Spring Thaw on the Saratoga & North Creek

This past winter was long and cold for all of us, and thankfully everything is finally beginning to look bright. Upstate in the Adirondacks the Saratoga & North Creek Railway was hard-hit. Normally operating several snow trains a few weekends during the winter, much of February’s service was entirely cancelled due to the extremely cold weather. Prior to the cancellations, one train that did run broke down heading southbound, necessitating a school bus to carry all the passengers back to Saratoga.

I had been planning to photograph the railway in the snow, but the lack of trains cancelled those plans. Instead I visited in April, catching the Spring thaw along the line, with just a few bits of snow remaining along the banks of the Hudson. Although minimal freight operates on the line, I didn’t see any, only capturing the two passenger trains that operate each day.

Tourist trains have operated on this line since 1999, but the Saratoga and North Creek has only been running since 2011, operated by Iowa Pacific Holdings. They’ve only been carrying freight since 2013, a business they’d like to expand, as they’re losing money on their tourist trains (no doubt the harsh winter and cancelled trains did not help). Historically, the Delaware and Hudson Railway acquired this line in 1871, and ran on it until 1989 (an abandoned portion of the line, including a bridge, can be seen in a few of my photos).

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Winter 2015 – A Collection of Snowy Photos

Hopefully by now winter is waning, and yesterday’s snow storm will be the last big event of the season. It feels like it has has been a long winter – and one rife with cancellations, train delays, and even a full transit system shutdown. Despite the headaches, snow can of course be beautiful (in moderation!). Here’s a collection of some of my favorite photographs that I took this winter season, on Metro-North and beyond.

Who else is ready for spring?

Also, are you following I Ride the Harlem Line on Facebook and Instagram? Many of these photos appeared there first!

                       

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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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Winter at the Strasburg Railroad

I swear to you all, I really hate winter. And the cold. Sure, we may have checked out the Harlem Line and the Hudson Line in the snow, but I’d so much rather be somewhere warm… Instead of being at some tropical location this past weekend, you would have found me at the Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania. Despite being assured that it “never snows” for these winter photo specials, Saturday’s weather brought more snow in addition to the already deep snow blanketing the ground. The majority of the day was grey, with the sun only appearing for approximately three seconds at the very end of the journey.

Although the day was very monochromatic, the black and white views of the railroad – with the occasional splash of color – turned out alright. Amtrak made a very quick appearance, as did a fluffy farm dog, quite puzzled by the crowd of photographers wading in knee-deep snow just outside her backyard. Anyway, here is what the Strasburg Railroad looks like in the snow…

 
  
   
  
 
  
 
   
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
   
 
  

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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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Winter on the Harlem Line, 1888 and 2014

Right about now I am really looking forward to summer. I’m never a fan of the cold (despite sleeping in an ice hotel, and visiting Alaska in winter…) and this winter feels exceptionally so. The winter we’ve thus endured, however, pales in comparison to the winter of 1888. The Great Blizzard of 1888 is one of the most severe blizzards ever recorded in the US, with 22 inches of snow in New York City and 48 inches of snow in Albany. It took the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad eight days to clear the snow from their main line to New Haven. The New York and Harlem Railroad’s attempts were less successful, recorded as a small blip in the annals of history.

Meet Old Eli. This comical looking contraption was one of the first snowplows built for the New York Central Railroad in 1864. The plow was mounted on a six-wheeled truck, and connected to an engine with an old-fashioned push bar. The plow usually required several steam locomotives to push it, and for the 1888 blizzard the plow was being pushed by a total of five. It is worth mentioning that this plow was hardly an ingenious innovation, instead of pushing snow to the side, it often pushed the snow up and above the engine – a grievous issue when traversing an extremely narrow rock cut.


Scene from the wreck at Coleman’s during the Great Blizzard of 1888.

