Ohio State’s Railroad

osu-railroad-7-191962As a student at Ohio State, I take particular interest in our local railway history. Nothing is more local than a railway that runs right through the center of campus. While I was aware that at one point a long coal spur ran to the power plant, I never had been able to find the right resources to write a more substantial article.

That changed the other day when I discovered the Lantern’s on-line archive. The Lantern, Ohio State’s Student Newspaper, has been continuously published since 1881. I found a number of articles describing key features of the school’s private, industrial railroad and was able to piece together enough for this article.
Read On…

Light-Rail Track Replacement

Church and 30th St. San Francisco MUNI Construction from Ken Murphy on Vimeo.

Do you ever wonder about track embedded in pavement? How easy is it to maintain? How do you repair? And most of all, how do you replace it?

The video embedded above is time-lapse showing the replacement of a section of San Fransisco’s MUNI light rail system. The replacement took three days of 24 hour work. The time-lapse was set up to take one photo every 15 seconds. The resulting video is about 12 minutes long.


CSX #8888: The Real Story of “Unstoppable”

This Friday is the premiere of the movie Unstoppable. Staring Denzel Washington, the movie tells the story of an unmanned runaway train and the attempts made to stop it. You can watch the trailer for the movie here. While there’s no doubt that inaccuracies will abound (it is Hollywood after all), it should be at least remotely entertaining.

What many of the general public do not realize, is that Unstoppable is a dramatic retelling of real life events. On May 15, 2001 CSX #8888 escaped from Stanley Yard in Toledo, OH. It quickly began a high-speed journey south along the Columbus Subdivision through the communities of Findlay, Bowling Green, and Kenton. The 47 car train reached speeds upwards of 50 miles per hour while authorities made multiple attempts to stop it. Eventually, through the actions of second locomotive and crew the train was safely brought to a stop, 2 hours and 66 miles later. Miraculously, there were no injuries.
Read On…

Follow Amtrak Trains Live Online

So you’ve schedule a trip on Amtrak, but the big question remains. Will my train be on-time? If your sitting at home and the anticipation is killing you, there are a couple of different ways you can track your train.

Call Julie

Amtrak automated system, commonly known as Julie, is the traditional way to determine train status. Call 1-800-USARAIL and follow the prompts. You will need to know your train number and departure station.

The Amtrak App

Many people do not realize that Amtrak maintains a mobile application on both the popular iOS and Google Play App Stores.

The Amtrak App can be used not only for train tracking, but includes a mobile interface that ties into the reservation system. You can book simple trips right from the app itself, though more complicated reservations, modifications, and cancellations will still need to be made by phone. Use the keyword “Agent” to bypass the voice prompts and get straight to a live human.

Not using an iPhone or Android? Recently Amazon and even Windows Mobile have even got in on the App Store action.

Still out in the cold? If they will only take that Blackberry from your cold dead hands, you can use Amtrak’s mobile website at m.amtrak.com.

Unofficial Tracking Websites

I found a site the other day that could be useful to anyone taking the train this Holiday season. Amtrak Status Maps uses public data available on Amtrak’s site to plot the approximate locations of current trains. It also lists if the train is running on time or behind, and if it is behind it will list how many hours.

This site is only limited by the accuracy of the information they are pulling from Amtrak’s system. As an unofficial source, I wouldn’t rely on it as my sole timekeeping source. It could be useful when rail-fanning or to track station performance across the route.

Amtrak Track-A-Train

The Amtrak System January 20, 2015 at 7:30 PM

The Amtrak System January 20, 2015 at 7:30 PM

Since this article was originally written, Amtrak has added it’s own Track-A-Train System. Through a partnership with Google, this system relies on GPS devices located in each locomotive in addition to the traditional station arrival information. It will give a more current location and estimated speed rather than just the most recent departure time.

You can read more about it in the full press-release from Amtrak. As with any of these resources, the train can depart at any point after it’s scheduled time. It’s not uncommon to make up time due to schedule padding and other factors. Arrive late at your own risk.

