header

The Electrification of Grand Central, and Metro-North’s Third Rail

Over the past few years this site has significantly delved into the history of Grand Central Terminal and how it came to be. We’ve talked about the Park Avenue Tunnel wreck that led to the banning of steam locomotives in Manhattan – considered one of the catalysts for building the new all-electric Terminal. We’ve also talked about the power plants established to provide the electricity to power the trains operating to Grand Central. But somehow along the way, we’ve neglected to discuss the integral bit of tech that delivered the electricity to the trains in Grand Central, and is still used today – the third rail.

After the recent, tragic crash on the Harlem Line, the topic of third rail has become a talking point in the media. For those not exceptionally familiar with railroading (who have been frequenting the site as of late), electric trains can be powered by various methods, and most railroad systems picked one method of power for their road. Since Metro-North is made up of two historical railroad systems – the New York Central, and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford – you will not find just one method of powering electric trains here. One common type of power, which is seen on the New Haven Line, is the overhead catenary system. Wires above the train carry electricity, and trains have special “arms” called pantographs that reach up and connect with these wires.

Drawing of the bottom contact third rail, from the patent documentation.
Drawing of the bottom contact third rail invented by William Wilgus and Frank Sprague, from the patent documentation.

The other common method of train power, the third rail, comes in a few different “flavors,” but the concept on each is similar – an extra rail that conducts electricity is placed on the ground, and special shoes on the train connect with it and draw power. The New York City subway and Long Island Railroad, for example, use an over running third rail, where power is collected from the top of the third rail. This is the oldest type of third rail power. Metro-North, however, uses a method of under running third rail, which is also known as bottom contact third rail (or the Wilgus-Sprague system, for its inventors). As one would gather from the name, the power is collected from the bottom of the third rail. This method was especially invented for use in Grand Central Terminal, and was an improvement on the original by inventors William Wilgus (Chief Engineer of the New York Central) and Frank Sprague for safety. It is still used on the Harlem and Hudson Lines today, and is what was involved the recent crash.

Before I continue on, let’s break down some facts about the third rail in Valhalla, and about under running third rail:

  • The railroad tracks running through the area in question have been in service since 1846.
  • Under running third rail has been in service in the New York Metropolitan area since 1906.
  • Third rail in the area in question was installed in 1983 when the Harlem Line was electrified to Southeast (then Brewster North).
  • Over running third rail (like the LIRR uses) is the oldest type of third rail. Under-running third rail was developed later as a safer methodology, as it was less likely to electrocute a worker or trespasser, and better covered from rain, snow, and ice.
  • The original NYC subway (IRT) used the older version of third rail because the under running variety had not been invented yet. The Long Island Rail Road followed suit when electrifying due to connections / planned connections with the subway.
  • The same year that under running third rail was patented, the legislature of the State of Connecticut banned unprotected third rail technology after several people / animals were electrocuted. The whole concept of under running third rail was that the rail was protected, and thus considered far more safe.
  • In modern usage, under running third rail seems appears overwhelmingly safer in comparison to over running. The subway and LIRR have had far more deaths in this manner – from numerous trackworkers, to people walking across the tracks, falling on the tracks, graffiti artists getting zapped, people trying to rescue dropped items, and even peeing on the third rail. Over the five year period from 2002 to 2006, one person was electrocuted by Metro-North’s third rail, while six were electrocuted by the Long Island Rail Road’s.
  • The over running third rail used by the LIRR and subway are far more effected by rain, snow, and ice. Even a dropped umbrella onto the tracks managed to shut down the 7 line recently.
  • Metro-North is not the only transit system to use under-running third rail. One line in Philadelphia uses it. Historically, a tunnel from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario used it, but that line was de-electrified. Transit systems in Vienna, Warsaw, Sao Paulo (and more) use under-running third rails.
  • Few systems using under-running third rail means nothing about the soundness of the technology. It is only a legacy holdover to a country once comprised of many different railroad companies, each of which picked the technology best suited for them. The lines that comprise Metro-North were not even a unified system until 1969, which is why different modes of electrification are used across the system.
  • While Chuck “Photo op” Schumer and Richard “Stolen Valor” Blumenthal would prefer to blame a third-rail design that has worked successfully for well over a hundred years, and is safer than the one used by our neighbors, the fact of the matter is that this accident would have 100% been prevented by better driver vigilance and abiding the sign “Do not stop on tracks.”

