SmartCat Sundays: Restoring a Grand Central to Chatham Roll Banner

Original image of the roll sign Not everything you’ll find in my collection is printed on paper… Admittedly, I have a little thing for roll banners (I own three for the Harlem Division). Long before computers and other technology, these roll banners used to be displayed in Grand Central Terminal at each gate, letting passengers know what stops the train made. Each train had it’s own roll sign, which were stored in cabinets by the gate. The roll banner featured in this post was my third banner acquisition – but it was one I couldn’t resist, as it was originally an Upper Harlem Division banner. Sold by the SONO Switch Tower Museum on eBay as a fundraiser, their original photo of it is at right. As you can see, after the 1972 discontinuation of the Upper Harlem Line, those stops listed were blacked out. All of the banners were actually hand-painted by a real person, and when train names were changed, the signs were modified to fit – in the case of the black paint, some more drastically than others.

With the aid of old timetables, I was able to track the history of the banner, and the trains it once represented. Though the train number changed a few times, for the majority of it’s life, the it was for a Sunday-only morning train from New York to Chatham.

Unknown – 1958: Train 1053, which made a stop at Boston Corners.
1958 – June 30, 1964: Train 905. Ghent was blacked out in 1959 when it was removed as a stop.
July 1, 1964 – November 30, 1968: Train 909.
December 1, 1968 – March 19, 1972: Train 9009. Number was changed after the Penn Central merger.
March 20th, 1972 – unknown: Eliminated stations were covered in black paint, and used for Train 9013, a Saturday and Sunday train.

The lower level of GCT
Early photo of Grand Central’s lower level, showing two departure banners, and the cabinets the banners were stored in when not being used.

After purchasing the banner, I was slightly torn as to what I should do with it. Keep it as is, as a testament to what happened when Penn Central eliminated the Upper Harlem? Or should I restore it, to what it once was, showing all of the original stops? Part of what swayed my decision was that it was obvious that the writing underneath was not completely gone. You could just barely make it out under the black layer of paint, but it was still there. I decided to see how difficult removing the black would be, and to my surprise, it wasn’t that hard. With a little bit of elbow grease, I revealed a line once hidden under black – “Visitors not permitted through gate”:

Black paint slowly disappears


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Riding the Tunnelbana – the painted caves of the Stockholm Metro

It’s been about a month since the site has gone on hiatus (hope you didn’t miss me too much!), I figured it might be nice to slowly bring things back with a post about some of my most recent travels. If you happened to read the piece that Atlas Obscura wrote about me not too long ago, you may remember me mentioning that one of the transit systems I’d really love to visit was Stockholm, Sweden’s Tunnelbana (Metro). In between ending my old job and starting my new one at Amtrak, I actually took a journey to Sweden so I could finally visit the system, known for its transit art, for myself.

Though the Tunnelbana has a wealth of stations filled with interesting art, it is some of the stations located deeper underground that have captured the interest of many riders and photographers. As a unique design choice, during the excavation of these stations the bedrock was left exposed, creating the feeling that you are deep inside a cave. Each cavern is painted wildly by an array of artists – some in pink camouflage, and others in bright primary colors. While some are clearly unnatural, others evoke a real sense of a hidden cave – painted in subdued colors with primitive illustrations of a mammoth and of the sun. And even others create an interesting interplay between the rough exposed rock, and walls of colorful polished tiles. Suffice it to say, the Stockholm Metro is quite an interesting, and exceptionally unique system.

Words, of course, can’t adequately describe the varied – and in some cases, downright wild – decor of these stations, so let’s take a little visual journey together!





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Tuesday Tour of the New Haven Line: Devon Transfer

Giving Devon Transfer its own Tuesday Tour post may be a little bit of a joke, considering it is only a temporary station, nonetheless it is certainly worth a few minutes to check out. Intended to be in place for only six months, the transfer station facilitates passengers getting from the main New Haven Line over to the Waterbury Branch while Track 3 is currently out of service on the Devon Bridge for work. The v-shaped platform at Devon Transfer skirts the far end of the wye, allowing riders to essentially walk from the New Haven main line right over to the start of the Waterbury Branch and board their next train.

In some ways, Devon Transfer is not a true station – it is inaccessible to passengers in any form other than exiting a select main line train, or Waterbury Branch train. One cannot wait at Devon Transfer for any extended period of time – conductors, along with train masters and/or MTAPD are usually present to herd passengers from one side of the platform to the other and get on the connecting train, nor can one purchase tickets there. It does, however, have the typical trash bins one finds at Metro-North stations, lights for after hours, a public address system if ever necessary, as well as station name signs (I wonder who gets to keep these once work is done) on the platform. Utilizing the same wooden-style temporary platforms we’ve seen at other New Haven Line stations during track work, Devon Transfer is a decent substitute for keeping the Waterbury Branch running during the bridgework. In fact, it is arguably nicer than some of the permanent stations on the Branch (Ansonia‘s low-level platform comes to mind).

