Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Last Santa Train?

CSX Transportation; St. Paul, Va.; November 21, 2015
For 73 years Santa Claus has traveled the rails of the Clinchfield, Carolina & Ohio Railroad (known simply as "the Clinchfield." Traveling from Elkhorn City, Ky., to Kingsport, Tenn., (and spending most of its journey in far southwest Virginia), the Santa train has traditionally run on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, spreading cheer to Appalachia. In recent times, with the hardships of the southwest coal region, the train has been even more important in bringing Christmas to this economically challenged region of the U.S. The train has run under the banner of the Clinchfield, continued to run when the Clinchfield became a part of Seaboard System, and when CSX was formed  in 1981 the train still continued.

CSX; Pool Point, Ky.
In October 2015 CSX made the announcement that it was downgrading the Clinchfield main line (which extends from Elkhorn City to Spartanburg, S.C.). Elkhorn City to McClure, Va., would see a train serve one customer on an as-needed basis. From St. Paul, Va., to Frisco, Va., the tracks would still be used, but not by CSX -- Norfolk Southern runs trackage rights trains over this section. Customers in Kingsport would continue to be served from the south at Spartanburg. But two sections -- McClure to St. Paul and Frisco to Kingsport -- would see no more trains. To top it all off, 300 employees lost their jobs when CSX closed the Clinchfield shops at Erwin, Tenn. The Santa Train's route includes both of the sections of the railroad that will see no other trains.

I had not planned on chasing the Santa Train this year. I had chased it in 2014 and planned to go back for the 75th running in 2017. But with the sudden change in the status of the Clinchfield, I decided to do the chase again this year -- just in case. The only problem was I had a prior commitment in Lancaster, Pa., the night before. But with the possibility that the 2015 Santa Train might be the last through train on the railroad, I left Lancaster at 9:30 p.m. and did the all-night drive to Pool Point, Ky., just south of Elkhorn City. I caught up with the train as it made the spectacular crossing of a large bridge in Breaks Interstate Park at 7:45 a.m. on November 21. The train had already made two stops by this time.

After hiking out of Pool Point, I used the train's stop at Haysi, Va., to get ahead of it, setting up at the tunnel just north of the train's next stop at Clinchco, Va.
CSX Transportation; Clinchco, Va.; November 21, 2015
The train makes several stops of 15-20 minutes at various towns along the railroad. At each stop, Santa and his helpers throw tons of stuff (literally -- estimates say that 25 tons of goodies are distributed from the train) into the waiting crowds. The Kingsport Chamber of Commerce is the driving force behind the train, with a lot of help from CSX. Food City is also a major sponsor. Each year a celebrity helps Santa distribute gifts; this year it was Meghan Linsey, runner-up on the television show "The Voice."
Santa and Meghan Linsey; Clinchco, Va.; November 21, 2015
Santa stays out on the back platform of the rear observation car for the entire 110-mile trip, waving to everyone along the route. Up until a decade or so ago, gifts were thrown off to anyone standing near the tracks, but today gifts are only tossed at the designated stops. Santa was waving as the train headed towards the next stop at Fremont, Va.
CSX Transportation; Clinchco, Va.; November 21, 2015
We used the Fremont stop to get ahead of the train and set up for one of the classic shots on the Clinchfield -- passing the Union Baptist Church at Dante, Va. This is in the section that will have no more trains, so it was an important shot to get.
CSX Transportation; Dante, Va.; November 21, 2015
We caught the train again as it approached St. Paul, then ventured into the crowd again during the stop in St. Paul. Once again, an amazing amount of stuffed animals and other gifts came off the back of the train.
CSX Transportation; St. Paul, Va.; November 21, 2015
CSX; Dungannon, Va.

The train's next stop was at Dungannon, Va., and we caught the train coming into town there. This is the section of the Clinchfield that will still see Norfolk Southern trackage-rights trains.

Still on the trackage rights section, next up was Fort Blackmore, Va. A highway bridge provides a nice view of the train passing through the crowd before stopping the observation car at the designated spot so Santa can do his thing.

CSX Transportation; Fort Blackmore, Va.; November 21, 2015
CSX; Copper Creek Viaduct

From Fort Blackmore, the train heads for the scenic highlight of the entire railroad -- Copper Creek Viaduct near Clinchport, Va. A large crowd was gathered to watch the train make its crossing.

