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.”

(more…)

Read More

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…

Read More

Monday Morning Old Photos: Scenes on the Upper Harlem

Today’s collection of historical Harlem Division photos features the Upper Harlem… including several crashes that occurred on the line. A huge thanks goes to Ron Vincent, who shared these photos from his family’s collection. Ron’s grandfather worked as an RPO clerk on the Harlem for 36 years. Many of the photos feature the long gone station of Hillsdale, where Ron grew up.

The photos capture an intriguing “slice of life” on the Harlem Division – we see Hillsdale’s station agent, Elliott Hunter, and his wife Marion. We see the occasional crash and derailment that brought gawkers from all around. And we see the softer side of the Harlem, as it hosted the “Plug the Dike Train,” collecting donations for victims of the 1953 North Sea flood. In all, this is a great little set of photos… thanks again for sharing these with us, Ron!

  
 
  
  
   
  
 
  
  

Read More

Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Garrison


Excerpts from old Hudson River Railroad timetables, from 1853 and 1889, showing the station name as “Garrison’s.”

If you’re looking for attractive views along the Hudson, Garrison might be the station for you. Garrison station is located along the waterfront, and from there are lovely views of West Point on the river’s opposite bank. Due to the proximity to West Point you may think that the name derives from some military installation, however the name is a reference to the Garrison family. The first Garrisons arrived in the area in 1786, but it wasn’t until 1803 that Harry Garrison purchased waterfront property that the area became known as Garrison’s Landing. The name caught on, largely because of the ferry to West Point, established by the Garrisons in 1829. When the railroad arrived, and a station established, the name became permanent – though over the years it has morphed from “Garrison’s” to just “Garrison.”


Just passing through Garrison…

Today’s train station is located just shy of 50 miles from Grand Central, in the un-electrified territory of the Hudson Line. The old stone station, just north of Metro-North’s station, still stands and is in use by the Philipstown Depot Theatre. Completed in 1893, the station was built by William H. LaDue, who was also responsible for the construction of several other stations in the area. Right next to the old station is the entrance to a tunnel leading under the tracks, built in 1929. The newer platform, used by Metro-North, consists of two side platforms, connected by an overpass. Thus Garrison is one of very few Metro-North stations to have both a tunnel and an overpass.


Photo of the 1897 train wreck, just south of Garrison station. Photo from the George Eastman House Collection, though erroneously labeled as Harrison, NY and not Garrison.

In railroad lore, Garrison may unfortunately be remembered for the terrible train crash that occurred on October 24, 1897. A nine-car train, containing six sleeper cars, left Albany at 3:43 AM and derailed just south of Garrison station at around 5:46 AM. The engine and several train cars were thrown into the river, and eighteen of the nineteen people that perished drowned in the Hudson. Among the casualties was the engineer, at 35-year veteran of the New York Central, and the fireman, who had been working for the railroad for seven years.

The cause of the wreck was inconclusive, and the investigatory report reads:

This train was wrecked either by derailment, which destroyed the embankment, or that the embankment gave way and threw the train into the river. Therefore the board feels it to be its public duty to recommend in urgent terms and to require that all railroads in this State whose roadbeds or parts of roadbeds are carried on embankments lying alongside of and washed by water courses, shall give careful inspection to and constant efficient maintenance for such embankments.

That is about it for Garrison, though it may be worth mentioning that north of the station is a tunnel. An elevated roadway provides a nice vantage point to watch southbound trains passing through that tunnel.

Next week the Tuesday Tour will be heading south and visiting another one of Westchester county’s Hudson Line stations. Want a hint? A hear next week’s station has a restaurant nearby that has some tasty lobsters…

 
  
   
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
   
 
   

Read More

Tuesday Tour of the Port Jervis Line: Tuxedo

 

Postcard views of Tuxedo, from the collection of Steve Swirsky.

While taking a ride on the Port Jervis Line, you will travel through Metro-North’s most rural territory. Although the trees and greenery along the route can be quite scenic, the stations along the line are rather rudimentary, bare-bones facilities. The only exception to that is Tuxedo – today’s stop on our tour of the Port Jervis Line. Tuxedo is the only station on the line that has its historical station building still standing, and at the same site of the current station (Metro-North’s Port Jervis station was relocated, about two-tenths of a mile past the original station). For this reason, you could probably say that Tuxedo is the nicest station on the Port Jervis Line. Though the building is owned by the town and is no longer used for any railroad-related purpose, it is a gorgeous old station that certainly gives the place a little character – something that is really absent at other Port Jervis stations.

