Last night the iconic Solari split flap display was removed from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to make way for a new, ADA-compliant digital board. I spent the day documenting the takedown, and here is a collection of some of my photos from then, and from other days.
Over the course of this year I’ve been lucky enough to get a chance to ride quite the array of long distance Amtrak trains and see some of the most stunning vistas our country has to offer. There is simply no better way to see the great landscape of America than a journey by train. While I certainly find beaches and mountains beautiful, I’ve found myself most impressed by the rugged landscape of the American southwest, as seen on both the Sunset Limited and, most recently, the Southwest Chief. There’s just something about the striated red rock formations I find ruggedly beautiful.
I will refrain from saying too much about the Southwest Chief itself, and let a collection of photos I captured along the way tell the story. The dining car, the lounge car, and the roomette all enjoyable portions of the journey, but that can be experienced in many other places. The views from the windows, however, are unique to this trip and are what I made an effort to record. Enjoy a small collection of my favorite visions of the Southwest onboard the Chief – from stations to rock formations, and a few views of the train as well.
Welcome back to our feature of photos from Mongolia, this is part two of the three part series. In our previous post, we got a chance to see some of the territory and the noteworthy curves and switchbacks that make the Trans Mongolian line interesting to ride and view. In this post we’re going to take a few visits behind the scenes to see some of the people that work to make this railroad run.
It’s worth starting out our feature about people with the photo below:
You’ll obviously spot yours truly in the center, to my right is Temuulen, who served as my driver and guide while in Mongolia. He’s an avid photographer of many things, including trains, and knows all the best spots for photographing the Trans Mongolian line. On the far left is Natsagdorj, Temuulen’s father, and on the right is Vasiliy. Both Natsagdorj and Vasiliy work for the railroad, they are two of Mongolian Railway’s track defect experts, or as you’d more officially call them, Head Engineers of the Road Diagnostic Center. Vasiliy is from Russia, but has been in Mongolia working for the railway there for the past 22 years. Natsagdorj studied at railway universities in both Russia and Mongolia, and has also been working for the railroad for 22 years.
In our previous post we got to see some trains around the Kholt area, this time we visit the small platform (complete with an old, abandoned signal house on the hill above), and get a chance to meet the local dispatcher. Trains through this area aren’t using any type of Centralized Traffic Control, instead a local dispatcher controls the siding outside, and when a train arrives nearby, heads outside to visually report its passage and log the consist’s rear car number and time of passage. On the station platform is a small, raised raised spot which the dispatcher stands on to observe the passing train. Next to the spot is a long sign that reads цэг хяналмын, which translates to control point.
Although another small station along the line, Khairkan is slightly more noteworthy than Kholt in that it has a building that doubles as a dispatch office and a small waiting area for passengers. Similar to the dispatcher shown in Kholt, the dispatcher here controls a small amount of local territory, and goes outside to observe trains when they pass. Local dispatchers keep in contact with a central dispatching office in Ulaanbataar, where traffic plans are created and new dispatchers are trained. Upgrades to a Centralized Traffic Control are planned for the area, in which case these local dispatcher jobs will become obsolete and the central office will instead control the train traffic from afar.
As one would expect, the main backshops for the Mongolian Railways is the capital of Ulaanbataar. Much of the equipment and work completed there reminds me of other shops I’ve seen at Amtrak and around the world – from the heavy overhead crane, to the truing of rail wheels. Unlike what I’m used to at work, there didn’t seem to be much in terms of PPE requirements.
On the Road
Not everything I did while in Mongolia was railroad related. One can’t miss some of the more traditional touristy things while visiting the country, including sleeping in a ger, or riding a horse. In the case of the first, ger is the Mongolian word for “home” – and is basically a round tent that’s really not too bad of a place to rest your head. The center of the one I stayed in had a nice wood stove to keep you warm through the night, and yes, it was electrified. You can charge your cell phone in a ger… though you do have to go elsewhere to use the bathroom.
Not far from the camp was the Aryabal Temple, which was built in the early 1800’s by Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhists. It was destroyed by communists in the 1930s, and restored in 2007. The temple is located on the mountain, and requires climbing 108 steps to reach it.
On the way back to Ulaanbataar was one of those tourist traps you’ll find in a lot of different places, because everyone likes animals. In this case, the animals for show were birds of prey. Of course, hunting with large eagles is a traditional part of nomadic Mongolian culture, so it definitely makes sense.
Either my arms are severely lacking in strength, or the bird was a lot heavier than it looked.
