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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Farewell to New Haven Union Station’s Solari Departure Board

Years ago an announcement was made that the Solari split-flap departure board would be disappearing from New Haven Union Station. Despite pleas to Connecticut’s Department of Transportation, the decision was made and would not be changed.

Although it survived longer than we thought it would, the board was unfortunately replaced last week. Here is a short timelapse to remember it by…


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An afternoon out at Spuyten Duyvil

Although it is quite obvious that I am a lover of the Harlem Line, it is undeniable that there are beautiful spots located all along Metro-North’s right of way. Even though the Moodna Viaduct may be one of my favorites, there are plenty of other spots I enjoy on the Hudson Line, like Bear Mountain, Dobbs Ferry, and Breakneck Ridge. The area around Spuyten Duyvil is also especially nice, and I spent an afternoon there a few weekends ago photographing and recording both Metro-North and Amtrak trains.

 
And #217 said, “I don’t think I can…”

If you’re interested in checking out the area, across the river Inwood Hill Park offers great views of Metro-North’s Marble Hill and Spuyten Duyvil stations, as well as Amtrak’s swing bridge. Not necessarily railroad related, but of noteworthy mention is the large painted “C” that is kind of hard to miss. The C stands for Columbia – and was first painted on the rock in the early 1950s, with the approval of the New York Central Railroad. Coxswain of the heavyweight crew team, Robert Prendergast, came up with the idea and approached the railroad for permission. After it was granted, the C was painted about 60 feet by 60 feet square, and has been maintained ever since.

One of my personal favorite spots is the swing bridge used by Amtrak, after it splits from Metro-North’s Hudson Line. As most of you are already aware, for many years Amtrak trains ran from Grand Central Terminal. After some significant work in the late ’80s, including fixing up this old swing bridge, Amtrak was able to finally consolidate its New York City operations in Penn Station and vacate Grand Central. I can’t say that I know first hand, but I’ve heard plenty of stories about raucous parties that happened on this bridge while it was out of service. Originally constructed in 1900, the bridge was damaged and taken out of service in 1982, and was reopened in 1991.
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Winter at the Strasburg Railroad, Part 2

A few weeks ago I posted some photos of the Strasburg Railroad. While I was there, I also captured a little bit of video too. Since I’ve been fairly busy working on some other projects this week, I figured I’d just share this video in lieu of a proper post this week. Although the snow certainly looks nice on film, I’d much rather the weather quite a bit warmer.

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One of the reasons I’m dying for warmer weather is because I happened to purchase a DJI Phantom. The first (admittedly horrible) clip above is from the Phantom… actually it is the very first time I ever flew it for capturing video. I’m sure future attempts will be a little bit smoother, after I’ve had some more practice.

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Decay and Rebirth: the Glenwood Power Station

Anyone familiar with the history of Grand Central Terminal (and hopefully all of you that regularly read this blog) likely recall a 1902 train crash that led to significant changes in how New Yorkers viewed trains. Nobody really liked steam trains operating through the city, and attempts to hide them in cuts and tunnels proved to be unsafe. That particularly serious crash in the Park Avenue Tunnel led to steam trains being banned in Manhattan. The idea of electric trains had been pondered for a while, but this proved the necessary impetus for innovation. The New York Central’s Chief Engineer William Wilgus, and inventor Frank Sprague came up with the bottom contact third rail to power trains into the city, allowing a bold new Grand Central that could never have been accomplished with the previous technology. The often overlooked question, however, is where did that electricity come from? Let’s rewind back a few years to the beginning of the Grand Central project…

At the heart of the Grand Central Project was not just a station, but an entire set of buildings – A Terminal City. Minnesota architects Charles Reed and Allen Stem won the New York Central’s commission for designing the new Grand Central Terminal, with the assistance of Reed’s brother-in-law, William Wilgus. Later added to the project by the Vanderbilt family were cousin Whitney Warren and his partner Charles Wetmore. The four collaborated on the Terminal itself, as well as the redesigned Grand Central Palace. Other buildings associated with the project were divided between the two firms – the hotels and New York Central Building went to Warren and Wetmore. Though not the most important architecturally, the two most important buildings of all were designed by Reed & Stem – the power stations that powered these new electric trains.

1905 sketches of the New York power stations
1905 sketches of the Yonkers (Glenwood) Power station (left) and Port Morris power station (right).

