Springtime Exploration: The Beacon Line

As April has now arrived, we look forward to the spring, to warmer weather, and lovely green leaves on the trees. It seems, as well, like a decent time to explore some of the lesser-known railroad infrastructure in the area. Most regular riders of Metro-North are familiar with the railroad’s three main lines running into Grand Central Terminal – the Harlem, Hudson, and New Haven Lines. Others may be aware of two other lines on the west side of the Hudson River that Metro-North also owns – the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley Lines – which are operated by New Jersey Transit. But far fewer are familiar with Metro-North’s sixth line – the Beacon Line. Purchased in 1995 by Metro-North, the line has been, for the most part, inactive since. Occasional excursions, equipment moves and storage, and maintenance with hi rail vehicles, have all taken place, albeit infrequently. Though the rails itself may not be in use, running along parts of the line is fiber optic cabling that is integral to Metro-North operations.

Map of the Beacon Line
Map of the Beacon Line showing the locations of the photos in this post, as well as the two historical rail lines.

Last fall the Beacon Line made the news as the MTA has issued a “Request for Expressions of Interest” regarding “all or part” of the line. The RFEI will be used to gauge interest in the line, and to see what people would actually want to do with it – but it is worth noting that the RFEI was strictly for informational purposes, it was not a formal Request for Proposals. Since the request closed last year, we’ve heard little from Metro-North about the proposals submitted and what anyone’s ideas for the line were. Any serious rail project would be difficult on the Beacon Line, and likely expensive. While Metro-North has not let the line become completely overgrown – weed spraying, fallen tree removal, and other minor maintenance happens occasionally – it isn’t in the best shape. Many bridges are in rough shape, needing costly maintenance. Years of people using the line as an ATV trail has led to severe degradation of the railroad ties, and in many cases the rails are old and in need of replacement.

Beside the condition of the line, making money on it would be another difficulty. Multiple studies have been performed in terms of reactivating all or some parts of the Beacon Line for passenger use, and all have pretty much determined that it is not economically feasible. One of the more promising ideas would be to operate a shuttle from Danbury to Southeast on the Harlem Line, a plan that was amusingly championed by politicians in upper Westchester County who would much prefer those Connecticut commuters to not come over to their stations on the Harlem Line (I’m looking at you, Katonah). Upon formal study, several difficulties were noted with the idea – the major one being the way that trains from the Beacon Line merge with the Harlem Line. With the current track alignment, any train coming from Danbury would be facing north when coming onto the Harlem Line, the wrong direction from Southeast station. Either the train crew would have to “change ends” and the train would go the opposite direction (which would take too much time due to procedural requirements like a brake test), or a wye track would have to be installed allowing the train to turn south onto the Harlem Line (difficult, as the land around the junction is protected wetlands, and would likely have to be acquired through eminent domain).

In the end, nothing may actually come out of this whole RFEI process besides calling attention to the nearly abandoned Beacon Line. I thought it might be an interesting time to take a little virtual tour of the line, as I’ve visited and photographed various portions on both sides – Brewster and Beacon. The two sides designation is somewhat important, as even though the line may be seen as one whole today, historically the Beacon Line is made up of two previous railroads. The eastern part of the Beacon Line that runs from Connecticut to Hopewell Junction is the former Maybrook Line. As one would expect, that line ran through Maybrook, New York and crossed the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie. After the fire on the Poughkeepsie Bridge in 1974, the portion of the Maybrook to Hopewell Junction was abandoned, and today is a rail trail. The western portion of the line, from Beacon to Hopewell Junction, was originally part of the Newburgh, Dutchess and Connecticut Railroad, later called the Beacon Secondary. The rest of the ND&C, which went beyond Hopewell into Millbrook, Pine Plains, Millerton, and Connecticut, had been abandoned in stages in the 20’s and 30’s.

Junction with the Harlem Line & the Ice Pond

The start of our explorations begin where the Harlem and Beacon Lines meet, a little less than halfway between Southeast and Patterson. As mentioned previously, there is no wye here, so it would be difficult to run trains from the Beacon south along the Harlem toward Brewster without a time consuming changing of ends. The lines meet and then diverge again, running along either side of the Ice Pond. Just beyond that body of water, the Beacon Line crosses over the Harlem Line and continues west, while the Harlem continues north. Here is the domain of fishermen, who spend entire weekend days with their pickups parked alongside the line.