From here the tracks duck into a long tunnel while the roads take the long way around. The train had two more stops to make before arriving in Kingsport, wandering into Tennessee. Rather than follow the train around the mountain, we headed for Kingsport and set up at the Holston River bridge just outside of town. Right on schedule, just after 3:00 p.m., Santa arrived in Kingsport for the big Christmas parade in town. After cleaning and fueling, the train departed for Spartanburg and on to Jacksonville, Fla. In past years it would have gone only as far as Erwin, but that Clinchfield town is no longer used by the railroad.

So is this the last Santa Train? Is this tradition going to die just two years short of its 75th birthday? It's hard to imagine the 22 miles of track between McClure and St. Paul will be maintained by CSX for one train a year. CSX, however, has said publicly that it plans to continue the Santa Train tradition, and CSX CEO Michael Ward (who was on board the 2015 Santa Train) has said the train will continue. Still, a lot can happen between now and next year, and the shaky status of the former Clinchfield mainline makes you wonder... The Clinchfield has little in the way of online customers, especially with the downturn in the fortunes of Appalachian coal. It served primarily as a bridge line for coal traffic heading south, and those trains have all been rerouted.

My guess is if the Santa Train makes it to 2016, then it will make it at least until the 75th birthday in 2017. The next several months are critical, but sometime in the spring CSX is going to have to inform the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce on whether it will run the train in 2016. Let's hope that Santa continues to ride the Clinchfield!
CSX Transportation; Kingsport, Tenn.; November 21, 2015
Photos from this post can be purchased here.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Farewell To the U34CH

New Jersey Transit; Mountain Lakes, N.J.; August 27, 1994
On New Jersey's commuter roster was a unique locomotive model -- the U34CH diesel built by General Electric in 1970. The 32 units were purchased by New Jersey's Department of Transportation for use on lines operated by Erie Lackawanna. The EL was merged into Conrail in 1976, and Conrail spun commuter operations off to New Jersey Transit in 1983. By the early 1990s, the units were getting old and ready for retirement. To send them off properly, NJ Transit teamed up with the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey for an excursion covering over 180 miles on August 27, 1994.

After departing Hoboken Terminal, the special train headed to Netcong on the Boonton Line. On the west end was U34CH No. 4172 in the traditional blue and silver paint scheme most of the locomotives wore during their service lives; on the east end was U34CH No. 4176 in NJT's silver "disco" scheme, one of seven units to get that treatment. The first photo stop was made at Mountain Lakes (above) featuring the 4176. The photo line watched the train pull by with 4172 on the west end (below).

New Jersey Transit; Mountain Lakes, N.J.; August 27, 1994
The next stop was at the end of the Boonton Line at Netcong (which is actually west of Boonton). The 4176 was once again the featured power for the shot.
New Jersey Transit; Netcong, N.J.; August 27, 1994
From here the train reversed back almost to Hoboken to West End, where the train swung north on the Main Line towards Suffern, New York. A photo and lunch stop was made at Ridgewood with No. 4172 looking good pointing south into the sun. The U34CHs lost their Erie Lackawanna nose herald after going to Conrail, but Frank Etzel of the URHS added a temporary EL herald to the front of 4172 for the day.
New Jersey Transit; Ridgewood, N.J.; August 27, 1994
After lunch the train continued north to the end of the Main Line at Suffern (NJ Transit trains continue past this point to Port Jervis, N.Y., under contract with Metro North). Another photo stop was made at Suffern as the train prepared to return south.
New Jersey Transit; Suffern, N.Y.; August 26, 1994
Reversing back south, the train went to Rutherford on the Bergen County Line, with another photo stop at the Radburn station, once again featuring 4172.
New Jersey Transit; Radburn, N.J.; August 26, 1994
At Rutherford, the train headed outbound again, this time on the Pascack Valley Line to Spring Valley, N.Y. The train then used the Pascack Valley Line and Main Line to ultimately return to Hoboken Terminal. A photo stop was made on the Pascack Valley Line at Oradell, N.J.
New Jersey Transit; Oradell, N.J.; August 26, 1994
The final photo stop was at Harmon Cove on the way back into Hoboken. The trip was advertised to return at 6:30 p.m., but it rolled into Hoboken at 5:50, a full 40 minutes early!
New Jersey Transit; Harmon Cove, N.J.; August 26, 1994
After dinner a few friends and I decided to do a "what the heck..." and wandered to Hoboken Terminal to ask if we could wander into the yard for some night shots of the U34CHs. Much to our surprise, they said "yes." We started with the 4172.
New Jersey Transit; Hoboken, N.J.; August 26, 1994
We next turned our attention to the 4176, with the 4172 in the background.
New Jersey Transit; Hoboken, N.J.; August 26, 1994
Our night finished up with the 4172 next to another veteran unit -- former Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 No. 4877, which finished its career with NJ Transit and was being held at Hoboken for preservation by the United Railroad Historical Society.
New Jersey Transit; Hoboken, N.J.; August 26, 1994
The U34CH locomotives would actually hang on in regular service for a few more months before being retired. Some saw later service for SEPTA in Philadelphia, while some were sold to Mexico, and others were scrapped. Only No. 4172, which ran on this trip, survives in the United States. It is now in the care of the United Railroad Historical Society, which is returning it to operating condition with its original number, Erie Lackawanna No. 3372.

