Shooting Trains !

No not with a twelve bore shot-gun but a lot of very expensive cameras.

Over three days in mid October the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway played host to a group of people who were taking part in a ‘Photo Charter’. In simple terms the whole railway was hired out so that the paying guests could take photos of trains in action.

Now of course you can come along on any day when the railway is running and take photos, but, on a normal running day there will only be three passenger trains in each direction. What if the sun isn’t shining when the train comes along ? What if you want the engine to be unkempt and pulling goods wagons ?

The Afternoon Goods Train

The Earl pulling a goods train near Sylfaen

The answer is to take part in a Photo Charter.

The organiser specifies the locomotive to be rostered and what it will be pulling. They will also indicate how clean (or dirty) they would like the loco to be. On this occasion a ‘make-up artist’ came in to give The Earl a make-over.

Grubby Engine

The Earl heavily made up to look like it had not been cleaned for weeks. Personally I think this was overdone as there is little evidence to suggest that the W&LLR engines were ever neglected to such an extent.

Each day the photographers assemble from about eight o’clock and (hopefully) by nine o’clock the train will be on its way to the first location.For a goods train shoot the crew will usually consist of : driver, fireman, goods guard, passenger guard and the liaison person.

Train operation on such occasions requires the implementation of sections of the railway Rule Book that are normally only used for Emergency Working Procedures. For example under normal circumstances the propelling of passenger trains is not permitted. To do this there must be a guard or other competent person riding at the front who is in radio contact with the driver. Such trains must also run at reduced speed.

What you wont see in any of the photos is the carriage that they ride in. Once the train has arrived at the chosen location and the photographers have disembarked it is moved well out of shot and uncoupled. The passenger guard stays with it and has plenty of time to read or even take a nap.

With the photographers and the liaison person safely off the track, and perhaps in a neighbouring field, instructions are then radioed to the driver as to what is required of the first run past.

Passing Ron's Last Hut

The Earl and goods wagons running between the Banwy Bridge and Heniarth Halt

The chances of all the photographers getting what they want in one take is minimal and so multiple runs are needed. The weather can be problematic particularly if there are clouds scudding across the sky and then the loco crew may have to wait several minutes until the ‘light is right’. At Heniarth there is the A458 main road to Dolgellau part the way up the hill side. One run past was spoilt by the presence of a bright blue ready mixed concrete truck passing by at the wrong moment.

Then there is the issue of what some people euphamistically refer to as ‘texture’. To you and me that means smoke or steam coming out of the chimney. Now the gradient profile of the W&LLR is akin to a linear roller coaster. Leaving Welshpool there is a great big climb up the Golfa Bank followed by a short down hill bit, a gently sloping down hill section, an up hill section, followed by a down hill and so on until the end of the line is reached at Llanfair Caereinion. Because of the Golfa Bank (gradient 1:29 or 3.4%) all the engines face chimney first towards Llanfair.

You may have worked out what is coming next….

Many of the better photographic locations are on downhill sections of line. Under normal operating circumstances the train would be coasting with minimal smoke or steam issuing from the chimney. This compounded because we use a soft Welsh coal that contains little in the way of volatile hydrocarbons. In other words the engines don’t make much smoke anyway.

The Farmers Line

The Earl approaching Morgan’s Crossing near Cyfronydd

So to get some of that lovely ‘texture’ various subterfuges are employed. Now the simplest is to run the locomotive with the hand brake on and regulator open. If the event takes place at a time of year when the weather is cool the steam will condenses into nice white clouds.

Dark smoke can be achieved by adding a bit of oil to the fire but this is rather hit and miss and often only last for a few seconds. It the sequence of pictures below there was dark smoke at the chimney for around ten seconds.

img_3317 img_3318

img_3319 img_3320

Dark smoke sequence near Sylfaen that lasted a mere 10 seconds. A bit of steam and the rainbow overhead would yield a much nicer photo.

Another trick is to use old VHS tapes these burn slower and give a moderate amount of smoke. Thomas The Tank Engine, Postman Pat and many other other titles were seen being loaded into the goods brake van for later transfer to the loco coal bunker.

