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#GEInstaWalk – Touring GE’s rail locomotive production facility, Fort Worth, Texas

It’s not every day that a railfan gets to visit the place where mighty railroad locomotives are born (forged of steel and bound together by lots and lots of welding)… Recently, however, I got an invite to tour GE’s new locomotive manufacturing facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Right now they’re producing the Evolution Series Tier 3 locomotive (ES44C4) for BNSF, and I got an up close and personal view of the process from start to finish. The entire locomotive creation process takes about 60 days, and the facility had various locomotives in all stages of that process. Every week six locomotives are completed… six gleaming, shiny powerhouses…

 
A shiny new locomotive, ready to be tested on GE’s test track…

My invite to GE Manufacturing Solutions came with their #GEInstaWalk program – which opens some of GE’s state-of-the-art facilities to Instagram photographers and fans. This was the third InstaWalk to be held, the first being at GE Aviation’s jet engine testing facility in Peebles, OH, and the second was to see the two GE wind turbines at the Cape Cod Air Force Facility in Massachusetts. Each event was a unique opportunity for the attendees to get a VIP experience “behind-the-scenes” of some amazing technology.

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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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Behind the scenes of the Alaska Railroad…

Over the past few weeks we’ve gotten a chance to check out the best that the Alaska Railroad has to offer – from its most attractive scenery to some of its rarer routes, we’ve covered a lot of ground. Part of the awesomeness of the NRHS convention was that we got to see some “behind the scenes” stuff that most rail passengers never get to see. The Alaska Railroad was undoubtedly a generous host, opening not just their rail system to us, but their operations center and even their locomotive shops.

I won’t include a whole lot of commentary with this post, and I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. If you ever wanted to get a “behind the scenes” view of the Alaska Railroad, we’ll take a quick tour of their operations center, check out the view from a few of their locomotives, visit the car facilities and of course, the locomotive shops. And yes, I ran all around with my trusty fish-eye lens… because I could!

  
 
 
From this perch one can monitor the activities of the Alaska Railroad…

 
  

Shall we take some equipment out for a spin?

 
Inside DMU #751 – “Chugach Explorer”

 
   

The Alaska Railroad’s finest railcar, the Denali, is luxury on the rails. Built in 1929 and refurbished by the Alaska Railroad, the car features only the fanciest materials – bronze, crystal, mahogany, and marble. The railcar contains a sitting area, a “boardroom”, a kitchen, as well as a bedroom and bathroom (which is probably nicer than the one in your own home).

  

Railcars used by various cruise companies are also stored and maintained here.

 
  
  
Some of the various equipment stored outside…

 
   
  
   
  
 
 
The car facilities and locomotive shops… that’s what you really wanted to see, isn’t it?

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Spuyten Duyvil


View of the railroad tracks near Spuyten Duyvil in 1890.

When coming up with superlatives for the Hudson Line, people generally cite it as Metro-North’s most attractive line. I, on the other hand, like to think of it as the most frequently misspelled. It is the Hudson Line that has stations like “Phillip’s Manor” and “Pokipse,” and, of course, the one that takes the cake – “Spitendivel.” Today’s tour takes us to the (correctly spelled) Spuyten Duyvil, a station about 10 miles north of Grand Central Terminal in the Bronx. Considering that it is a station that is frequently misspelled, as well as rather attractive, it seems to be a good representation of the Hudson Line.


Stock certificate for the Spuyten Duyvil and Port Morris Railroad Company

As I am sure you could gather, the name Spuyten Duyvil is clearly not from the English language. The name derives from the Dutch Spuitende Duivel, which means spouting devil. First bestowed on the creek nearby, the name was later adopted for the train station as well. Historically, there was also a railroad that bore the name – the Spuyten Duyvil and Port Morris Railroad Company. It was leased to, and later incorporated into the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, which allowed that road to connect with the Harlem Railroad at Mott Haven.


Spuyten Duyvil station in 1958.


1975 view near Spuyten Duyvil.