The Famous Commodore

Last week I was intrigued by an article in the Wall Street Journal that compared Warren Buffet to the late Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt practically created the New York Central, but beyond that I knew very little about the man.

I stopped at our campus library and picked up the book Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. The book provides a length narrative detailing from birth till death and every major life event along the way. It details how Vanderbilt went from nothing to go on and create his massive family fortune, first through sail, then steamships, and finally the railroads.

Additional detail is spent on the more troubling aspects of his personal life that might not be found in older works on the subject. Vanderbilt had a habit of picking up less than respectable girls from the waterfront. In fact advanced syphilis would directly lead to his death.

The author, Edward J. Renehan Junior, goes to great lengths to provide a well-researched book. He mentions a number of facts where previous biographies do not agree with his sources and provides great backing of his opinions.

As a biography the work is splendid. As a railroad book it is not so much. Only one of the 24 chapters deals significantly with the railroads and Vanderbilt’s business actions when he executed a couple of famous cornerings of the Hudson River Railroad and the New York and Harlem Railroad. Later mention is made of his failure to corner the Erie Railroad against Jay Gould.

Later Vanderbilt would merge his major New York Railroads with the New York Central, a road operating from Buffalo to Albany. This created the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, a single railroad company all the way from Manhattan to Buffalo.

I don’t really fault the author for the lack of railroad information. I did not realize that the majority of Vanderbilt’s railroad dealing were late in his life. His son, William Vanderbilt went on to help mold the New York Central’s western expansions. Instead, most of Vanderbilt’s life was spend on the steamship business and the book is proportioned accordingly. It did not detract from my enjoyment in the least.

After reading this book, would I compare Vanderbilt to Buffet? Probably not. Though the two both invested heavily in railroads during their later years, I find them to be different in both personality and temperament.If you want to make your own decision I encourage you to check out Commodore at Amazon.

River Road Station to Meet End

I was recently informed that ODOT is planning a major reconstruction project for the Waldvogel Viaduct on the riverfront in Cincinnati. The bids are in and the contracts have been awarded so construction should begin relatively soon.

For those unfamiliar with the Cincinnati area, this is down on the river just west of Paul Brown Stadium and the Mill Creek. CSX has their Indiana Sub in the area and CIND, a Rail America shortline, runs a ditch track that collects from a number of river bulk transfer industries. The junction of the two lines is known as CP Oklahoma.

This project is going to have a number of effects on the rail lines in the area. For starters the CSX will be getting a new #10 switch and the entire set of main lines will be moved south to make space for a future bike trail (and possibly a light rail line?). A little over 400 feet of CIND trackage is expected to be moved to connect to the new alignment.

By far the greatest effect will be the demolition of the old River Road Amtrak Station (show near the “View 3” label above). This was one of the famous “Amshaks” that opened when Amtrak deemed it too expensive to run out of Union Terminal and other large stations. The one in Cincinnati was the first of these stations Amtrak ever built and was used by the railroad from 1971 to 1991. In 1991 Amtrak moved back to a renovated Union Terminal where the Cardinal stops today (although it may not be only one for long). [Image by G. R. Harper, used with permission.]

In more recent years the station was sold to the I&O. It has been used as a staging platform for I&O Passenger Corporation and Cincinnati Railway excursions.

The River Road station was plagued by a poor location in a bad part of town. Few will miss it, but just the same it will be another piece of railroad history that has disappeared. You can see more photos of the River Road and other Cincinnati stations on this page. There’s also some good photos at Queen City Discovery.

The Overseas Railway

Last week from my local library I picked up a copy of Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean. The book touched on the formation of the Florida East Coast Railroad and focused mainly on the historic Key West Extension.