Two power stations were constructed by the New York Central in 1906 – one on the Harlem Division at Port Morris (the Harlem had a short branch to Port Morris at the time), and another in the Glenwood section of Yonkers on the Hudson Division. The architecture of both, as designed by Reed and Stem, was relatively simple with brick and terra cotta on the outside. Long, arched windows provided natural light during the day, and an attractive glow along the water at night. Under that simple exterior lay an extensive framework of steel (2800 tons of steel in total), with concrete flooring, brick and tile walls, and concrete roofing slabs covered with copper. Each plant consisted of two buildings – a main building that enclosed a boiler room, coal bunker, and generating room which was 167′ wide, 237′ long, and 105′ high, and a separate swich house located about 40′ away from the main building.

Port Morris Power Station Typical substation
The Glenwood Power Station
1905 plans for the Yonkers and Port Morris power stations, as well as a typical substation.

Both power stations were cross-connected, and each had an ultimate capacity of 30,000 kw. Just as Grand Central was designed to handle more traffic than the railroad was currently operating, the power stations were designed to carry train service much greater than what was being operated at the time with steam locomotives. Powered by coal, the plants were both designed to receive coal by rail or by boat, which was then delivered by conveyors to a crusher. After the coal was crushed to the necessary size, it was delivered by another conveyor to a coal bunker with a 3500 ton capacity at the top of the building. Each plant had 24 Babcock and Wilcox water tube boilers, and was designed to accommodate 6 5000kw Curtis vertical turbo-generators. The high voltage AC electricity provided by these power plants was delivered to various substations along the Harlem and Hudson Divisions through insulated cables, where it was then converted to lower voltage DC power for the third rail to power trains.

 
 
  
   
  
   
    
  
   
  
   
 
  
The power station today, after being abandoned for decades.

Though integral to the initial operations of Grand Central Terminal, the New York Central eventually realized that it would be cheaper to purchase energy as opposed to generating its own, and the Glenwood plant was sold to Con Edison in 1936. By the late ’60s the obsolete plant was shuttered and remained abandoned for decades… until fairly recently. A bold plan to restore and repurpose the old power station has been on the table for a few years, but seems to be moving forward thanks to the assistance of New York politicians.

Rendering of the redeveloped power station
Rendering of how the redeveloped power station would look.

“The Plant” project looks to turn the crumbling power station into a hotel and a convention center, with a capacity of 1600 and 3500 people, respectively. The space is separated into four distinct parts – the Smokestack Building, the Great Turbine Hall, a courtyard, and the Switch House Building – all of which will be connected internally with a new corridor. The smokestack building would contain a reception area, and cafe on the ground floor, and a hotel on the upper floors. Not only will the smokestacks be preserved, plans call for meeting rooms to be constructed inside the 15’6″-diameter stacks.

Plan for restoration
Compare the original plans above with the plans for the future…

A large convention center and exhibition space is planned for the Great Turbine Hall, upper floors may contain retail shops, and the building may also include a spa. The last building to be converted, the Switch House Building, will be converted into a corporate retreat with a hotel, ballroom, restaurant and cafe. This building would see the most changes from the original, as two stories would be added to the building for additional hotel space. The last section of the project would be the Courtyard, currently an open space between the buildings. This open air area would be enclosed with a glass roof and would contain a restaurant or cafe, and a seasonal garden.

All of the aforementioned buildings would be connected to the Metro-North station at Glenwood via a new pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks.

Plan for development
Plans for development around the old Glenwood power station

While there will always be people opposed to development in their neighborhood, the plans for restoring and repurposing the old power station were generally well received. Unfortunately, the area surrounding the site contains no space for parking, and project planners had their eyes on portions of nearby Trevor Park to fit that need, which was not well received by locals. Original plans called for a partially underground parking structure under the current Trevor Park, with artificial turf ball fields to be constructed above. After comments from the public, alternate possibilities have been suggested.

Alternate development site plan
Alternate plan for development around the old Glenwood power station

Either way, the city council unanimously decided at the end of April to request the New York State Legislature to authorize construction on former park lands for the project to move forward. The one caveat being that all parkland being used by the project must be replaced and improved in equal or greater acreage in alternate spots. This alternate parkland would be closer to the waterfront, and the development plans calls for sand volleyball courts, a bocce court, and a picnic and grilling area. This area would be in addition to the previously mentioned park above the parking garage, which is planned to have three ball fields and a playground.


Video highlighting the restoration and repurposing of the Glenwood Power Station.

I, for one, am very eager to see this beautiful old structure again restored to greatness. Though frequently overlooked, the old power plant played an integral role not only in local rail history, but also in the growth of New York City and its suburbs in Westchester and beyond. It will certainly be interesting watch how this project progresses!