I don’t think there is really too much else to say about Spuyten Duyvil, other than the fact that it really is an interesting spot. Located right on the water, you can watch the Circle Line and other boats sail up and down the river. Right above your head is the Henry Hudson bridge, which provides an interesting vista very much unlike any other Metro-North station. Just north of the station is an old rail tower that is no longer used, which is visible in a few of my photos from the station. Also north of the station is where Amtrak diverges, and the tracks cross the river via a swing bridge which is visible from the platform. The swing bridge is definitely interesting to watch, it opens and closes somewhat frequently to accommodate around 30 trains that pass over it every day.


Aerial view of Spuyten Duyvil. The Henry Hudson bridge as well as Amtrak’s Spuyten Duyvil swing bridge are visible. If you look closely you can just make out the Metro-North platform under the bridge.

Anyways, that is all I’ve got for today and Spuyten Duyvil. I must insert a shameless plug here – if you like the historical photos I post along with these Tuesday Tours, you should totally like us on Facebook (if you haven’t already). I’ve been posting a bunch of old photos on there, and I promise something pretty interesting will be happening over there within the next month (shh, it’s a surprise!).

 
   
 
  
 
 
 
  
 
 
  
 
 
  
 
 

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Breakneck Ridge


Penn Central locomotive passes by Breakneck Ridge in 1971.

Though Metro-North is primarily a commuter railroad, there are a few station stops throughout the system that break that mold. Mount Pleasant is a limited-service station on the Harlem Line, adjacent to several cemeteries. In addition, there are three other limited-service stations that are primarily for hikers: Appalachian Trail, Manitou, and the subject of today’s tour – Breakneck Ridge. Located 55 miles from Grand Central, Breakneck Ridge lies in the un-electrified territory of the Hudson Line. Similar to Appalachian Trail, no weekday trains stop here – but on weekends and holidays two trains in either direction make stops.


20th Century Limited passes by Bannerman Castle, just north of Breakneck Ridge

Although the name Breakneck Ridge might be a bit off-putting, the hike does offer beautiful views of the Hudson. Located just north of the station is Bannerman Castle, which only adds to the scenery. To the south is one of several tunnels on the Hudson Line – the aptly named Breakneck tunnel. Both of those landmarks may overshadow the actual Breakneck Ridge station, for there is not much here at all. The northbound side, meant for disembarking passengers, consists of only a small wooden platform. The southbound side is a bit more interesting, as it contains a small pedestrian overpass. From there you can look out and see the Hudson, or descend the stairs to another wooden platform from where you can board a train and be whisked back to the city.


Landmark numero uno – Passing through the Breakneck Tunnel, just south of Breakneck Ridge station. 1993 photograph by Jim Kleeman on Flickr.


One of my favorite photographs by Frank English, former Metro-North photographer, taken just north of Breakneck Ridge in order to capture Bannerman Castle.

Though not really part of the station, just beyond the overpass to the southbound platform is a small lookout. It is from here that you will get a lovely view – without having to exert yourself in hiking the ridge. Pollepel Island, home to the aforementioned Bannerman Castle, is in plain view from here, as well as the river and Storm King mountain. Much of the Hudson Line itself is quite picturesque, but the area surrounding Breakneck Ridge station is especially so. The views are certainly worth the visit, even if you aren’t planning on riding the train.

  
 
 
  
 
 
  
 
  
 
  
 
   
 

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Philipse Manor


Aerial view of Philipse Manor station, the Hudson Line, and the Hudson River. [image credit]

Our next stop on the Hudson Line is the kind of station that makes me glad I started this exploratory tour two years ago. While there are certainly some very boring, or at least run-of-the-mill, Metro-North stations (many of which I’ve shown you), this is certainly not one of them. Comprised of a lovely combination of history, art, and of course, trains, Philipse Manor is definitely one of the nicer stations I’ve visited.