This wraps up part 2 of our feature on Mongolia, in our next part we’ll take a look at another popular tourist site in the country, one of the more remote train stations along the Trans Mongolian Line, and some views from high in the air.
Earlier this year I posted a collection of photos from some of my travels around the United States, mostly on Amtrak. While riding the rails here at home is always fun, I’m always curious about foreign rail systems, especially some of the more remote ones throughout the world. One such remote system I got a chance to photograph was in Mongolia. Many people have at least heard of the famed Trans Siberian Railway, which stretches from Moscow to Vladivostok (a distance of nearly 6,000 miles) – but that part of the route isn’t the entire story. There are a few notable branch lines, the primary of which is the Trans Mongolian line, which separates from the Trans Siberian near Ulan Ude, Russia, and goes south through Mongolia and eventually ends in Beijing, China.
Last year I got a chance to both photograph and ride the line (yes, I have quite the backlog of photos to go through!) and experience the very interesting and unique landscape that is Mongolia. Beside riding the trains, I got to camp in a normal tent, as well as the traditional Mongolian ger, hike a little, ride a horse, and visit some of the tourist locations – like the giant statue of Chinggis Khan (Chinggis being the more exact transliteration of who we usually call Genghis in English).
My Mongolian adventures started in Ulaanbataar, the capital city of Mongolia, which also happens to have the largest train station in the country. Not far from the station is also a locomotive heavy repair facility, which you’ll see in Part 2. Our photos here feature the city’s main Sukhbataar Square, as well as an intersection not far from the square – note the traffic congestion at the intersection, Mongolians are restricted from driving in the city on certain days based on the last number on their license plates. Despite the vastness of the country, nearly half of the entire population live in just this city. Additional photos show the main railway station and surrounding area in Ulaanbataar.
A lot of my travels didn’t take me far from Ulaanbataar, mostly because some of the most notable territory along the Trans Mongolian route is just south of the city. In order to traverse the mountainous territory south of the capital, the railroad curls in an almost never-ending set of switchbacks which are popular with photographers to the area. Khonkor is approximately fifteen miles southeast of Ulaanbataar, but over 600 feet higher in altitude. On approach to Khonkor, it skirts the towering Bogd Khan Mountain, which lies just south of the capital, and is visible in some of the photos below.
About nine miles south of Khonkor is Bayan, where more switchbacks have taken us up another 400 feet in altitude. Some of the mountains that the train passes through provide perfect perches for train watching, or if you happen to be a cow, usually a great place to graze. Unfortunately before my visit, little rain had fallen and much of the grass was brown (also unfortunately, the rain decided to fall frequently during my visit, even to the point of flooding Ulaanbataar. Apparently Mongolians have few qualms about fording rivers or flooded streets with their vehicles). The land here is known as the steppe – an area made up of grasslands and shrublands that form a crescent around the Gobi Desert, which is located further south on the Trans Mongolian line.
Six and a half miles south of Bayan you will find Kholt, about 260 feet higher than before. Just south of here is the highest altitude you’ll find along the Trans Mongolian, from here on out you’ll be slowly descending to 3,150 feet at the border with China. Similar to Bayan, this is steppe territory which is largely free of trees and pretty much anything else, for that matter. Looking at the desolate landscape makes you truly begin to understand how Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world. In fact, one of the few dwellings you’ll see in the Kholt photos are two houses close to the tracks, which were formerly for railway workers to stay in, but are now unused.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this initial introduction to the Trans Mongolian route. I have two more parts planned for the future – the second, which will feature the Ulaanbataar shops, a train dispatching office, and some of the people that work on the railroad. The third installment will highlight the mountainous territory of the line from the air, and show some of the more remote places you can find along the rails.
Nearly six months later, I’ve come to set the record straight – I’m neither dead, nor has this site been shut down. I’m still out there (somewhere), traveling, with a camera in hand. Last month I logged over 7,500 miles on the train, saw a lot of cool places, and met some awesome people. Here are some photos I liked from along the way…
As we find ourselves in the final hours of 2017, I thought it might be a nice time to look back at some of the more memorable photographs to appear on I Ride the Harlem Line this year. As you likely noticed, posts were few and far between this year, as things were again, rather busy. Despite that, we still adventured to the Beacon Line, Grand Central for Amtrak’s temporary return, and the new Penn Station. While some may find 13 an ominous number, I tend to find it lucky – so let’s take a look at the top thirteen photos posted on the I Ride the Harlem Line website or social media pages this year.