Heading north from White Plains, Old Eli was to clear the snow from the Harlem all the way to Chatham, but instead met doom at Coleman’s. The narrow rock cut there was plugged with snow, and the aforementioned deficiency of the plow ensured that the lead locomotive was thoroughly buried in the snow. All five locomotives derailed, Old Eli was destroyed beyond repair, and five crew members lost their lives, three of which were boiled alive by the lead steam locomotive.

 
New York City in the Great Blizzard of 1888, a subject that was heavily covered by the news of the day

Thankfully, most of our winters have been far less eventful, except maybe for the random guy running around wearing a horse mask. I’ve wandered around the Harlem Line during the past few snowstorms, capturing the trains and the people that make them run… so let’s take a little tour of the Harlem Line in the snow…

 
  
   
 
  

   
  
   

   
 
   
  

   
   
  
   
  
   
 
  

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Some final photos from Alaska

Just wanted to take a quick minute to share some of my final photos from Alaska (at least until I visit again in September!). My series on Alaska has been a whole lot more popular that I ever thought, and not just among my normal audience of railfans. Taking a trip to Alaska in the winter is sort of “off the beaten track,” and many want to know some of the details. Others find it interesting, but want to know how to convince their friend / family member / significant other to brave the cold and go with them. Hopefully this post will answer some of the many questions I’ve received, and perhaps convinces you to go ride the Alaska Railroad in winter – it was quite fun!

To make a long story short, I didn’t freeze to death, and although it was quite cold, it wasn’t absolutely unbearable. As I mentioned previously, the Alaska Railroad pretty much booked the entire trip for me (with the exception of the Chena Hot Springs, where you can usually get a cheaper price if you book on your own). As one would likely guess, you probably want to invest a little money in appropriate gear to keep yourself warm. I don’t get anything for plugging the following items, but I was just fine with an Under Armour Base 3.0 underlayer, a North Face Denali jacket, and a North Face Super Diez jacket. You can check the weather reports before you go – if you are from the city, they number will likely be an absurdly low temperature, of which you have no reference point. If you are well prepared, -20 doesn’t feel nearly as bad as it sounds.

  
   
 
Photos from the flight back from the Arctic Circle. The Piper Navajo which we were in seats 8.

While riding the Alaska Railroad, opening the top windows in the vestibules in between cars was permitted. Obviously, sticking your head and camera out of the window of a moving train in subzero temperatures is rather frigid, but a face mask and snow goggles are immensely helpful. The fact of the matter is, you’re not going to get spectacular photos from inside the windows. The good majority of my railroad photos all were taken out the window. You can bear a little cold to get some decent photos – just like you can bear a little cold at night so you can see the aurora! (It is worth it!)

Penguin swim...
The fact that penguins do not live in Alaska does not seem to be commonly-known. I took this photograph, for the many that asked for it, while at Chena Hot Springs – It is titled an “Alaskan penguin” in its “natural habitat.”

As for the question on how to convince someone to go with you to Alaska in the winter, the aurora, or northern lights, is a pretty good reason. Having never seen the aurora before, that was really the primary reason for my trip. Secondly, plan a trip to Chena Hot Springs. This seems like an extremely common venue during the winter – many of the folks that were on my train from Anchorage to Fairbanks I later sighted at the springs. The outdoor spring there was quite lovely – for the five seconds it takes you to walk outside to it in a bathing suit you think you are absolutely bonkers, but once you get in, it is quite relaxing. Besides the springs, there are a wide array of activities that you can do there – from dogsledding to snowmobiling (mind you, Alaskans call them “snow machines” – they also laugh at you when you get them stuck in waist-deep snow!).

 
  
   
  

The sled dogs at Chena Hot Springs. Even if you don’t go for a ride, you can tour the kennel and see these cuties.

If you’ve been following the blog for more than two years, you may remember my trip up to Quebec, where I stayed at the Hôtel de Glace and visited some train stations. Made entirely of snow and ice, the hotel is quite beautiful, though it is only around for about three months before it melts. Chena has a similar, albeit smaller, version in their ice museum. But unlike any other structure in the world made of ice and snow, Chena’s ice museum is year round. The hot springs are used as a power source to cool the entire structure. Alas, that means the outside is completely fake. The inside, however, is most beautiful.

