Monday, January 24, 2011

The Road To Acela

Amtrak Acela; Holmesburg Junction, Pennsylvania; November 29, 2009
Amtrak's Acela Express has certainly been a success. Since its inception a little more than a decade ago, Amtrak has made significant inroads into the market that has been dominated by the shuttle airlines between Boston, New York and Washington. The Northeast Corridor is the closest the United States has to true high-speed rail.

It was the Pennsylvania Railroad that brought electrification to the railroad between Washington and New York. The Pennsy was just about to merge into the Penn Central (with the New York Central) when it debuted its new high speed Metroliner trains. These self-propelled trainsets raised speeds on the Corridor, and operated through the Penn Central years and into Amtrak in 1971; they were the precursors to the Acela.
Amtrak Metroliner; Perryville, Maryland
The Metroliners were aging, and not gracefully. By the 1990s conventional locomotive-powered trains were holding down Metroliner schedules (and carrying the name as well), while the actual Metroliner cars were bumped to Keystone service between New York, Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Amtrak needed new high-speed trains. But first, in order to capture the Boston market successfully, it had to upgrade the Corridor east of New York, where electric locomotives powered trains to New Haven, Connecticut, and diesels continued east to Boston. Amtrak commenced to stringing wire in anticipation of its new trains.

First, Amtrak had to decide on what it wanted. To get a better idea, it borrowed two trainsets in regular service in Europe. First up was the X2000 from Sweden. Fast and lightweight, the X2000 featured tilt technology that allowed the passenger cars to tilt on curves, countering centrifugal force and allowing for higher speeds on curves (a necessity given the curve-laden nature of the railroad east of New Haven). The X2000 certainly impressed Amtrak as it worked in regular service for several months during 1993.
Amtrak X2000; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; April 28, 1993
The next train to test on Amtrak in regular service was the ICE (Inter City Express) from Germany. While the X2000 was light and nimble, the ICE was brute force with its rapid acceleration. With the two trainsets tested, Amtrak took the best of both worlds, combining the tilt technology of the X2000 with the strength of the ICE. Bombardier was hired to build the new trains, which were called American Flyers while under construction.
Amtrak ICE; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; October 6, 1993
Amtrak Acela; Old Greenwich, Conn.; August 2001
Acela finally made its debut on December 11, 2000. While there have been occasional problems (the entire 20-train Acela fleet was taken out of service briefly in 2002 and again in 2005 for maintenance issues) there is no question that it has been a success. I was fortunate enough to catch the Amtrak test trains (X2000 and ICE) and even rode the cab of the ICE between Trenton and New York and back (it was quite a ride!). When the Acelas entered service the upgrading of the New York-Boston segment hadn't been quite completed -- obviously the wire had been finished from New Haven to Boston, but the older infrastructure between New York and New Haven needed replacing. In August 2001 I was able to get a new Acela trainset passing under decades-old triangular wire on the former New Haven railroad (right).

Some say the Pennsylvania Railroad's classic GG1 locomotives were the best thing to ever run under wire on the Northeast Corridor. It would be foolish to argue otherwise, so I won't. But I will say the Acela trainsets are a worthy successor to the GG1s and make for quite a sight coming down the tracks. Power and speed -- all in a classy package. They have one decade under their belts now and should have another two or three to go.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Southern Steam Specials

Southern Railway (Texas & Pacific) No. 610; Mitchells, Virginia; August 1978
There was no other steam program in the diesel era as ambitious as the program run by the Southern Railway (and later successor Norfolk Southern) starting in the 1960s and running until 1994. A modest program expanded to the point where there were two main line steam powered trips running almost every weekend except in the winter. Over the years I had the chance to see many of the locomotives used by the Southern and NS.

My first encounter with the Southern Steam Program was in August 1978 when I convinced Dad to chase a trip from Alexandria to Charlottesville in Virginia. Power for the trip was leased Texas & Pacific 2-10-4 No. 610 (above), a massive locomotive. This would be the only day I would see 610 under steam.