(more…)

Read More

harlemlift1

Bridges of Metro-North: The Harlem River Lift Bridge

Throughout the entire Metro-North system there are an array of movable bridges – bridges which as of recently seem to be a thorn in the rail system’s side. Much of the infrastructure on these bridges are old and prone to issues. Thankfully, updates are going on to get these bridges in better working order, and we’ll be taking visits to some of the more prominent bridges in the system in the next few weeks.

Today we feature the busiest bridge on the entire system, the Harlem River Lift Bridge. At sixty years old the bridge is not nearly as old as the issue-plagued WALK bridge, but it by far sees the most action, carrying nearly 700 trains per day for all three East of Hudson Metro-North lines. Over the past few months work has been moving along on the bridge – installing new cables that lift the tracks over the river for passing boats, and putting in new wiring, power supplies, and electrical control systems. Below the bridge a circuit breaker room that flooded during Hurricane Sandy and is experienced corrosion will be replaced. Gone will be an old crank control, updated to today’s standards with modern computers. In total, the overhaul has a $47.2 million price tag.

Previous railroad bridge over the Harlem River
The 1867 bridge over the Harlem River, note the construction of a temporary bridge to allow a new 1891 span to be constructed on the main line. Image from the December 1892 Scientific American.

Historically, several previous movable bridges stood at this very spot, carrying the New York Central over the Harlem River. The first bridge over the river was completed in 1841, and stood a mere eight feet over the water at high tide. Made of wood, that bridge was later updated with iron spans in 1867. Later, a four track swing bridge was built in 1891. This bridge connected with the new Park Avenue viaduct, raising the tracks above Harlem and allowing a higher crossing over the river.

(more…)

Read More

Meet TIM – Metro-North’s new credit card enabled Ticket Issuing Machine

As most of you have likely heard by now, Metro-North has begun a pilot program testing new Ticket Issuing Machines (TIMs) on the Upper Harlem Line (or as Metro-North would call it, the Wassaic “Branch”) and the Danbury Branch. The big news about these machines is that they accept credit cards – something conductors selling tickets have long been unable to do.

I got a chance to check out one of these new machines, and must admit they are quite cool. Slim and light compared to the previous TIMs, these new machines are essentially tricked-out iPhones running special software. Wrapped in a blue Metro-North case, the TIM contains an LED barcode scanner (used for scanning the barcode on IDs of delinquents that have neither tickets nor money) and a swipe for credit cards. The special software installed on the phone not only allows conductors to sell tickets, but it also “locks down” the iPhone, preventing it from downloading apps, reading email, and all the other things you wouldn’t want a conductor to do while on duty.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new Metro-North TIM and printer

Similar to the previous TIM, the new TIM connects wirelessly to a printer that can be hung from the belt. This printer provides the customer with a receipt for the ticket they bought. It also provides the conductor at the end of the day a receipt that lists how much they’ve sold, and further breaks that down into cash tickets sold (which needs to be turned in to Metro-North), and how much was sold by credit.

While the majority of Metro-North riders are conditioned to purchase their tickets before boarding, there remains several stations on the Danbury and Waterbury Branches that do not have platform ticket vending machines or ticket sellers. It is there that the new TIM will likely be most welcome. But for those people that race to catch a train and aren’t able to purchase a ticket before boarding, being able to use a credit card is a great convenience.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new TIM features an LED barcode scanner, and a swipe for credit cards

Though much of the fanfare regarding the new TIM focuses on the ability to accept credit cards, it is worth mentioning that the new technology can help out quite a bit when it comes to customer service. One of the main complaints I hear are that customers on trains stuck in delays are not provided with enough information as to what is going on. What most don’t realize, however, is that conductors are often not given information about what is happening. In fact, Metro-North’s text alert system often provides customers with information that crews don’t even know. Because the new TIM is essentially a cell phone, the potential is there to use it to notify conductors about issues – information that can then be relayed to the customers over the train’s PA. Whether the technology will be used in this fashion remains to be seen, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Of course, one must remember that this is only a pilot program. However, I imagine that once the system’s inevitable bugs are worked out, credit card enabled TIMs will soon be popping up on more lines and trains.

