A train speeds across the checkerboard tracks of Chicago’s bustling Tower 18 junction, sparks flying from wheels that you can almost hear screeching.
Across the Atlantic in Aisgill, deep in England’s beautiful Yorkshire Dales National Park, a steam locomotive weaves its way through a snowy nighttime landscape barely visible through the sooty darkness.
And in China, a local passenger train is captured bathed in orange light on the Tiefa Mine Railway.
Railways in the midnight hour are the recipe for some stunning shots in new book by father-son photography team Robin Coombes and Taliesin Coombes: “Railways at Night: From Dusk til Dawn.”
“Every railway, wherever it is in the world has its own unique atmosphere, be it a commuter line in Chicago with snow falling, a rural narrow-gauge railway in Romania in autumn glory or a high-speed line in France in high summer sun,” Robin Coombes tells CNN Travel.
The limited light conditions make nighttime photography both a challenge and a reward.
“We never use flash and rarely use a tripod, so we have to work with whatever light is available,” says Coombes.
Rail as a window to the world
Throughout his career, retired rail manager Robin worked with trains. His son Taliesin, 25, shares his father’s love both of the railways and photography.
This isn’t their first project together, they previously collaborated on a book celebrating the railways across the British Isles, entitled “Railways in the British Landscape.”
So what’s it like working together?
“Competitive, but great fun,” says Robin, who adds they both rely on one another — and challenge each other.
The duo also enjoyed expanding their remit beyond their home country this time round.
Sometimes they just happen to be in the right place and the right time. On other occasions, they tried to capture specific shots while in a particular country.
Viewing a country through the lens of their railway is enlightening, says Robin.
“In most cases a railway reflects the culture and prosperity of the country, so a railway in Austria is very different to Eritrea, but no less interesting or exciting to ride,” he says.
What’s often striking about the Coombes’ shots is the way they play with perspective and viewer expectation. They rarely shoot simply a chocolate-box, picturesque shot — although when they do, they do it well.
Instead, the images that stand out are aerial shots of trains speeding through Paris taken with a long exposure to capture a sense of movement, lights blurred and city’s rendered unknowable and intriguing.
Or the photographers focus on their backdrop, take a shot of a train pulling into Prague station — the viewer’s eye is first drawn to the purple-hued New Year fireworks exploding overhead, beforethe railway below becomes apparent.
While the images often speak to an old school romanticism of the railway, they’re also usually grounded in realism, as demonstrated in a shot of a British rail train entering Moor Street station in Birmingham, in England, shrouded by pouring rain.
Capturing a scene
This new collection of photographs spotlights a variety of different railways, including trams and subway cars alongside traditional steam railways, glistening high speed services and hefty bi-level American trains.
Often Robin and Taliesin find themselves waiting for hours for that perfect shot, sometimes in freezing, wet conditions. Usually they’ll go to a location and get a feel for what’s there first, and try and get as many frames as possible.
“You never know in advance what the shot will be like, so many things can go wrong, but that is what it is all about, the anticipation — maybe this time, maybe, maybe, click?” says Robin
There’s always an element of spontaneity in their shots, the photographer adds, even when they look perfectly composed.
“We are not ‘technical’ photographers, who worry about white balance, exposure settings etc, our view is that while you are fiddling with the camera you are not focused on capturing an unfolding scene.”
They’re also not afraid to include people in their shots, whether they’re shadowy figures waiting on a platform as a train pulls into a station, or tired commuters crammed into subway cars.
“People are always at the heart of railways, we want to capture not just cold steel but the stories that are played out, the people who travel and work on the railway,” says Robin.
“Mix and variety”
There are still “hundreds, maybe thousands” of railways across the world that the Coombes hope to capture.
“The US ‘Big Boy’ is high on the bucket list,” says Robin, referring to the Union Pacific Big Boy steam locomotive.
Built back in the 1940s, only eight remain and most are on display in museums, but recently Union Pacific restored one and it’s now operational.
The duo also hope to capture a French main line steam train in future projects.
“The joy is always in the mix and variety,” says Robin.
Although, he adds, nothing beats the sight of steam billowing into the darkness.
“Steam at night, the sound of it working hard on a clear frosty night, the warm glow from the firebox reflecting on the white billowing steam,” says Robin. “Anything that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.”