Trains & Conspiracy Theories (I worked for a day at a “FEMA Concentration Camp”, AMA!)

Conspiracy theorists have always been around. People have long questioned the veracity of events like the moon landing, or the assassination of President Kennedy. Thanks to the internet, such theories spread faster and further, and pretty much every major event that happens in the world today has some person screaming behind a computer screen that it was a “false flag” or a fake event perpetrated by crisis actors hired by some shady government entity. Taking advantage the bulletin board systems of the early internet was Indianapolis lawyer Linda Thompson, who founded the American Justice Foundation – a fancy sounding organization that peddled conspiracy theories online and through anti-government video tapes. One of her most famous claims, made in the ’90s but surviving to this day, is that the government is building concentration camps to round up citizens – one such camp being the Amtrak repair facility in Beech Grove, Indiana.

If you’re into such conspiracy theories, then you’re now reading the blog of a person who has worked inside a “FEMA death camp” – ask me anything! On the other hand, if you’re a normal person, you’re reading the blog of a person who has gotten a chance to film and interview Amtrak employees who work at the historical shops at Beech Grove (and could probably spend weeks of her life content to wander the shops merely recording all of the interesting work that happens there every day). Originally built in 1904 by the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis (Big Four) Railway, the shops were later acquired by the New York Central. With the merger of the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroads in 1968, the shops became the property of the Penn Central, who later sold it to Amtrak in 1975. One of the facility’s first major projects was to convert old steam-based power systems to electric Head-End Power (HEP).

Men of the Car Shop
Men of the Car Shop, Big Four Shops in Beech Grove, 1919. Photo from the Indiana Historical Society.

Today, the shop is used for all sorts of heavy maintenance for Amtrak’s fleet of train cars and locomotives. Each building on the campus has a particular function – none of which include gas chambers for mass executions (I honestly wish I were kidding. Some people actually think this stuff). Two coach shops overhaul passenger coaches (one does light repairs, while the other takes care of heavier damage like from wrecks), while a locomotive shop overhauls, rebuilds, and performs maintenance on locomotives and NPCUs. Historically the Forge shop was where you would find blacksmiths fabricating train parts, but today you’ll find folks doing things like rebuilding couplers or truck assemblies (the wheels under your train cars). One of my favorites, the Trim shop, puts the visual touches on train cars, from upholstery to paint, and includes a special shop devoted to decal making. There’s also a building devoted to training and maintenance, and another with offices for administrators. You’ll also find plenty of train cars and locomotives stored on tracks throughout the facility – many of which came for evaluation on whether they would make good candidates for overhauling/rebuilding (some just aren’t, unfortunately). Although there are certainly a lot of moving parts across the whole facility, the major bread and butter of the work that goes on here is overhauling train cars. In many instances it is cheaper to completely rebuild a coach or locomotive than it is to outright purchase a new one, so the shop is constantly performing this task. In 2013 Beech Grove repaired and returned to service five wrecked locomotives, overhauled/remanufactured 91 Superliner cars, 20 Horizon coaches, 13 Viewliner sleepers, 13 Surfliners, 3 NPCU/cabbages, and 5 heritage dining cars. That is a heck of a lot of work, and Beech Grove is quite the hub of activity – but hardly the death camp that Thompson made so many believe.


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Grade Crossing Safety: Metro-North’s New Pilot Program

This morning Metro-North announced a new plan to get people’s eyes focused on grade crossings – literally. In a new pilot program, the railroad will be hiring people to wear costumes and protect grade crossings, reminding drivers not to stop on the tracks, or attempt to go around lowered or lowering crossing gates.

Grade crossing incidents have been at the forefront of railroad safety recently, after three high-profile incidents caused major derailments, many injuries, and seven deaths. The three incidents occurred in New York, California, and North Carolina, proving that this is not merely a local problem, but a national problem.

Describing the new pilot program, Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti explained:

Although our program comes up with a solution that is light-hearted, the goal is not to trivialize the problem, or the incidents that have happened at grade crossings. People’s eyes are drawn to things like this – which is the same reason why a fast food place might have a guy dancing around in a hot-dog costume, or a tax prep place might have a lady liberty standing around outside. Sadly, we need to get people’s attention. It seems in our world full of the distractions of loud music, cell phones and other electronic devices, ringing bells, flashing lights, moving gates, pavement markings, and plenty of signage simply does not get anyone’s attention. Even several high-profile grade crossing incidents, and increased police presence at crossings has not stopped drivers from waiting on the tracks, or driving around lowered gates to beat the train.

I find myself agreeing the concept of distracted driving – some have mentioned that Ellen Brody, the woman who caused the Valhalla crash that killed six people, may not have been familiar with the crossing and intersection because of a crash on the Taconic and a detour that evening. Meanwhile, Deborah Molodofsky, who has mentioned she was familiar with the grade crossing in Chappaqua where she had a “close call,” still waited on the railroad tracks and was surprised when the gates came down around her car. Even afterward, she was quoted as saying “I did everything right and I still got caught” – completely oblivious to the fact that she did nothing right – one should never stop on railroad tracks – apparently Ms. Molodofsky never noticed the signs that say as much on the many times she passed that crossing.

