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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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The Never Ending Journey, Part 1

It has been nearly two months since I posted last, a fact that pains me greatly. Things have been just as busy since the last time I checked in – lots of places to be, trains to ride and see, but not a lot of time to write. If you follow the site on Facebook, or RailPictures (where I’ve only been submitting for a few months now) you may have seen some of the more recent adventures that I’ve been on.

Suffice it to say, it has been a whirlwind. In just a few months I’ve been to New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Diego, Indianapolis, Chicago, Lynchburg, Charlotte, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Lexington, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh… the list goes on. In April I rode the Cardinal to Indianapolis, got a tour at Amtrak’s Beech Grove shops, before continuing on to Chicago on the Hoosier State. From there I went to Lake Forest to present at the Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s annual conference. After spending a few more days in Chicago – including a tour of the renovations happening in Union Station – I returned home via the Capitol Limited.

May included a trip to Washington DC, and then Atlanta, with various stops to chase 611 on the way down and visits to Lynchburg and Charlotte. On the way home after three weeks I headed north through Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio – including a stop to see the final runs of the Secret City excursion trains in Oak Ridge, a tour of Cincinnati Union Terminal, and time to fly a drone around Pittsburgh and Horseshoe Curve.

June led me to Norfolk, Virginia, and July will bring me back to Washington DC. To make a long story short, I feel like my camera and I are on a never ending journey – a journey that I can finally share with you.

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The map indicates some of the larger cities that I’ve visited within the past few months. Red lines denote mileage traveled by train over the Keystone, Northeast Corridor, Pennsylvanian, Capitol Limited, Hoosier State, and Cardinal routes. Grey lines denote mileage traveled by car.

The Pennsylvanian crosses the Pennsy's famous Rockville Bridge
Many of my journeys now begin in Pennsylvania – and one favorite in the area that is hard to miss is the famous Rockville Bridge over the Susquehanna, used by Norfolk Southern and the Amtrak Pennsylvanian.

The bridges of Harrisburg
It took me a while to work up the courage, but this is one of the first times I flew my drone over water. Here I fly over the Susquehanna River to capture five of the six bridges of Harrisburg proper – the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad Bridge (now in use by Norfolk Southern), the defunct Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge, Market Street Bridge, Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge, and the Harvey Taylor Bridge.

Acela at Wilmington
An Acela to Washington arrives at Wilmington station, as I wait for a train heading in the opposite direction.

The Amtrak shops at Wilmington
Getting a chance to tour many of Amtrak’s shops and facilities is always a treat – this is the Wilmington shops.

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Flight & Light: Photos from Southern California

As too many people have informed me, I haven’t posted on this site for quite a while. Suffice it to say, things have been quite busy. Earlier this month I presented at the Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s Conversations 2016 conference, and picked up a few new blog followers. To the new folks, welcome. To everyone that has stuck with me along the way, my thanks!

Today’s post consists of a collection of photos, presented with little commentary. All of the photos I captured when on a week long trip to southern California earlier this year. If you follow the site on Facebook, my account on RailPictures, or were at the Conversations conference some of these photos may look familiar. The general running theme for the collection is Flight & Light, as many of the photos were either captured by drone, or at sunset. Throughout it all I was entranced by the landscapes, the endless waves along the beach, and the clouds that occasionally caused havoc but at the same time created diverse opportunities for intriguing photos.

Enjoy!

Sunset light reflects on the top of the rails

Flying high above Del Mar

Sunset over Los Angeles

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SmartCat Sundays: Restoring a Grand Central to Chatham Roll Banner

Original image of the roll sign Not everything you’ll find in my collection is printed on paper… Admittedly, I have a little thing for roll banners (I own three for the Harlem Division). Long before computers and other technology, these roll banners used to be displayed in Grand Central Terminal at each gate, letting passengers know what stops the train made. Each train had it’s own roll sign, which were stored in cabinets by the gate. The roll banner featured in this post was my third banner acquisition – but it was one I couldn’t resist, as it was originally an Upper Harlem Division banner. Sold by the SONO Switch Tower Museum on eBay as a fundraiser, their original photo of it is at right. As you can see, after the 1972 discontinuation of the Upper Harlem Line, those stops listed were blacked out. All of the banners were actually hand-painted by a real person, and when train names were changed, the signs were modified to fit – in the case of the black paint, some more drastically than others.

