Trip Report, Carolinas, November 7-11, 2003

Here is a brief summary of my trip to the Carolinas over the weekend of November 7-11. My reason for going was my cousin's wedding in Charlotte on the night of November 8, but I did get some railfanning in as well.

Friday, November 7

I flew in to Charlotte on Friday morning, and after picking up my rental car (Chevy Malibu, nice little ride), I headed for NS's ex-Southern main line north of Charlotte. I started in Concord, where there was a highway overpass and a Southern-style cantilever signal bridge, but I didn't see anything there and the clouds started to roll in, so I headed north to Kannapolis.

Kannapolis wasn't a bad spot to shoot at. The ex-SOU station is still there, along with the Amtrak station in a trailer a little ways down the tracks from it. There's a road along both sides of the main through much of the town, with grassy areas between the roads and the track, so it is really easy to shoot there. At the north end of town, the double track goes down to single, so the interlocking signals there will let you know if something is lined up.

A northbound train with Union Pacific power arrived, and held at the interlocking while a work crew north of there cleared up, so I went north one more town to Landis, where the track curved around enough to get some sun (which had come back out) on the side of the train. The station at Landis is restored, with a gazebo across the tracks from it and nice landscaping too, so it was a pretty spot to get a shot. I bagged the UP train and went back to Kannapolis.

Kannapolis was the hometown of the late Dale Earnhardt, and the town built a small park with a life-sized bronze statue of the Intimidator in the center of it. I stopped past there, got a couple pictures, paid my respects to my long-time hero, and headed south back towards Concord.

By this point it was overcast, and I stopped at a McDonald's on the north side of Concord for a quick bite to eat. Right behind it was the mainline, and I saw a southbound train slowly creep by and stop as I was eating, so I drove back to my spot in Concord and waited for it. I ended up shooting that train and three more while I was there, including another northbound with UP power. Thus concluded my railfanning for the day.

Saturday, November 8

After visiting the shops of Dale Earnhardt Inc. with my family that morning, I went up to the Spencer Shops of the North Carolina Transportation Museum. I had been there 12 years ago with my family, so of course I didn't have enough time to see what I wanted and had to go back. They were supposed to be running their Shay that day, but it had a problem and so they were running their excursion train around the shops with their high-hood Southern GP30, which was still pretty cool. I got a couple shots of it running past a large fuel tank with a large Southern emblem on the side. (Look Ahead, Look South.)

Sunday, November 9

I didn't do any railfanning that day per se. Instead I drove out to Rockingham to try to watch the NASCAR Winston Cup race at The Rock that afternoon. I ran into someone who had two tickets he was giving away, so I took one and got to see the race for free. From the bleachers, I could see an ex-Seaboard main line to the east, but never saw any trains on it during the race. As I was leaving the parking lot around 6:00 PM, I did see Superliner cars going by, so Amtrak must use that line for some of its trains.

Monday, November 10

This day's mission was the Lancaster & Chester Railway, a shortline serving the South Carolina cities and counties of its name. For a long time, the L&C has used a fleet of EMD switchers, but in the past year or so they have leased five GP38-2s from Helm and Locomotive Leasing Partners (LLPX), as their longer trains have required heavier power. From what I learned, the line was built as narrow gauge originally and was later standard gauged, but many of the curves and hills are from the original alignment. Therefore, the line still has some four percent grades and sharp curves. Interestingly, I also learned that you don't call a switcher a switcher on the L&C. The local term for switcher is "butthead." I don't believe they refer to anything on the railroad as a "Beavis."

I found the L&C office in downtown Lancaster. Outside, a trio of SW900s were switching some cars. I poked my head in to ask what was going on, and one of the L&C guys told me that there was a train at Chester, one on its way to Ameristeel and then heading to Kershaw on the the Kershaw District, and the switchers outside were heading towards Chester shortly. While I really wanted to shoot the switchers, I figured there would be no point chasing them as they came out of the sun, so I drove northwest through town to find the train on the Kershaw District. (The Kershaw District is a former Southern branch that the L&C took over from NS a year or two ago. The original L&C runs 29 miles between Lancaster and Chester.)

