Behind the Scenes with a Rail Photographer: Don Hagen

The photographer behind the lens of Quality RailFan Images shares his top five favorite photographs — and stories of their making.


Don Hagen is a rail photographer and IT professional living in Blair, Nebraska.

As a child, trains were always a part of Don Hagen’s life. His family had HO scale model trains, and he frequently took the train to see his dad in Chicago. During those visits, he and his brothers would occasionally spend the day riding the “L” — always an enjoyable part of the trip.

Then, in the early 1980s, Hagen commuted between his home in the suburbs to work in Chicago on the Chicago & Northwestern line. His favorite part of the commute? Talking to the conductor in the vestibule after his rounds during the 45-minute express train trip home.

But his rail fan status wasn’t really sealed until he met his friend Bruce in the early 2000s. Bruce had worked as an engineer for the railroad, and at the time managed trackage rights between Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe. “He invited me out to ‘chase trains’ with him (which I did not know people did) and after a few outings, I was hooked,” Hagen said. Little did Hagen know that in addition to inspiring his love of trains, Bruce would also inspire the founding of his future rail photography business.

One Passion Leads to Another

Before meeting Bruce, Hagen’s time behind the lens was limited to family vacations and special events. “As my train-chasing outings with Bruce became more frequent, so did my enjoyment for railroad photography,” Hagen explained. “As time passed, I learned that not only was Bruce a good photographer, he was also a great mentor who taught me about photography and railroad safety, which is critical to this kind of photography.”

Bruce continued to encourage Hagen, complimenting his “good eye” and urging him to sell his work. In 2010, Hagen took his advice, founding Quality RailFan Images, through which he continues to sell photography today.

Although Hagen’s photography is secondary to his career in IT, the two tend to work in tandem. “Over the years I have had the good fortune to travel on vacations and on behalf of my employer,” he said. “When my schedule permitted, I would bring along my camera in the hopes of capturing something new.” Thanks to his travels, Hagen has captured train images in at least 27 states, and he boasts some other pretty impressive stats, too:

  • His Quality RailFan Images Facebook page has followers from more than 50 countries around the world.
  • His work is confirmed to be hanging in homes and offices in the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Japan.
  • The number of photographs he has captured in the last 10 years exceeds 50,000 and continues to grow.

“It is hard to describe, but there is an inner joy I feel when I see a train. It captivates me as if I was a little kid seeing a train for the first time,” he said. “The incredible power behind the locomotives of the past and present, and the capabilities that one consist of locomotives can relocate today is fascinating. Combine that strength with the larger train lengths we see today makes me wonder what the future of railroading will bring us.”

Hagen’s Top Five Favorite Photos

Without further ado, here are the five photos Don selected as his favorites and the behind-the-scenes stories he shared for each.

#1 Sunrise in Granger, Wyoming

“Taken on May 6, 2019, the UP 4014 and UP 844 take a momentary rest from their early morning movement from Rock Springs to Evanston, Wyoming. This picturesque image was captured at 6:27 a.m. local time on a cool morning as the sun rose and lit up the side of the train. This is steam captured at a great moment in time.”


#2 “Big Steam” in North Bend, Nebraska

“This photo captures the UP 844 leading a westward special as it heads back to Cheyenne, Wyoming, from Omaha, Nebraska, on November 13, 2010. I was aware the special would be leaving Omaha and headed out to capture images hoping the prior snow and cool weather would produce extraordinary results. This image shows I was not disappointed. While some have thought Photoshop was the producer of this image, it was not. Photoshop was used to bring out the tones in the steam, but what you see is what was captured, making this ‘Big Steam’ photo one of my favorites.”


#3 Snaking Through the Sandhills

“My family has lived in Nebraska since December 1994. The Sandhills are one of my favorite places to capture trains because of the area’s landscape and beauty. This image was captured on March 1, 2008, and is a great depiction of what one sees traveling across the state of Nebraska. Here you see rolling hills, streams, livestock, feed, fowl, farmland and oh yeah, a train. I love Nebraska!”


#4 The California Zephyr in Colorado

“While out in Colorado to see the UP No. 844 lead the Cheyenne Frontier Days train, I spent some time with a rail fan friend Erik looking for trains on the Moffat subdivision. With fortunate timing, decent weather, and Erik’s knowledge of the area, I was able to capture this image of Amtrak’s California Zephyr Train 6 heading east to Denver, Colorado, at Crescent, Colorado, in the early evening. I have had the good fortune to ride Amtrak roundtrip between Omaha, Nebraska, and Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and without a doubt, the Rocky Mountain area is one of the more picturesque areas along Amtrak’s California Zephyr route.”


#5 UP No. 844 Firebox

“This picture needs a little extra setup to fully appreciate why it is one of my favorite photographs. In September 2012, my wife and I were in North Platte, Nebraska, at Rail Fest, which was a three-day weekend festival celebrating this important railroad town. Union Pacific played a major role in this event through their sponsorship, Bailey Yard bus tours, and a great representation of the railroad through their displays for event goers.

“As the event was winding down on Sunday, I was approached to see if I would be interested in riding the train back to Cheyenne, Wyoming, on Monday. They were looking for a photographer to capture images along the way, including pictures of some special guests. The only thing was that I would need to find my way back to North Platte. Through some connections, somebody was willing to drive my car to Cheyenne as long as I brought them back…done!

“On Monday, September 17, my wife and I boarded the UP Special train being led by the UP No. 844. During the final stop at Potter, I was invited up to the cab to ride the remainder of the trip to Cheyenne. This image, which is looking into the firebox, was captured along the way. The firebox is the area on a steam engine where the fuel is combusted, producing heat to boil the water in the boiler. The door to the firebox was opened and I thought it would be interesting to grab a picture — this is one of the results of that opportunity. Not only is this a cool image, it is a constant reminder of a wonderful and unforgettable opportunity some gracious Union Pacific people provided me.”


Favorite Photography Locations

In addition to his favorite photographs, Hagen also shared his favorite spots to photograph trains.

  • Cheyenne, Wyoming — “The Hermosa Tunnel, Dale Creek area, and general landscape in this area is a perfect place to capture incredible photos. Generally speaking, permission of landowners is required to access this area.”
  • Echo Canyon, Utah — “Wonderful scenery associated with the historic region of the transcontinental railroad. Further west to Promontory is a bonus and worth the trip!”
  • Boone, Iowa — “The Kate Shelly Bridge (KSB) and associated history makes this a fascinating location to capture. And now with a concrete double track replacement, the KSB still stands as a symbol of railroad historical greatness.”
  • Columbia River Gorge — “Separating the states of Washington and Oregon, it includes the Union Pacific on the Oregon side and BNSF on the Washington side.”

Family, Friends and the Future

Hagen lives with his wife of 37 years in Blair, Nebraska. They are the proud parents of four children and grandparents to eight grandkids, all of whom are under the age of six but one.

Although Hagen’s work has appeared in multiple articles in Nebraska Life magazine, his ultimate goal is to have one of his photos grace the cover of Trains magazine.

“I truly enjoy photographing trains. Selling the fruits of my labor to people who share an interest is a plus, as it’s enjoyable to see their excitement in what you take pleasure in doing,” he said. “The greater joy, however, is spending time with and hearing the stories of others who themselves or someone close to them work(ed) for the railroad. Their stories bring the railroad to life, both from the past and the present.”

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