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Rare mileage on the Alaska Railroad – The Palmer & Airport Branches

Most of the places we’ve checked out thus far on the Alaska Railroad are part of regular routes that countless passengers have traveled over. Today, however, we’re going to take a look at two of the railroad’s branches – the Palmer branch and the Anchorage Airport branch. Both routes are occasionally used for passenger service, but are not in regular scheduled service. The Alaska Railroad operates a fair train every year for the Alaska State Fair, which travels over the Palmer branch and to South Palmer station. Besides the fair and other special events, it is mostly freight that sees this branch. Beyond the branch’s useable track lies the town of Palmer, for which the branch was named. Palmer’s depot still stands, and is used as a community center. Sitting outside is a restored coal locomotive.

 
  
  
 
 
  
 
  
   

Photos around Anchorage and on the Palmer Branch

The Anchorage Airport branch likely sees more passengers than the Palmer Branch, but it is still not a regularly scheduled route on the railroad. Cruise ship lines with chartered trains are usually the only patrons of the branch, leaving the depot there fairly quiet. If you have money to burn, the depot is available to rent, however.

  

Photos on the Airport Branch. With its high-level platforms, this is the most “Metro-North looking” part of the entire Alaska Railroad.

Thanks to my camera, you can ride both branches from your own home. Starting off at the Anchorage International Airport, we pass the Anchorage depot before heading onto the Palmer Branch, finishing just beyond the South Palmer / fairgrounds station.

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Our second video for the day shows another hidden part of the Alaska Railroad, one that passengers never see. Reversing out of Anchorage’s depot, we head into Anchorage yard just after sunrise.

Next week we’ll check out yet another part of the railroad never seen by passengers, as we go behind the scenes and take a shop tour.

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More Adventures on the Alaska Railroad, South of Anchorage

In our last two Alaska Railroad videos, we got a chance to tour the two main areas the railroad services south of Anchorage – Whittier and Seward. Both routes share the same trackage just south of Anchorage, which parallels the Seward Highway and travels through the scenic Kenai Peninsula, Chugach National Forest, and Turnagain Arm areas. Before moving on to the area north of Anchorage, I figured that we should finish up with the coastal areas south of the city. We spent a little less than a week in the Anchorage area and experienced quite a variation of weather – from sun and blue skies, pouring rain, and even a little bit of snow – all of which are visible in my collection of photos. Anyway, I’ll let the photos (and more mounted on the locomotive video) speak for themselves!

 
  
   
 
  
  
  
   
 
  
   
  
 
  
   


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A visit to Whittier, and a ride through North America’s longest rail/highway tunnel

In 1923 President Warren G. Harding drove a golden spike just north of Nenana, completing the Alaska Railroad’s main line. The line extended 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks, and is still the major backbone of the Alaska Railroad today. Over the years since there have been various additions and branches added, from the 28 mile Eilson Branch extending from Fairbanks to the Eilson Air Force Base, to the short Anchorage International Airport Branch which connects the railroad to the airport and is used occasionally for cruise ship passengers. Today, however, we turn our focus onto one of the railroad’s most important branches, the Whittier Branch.

Completed in 1943, the Whittier Branch connected the Alaska Railroad’s main line to the ice-free port of Whittier. Though a branch to Whittier had been considered for years prior, the project only came to fruition because of World War II. Whittier was not only a shortcut compared to the railroad’s other ice-free port in Seward, reduced exposure of ships to Japanese submarines, and was harder to bomb by plane because of the frequent bad weather.

 
  
 
  
 
   
  
 
   
 
  
 
  
  
  
 
 
On the route of the Glacier Discovery – visiting Whittier and the flag stop at Spencer Glacier.

The most notable characteristic of the branch are the two tunnels used to pass through the mountains surrounding Whittier. A one mile tunnel was needed to get through Begich Peak, and a 2.5 mile tunnel passed through Maynard Mountain. While the shorter tunnel exists much as it did when it was first constructed, the longer tunnel has had extensive work to allow cars and trucks to pass through.

Construction of the Whittier Tunnel
Col. Benjamin B. Talley, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska (second from right) and Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner Jr., commander of the Alaska Defense Command (third from right), enter the Whittier Tunnel during a holing through ceremony Nov. 20, 1942. Photo from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Gone are the days where Whittier was just a military port – today it is an attractive ingress to Alaska used by boaters, freight ships and cruise liners. But up until the late 1990s Whittier was not accessible by car. The Alaska Railroad operated a shuttle service where cars could be transported by flatcar to Whittier, but it was not the most ideal option. While constructing a new highway over the mountain, or constructing another tunnel were all considered, the most cost effective solution was to modify the Alaska Railroad’s existing tunnel to allow road vehicles to traverse the mountain into Whittier.