Unusual Livestock aka Railway Photographers

Photographers in one of Phil Morgan’s fields near Cyfronydd

Taking water

Refilling The Earl’s water water tanks. One of the heritage goods wagons contains two x 1 cubic metre tanks and a petrol engine driven pump. Photo by Tim Abbott

One day I was acting as the Liaison person. It was my job to follow the organiser about and turn his requirements into action. Whilst it was the first time I had done this role many years of being on the loco at these events meant I was able to understand the job quickly.

The weather was not kind that day with squally showers, lots of cloud and just a few sunny breaks. Photography had to be crammed into the times when the sun peeped out from behind the clouds. In between it was a case being patient. (One photographer did comment ‘Does the sun have to shine/ Why can’t they just get on with it’.)

While we were near Cyfronydd the organiser yomped off on his own and I was left to make the decisions about when to call in the train. I think I got it right ….

There was bonus to doing the Liaison job – I could take some pictures. No expensive camera for me, just a £70 compact that slips into my pocket.

Somewhere Under The Rainbow

Somewhere Under The Rainbow

Cwm Lane Level Crossing

Late afternoon goods train at Cwm Lane level crossing

Golfa Bank

Slogging Up Golfa Bank

Photographs used in this post are all mine unless credited.

More of my photos can be found here

Other peoples photos:-

Daryl Hutchinson click to the right hand side to scroll through

Ron Lines click to the right hand side to scroll through

Tim Abbott click to the right hand side to scroll through


This entry was posted in Cyfronydd, Heniarth, Heritage, Llanfair Caereinion, Photographs, railroad, railway, Sylfaen, Welshpool, Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Shooting Trains !

  1. Your photos are really lovely and the article is very interesting, I hadn’t realised the operational difficulties of putting on a photographer’s jamboree. It was worth it though, as yours and the other photographers shots on Flickr prove. (incidentally, your link to Ron Lines doesn’t work). I know W&L locos weren’t ever that dirty, but I do like dirty locos, so that is fine by me! The other thing that I find a bit of a cliche is this light thing. As some photographers have proved, there’s no such thing as bad light, just mediocre photographers! I hate full sunlight with all the blown whites and glare, give me a dull day any time. Same with cameras, while I own a couple of moderately expensive cameras, sometimes my best shots are with my cheap little Samsung point and shoot. It’s who is behind the glass that matters, not the glass. Anyway, that’s all just my opinion which can be taken with a train load of salt…but I did enjoy your blog post:-)

    • Tanllan says:

      Iain, thank you for your comments. Thanks also for pointing out the duff link to Ron Lines’ pictures – that is now fixed.

      I have mixed feelings about the light issue …. but most of the stuff I take is warts and all shots from behind the scenes. One of the regular guys and that last bash turns up before 6 a.m. to get pictures in the shed – he always manages to come up cracking pictures in very low light and usually no flash.

  2. Peter Jarvis says:

    Do I see cattle van No.38088? If so, we had its twin, No.38089 in the early 1960s and converted it into FR goods van No.9, later 59. Took us three years of Tuesday evenings. Gauge conversion back to two-foot, new hornblocks, new solebars, new end irons (rotted by the excreta of the passengers), vacuum pipe (later brakes) and handbrake worked by Palmerston’s handbrake wheel, double skinned sides rubbermasticked between, double skinner floor rubbermasticked between and beneath, all fastened down with brass screws, new doors, new roofsticks and doubleskinned roof, all beautifully painted until someone lit a bonfire alongside it in Glan y Mor yard and someone blew a rock through its roof blasting at Dduallt. You get them….

    Eventually we passed it back to the V of R who propose to rebuild is in its original form. I would have thought it far more useful as a tool van than a cattle van, but that is their choice. They must have more cattle than railway workers. But just how – or why – they will restore the roof to its original height I know not – we cut it down to go through Garnedd Tunnel.

    • Tanllan says:

      Peter, you are correct in your observation. For a long time it was used as a weedkiller wagon and was fitted with a large cylindrical tank that was filled though a hole in the roof. It was eventually rebuilt and now carries a couple of sheep.

  3. Paul B. says:

    Very interesting post, I didn’t realise that pleasing photographers would be such hard work! I’m not suprised though.
    Good use for old VHS cassettes, I knew that they were volatile from seeing fire safety videos, nice to know that a good use can be found for them!

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