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The new TIM’s blue protective case, bearing the Metro-North logo

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
The ticket software is conveniently accessed through this icon of an M7

Metro-North's new TIM (Ticket Issuing Machine)
Three screens of the new TIM – A message sent to the conductor, the screen selling tickets, and a screen showing the phone’s “lockdown” – preventing the iPhone from doing the things most people do with iPhones

Read More

clintonc

The Half-Abandoned Clinton Union Station

Any longtime visitor of this site is well aware of my fascination with abandoned infrastructure – whether it be remains of Chernobyl’s “Radioactive Railroad,” or the inner depths of the long-shuttered Union Station in Gary, Indiana. On a recent visit to Massachusetts, I happened to encounter the old railroad depot in Clinton, and was instantly attracted. Though the abandoned rail tunnel also located in Clinton seems to get more attention than the depot, this old shell of a building that was once undoubtedly beautiful is definitely worth a look.

1888 Boston and Maine Map, highlighting Clinton
Edited and cropped 1888 Boston and Maine Map, highlighting Clinton. Original map from the David Rumsey Collection.

Once straddling the Boston and Maine and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroads, these days the half-abandoned depot watches the occasional Pan Am or CSX train go by. I say half-abandoned, because despite the outer look of abandonment – complete with boarded up windows and graffiti – part of the building is in fact occupied. Because one of the rail lines was elevated, the station was dual level – and it seems that it is this upper level that is in fact abandoned. Below, however, a laundromat and a used clothing shop occupy the space. While the laundromat is quite austere, mixed in among the racks of old clothing in the shop next to it, one can observe the original details of the station – including a door labeled “Baggage”.

(more…)

Read More

hauptbanhof1

A trip to Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof

If you’re looking to visit one of Europe’s historical railroad stations, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof probably isn’t it. Opened in 2006, the city’s “main” or “central” station is a modern mix of rail and commercial space, encased in glass. There is, however, something to be said about the station’s upper floor, with a dome that evokes the train sheds of yesteryear (the glass is, however, thoroughly modern and contains 2700 square meters of solar paneling). While several tracks are located below ground, and there is a U-Bahn station further underground that will transport you to the Reichstag or Brandenburg Gate, the station’s most photogenic spot likely can be found under that dome.

The Lehrter Bahnhof in 1879
The Lehrter Bahnhof in 1879

Historically, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof was constructed on the former site of the Lehrter Bahnhof, which dated back to 1871. Unfortunately, that station was heavily damaged in World War II, and after the partition of Germany – which wreaked havoc on the city’s transportation systems – it was ultimately decided to demolish it. The last train departed the station in August of 1951, and by 1959 the station was completely gone, though the Stadtbahnhof viaducts which ran overhead were preserved.

(more…)

Read More

ubahn5

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.

(more…)

Read More

aero

Jets and Atoms – Powering Bizarre Trains

The annals of history are full of strange and intriguing bits of curiosity, providing plenty of fodder for a blog such as this one. We’ve covered plenty of odd topics on the blog before – from ghost horses to “perfunctory peck spots” – but we’ve never really mentioned any of the New York Central’s more bizarre trains, and they’ve had a few. The king of strange, however, is probably an experimental jet powered train from 1966. I present to you the “Black Beetle:”

Jet powered train

Essentially, the M-497, better known as the “Black Beetle,” is an RDC-3 with a shovel nose to be more aerodynamic, coupled with jet engines of a B-36. Tested in Ohio, it achieved a speed of 183.85 MPH. Eventually, the jets were removed, and the RDC was returned to service, albeit much slower.

Though far more tame than the jet-powered train, it is too difficult for me not to mention the Xplorer, which has always looked a bit comical to me.
(more…)

Read More

A Fiery Centennial – Hartford Union Station

Exactly one hundred years ago, Connecticut was gripped in a frigid and snowy winter, much like the one we are currently experiencing. And exactly one hundred years ago last Friday, Hartford’s Union station was ablaze. On its own, a fire can be pretty devastating enough, but coupled with the snow, firefighters had difficulty getting to the station to put the fire out. Ultimately there were several small explosions, one of which displaced a large section of the roof, pieces of which fell and destroyed the ticket office. The station was heavily damaged, and much of the items in the baggage room – where the fire started – were destroyed.

Hartford Union Station Fire
Hartford Union Station Fire Hartford Union Station Fire
All fire photos are from the Connecticut Historical Society, accessible at CTHistoryOnline.org

Originally constructed in 1889, Hartford’s Union station was built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, which first gained popularity in the Boston area and was used for several stations along the Boston and Albany Railroad. Conceptually designed by local architect George Keller, the bulk of the design work fell to architectural firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, successors of Henry Hobson Richardson (which is where the “Richardsonian” part comes from. Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge also designed a few stations we’ve featured: Chatham, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, Tarrytown). The station featured the typical arches and rusticated stonework characteristic of his style, using stone quarried in Portland, Connecticut.