Similar to many other stations on the line, Philipse Manor overlooks the picturesque Hudson River. Besides the old New York Central-built station building (now occupied by the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center), the platform is guarded over by a large cast-iron eagle. Astute commuters may notice it bears a strong resemblance to the eagle perched over Grand Central Terminal, and rightly so, for these brothers were two of many stationed over the original Grand Central Depot.

  

1988 photographs of Philipse Manor. In one of the images you can see the platform sign listing the station as “Philipse Manor, North Tarrytown.”

Located 26.5 miles north of Grand Central, Philipse Manor station is situated in the middle of Westchester county, in the village of Sleepy Hollow – formerly known as North Tarrytown. That name change was fairly recent, even in the early Metro-North days there was a platform sign that listed the station as Philipse Manor, North Tarrytown. The station consists of two side platforms surrounding four tracks. The original station building, which overlooks the platforms, is no longer used by the railroad.

 

Though the Philipse Manor station may now be home to the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, artists of all variety seem to frequent the place. The above watercolor of the old station is by Karl Tanner. The lower station sketch by Linda Hejduk is regularly featured in Writers’ Center newsletters.

Over the years so many old depots have been demolished that whenever I hear about a restored historical station, I have to admit, I get a little bit excited. While it is lovely that there are three stations on the Harlem Line that have survived and now house Starbucks, there are a few uses for old train stations that I think fit a bit better – like a library. The old station at Philipse Manor might not be a library, but it is home to the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. Besides the area being the stomping grounds of the headless horseman of American literary folklore, a historical station seems like a fitting place for artists and writers.


Architectural sketch of Philipse Manor station, created while the station was being restored.

Built circa 1910, Philipse Manor station was constructed into a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. Although one could once enter the station, descend some stairs and exit out of the basement to reach the platform, the lower portion of the station has now been closed off. The arches that provided ingress and egress are still visible on the platform, however. The majority of the station, built in the Tudor revival style, is constructed of rusticated granite, though there is some stucco and wooden trim visible.

Many old stations fall into disrepair over the years, and Philipse Manor was no exception. The station was restored in the early 90’s by Bond Street Architecture, at a cost of around $800,000. Emergency repairs on the roof and stabilization of the building’s frame was completed in 1992, and a full restoration effort began in 1995. The new home of the Writers’ Center opened to the public in 1996. The efforts to restore the station earned the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center the Excellence in Preservation Award in 2005.

   
  
  

Joseph Cavalieri with his Arts for Transit piece, installed at Philipse Manor. [image credit]

A more recent addition to Philipse Manor is visible in the station overpass. Many Hudson Line stations have undergone recent repair work, including renovations to the station overpasses. When the overpass at Philipse Manor was repaired some lovely stained glass was also included, as part of the Arts for Transit program. The piece was designed by local artist Joseph Cavalieri, and is titled North, South and Home. It is comprised of six panels of faceted glass, each measuring 33 by 42 inches. As I am sure @MetroNorthHaiku would appreciate, the text written across the panels is in fact a haiku:

A gentle Hudson
whistle begins my journey
north, and south and home

The piece was fabricated by Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, which made the glass for Scarborough, and several other MTA stations. Many of the recent Arts for Transit pieces installed at Metro-North stations have been in the medium of stained glass, and I think North, South and Home is one of my favorites, along with the piece at Mount Vernon East.

Hopefully you enjoyed touring Philipse Manor as much as I have! There will, of course, be more Hudson Line touring next week. Until then, here are the remainder of the photos I took at Philipse Manor – including a panorama of the station platform and one of the original Grand Central Depot eagles.

 
  
  
 
   
   
 
  
  

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Riding South Africa’s Premier Classe Train, Part 2

In my previous post, I gave a little bit of preliminary information about the Premier Classe train journey that I took in South Africa. Before I continue, perhaps I should share with you a few facts about the infrastructure of the rails in South Africa – things I wasn’t aware of when I made my journey.

• The Passenger Rail Association of South Africa (PRASA) operates both the Metrorail (commuter rail in urban areas) and Shosholoza Meyl (regional and long distance trains). The Premier Classe falls under the Shosholoza Meyl.

