Mott Haven in the 1960s

Keeping the trains clean – A look back at Mott Haven Yard

Early last month some alarms were raised about an Amtrak traveler that rode from Penn Station to Albany that was infected with measles. Any poor sap riding that train who failed the common-sense milestone of getting vaccinated could potentially have been exposed. Occurrences such as these in the modern day are far less common, but in the early 1900’s health became a subject in the forefront of train riders’ minds – especially when trains often carried the (generally perceived) “dirty” immigrants out west. Today Mott Haven is only a small yard facility operated by Metro-North, located where the Hudson Line diverges from the Harlem and New Haven Lines. Historically, however, the yard was far larger and played more of an important role for trains entering and exiting New York City – and for many years it was the major point where train cars were kept clean and disease-free. A 1905 issue of Harper’s Weekly featured an article about how railroads prevented the spread of disease on their train equipment, and featured the cleaning crews of Mott Haven, which provides an intriguing look back at the Mott Haven facilities of yesteryear.

The Mott Haven wye in 1908
The Mott Haven wye area in 1908, note the turntable and large yard area for storing trains.

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Winter 2015 – A Collection of Snowy Photos

Hopefully by now winter is waning, and yesterday’s snow storm will be the last big event of the season. It feels like it has has been a long winter – and one rife with cancellations, train delays, and even a full transit system shutdown. Despite the headaches, snow can of course be beautiful (in moderation!). Here’s a collection of some of my favorite photographs that I took this winter season, on Metro-North and beyond.

Who else is ready for spring?

Also, are you following I Ride the Harlem Line on Facebook and Instagram? Many of these photos appeared there first!

                       

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A Wedding in Grand Central

Over the one-hundred-plus years Grand Central has stood on this Earth, it has played host and been a witness to so many important things. Whether it be a an introduction to the space age, the place from where men march off to war, the place where thousands of eyes watch history unfold, or the spot where we protest injustice, Grand Central has stood at the center of Manhattan in importance and influence. And while the event that took place here last month isn’t much in terms of history, it was most important to me. Grand Central, the venerable cathedral to transportation, was a cathedral of another sort on January 9th, as it hosted my wedding.

Although it could be argued that this site is just as much about me as it is about trains, I do try and avoid discussing too much about my personal life. And rightly so, lest you try to show up to my house unannounced (yep, it happened), or try and convince me that despite you being double my age we should totally be together because you have a big you-know-what (yeah, that happened too. This may also be why the demographic of female railfans is so tiny). Nonetheless, it was too difficult to not share some of the wonderful photos from a wedding in the Terminal. Grand Central is gorgeous, and certainly one hell of a great place to get married. Brilliant photo ops are everywhere, and I finally got to get the shot I had planned for years of someone looking out from the hidden window in the Tiffany glass clock (though I happened to be on the opposite side of the camera lens).

To view the entire gallery, click “read more” below. All of the photos were taken by Johnathon Henninger, with the exception of the final two by Carey Wagner, who was looking up at the clock tower from Park Avenue.

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Boston’s Record Snowfall, and the MBTA’s West Concord Station

When the first snow of the season falls, everyone seems relatively enamored with the glistening white flakes clinging to the trees, painting a beautiful snowy scene. By now, a few months into winter, everyone is pretty much fed up, and wishing for spring. New York has certainly received its share of the white stuff, having at least one shutdown of major transit. Boston, however, has been particularly hard-hit, with record breaking snowfalls. The snowdrifts are apparently so high that some crazy folks have been jumping out of their windows into them – “nonsense” that is not amusing the city’s mayor.

The MBTA is suffering through the onslaught of snow – but just barely. With several full shutdowns, and running on reduced schedules, the transit agency is paying just about anybody 30 dollars an hour to help shovel snow, in addition to the fifty prison inmates they’ve recruited to do the same. Provided the city is not hit with yet another storm, they estimate an entire month before things get back to normal.

I happened to be in Boston last Saturday right as the city’s most recent blizzard was just beginning, and only hours before the system’s full Sunday shutdown. Capturing the snowy scene at West Concord, I checked out the snow-covered trains, and the restored depot on the MBTA’s Fitchburg Line. Though there are two tracks running through here (greatly reduced from when this town was once called Concord Junction and featured three railroads running through), although one is currently out of service and piled with snow as high as the station’s high-level platform.

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

Over the past few years this site has significantly delved into the history of Grand Central Terminal and how it came to be. We’ve talked about the Park Avenue Tunnel wreck that led to the banning of steam locomotives in Manhattan – considered one of the catalysts for building the new all-electric Terminal. We’ve also talked about the power plants established to provide the electricity to power the trains operating to Grand Central. But somehow along the way, we’ve neglected to discuss the integral bit of tech that delivered the electricity to the trains in Grand Central, and is still used today – the third rail.