Meeting the Harlem Line

Meeting the Harlem Line Meeting the Harlem Line

Sometimes the Beacon Line is used for storage

The lines meet The Beacon continues

Minimal maintenance includes cutting of fallen trees POND block The Ice Pond

Along the Beacon Line Along the Beacon Line

The line around Ice Pond is used by fisherman

Approaching the Ice Pond POND block Ice Pond Preserve info

Along the Ice Pond Looking across the Ice Pond to the Harlem Line

From the Harlem Line one can see where the Beacon Line crosses over

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Tuesday Tour of the Hudson Line: Highbridge

If there was one station that missed in our three year long tour of Metro-North’s system, it would likely be Highbridge. Although in the past it was a station open to public access, today it is an employee-only station, complete with a small platform and overpass, and many of the same amenities one would expect from a regular Metro-North station. I figured today might be a good day to check out this station that is normally off limits to the public, especially since High Bridge has been in the news recently.

The famous High Bridge
The famous High Bridge, New York City’s oldest bridge.

The facility here is, of course, named after the Aqueduct Bridge, or better known as High Bridge. The bridge’s roots stretch all the way back to 1848, making it the oldest bridge in New York City. As one would gather from its original name, the bridge was an important part of the Croton Aqueduct, supplying New York City with fresh water. Originally a stone arch bridge, five of the arches were replaced with one steel arch in 1928 to allow easier water navigation under the bridge. By this time the bridge was largely obsolete, and no longer carrying water – however it did serve a secondary purpose as a pedestrian crossing. That crossing was closed in the 1970s, until it was recently reopened last month after many years of restoration. From the newly reopened pedestrian crossing, one can get quite a good view of what is now a Metro-North railroad facility below.

  
 
  
   
  

The view from the newly reopened High Bridge

Today, Highbridge is where you will find Metro-North’s Car Appearance Facility, where both interior and exteriors of train cars are cleaned. Highbridge is one of three Metro-North washing facilities, and it possesses state-of-the-art brushes and sprayers that use 280 gallons of water per minute – 200 gallons of which are recycled, making it more environmentally friendly. 20 cars can be cleaned every shift, and each car gets this full treatment about every 60 days. The washing is completely computerized, and does not require an operator.

Highbridge Car Wash
Heading into the Highbridge car wash. Photo by Paul Pesante.

In addition to the appearance facility, Highbridge provides storage tracks for trains that is close to the city. While in days gone past, the New York Central used Mott Haven for this purpose, most of Mott Haven’s tracks were ripped out long ago. Highbridge has stepped up to fill that gap, which will especially be needed due to the East Side Access project, where Metro-North needed to give up quite a few storage tracks in Grand Central in order to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to the east side.

The original passenger station at High Bridge
The original passenger station at High Bridge in 1961. Photo by Ed Davis, Sr., from the collection of David Pirmann. By the 1970s the station had some scheduled trains, while on others it was listed as a flag stop.

Other noteworthy details about Highbridge are that you can see some old remnants of the New York Central’s Putnam Division here – Highbridge was a point of transfer between the Hudson and Putnam Divisions. It is also where the Oak Point Link joins with the Hudson Line, permitting freights to avoid the bottleneck of Mott Haven to get to Oak Point Yard.

The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link
The evening CSX garbage train waits at Highbridge after coming on to the Hudson Line from the Oak Point Link

Anyway, let’s take a quick behind-the-scenes glimpse of Metro-North’s official employee station at Highbridge… the only place we neglected on our original tour of the Hudson Line.

 
  
 
  
 
  

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Trains & Modern Photography: Stitching and Panoramas

If you’re a frequent viewer of this site, then the subject of today’s Trains & Modern Photography post is something you’re probably familiar with – panoramas. The most generic definition of a panorama is an wide view of an area, in which you can see in all directions. For my Metro-North Panorama Project, I used the definition loosely, featuring at least one photo per station that used the technique of stitching, thus giving the viewer a photo that provided a far wider view than one could capture in a single photo’s frame. Using modern technology like Photoshop, one can take multiple photos around a central axis point – either on a tripod, or by standing in the same spot and rotating your body, while holding the camera at the same angle for each shot – and combine them. This technique is called stitching, and is one of the most common methods of getting high quality and high resolution panoramas.

If this is a technique you’ve always been interested in trying out, or you’re just curious to see how exactly one makes a panorama (especially one featuring a train) – from camera to computer – read on.
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