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.

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.


Sunset light reflects on the top of the rails

Flying high above Del Mar

Sunset over Los Angeles


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My final Metro-North commute

My Final Metro-North Commute

For the past six years and eleven months I have been a regular commuter on Metro-North’s Harlem Line. I’ve taken the train regularly from a multitude of stations – Brewster, Goldens Bridge, Southeast, Pawling, Wingdale, and even Wassaic. I’ve also done the reverse commute from Harlem to White Plains for almost a full year now. It is, however, time to move on. Very soon I will be making my final regular ride as a Metro-North Harlem Line commuter.

It didn’t take me a full year of commuting to observe a lot of amusement and craziness on the rails, and on April 10, 2009 I started a site simply entitled “The Train Blog” to convey some of these stories. The diary-type entries revolved mostly around the common topics of strange passengers I observed, occasional train delays and mishaps, and pigeons. It wasn’t until September of 2009 that posts started turning serious – with encouragement of Roxanne Robertson, formerly of the New York Transit Museum – I put together a few photo posts of the “The Last Day of the Myrtle Avenue El” exhibit, and the museum’s annual Bus Festival.

I slowly became engrossed in the subject of trains and their history, and by March 2010 was regularly posting interesting archival materials I had dug up every Friday. By May, I had launched the Panorama Project, which over the course of three years took me to every Metro-North station, and cemented the transition of this site from a comical diary to a more serious photographic and historical exploration of the rails.

It has been, for the most part, a wonderful journey. Over time I became almost like a public figure – people would recognize me on trains, and I even had someone ask me to autograph a timetable for them once. I’ve met many wonderful people on my journeys, and some are like family to me. But on the flip side, I’ve also met my share of not so wonderful people. I’ve had railroad employees yell at me, “Don’t you have some dollies to play with?” I’ve also had people show up at my home, and at my place of work uninvited. I’ve even had a particular self-described “alpha male” who couldn’t take no for an answer try to get my husband fired from his job (among other attempts to make my life a living hell) because I had rejected him. I’ve largely been ignoring that situation, nonetheless I figured it necessary to put that out in the open – mostly because I am expecting him to attempt the same to me with the announcement I am about to make (and yes, I’ll bet 95% of my readership knows who this guy is).

The reason my Metro-North commute is coming to an end is because another opportunity has opened up for me. I’m going to work for Amtrak. What exactly does that mean for this site? Probably not too much. For quite a while I’ve been exploring far outside of Metro-North’s territory, and I will continue to do the same. You’ll probably find a few more Amtrak-related posts than before. I’ll still be riding the Harlem Line – although not regularly – and intend to shortly bring you a new tour of the Harlem Line. Not only has my photography greatly improved since the first Harlem Line tour, various things have also changed over the years at many stations. So expect that tour in the next few months, as well as a whole lot of new railroading adventures.

For the next few weeks, however, this site will be on a temporary hiatus while things settle down. I promise we’ll be back shortly, with a photo tour of a particular foreign transit system that I’ve been dying to shoot for several years.

If you’re not already, be sure to follow the Amtrak Careers blog, as well as their accounts on Twitter and Instagram, where you’ll probably be seeing me in the future.

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Trains and Modern Photography: The Joys of GPS

One of the best tech secrets of modern photography is the ability to never have to write down in a little notebook where you were when you took a photo in order to remember later. Many folks have GPSes in their car, but they aren’t only for getting directions from place to place. A GPS device can also record the very place you were standing when you took a photograph, and save it into your camera’s EXIF data. For those that spend time traveling and chasing trains, a GPS is extremely useful. Photos that have GPS data recorded are known as “geotagged” – and to the modern photographer, it’s the best thing since sliced bread!

Since I’ve mentioned EXIF data, it is certainly worth mentioning this other wonderful part of modern photo. EXIF stands for EXchangeable Image File format, which is basically a way that a photo’s metadata is saved. Each photo taken with your camera has this data, which usually records the date and time the photo was taken (provided you have this set correctly in your camera), the camera make and model, and the settings used to capture the photo – usually the mode setting, ISO, aperture, and exposure. In some cameras you can set specific copyrights (my camera adds my full name and website address to the EXIF data) or other messages. If you have a GPS device linked to your camera, GPS coordinates for when the shot was taken (including the altitude in some instances) are also recorded.

Getting GPS data on your camera

So how do you go about getting your camera hooked up to a GPS device? Many new cameras are coming out with GPSes built right in. One of the reasons why I fell in love with my main camera, the Canon 6D, is the built in GPS. The Sony SLT-A99, Nikon D5300, Canon 7D Mark II, Pentax K-5 IIs, and Pentax K-S1 are all examples of DSLRs with built-in GPSes. If you don’t have one of those, however, that does not mean you are out of luck. Most manufacturers make external GPS loggers that connect to your camera. The good thing about these devices is that they add the GPS coordinates directly to the photo’s EXIF data. However, they cost about $200 dollars for one actually made by Nikon or Canon.