• 40% of PRASA’s fleet of trains are more than 37 years old. One third of the fleet is “constantly out of service, leading to poor performance, safety and reliability.”

• 86% of PRASA’s signaling installations have exceeded their design life.

• For freight service, “derailments have led to costly delays… The average cancellation of trains amounts to 10 trains per day due to accidents and other security incidents such as theft of copper cables.”

To make a long story short, the infrastructure and equipment being used by the railroads in South Africa is not that great. Much of the equipment is outdated, and additional difficulties are caused by theft, or as I was told, even by people leaving junk on the tracks. The eight hour delay my journey suffered is probably closer to the norm than a random fluke. So, provided you are prepared for some obnoxious delays (don’t plan anything for the day you are supposed to arrive – I missed my tour of Johannesburg!), I probably would recommend the Premier Classe train to any railfans that may be pondering a visit to South Africa. There is absolutely no way a plane ride can compete with the amazing views you will see from the train. And you will see it all – the gorgeous mountains surrounding Cape Town, farms as far as the eye can see, wineries, and even more less savory things.

Cape Town has the dubious honor of having quite a financial disparity between its citizens – from the sprawling mansions along the beach to the shack settlements on the outskirts of the city. And from the train, you will see various shack settlements – homes constructed from whatever scraps of corrugated metal could be found, with the roof scraps held in place by an array of heavy rocks or bricks. Perhaps you’ll even see some of the settlement’s younger denizens pelting the train with rocks. In fact, some of the things I saw are even difficult to put into words – folks using the tracks as a toilet, billowing black smoke from burning tires, and even the aforementioned children running around with flaming bits of wood in hand, with various patches of grass aflame (in case you think I was exaggerating, I do have one photo of the burning grass). Even the destroyed remnants of a freight train derailment littered the sides of the tracks at one point.

If my goal was to sell you on the Premier Classe, I think thus far I’ve failed… in fact, you probably are scared for your life. Did I mention gorgeous mountains? Beautiful sunsets? And hell, if your train is as late as mine was, you might even see TWO sunsets! Your train, zooming through the late afternoon sun, may race with the wild ostriches right outside your window. And of course you can glimpse all of this while stuffing your face in the dining car. Four-course lunches and five-course dinners are the standard on the Premier Classe. And if there is one thing that South Africans know how to do well, it is to feed the tourists. If the food on the train sucked, I’d probably be pretty pissed off. Need I say again, eight hours late? I was less than thrilled. But how can one stay mad when being fed tasty chocolate cake – with ice cream to boot?


A shitty photo of what tasty cake may look like

 
  
 
 
   
 
   
  
 
  
 
  
 
  

Well, that pretty much concludes my set of photos from the Premier Classe. Perhaps next week I’ll post some photos of the train that I didn’t ride in Zimbabwe. And if you don’t mind the off-topic, some lions and elephants and such.

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Riding South Africa’s Premier Classe Train, Part 1

Back in the days of Imperialism, where Africa was carved up and occupied by various European nations, there was a man by the name of Cecil Rhodes that had a dream. And it wasn’t exactly tricking the world into thinking diamonds are incredibly rare (though as the founder of the diamond company DeBeers – he had a significant role in that), it was the dream of a railway stretching across Africa. Rhodes’ dream – the Cape to Cairo Railway – was never realized. Though portions of it were built, the British colonies never achieved a direct line from Egypt down to South Africa. Today, some tourist agencies offer Cape to Cairo rail tours, taking the train on the pieces of rail that do exist, and either flying or busing over the parts that don’t. I think this is what first captured my interest about Africa, and I decided I would love to go ride the trains there. The only difficulty was that these train tours (specifically Cape to Cairo) were extravagantly expensive – some of them costing more than my yearly salary. Sticking to one country, South Africa, was probably my best bet. Enter the Premier Classe train.