Adding to Mr. Giulietti’s comments, Metro-North spokesperson Marjorie Anders said:

On our New Haven main Line, where there are no grade crossings, there are still many incidents with overheight vehicles striking the bridges that carry the tracks. On the Hudson Line, one of our 100+ year-old historical stations had a gorgeous pedestrian walkway into the station – it was completely destroyed by a dump truck striking it. This is clearly a complex problem that will not just have one solution. But if we only look at the grade crossings themselves, we’re missing an important part of the equation – driver distraction.

Anders’ point is a good one – even the NTSB has spent a good amount of time talking about driver distraction in transportation recently, holding a round-table discussion called “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions,” which was live-tweeted by the NTSB’s twitter account.

Note: The Hudson Line station Ms. Anders mentioned where the pedestrian crossing was destroyed was Ardsley-on-Hudson.

President Giulietti made sure to add one more note on the subject:

If for some reason you do happen to get stuck on the railroad tracks, each crossing has a sign with a telephone number and a description of the location. If you call that number and report a vehicle stuck, we can halt trains on the line and prevent a dangerous incident from occurring.

We were lucky enough to capture a video of one of the new hirees working on the Harlem Line, at the Cleveland Street crossing in Valhalla. The town of Mount Pleasant has recently revealed that they would like to close this crossing, to the detriment of the people that live in the neighborhood just over the tracks.

Hopefully such measures will capture the attention of the many drivers that make poor decisions around railroad tracks every day.

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April Fools’!

As many of you surmised, yesterday’s post about the Metro-North Heritage Unit Program was most definitely an April fools’ joke. Here are some of the reactions from our little bit of tomfoolery:

I was about ready to share this with a friend when I remembered what day it is.

Enough of this nonsense. Just try to get me home on time.

Unless there is a formal press release by the MTA or CDOT, no one should buy this.

That is the UGLIEST paint scheme on a Genny I’ve ever seen!

Metro North Heritage
Nope. Not real.

Admittedly, I designed the scheme to be as ugly as possible, while still looking like one of the New York Central’s old designs, just to get everyone’s goat. While at some point in the future it would certainly be cool to see a heritage unit program at Metro-North, there are a lot of more important things the railroad needs to do, and has begun to do, before any of that.

While clearly the main goal of this site is to present history and photography, I Ride the Harlem Line itself has a long history of pulling everybody’s leg on the first of April. Here’s a look back at some of the pranks we’ve pulled over the past few years, April Fools’ and otherwise.

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Construction on East Side Access Project Halted Indefinitely

While celebrating Grand Central Terminal’s 100th anniversary, we discussed a wide array of topics regarding GCT’s history, and its place in our lives today. The one thing that we failed to mention was one of Grand Central’s futures – a major one being the East Side Access project. Designed to connect the Long Island Rail Road to a new station underneath Grand Central, the new facility was estimated to open by 2019. Unfortunately, that timeline has been called into question after the discovery of fossilized remains in one of the underground tunnels where construction is currently going on.

The first fossil found in the deep underground tunnel was discovered by a machine operator after partially running over it with his vehicle. Because of the damage to that specimen, all work on the East Side Access project has been halted indefinitely, and experts have been called in to examine what has been found. Paul Olsen, a paleontologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory will be one of the scientists brought in to examine the fossils, which appear to be reptilian in origin. Olson has previously identified reptile fossils in nearby Exeter, Pennsylvania, and is excited to investigate these fossils “right in our own backyard.” To date, a total of four sets of fossilized remains have been found in the tunnels. In addition to those remains, several metallic items which appear to be tools of some sort have also been found, as well as several colored ribbons. It is unknown whether these items are related to the fossils in any way.

Speaking unofficially, one of the construction workers on the project said the fossilized remains bear a striking resemblance to a turtle – although a very large one. Fossils of a turtle that large have not been found in this area previously, which means that this could be a completely new species, or perhaps a mutant of some sort. Such discoveries are rare, but not completely unheard of – in 2005 a North Carolina State University student discovered the remains of an extinct species, Carbonemys cofrinii, a large turtle with a shell that measures just over five and a half feet long.

Unfortunately, this discovery may set the East Side Access project back by at least a year or more. Besides investigating and removing the fossils that have been found, further excavation will likely take place to determine whether there are any other fossils in the tunnels. This work will likely be slow going, as to not damage anything else that may be in the tunnel. Few photos of the discoveries underground have been released to the public, as the MTA is attempting to keep this setback quiet. To date, this is the only photo that has been released of the findings.

East Side Access

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Bye bye Joe Lhota, hello Sadie the cat?

In case you missed it, two big things in MTA land went down this week – (or should I say up?) fare increases are totally happening in March, and Chairman and CEO of the MTA, Joe Lhota, will be resigning. We’ve certainly had a seemingly endless revolving door in terms of MTA chiefs. Lhota has been at the helm of the MTA for just about a year, so I guess he didn’t really set any records for longest time served.

