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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 Harlem Division’s Cemeteries: The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery

To me, some of the most interesting stuff about railroad history is not about the trains or the railroads themselves, but how they affected the places in which they operated. The oft-cited cliche is that the railroads built this country, and although they certainly had an effect on the movement of people westward, some of the strongest effects can be witnessed around cities. Today’s Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven Lines played an immense part in the growth of New York City’s suburbs, and other railroads played a similar part in other major cities. Trains provided easy access to the city’s jobs, but allowed people to live increasingly further and further outside the city’s limits. Businesses were also established or relocated to spots along the rails in order to have access to the city – a primary example being the very first successful condensed milk factory in Wassaic, a spot selected by inventor Gail Borden because of the plentiful farmland, and the Harlem Railroad.

Strangely enough, the railroad also played a part in the establishment of various cemeteries. As the city itself grew larger, not only did some former rural cemeteries get displaced, people with money wished to be interred in an attractive rural setting. Woodlawn Cemetery was established in 1863, and took in the remains of cemeteries displaced in the city proper, and grew to become a venerable place of final rest for thousands. Such growth was undoubtedly assisted by the nearby railroad, easily allowing loved ones to visit the graves of their friends and family. Further north along the Harlem Division, the Kensico Cemetery was also established as a beautiful, rural final resting place. Truly appealing to the wealthy of the city, Kensico offered a private railcar for rent for funerals which would transport people directly from Grand Central to the cemetery’s very own train station.

Though Woodlawn and Kensico may be the two most commonly known cemeteries that owe their growth to the Harlem Railroad, there is another slightly more unique cemetery that also falls into that category – the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. Just like its brethren, the Hartsdale cemetery has seen gun salutes, bagpipers, and is the final resting place for thousands of friends – however the majority of them just happen to not be human. Buried within its grounds you’ll find the graves of war dogs, police dogs (including at least one MTAPD K9), a search and rescue dog that lost its life on September 11th, thousands of other cats and dogs, humans that opted for their cremains to be interred together with their beloved pets, and even a lion. It is also home to the War Dog Memorial, celebrating the animals that fought alongside their human handlers in the Great War.

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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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Beautiful Underground – Gems of the Berlin U-Bahn

For over 200 years railways have been constructed across the globe to carry freight and people. Besides the trains, the integral part of every railway is, of course, the stations themselves. Some stations are rudimentary and simple, but others are undeniable gems. We’ve spent the past few weeks touring Berlin’s U-Bahn, which has many interesting stations, mixed in with plenty more bare and utilitarian stops that are hardly noteworthy. We are, however, back again to check out more attractive locales of the Berlin U-Bahn.

From the attractive Oberbaumbrücke to the unexpected above ground stations, Berlin’s U-Bahn is a captivating transit system. I’m not a big fan of subway stations, likely because I love light, of which there is never quite enough underground. However, some of the U3 Line’s underground stations are hard to ignore. A handful of some of the U-Bahn’s earliest stations are attractive gems. Many were located in the city of Wilmersdorf – then a suburb of Berlin. Conceptually, the stations’ aesthetic was to represent the affluence of the city – represented through elaborate stonework. The resulting stations featured Doric columns, granite floors, wrought iron gates, mosaic tiling, and sandstone-carved sculptures. By 1920 Wilmersdorf was folded into Greater Berlin, but these stations retain both the character and history of its predecessor.

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Riding Berlin’s U1 Line: The Oberbaumbrücke

I’ve always said that my primary interest in railroads is not necessarily the machine that is a train, but instead the way railroad systems change over time, and how they influence the people and locations around them – or even how places influence the rails. For those with similar interests, the city of Berlin is a great case study. As I’m sure everyone is familiar, Germany and the city of Berlin were partitioned after World War II into areas occupied by the French, British, Americans, and Soviets. The Soviet portion became the German Democratic Republic, better known as East Germany, and the three other sectors the Federal Republic of Germany, better known as West Germany. In Berlin, a transit system that once spanned the entire city became truncated by this political divide. With the construction of the Berlin wall, starting in 1961, the city became truly divided.

Bernauer Straße
Ghost station: The U-Bahn station Bernauer Straße was closed after the construction of the Berlin Wall. Here you can see the entrance to the station, blocked by the wall. The station was reopened after the reunification of Germany. Photo taken August 27, 1962 by Allhails.

The citywide network of trains in Berlin struggled to conform to the divisions forced upon it by politics. In some instances, stations were completely closed, and lines were truncated as to not operate in the opposite sector. In other situations, lines were able to operate across the border, albeit with restrictions. The U8 line, for example, started in West Germany, but traversed a portion of East German territory before returning to the west. Although the train was permitted to pass through East Germany, they were not permitted to stop at the stations there. Shrouded in darkness and heavily guarded, these shuttered stations became colloquially known as “ghost stations.” In a unique situation, Friedrichstraße railway station, located in East German territory, was open to citizens from both sides of the border, though the station was divided into isolated sections for each.