The rail route between Cape Town and Johannesburg for tourists is serviced by a few different companies. Both the Blue Train and Rovos Rail are quite fancy – and with their one way ticket price of around two to three-thousand dollars, well out of my price range. The Premier Classe, however, is still a bit fancy with with five-course dinners and such, but has a ticket price of around three-hundred dollars. I pretty much booked my trip entirely around the Premier Classe train, which has two departures weekly, and it was supposed to be the highlight of my trip. Instead, it was a massive frustration.

I have a bit of difficulty in retelling my experiences on the Premier Classe. Did I enjoy it? Was the food good? How were the accomodations? Well yes, the train was enjoyable, the food was amazing, and the accommodations were pretty good. If the train wasn’t about eight hours late, it probably would have been a spectacular journey! I never got to see anything in Johannesburg (beyond the airport) – as the train was so late we missed our tour. I thought I’d at least be able to walk around the train station and take photos while waiting for the train, but I was told that first of all, it probably wasn’t safe, and secondly, my camera would be quickly confiscated by the rifle-carrying police officers roaming around the station.


In Cape Town began the game of people attempting to determine how my friend and I were related. Though friends and coworkers were never suggested, there were a few people that thought we were either sisters, lesbians, or even mother and daughter. In the case of the Premier Classe, they just thought my friend was actually a guy.

Cape Town station wasn’t exceptionally beautiful – probably a bit too sterile white for my taste – but there were some gorgeous tile mosaics on the floor and walls. The outside had a few mosaics of early trains, horsecars and omnibuses, one of which I did manage to get a photo of. Since I have so many photos of the journey, I’ll be doing two parts. This first part appropriately shows the first part of the journey from Cape Town.

  
 
  
 
 
   
  
 
  

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Tuesday Tour of the Harlem Line: Bedford Hills


Old postcard view of Bedford Station, as it was known at the time

Back in the 1800’s when the New York and Harlem Railroad was steadily marching northward through Westchester County, today’s Bedford Hills station was known merely as Bedford. Later the hamlet where the depot resided was referred to as Bedford Station (but still a part of the town of Bedford). It was only in the early 1900’s that the place was renamed Bedford Hills. Located about 39 miles north of Grand Central, the small station retains much of its old charm. The old depot still stands, and it even has the old style name sign. Unlike many other Harlem Line stations that have been converted into businesses, the station building at Bedford Hills is not used by a coffee shop or eatery. Instead it is occupied by Mark’s Time, which seems like a perfect fit, considering the joint histories of railroading and timekeeping.

If I am not mistaken, Bedford Hills is the last station in Westchester to be featured as part of the tour of the Harlem Line. There are just a few more stations to be featured before the tour is complete. Anybody out there have any suggestions as to where I should go and photograph after the tour has been completed? I think I have a few votes from people who want me to do the same thing I’ve done for the Harlem Line for the New Haven Line. Let me know your thoughts with a comment!

 
  
   
 
  
 
  
  
 

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Taking the Grand Tour: A Review of Grand Central’s New Audio Tour

Observant commuters may have noticed something new in Grand Central in November – a little booth by the ticket windows labeled Audio Tours. Or you might have seen it mentioned in the Mileposts, or perhaps in a poster on your train or at your station? Either way there is a new way to tour Grand Central – and I’m not talking about a giant tour group where you have to strain to hear the tour guide. Grand Central now has an official self-guided audio tour. While I was at Grand Central the other day I took the time to give the tour a shot – a review of sorts.

 
Audio tour booth, Metro North employee Patrick mans the booth during my visit

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. I know a lot about Grand Central, and I figured that I wouldn’t learn anything new. But I was a tad curious to know what would be included in a tour of Grand Central, and how it would be described. There are a lot of things I know about the history of the place. And I am also aware that there are folks in the hardcore railfan community that are of the opinion that there have been some… shall we say, anecdotal embellishments added into the lore of the Terminal. But there is just so much that can be said about the history of this building, what exactly do you say to fit into an hour, and what parts do you leave out?