#13 – Hartford, Connecticut
One of my favorite spots to catch Amtrak’s New Haven to Springfield line is this one at the historic Hartford Union Station. This shot from early April captures the Vermonter as it passes Connecticut’s capitol building and approaches the station.
#12 – Trenton, New Jersey
As the road bridge behind the rail bridge states, “Trenton makes, the world takes.” This drone view captured Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train number 125 as it departed Trenton for Philadelphia back in November.
#11 – Fort Erie, Canada
Norfolk Southern makes its way through Fort Erie, Canada at sunset – bound for the Niagara River just a few meters away, and the border crossing into the United States.
#10 – Buffalo, New York
As I captured this photo at the time of posting:
How exactly does one illustrate the challenges facing a revival of Buffalo Central Terminal in one photo? This may be as close as you can come. The Terminal, as seen from Buffalo’s City Hall, is quite obviously removed from the city’s core downtown area. Visible in the photo are the two most notable structures completed in Buffalo in 1929, though both in the art deco style, they may almost be worlds apart in terms of geography. The Rand Building is prime real estate in Buffalo’s downtown core, while the Terminal is approximately two and a quarter miles as the crow flies in what one can only describe as a far rougher neighborhood.
Neither is Buffalo Central Terminal located on one of the main spokelike thoroughfares (like Broadway, the diagonal running street seen in the photo) that lead from the suburbs into the city proper. While it may have been constructed in the most logical place along the railroad tracks (most train servicing Buffalo would pass the Terminal, however trains bound for the western US would not pass a downtown station), the location is hardly practical with how people interact with and move within the city itself.
Although many railfans and preservationists alike hope for an announcement that BCT will come alive again, the pragmatist in me believes it will not happen, and a new station will be constructed in the hip Canalside area of downtown Buffalo, not far from the current Exchange Street station. The final decision for Buffalo’s new (or old) station is expected later this year.
Spoiler: They picked Canalside.
#9 – Khairkhan, Mongolia
Both mountainous and desert-like, the landscape of Mongolia is always provides an interesting backdrop for train watching. To maneuver through the mountains, many switchbacks are used to overcome the steep gradients on approach to the city of Ulaanbataar. Forgive me for going all the way to Mongolia and China in July and sharing very few of the photos from that journey. I plan to make a few posts in 2018 with some of these images!
#8 – Grand Central Terminal, New York City
On the last day of Empire Service trains into Grand Central Terminal, I show off my Empire Service logo pin. We’ll call this one a tribute to the designer of said logo.
#7 – Harlem, New York
Shall we ride by train or by boat? Amtrak Empire Service train 233 has departed Grand Central and is enroute to Albany, captured while leaving Manhattan over the Harlem River Lift Bridge.
#6 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
All the way from California, to arrive in the snow… Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA)’s first ACS-64 arrives in Philadelphia from the Siemens factory. Photo taken at the Jenkintown-Wyncote station.
#5 – Bear Mountain Bridge, New York
Let’s play a game. The game is called “Spot the Train.” Empire Service near the Bear Mountain Bridge
#4 – Waterbury, Connecticut
On a frigid March day, a Waterbury branch train arrives at the end of the line in Waterbury.
#3 – Storm King Mountain, New York
Amtrak’s Train 290, the Ethan Allen Express, is just barely visible as it approaches one of my favorite places along the Hudson, Pollepel Island, home to Bannerman Castle.
#2 – Harlem, New York
As part of the Penn Station Renewal program, six Amtrak Empire Service trains have been diverted to Grand Central Terminal. This was the first Amtrak scheduled revenue service train in 26 years to use GCT, or as Amtrak has dubbed it, NYG. Of course, I Ride The Harlem Line captured the first train in Harlem, with the backdrop of New York City behind.
#1 – Penn Station, New York
Although this particular photo was not heavily promoted by me or this website, while doing a top photo list of the year, I’d be remiss leaving this one off. In fact, this is arguably the most viewed photograph I’ve ever captured in my life, after appearing on CBS This Morning, and in countless publications including AM NY and the NY Post. The photo was part of a set taken for Amtrak to be freely accessed, shared, and/or published by any and all media as part of the Penn Station Renewal program. I shared my experience taking these photos in a post here. As much as I enjoyed the experience of capturing the images in Penn Station, I think I will be retiring from pulling any future all-nighters as favors to my coworkers. ;)
And that wraps up our countdown! I’m looking forward to 2018 and have some interesting journeys already planned, so be sure to keep an eye out! Oh, and be sure to follow us on Facebook, as we post a tad more frequently on there!
