Over the last couple of years, as construction of the new LRT line progressed across St. Paul, I’d take every opportunity to ride my bike down the middle of the tracks. Once the concrete had been poured between the rails, it was the smoothest and most direct pathway back from Minneapolis – not to mention the safest!
Each time I did it, wheels turned in my mind about making a moving timelapse of the whole line. I wanted to do it after construction was finished and the wire was up, but – obviously! – before the trains started running.
But how would I do it?
For a time, I made moving timelapses of bike trails by clamping my Canon G9 to my handlebars, but, never satisfied with the results, I ceased doing them.
They always came out with a seasickness-inducing sway resulting from the the side-to-side movement my body makes as I pedal, not to mention an unacceptable number of blurry frames caused by the shutter firing at the same time as the bike hitting a bump in the road.
In the case of the LRT, I had the additional problem that the smooth concrete between the rails gives way to standard concrete ties in locations where there are crossover rails between the two main tracks, and on bridges. I certainly wouldn’t be biking over those segments.
Unless! Unless I were to somehow put my bike on the rails! In areas with a large amount of abandoned trackage – more common in the Northwest than anywhere else in the country – this is actually a hobby called ‘railbiking’.
Some people put their bike on one rail, and then somehow attach a gizmo that provides a rod and a flanged wheel that reaches over to the other rail. Others have built full-blown vehicles just for the rails – think of a handcar made with bike parts – and some even sell DIY kits to build your own.
For something I’d have very little use for since there are basically no opportunities for railbiking in these parts, I couldn’t really justify buying or building one. Renting one would have involved a pair of drives to Montana or someplace even farther out.
And then, as I imagined myself pedaling down the light rail line on such a device, it was hard also not to imagine ending up behind bars, or at the very least, getting a cordial recommendation to cease what I was doing.
No, I concluded that I would simply have to walk the line and photograph it by hand. I started looking at shoulder mounts and other such gadgets, but finally also concluded that if I wanted to obtain high quality, well-composed images, I’d really need to use my tripod.
That’s ultimately what I did.
Now, usually when I make a timelapse, no matter how much I’ve thought about how I want it to look, I tend to think of further visual ideas while I’m making it, which has led to inconsistent results, so, on Nov. 3 I did a partial trial run. The goal was to test various compositions, and to define some rules.
I photographed at both 24mm and 70mm. The 70mm shots were more dramatic – eg., the hills were more pronounced due to focal compression – but ultimately, those views didn’t show enough of the surrounding buildings. I also wasn’t happy with how the curves came out at either focal length.
The trial run gave me an idea of the amount of time I’d need: roughly nine hours, not including breaks, which, at this time of year, is roughly the total amount of daylight in a day.
I decided to acquire one piece of gear: the Eg-D focusing screen. It provides gridlines over the entire viewport, making it much easier to root the rails at the bottom of the frame.
Weather prevented me from going out again until Nov. 17th. Alas, I woke up late that morning, but, with a high overcast sky, and projected highs in the upper 40s, I decided I’d try anyway. I wanted to get it done before any permanent snow arrived.
Powered only by a cup of coffee and a waffle from the Black Dog, I started off a little after 10am in Lowertown, just a few feet in front of the doors to the line’s maintenance building.
To minimize the time setting up each frame, I lined the tripod head to be as level as possible, and left it that way. Composition was then done only by moving the back legs of the tripod. I also put the camera into aperture priority mode, at f8.
The basic rules were to set up a shot about every three slabs of concrete on straight segments, and every two slabs in curves, with adjustments to get a shot at the entrance and middle of each intersection.
I would also prefer that vehicles be depicted in whole, and not cut off, and I also tried to avoid getting people in the shot. Finally, I tried to make sure that an identifying sign for each station and cross street was clearly visible in at least one frame.
Around noon, when I had only arrived at Rice St., I realized that three slabs wasn’t going to be fast enough, so I upped my interval to four slabs. This gave the final video a pleasant effect of the appearance of slower travel in Downtown and on the curves and hill leading out of Downtown, and then a speed-up once up on the comparatively flat terrain of University Avenue.
I briefly considered slowing down and speeding up around each of the stations to further the illusion that the camera was actually on a moving train, but, I reasoned that the mental exertion that would be required to judge where to make those changes would be too much to juggle in view of the other rules, and consistency would have suffered.
Fewer than a handful of people interacted with me over the whole day. The first was a guy who pulled up in his car about a block from where I started, rolled down his window, and said, “Hey, what kind of lens is that?” “Canon 24 to 70, f 2 point 8” “What kinda camera is that?” “Canon Five D Mark Two” “Oh, that’s a nice camera!” “Yeah, I like it!” “What are you shooting?” “Well, the whole line actually. I’m walking from here to the Metrodome.”
I needed to make that statement out loud, because at the time, I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d actually be able to walk the entire eleven miles, especially in the rather stiff wind that was blowing.
His reply was wonderfully Minnesotan: “Oh! Well I better letcha go, den!”
The most useful interaction took place around 4:30, down along the University’s Transitway. The sun was going away, and it was starting to cool off. I was thinking about throwing in the towel about then, but a couple of college kids came biking up, and one of them said, “Hey, man! We went to Target like four hours ago, and saw you on the tracks! What are you doing?!”
I told them about the project, and that I’d started at 10am in Lowertown. They seemed to think it was pretty cool, if not a bit crazy, and frankly, it was their interest that made me decide to finish at the end of the line, rather than quit simply because the sun had gone down.
There were two pieces of uncertainty, however. The University had put fences up around the “pedestrian transit mall” they’ve built along Washington Ave., would those still be in the way? And secondly, I wasn’t sure I’d have the guts to walk over the Mississippi River bridge, which is very clearly not a place I’m supposed to be!
An hour later, it turned out that the fences were indeed still there, but I was able to move them enough to pull myself through, and, during the time I was “trespassing”, I don’t think a single person looked at me twice. Or once, for that matter.
When I got as far the pedestrian bridges at Northrop Mall, I decided to keep going over the river. Nobody was going to give a damn.
The final leg, up the embankment leading to the bridge over 35W, was the most difficult. This was due to the poured concrete giving way to standard concrete crossties, but, unlike the segment near the stadium, the ties were spaced in a way that was not convenient for my tripod. Composing each shot thus took much longer.
At the other side of the bridge, about seventy yards from the junction with the existing line, I captured a nicely blurred Blue Line train streaking by on its way toward Target Field. Thinking that that would be a good frame on which to end the video, I stopped there.
I had shot nearly 3000 frames in nearly nine hours; the longest interval between shots, according to the image timestamps, was less than four minutes.
Feeling that I’d passed a true endurance test, I headed off to the nearby Dunn Bros. for a well-deserved pastry and cup of hot coffee.