I caught up to the train north of town. He was using a pair of blue HLCX (Helm) GP38-2s of obvious Conrail heritage. While not the most exciting power in the world, at least they were clean. My first shot was south of the Ameristeel plant in a small residental area off of the highway. As I parked my car and set up for the shot, dogs began barking and roosters began crowing in the backyard of the house across the tracks from me.

Welcome to South Carolina, I thought.

I shot the train there, and again at Ameristeel. Ameristeel gets in gondolas of steel and makes railroad spikes from it, which they ship out in buckets loaded in gons or boxcars. The train headed back to Lancaster, and I got a couple more shots of it, including one place in town by a lumber supply house. At the latter location, I was putting my camera away when I noticed that an L&C truck had pulled up the crossing. The driver got out, walked over to me, introduced himself, and asked what I was up to. I told him I was down here from Ohio taking pictures, and he said he was just checking to make sure that I "wasn't fixing to blow up the train or anything." After I realized I was a railfan, he told me where the train was heading next, and the best road to take to catch it, so I thanked him and headed off in hot pursuit.

The next location I went to was south of town where the Kershaw District goes over U.S. 521 Business on a bridge. I camped out at the side of the road and shot the train on the bridge. Fortunately, the crew didn't drop off the cars from Ameristeel, but just took them along for the ride, so I didn't have to chase only a light engines all the way to Kershaw.

From Lancaster south for about 6-7 miles, the line is a railfan's dream chase. U.S. 521 was on the east side of the track, while the old main road, a two-lane country road, was on the west side, so chasing was easy. Track speed is 10 MPH. (The original L&C main top speed is 20 MPH.) So you could literally drive along, stop, get out and shoot, get back in your car, drive a quarter mile, get out, shoot, etc., for most of the way. Just north of Pleasant Hill, the country road ends, and you're back on the highway again.

I was waiting by the fire department building in Elgin for the train to arrive, and noticed it was going really slow. Check that--it had stopped. I hadn't heard anything on the radio like they were having a problem, so after 10 minutes or so, I drove up to check on the train. No crew. I crossed over to U.S. 521 and drove back down along the other side of the train, and noticed they had stopped across the road from a restaurant, so I went back to my photo spot and waited. Yep, 20 minutes later, I saw two figures in the distance cross the road and get back on the train. I guess they do things a little more laid back down there...

Speaking of which, I was blown away by how friendly the folks in South Carolina are. Usually when I'm out taking pictures, when I'm standing on a bridge or at a grade crossing waiting for a train to come, people drive by and look at me like I'm either a terrorist or I have two heads or something. Know what they do in SC? They smile and wave! Even as I'm driving along chasing the train, people I pass would wave to me and I'd wave back. It was quite a refreshing change from what I'm used to in the northeast or even back home in Ohio. Even the engineer on the L&C train would smile and give me a big wave or thumbs up every time the train would pass me.

To make a long story short, I chased the train through Pleasant Hill and Heath Springs to Kershaw. Heath Springs has a nicely restored station, along with a quaint downtown area to get shots in. I thought I was going to miss the station shot, as I got a picture north of town but didn't think I had enough time to make it into downtown. Turns out the train stopped for a couple of minutes as it got into down, as a small crane, pushing a car of ties, came north into town and cleared up in the siding north of the depot. Then the train continued south, and I shot it passing the station.

I got to Kershaw and watched as they moved cars around and made their pickups at the ADM soybean mill, which is currently the only customer on the Kershaw District south of Lancaster. ADM has an SW8, numbered 8682, which they use as a plant switcher. Based on the number, it may have been an ex-Conrail/Lehigh Valley unit. (I'm trying to confirm or deny that.)

While the crews were switching cars, I stopped at a convenience store, picked up some lunch, and ate while watching them work. I also took a few pictures of the ex-Southern depot a couple blocks south of the mill. I got to talking with a fellow from a contracting firm who is doing tie work for the L&C. Apparently they are replacing lots of ties on the Kershaw District so the track speed can be raised to 20 MPH. He also said that he heard the L&C was going to keep three of its SW900s: 90, 91, and 92, but the rest would sold in a couple of years. They might be looking at getting even larger power, such as GP40s, to handle its growing traffic.

