Trainspotters all over the world can now see every roaring engine and rattling car that passes through the Twin Cities, thanks to a set of cameras and a live stream beaming from the Lewis County Historical Museum in Chehalis.
The images and sounds captured from in between the mint factory and the milk plant are being provided by Virtual Railfan, a train-centric outfit out of Tennessee. The company operates 75 cameras that are trained on railroad tracks around the world and says it has more than 7 million viewers per month.
The museum, which holds its many treasures within the confines of a former train depot, gave the go-ahead to the project after local train lovers cooked up the idea to get Virtual Railfan involved.
“We’ve been talking about a project to bring awareness of the railroads that run through the Twin Cities. There’s a large group of rail aficionados around the world,” said Robert Scott, of Rochester, who was on hand for the installation effort on Tuesday. “We thought it would be perfect to work with the museum here.”
Scott noted that private funds paid for the installation of the cameras and Virtual Railfan has committed to taking care of upgrades in the future. He said the cameras are a great opportunity to highlight the unique railroad culture of the Twin Cities and noted that while visitors to popular websites typically watch videos for just three to four minutes, viewers on Virtual Railfan stick around for an average of 10 to 13 minutes.
“This is going to work out for some people who live up north of here because they can watch the video stream to see what’s coming so they can go sit trackside in Tacoma,” Scott pointed out. “This line is busy enough with 50 to 60 trains a day that it will draw some traffic.”
With their scale model train layout of Lewis County on permanent display, two mainlines of freight and passenger train traffic just yards away, and all the history of the historic train depot housed inside, the Lewis County Historical Museum has all the trappings of a caboose-lovers paradise.
Scott noted that there’s at least one other reason why the Mint City was chosen for the latest Virtual Railfan cameras.
“Just because the trains go through here at speed. In Centralia they slow down a little bit and people like a lot of action,” said Scott. “Plus the historic significance of Chehalis, the depot that is now a museum to draw people. If you go to Centralia you’ve got an Amtrak depot, where here you can come in and get a sense of the history.”
Michael Tippins, vice-president and treasurer of Virtual Railfan, was the man who showed up on Tuesday to mount the cameras over the rail lines. In order to do that, he found himself hanging out of the second story window of the old brick depot while the daily lineup of trains chugged on just below.
Tippins noted that he began work to establish his company five years ago after stumbling across a train camera in Folkston, Georgia. After adding a second camera to their own locations and improving the interface of the website, Tippins says that viewership has grown exponentially in the last couple years. Part of that growth has included a partnership with entities like the Weather Channel and AccuWeather.
“They get the weather and we get the trains. Which is sort of a neat thing,” said Tippins.
The only other dedicated train cameras in Washington are located in the mountainous range of Skykomish, which Tippins noted is an AccuWeather location. The Chehalis location features one static camera aiming north along with a pan-tilt-zoom camera that can face either direction.
“This location is good for a couple of reasons. One, it’s got freight traffic and it’s also got Amtrak traffic. People like Amtrak and they like freight. It’s a good locale. You’ve got the bi-directional traffic where you can look both ways real nice. It’s not a real sharp curve or slow,” explained Tippins. “Another thing that makes it an ideal location is that we don’t have anything in this area and a lot of people who live in the area like to see things that are close by.”
Tippins noted that the only other camera in the region is located in the mountains of British Columbia and emphasized that the public’s love of trains has proven as expansive as the rail lines that attempt to wrap around the world.
“The people who are viewing are from young to old. In fact, I’ve had some letters from one gentleman who was at home. He was a retired engineer and his wife was home bound,” said Tippins. “It almost brings a tear to your eyes but he said, ‘If it wasn’t for you I couldn’t watch the trains.’”
According to statistics provided by Scott, the first 24-hours of the live stream generated almost 70,000 views. That shakes out to between 300 and 700 individual viewers at any given time.
The live-stream from the Lewis County Historical Museum will be free on virtualrailfan.com for one year before turning into a subscription feed. However, free access will be continuously provided through a link on the Historical Museum website at www.lewiscountymuseum.org.