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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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A visit to the restored Santa Fe Depot, Fort Worth, Texas

As the somewhat clichéd song lyrics go, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” In the case of the former rail station we’re visiting today, that almost happened – literally. The beautiful Santa Fe station in Fort Worth, Texas, was almost razed and turned into a parking lot. Thankfully, the property was purchased by real estate investor and developer Shirlee Gandy. After investing over two million into the building to properly restore it, it was reopened as the Ashton Depot, a lovely banquet hall that hosts weddings, corporate events, and other such festivities.

Opened in 1899, the depot was constructed in the beaux-arts style, though the design was undoubtedly influenced by the aesthetic of the southwest. The two-story rectangular building is constructed of bright red brick and detailed with white limestone. Fine details can be found on both the exterior and interior, including several lion heads that surround the building, and attractive plaster design work surrounding the inside archway.

Santa Fe Depot in 1908
Early view of the depot’s exterior, featuring some details that are a bit different today. Photo via Fort Worth Gazette.

Built for the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, the building was generally known as the Santa Fe depot. Several other railroads had used the building, but by 1960 the Santa Fe was the only railroad that remained. Once Amtrak was formed, it was the sole user for passenger service up until 1995.


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H.H. Richardson’s Last Station – New London Union Station

When it comes to great American architects, one must certainly mention the name Henry Hobson Richardson. Richardson’s name may not be as widely mentioned as some others – likely because he unfortunately passed in his prime at the age of 47 – but his influence in American architecture is obvious. The architectural style he popularized bears his name – Richardsonian Romanesque – and is certainly one of my favorite architectural styles. The style features attractive arches and rusticated stonework – and is familiar to fans of the Boston and Albany Railroad, the style in which many of that railroad’s main line stations were designed.

Most of the Richardsonian Romanesque stations we’ve featured on the site – Chatham, Dobbs Ferry, Hartford, Irvington, and Tarrytown – were designed by the firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, Richardson’s three assistants who continued the business after his death. The station we’re visiting today, however, was Richardson’s final station design. New London’s Union Station was conceived in 1885 – one year before Richardson’s death. Construction was not completed until one year after his death in 1887.

1885 Sketch of New London
1885 elevation sketch showing the detailing for New London’s Union Station. Image courtesy Shepley Bulfinch.

Although New London Union Station strays a bit from the typical Richardsonian Romanesque style as it is constructed primarily of brick, the characteristic arches, detailing, and occasional swaths of rusticated stone can be found. Bricks radiate outwards from the arches, creating a sunburst effect, and alternating exposed bricks create detailed borders around the top. Completing the detailing of the station is a wide band above the entrance, labeling the building “Union Railroad Station.” The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad was the station’s primary occupant (having leased the Shore Line Railway in 1870), though the station was built in conjunction with the Central Vermont Railroad (which had leased the New London Northern Railroad) making it a Union Station.


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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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Around the Country in Railroad Art

As the weather starts to warm up, perhaps you’ve been thinking about vacation. There are plenty of cool spots that one can visit, all by train. As we’ve certainly covered on the blog before, America’s railroads had in their employ both painters and illustrators to create works to entice travelers. Leslie Ragan is certainly one of my favorites – he worked for the New York Central as well as the Budd Company – and about this time last year we were posting some of his spring-like imagery.

This time I thought it would be fun to take a tour of the country through railroad art. There are countless examples of awesome posters and ads, but these are some of my favorites. Perhaps it will even give you some ideas on places to travel this year.

Maybe a nice shorter trip will be in order? Cape Cod, New England, Atlantic City and even Washington DC are all possibilities. Artist Sascha Maurer designed for both the New Haven and the Pennsylvania Railroads. The New England and the Atlantic City art below was designed by Maurer. Ben Nason also designed an array of posters for the New Haven Railroad, including the Cape Cod poster below.


Maybe you’d like to travel to a different city, a litter further away? Maybe you should visit Cincinnati!

Despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of the Pennsy, you it is impossible to not love this poster by Mitchell Markovitz.

Chicago is always a lovely place to visit!

Did I say tour the country? I lied. Maybe a visit to Canada is in order?

Now who doesn’t love a nice trip to America’s National Parks, the Pacific Northwest, or even California? Maurice Logan, William and Kenneth Willmarth designed some of these lovely views of the western United States.

Maybe a nice jaunt to the southwest? Artists Don Perceval and Oscar Bryn created these lovely posters for the Santa Fe.

Are mountains more your thing? Austrian artist Gustav Krollmann worked on these lovely designs…

Oh forget it, let’s just go everywhere! The awesome Amtrak posters designed by illustrator David Klein in 1973 make me want to see the entire country. Klein has a large body of work that is travel-themed, stretched over his entire career. His most known works were for Trans World Airlines, but he also produced work for Holland America Cruises and travel website Orbitz. Klein’s undeniably gorgeous work made railroads once again appear glamorous, just as they were in yesteryear.


Now that we’ve traveled around the country through railroad art, are you planning to take a vacation to some interesting locale? Are you going to go by train? Let us know in the comments!

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