With the aid of old timetables, I was able to track the history of the banner, and the trains it once represented. Though the train number changed a few times, for the majority of it’s life, the it was for a Sunday-only morning train from New York to Chatham.

Unknown – 1958: Train 1053, which made a stop at Boston Corners.
1958 – June 30, 1964: Train 905. Ghent was blacked out in 1959 when it was removed as a stop.
July 1, 1964 – November 30, 1968: Train 909.
December 1, 1968 – March 19, 1972: Train 9009. Number was changed after the Penn Central merger.
March 20th, 1972 – unknown: Eliminated stations were covered in black paint, and used for Train 9013, a Saturday and Sunday train.

The lower level of GCT
Early photo of Grand Central’s lower level, showing two departure banners, and the cabinets the banners were stored in when not being used.

After purchasing the banner, I was slightly torn as to what I should do with it. Keep it as is, as a testament to what happened when Penn Central eliminated the Upper Harlem? Or should I restore it, to what it once was, showing all of the original stops? Part of what swayed my decision was that it was obvious that the writing underneath was not completely gone. You could just barely make it out under the black layer of paint, but it was still there. I decided to see how difficult removing the black would be, and to my surprise, it wasn’t that hard. With a little bit of elbow grease, I revealed a line once hidden under black – “Visitors not permitted through gate”:

Black paint slowly disappears

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Planes of the New York Central – The Railroad’s WW2 Combat Bombers

While the New York Central’s famous trains are legendary, it seems that few know of their planes. Believe it or not, the New York Central and its employees raised the funds to purchase two planes, claiming to be the only railroad to have done so, and donated them to the war effort. Each plane was painted with the name “New York Central” and was flown by Army Air Force crews in World War II. At this time, the New York Central’s company magazine, The Headlight, was filled with photos of railroad employees off at war, and updates on their sponsored planes were always a highlight. In some instances, the crews were in fact railroad employees, or family members. And in a perhaps-not-coincidental twist of fate, several of the bomber’s targets were essential German infrastructure – its railroads.

Dedication of the "New York Central System" bomber
Dedication of the “New York Central System” bomber, attended by railroad president Frederick Williamson (left). Photo from the October 1942 issue of the Central Headlight.

The first New York Central sponsored plane
The first New York Central-sponsored plane. Photo courtesy b26.com.

The New York Central’s first twin-engine bomber, named simply “The New York Central System” was purchased with the funds raised by the railroad and its employees – $170,062.06 in total, money delivered on April 2, 1942 to the US Treasury. The idea was conceived by the employees of the Electric Locomotive shop in Collinwood, Ohio, who proposed small paycheck deductions from willing participants in order to fund the purchase. Nearly 90% of the Central’s workforce donated to this and other wartime fundraisers. Sadly, the bomber was shot down in February 1943 over North Africa after only 13 missions. However, determined railroad employees decided to raise further funds and purchased a replacement bomber, which was named the “New York Central II.” Though it was not unheard of for a group to sponsor a plane, this was the first time a group had come together a second time to purchase a replacement after the first’s loss.

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Happy New Year, a look back at 2015

Happy New Year to all from I Ride the Harlem Line! As you’ve likely seen, 2015 was a very busy year for me. I got married in Grand Central, started working at Amtrak, moved twice, bought a house, and a whole bunch of other exciting things. All of this did take a toll on the site, as nothing was posted in either November or December of 2015. I have no intentions of abandoning I Ride the Harlem Line, however, and am hoping to bring you more posts in 2016 – including the new tour of the Harlem Line that I promised.

For now, though, let’s take a look back at 2015 and what was popular on the site, and on our social media.

Top 10 Photos on Instagram

On Instagram, snow shots seemed to prevail, taking 4 of the top spots. Seven of the ten shots were of Metro-North trains, while one was a lightblur of a Chicago L train. Two New York City shots made their way into the top 10 – one of the Empire State Building from the waterfront in Jersey City, and another of crowds in Times Square on New Years Day, 2015.

 
  
  
  
 
  

Top 5 Posts on Facebook

Due to my move I never got a chance to send out holiday cards, but taking the top spot on Facebook was our virtual holiday card of Amtrak meeting up with a steam excursion from the Strasburg Rail Road. Rounding out the rest of the top five are two popular posts for the year, and two photos – one of which made a showing above, albeit with an Instagram filter.