Little do most people realize the connection between Ohio and the Florida East Coast Railway. Henry Flagler was born in Bellevue, Ohio. He co-founded Standard Oil with the better remembered John D. Rockefeller. Then he retired from the oil business, and for his second career he built the state of Flordia almost single-handedly. He is remembered for constructing the Florida East Coast Railroad, founding the cities of Miami and Palm Beach (among others), and developing a chain of luxury resorts down the coast.

The site of Flagler’s residence in Bellevue is currently the site of the Mad River and Nickel Plate Railroad Museum.

The book begins at the end, so to speak, telling the story of the horrific Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The storm is described in the ways that only a novelist could, and Les Standiford leaves the reader hanging at the perfect moment. The narrative then cuts to the present day and a trip down the current highway built through the keys. The drive is told with such excitement it makes me one to hop in my car and make the journey myself.

Henry Flagler’s early life and accomplishments are summarized, and then the historic trip he took down to Florida with his sick wife is told. He became interested in Florida, and constructed his famous Ponce de Leon hotel in 1885. As he expanded his hotel business, Flagler realized the need Florida had for better transportation facilities. There were few good options for traveling south of Jacksonville.

Like any good millionaire, Flagler saw a need and moved on his own to meet it. He purchased the first predecessor railroad of the FEC, the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Halifax River Railway, on December 31st 1885. Soon he added three more companies to the growing empire, the St. John’s Railway, St. Augustine and Palatka Railway, and the St. Johns and Halifax River Railway. All his railroads were soon made standard gauge to better operate as one combined system.

In 1892 Flagler began building his own railroad tracks south from Daytona Beach. By 1896 the tracks reached the site of present day Miami. Flagler helped build utilities and fund the newspaper of the small settlement. In fact, had the citizens got their way the town would have been named after Henry Flagler, but he convinced them to instead use the native Indian name of Miami.

In 1905 the grand extension of the railroad to Key West was planned. Many said it was not possible, as the 153 mile route included multiple spans over open water. Not a cent of government money was used, no environmental studies were commissioned. It’s hard to imagine such a project ever taking place in this day and age.

The Overseas Railway was completed in 1912, just 16 months before Henry Flagler’s death. The Key West Extension never made a dime in profit. The deep water port in Key West never developed, and the traffic from the newly constructed Panama Canal never arrived. The argument can be made that Flagler never really expected a return on his investment. Instead it was to be his lasting legacy to the state of Florida.

On Labor Day Weekend 1935 a hurricane of unprecedented magnitude struck the keys. It was the strongest Atlantic storm to ever strike the United States before or since, with sustained winds of 185 mph. The Key West extension, always vulnerable to hurricanes was severely damaged and the bankrupt FEC could not rebuild it. Instead, the roadbed was sold for pennies to the state of Florida. The state used much of the route constructing US 1, the first highway to the Keys. In fact, much of the railroad bridges were so strong the roadway was build directly on top of them.

Today, Flagler’s legacy still exists in the keys. Though much of the bridges have since been bypassed, the railroad bridges still serve as fishing piers and access to a few remote Islands. There is even talk of building a multi-use trail along the old railroad route and across the old spans. The railroad he built has survived receiverships and mergers for many years while maintaining its independence. In 2008 shortline conglomerate Rail America purchased the road and moved their headquarters into the FEC’s building in Jacksonville.

Last Train to Paradise provided a comprehensive look at the life of Henry Flagler and his Overseas Railway. My only complaints are some slower parts of the book, focusing more on the individual bridge construction and less about outfitting the railroad as a whole. It was, however, interesting to discover an Ohio connection where I never expected there to be one. For those who might also want to read this book, it is currently on sale at Amazon.

3C at the State Fair

On Tuesday I had a chance to attend the Ohio State Fair in Columbus. In the corner of the commercial building there was a booth for the Ohio Department of Transportation. In a dark corner of this booth there was the poster (pictured above) advertising the proposed 3C Rail Corridor.