  
 
  
   
  

I think that pretty much sums everything up. If you missed any of my previous Alaska posts, you can find them here:
Traveling Alaska’s Dalton Highway
Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 1
Riding the Alaska Railroad, Part 2
If you have any other further questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment!

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Traveling Alaska’s Dalton Highway

Thanks to the Alaska Railroad, I recently enjoyed a wonderful trip to our northernmost state which included not only trains, but a few buses and planes as well. While visiting Alaska in the winter may seem a bit foreboding, having the right gear makes sightseeing in negative-Fahrenheit temperatures bearable, and actually enjoyable. Though the snowy landscape is quite beautiful, most make the winter trek to catch the aurora borealis – or as is more commonly known, the northern lights. Heading up to the Arctic Circle yields the best views of the lights, and that is where I wound up for part of my adventure.

The railroad doesn’t offer too many trains in the winter, but I did get a chance to ride the Aurora Winter train (don’t worry, I’ll be going back in September to ride all the rest of the trains). Similar to Amtrak’s Vacations, the Alaska Railroad offers travel packages that include rail and other tours. I opted for their Arctic Circle Adventure Package, which included the train trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and a bus/plane journey up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle.

Looks legit!
You even get an extremely official certificate telling the world you’ve visited the Arctic Circle. Looks legit!

If you’ve seen the show Ice Road Truckers, you may be familiar with the Dalton Highway. The show’s third through sixth seasons feature the highway, which runs just north of Fairbanks up to the Arctic Ocean and Prudhoe Bay in the north – a 414-mile journey. Our first day consisted of traveling to Coldfoot (Mile 175), where we spent two nights and would be our jumping-off point. The second day took us further north on the highway, through the route’s highest elevation – Atigun Pass (Mile 244) – and to the North Slope, offering a beautiful view of the Brooks Range. Both nights consisted of aurora watching, the first of which was at a cabin in the small former mining community of Wiseman – population 14.

Before sharing the photos I took on the train, I figured I’d share the ones from the Arctic. Much of the vista is similar to what is seen from the train, with the exception of the trucks and the Trans Alaska Pipeline running parallel. For anyone else out there feeling adventurous, I’d certainly recommend the railroad’s Arctic Circle Adventure Package, with a couple nights at the hot springs outside of Fairbanks… it was great fun. I can’t wait until September, and my next trip to Alaska.

  
 
   
 
  
 
  
 
  
 
   
  
 
  
   
  
 
 
  
 
  
 

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All the silly things people apparently want to know about Metro-North service delays…

If you’re a rider of the Harlem Line, most likely you were aware of some service delays on the line this morning. Social media never ceases to amaze me, as messages fly through text, twitter, facebook from others riding the rails. If there’s a delay or an issue, someone out there is talking about it online… and is probably even going to beat Metro-North to reporting it to the world. In today’s case, I did beat Metro-North to reporting over twitter that the Harlem Line north of Croton Falls was shut down, as I just happened to be on the train that was stuck. And then, of course, the questions began.

Now, I don’t mind answering questions (though the managers of Metro-North’s customer service department do – as I have received angry messages from them to “refrain from responding to customers” in the past), but I thought that perhaps I should answer them publicly for all to see. Since I’m sure Metro-North managers will be annoyed I’m doing this, I must reiterate that these are not official answers to anything. I do not work for Metro-North, nor do I represent them. These are, however, questions that I’ve heard, or have been asked on social media. I don’t want to say that this post is directed towards the other half of my readership – the non-railfan commuters – but it sort of is. These are, apparently, the things that you want to know:


Great. The trees are planking again. Now what? (and, yes, this was the tree that tied up the Harlem Line this morning)

Why is something like a little rainstorm delaying my train?
Each of Metro-North’s three main lines have a little “achilles heel,” so to speak. For the Harlem, it is trees. On the Hudson, it is water – flooding and mudslides. On the New Haven, it is the old caternary system. Issues on each line are not exclusively these things, as obviously a tree could fall anywhere. But in the case of the Harlem Line, that “little rainstorm” probably knocked down a tree somewhere. That “little rainstorm” likely had “a little bit of wind,” which can cause a lot more damage than you think.