Hartford Union Station Fire
Hartford Union Station Fire Hartford Union Station Fire

Besides the 100th anniversary of the fire, the station is also celebrating the centennial of its rebirth. The entire building was not completely destroyed by the aforementioned fire, but the roof and interior were both gutted. Though some of the decorative arches at roof level were only slightly damaged, it was decided that the rebuild would not be to the exact specifications of the old station. Roof-level decorative elements were removed, and stonework was repaired – now bearing the date “1914”. The “new” Union Station boasted a full third story, and, as one would imagine, a fireproof roof.

Hartford Union Station Fire
The station after the fire was put out. Note the detail on the roof that no longer exists.

Despite spending the first twenty plus years of my life living in Connecticut, I am mildly embarrassed to admit that I had never visited Hartford’s Union Station until recently. Likewise, I must also admit that I was unaware that Hartford’s Latin motto is Post nubila, phoebus (after clouds, the sun). That motto can be found within the station, above the doors that once led out to the platform, flanked between the past and present of railroading – steam and electric.

Train at Hartford
A northbound train at Hartford in the late 1940s. Note the Capitol visible in the background. [image source]

These days, Hartford is not the hub it once was. No longer are the days where trains were plenty, and it has been many decades since quasi-celebrity citizens like Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe called Hartford home. About twelve trains stop daily at the station, the station is along Amtrak’s Vermonter, and Northeast Regional routes, and is a station stop on the New Haven – Springfield shuttle. Technically trains don’t run from the historical building – Amtrak occupies out of an addition underneath the viaduct carrying the railroad over the city, along with bus operators and a few fast food kiosks. One can, however, enter the addition from the historical depot.

If you’re ever passing through Hartford, the old station is at least worth a look. The stonework and detailing found on the exterior is undoubtedly beautiful, only marred by a few trappings of today – you’ll find security cameras just above decorative elements, and a garish Subway logo above a once more graceful arch. Be sure to check out the artwork at the top of the steps, and keep your eyes peeled for views of the the Capitol building from the platform.

 
  
   
  
   
  
 
 
 
  
 
  
  
 

Read More

A final look at the Alaska Railroad

In 2013 I spent a lot of time talking about the Alaska Railroad – I got a chance to visit Alaska in both February and September, and had quite a few photos (and videos) to share. This post, however, will probably be the last time I talk about Alaska for a while. This is the last set of photos that I’ve not yet posted, for the most part showing the route from Fairbanks to Denali, along with some views of the Alaska Railroad’s passenger coaches and domes.

If you missed any of our previous Alaska posts, here is a complete listing:
February
Alaska Railroad, Part 1
Alaska Railroad, Part 2
The Dalton Highway & Arctic Circle
Chena Hot Springs

September
Alaska Greetings
Seward, Coastal Classic Route
South of Anchorage
Palmer & Airport Branches
The Whittier Tunnel
Fairbanks area
The Anchorage Shops
Tanana Valley Railroad Museum

Someday I’ll probably get back to Alaska, but because of the very few vacation days I get, I’d prefer to go places I’ve never been before. But if Alaska is on your list of “must visit” places – GO! All seasons offer entirely different experiences – from the never-setting sun in summer, to the icy cold aurora viewing in the winter. Despite what you’d probably think, visiting Alaska in the winter isn’t totally crazy if you are adequately prepared (a thermal base layer is essential). In fact, traveling over the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and then visiting the Chena Hot Springs (located about an hour outside of Fairbanks) is actually pretty popular. Popular enough for the Alaska Railroad to be offering additional mid-week trains in March. But trust me, soaking in an outdoor hot spring in negative degree weather is pretty awesome.

Anyway, I won’t regale you with any further Alaska stories. I think all my previous posts do that fairly effectively. As you check out my final glimpses of Alaska, I have my eyes focused at some interesting places in Eastern Europe for later on this year…

 
   
   
  
 
   
  
 
  
   
  
 
   
  
  
 
 

Read More

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…

 
  
   
 
  

   
  
   

   
 
   
  

   
   
  
   
  
   
 
  

Read More