My first National Railway Historical Society convention was the gathering in Washington, D.C., over Labor Day weekend in 1979. The Southern lacked a fast main line locomotive in its roster, so it turned to a leased engine, Canadian Pacific "Royal Hudson" No. 2839. With its tall drivers and impressive speed, Southern's Master Mechanic-Steam William Purdie commented, "Now I have a locomotive that can outrun the railfans."

Canadian Pacific No. 2839; Orange, Virginia; September 1979
Now that I knew about the Southern program, trips to Alexandria to chase steam became common. In March 1980 I followed Southern 2-8-0 No. 722 as it ran over the Front Royal branch. The 722 was one of the original locomotives in the steam program and its light weight, low drivers and strong pulling power made it the perfect locomotive to pull low-speed trips on the branch lines.

Southern Railway No. 722; Springfield, Virginia; March 29, 1980
In 1981 Southern found itself power-short. The 722 was down and couldn't work the Front Royal branch, so the Southern turned to a privately-owned locomotive -- Jack Showalter's ex-Canadian Pacific 4-6-2 No. 1238 (lettered for Showalter's Allegheny Central). The Southern advertised a photographer's special that year, promising numerous runbys. I tried to get tickets, but the trip sold out so I decided to chase. Somehow the locomotive ran low on coal, so after about two photo stops the rest of the runbys were canceled. The chasers were the winners that day!

Allegheny Central 1238; Linden, Virginia; June 1981
 Canadian Pacific 2839 was soon returned to its owner and the Southern started looking for another high-speed main line locomotive. This time they turned to the Kentucky Railway Museum and discovered ex-Chesapeake & Ohio 2-8-4 No. 2716. Unlike the Royal Hudson, which Southern ran in its Canadian Pacific colors, the 2716 was taken into the Birmingham shops and had its distinctive C&O look changed to a Southern look by Mr. Purdie. I chased one trip with 2716 to Charlottesville, but in 1982 firebox problems sidelined the locomotive for good after a too-brief career. I had the chance many years later to ask Mr. Purdie what his favorite locomotive was in the program and he quickly said, "The 2716."

Southern No. 2716; Culpeper, Virginia; July 1982
 The star of the Southern Steam Program was always 2-8-2 No. 4501. Painted in its apple green, it was the flagship locomotive of the program. Somehow, though, I could never catch up with 4501. A trip to Shenandoah, Virginia, to chase it resulted in chasing diesels substituting for it. Finally, in 1985 I made it to Richmond to chase a trip to Keysville, Virginia. Finally, I had crossed paths with the 4501. It would be the only time I would see her under steam.

Southern Railway No. 4501; Amelia Court House, Virginia; August 1985
In 1982 the Southern Railway merged with the Norfolk & Western to create Norfolk Southern. With the N&W a part of the railroad's legacy, a pair of N&W steam locomotives was added to the mix. Class J 4-8-4 No. 611 was first, and one of the most memorable chases I had with her was in September 1989 on a trip from Roanoke to Walton up Christiansburg Hill. The trip was billed as a recreation of the N&W passenger train Powhattan Arrow and the 611 pulled an all-tuscan red consist -- plus, it carried no water canteen behind the locomotive tender, one of the rare times this happened. One of my favorite shots from that day was of the 611 passing under the coaling tower at Vicker, Virginia.
Norfolk & Western No. 611; Vicker, Virginia; September 1989
The Norfolk Southern Steam Program came to an end in 1994. There are plenty more stories and plenty more photos from those trips, and we'll relate a few of those in the coming months.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Jim Boyd - Bringing Night Photography Out of the Dark

Steamtown U.S.A.; Riverside (Bellows Falls), Vermont; October 1979
Jim Boyd, former editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine, passed away on New Year's Eve 2010. It would probably be fair to say that no other single person influenced the railroad hobby as much as Jim did in the 1970s and 1980s. Through the magazine (which started in 1974) he shaped the rail enthusiast world by bringing steam trips and train chasing and numerous other aspects of the hobby into the mainstream. And while he didn't do anything groundbreaking, what he did do was make some of the mysteries of railroad photography available to the masses through his Camera Bag column and his group night photo sessions.