Labor Day has come and gone, schools have started back up again, and we find ourselves in the waning days of summer. The much-hyped transit “summer of hell” has also finished – and many seem to think it was a lot more swell than hell. For anyone with an interest in trains, it was always going to be rather swell. Amtrak would be making a return to New York City’s cathedral of railroading, Grand Central Terminal, after being gone for more than a decade. We welcomed the Empire Service trains with both open arms and camera shutters. I caught the trains in various locations along the reroute, and am presenting some of my favorite shots from the duration here. Until the next time…
It may be hot, but down in the bowels of New York’s Pennsylvania Station it’s not really hell. Befitting the city’s well-known nickname, nobody here is sleeping at 2 AM – the renewal of Penn Station is a round-the-clock job. On the night of July 21st anticipation has been steadily building for the final placement of one of the many puzzle pieces of the station’s new track infrastructure. Switch 69B – everything is named numerically based on it’s position, with letters indicating the facing direction – is a massive piece of hardware that was assembled outside the station. In the cover of darkness it will be rolled in on its side, due to its width – when laid flat it is wide enough to foul the tracks on both sides.
With the last Amtrak train in the house at 1:40 AM, there’s a brief lull until the first morning departure at 3:25 AM. It’s in this window that the switch is laid flat just beyond the mouth of the Hudson tunnels and loaded onto Amtrak’s Portal Krane-1, which will bring the heavy piece to the correct spot and lower it into position on the already prepared track bed. PK-1, as it is abbreviated, is a Transformers-looking beast, with movable legs that allow it to “walk” the switch into position. It’s controlled by a complicated looking panel mounted to the body of the operator – I can only think of it as a joystick on steroids, and idly wonder if the fellow is any good at video games.
The night’s anticipation reaches its peak as PK-1, fully loaded, begins moving at 2:23 in the morning. When the vehicle reaches the right position next to the empty track bed, the operator controls PK-1’s legs to gradually shift the position of the switch. After several lateral shifting motions, the switch hovers in the appropriate spot just above the track bed. After trimming pieces of the already laid rail to accommodate it, the switch is finally lowered into position.
Concurrently, another team is hard at work on the other side of the station’s tracks. Most of the infrastructure for Track 10, including rails and ties, third rail and catenary have all been removed for a complete rebuild. Here, too, anticipation mounts for the arrival of the cement truck for the night’s pour. Word comes on the radio that the truck is on the move, enroute to the Empire tunnels, complete with police escort. Of course, Amtrak’s cement truck is a hi-rail vehicle; before long it will slowly roll down adjacent to Track 10, ready to encase the already installed wood ties.
Several photographers have gotten the chance to document the milestones happening in Penn Station, and I am lucky enough to be one of them. If you have seen Amtrak’s Media Images site or the new NYP Renewal Update video, you may have already seen some of my photos. Now, perhaps, they feel a little bit more real. If you’re like me, you may gain a new respect for the hardworking folks renewing the station, investing quite a bit of sweat in the wee hours of the morning.
Credit for all photos: Amtrak / Emily Moser. For more Amtrak images and videos, please visit the Amtrak Media website.
When it comes to lost landmarks, the destruction of the original Pennsylvania Station is one of the travesties of New York City history. More than fifty years later the “monumental act of vandalism” is still keenly felt, as every commuter “scuttles in… like a rat.” Despite the loss, there may be a consolation prize for us all. For many of the years I’ve been present on this Earth New Yorkers have debated the conversion of the Farley Post Office into a new Pennsylvania Station. Although certainly not as grand as the original station, the style is similar – in fact designed by the same architects as the station: McKim, Mead, and White. Though it will never fully blunt the loss of Penn Station, converting part of the post office may well allow folks to again “enter the city like a god.”
Although proponent of the project, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan never got the chance to see the fate of the project, talk eventually did turn to action. The initial phase of the project has opened to the public – you can now find a new entrance to Penn Station on Eighth Avenue and 31st Street at the south end of the post office building. Although this is just a small portion of the larger Moynihan Station project (named, of course, for the senator that supported it), the new station access is a welcome change to the dungeon that is Penn Station.
Inside you’ll be greeted with bright whites, bold and modern typography, and stylized murals of New York City landmarks. The magic of technology grants the illusion that you are above ground with pleasing blue ceiling lights, including imitation skylights that display floating clouds. Beside providing a new entrance to the station, the new section grants new access to several of the train platforms, relieving stress on the rest of the station.
