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…)

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The Night of the Bus – North White Plains

I Ride the Harlem Line has never been much of a news website. While we’ll certainly talk about (and give commentary on) current events, we’re not really the place where you should be checking for breaking stories (if such a term hasn’t completely been shot to death by 24-hour news). Therefore, we don’t need to recount to you what happened last week. A truly sad event, that undoubtedly could have been prevented if one followed what ought to be common sense – don’t stop your car on railroad tracks. Ever. Instead, the proud Harlem Line ground to a halt and six people lost their lives.

Departure board at White Plains
By morning, the departure board at White Plains looked like this – all trains originating in Southeast or Wassaic were listed as cancelled.

North White Plains was just one spot where the men and women of Metro-North kept a railroad moving – even when there wasn’t quite a railroad to run. Riders were forced to take buses from North White Plains to Pleasantville and vice versa, bypassing the crash in Valhalla. The station was sufficiently far enough from the crash to hear the constant drone of helicopters swarming over the normally quiet Valhalla, but nonetheless still swarmed with news vans and reporters.

I spent that Wednesday evening in North White Plains, as my husband was one of the employees directing riders onto buses and helping them find their way home (or in the case of many Rangers fans, to the city to see their team win over the Bruins). Here are a few photos from that night…

                 

  
News reporters Greg Mocker of Pix11 (complete with man purse) and ABC7’s Anthony Johnson on scene at North White Plains…


By 7 PM the consist involved in the crash had made the short journey south to North White, and is pushed back into the yard. With that out of the way, workers could spend the night readying the track for a full train service restoration the next morning…

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Monday Morning Old Photos: Scenes on the Upper Harlem

Today’s collection of historical Harlem Division photos features the Upper Harlem… including several crashes that occurred on the line. A huge thanks goes to Ron Vincent, who shared these photos from his family’s collection. Ron’s grandfather worked as an RPO clerk on the Harlem for 36 years. Many of the photos feature the long gone station of Hillsdale, where Ron grew up.

The photos capture an intriguing “slice of life” on the Harlem Division – we see Hillsdale’s station agent, Elliott Hunter, and his wife Marion. We see the occasional crash and derailment that brought gawkers from all around. And we see the softer side of the Harlem, as it hosted the “Plug the Dike Train,” collecting donations for victims of the 1953 North Sea flood. In all, this is a great little set of photos… thanks again for sharing these with us, Ron!

  
 
  
  
   
  
 
  
  

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