NORTHEAST CORRIDOR COMMUTER TRAINS/DECEMBER 1978

From an unpublished article. Some information in the article has since changed.


One class of trains which receives less coverage in the various railfan books and magazines than it deserves is the electric commuter train. Perhaps the best book in recent years to deal with electric commuter trains is William D. Middleton's "When the Steam Railroads Electrified" (Kalmbach, 1974). Despite this excellent book, electric commuter trains remain inadequately covered, particular those off the Amtrak main lines in the Northeast Corridor. Except for the Illinois Central electrification, which I had been riding for nearly 20 years between downtown Chicago and my home in Hyde Park, all other commuter electrification was in the Northeast Corridor. The only way to learn about the electric commuter lines would be to actually ride them, so I envisioned a trip to the Northeast Corridor in which I would ride commuter trains, except on the Amtrak lines where I would ride the Amtrak trains. After accepting an invitation to a wedding in Richmond, VA, for New Year's Day, 1979, I decided that this would be the opportunity for such a trip. I also had some business in Knoxville, Tennessee, which would give me an excuse to ride the Southern Crescent part of the way there.

I left Chicago on Wednesday, December 27, 1978. After taking the Illinois Central Gulf downtown, I boarded the Broadway Limited for the trip to 30th St. Station in Philadelphia. The trip was not a all untypical for the Broadway; problems with the E-units at Gary, two freight locomotives added at Ft. Wayne, countless slow orders and track which made sleeping virtually impossible. No. 40 was three hours late at Ft. Wayne and four hours late between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

We finally arrived at Philadelphia about 5 hours late. After checking into a hotel I made a quick round trip on the former Pennsylvania Railroad Chestnut Hill Branch. Coming back, the engineer invited me in the cab, which occupied the full width of the Silverliner car. When we passed the crossover at Allen Lane I asked the engineer if that was where the long abandoned Whitemarsh Branch originated. He could not believe that I, a first time visitor to Philadelphia, knew of its existence. We passed Westmoreland, the last station before North Philadelphia, without stopping. "Very few trains stop here," the engineer explained, "because it's a poor neighborhood."

Approaching North Philadelphia, the cab signals cut in for operation over the Amtrak owned main line. We waited for what the engineer first thought was a Silverliner train from Trenton, but turned out to be an Amtrak 200 series train, using New Jersey Department of Transportation owned equipment, eventually destined for the former Erie Lackawanna electrification. Once the Amtrak train passed we were ready for the sprint over the four track main line to Zoo interlocking. Not that the branch line was slow, for unlike the former Illinois Central branches in Chicago, this branch was completely grade separated.

Despite all the homework I had done preparing myself for the Philadelphia area, I still needed the engineer to try to explain which track was which at Zoo, which has to be the most complicated maze of tracks I have seen. Zoo is where the lines from New York and Harrisburg join before entering 30th St. Station. In addition, it is where the lines split to go to either the upper level or lower level of 30th St.., or to the West Philadelphia Elevated Branch, which carries freight trains high above the station. Amtrak trains use the lower level of 30th St.., which is on a north-south orientation between New York and Washington, while commuter trains use the upper level, on an east-west orientation. Commuter trains from Zoo or from Arsenal interlocking, to the south, swing around and head east through 30th St. on their way to the Suburban Station. Arsenal is where the lines from both levels of 30th St. and the Elevated Branch all rejoin to continue either to Washington or to the West Chester Branch, which branches off here. Not even the employee timetable fully describes just which track is which in this complicated maze duck-unders and ramps between Zoo and Arsenal. The engineer and I agreed that it takes a number of rides through in order to become familiar with the area.

We entered 30th St. alongside a train from Paoli equipped with some of the few remaining old MP54 MU cars, one of which was in the new SEPTA paint scheme. We continued alongside the old train to the Suburban Station to conclude the day of train riding.

