Is there any disputing the idea that Americans can get a little obsessed by trains? From a tot’s crayoned red caboose to the self-described train nerd’s bucket list (Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star? Check. Grand Canyon Railway? Yup. Napa Valley Wine Train? Cheers!), the romance of the rails exerts a pull only slightly less powerful than G.E.’s legendary 8,500-horsepower “Big Blow” locomotive.

Stephen Mallon, a photographer in the Hudson Valley of New York, has long been in the thrall of trains, among other large machines. Over the last four years, as work or pleasure set him in motion across the United States, he sought out locales—scenic, industrial, rural, urban—where he could do his own special trainspotting.

The result is a series of striking portraits of freight cars and locomotives. He created each one as a train rolled by. Back in his studio, he cropped the picture to isolate one car, composing it as if it were a still life. The approach might sound fanciful, but, as Mallon says, every passing train is unique, a never-seen-before combination of cars, place and time. “This project is never going to be repeatable,” Mallon says of the visual novelty. He’s also cognizant that some carriers seem headed for the end of the line.

For now, some 1.7 million freight cars and locomotives are at large in the United States, and what marvelous contraptions they are, as you can see through Mallon’s lens: cars designed just to transport automobiles, or chemicals, or gravel, or what have you. The immensity, power and speed of this thundering enterprise are all thrilling. It’s also gratifying to think about these great steel conveyances hauling stuff across the land and to be reminded that, yes, we’re connected.

Reporting and research for the accompanying text was done by Teddy Brokaw.

Caboose — Photographing “Passing Freight” was a mostly solo affair for Mallon, involving hours-long stakeouts with only a book for company. Here, the solitude is interrupted by a crewman who seems to be waving from the rear of the caboose. Though today’s electronic devices perform tasks that brakemen once did, the ultimate car still sometimes serves as an office, workshop or lounge. Stephen Mallon
Locomotive — 2015. Cajon Junction, California Stephen Mallon
Autorack — An articulated car hauls automobiles near the photographer’s home in Newburgh, New York. Today 75 percent of all new cars and light trucks are transported by rail. It was a chance encounter with the local freight line that first sparked the idea for Mallon’s “Passing Freight” project. He has since traveled as far as California in pursuit of a unique image.  Stephen Mallon
Centerbeam flatcar
Centerbeam flatcar — The sprawling landscapes and pinpoint accuracy of Mallon’s images sometimes belie the substantial scale of his subjects. This centerbeam flatcar is around 70 feet long, and specially designed to transport up to 100 tons of lumber. Fresh tracks at the bottom of the frame show just how close the photographer was able to get. Stephen Mallon
Flatbed — This car carries pipes through upstate New York, not far from the photographer’s home. Part of the project’s appeal for Mallon was the element of surprise—he never knew in advance exactly what was coming down the line. But what he could count on was that each encounter would be a singular experience.   Stephen Mallon
Gondola — People often mark freight cars with graffiti, including this gondola near the Nevada-Utah border. Mallon scoured Google Maps and rail-fan forums to find public locations where he could view trains in motion. “I wanted a project that I could shoot on my own terms,” he says.  Stephen Mallon
Centerbeam flatcar
Centerbeam flatcar — This specialized platform is carrying lumber through Teaneck, New Jersey. Construction materials make up about 12 percent, or three million carloads, of the freight hauled each year. Some travel quite a vast distance. There is some 140,000 miles of railroad track available to freight trains in the United States today. Stephen Mallon
Undercutter — Teaneck, New Jersey Stephen Mallon
Boxcar — The traditional enclosed car—this one was sighted  in Jacksonville, Florida—could be carrying consumer goods such as paper. Boxcars are not as common as they used to be. They require more work to load and unload than other platforms, and also have been largely supplanted by globe-trotting containers, which are hoisted from cargo ships onto specialized railcars. Stephen Mallon
Caboose —1979. Salt Flats, Utah Stephen Mallon
Editor's Note, 7/11/2022: A caption in an earlier version of this story stated that there were three million carloads of freight hauled each year by train. In fact, there are three million carloads of construction materials hauled each year by train.

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