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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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Smartcat Sundays: All Aboard for the Westchester County Fair

These days if you want to get to a county fair on Metro-North you head up to Dutchess County, are conveniently met by a bus at Poughkeepsie station, and are whisked away to the long-running Dutchess County Fair. Westchester County used to have a fair too, although it wasn’t quite as constant – stopping and starting numerous times over the years, and is now defunct (folks from the ’80s may recall this catchy tune when the fair was revived and held at Yonkers Raceway).

Today’s artifact is from 1889 – a special Harlem Division brochure advertising railroad specials for the fair, including fare and admission. Held in White Plains at that time, eventually the land on which the fair was held was sold and led to several years of dormancy.

Brochure Inside

Brochure Outside

While the horse racing is, of course, to be expected, don’t forget the big event – the BABY SHOW! All the handsome babies of Westchester county are competing, after all!

Dog show and sale at the Westchester County Fair
The fair also featured a dog show and sale…

Horse racing at the fair
The main event – horse racing at the fair.

The midway at the Westchester County Fair
Midway at the Westchester County Fair, circa 1900. Photos from the Library of Congress.

After several years of dormancy, the fair was revived in the ’40s before going defunct again, only to be revived in the ’80s, and again later cancelled.

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Planes of the New York Central – The Railroad’s WW2 Combat Bombers

While the New York Central’s famous trains are legendary, it seems that few know of their planes. Believe it or not, the New York Central and its employees raised the funds to purchase two planes, claiming to be the only railroad to have done so, and donated them to the war effort. Each plane was painted with the name “New York Central” and was flown by Army Air Force crews in World War II. At this time, the New York Central’s company magazine, The Headlight, was filled with photos of railroad employees off at war, and updates on their sponsored planes were always a highlight. In some instances, the crews were in fact railroad employees, or family members. And in a perhaps-not-coincidental twist of fate, several of the bomber’s targets were essential German infrastructure – its railroads.

Dedication of the "New York Central System" bomber
Dedication of the “New York Central System” bomber, attended by railroad president Frederick Williamson (left). Photo from the October 1942 issue of the Central Headlight.

The first New York Central sponsored plane
The first New York Central-sponsored plane. Photo courtesy b26.com.

The New York Central’s first twin-engine bomber, named simply “The New York Central System” was purchased with the funds raised by the railroad and its employees – $170,062.06 in total, money delivered on April 2, 1942 to the US Treasury. The idea was conceived by the employees of the Electric Locomotive shop in Collinwood, Ohio, who proposed small paycheck deductions from willing participants in order to fund the purchase. Nearly 90% of the Central’s workforce donated to this and other wartime fundraisers. Sadly, the bomber was shot down in February 1943 over North Africa after only 13 missions. However, determined railroad employees decided to raise further funds and purchased a replacement bomber, which was named the “New York Central II.” Though it was not unheard of for a group to sponsor a plane, this was the first time a group had come together a second time to purchase a replacement after the first’s loss.

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Following the Northstar – Minnesota’s Commuter Rail

During my first visit to Minneapolis several years ago, I took lots of photos of the new Hiawatha light rail line (now known as the Blue Line), but completely missed out a chance to check out their commuter rail. On my more recent trip to the Twin Cities, I made sure to see the Northstar. A few trains in the state have used variations on the name Northstar, including a now-defunct Amtrak train, a name which derives from Minnesota’s nickname as the North Star State, as it is the northernmost of the contiguous US states. Although it might not be glowing, this Northstar, is hard to miss, painted in an attractive blue, yellow, and red scheme.

In terms of transportation systems, the Northstar is relatively young, with passenger service starting at the end of 2009. Operating on an already-existing BNSF freight line, money was invested to purchase equipment, build stations, and to construct a maintenance facility near Big Lake. The line stretches from Target Field in Minneapolis, where it connects with the light rail, to Big Lake in the north. Although hopes were for the line to continue all the way to the city of St. Cloud, just north of Big Lake there is a several mile stretch of only single track, and it would be a significant expenditure to add another track so the line can continue to accommodate both freight and commuter traffic. Instead, bus service called the Northstar Link carries passengers from Big Lake to St. Cloud.

There are a lot of comparisons one could make with Metro-North – the most obvious being the overpasses used on the line. Along the Hudson Line there are severe limitations on the height of freight trains due to low bridges and overpasses. The line on which Northstar runs, being mostly freight, in contrast has very high overpasses to allow the plentiful freights to pass underneath. Another leg up the Northstar has over Metro-North is the fact that each passenger coach is equipped with wi-fi, something customers here have been wanting for years. On the other hand, service on the Northstar is very limited, focused around commuting hours with an occasional extra train for baseball games and concerts at Target Field. Much of this limitation is due to the frequent freight on the line, which can often delay trains (especially Amtrak’s Empire Builder).