In order that I get the most out of my stay in Philadelphia, I adopted a schedule which involved starting each day of train riding before 6 am. My first trip on Friday, December 29, 1978, was a round trip on the former Pennsylvania Railroad Manayunk line. This line was also grade separated, and all stations had low level platforms. I eventually discovered that on all ex-PRR electrified lines, only the most important stations, all Metroliner stops, and a few other stations have high level platforms. In the Philadelphia area, this includes, among others, Chestnut Hill, North Philadelphia, Trenton, Wilmington, 30th St., and the Suburban Station. The Suburban Station, which replaced Broad St. Station in the 1950's, is much like Randolph St. Station in Chicago, with its underground shops and passageways. Even the public address announcements for departing trains sound just like those at Randolph St.

I got off the train from Manayunk at 30th St. so that I could take the 7:54 am Metroliner to New York. The Metroliner could have been a bit smoother but I did clock the train at 112 mph at one point. After arriving at Pennsylvania Station, I made a round trip on the Long Island Rail Road to Hicksville. The line was four tracks to Floral Park and two beyond. There were several grade crossings beyond Floral Park. Hicksville has an interesting station, with two platforms sandwiched between three tracks. Beyond Hicksville, electric trains continue to Huntington, on the Port Jefferson Branch, while the main line beyond to Ronkonkoma and Greenport is diesel. Diesel trains on the main line normally turn around on the center track at Hicksville, where cross platform connections are made with the electric trains to New York. While I was at Hicksville, a GP38 powered train with FA cab control did turn around.

I should have gone beyond Hicksville, which is supposed to have many scenic rural areas. Hicksville does not look much different from the industrial areas just off the CTA's Douglas line through Cicero.

Hicksville

After an early lunch at Pennsylvania Station, I walked to the 33rd St. PATH station to take the 12:00 noon train to Hoboken, NJ, to sample the former Erie Lackawanna electric operation. I had trouble finding the PATH station so I missed that train. Could I take the next PATH train and still make the 12:30 out of Hoboken? I took the next train and, after a mad dash to the gate, and finding I still had a few minutes, I bought a ticket to Gladstone. Amazingly enough, I made the train. This was only my first mad dash of the day.

If there is another electric commuter operation in the country similar to the Illinois Central operation in Chicago, it would have to be the former Erie Lackawanna (originally Delaware Lackawanna and Western) Morristown Line to Dover, NJ, with branches to Montclair and Gladstone. Both the IC and DL&W are the only DC overhead commuter systems remaining in the country, and both used semi-permanently coupled motor-trailer pairs for their original electric cars. Both originally had about the same number of cars (141 pairs on DL&W vs. 140 pairs on IC). What is more, the cars sound the same. The main difference is that the DL&W cars had hand operated doors for low level platforms, while IC had automatic doors for high level platforms. Also, the DL&W cars had johns.

I made my way to the front of the train and, when the conductor collected my ticket, he told me that I had to go to the rear of the train. The reason was that during off peak hours, the Gladstone trains are combined with the Dover main line trains as far as Summit. There, the rear portion of the train is detached and sent to Gladstone. For our train that meant four cars to each destination.

Immediately out of Hoboken is the mile long Bergen Tunnel, and here I was crossing from car to car in the dark. The DL&W MU cars lack diaphragms between the cars which made the crossings risky. Just beyond the tunnel is West End, where the former Erie and DL&W Boonton trains diverge. Except for the two track drawbridge at Harrison, the electric line was three tracks to Millburn, where it continued west with two tracks. At Summit the lines split, and we were ready to proceed over the single track branch to Gladstone.

The Gladstone Branch has always intrigued me for some reason. The 22 mile long branch, although equipped with automatic block signals, is operated by timetable and train order. This means that when trains meet, and nearly all trains meet at least one train on the line, hand operation of switches is necessary for the train taking the siding. Going out, after stopping at Stirling, we proceeded past the station and backed into the siding to meet an inbound train.

Stirling

Returning, we took the siding at Lyons for a train. I was not at all disappointed with the line, which twists its way through a scenic rural setting. It is perhaps as rustic as the most rustic portions of the South Shore Line.