 
(left) Early 1900’s view of Tuxedo, (right) Tuxedo in 1968

Tuxedo Park – the village where the station is located – is a nice little area with a bit of history behind it. Originally founded as a resort community for the rich, Tuxedo Park was conceived by Pierre Lorillard IV and designed by architect Bruce Price. Work commenced on this planned village in 1885 and took eight months, with the labor of 1800 men. As we’ve seen in many of the places we’ve visited, the placement of Tuxedo was deliberate and influenced by the railroad. Founder Lorillard hoped to create an exclusive community, attracting the well-to-do businessmen and socialites of New York City. The fact that Tuxedo was linked by the Erie Railroad to the city, in about an hour’s time, was certainly an important factor.

Though certainly known today for its charm as a beautiful community, Tuxedo does have a few claims-to-fame. One could consider it the “birthplace” for American etiquette, as author, socialite, and Tuxedo resident Emily Post (daughter of architect Bruce Price) wrote several bestselling books on proper etiquette. And although the origins of the term are not entirely agreed upon, the word tuxedo (as in men’s formal attire) perhaps originated here, a name that derived from the clothing men would wear to the Tuxedo Club.


Early 1900’s view of Tuxedo station. Photo from the collection of the Tuxedo Park Library.

Although the architect for the station in Tuxedo is not definitively known, it is assumed to be designed by Tuxedo’s architect Bruce Price. The Tuxedo Club, as well as twenty-six residences in the village were all designed by Price. In order to lend an air of exclusivity, the community was gated, and included a large stone entrance-way, also designed by Price. Although Tuxedo is certainly one of Price’s notable works, his most well-known achievement was the American Surety Building, one of Manhattan’s earliest skyscrapers. Price also did work for various railroads, including the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Boston and Albany Railroad, and the Canadian Pacific Railway.

   

Photographs of a train crash at Tuxedo in 1951. According to one Tuxedo Park resident, one of the freight cars was filled with oranges that spilled all over – many young children at the time collected these oranges and brought them home. Photo from the collection of the Tuxedo Park Library.

When I visited Tuxedo, I unfortunately didn’t get any pictures of the inside, as a fairly raucous party was going on (and getting rid of the tipsy party goers on the outside was a chore as well). Although it made photo-taking difficult, in a way I have to think it is pretty wonderful. In 2009, at the cost of about a million dollars, the town restored the 1885 Tuxedo station. The building truly belongs to the community, as it is available for use by scout groups, or even to rent out for parties (and who wouldn’t want to get tipsy at Tuxedo?). Over the years the station sported various color schemes – for a time it was even white with brown trim – but during the restoration the goal was to make the station look as it did when it was first built. Some of the details, like the stained glass, are historians’ best guesses – either way, they look great. Not only is the station on the National Register of Historic Places, the village of Tuxedo Park is as well.


Timetable and ticket for Tuxedo. From the collection of Otto Vondrak.

The Metro-North portion of Tuxedo station is not much compared to the grandeur of the historical building, but it includes a low-level platform, a small shelter, and a canopy covering a portion of the platform. Some of the benches on the platform have likely been there for quite a while, as they are still labeled “Erie.”

Tuxedo is 37 miles from Hoboken, which takes about an hour or more by train. A commute to Penn Station (with a transfer at Secaucus) takes about an hour to an hour and a half.

 
  
 
   
 
   
 
 
   
 

After Tuxedo we head further north, towards Harriman. It is just ahead where the rail line diverged – branching off from the Erie main line was the Graham Line. As mentioned before, that original route was abandoned in favor of the Graham Line. Harriman had a station on the main line, but after that abandonment Metro-North built a new station on the other – it is there we will visit next week.


Train just north of Tuxedo station, 1988

Read More

Tuesday Tour of the New Haven Line: Fairfield


Postcard view of Fairfield station

Welcome to Fairfield, the next stop on our tour of the New Haven Line. Although it isn’t as hip as the new Fairfield Metro station, it does have a bit of history – including an 1882 station listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located just over 50 miles from Grand Central, a train trip to the city from Fairfield takes about an hour and fifteen minutes.

 
 

Many of today’s historical images of Fairfield station have come from a site called Tyler City Station, which is filled with information about Connecticut stations, and is quite wonderful. It is definitely worth checking out.

One of the nice things about New Haven main line stations are the configuration of the tracks. Instead of having an island platform, like a lot of Harlem Line stations, there are two platforms – one on each side of the four tracks. Because of this arrangement, there were usually two station buildings, one on the New Haven (or eastbound) side, and one on the New York (or westbound) side. While many stops along the line have only retained one of their stations, Fairfield has managed to preserve both.