All in all it was an interesting trip to see another one of the country’s commuter rail systems. Enjoy a collection of photos from Northstar:

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1867’s Double Track Railroad

I’ve been a little bit under the weather recently and rather busy, so I haven’t had the time to put a proper post together for this week, however I did want to share a somewhat recent acquisition of mine. This 1867 New York Central timetable is the second oldest in my collection (my oldest is from 1864), and is a little bit of a curiosity as it includes descriptions of some of the cities found along the rail line. For example, it describes Rochester as, “having risen from a wilderness in less than half a century,” and explains that, “the first white child born in Rochester is still living near by, in the prime of manhood.”

At this time the New York Central was a mere double track railroad, but it boasts that it is, “regarded in both this country and in Europe, as one of the most important, best managed, and safest lines of iron roads now in existence,” where “so few casualties occur.” Well, that’s one way to market your railroad…

Enjoy this little bit of history, nearly 150 years old.

1867 New York Central timetable

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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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Introducing our new project – “Trains and Modern Photography”

For more than a hundred years trains and railroads have provided an interesting subject matter for photographers. In the earliest years cameras were clunky and few, often in the hands of a professional. As the years went by, especially after the introduction of photographic film, cameras found their way into a railfan’s arsenal in increasing number. We’ve come a long way since then. The modern world has technology abound, and a camera is now found in just about everyone’s pocket, thanks to cell phones. For those serious about photography, technology has opened so many doors, and has made the art of railroad photography even more interesting. While many of the underlying principles have always remained the same, images that could never be captured before are now possible. Railfanning via a camera mounted on a flying drone would likely have been beyond the wildest dreams of early photographers, yet it is one way that people are capturing images of trains today.

A very early railroad photo
A daguerrotype considered one of the earliest known railroad photographs, circa 1850. Via the Center for Railroad Photography and Art.

I consider my upbringing to be on the very bridge of old-school photography and the “modern” technology world. I grew up shooting film, and in art school was expected to develop my own negatives and prints (admittedly, I hated it). Likewise, I remember getting my hands on my very first digital camera as a freshman in high school – it was a clunky beast, taking a 3.5″ floppy disk to save just a few photos. It wasn’t until I was in college that I got my very own digital camera (a simple point-and-shoot), and I didn’t get a digital DSLR until after I had graduated. I never fully enjoyed photography much until I had gone full digital, and since then I’ve attempted to embrace all the newest tech that I can get my hands on.

Grand Central Construction
Image from a glass plate negative of Grand Central Terminal’s construction. From the Library of Congress.

Because of my love of photographic technology, and a suggestion by a reader, I’m going to be starting a new feature project on this blog – namely a column entitled “Trains and Modern Photography.” The column will feature both modern photographic technology, like the aforementioned drones, to GoPros, as well as modern techniques, like panoramic, high dynamic range, and timelapses – all from the perspective of a railfan. Though it will be of most interest to the photographer, I hope that everyone will be able to enjoy it, essentially seeing the “behind the scenes” of how great photos are made.

Modern tech in a classic setting at Grand Central Terminal
Modern tech in a classic setting at Grand Central Terminal

So that is about it for this introduction… look for the first “Trains and Modern Photography” post tomorrow, represented by a light green dot, which you’ll see now added to the category list on the right bar of the site. If you happen to have any suggestions or ideas of technology or topics we should cover, shoot me a message or just comment below!

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Grade Crossing Safety: Metro-North’s New Pilot Program

This morning Metro-North announced a new plan to get people’s eyes focused on grade crossings – literally. In a new pilot program, the railroad will be hiring people to wear costumes and protect grade crossings, reminding drivers not to stop on the tracks, or attempt to go around lowered or lowering crossing gates.

Grade crossing incidents have been at the forefront of railroad safety recently, after three high-profile incidents caused major derailments, many injuries, and seven deaths. The three incidents occurred in New York, California, and North Carolina, proving that this is not merely a local problem, but a national problem.

Describing the new pilot program, Metro-North president Joseph Giulietti explained:

Although our program comes up with a solution that is light-hearted, the goal is not to trivialize the problem, or the incidents that have happened at grade crossings. People’s eyes are drawn to things like this – which is the same reason why a fast food place might have a guy dancing around in a hot-dog costume, or a tax prep place might have a lady liberty standing around outside. Sadly, we need to get people’s attention. It seems in our world full of the distractions of loud music, cell phones and other electronic devices, ringing bells, flashing lights, moving gates, pavement markings, and plenty of signage simply does not get anyone’s attention. Even several high-profile grade crossing incidents, and increased police presence at crossings has not stopped drivers from waiting on the tracks, or driving around lowered gates to beat the train.

I find myself agreeing the concept of distracted driving – some have mentioned that Ellen Brody, the woman who caused the Valhalla crash that killed six people, may not have been familiar with the crossing and intersection because of a crash on the Taconic and a detour that evening. Meanwhile, Deborah Molodofsky, who has mentioned she was familiar with the grade crossing in Chappaqua where she had a “close call,” still waited on the railroad tracks and was surprised when the gates came down around her car. Even afterward, she was quoted as saying “I did everything right and I still got caught” – completely oblivious to the fact that she did nothing right – one should never stop on railroad tracks – apparently Ms. Molodofsky never noticed the signs that say as much on the many times she passed that crossing.