Gladstone

Back at Summit, our train was attached to the rear of a main line train. Coming in on the main line, the train stalled twice for a few minutes each. The old MU cars are showing their age. New cars have been delivered but presently are stored or leased to Amtrak pending conversion of the electrification to an AC system. This will spell the end of the last stronghold for old electric commuter trains, as all other electric commuter systems in the country are nearly completely modernized (except for the South Shore Line, perhaps, but one questions whether that is a commuter line or an interurban).

Because of the stalls, we got into Hoboken late. I proceeded to the PATH station and the train left at 4:13 pm for 33rd St. I was supposed to have been able to take the 3:43 train. With the running time listed at 13 minutes, I figured I would get to 33rd St.. at 4:26. Thing is, I had a reserved ticket for the 4:30 Metroliner from Pennsylvania Station to Philadelphia. On the PATH train, I set myself up for another "mad dash" to the Metroliner.

As soon as the doors opened at 33rd St. I started running, watching for signs leading to Pennsylvania station, weaving around the rush hour commuters. As I was approaching the Amtrak concourse, the public address announcer was making the "last call", mentioning the track number. I made my way to the gate, flashed my ticket and again, amazingly enough, I made the train back to Philadelphia.

After supper at 30th St. Station, I asked for a ticket for a commuter train to the Suburban Station. It was then I learned of a little known policy in Philadelphia. A valid Amtrak ticket stub is good for a free ride between 30th St. and the Suburban Station on any train. I wished I had known that the day before, when I "saved money" by struggling on board a SEPTA underground streetcar with a suitcase.

The next day, Saturday December 30, 1978, was devoted almost entirely to the former Reading lines. Again, I started early by taking the 5:55 am train to Glenside, where I changed trains for Warminster. The 5:55, bound for Bethlehem, had Rail Diesel Cars, and was to be the only RDC train I would ride. The branch to Warminster ended at Hatboro until 1973, when the 1.5 mile extension was opened to Warminster. The extension had the only welded rail on the branch, and the station has the only high level platform on the former Reading system. The branch is single track beyond Roslyn but is equipped with CTC. It was at Warminster when the sun became visible, and it was light out by the time I got back to Glenside.

Glenside

At Glenside, I had a 40 minute wait for the next train to Doylestown. The main line to Lansdale was not much different from any other double track commuter main line. The Doylestown Branch starts at Lansdale and is single track with CTC. That branch is perhaps the most rustic line of the former Reading electrification, and also had the worst track of the electrified lines.

Doylestown

I then went back to Wayne Jct., from where I did the Chestnut Hill Branch. That line, completely elevated, looks similar to the CTA Evanston line,with its ballasted right of way. The only differences are the low level side platforms on the double track Reading line, and the overhead electrification.

Chestnut Hill

Back at Wayne Jct., I then went to West Trenton. This line, part of the New York to Philadelphia "Crusader" route, is also an ordinary double track commuter line, except for a three track portion east of Neshaminy Falls. The line is rather scenic around the Delaware River, where it crosses into New Jersey. I then returned to Philadelphia for a round trip to Fox Chase.

Trains to Fox Chase (and beyond the electrified zone to Newtown) leave the main line at Newtown Jct. Beyond there the trains operate over tracks formerly used by the "Royal Blue". This double track line connects with the Baltimore and Ohio at Park Jct., and continues through Newtown Jct. and Cheltenham Jct. to join the West Trenton line at Neshaminy Falls. The Newtown Branch starts at Cheltenham Jct. and is single track all the way. I turned around at Fox Chase, which still was within the city of Philadelphia. I should have gone farther to appreciate the line.

After a quick lunch at the Reading Terminal, which somewhat resembled LaSalle St. Station in Chicago on the inside, I made a round trip to Norristown. The double track line to Norristown was surprisingly curvy and slow. There are many industries along the line, which runs along the Schuylkill River. Beyond Manayunk the line parallels the former Pennsylvania Railroad Schuylkill Branch to Norristown The PRR ran electric commuter trains over this line to Norristown until 1960, when they were cut back to Manayunk. The electrification came down then but the catenary posts still remained.

De Kalb St. is the only station in Norristown where diesel trains running beyond to Reading and Pottsville stopped. Electric trains then proceed to the right over the the single track CTC equipped Stony Creek Branch to serve Main St. and Elm St. The branch then would continue, freight only, to Lansdale.

