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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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Boston’s Record Snowfall, and the MBTA’s West Concord Station

When the first snow of the season falls, everyone seems relatively enamored with the glistening white flakes clinging to the trees, painting a beautiful snowy scene. By now, a few months into winter, everyone is pretty much fed up, and wishing for spring. New York has certainly received its share of the white stuff, having at least one shutdown of major transit. Boston, however, has been particularly hard-hit, with record breaking snowfalls. The snowdrifts are apparently so high that some crazy folks have been jumping out of their windows into them – “nonsense” that is not amusing the city’s mayor.

The MBTA is suffering through the onslaught of snow – but just barely. With several full shutdowns, and running on reduced schedules, the transit agency is paying just about anybody 30 dollars an hour to help shovel snow, in addition to the fifty prison inmates they’ve recruited to do the same. Provided the city is not hit with yet another storm, they estimate an entire month before things get back to normal.

I happened to be in Boston last Saturday right as the city’s most recent blizzard was just beginning, and only hours before the system’s full Sunday shutdown. Capturing the snowy scene at West Concord, I checked out the snow-covered trains, and the restored depot on the MBTA’s Fitchburg Line. Though there are two tracks running through here (greatly reduced from when this town was once called Concord Junction and featured three railroads running through), although one is currently out of service and piled with snow as high as the station’s high-level platform.

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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…

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Valladolid, Mexico’s Abandoned Station, and the High-Speed Trans-Peninsular Rail Project

As an escape from New York’s winter cold, I recently spent a week in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Considering that I like to visit diverse places such as Alaska in the winter, and Chernobyl, a beach locale like Mexico sounds relatively normal trip. The area doesn’t have much in the way of trains, either, which sounds really normal. However, a few hour trek toward the ruins at Chichén Itzá on the libre (free road), as opposed to the cuota (toll road), will yield you an encounter with a lone grade crossing just west of the city of Valladolid. This rail line extends from Valladolid to Yucatán’s capital of Mérida, and although freight runs are semi frequent, regular passenger service is long gone. Many of the former train stations are abandoned and in disrepair, such as the one in Valladolid, which I found after a bit of poking around.

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