If a tree is down in Southeast, why are trains delayed in Valhalla? – asked by @Crissteen.
Your train doesn’t magically appear in Valhalla. Most likely, your train originated at the trainyard in Brewster. Even if the service disruption is not near to you, it can still cause delays if your train can’t get there. Remember that train service is a carefully orchestrated system, and there are probably a lot more trains on the rails than you think.

The weather at the station isn’t even that bad! Why are there delays?
Believe it or not, storms not directly effecting the rails can still cause delays. Although Metro-North tries its hardest to prepare for this eventuality with extra crews on hand, if train crews can’t get to their trains, there will be delays. I can think of one instance earlier this year when there was a very minor snow storm, not bad enough to delay service on its own. However, a truck going too fast overturned on 84, blocking all lanes. With 84 effectively shut down, crews had difficulty getting to work. Obviously, the trains can’t go if there is nobody to operate them. This is a very rare instance, but is not outside the realm of possibility.

If there is a tree down, why does it take so long for someone to come and remove it?
Firstly, someone needs to be dispatched to the area. They need to drive there, then find a way to get over to where the issue is. All of that takes time, but really, the main consideration is the electric. Remember those third rails that power the trains? The power needs to be turned off so people can work without getting zapped. Then when the work is done, the power needs to be turned back on.

If trees are such a big problem, why don’t they cut all of them down?
Okay you environment-hater, even if Metro-North was going to consider something this silly, not every tree is on Metro-North property. Trees do get trimmed, but do remember that trees are kinda tall, and we can’t really dictate how they will fall over.

Why can’t you just go around the problem? Why is my train going in the wrong direction? – Wondered about by TrainJotting
You see, the difference between cars and trains is that trains have to run on these things called rails. You may have seen them before, actually. They’re the two long, shiny things underneath the train. Unlike a car, a train can’t easily just “change lanes” (FYI, they also can’t be hijacked and driven into the White House). There are spots where trains can cross over to other tracks, but they aren’t everywhere. Thus “going around the problem” might be easier said than done. In some instances the closest place to switch over to another track may be behind you – which means your train might have to move in the “wrong direction.”

Why doesn’t my conductor just do <insert some action here>?
Because in an instance like this, your conductor isn’t totally running the show. They’re likely on the radio talking to the Rail Traffic Controller, in the control center in Grand Central. The RTCs assess the situation, weigh all the options, and give the train crew instructions. All of this, of course, takes time, and quite often there is a dialog going on while the options are considered. In this morning’s case, the RTC wanted to know how many people were aboard the disabled train, in case an evacuation was necessary. Instead, the tree was cleared and an evacuation was not necessary.

Why didn’t the conductor tell me what was happening?
In the case of small delays, you might know more than your conductor! Metro-North has gotten pretty good about informing passengers about delays via text message – updates your conductor might not be aware of. Usually conductors announce what they know, but sometimes they do wait until something concrete is known before sharing. Above I mentioned how the RTC considers all the options – it would be silly for the conductor to inform everyone that the train might need to be evacuated – because in the end this is not what happened. Once they have all the facts, they’ll try to let you know!

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Counting down the 12 most popular posts of 2011, Part 2

Here is the final part of our top posts of 2011. Thank you to all of you for your continued support and visits. These are the posts that you all voted for, with your eyes and your clicks.

No tour of any of Metro-North’s lines could be complete without a visit to the most wonderful station of all – Grand Central. Our Harlem Line Tuesday Tour finished with photos of GCT, and was extremely well-liked, coming in at number seven in the countdown. I think I was rather proud of the photo set, as it covered quite a few locations that were not part of the main concourse. Although the concourse is the highlight, it is by all means not the only thing interesting found in the Terminal.