While their were plenty of display space in the booth for advertising a hybrid bus or a stop sign with flashing red LEDs (PDF link), one of the most important transportation projects in the state was banished to the side. Although in the interest of full disclosure I also need to point out that Operation Lifesaver was there with post cards available with 3C information. Overall though, I think it’s a clear indication of the hostile climate that passenger rail faces in the state.

Speaking of 3C News, there is a long-ish article on Building Cincinnati about the possible use of the Oasis Line into Cincinnati. Sadly this article features some relatively uninformed NIMBYs who really had no concept of the pros and cons of a twice daily passenger train. In fact the president of the East End Area Council, Laurie Keleher, was quoted as saying, “Diesel engines are notorious polluters, is that being taken into consideration?” when in fact a diesel locomotive is no worse a polluter than a couple of tractor-trailers passing by per day.

The article does end on a positive note. David Lyman, a citizen of the neighborhood, provides a fresh perspective with the following:

“Barges on the river already create more noise than we’re likely to have from train traffic, and besides, we’re not talking about dozens of trains a day. If a high-speed train is routed through Columbia Tusculum, it certainly won’t be traveling at those high speeds in such a densely populated area.”


The Wreck of the Penn Central

After researching the history of Buckeye Yard the other week I’ve been on a bit of a Penn Central kick. There’s not a lot of people out there who model the Penn Central, but it has a certain mystic. There’s something morbidly fascinating about the great railroad that managed to implode in only 867 days.

The The Wreck of the Penn Central by Joseph R. Daughen and Peter Binzen provides an interesting look at that railroad monolith created back on February 1st, 1968. The book starts out with a brief history of the respective companies. The PRR and the NYC are compared and contrast while the reader begins to understand how their respective ideologies developed. This becomes important later when you witness some of the well-known corporate culture clashes that developed in the railroad at all levels.

Eventually the book transitions in the actual merger and some of the reasons it failed. The Penn Central’s problems were many and varied. They ranged to everything from railroad operation problems (the non-compatible computer systems are a famous example), to high labor costs, to factors beyond the railroad’s control (the ICC, the state of the industry, ect).

While the first few chapters kept me on the edge of me seat reading, the book drags a bit in the middle. Too much time is spent describing every point of the Penn Central’s “Diversification Program” and every investment or perceived conflict of interest within the management is emphasized. There comes a point when you realize there is no way this railroad will stay in business and that it will all fail spectacularly. The book overemphasizes just how bad things were and for a while you have to trudge through it in order to see the fireworks at the end.

When the house of cards finally collapses however, it does so with great interest. Even though history tells you all you need to know about the end, there is a while when it seems as if the government would step in with a bailout to save the day and you almost think they will pull it off. Yet as everyone knows it was not to be and the Penn Central would fail as the largest bankruptcy to that point in American history.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book is not the manuscript itself but the time it was written. The book was published in 1971, just one year after the Penn Central bankruptcy. Conrail wasn’t formed for 5 more years. People still viewed the nationalization of the railroads as a possible doomsday option. The Staggers Act and many of the things today’s modern railroad takes for granted all happened after this book was written. As a result a very bleak picture is painted for the future of the railroad industry.

It’s interesting to look back with hindsight and compare their predictions of the future with today’s modern efficient railroad system of today. Now only 2 companies compete East of the Mississippi and much of the Penn Central’s track is long-gone. However, after reading this book I think the collapse of the Penn Central may have been necessary. The abandonments and deferred maintenance hurt in the short term, but in the long run the fallout from the Penn Central (deregulation of the railroads, Conrail, Amtrak, ect) may have saved the entire industry.

At its core, The Wreck of the Penn Central is written as a warning that this is no way to merge and business, and certainly no way to run a railroad. Its message of bailouts and “too-big-to-fail” companies is surprisingly relevant in today’s political and economic climate. Railroad buffs and business majors alike can find something to learn in this book, and overall I think it was worth the read.

If you would like to purchase a copy of The Wreck of the Penn Central you can support this site by using the link here.