Adding to Mr. Giulietti’s comments, Metro-North spokesperson Marjorie Anders said:

On our New Haven main Line, where there are no grade crossings, there are still many incidents with overheight vehicles striking the bridges that carry the tracks. On the Hudson Line, one of our 100+ year-old historical stations had a gorgeous pedestrian walkway into the station – it was completely destroyed by a dump truck striking it. This is clearly a complex problem that will not just have one solution. But if we only look at the grade crossings themselves, we’re missing an important part of the equation – driver distraction.

Anders’ point is a good one – even the NTSB has spent a good amount of time talking about driver distraction in transportation recently, holding a round-table discussion called “Disconnect from Deadly Distractions,” which was live-tweeted by the NTSB’s twitter account.

Note: The Hudson Line station Ms. Anders mentioned where the pedestrian crossing was destroyed was Ardsley-on-Hudson.

President Giulietti made sure to add one more note on the subject:

If for some reason you do happen to get stuck on the railroad tracks, each crossing has a sign with a telephone number and a description of the location. If you call that number and report a vehicle stuck, we can halt trains on the line and prevent a dangerous incident from occurring.

We were lucky enough to capture a video of one of the new hirees working on the Harlem Line, at the Cleveland Street crossing in Valhalla. The town of Mount Pleasant has recently revealed that they would like to close this crossing, to the detriment of the people that live in the neighborhood just over the tracks.

Hopefully such measures will capture the attention of the many drivers that make poor decisions around railroad tracks every day.

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Whippany Railway Museum’s 50th Anniversary, and big things for April

If you’re not familiar with the Whippany Railway Museum, it is a great little spot that works to preserve some of New Jersey’s railroad history, and is likely where you’ll find the next generation of young railfans, riding in historic train cars and meeting up with Santa and the Easter Bunny. The museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and in order to celebrate they’re offering things like a railway hobby show, and 1956 prices on excursions. On Sundays where no excursions are taking place, the CNJ club car “Jersey Coast” will be hosting some photography exhibits.

My article in the April issue of Railfan & Railroad
My article in the April issue of Railfan & Railroad

If you haven’t heard already, I have a pretty big article in April’s Railfan & Railroad Magazine, featuring my explorations of the railway in Chornobyl’s Exclusion Zone. On April 26th, the 29th anniversary of the Chornobyl Disaster, I’ll be showing my photos from that adventure at Whippany, along with some copies of the magazine. So be sure to check out the April edition of Railfan & Railroad (which if you’re a subscriber, started mailing last week), and come out and visit Whippany for their 50th anniversary, and my showing of photos on Sunday, April 26th!

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George Henry Daniels, The Advertising “Prophet” of the New York Central

These days, it seems like social media “experts” are a dime a dozen. Tasked with promoting a service or a brand in the “social” world where sites like Facebook and Twitter reign, the social media guru uses a varied bag of tricks to get people to look their way. Though the medium has certainly changed, and the communication is now instantaneous, creative promoters are hardly a new invention. And although the term “going viral” was only recently coined, one could argue that promoters of yesterday experienced a similar phenomenon. Today’s post is about a talented man who was employed by the New York Central at the turn of the 20th century. Described by fellow advertisers as the railroad’s “prophet,” George H. Daniels was endlessly creative in attracting attention to one of the world’s greatest railroads. He was a writer, editor, travel agent, promoter, negotiator, and showman all wrapped into one package, but he went by the title of General Passenger Agent.

Much of Daniels’ promoting came down to a persistent tagline – “Send a stamp to George H. Daniels.” Any soul that would send off a letter to the man in Grand Central, and enclosing a two-cent stamp – of any country, in fact – would be returned travel-related literature pertaining to their specific interests. Perhaps a businessman would get a map of global trade lines, undoubtedly featuring the fine rails of the New York Central and its connections stretching across the United States. A science-minded fellow would find descriptions and diagrams of mighty steam locomotives in use by the railroad, or the newest technology found in use on the road. And a sportsman might find a guide to fishing in upstate New York, complete with photos of the varied fish found within each body of water. Daniels and his team created a litany of brochures for just about any interest, railroad or not. For the more philosophical, there was the reprint of Elbert Hubbard’s “A Message to Garcia” – of no relation to the railroad, yet complete with a map of the line as a reference point. Certainly one of his most prolific publications, it can only be argued that after being printed by the railroad the story went “viral” – and Daniels promised to print as many copies of it as were desired, even if it took a century to do so. The story was subsequently made into two different motion pictures, sold over 40 million copies, and was translated into 37 languages, largely due to Daniels’ influence.

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