These are the reasons why there are probably people that work for the MTA that dislike me… although I love the history of the rails, as well as photography, there are some times that I just can’t help joking around. In this spoof, The MTA wants to make sure you are prepared, I poked a little bit of fun at the brochure that they released regarding hurricanes. My intent wasn’t to knock their preparations (as that hurricane brochure came in handy later on during the year!!), it was more to make an amusing statement about the snowstorms slamming us that just wouldn’t stop. We were somewhat prepared – but absolutely fed up with the snow that kept piling up. But being able to add in some zombies and Norse mythology just made it all the more fun.

Many times I’ve passed through the streets in Danbury and sighted a particular wall covered with some absolutely gorgeous graffiti. Every time I did, I always thought that I should go and take a photo of it… but I never got a chance to do it until March. In the post Gorgeous rail-side graffiti in Danbury I posted photos of the mural (which was a lot larger than I had originally suspected). The painted wall is located just off of Main Street in Danbury, not far from the Metro-North station, and located along some railroad tracks.

Just about any day this year was a good time to be anyone other than Hermon Kaur Raju. Raju is the commuter we love to hate, yapping on her cell phone the whole ride and using a whole slew of four letter words. When a train conductor told her to shut her trap, Raju went on the offensive – demanding that everyone acknowledge how educated she was. Most unfortunately for her, someone had been recording the entire exchange, and posted it to YouTube. Despite being removed a short time later by the original poster, the damage had been done. The clip made it to the Huffington Post, Gawker, and Raju was even one of Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Persons In The World.”

Although I did not post her name at the time, resisting the urge to poke fun at Raju was impossible. The post Be nice to your conductor, or you’ll wind up on the internet was one of our top posts for the year. Metro-North never really made a public response regarding the incident, however Raju would likely be pleased to know that the conductor involved was reprimanded for the incident – for not wearing her hat.

Discovering the old stations of the Harlem Division has been an interest of mine ever since I first read about them. Many no longer exist, but a few have been converted to businesses and are still around. Only one (to my knowledge) has been converted into use as a home, and the thought of living in an old train station is probably pretty awesome to anyone that calls themself a railfan. In an Adventure to Sharon Station, I got a great chance to tour the house, which is currently for sale. Even though the the outside looks much as it did way back when, the inside contains all the modern comforts one would expect in a home. I’m very appreciative to Elyse Harney Real Estate for allowing me to see the house, even though they knew I didn’t have the means to purchase it – though if I ever win big in the lottery, they may be one of the first people I call.

Although often forgotten by commuters, Metro-North does have tracks on the west side of the Hudson. I suppose they lines over there are easily overlooked, as they don’t go into Grand Central, and are operated by New Jersey Transit. However, one of the most beautiful locations along Metro-North’s tracks is found on the west side. The Picturesque Moodna Viaduct, located in the rural countryside of Orange County. The viaduct is the longest and tallest trestle east of the Mississippi River, and I was very happy to note that the Hurricane Irene damage on the Port Jervis line did not greatly harm this wonderful gem. It seems that many others also find the viaduct a lovely place, as it was our second most popular post on the blog in 2011.

In an absolutely unprecedented move, the entirety of MTA buses and trains shut down ahead of the oncoming storm, Hurricane Irene. Although some people criticized the decision as a bit over the top, it turned out to be the right one. Of all the agencies, Metro-North likely suffered the worst damages, from both high winds and rain-induced floods. In an absolutely brilliant move, the MTA kept customers apprised of the ongoing situation through their Flickr account, visually documenting the storm on their infrastructure. Some of the photos even wound up in the trending topics of twitter – a monumental achievement for the MTA’s social media endeavors.

I reposted many of the MTA’s photos under the title of Metro-North and the Aftermath of Irene, Damage Photos, and it was the number one post of the year on I Ride the Harlem Line.

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