After the recent, tragic crash on the Harlem Line, the topic of third rail has become a talking point in the media. For those not exceptionally familiar with railroading (who have been frequenting the site as of late), electric trains can be powered by various methods, and most railroad systems picked one method of power for their road. Since Metro-North is made up of two historical railroad systems – the New York Central, and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford – you will not find just one method of powering electric trains here. One common type of power, which is seen on the New Haven Line, is the overhead catenary system. Wires above the train carry electricity, and trains have special “arms” called pantographs that reach up and connect with these wires.

Drawing of the bottom contact third rail, from the patent documentation.
Drawing of the bottom contact third rail invented by William Wilgus and Frank Sprague, from the patent documentation.

The other common method of train power, the third rail, comes in a few different “flavors,” but the concept on each is similar – an extra rail that conducts electricity is placed on the ground, and special shoes on the train connect with it and draw power. The New York City subway and Long Island Railroad, for example, use an over running third rail, where power is collected from the top of the third rail. This is the oldest type of third rail power. Metro-North, however, uses a method of under running third rail, which is also known as bottom contact third rail (or the Wilgus-Sprague system, for its inventors). As one would gather from the name, the power is collected from the bottom of the third rail. This method was especially invented for use in Grand Central Terminal, and was an improvement on the original by inventors William Wilgus (Chief Engineer of the New York Central) and Frank Sprague for safety. It is still used on the Harlem and Hudson Lines today, and is what was involved the recent crash.

Before I continue on, let’s break down some facts about the third rail in Valhalla, and about under running third rail:

  • The railroad tracks running through the area in question have been in service since 1846.
  • Under running third rail has been in service in the New York Metropolitan area since 1906.
  • Third rail in the area in question was installed in 1983 when the Harlem Line was electrified to Southeast (then Brewster North).
  • Over running third rail (like the LIRR uses) is the oldest type of third rail. Under-running third rail was developed later as a safer methodology, as it was less likely to electrocute a worker or trespasser, and better covered from rain, snow, and ice.
  • The original NYC subway (IRT) used the older version of third rail because the under running variety had not been invented yet. The Long Island Rail Road followed suit when electrifying due to connections / planned connections with the subway.
  • The same year that under running third rail was patented, the legislature of the State of Connecticut banned unprotected third rail technology after several people / animals were electrocuted. The whole concept of under running third rail was that the rail was protected, and thus considered far more safe.
  • In modern usage, under running third rail seems appears overwhelmingly safer in comparison to over running. The subway and LIRR have had far more deaths in this manner – from numerous trackworkers, to people walking across the tracks, falling on the tracks, graffiti artists getting zapped, people trying to rescue dropped items, and even peeing on the third rail. Over the five year period from 2002 to 2006, one person was electrocuted by Metro-North’s third rail, while six were electrocuted by the Long Island Rail Road’s.
  • The over running third rail used by the LIRR and subway are far more effected by rain, snow, and ice. Even a dropped umbrella onto the tracks managed to shut down the 7 line recently.
  • Metro-North is not the only transit system to use under-running third rail. One line in Philadelphia uses it. Historically, a tunnel from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario used it, but that line was de-electrified. Transit systems in Vienna, Warsaw, Sao Paulo (and more) use under-running third rails.
  • Few systems using under-running third rail means nothing about the soundness of the technology. It is only a legacy holdover to a country once comprised of many different railroad companies, each of which picked the technology best suited for them. The lines that comprise Metro-North were not even a unified system until 1969, which is why different modes of electrification are used across the system.
  • While Chuck “Photo op” Schumer and Richard “Stolen Valor” Blumenthal would prefer to blame a third-rail design that has worked successfully for well over a hundred years, and is safer than the one used by our neighbors, the fact of the matter is that this accident would have 100% been prevented by better driver vigilance and abiding the sign “Do not stop on tracks.”

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The Night of the Bus – North White Plains

I Ride the Harlem Line has never been much of a news website. While we’ll certainly talk about (and give commentary on) current events, we’re not really the place where you should be checking for breaking stories (if such a term hasn’t completely been shot to death by 24-hour news). Therefore, we don’t need to recount to you what happened last week. A truly sad event, that undoubtedly could have been prevented if one followed what ought to be common sense – don’t stop your car on railroad tracks. Ever. Instead, the proud Harlem Line ground to a halt and six people lost their lives.

Departure board at White Plains
By morning, the departure board at White Plains looked like this – all trains originating in Southeast or Wassaic were listed as cancelled.

North White Plains was just one spot where the men and women of Metro-North kept a railroad moving – even when there wasn’t quite a railroad to run. Riders were forced to take buses from North White Plains to Pleasantville and vice versa, bypassing the crash in Valhalla. The station was sufficiently far enough from the crash to hear the constant drone of helicopters swarming over the normally quiet Valhalla, but nonetheless still swarmed with news vans and reporters.

