track. It was fun to see one train passing another.
Happy days! It turned out to be a great late morning for train watching. I went back up to Hillhurst Road and headed south to take the back way home through the farmlands.
I know my birding friends Frances and Jay think I’m nuts for passing up the opportunity to drive through the wildlife refuge since I was so close. I’ve been there before; you can see some pictures here when I was practicing prior to our 2012 trip to South Africa where Andrew and Henriët were married. There were plenty of other posts about our trip; just search for “South Africa” in the search bar on the blog.