People have been debating who should get the nomination to replace Lhota, and if you ask me, it should totally go to Sadie the subway cat! A few weeks ago I updated you on Sadie, who formerly worked at the New York Transit Museum, but has since retired. I had a chance to talk to the wonderful museum employee who has adopted Sadie, and it seems that she is certainly enjoying retired life…

The subway kitty is now an apartment kitty, and with a nice view!

I bet we could convince Miss Sadie to take the post as chief of the MTA, though. Think about it, we’d just have to pay for her cat food, litter and vet care, and that can’t be more than $1,000 a year, right? That is a bargain compared to the $350,000 that Jay Walder got paid in 2010 as MTA chief. And it wouldn’t be the first time a feline was in an executive position at a transportation company – just ask Japanese cat Tama, who worked herself up from the position of Stationmaster, to Super Stationmaster, and now Chief Operating Officer at the Wakayama Electric Railway. Apparently putting animals in executive positions at railroad companies seems to be a perfectly acceptable business practice in Japan. So why not hire a cat and get ridership up?

In other news, when it comes to the cuteness factor, Sadie beats Joe Lhota hands down. Jay Walder, too.
Sorry, Joe Lhota.

In all seriousness, it will be interesting to see who will be replacing Lhota. And a little bit of a shame, as I thought he seemed pretty competent. (And yes, I admit, I always thought he was pretty cool for actually starting and maintaining a twitter account.) The likelihood of a cat getting the position is probably less than the world ending tonight, so we certainly wish Sadie the best, and to keep enjoying her retirement. But on the off chance that she does get the job, I know who Sadie can hire as her deputy!

The trains aren’t running? GOOD!

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The aftermath of Sandy on Metro-North, in one photo

Yes, this is the Hudson Line. Ossining, in fact. Metro-North service is still suspended, with no timetable for restoring service. Similar to Irene, the MTA has been keeping everyone apprised of what has been going on through their Flickr account. Some truly astonishing stuff. I couldn’t help poke fun at that one photo, however. Hopefully there will be service restoration soon, Metro-North is out surveying the damage, and hopefully not finding any more boats on the tracks…

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It’s that time again…

Ah, fall. Every Metro-North commuter’s favorite season. You know, the one where trains are slipping and sliding… After this morning’s commute, I felt that a repost of this was necessary:

Most regular commuters are familiar with the fall slip/slide phenomenon, but if you aren’t, Metro-North always puts together a helpful little page explaining this recurring event. Please be a nice rider… don’t drop your banana peels on the tracks, or inside the train!

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Buy your train tickets at the Union Ticket Office, 1861

Today as a graphic designer, I have various different methods for catching your attention in an advertisement. Attractive imagery, and most importantly, color, are major ways a designer can catch your eye. But what if we’re talking about design well over a hundred years ago, when color printing and photography wasn’t around? Although using various typefaces is certainly an option, my personal favorite tactic of yesteryear is the pointing finger. You know things are serious when that finger comes out!

The Hudson River Railroad schedule above, printed in 1852, makes use of the pointer finger in a very small way – it is visible at the very bottom. But what if you really wanted to get people’s attention? You can’t make it red, so clearly it needs to be BIGGER!

Bigger. Like this. You will never forget the number 9!


That is a HUGE pointer finger! Guess you better remember to buy your train tickets at the Union Ticket Office, at the 9 Astor House! Note that this 1861 ad makes additional use of the finger in a smaller way – highlighting the fact that they sell tickets to all railroads, not just the Hudson River Railroad or the New York Central.

Next advertisement I design, I think I am going to stick a big pointer finger in it. We’ll see how well that goes over…

This is probably why Metro-North doesn’t want to hire me…

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Have you checked out “The New York Commuter’s Glossary” yet?

Have you checked out “The New York Commuter’s Glossary” yet? If you haven’t yet heard of the book, it is a humorous little collection of words and illustrations related to the art of commuting. It was written by Mike Malone – who is the man behind Train Jotting, illustrated by the awesome Joe Walden, and of course, designed by me. You can buy copies online, or if you happen to be in the White Plains area, Gary Waxman is selling copies at his newsstand in the train station. You can also find it at the Village Bookstore in Pleasantville.

Gary Waxman shows off the book

Yes, this book was designed while riding Metro-North

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AWESOME new Harlem Line service – To Millerton!

I cannot believe that Metro-North managed to keep this a secret… I nearly had a heart attack when I grabbed one of the new timetables that came out today. Harlem Line service to Millerton is returning! Although there is no time frame of when the stations (Millerton and Amenia) will be reopening, the timetables give us a sneak peek. In Grand Central you can even find a local timetable from both Millerton and Amenia, which are in the newly-created Zone 11 on the line. A monthly ticket from Millerton to Grand Central will cost a whopping $506, but it the new “god ticket” – giving you access to the entire Metro-North system. Ticket Vending Machines already have the two new stations programmed in – the ticket I purchased yesterday from current end-of-line Wassaic to new end-of-line Millerton cost $3.50. Since new tickets expire in 2 weeks, and the new stations will likely not be open in that time-frame, I suppose I just have a neat thing for a scrapbook. But the $3.50 I paid was certainly worth it – I absolutely cannot wait to ride to Millerton!

Improving non-stop? I will never again laugh at that MTA tagline!

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