Posts Tagged railroads

Private risk for public good

Convent StationIt may be a train station in New Jersey, but Convent Station is a nice place to be.

Situated along a relatively quiet stretch of track and a bike path in Madison, the building itself looks like something plucked from a Lionel catalog.

Yet this picturesque station serves nothing but the College of St. Elizabeth and, perhaps, a few guests from the nearby Madison Hotel. There’s another station about 2 miles away, built on a viaduct that runs through the center of town.

Today’s commuter rail planners would probably lay a concrete pad, plant some ticket machines, and call the job done. Luckily, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad had greater ambitions.

Called simply the “Lackawanna” by train buffs, this coal-hauling line had one of the most impressive physical plants of any railroad in history. It pioneered the use of steel-reinforced concrete, which it used for everything from grandiose stations and bridges to humble signal towers.

It would have been cheaper to build a smaller, less substantial station for this somewhat unimportant location, just as it would have been cheaper not to span a valley at Nicholson, Pennsylvania with a massive concrete viaduct, or create an earthen berm to minimize the gradient.

NJ Transit commuter train leaving Convent Station.Yet the Lackawanna did all of these things. Even though the company no longer exists, its greatness is still evident in the Tunkhannock Viaduct, (currently unused) “Lackawanna Cutoff,” and the simpler dignity of Convent Station.

This mentality probably cut into the Lackawanna’s profits, but it made the trains run better, and impressed the public.

The idea of a private company spending more money than necessary just to, essentially, show off is an alien idea today, but it has great utility.

Today’s U.S. passenger trains are run by public agencies, which get their funding from taxpayers and are thus caught up in the toxic debate over government spending.

Yet it’s apparent, from the hope-tinged-cynicism surrounding President Obama’s intermittent support for high-speed rail, that people think this is important. It’s hard not to look at the systems of countries like France, Japan, and China and not feel like the U.S. should catch up.

However, those systems were created by the same mentality that drove the leaders of the Lackawanna: a singular focus on building the best railroad, period.

It also demands a level of corporate citizenship that today’s ultra-capitalistic cabals utterly lack.

At the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway–the world’s first–there was a banner that read “Private Risk For Public Good.”

We’ve all heard the line that corporations are only responsible to their shareholders. Good thing no one told the builders of Convent Station.


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A little blue caboose in Grand Central

Metro North cabooseI love finding old things, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this caboose sitting on Track 14 at Grand Central Terminal as I was catching a rush hour commuter train out of New York.

It’s easy to recognize a caboose from children’s books and model train displays, but they’re actually quite rare. They were mobile offices and living quarters for freight train crews, but these days most trains run with two-person crews that can easily be accommodated in a locomotive cab.

Hauling around an extra car that doesn’t produce any money for the company may be romantic, but it doesn’t make business sense.

That makes this caboose a survivor. Perhaps it was forgotten in this dimly-lit corner of Grand Central, or left because it was too difficult to move it through the terminal’s web of tracks to a scrapyard. Maybe it’s been sitting for years, like a time capsule.

Actually, there’s just no point in throwing away something that you still have a use for. Metro North, the commuter rail agency that serves points north and east of New York City, keeps this caboose for physical plant maintenance.

The letters MNCW on the side of the car are the “reporting marks,” basically official initials, used for Metro North’s maintenance equipment. That explains why this caboose isn’t in a museum, and why this freight car is sitting on the platform of one of America’s most famous passenger rail terminals.

It was coupled to some flatcars with garbage dumpsters on them. Apparently, it’s part of a train that hauls trash out of Grand Central.

This old caboose won’t become a subject for moody urban explorer photos just yet, and that’s fine with me. There’s nothing wrong with admiring historic objects for their oldness, but they were designed to serve a purpose, not to be gawked at.

Countless buildings, railroad cars, and other artifacts have outlived their usefulness, but this caboose hasn’t.

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Steampunk railroad

Models in steampunk garb pose with Baldwin No. 60000. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

It’s time for nerds to save history. One of the biggest recent developments in the science-fiction/fantasy world is the subculture known as steampunk. The name is a play on cyberpunk, a type of sci-fi that takes computer technology as it’s main theme. Steampunk does the same thing with 19th century steam technology, imagining a pseudo-historical Victorian world where everything from computers to airships is steam-powered.

Like many other nerd subcultures, steampunk enthusiasts enjoy dressing up in costumes and role-playing. When the sci-fi convention comes to town, don’t be surprised if you see a few people sporting top hats, corsets, or goggles.

Steampunk may be a relatively new trend, but interest in steam technology is not. Since railroads began retiring their steam locomotives in the 1940s and 1950s, railroad enthusiasts have been trying to preserve them for future generations. Today, there are dozens of museums and “tourist lines” across the U.S. with steam locomotives, either in operation or on static display. Among the best are the Strasburg Railroad and Steamtown National Historic Site, both in Pennsylvania, and the Essex Steam Train in Connecticut.

The same is true of other steam-powered machinery. The Connecticut Antique Machinery Association (CAMA) in Kent, Connecticut has several buildings full of industrial steam engines and tractors; they even have a steam motorcycle. Kinetic Steam Works, an art collective based in San Francisco, has a steam contraption called Hortense, but it wasn’t the fruit an artist’s imagination. Hortense is a steam tractor, similar to the ones at CAMA.

Hortense. Photo by Kinetic Steam Works.

I often wonder if steampunks and steam preservationists know each other exist, because it seems like the two groups could help each other out. Museums are usually not-for-profit organizations that rely on volunteer labor, so money is usually in short supply. On the other hand, steampunk cosplayers like to pose for photographs, and what could be more theme-appropriate than a restored steam engine? Just check out the above photo. An influx of steampunks would generate revenue for museums, and having a bunch of costumed people around might add a little period ambiance (or scare all the non-nerds away, but let’s try to be positive).

Hortense's cousin at the CAMA Fall Festival. Photo by the Author.

Volunteer labor is another issue at most museums and, once again, steampunks could be the solution. Groups of artists, like Kinetic Steam Works, specialize in steam-powered kinetic sculpture, so maybe they could lend a hand on some restoration projects. If they already have (or are looking to gain) a working knowledge of steam, their enthusiasm could be channeled into some productive work. By getting involved, steampunk artists could also help ensure that the skills needed to work on steam (locomotives or sculptures) are preserved.

Museums like Steamtown and CAMA are usually run by diehard gearheads and railfans; groups that isolate themselves from mainstream society, just like many sci-fi fans. Both groups are also fanatical about the amazing things, both real and fictional, that can be done with vaporized water. That’s plenty of common ground, considering that most people think steam is only useful for cleaning carpets.

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