After cleaning out the covered hoppers at the mill and spotting some tank cars which were stored south of the depot, the L&C train headed north, and the chase was on again. I followed it all the way back to Lancaster. While the light angle wasn't the best, there were a few places I was able to get some decent side light on the train. The train got to the interchange with the original L&C main and continued west through town.

I ran into an L&C signal maintainer and asked if he knew how far the train was going. He got on his radio and asked, and the reply was "Chester." Looks like I was going to get to cover the entire railroad in one day! Westward I went, getting a shot on the west side of Lancaster, along with a shot or two at Fort Lawn.

The train made a stop at the Circle S feed mill, west of Fort Lawn. Circle S is a large modern feed mill of concrete construction with tracks which can hold a couple dozen covered hoppers. L&C usually leaves a switcher or two there to work the mill; this day I saw a pair of the LLPX GP38-2s parked there. This was really a neat spot. The grade on the main passing the mill is pretty steep to begin with, but the tracks going into the mill drop below the level of the main line, so watching that pair of GP38-2s pull cuts of cars out of there was something to see and hear! They pretty much cleaned out the mill and headed west. I think they had 59 or so cars by this point. Never let anyone tell you the L&C is some rinky dink shortline--they move some serious traffic!

I beat the train over to the industrial area east of Richburg, where I found train 15 with three buttheads working, so I got some shots of them. Meanwhile, there was a loud roar that could heard to the east for several minutes as the other train approached. Train 15 made a few more setouts and then cleared up in a siding, and I shot the two trains passing. The engineer on train 15 told me he had a little more work to do before heading to Lancaster for the day, so I decided to hang out for a couple minutes for more pictures of the buttheads, as I figured I could catch up to the other train west of Richburg, which I did. Unfortunately, I missed by about 30 seconds an excellent shot of the train across a cow pasture, but I did get a neat shot of the train curving out some trees at a grade crossing a little ways to west.

By this point, the light was getting seriously low. I checked out a couple more shot locations east of Chester, but they were all shadowed in. I ended up at the NS interchange in Chester and talked to a couple of L&C guys while we waited for the train arrive and deliver its cars to the NS. One of them gave me a photo he took last week of all five of their leased GP38-2s on a train. From Chester, I drove back to Charlotte, stopping to buy gas for $1.27 a gallon. Much cheaper than back home in Ohio!

Tuesday, November 11

I drove that morning to Laurinburg, home of the Laurinburg & Southern, another shortline. I found a number of their engines in town, but nobody around. While driving about, I spotted a small building with a large sign stating "GENERAL OFFICES OF THE LAURINBURG & SOUTHERN RAILROAD" or something like that. So I stopped in, only to find out that the folks in that building had sold the railroad, but they were nice enough to call the current owners to find out where they were working. The gentleman I talked to directed me a location east of town where they working.

I drove over there and found a pair of black SW1500s (ex-Conrail) spotting a string of covered hoppers at the CSX interchange. Turned out that the CSX local that was to exchange cars with them was running late and wouldn't be around for a couple more hours, so the show was over for a while. The L&S guys were cordial, but not overly friendly, and I figured since nothing was going on, I'd head west to Hamlet and catch some CSX action.

Hamlet was a crossroads of the former Seaboard Air Line, and SAL had a large yard north of town. A large station building stood at the diamond of the two lines. In April 2003, it was turned and moved across the tracks off of CSX property. This day, there were all kinds of men and machines working on restoring it. Across the street from the relocated station was a restored SAL SDP35 and caboose. Pretty cool.

I got a few shots of trains going through town, including a shot I really wanted of an eastbound coal train passing the station. There are tracks everywhere, and while there might not always be a good photo angle of every move through town, you can at least see everything.

I drove north of town to check out the yard, and got a shot of a GP39/slug set at the north end of the yard, then went back into town for a little while before making my way back to Charlotte. I stopped past the shop of the Charlotte Trolley folks to get a couple pictures of their car 85, which I had rode the last time I was in town. Afterwards, I checked out a great photo spot on the NS at Summit Street for future reference, and then drove to the airport. I returned my rental car, checked in my bag, and flew home.


Much of my Lancaster & Chester information came from these two web sites:

The site also has detailed information about NS and CSX lines in the Carolinas, including the Hamlet area. Check it out!