Springtime Exploration: The Beacon Line

As April has now arrived, we look forward to the spring, to warmer weather, and lovely green leaves on the trees. It seems, as well, like a decent time to explore some of the lesser-known railroad infrastructure in the area. Most regular riders of Metro-North are familiar with the railroad’s three main lines running into Grand Central Terminal – the Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven Lines. Others may be aware of two other lines on the west side of the Hudson River that Metro-North also owns – the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley Lines – which are operated by New Jersey Transit. But far fewer are familiar with Metro-North’s sixth line – the Beacon Line. Purchased in 1995 by Metro-North, the line has been, for the most part, inactive since. Occasional excursions, equipment moves and storage, and maintenance with hi rail vehicles, have all taken place, albeit infrequently. Though the rails itself may not be in use, running along parts of the line is fiber optic cabling that is integral to Metro-North operations.

Map of the Beacon Line
Map of the Beacon Line showing the locations of the photos in this post, as well as the two historical rail lines.

Last fall the Beacon Line made the news as the MTA has issued a “Request for Expressions of Interest” regarding “all or part” of the line. The RFEI will be used to gauge interest in the line, and to see what people would actually want to do with it – but it is worth noting that the RFEI was strictly for informational purposes, it was not a formal Request for Proposals. Since the request closed last year, we’ve heard little from Metro-North about the proposals submitted and what anyone’s ideas for the line were. Any serious rail project would be difficult on the Beacon Line, and likely expensive. While Metro-North has not let the line become completely overgrown – weed spraying, fallen tree removal, and other minor maintenance happens occasionally – it isn’t in the best shape. Many bridges are in rough shape, needing costly maintenance. Years of people using the line as an ATV trail has led to severe degradation of the railroad ties, and in many cases the rails are old and in need of replacement.

Beside the condition of the line, making money on it would be another difficulty. Multiple studies have been performed in terms of reactivating all or some parts of the Beacon Line for passenger use, and all have pretty much determined that it is not economically feasible. One of the more promising ideas would be to operate a shuttle from Danbury to Southeast on the Harlem Line, a plan that was amusingly championed by politicians in upper Westchester County who would much prefer those Connecticut commuters to not come over to their stations on the Harlem Line (I’m looking at you, Katonah). Upon formal study, several difficulties were noted with the idea – the major one being the way that trains from the Beacon Line merge with the Harlem Line. With the current track alignment, any train coming from Danbury would be facing north when coming onto the Harlem Line, the wrong direction from Southeast station. Either the train crew would have to “change ends” and the train would go the opposite direction (which would take too much time due to procedural requirements like a brake test), or a wye track would have to be installed allowing the train to turn south onto the Harlem Line (difficult, as the land around the junction is protected wetlands, and would likely have to be acquired through eminent domain).

In the end, nothing may actually come out of this whole RFEI process besides calling attention to the nearly abandoned Beacon Line. I thought it might be an interesting time to take a little virtual tour of the line, as I’ve visited and photographed various portions on both sides – Brewster and Beacon. The two sides designation is somewhat important, as even though the line may be seen as one whole today, historically the Beacon Line is made up of two previous railroads. The eastern part of the Beacon Line that runs from Connecticut to Hopewell Junction is the former Maybrook Line. As one would expect, that line ran through Maybrook, New York and crossed the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie. After the fire on the Poughkeepsie Bridge in 1974, the portion of the Maybrook to Hopewell Junction was abandoned, and today is a rail trail. The western portion of the line, from Beacon to Hopewell Junction, was originally part of the Newburgh, Dutchess and Connecticut Railroad, later called the Beacon Secondary. The rest of the ND&C, which went beyond Hopewell into Millbrook, Pine Plains, Millerton, and Connecticut, had been abandoned in stages in the 20’s and 30’s.

Junction with the Harlem Line & the Ice Pond

The start of our explorations begin where the Harlem and Beacon Lines meet, a little less than halfway between Southeast and Patterson. As mentioned previously, there is no wye here, so it would be difficult to run trains from the Beacon south along the Harlem toward Brewster without a time consuming changing of ends. The lines meet and then diverge again, running along either side of the Ice Pond. Just beyond that body of water, the Beacon Line crosses over the Harlem Line and continues west, while the Harlem continues north. Here is the domain of fishermen, who spend entire weekend days with their pickups parked alongside the line.

