Saturday, 6 May 2017

6 May 2017

Saturday 6 May 2017 - local time.

Hi all. As promised here's the first entry for my railfan trip to the USA.

The first day consisted of flying from Palmy to Auckland and then flying from Auckland to Houston. Totally seamless and I will always extol the virtues of flying Air New Zealand.

Clearing Customs at Houston for me was a breeze as I was still using my old Passport which hasn't expired yet, so I got directed to the fast electronic ESTA machine, a quick scan, fingerprints and say 'No' to all the questions on the screen, a stamp in the passport and "Welcome to the USA".

Lloyd, my travelling companion had a new passport so had to be processed by a real person and the queue was horrendous. I had to wait for 40 minutes at the baggage claim carousel before he finally turned up.

Just before getting to the exit doors, some Nigerian guy with a valid-ish looking ID offered to take us direct to a hotel shuttle/taxi and he grabbed the trolley and started walking off with our bags. Despite his best intentions, I felt we were being led a merry dance and I had a few choice words to say to him. He was legit, but mis-understood what I wanted.

He then took us to where the taxis actually were and promptly disappeared. He had good intentions, but when some stranger takes off with your stuff and you've just landed after a 13 hour flight and you haven't slept a wink,....never mind.

We jumped in a cab and I told the (another Nigerian) guy where we wanted to go - he had to open up Google Navigation on his cell phone to find the hotel that was only a 12 minute drive away. On top of that, he only knew of one way to operate the gas and brake pedals - digitally - full on or full off. Insane driver. For the last few k's I had to show him where to go as he was about to get himself totally lost on the Houston freeway system.

Anyway, we made it unscathed and checked in, Lloyd took a combat nap and I had a walk around the area.

Our first night was spent here in Humble, Texas - on the outskirts of the Houston city limits. The tree line behind it is where the UP line is.

About 50m behind the Hotel is a Union Pacific main line - the Lufkin Subdivision I think it's called. There are no grade crossings nearby so we didn't get any warning as to when trains were passing through. Upon my return, I changed into shorts and sat with my feet in the pool - it was about 28 degrees but not humid. No trains.

Lloyd woke up, we found dinner, took it back to the hotel and sat poolside eating it and chatting for at least an hour - no trains.   Oh oh.     At this point I was a bit concerned. As we sat there, an aircraft landed at IAH about every 3 minutes and our hotel was under the flight path - very cool.

It got dark and we hit the sack early and slept through the alarm...only by about 45 minutes, thank goodness for my phobia of being late - still had plenty of time to have brekkie and catch a cab to the airport and look around.

As I was closing the room door, I caught sight of something moving in the trees - it was an autorack train zipping past the hotel and we didn't even hear a thing - it was totally silent. This allayed my fears somewhat.

Taxi ride to the airport was a joy - it was a local guy and he was hilarious and loved our sense of humour - $20 well spent. He also explained that since the demise of the Yellow Cabs, lots of useless cab companies have sprung up with foreign drivers at the helm that don't know their way around. He was a cool guy.

Flight check in was again easy, a lot to be said about the excellent service provided by United Airlines and how their system ties in with Air NZ's. Just a quick scan of my passport and my baggage label and boarding pass were printed.

The flight to Kansas City was really good - both Lloyd and myself got single seats in the ERJ and it was a smooth as ride. Lots to see and we were both amazed at how green Texas was. I got targeted for a slow search etc, whereas Lloyd was allowed to pass straight through - that's one each I guess. I noticed the zippers on my bag had moved and upon arriving at the hotel in KC, found a TSA label inside saying my bag had been randomly searched. Luckily I don't use padlocks - they would have destroyed it.

Anyway, as we took off from Houston, I noticed another train zipping past our hotel - that's good. The reason for this will become clear in about 25 days time.

A bit of a muck around picking up the rental car, but we were expected. It's all about having Debit Plus Cards - Americans don't like them and they require additional ID and authorisation to process, which just takes additional time. My fault, I was supposed to get another dedicated credit card but I forgot. Lloyd is able to help out if I strike a real jam.

Hotel entered in the SATNAV and we found it no problems - treading on an old stomping ground here - although the last time was back in 2005.

We had lunch and shot off to Birmingham Junction, but took a look at the large lift bridge across the Missouri River first - to find an NS (Norfolk Southern) cement train sitting at a red signal. Nothing happened, and nothing continued to happen for at least an hour. The scanner revealed the reason - another train had broken in half due to a broken coupler and was jamming up traffic entering and leaving the NS Knoche Yard - this sucker was going nowhere.

Norfolk Southern cement train with a CP loco on the front - the second unit is an SD60I - classic.

So I made the call to leave this one and go to Birmingham Junction where the BNSF crosses the NS - only to be met by all lights being red. Finally we got an amber caution light and an NS autorack train slowly turned up on the BNSF track which then detoured into the NS Intermodal Yard - and that was the only moving train we saw all day (apart from the ones seen from 20 thousand feet). Good video and a couple of stills taken.

Norfolk Southern autorack train at Birmingham Junction (North Kansas City).
Video frame grab.

The tail end of the NS autorack passing through Birmingham Junction. It was the shadows of the trees on the tracks that forced us to finally depart. All signals were red anyway. Photo is taken on a grade crossing.

The light was fading fast, so we called it quits and headed off to find dinner - it was 7:30 so not a bad effort. Chinese dine in - it was OK.

On our way, I took a short detour to show Lloyd where the inaccessible NS intermodal yard was and on the way saw the NS cement train still sitting in the loop waiting for the line ahead to clear. The scanner has already been priceless.

The weather is fantastic - not a cloud in the sky with warm temperatures and no wind. Awesome. We've realised that we need to stock up with water to keep in the vehicle (which is a Nissan Rogue), which is ideal for what we're doing - we've already done driving on roads that are in such poor condition they would have bottomed out an ordinary sedan. There's a lot to be said about HD reversing cameras.

Big day tomorrow exploring Kansas City - apparently I need to buy some braces...

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