Handheld device for the audio tour

I must admit though, I enjoyed the tour. The technology used is great. If you don’t want to borrow the device and headset for the tour you can download it to your own mp3 player – or at least you’re supposed to. I’ve been unable to purchase it on the website, not to mention it lists the prices only in Euros, which irrelevant if the company that made the tour may be foreign, it just looks poor in a US market. The actual devices that you can borrow for the tour are not only audio devices, they have a small screen in which to show a photo of where you currently are on the tour. I love the fact that it really is a self guided tour – you enter the number of the location you currently are in to hear about it. If you don’t want to hear about it, you can always skip that location. Or you can go in whichever order you please. Plus if you want to learn more about something, you can hit the green button. You can customize the whole thing and do whatever you want to.

Plenty of important places are described on the tour – from the obvious 42nd Street façade, to the clock and sky ceiling to the somewhat lesser known whispering gallery, spiral staircase in the information booth, and the walkways in between the glass panels. I loved that there were mentions of the 20th Century Limited, as well as Jackie Kennedy and the fight to save Grand Central. There were also plenty of things that I thought the tour could mention, but didn’t. Since the tour sends you outside anyways to see the façade, why not make another outdoor stop to see the majestic eagle – older than the Terminal itself – which once stood on the original Grand Central Depot? I also don’t recall hearing anything about William Wilgus. Wilgus was the railroad’s chief engineer, and the conceptual mastermind behind Grand Central. The tour briefly mentions that the Terminal ushered in the era of electric trains, but fails to mention why – and this is important! Would the railroad have undertaken such a massive project if steam locomotives were not banned on Manhattan island? Would the massively expensive project have been considered if not for Wilgus’ concept of air rights, of covering over the formerly open-cut railroad tunnels and building on it to recoup expenses and make money?

The tour does fall more on the side of artistic/architectural than railfan. But just the fact that the purpose of the building is for servicing rail, I think more of that rail history ought to be thrown in. What makes Grand Central a great railroad station, and not just a pretty building? (and I am talking more about dual levels and loop tracks, as opposed to ramps, which were mentioned)

 
Eagle originally from Grand Central Depot

For the most part the main narration of the tour was great. It was informal, like you were listening to an actual tour guide as opposed to reading one of the many books on the subject of Grand Cental. There were amusing little anecdotes thrown in, like the person asking the person at the information booth where to rent a horse. A lot of the extra details and stories on the “secrets” were recited by Dan Brucker… and I mean no insult to Dan, but there were times where it was tiresome to listen to his voice. He spoke loud and slow, perhaps as one would speak to a non-english speaker, hoping that over-enunciating words will help them understand. “This. Is. Not. A. STA-TION. It. Is. A. TER-MI-NAL. Be-cause trains. TER-MI-NATE. Here.” Now although I’ve never formally met Dan Brucker, I’ve overheard him doing tours. He is animated and it is obvious that he loves this place. But I don’t think that gets through in the tour. (Sorry Dan, please don’t be insulted, I’d still love for you to give me a tour any day!)

One option on the tour, which I believe was called Visual Experience has not been completed yet. The device mentioned that it is being worked on and will include clips from shows filmed in Grand Central. I hope they’re talking about audio clips and not video clips, because even though the device has the capacity for video the screen is so small. And if I had a hard time seeing what was in the tiny picture, then I am certain the little old ladies that took the tour right before me would have a major difficulty. Something on the other hand that might actually work would be a small companion brochure or booklet that accompanies the tour. Right now you just get a big clunky sheet of laminated paper with a map, which you can’t keep. I’m sure tourists would love something that can actually be kept. If cost is a prohibitive issue I’m sure an extra dollar or two could be charged for the nicer booklet.

Well, this certainly turned out to be the long-winded review. Basically it comes down to this:
Do I recommend the tour? Yes. The tour is ideal for people that enjoy the architecture and might not know a lot about Grand Central. If you know a lot about the place you’re probably not going to get as much out of it, but you’ll still probably enjoy it.
Did I learn anything on the tour? Yes. Somehow I had never even noticed the mural on the ceiling of the Graybar Passage.

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