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A Railroad Journey to Ukraine: Chernihiv

Roughly a hundred miles north of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv is the city of Chernihiv. Chernihiv has quite a long history, dating back to the medieval times, and it is also home to Ukraine’s oldest church. In terms of railroads, the first station in Chernihiv was established in 1893, part of a narrow-gauge branch line of the Moscow-Kiev-Voronezh Railway. Passengers were carried into the city proper by horses until the 1920s when a bridge over the Desna River was constructed, allowing trains into the main part of the city, where a new station was constructed. By 1928 there were connections from Chernihiv to Gomel, in present-day Belarus, to the city of Ovruch in Ukraine, and to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

The Chernihiv – Ovruch line was a relatively unimportant one, primarily constructed for military purposes, but in the most coincidental sense had drastic effects on the Soviet Union and the world. The rail line played a part in the decision of where to locate Ukraine’s very first nuclear power plant, a place the world knows as Chernobyl (Chornobyl would be the proper Ukrainian transliteration). Since the nuclear reactor explosion in 1986, a portion of that rail line was abandoned – a story I’m hoping to flesh out over several posts in the coming weeks.

Train from Slavutych arrives at Chernihiv
Train from Slavutych arrives at Chernihiv. Slavutych is the “replacement” city for those that worked at the Chernobyl plant, constructed after the disaster. The rail line again played a part in the location of this place.

The station that one finds in Chernihiv now was built in 1950. The previous station at that location was destroyed during World War II, or as it is known in former Soviet locales, the Great Patriotic War. Chernihiv was occupied by Nazi forces from 1941 to 1943, and the retreating Soviet army practiced a scorched Earth policy, which included the destruction of railroad infrastructure. The station was destroyed at some point in 1941, either by Nazi bombardment, or by the retreating Soviets themselves to prevent the Nazis from getting any use out of it. The station was rebuilt in 1950, using the labor of German POWs. The attractive design comes from Ukrainian Soviet architect Gennady Ivanovich Granatkin, who is responsible for the designs of several stations throughout the Soviet Union, in today’s Belarus, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine.

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Jets and Atoms – Powering Bizarre Trains

The annals of history are full of strange and intriguing bits of curiosity, providing plenty of fodder for a blog such as this one. We’ve covered plenty of odd topics on the blog before – from ghost horses to “perfunctory peck spots” – but we’ve never really mentioned any of the New York Central’s more bizarre trains, and they’ve had a few. The king of strange, however, is probably an experimental jet powered train from 1966. I present to you the “Black Beetle:”

Jet powered train

Essentially, the M-497, better known as the “Black Beetle,” is an RDC-3 with a shovel nose to be more aerodynamic, coupled with jet engines of a B-36. Tested in Ohio, it achieved a speed of 183.85 MPH. Eventually, the jets were removed, and the RDC was returned to service, albeit much slower.

Though far more tame than the jet-powered train, it is too difficult for me not to mention the Xplorer, which has always looked a bit comical to me.
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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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Shore Line East and Old Saybrook

In keeping with last week’s theme of exploring Connecticut, today we take a quick visit to the southern coast of the state to check out Shore Line East. As part of the important Northeast Corridor, many of the stations along the line have a long history with the old New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. Though some of the railroad historical buildings are still around (like the freight house, now restaurant in Old Saybrook), most of the Shore Line East stations are of relatively new construction (the exceptions being New Haven, which we’ve visited before, and New London, which deserves its own post at some point in the future).

Shore Line East is operated by Amtrak, so you’ll often catch CDOT locomotives in the old New Haven Railroad scheme, Amtrak locomotives, or a horrible mixture of both (hey boss, I put our sticker on the front, and painted over the Amtrak logo!). The service itself is fairly young – Shore Line East trains began running in May of 1990 – and the line was only supposed to be temporary while construction was being done on Interstate 95. Due to its popularity, however, Shore Line East became permanent.

   
  
 
 
Some views of the smaller stations on Shore Line East – Branford, Madison, Guilford, and Clinton.

Of the newer Shore Line East stations, Old Saybrook is probably the nicest, and a pretty good place for capturing trains. Besides the Shore Line East trains, about eighteen Amtrak trains stop here daily (which is actually more than Hartford, which we visited last week). Three tracks run through Old Saybrook, and the station consists of a side platform, an island platform, and an overpass connecting the two. Because it was started as a temporary operation, little money was spent on Shore Line East stations. However, once the service became permanent, proper stations were constructed, the first being Old Saybrook in 2002. Branford, Guilford, and Clinton were opened in 2005, and Madison in 2008.

Most Shore Line East trains terminate at Old Saybrook, though a few do go on to New London. The bane of Connecticut’s railroads are definitely the many movable bridges found along the shore line. Some are over a hundred years old, and cause slowdowns and nightmares for Metro-North. In Shore Line East’s case, the challenge to operating more service to New London is that trains must cross several movable bridges, bridges that the Connecticut Marine Trades Association fights to keep open for boats, as opposed to closed for trains. While some have big plans for the service (like connecting it to Rhode Island), it is these local issues that will have to be addressed first (not raiding the state’s Special Transportation Fund is another…).

  
 
  
 
  
   
 
   
 
  

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