The trip to Norristown completed the tour of the former Reading electrification. Overall, the Reading had more highway crossings than the Pennsylvania, and virtually no crossings on the Warminster and Doylestown branches had gates. The main line, four tracks to Wayne Jct. and two beyond, is elevated as far as Jenkintown. Beyond there, both the lines to Lansdale and West Trenton have crossings.

I then went to the former Pennsylvania Railroad Suburban Station to ride the only former PRR branch I had not yet ridden, the West Chester Branch. It was getting dark at this point but I figured I might as well get what I could out of the stay in Philadelphia. Most trains would end at Media, but this was the only Saturday afternoon train to West Chester. Media also marks the end of the double track portion. A few years ago some trains started turning back at Elwyn, rather than Media. Elwyn is the first stop beyond Media and has a new station. CTC signals were installed between Media and Elwyn; the line remains manual block beyond to West Chester. Automatic block signals exist but merely to protect following movements. The West Chester Branch was the only former PRR line in Philadelphia with any highway crossings. The track beyond Media was not in good shape. The line was quite curvy and must have been rather rustic but again, it was dark and I could not see much. I should have ridden that line by daylight.

New Year's Eve 1978 was a Sunday. With no early morning commuter trains to ride, I checked out of the hotel, took a cab to 30th St., and boarded Amtrak no. 190, the Morning Liberty Express, for New York, leaving at 5:45 am. After arriving at Pennsylvania Station, I went to have my first ride on that wonderful creation, the New York Subway. My destination: Grand Central Terminal. I boarded the IRT 7th Avenue train for Times Square, where I would switch to the Shuttle for Grand Central. I was overwhelmed by all the spray painted graffiti in the cars; the CTA had nothing to compare.

From Grand Central I would see two of the commuter lines. First was a round trip to Croton Harmon on the Hudson Line. That of course is the route of the Twentieth Century Limited. I then made a round trip on the New Haven Line to Stamford. New Haven Line trains of course use the four track Harlem Line to Woodlawn, where the four track New Haven Line, with overhead electrification, begins. New Rochelle is where the line picks up the Amtrak line from Pennsylvania Station.

The trip to Stamford concluded the commuter train riding. I then walked to Pennsylvania Station to ride Amtrak no. 83, the Silver Meteor, to Richmond, where the wedding would take place the following day. No. 83 left Pennsylvania Station 75 minutes late due to delays in turning the train at Sunnyside Yard, and arrived at Richmond at 11:30 pm, 105 minutes late. I got to the motel just as the fireworks were starting to welcome in 1979. I could not help but wonder what kind of celebrations were taking place on no. 83, as it continued south to Florida.

New Year's Day was the wedding. Tuesday, January 2, 1979, I took Amtrak no. 174, the Colonial, to Philadelphia. I wanted to see the Philadelphia to Washington line by daylight and it was dark on no. 83, so I made this extra trip. I returned to Washington on no. 185, the Betsy Ross, and from there I took the Southern Crescent to Atlanta. The Southern Crescent was a refreshing change from the Broadway Limited, as it had other than Am-purple interiors interiors and E-units which were reliable. We left an hour late due to a late Amtrak connection, and arrived Atlanta an hour late. At the time I had not yet learned that this was the last month of independent Southern Railway operation. It was luck which enabled me to ride one of the last great American passenger trains.

From Atlanta I took a Trailways bus to Knoxville. And the next day, after doing my business in Knoxville, I flew to Chicago.

One thing I learned about electric commuter railroads is that as much as I had griped about the Illinois Central over the years, the IC for years has been the most modern electric commuter railroad in the country. In the 1920's, the IC was the only line to universally adopt high level platforms and automatic doors. Not until the 1970's were such features adopted elsewhere (Long Island Rail Road and lines out of Grand Central). Illinois Central was the only commuter railroad in the country with an automatic ticket collection system at stations. As to which commuter line is best, I will just say that all the commuter lines in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia are better than what exists in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Houston, or any other city lacking rail transportation.