Rail fan tracks 'monster train'

LOS ANGELES -- To most people, videotaping a passing 3 1/2 -mile freight train would be about as appealing as . . . well, waiting for a 3 1/2 -mile freight train to get out of the way, The Los Angeles Times reports.

But to Joe Perry, an information network engineer for a downtown Los Angeles bank and a railroading enthusiast since childhood, the arrival of perhaps the biggest train ever in California last weekend was an opportunity not to be missed.

"It's time to pack up again. We're heading out to the Salton Sea," the San Bernardino County resident recalls announcing to his wife Jan. 9, just after returning from a trip to photograph trains near Needles.

He'd gotten wind from a railroading website that an 18,000-foot-long Union Pacific "monster" train was inbound for Los Angeles.

He already had photographs or video of thousands of trains. This was different.

"I've never seen a train that long," he said.

They set out from Ontario about 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 10, caught up with the behemoth near Niland in Imperial County and followed it back toward home for several hours.

"It was very cool. Awesome," he said. "It's kind of like the fisherman catching a 25-pound bass. This is the 25-pound bass."

Perry said he may have the only still photo of the whole thing: a wide desert shot of the three locomotives at the head of the train, with double-stacked container cars trailing off around a long, sweeping curve -- seemingly into infinity.

"If you look real close, you can make out the entire train," he said.

He also shot videos of the train -- the full 60-football-field run of it -- rolling through various locations.

One of the clearer videos was taken with an iPhone, which he placed on trackside rocks along an uphill grade near Cabazon. It took the train, which he estimates was going about 20 mph, 10 minutes to pass. The train is moving faster in another video taken in Ontario and passes the camera in a little less than five minutes.

Perry, 45, is a self-described "true geek" and "hard-core technologist." He's fascinated with systems, machines and man's mastery of them.

"I strive to get the most out of any piece of hardware and/or software that I use," he explains at his website, www.chasingsteel.com. "I push devices beyond most and try to create synergies in technologies where none previously existed."

And, of course, he just loves railroading -- and photographing trains. The challenge, he writes on the website, is "being in the right spot and right time to permanently record the symmetry, the poetry, and the chaos of man's battle against gravity and Mother Nature, and sometimes, himself."

Last weekend's super train, the biggest ever assembled by Union Pacific, was a test of equipment and ways to improve customer service. There are no plans to run such configurations (nine locomotives and nearly 300 freight cars) regularly, said a spokesman for the railroad.

State regulators and a San Gabriel Valley congresswoman, caught off guard by a train apparently unprecedented in California, expressed concerns about potential safety risks, traffic tie-ups and whether the test was a signal of things to come. No incidents were reported, but officials are continuing to examine issues that could be raised by such trains.

Perry isn't troubled. Such freight carriers could trim shipping expenses and even lower consumer prices for goods, he said.

"If UP finds this is the most efficient way to conduct business, that's fine."

(The preceding article by Rich Connell was published January 18, 2010, by The Los Angeles Times.)