I spent that Wednesday evening in North White Plains, as my husband was one of the employees directing riders onto buses and helping them find their way home (or in the case of many Rangers fans, to the city to see their team win over the Bruins). Here are a few photos from that night…

                 

  
News reporters Greg Mocker of Pix11 (complete with man purse) and ABC7’s Anthony Johnson on scene at North White Plains…


By 7 PM the consist involved in the crash had made the short journey south to North White, and is pushed back into the yard. With that out of the way, workers could spend the night readying the track for a full train service restoration the next morning…

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Valladolid, Mexico’s Abandoned Station, and the High-Speed Trans-Peninsular Rail Project

As an escape from New York’s winter cold, I recently spent a week in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Considering that I like to visit diverse places such as Alaska in the winter, and Chernobyl, a beach locale like Mexico sounds relatively normal trip. The area doesn’t have much in the way of trains, either, which sounds really normal. However, a few hour trek toward the ruins at Chichén Itzá on the libre (free road), as opposed to the cuota (toll road), will yield you an encounter with a lone grade crossing just west of the city of Valladolid. This rail line extends from Valladolid to Yucatán’s capital of Mérida, and although freight runs are semi frequent, regular passenger service is long gone. Many of the former train stations are abandoned and in disrepair, such as the one in Valladolid, which I found after a bit of poking around.

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2014 in Photos – Your favorites from last year

As is customary around this time of year, it is always fun to look back on the previous year and what was popular. For the past few years I’ve counted down your favorite articles and social media posts, and today I bring you 2014 in Instagram. Instagram has quickly become the most popular social network that this site is on. While I’m often out photographing, the good majority of the photos I take never make it onto this site. The good ones, however, show up on Instagram. Here’s the top 10 favorites from 2014:


Two Metro-North diesels meet near the Pleasant Ridge Road crossing in Wingdale, New York.

 
Left: An Alaska Railroad train bound for Fairbanks rounds the bend north of Nenana at sunset. Right: A Genesis pushes southbound on the Danbury Branch, kicking up leaves after departing Cannondale.


The only non-railroad photo to make the top 10, New York’s skyline as seen from the opposite side of the river in New Jersey.

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Bridges of Metro-North: The Norwalk River Bridge, Part 1

Continuing into the new year with our visits to some of Metro-North’s movable bridges, today’s feature is the Norwalk River Bridge. This bridge, owned by the state of Connecticut, is commonly known as WALK, and is the bane of the New Haven Line. Built in 1896, the bridge is one of many pieces of practically ancient infrastructure you’ll find along the line. Prone to getting stuck open and preventing trains from crossing – which happened several times last year – the historical bridge is badly in need of a replacement or serious upgrade. For the interim, attempts have been made to open the bridge less frequently, and to have crews standing by when the bridge does open to hopefully prevent any issues. While I had been under the impression that the bridge would be staying shut while repairs were under way starting in June, I was lucky enough to capture an opening of the bridge on November 8th, much to my surprise.

Constructed for the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, the Norwalk River Bridge is a 562-foot long rim bearing swing bridge. Sitting about 16 feet above the water, the bridge’s 202 foot long center deck rotates along a center point to allow marine traffic to pass. When opening, rail locks are released, the rail ends are lifted, catenary wire is separated, wedge locks are withdrawn, and bridge locks are released. Only then can the machinery located at the center pier under the tracks can do its work to swing the bridge open. All of these delicate maneuvers need to happen in concert, which is difficult considering the age of the machinery involved. Also complicating matters for repairs is the fact that the old movable bridges on the Northeast Corridor are all unique – there was no standard for construction, and each bridge has unique mechanical components.

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Bridges of Metro-North: The Harlem River Lift Bridge

Throughout the entire Metro-North system there are an array of movable bridges – bridges which as of recently seem to be a thorn in the rail system’s side. Much of the infrastructure on these bridges are old and prone to issues. Thankfully, updates are going on to get these bridges in better working order, and we’ll be taking visits to some of the more prominent bridges in the system in the next few weeks.

Today we feature the busiest bridge on the entire system, the Harlem River Lift Bridge. At sixty years old the bridge is not nearly as old as the issue-plagued WALK bridge, but it by far sees the most action, carrying nearly 700 trains per day for all three East of Hudson Metro-North lines. Over the past few months work has been moving along on the bridge – installing new cables that lift the tracks over the river for passing boats, and putting in new wiring, power supplies, and electrical control systems. Below the bridge a circuit breaker room that flooded during Hurricane Sandy and is experienced corrosion will be replaced. Gone will be an old crank control, updated to today’s standards with modern computers. In total, the overhaul has a $47.2 million price tag.

Previous railroad bridge over the Harlem River
The 1867 bridge over the Harlem River, note the construction of a temporary bridge to allow a new 1891 span to be constructed on the main line. Image from the December 1892 Scientific American.

Historically, several previous movable bridges stood at this very spot, carrying the New York Central over the Harlem River. The first bridge over the river was completed in 1841, and stood a mere eight feet over the water at high tide. Made of wood, that bridge was later updated with iron spans in 1867. Later, a four track swing bridge was built in 1891. This bridge connected with the new Park Avenue viaduct, raising the tracks above Harlem and allowing a higher crossing over the river.

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