Photos from this post can be purchased here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Canadian National Mixed Train

Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley; Milford, N.Y.; November 14, 2015
Mixed trains were at one time a part of branchline railroading. On lines that saw little traffic, the local freight train would sometimes carry a passenger coach on the rear, making it a mixed passenger and freight train. You didn't want to be going anywhere fast on a mixed train, as the train would pause to switch out its freight customers along the way. Today, only one mixed train remains in the U.S. and Canada, operating in far north Ontario.

On November 14, 2015, the Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley brought back the days of mixed trains with a special excursion operated for photographers out of Milford, N.Y. On the point was the railroad's rare S7 diesel, built by Montreal Locomotive Works in November 1957 and freshly painted for its original owner, Canadian National Railway. The train behind the locomotive consisted of five freight cars and a rider coach. The train departed Milford and headed north, first stopping at the "lighthouse" behind Pop's ice cream stand (above).

The train was set up so the coach would be on the rear for the southbound trip, taking advantage of sun angles for the photographers. Alas, there was no sun on this day. Just south of Cooperstown the S7 ran around the train to get on the south end to have the train arranged properly for the return trip.
Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley; Cooperstown, N.Y.; November 14, 2015
Heading south, a photo stop was made at the abandoned road bridge at Phoenix Mills. A variety of angles was available here for photographers to work in the trusses of the old bridge.
Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley; Phoenix Mills, Cooperstown, N.Y.; November 14, 2015
Next was a stop at another through truss bridge, this one used by the railroad (and still in use, obviously) at Hartwick Seminary. The bridge over the Susquehanna River is located just north of the multi-diamond Dreams Park, a baseball camp. Cooperstown is generally regarded as the birthplace of baseball and is the location of the sport's Hall of Fame.
Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley; Hartwick Seminary, Cooperstown, N.Y.; November 14, 2015
Back at Pop's ice cream stand, the mixed train was string out on the long fill next to the pond. Other photo stops and runbys were held during the day. There were two stops going north, the runaround in Cooperstown, a stop at the north end of track in Cooperstown, and four stops coming back south.
Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley; Milford, N.Y.; November 14, 2015
The lack of sun doesn't matter after sunset, when night photography can be done. After a pizza dinner break at the Milford station, the train headed back north again to Pop's for a photo out on the line.
Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley; Milford, N.Y.; November 14, 2015
Back in Milford, the locomotive was cut away from its train and posed in front of the depot. The line is a former Delaware & Hudson branch. Conductor Bruce Hodges checks on the 8223 at the station.
Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley; Milford, N.Y.; November 14, 2015
On its way back to the shop area, No. 8223 once again paused for a quick photo by the bed & breakfast that sits across the tracks from the depot.
Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley; Milford, N.Y.; November 14, 2015
Finally, the trip finished with a photo of the roster of the Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley. Joining S7 No. 8223 were former Metro North FL9 No. 2029 (built by Electro-Motive Division of General Motors in 1957 as New Haven No. 2037) and Montreal Locomotive Works S4 No. 3051 (built in 1956 as Canadian National No. 8181).
Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley; Milford, N.Y.; November 14, 2015
Despite the gloomy weather during the day, the 20 photographers on board and the crew had a great time. It was enjoyable to step back into the days of mixed trains for a few hours.
Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley; Milford, N.Y.; November 14, 2015
Photos from this post can be purchased here.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Trolleys At Night

D.C. Transit 1304, Seashore Trolley Museum; Kennebunkport, Maine; November 7, 2015
The Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine, boasts one of the largest (if not the largest) vintage streetcar collections in the country. Originally concentrating on New England, the collection has expanded to cover most of the U.S., and there are even some international cars in the collection. Each year the museum hosts a night photo event, coordinated by Joey Kelly, and because of the scope of the collection, seldom are the same cars used two years in a row. This year's event was on November 7, and a whole new set of cars from last year was used for the set-ups.