Meeting the Harlem Line

Meeting the Harlem Line Meeting the Harlem Line

Sometimes the Beacon Line is used for storage

The lines meet The Beacon continues

Minimal maintenance includes cutting of fallen trees POND block The Ice Pond

Along the Beacon Line Along the Beacon Line

The line around Ice Pond is used by fisherman

Approaching the Ice Pond POND block Ice Pond Preserve info

Along the Ice Pond Looking across the Ice Pond to the Harlem Line

From the Harlem Line one can see where the Beacon Line crosses over

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Highbridge

If there was one station that missed in our three year long tour of Metro-North’s system, it would likely be Highbridge. Although in the past it was a station open to public access, today it is an employee-only station, complete with a small platform and overpass, and many of the same amenities one would expect from a regular Metro-North station. I figured today might be a good day to check out this station that is normally off limits to the public, especially since High Bridge has been in the news recently.

The famous High Bridge
The famous High Bridge, New York City’s oldest bridge.

The facility here is, of course, named after the Aqueduct Bridge, or better known as High Bridge. The bridge’s roots stretch all the way back to 1848, making it the oldest bridge in New York City. As one would gather from its original name, the bridge was an important part of the Croton Aqueduct, supplying New York City with fresh water. Originally a stone arch bridge, five of the arches were replaced with one steel arch in 1928 to allow easier water navigation under the bridge. By this time the bridge was largely obsolete, and no longer carrying water – however it did serve a secondary purpose as a pedestrian crossing. That crossing was closed in the 1970s, until it was recently reopened last month after many years of restoration. From the newly reopened pedestrian crossing, one can get quite a good view of what is now a Metro-North railroad facility below.

  
 
  
   
  

The view from the newly reopened High Bridge

Today, Highbridge is where you will find Metro-North’s Car Appearance Facility, where both interior and exteriors of train cars are cleaned. Highbridge is one of three Metro-North washing facilities, and it possesses state-of-the-art brushes and sprayers that use 280 gallons of water per minute – 200 gallons of which are recycled, making it more environmentally friendly. 20 cars can be cleaned every shift, and each car gets this full treatment about every 60 days. The washing is completely computerized, and does not require an operator.

Highbridge Car Wash
Heading into the Highbridge car wash. Photo by Paul Pesante.

In addition to the appearance facility, Highbridge provides storage tracks for trains that is close to the city. While in days gone past, the New York Central used Mott Haven for this purpose, most of Mott Haven’s tracks were ripped out long ago. Highbridge has stepped up to fill that gap, which will especially be needed due to the East Side Access project, where Metro-North needed to give up quite a few storage tracks in Grand Central in order to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to the east side.

The original passenger station at High Bridge
The original passenger station at High Bridge in 1961. Photo by Ed Davis, Sr., from the collection of David Pirmann. By the 1970s the station had some scheduled trains, while on others it was listed as a flag stop.

Other noteworthy details about Highbridge are that you can see some old remnants of the New York Central’s Putnam Division here – Highbridge was a point of transfer between the Hudson and Putnam Divisions. It is also where the Oak Point Link joins with the Hudson Line, permitting freights to avoid the bottleneck of Mott Haven to get to Oak Point Yard.

The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link
The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link

Anyway, let’s take a quick behind-the-scenes glimpse of Metro-North’s official employee station at Highbridge… the only place we neglected on our original tour of the Hudson Line.

 
  
 
  
 
  

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Trains & Modern Photography: Stitching and Panoramas

If you’re a frequent viewer of this site, then the subject of today’s Trains & Modern Photography post is something you’re probably familiar with – panoramas. The most generic definition of a panorama is an wide view of an area, in which you can see in all directions. For my Metro-North Panorama Project, I used the definition loosely, featuring at least one photo per station that used the technique of stitching, thus giving the viewer a photo that provided a far wider view than one could capture in a single photo’s frame. Using modern technology like Photoshop, one can take multiple photos around a central axis point – either on a tripod, or by standing in the same spot and rotating your body, while holding the camera at the same angle for each shot – and combine them. This technique is called stitching, and is one of the most common methods of getting high quality and high resolution panoramas.

If this is a technique you’ve always been interested in trying out, or you’re just curious to see how exactly one makes a panorama (especially one featuring a train) – from camera to computer – read on.
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Dashing Diesels – The Workhorses of Metro-North

While the good majority of service on Metro-North is operated by Electric Multiple Unit cars, the railroad’s dashing diesels handle the rest of the load – largely in the unelectrified territories of the Upper Hudson Line, Upper Harlem Line, and the Danbury and Waterbury Branches. West of Hudson service, operated by New Jersey Transit, is also dieselized, carrying passengers through New Jersey and into New York’s Orange and Rockland counties. Arguably, it is this diesel territory that is likely considered Metro-North’s most beautiful. Spots like Port Jervis’s Moodna Viaduct, views of the Hudson Line from the Bear Mountain Bridge, and the Harlem Line’s Ice Pond all fall into this category.

Here’s a photo gallery of some of Metro-North’s dynamic and dashing diesels, most of which were captured within the past few weeks (although a few are favorites from last year) on the Harlem, Hudson, and Port Jervis Lines of Metro-North. Enjoy!