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Top 5 Posts on the Blog

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The Lost Train Station of the Bronx – 138th Street, Mott Haven

After significant amounts of research, I finally posted about 138th Street – a beautiful station that had disappeared that had long captured my interest. Apparently, the story of the lost station was a popular topic, as it was the most popular post on the blog for 2015.

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My Final Metro-North Commute

Second most popular was my announcement that I would no longer be regularly commuting by Metro-North, as I had landed a job at Amtrak.

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A Wedding in Grand Central

Another popular post for the year, and a noteworthy personal event for myself, was my wedding in Grand Central.

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The Electrification of Grand Central, and Metro-North’s Third Rail

After yet another grade crossing incident where an inattentive driver ignored signs and waited on the railroad tracks, leading to a deadly Metro-North crash, the subject of the type of third rail used on the Harlem Line came up in the media. In this fourth most popular post for the year, I discussed the history of electrification, and how the design for our third rail was decided upon.

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Tuesday Tour of the New Haven Line: Devon Transfer

A tour of the very short lived station of Devon Transfer, on the New Haven Line.

Meanwhile at Amtrak…

In case you haven’t been following what I do at Amtrak on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and on our Blog, here are some of the highlights:

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Amtrak Employees Volunteer: The Capital Region Toys for Tots Train

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Amtrak Appreciates Veterans

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Infographic: Looking for a job at Amtrak?

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Riding the Tunnelbana – the painted caves of the Stockholm Metro

It’s been about a month since the site has gone on hiatus (hope you didn’t miss me too much!), I figured it might be nice to slowly bring things back with a post about some of my most recent travels. If you happened to read the piece that Atlas Obscura wrote about me not too long ago, you may remember me mentioning that one of the transit systems I’d really love to visit was Stockholm, Sweden’s Tunnelbana (Metro). In between ending my old job and starting my new one at Amtrak, I actually took a journey to Sweden so I could finally visit the system, known for its transit art, for myself.

Though the Tunnelbana has a wealth of stations filled with interesting art, it is some of the stations located deeper underground that have captured the interest of many riders and photographers. As a unique design choice, during the excavation of these stations the bedrock was left exposed, creating the feeling that you are deep inside a cave. Each cavern is painted wildly by an array of artists – some in pink camouflage, and others in bright primary colors. While some are clearly unnatural, others evoke a real sense of a hidden cave – painted in subdued colors with primitive illustrations of a mammoth and of the sun. And even others create an interesting interplay between the rough exposed rock, and walls of colorful polished tiles. Suffice it to say, the Stockholm Metro is quite an interesting, and exceptionally unique system.

Words, of course, can’t adequately describe the varied – and in some cases, downright wild – decor of these stations, so let’s take a little visual journey together!

Tensta

Tensta

Tensta

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Public Art on the Green Line – Nancy Blum

It has never been a secret that I am a lover of transit-based art. One of the reasons I enjoy the light rail in Minneapolis so much is due to the abundance of art. The system’s newest line, the Green Line, has two very cool stations that were designed by artist Nancy Blum (she actually did three, but the two I’ll feature today are arguably the nicest on the line). You may be familiar with Blum, as she’s been mentioned on this blog before. One of her previous public art installations can be found through the Arts for Transit program on our very own Hudson Line. The mosaics at Dobbs Ferry station are her creation.

For her work in Minnesota, Blum designed work for the East Bank and West Bank stations, located on either side of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. At West Bank you’ll find the work Immigration/Migration, which features birds fabricated out of stainless-steel, and wire mesh etched with patterns. The etched mesh is certainly my favorite, as it is extremely subtle. The patterns are just barely visible under normal light, but when direct sun rays hit the mesh, the pattern is extremely bright and really shines.

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Following the Northstar – Minnesota’s Commuter Rail

During my first visit to Minneapolis several years ago, I took lots of photos of the new Hiawatha light rail line (now known as the Blue Line), but completely missed out a chance to check out their commuter rail. On my more recent trip to the Twin Cities, I made sure to see the Northstar. A few trains in the state have used variations on the name Northstar, including a now-defunct Amtrak train, a name which derives from Minnesota’s nickname as the North Star State, as it is the northernmost of the contiguous US states. Although it might not be glowing, this Northstar, is hard to miss, painted in an attractive blue, yellow, and red scheme.