The new section of Penn Station appears to be a popular spot for newscasters to report the (mis)happenings in the station, so expect to see it as a backdrop more frequently in the future (especially the next two months). Amtrak’s summer repairs begin on Monday – something the news media has already nicknamed the “Summer of Hell” – but for us railfans it provides a special treat. Empire Service trains will be making their return to Grand Central Terminal to further relieve some of the stress in Penn Station, and I will certainly be looking forward to it!
As April has now arrived, we look forward to the spring, to warmer weather, and lovely green leaves on the trees. It seems, as well, like a decent time to explore some of the lesser-known railroad infrastructure in the area. Most regular riders of Metro-North are familiar with the railroad’s three main lines running into Grand Central Terminal – the Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven Lines. Others may be aware of two other lines on the west side of the Hudson River that Metro-North also owns – the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley Lines – which are operated by New Jersey Transit. But far fewer are familiar with Metro-North’s sixth line – the Beacon Line. Purchased in 1995 by Metro-North, the line has been, for the most part, inactive since. Occasional excursions, equipment moves and storage, and maintenance with hi rail vehicles, have all taken place, albeit infrequently. Though the rails itself may not be in use, running along parts of the line is fiber optic cabling that is integral to Metro-North operations.
Last fall the Beacon Line made the news as the MTA has issued a “Request for Expressions of Interest” regarding “all or part” of the line. The RFEI will be used to gauge interest in the line, and to see what people would actually want to do with it – but it is worth noting that the RFEI was strictly for informational purposes, it was not a formal Request for Proposals. Since the request closed last year, we’ve heard little from Metro-North about the proposals submitted and what anyone’s ideas for the line were. Any serious rail project would be difficult on the Beacon Line, and likely expensive. While Metro-North has not let the line become completely overgrown – weed spraying, fallen tree removal, and other minor maintenance happens occasionally – it isn’t in the best shape. Many bridges are in rough shape, needing costly maintenance. Years of people using the line as an ATV trail has led to severe degradation of the railroad ties, and in many cases the rails are old and in need of replacement.
Beside the condition of the line, making money on it would be another difficulty. Multiple studies have been performed in terms of reactivating all or some parts of the Beacon Line for passenger use, and all have pretty much determined that it is not economically feasible. One of the more promising ideas would be to operate a shuttle from Danbury to Southeast on the Harlem Line, a plan that was amusingly championed by politicians in upper Westchester County who would much prefer those Connecticut commuters to not come over to their stations on the Harlem Line (I’m looking at you, Katonah). Upon formal study, several difficulties were noted with the idea – the major one being the way that trains from the Beacon Line merge with the Harlem Line. With the current track alignment, any train coming from Danbury would be facing north when coming onto the Harlem Line, the wrong direction from Southeast station. Either the train crew would have to “change ends” and the train would go the opposite direction (which would take too much time due to procedural requirements like a brake test), or a wye track would have to be installed allowing the train to turn south onto the Harlem Line (difficult, as the land around the junction is protected wetlands, and would likely have to be acquired through eminent domain).
In the end, nothing may actually come out of this whole RFEI process besides calling attention to the nearly abandoned Beacon Line. I thought it might be an interesting time to take a little virtual tour of the line, as I’ve visited and photographed various portions on both sides – Brewster and Beacon. The two sides designation is somewhat important, as even though the line may be seen as one whole today, historically the Beacon Line is made up of two previous railroads. The eastern part of the Beacon Line that runs from Connecticut to Hopewell Junction is the former Maybrook Line. As one would expect, that line ran through Maybrook, New York and crossed the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie. After the fire on the Poughkeepsie Bridge in 1974, the portion of the Maybrook to Hopewell Junction was abandoned, and today is a rail trail. The western portion of the line, from Beacon to Hopewell Junction, was originally part of the Newburgh, Dutchess and Connecticut Railroad, later called the Beacon Secondary. The rest of the ND&C, which went beyond Hopewell into Millbrook, Pine Plains, Millerton, and Connecticut, had been abandoned in stages in the 20’s and 30’s.
Junction with the Harlem Line & the Ice Pond
The start of our explorations begin where the Harlem and Beacon Lines meet, a little less than halfway between Southeast and Patterson. As mentioned previously, there is no wye here, so it would be difficult to run trains from the Beacon south along the Harlem toward Brewster without a time consuming changing of ends. The lines meet and then diverge again, running along either side of the Ice Pond. Just beyond that body of water, the Beacon Line crosses over the Harlem Line and continues west, while the Harlem continues north. Here is the domain of fishermen, who spend entire weekend days with their pickups parked alongside the line.