Hot fun, Late nights. Documenting Penn Station Renewal.

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.

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

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.

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal

Penn Station Renewal Penn Station Renewal

Credit for all photos: Amtrak / Emily Moser. For more Amtrak images and videos, please visit the Amtrak Media website.

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Welcome to the New Penn Station

The romance of Penn Station lost

The romance of Penn Station lost
Artist Joseph Pennell captures the romance of the original Pennsylvania Station in his series of railroad etchings titled The Commuters, Down to the Trains, and Hall of Iron.

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.”


The new post office shortly after construction

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!

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Springtime Exploration: The Beacon Line

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.

Map of the Beacon Line
Map of the Beacon Line showing the locations of the photos in this post, as well as the two historical rail lines.

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.

Meeting the Harlem Line

Meeting the Harlem Line Meeting the Harlem Line

Sometimes the Beacon Line is used for storage

The lines meet The Beacon continues

Minimal maintenance includes cutting of fallen trees POND block The Ice Pond

Along the Beacon Line Along the Beacon Line

The line around Ice Pond is used by fisherman

Approaching the Ice Pond POND block Ice Pond Preserve info

Along the Ice Pond Looking across the Ice Pond to the Harlem Line

From the Harlem Line one can see where the Beacon Line crosses over

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The Never Ending Journey, Part 2: More Photos from 2016

2016 has been bookended by two major moves for me – early in the year I was settling in to a new place in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area, and at the end of the year I find myself settling in to a new place in the Buffalo, New York area. Busy seems to be an understatement when you find yourself traveling through at least 18 different states, and spending the equivalent of nearly three months in different hotel rooms. Of course, throughout it all I kept my camera by my side. This post roughly continues where Part 1 left off – but I’ve aptly attempted to bookend it with Harrisburg, and the Buffalo – a true reflection of 2016.

Snow falls on the Keystone Corridor in Middletown
Snow falls on the Keystone Corridor in Middletown

Another cloudy day as the Conrail heritage unit passes over the Rockville Bridge
Another cloudy day as the Conrail heritage unit passes over the Rockville Bridge

I lived in Camp Hill for nearly a year, and I finally made it a point to take a photo of the old station...
I lived in Camp Hill for nearly a year, and I finally made it a point to take a photo of the old station…

Continuing off from the previous Never Ending Journey post, my road trip back from Atlanta led us to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where I heard that the Secret City Scenic would be ending operations. Sadly, their operating agreement was not renewed, and they would no longer be permitted to run trains. Since we were not far, we dropped in to see the final excursions, and snap a few photos.

Last run of the Secret City Scenic in Oak Ridge, TN
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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.

Map
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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newyear

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