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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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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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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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Spring Flowers and Harlem Line Track Work

After a very long and cold winter, it is finally starting to feel like spring. Hopefully you all had an enjoyable weekend, perhaps even watching or riding some trains. Alas down by the railroad tracks of the Hudson Line, the greenery has yet to bloom – so I decided to take spring to the trains.

 
Springtime on Metro North 
  
   
 

Meanwhile, Metro-North crews were hard at work this weekend in numerous places around the system. On the upper Harlem Line, busing was in effect as crews worked at the Pleasant Ridge Road and Chippawalla Road crossings in Wingdale. The Pleasant Ridge crossing has been a difficulty for well over a month now, requiring trains to stop and warn before entering the crossing, and proceeding at reduced speed through it. Hopefully after this work, everything will be getting back to normal. Crews started work on the crossing Friday evening, and worked almost nonstop through the weekend to get it back in order for regular service at about 4 AM this morning.
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Winter on the Hudson Line

If you weren’t yet sick of winter, yesterday’s storm probably pushed you over the edge. We’ve had an immense amount of snow dumped on us the past few months, leading to a lot of cancellations and early closings at my work. Pretty much every time I made sure to have my camera on me to document Metro-North through the storms (you can see the first part here). Today’s winter-centric post features the Hudson Line, and a collection of photos all taken within the last week. In yesterday’s storm I hung out at both Spuyten Duyvil and Croton Harmon, and then headed home on the fantabulous 1:55 Harlem Line “fun boat” to Wassaic, making all local stops, standing room only. If anybody out there saw complaints on twitter about a stupid girl eating tacos on that train, I swear, it wasn’t me!

Considering that today is Friday, it is worth mentioning that this is the end of new Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti’s first work week. I suppose the weather decided to throw an appropriate welcoming party for a man that spent the last fifteen years working in Florida. Nonetheless, rumors are abound that Mr. Giulietti has already begun “cleaning house,” which is likely a good thing. There are plenty of things that Metro-North can improve, but if you ask me, number one ought to be communication.

Over the past few years, Metro-North has greatly improved its communications with riders with both email and text alerts. Although they still haven’t figured out that messages have character limits, and that it is super annoying to receive the same exact message 10 times in one day, we get a lot of info about service changes and info. In fact, we get more info than Metro-North’s own employees! Conductor Bobby touched on this in his open letter to his passengers, which if you haven’t yet read, you most definitely should.

Yesterday’s 1:55 train highlights the issues in communication with Metro-North. The train was a combination of several trains, and was advertised on Grand Central’s big board as an all-local to Wassaic. As far as the crew knew, the train was either going directly to Wassaic, or there would be a connection waiting for us at Southeast. However, en route, passengers began receiving alerts saying that Wassaic service was suspended. Some rather irate passengers from Tenmile River began shouting at the conductor, “I thought this train was going to Wassaic! They TOLD ME Wassaic! Now service to Wassaic is suspended?! What the hell am I going to do?” The kicker is, the crew had no idea the train was not going to Wassaic. They learned this from a passenger. At this point the Rail Traffic Controller was contacted, “I’ve heard from some passengers that Wassaic service is currently suspended. What am I to tell the people that are on this train going to Wassaic?” The response was, “we have no info at this time.”

Another thing that I watched happen yesterday was at the very beginning of the storm – the early morning Upper Harlem train arrived late and a woman demanded to know on board, “so which one of you conductors woke up late to make my train late?” Despite the smut tabloid headlines that “transit expert” Jim Cameron likes to post (he claims he once worked for a reputable news agency, but his New York Post-esque headlines seem only fit as a rag for dogs to pee on), Metro-North conductors are not horrible people. They do not hit people with trains and run away. And it is ludicrous to even insinuate that it is a regular occurrence for Metro-North employees to perform disgusting acts on passengers because they are “stressed out.” In reality, handfuls of Metro-North employees slept on trains or in rail yards to make sure they were able to work through the storm. Others worked nearly 24 hours straight because their trains got stuck in the snow. Are there some Metro-North employees out there that are assholes? Probably. And I bet you have assholes where you work too. But by and large, the majority of employees work hard to get people where they need to go. Like in this snow storm.

As you’ll see from the photos below, running trains yesterday was not easy. Many people like to debate over catenary versus third rail methods of powering electric trains – each has its merits, but yesterday demonstrated one of the downsides to third rail. Excessive amounts of snow up to and covering the third rail makes it difficult, if not impossible, to operate electric trains. But if 100 car pileups could attest, the roads weren’t that great yesterday and today either.

Anyway, enough ranting. Here’s what winter looks like on the Hudson Line:

  
 
  
 
  
   
  
   
  

   
  
 
   
  
 
   
  

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