Ah, the group night photo session. For decades photographers have been taking pictures of trains after dark. And while people like O. Winston Link were doing it on a grand scale with dozens of flashbulbs lighting up entire towns in one big burst of light, there were people who were doing night photography on a smaller scale with maybe a single flash gun. Open flash photography (often called "painting with light") involved locking open the camera's shutter, loading a bulb into the flash gun, firing the flash at a point on the subject being photographed, ejecting the spent bulb, loading a new bulb, moving several feet along the subject and firing the flash at a different point on the subject. Eventually the entire locomotive would have had a flash on it and the shutter would be closed. Depending on the size of the subject and how fast the photographer could eject and reload bulbs, the shutter could be open for 30 seconds up to two minutes or more. And while Link was working with moving subjects that required synchronization to one camera, the static subjects of open flash could be captured by multiple cameras simultaneously.

Jim Boyd was not the first to do open flash photography. He probably wasn't the first to conduct a group night photo session. But in the 1970s his night photo sessions at Cass Scenic Railroad in West Virginia and Steamtown U.S.A. in Vermont (above) brought delightful results to groups that could include 100 or more photographers. The first group night photo session of Jim's that I attended was one at Steamtown. His night sessions soon became staples of the National Railway Historical Society's annual conventions. At the 1980 Convention in Toronto (the second one I attended) he did night sessions that included streetcars, Canadian Pacific diesels and GO Transit's commuter trains.

GO Transit; Mimico, Ontario; August 1980
Richmond Triple Crossing; Richmond, Virginia; July 1983
 Perhaps the most ambitious of the night photo sessions occurred at the NRHS Convention in Richmond, Virginia, in 1983. Richmond has the only "triple crossing" of three main line railroads in North America; at the time there was the Southern Railway at ground level, with Seaboard System above it and Chessie System above them all. Jim arranged for all three railroads to provide locomotives and short trains and he and his staff lit the entire scene for about 100 photographers. It will go down as one of the most classic open flash shots of all time. Today the Triple Crossing is still there, with Norfolk Southern on the bottom and CSX Transportation controlling the two elevated levels.

The 1991 NRHS Convention was in Huntington, West Virginia, and the night photo session had a new problem -- it was pouring rain. While the photo line was busy getting wet and trying to keep cameras dry, Jim (who was also an avid diver) simply put on a wetsuit so he could throw the flash in the storm. The session featured two large steam locomotives, Nickel Plate Road 765 and Pere Marquette 1225, two locomotives that would later star together 17 years later at Train Festival in Michigan in 2008.

Pere Marquette 1225 and Nickel Plate 765; Huntington, West Virginia; August 1991

If I recall correctly, Jim's last NRHS night session was at San Jose in 1992. By this time the flashbulbs that he used (large bulbs the size of a standard household lightbulb) were getting expensive -- if you could find them at all. Jim had shared his knowledge of how to conduct night photo sessions with a new generation, and these guys had adopted high-powered strobes to replace flashbulbs. Jim was perfectly happy to stand back and watch the next generation take over. Eventually I wound up conducting several night photo sessions for NRHS and other events. I still use the same commands Jim used -- "stand by" just before the shot is ready to be taken and "open 'em up" when the flash is ready to be thrown. Every time I yell "open 'em up" and here the clicks of dozens of shutters being tripped, I'll say a small thank you to Jim Boyd for sharing his knowledge that has let the photographers following him get the same kind of results that made Jim famous.

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Newton, New Jersey, United States

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