The Devon Bridge
The Devon Bridge, currently undergoing work, with a six month expected outage on Track 3 (the one closest to the photographer in this picture). Aerial photographs of the Devon Bridge via the Historic American Engineering Record, Jack E. Boucher, photographer, taken April 1977.

For most passengers, the transfer at Devon is relatively convenient, with the exception of anyone coming from/going in the direction of New Haven, who would have to make an additional transfer at Bridgeport for their journeys. Additionally, all New Haven Line trains stopping at Devon will have an increased running time of about a minute, due to the extra stop. However, all of the work here is necessary to address one of the banes of the New Haven Line – its ancient movable bridges. Crossing the Housatonic River, the Devon Bridge (also known as the Housatonic River Railroad Bridge) is a 110 year old, 1,067-foot long rolling lift bascule bridge. It was prefabricated by the American Bridge Company in Trenton, New Jersey, and installed in 1905. Although less problematic as the notorious swing bridges on the New Haven Line (namely WALK), it is well in need of some attention. Suffering from the same lack of standardization found on many of the line’s movable bridges – each one being unique, with its own exclusive mechanical components – it requires custom created parts to fix.


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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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Exploring the 4: Arts for Transit Glasswork in the Bronx, Part 2

Continuing along on our tour of the 4 line’s Arts for Transit glasswork are five more stations – each with a unique piece of art that adds color to the urban landscape.

183rd Street

Artist: Jose Ortiz

Title: Many Trails

Found in the mezzanine area of the station, the glassword at 183rd Street depicts scenes from the area, both from the past and present. The title of the piece derives from the symbol depicted on the first panel of the piece – it is the Mohican “Many Trails” symbol. The meaning behind the symbol is described as thus:

The design symbolizes the endurance, strength, and hope of a long-suffering, proud, and determined people. The curved shape represents the arms of a man raised in prayer. the circles represent many campfires. The lines represent the many trails taken from the time the Indians left their ancestral homes.

Some of the scenes depicted in the piece are the lands once inhabited by the Siwanoy Nation (a branch of the Mohicans) in the 1600s, the Croton Aqueduct, St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church, and the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at Bronx Community College.


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Sunsets and Long Exposure Photography on the Rails

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent my evenings exploring the rails, photographing at one of my favorite times of the day – sunset. While one generally loses the illumination of the sun’s rays, you gain a multitude of colors in the sky… and to me, there is just something magical about that.

In terms of night photography – or at least, what railfans tend to think about night photography – one usually uses artificial lights to illuminate a posed, unmoving train. Though it seems to be the en vogue thing to do these days, I see little reason to do so other than “because we can.” Most seem to do it for the novelty, or because all the “cool kids” are doing it. Many that take part look to evoke the work of O. Winston Link, arguably the best night railroad photographer ever (though Jack Delano, whose photographs I featured last week, was also an accomplished night photographer – it was never really his “claim to fame,” however). Unfortunately, most fall flat in their endeavor to “be like Link.” While I can see the merits of photographing steam trains at night (the lower light allows one to capture sweeping plumes of smoke from the engine), I see little reason to do it with modern trains. After dark I find it far more fun to capture not the train itself, but the train’s movement, and its environment.

Because of the low ambient light, long exposure photography allows one to record the movement of the train, rendered as blurs of light. In order to get a proper exposure, your camera shutter is open for longer – in some cases for 15 seconds or more (thus a stable resting place, preferably a tripod, is required). Done right, any moving object in the frame shows up as a blur, or a streak. Modern electric trains, like Metro-North’s M7s and M8s, with their shiny and smooth exteriors and LED lights lend themselves to this, becoming graceful blurs. Instead of artificial light, one uses the “natural” (or as natural as the light off a cityscape could be), and the intense colors of a sunset to evoke a completely different mood. Since I don’t really have a post lined up for this week, I figured I’d share some of my recent photographs taken at sunset, or at night… and maybe convince some of you that there is fun to be had after dark, far away from the now all too common “night photo sessions.”


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Beautiful Underground – Gems of the Berlin U-Bahn

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

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


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Above-Ground on the “Underground” – Berlin’s U3

Last week’s post featured photos from the Oberbaum Bridge as an introduction to Berlin’s above-ground “Underground” stations. This time we’re taking a look at some more of these above-ground stations, with a focus on the U3 Line. If I had to pick my favorite U-Bahn line, the U3 would probably be it. Not only does it include some of the system’s oldest stations, it has a great mix of beautifully designed underground stations and tree-lined above-ground stations.

Trains are plentiful in the German city of Berlin, with the both the S-Bahn, and the U-Bahn, along with all the other longer distance trains that pass through. There is a general misconception that the S-Bahn is all above-ground, and the U-Bahn all underground (after all, the U does stand for untergrund), but despite that moniker, the U-Bahn has plenty of stations that catch the rays of the sun.

Map of the U3 Line
Map of the U3 Line, showing the above and below ground stations.


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Riding Berlin’s U1 Line: The Oberbaumbrücke

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

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

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


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Shore Line East and Old Saybrook

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

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

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

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

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


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