 
Diagram of the tracks and station buildings at Fairfield

Fairfield’s eastbound station is the oldest of the two, a brick building constructed in 1882. The building measures 26 feet by 82 feet, and is one and a half stories in height. The inside has high ceilings and hardwood flooring. The old waiting room is used by a taxi company, and the building also contains a restaurant and cleaners.

The westbound station is constructed of wood and measures 30 feet by 90 feet. It also has hardwood flooring, and is partially occupied by a coffee shop. There is a small waiting area that once served as a ticket office, but Metro-North closed that window in 2010. The design is similar to several other stations we’ve featured, as reusing the architectural plan for multiple stations was a method of cost savings for the railroad.


Because we’re all fascinated (or at least I am) with train crash images, here is one in Fairfield.

  
Photos of Fairfield in 1988, from the application for listing the station on the National Register of Historic Places.

That is about all I have on Fairfield, and for our tour today. At the time of my visit there was some construction going on, and some tracks were out of service. You will note in several of the photos that trains were boarding from temporary wooden platforms, instead of the normal concrete side platforms, because of this construction.

 
  
 
   
  
 
  
   
 
  

Read More

Tuesday Tour of the New Haven Line: New Rochelle

Welcome to New Rochelle, our next stop on our tour of the New Haven Line. Located about 17 miles from Grand Central, a train ride to the city takes about 35 minutes – leaving plenty of time to get to Broadway in 45. The station services both Metro-North passengers, as well as Amtrak passengers on the Northeast Regional. The station is part of New Rochelle’s “transportation center” with connections available to taxis and Bee-Line buses, and a large parking garage available for commuters.

 
 
Postcard views of New Rochelle

The very first scheduled train from New Rochelle to the city ran on December 28th, 1848. At that time there was only a single track here. A second track was later added in 1853. By 1869 there were 6 trains daily that ran to and from New Rochelle and the city.

One of the most historically significant trains to ever depart New Rochelle, however, was on the day of January 8th, 1902. The usual New Rochelle commuters boarded their 7:48 train to the city. The train was a local that originated in South Norwalk, but the rear car was called the New Rochelle car – it was kept locked and was only opened for passengers upon arrival at that station. Everything played out as normal that day, until the train reached the Park Avenue Tunnel and paused on track 2 at about 55th Street to allow a Croton local train to pass. A White Plains local, also arriving in the tunnel and on track 2, ran through a red signal at about 59th Street and plowed directly into the back of the South Norwalk local – the New Rochelle car. Fifteen residents of that city were killed on scene and many other passengers on the train were injured. Newspaper headlines ranged from the relatively gruesome: “Trapped Under Engine and Roasted by Steam” to the more sympathetic: “New Rochelle Grief-Stricken.”


Rescue operations after the Park Avenue Tunnel crash in 1902. All of those killed boarded at New Rochelle.

At the time of the crash, steam trains were allowed in the tunnel, which made visibility very poor. The incident significantly swayed public opinion against steam in the city, and ultimately led to their banning in Manhattan. The railroads were left to find an alternate method of powering their trains into the city. Frank Sprague and William Wilgus invented the “third rail” method of powering new electric trains – technology that is still in use today on the Harlem and Hudson Lines. The most important change the crash brought about was the new Grand Central Terminal – a station built to accommodate these new electric trains.

   

Photos of various trains at New Rochelle in the 1970’s

New Rochelle has come a long way since the railroad first came to town in 1848. Back then the city had only about 2,000 inhabitants. By the 1900’s, however, that number had grown to 15,000, as New Rochelle became a desirable suburb for commuters (today the population is around 77,000). While the original roundhouse for steam engines and a yard for freight are no longer in existence, the historic station building remains and has been restored. Like many old stations, the 1887 building had fallen into disrepair, it was also burned by fire in 1988. Commuters had described the station as dank, dirty, and derelict.

Thankfully, instead of tearing down the station, it went through a process of restoration starting in 1990. The city of New Rochelle, which had purchased the station property in 1982, agreed to share the cost of the restoration with Amtrak. The fully restored station was reopened on March 1st, 1990. The one-and-a-half story building is again beautiful – the brick exterior was cleaned, and the inner plaster walls and wood ceiling were repaired. The terrazzo tile flooring was in poor condition and had to be completely replaced. Additional changes made during the renovations included new lighting, bathrooms, and windows. The station was nominated, and is now a part of the National Register of Historic Places.

 
  
 
   
 
   
 
  
 
  
   
 
  
   

Read More