The scenes began with D.C. Transit No. 1304, the most modern of the cars we would photograph on the evening. The car was built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1941 for operation in Washington, D.C. We started with a scene of passengers boarding the car (above), then moved inside for interior shots (below).
D.C. Transit No. 1304, Seashore Trolley Museum; Kennebunkport, Maine; November 7, 2015
From Washington, we next moved on to Philadelphia with Lehigh Valley Transit car No. 1030. This car was built by American Car & Foundry for the Indiana Railroad. Converted to a parlor car with plush seating, it eventually found its way to LVT, where it was dubbed the Liberty Bell Limited for express service between Allentown and Norristown, Pa. The illuminated drumhead on the back is a nice touch.
Lehigh Valley Transit No. 1030, Seashore Trolley Museum; Kennebunkport, Maine; November 7, 2015
We also photographed the front of the car as it posed by the museum's section house. Arundel is the name of the township where the museum resides.
Lehigh Valley Transit No. 1030, Seashore Trolley Museum; Kennebunkport, Maine; November 7, 2015
Next up for the night was a stop at the museum's Tower C. This tower, built in 1901, served the Boston Elevated until 1938. When it was slated for demolition in 1975, the museum purchased the tower and moved it by barge from Boston to Kennebunkport. For a scene of the tower, a car that passed it many times in regular service was recruited for the shot -- Boston Elevated 01000, built by Wason Manufacturing in 1928.
Boston Elevated 01000, Seashore Trolley Museum; Kennebunkport, Maine; November 7, 2015
From here we hopped on one of the vintage streetcars and rode to about the midpoint of the museum's trackage to Meserve's Crossing. We paused here to photograph car No. 639 of the Wheeling (W.Va.) Traction Co. No. 639 is a curve-side car built by the Cincinnati Car Co. in 1924.
Wheeling Traction Co. No. 639, Seashore Trolley Museum; Kennebunkport, Maine; November 7, 2015
Moving further west (equipment-wise), our next subject was Twin Cities Rapid Transit Co. No. 1267 from Minnesota. This car was home-built by TCRT in 1907. The Twin Cities streetcar lines met a rapid demise in the early 1950s -- 400 miles of streetcar trackage was abandoned in only 22 months.
Twin Cities Rapid Transit Co. No 1267, Seashore Trolley Museum; Kennebunkport, Maine; November 7, 2015
The next target of our cameras hailed from Chicagoland. Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee No. 755 was built by Standard Steel Car Co. in 1930 and was capable of speeds up to 80 miles per hour.
Twin Cities Rapid Transit Co. No 1267, Seashore Trolley Museum; Kennebunkport, Maine; November 7, 2015
It was back to New England for the next piece of equipment, an electric locomotive used in freight service. Atlantic Shore Line steeple cab No. 100 was built by Laconia Car Company in 1906. Interestingly, the museum's railroad is located on the old Atlantic Shore Line right-of-way, so this car is actually operating where it historically did in service.
Atlantic Shore Line Railway No. 100, Seashore Trolley Museum; Kennebunkport, Maine; November 7, 2015
We didn't get a chance to show off Wheeling Traction Co. No. 639 as well as we would have liked at Meserve's Crossing, so we posed it on a grade crossing for a proper portrait.
Wheeling Traction Co. No. 639, Seashore Trolley Museum; Kennebunkport, Maine; November 7, 2015
Finally, we were back at the museum's visitor's center. For the finale on the evening, we posed two cars together at the trolley loop. Car No. 4387 is a semi-convertible built for the Bay State Street Railway by Laconia Car Co. in 1918; it eventually went to the Boston Elevated. Car No. 5821 is also a semi-convertible (Boston "Type 5"), built by Brill in 1924 for the Boston Elevated. The two Boston Elevated veterans capped off our evening at the museum.
Boston Elevated Nos. 4387 and 5821, Seashore Trolley Museum; Kennebunkport, Maine; November 7, 2015
Thanks to all the museum volunteers who moved equipment and posed for photos. Thanks to Joey Kelly for all his coordinating efforts. And thanks to Michael T. Burkhart for his assistance with the lighting.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Third Time's A Charm

NJ Transit; Port Jervis, N.Y.; October 21, 2015
When I visited Port Jervis, New York, a year ago, the old signals from the days of the Erie Railroad still protected the siding leading into town, but replacement signals were standing. A year later, and somehow the Erie signals were still surviving. I made it my mission to capture a photo I didn't get around to doing a year ago.