Converting the tunnel to multi use
Converting the tunnel to multi use
Construction work to convert the railroad tunnel into a dual rail/highway tunnel. Photos from Hatch Mott McDonald.

Completed in June of 2000, the modified tunnel is the longest dual purpose rail and highway tunnel in North America. Built to endure the harsh Alaskan climate, the tunnel is able to operate in temperatures down to -40°F, winds of 150 MPH, and the portal buildings are able to withstand avalanches. Trains are still an important part of the traffic using the tunnel, and it employs a computerized traffic control system to regulate both vehicular and rail traffic in both directions. Besides special cruise ship trains, Alaska Railroad passenger service along the branch and through the tunnels is on the Glacier Discovery train. Freight remains an integral part of the railroad’s operations on the branch, and it is from Whittier that the railroad is connected by barge to Seattle and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

While plenty of people on YouTube have recorded the journey through the tunnel by car, we get to take a unique journey through by train, thanks to my camera mounted on the front of one of the Alaska Railroad’s locomotives. In typical Whittier fashion, it is raining, but you get the general experience of leaving the port of Whittier, waiting for access into the tunnel, and traversing both tunnels on the branch. Enjoy!


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Pioneer Park and the Tanana Valley Railroad Museum, Fairbanks, Alaska

Before I continue with a long series of photos and videos from the Alaska Railroad, I figured it would be fun to quickly introduce everyone to the Tanana Valley Railroad Museum, located in Fairbanks, Alaska. Located in Pioneer Park, the museum operates a historic 1899 steam locomotive a few times a year for visitors. Built in 2005, the museum consists of a shop for the locomotive, and a smaller section for displays, all of which is staffed by volunteers. The museum was one of the very first stops for the NRHS convention, and the historic locomotive was operating all afternoon, and a night photo session was held in the evening.

Postcard from Alaskaland, and token from the centennial exposition
Postcard from Alaskaland, and token from the centennial exposition.

Pioneer Park, where the museum is located, is a bit of an interesting spot in Fairbanks. The grounds were first established in 1967 for the Alaska 67 Centennial Exposition, which celebrated the centennial of the Alaska Purchase. Later the 44-acre historical park became known as Alaskaland. It was eventually renamed Pioneer Park, lest you think it some type of amusement park with roller coasters (Alaska has none, unless you count the hill named roller coaster on the Dalton Highway).

1981 brochure for Alaskaland
1981 brochure for Alaskaland, including an aerial view of the railroad tracks encircling the park.

So before we depart Fairbanks on a journey down the Alaska Railroad, let’s take a quick minute to check out Pioneer Park and the Tanana Valley Railroad Museum, and a short video from my GoPro camera which was mounted on their historical locomotive.

 
  
   
  
  
 
  
  
 


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Back from Alaska, and the NRHS Convention

If you enjoyed our series on Alaska posted earlier this year, you will undoubtedly love our upcoming series on the Alaska Railroad. I’ve just returned from the absolutely awesome National Railway Historical Society convention, which was held in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska, and have some great features lined up for the blog… many of which include video. My trusty GoPro camera was mounted on several locomotives throughout the trip, recording well over a hundred gigabytes of footage. So if you happened to miss the convention, or have always wanted to go to Alaska, you can pretend like you were there along with us!

 
  
 
  
 
 
  
 
  
  
 
 
Photos from the railroad route to Seward.

The Coastal Classic is likely one of the Alaska Railroad’s most scenic routes, traveling southward from Anchorage to the port of Seward, and passing glaciers and beautiful vistas. The line follows several horseshoe curves to gain altitude, and passes through several mountains by tunnel. Following the route of the Coastal Classic, our NHRS charter train took a leisurely ride through this gorgeous section of Alaska. Our video starts a little over fifty miles from Seward, and condenses two hours and twenty minutes of the ride into ten minutes. The video concludes over a bit of rare passenger mileage – bypassing Seward’s passenger station and heading into the Seward rail yard and docks.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing some more stories, photos and videos from the convention, but for now enjoy a quick jaunt on the picturesque Alaska Railroad…

A special thanks goes out to the Alaska Railroad’s Kenny Smith, who was instrumental in getting my camera mounted on the various locomotives and trains throughout the trip! Thank you so much, Kenny!

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