In terms of transportation systems, the Northstar is relatively young, with passenger service starting at the end of 2009. Operating on an already-existing BNSF freight line, money was invested to purchase equipment, build stations, and to construct a maintenance facility near Big Lake. The line stretches from Target Field in Minneapolis, where it connects with the light rail, to Big Lake in the north. Although hopes were for the line to continue all the way to the city of St. Cloud, just north of Big Lake there is a several mile stretch of only single track, and it would be a significant expenditure to add another track so the line can continue to accommodate both freight and commuter traffic. Instead, bus service called the Northstar Link carries passengers from Big Lake to St. Cloud.

There are a lot of comparisons one could make with Metro-North – the most obvious being the overpasses used on the line. Along the Hudson Line there are severe limitations on the height of freight trains due to low bridges and overpasses. The line on which Northstar runs, being mostly freight, in contrast has very high overpasses to allow the plentiful freights to pass underneath. Another leg up the Northstar has over Metro-North is the fact that each passenger coach is equipped with wi-fi, something customers here have been wanting for years. On the other hand, service on the Northstar is very limited, focused around commuting hours with an occasional extra train for baseball games and concerts at Target Field. Much of this limitation is due to the frequent freight on the line, which can often delay trains (especially Amtrak’s Empire Builder).

All in all it was an interesting trip to see another one of the country’s commuter rail systems. Enjoy a collection of photos from Northstar:

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Highbridge

If there was one station that missed in our three year long tour of Metro-North’s system, it would likely be Highbridge. Although in the past it was a station open to public access, today it is an employee-only station, complete with a small platform and overpass, and many of the same amenities one would expect from a regular Metro-North station. I figured today might be a good day to check out this station that is normally off limits to the public, especially since High Bridge has been in the news recently.

The famous High Bridge
The famous High Bridge, New York City’s oldest bridge.

The facility here is, of course, named after the Aqueduct Bridge, or better known as High Bridge. The bridge’s roots stretch all the way back to 1848, making it the oldest bridge in New York City. As one would gather from its original name, the bridge was an important part of the Croton Aqueduct, supplying New York City with fresh water. Originally a stone arch bridge, five of the arches were replaced with one steel arch in 1928 to allow easier water navigation under the bridge. By this time the bridge was largely obsolete, and no longer carrying water – however it did serve a secondary purpose as a pedestrian crossing. That crossing was closed in the 1970s, until it was recently reopened last month after many years of restoration. From the newly reopened pedestrian crossing, one can get quite a good view of what is now a Metro-North railroad facility below.

  
 
  
   
  

The view from the newly reopened High Bridge

Today, Highbridge is where you will find Metro-North’s Car Appearance Facility, where both interior and exteriors of train cars are cleaned. Highbridge is one of three Metro-North washing facilities, and it possesses state-of-the-art brushes and sprayers that use 280 gallons of water per minute – 200 gallons of which are recycled, making it more environmentally friendly. 20 cars can be cleaned every shift, and each car gets this full treatment about every 60 days. The washing is completely computerized, and does not require an operator.

Highbridge Car Wash
Heading into the Highbridge car wash. Photo by Paul Pesante.

In addition to the appearance facility, Highbridge provides storage tracks for trains that is close to the city. While in days gone past, the New York Central used Mott Haven for this purpose, most of Mott Haven’s tracks were ripped out long ago. Highbridge has stepped up to fill that gap, which will especially be needed due to the East Side Access project, where Metro-North needed to give up quite a few storage tracks in Grand Central in order to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to the east side.

The original passenger station at High Bridge
The original passenger station at High Bridge in 1961. Photo by Ed Davis, Sr., from the collection of David Pirmann. By the 1970s the station had some scheduled trains, while on others it was listed as a flag stop.

Other noteworthy details about Highbridge are that you can see some old remnants of the New York Central’s Putnam Division here – Highbridge was a point of transfer between the Hudson and Putnam Divisions. It is also where the Oak Point Link joins with the Hudson Line, permitting freights to avoid the bottleneck of Mott Haven to get to Oak Point Yard.

The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link
The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link

Anyway, let’s take a quick behind-the-scenes glimpse of Metro-North’s official employee station at Highbridge… the only place we neglected on our original tour of the Hudson Line.

 
  
 
  
 
  

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