First some background. The line to Port Jervis is the old Erie Railroad mainline between New York and Chicago. In the merger with the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western in the early 1960s the Erie was somewhat chopped up as the new Erie Lackawanna shed redundant trackage. The line took a severe downturn in 1981 when the EL was merged into Conrail. Today the eastern end of the Erie between Hoboken, N.J., and Binghamton, N.Y., sees commuter trains from Hoboken to Port Jervis. Freight service through Port Jervis is down to one trackage rights train from the New York, Susquehanna & Western, which traverses the line westbound on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, and eastbound on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights (although the westbounds usually get to Port Jervis after midnight). The shot I wanted was a Susquehanna train passing the Erie signals.

My first attempt was on October 21, trying to take advantage of the fall foliage. The commuter trains are a joint operation between New Jersey Transit and Metro North Railroad, since the first half the of the journey is primarily in New Jersey (from Hoboken to  Suffern, N.Y.) while the second half is entirely in New York to Port Jervis. Because of the joint nature of the operation, motive power from both railroads can be seen. I shot the 9:27 train that departs east on this evening (above) with the trees showing just a brief bit of color, even this late in the season. The train was pushed by NJT ALP45-DP No. 4527, a dual mode locomotive that can operate as a diesel, but can also operate as an electric from overhead wires where they are present. Alas, for some reason my camera lost its focus, so when Susquehanna showed up at 12:03 a.m., the shot was fuzzy and useless.

The second attempt came on November 4. I got to Port Jervis early to shoot the semi-frequent commuter trains that come in. Expecting Susquehanna after 10:00 sometime, I had some time to try different angles with the commuter trains before moving to the Erie signals. ALP45-DP No. 4524 led a train past the old Erie depot in town (the commuter trains stop at a plexi-glass shelter just west of the old station).
N.J. Transit; Port Jervis, N.Y.; November 4, 2015
The next arriving train had one of Metro North's spiffy F40 locomotives leading.
Metro North; Port Jervis, N.Y.; November 4, 2015
With the station shot in the bag, I moved on to what appeared to be some trees with color still in them just east of the station. Sadly, it looked better in the dark than it did illuminated by flash. Metro North GP40FH-2 No. 4904 led a train into town.
Metro North; Port Jervis, N.Y.; November 4, 2015
Moving up to the signals, the trees were nice and colorful. My test subject before Susquehanna arrived was a train led by Metro North GP40FH-2 No. 4900. I was ready.
Metro North; Port Jervis, N.Y.; November 4, 2015
Somehow once again, though, my camera's focus went astray before Susquehanna rolled through at 12:06 a.m. The resulting shot was once again fuzzy....

Determined to make this work, I went back again five days later, on November 9. I knew Susquehanna was running earlier, and this time I was determined to get it. I set my camera up on a tripod, adjusted the focus and waited. A parade of commuter trains went past my lens, led by NJ Transit GP40PH-2B No. 4206.
NJ Transit; Port Jervis, N.Y.; November 9, 2015
Most of the colorful leaves were gone, but one almost-dead tree was hanging in right near where the locomotives would be for the shot. It was better than nothing... Next up was a westbound behind Metro North F40 No. 4910.
Metro North; Port Jervis, N.Y.; November 9, 2015
The commuter trains run every 30 minutes or so until about 9:00, so I figured Susquehanna would probably not show up until after then. The next commuter train drifted into town just a bit before 9:00 with NJ Transit PL42AC No. 4008 leading.
NJ Transit; Port Jervis, N.Y.; November 9, 2015
Normally after the 9:00 train the eastbound signal would flip to green in anticipation of the departure of the 9:27 train. The signal stayed red, however... Was there something behind the 4008? Susquehanna, maybe? At 9:20 a headlight appeared from around the curve. Show time.... Camera on, wait for it... And fire!
New York, Susquehanna & Western; Port Jervis, N.Y.; November 9, 2015
Got it. Finally. The train headed through town with SD60 No. 3800 leading a matched consist of four Susquehanna locomotives. It was time to pack up the camera and head back home. Mission accomplished!

Photos in this post can be purchased here.

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