Those who know me, know that I’ve never been much of a fan of sports. I am, however, a fan of the railroad industry. And at the end of this week, a piece of historic railroad changed hands, leaving me feeling like Baltimore fans must have felt when the Colts packed up late one night and drove across I-70 to Indianapolis.
Yesterday – Saturday, September 19, most of Canadian Pacific Railway’s operations in New York and Pennsylvania were transferred to Norfolk Southern. These lines were originally part of the venerable Delaware & Hudson, which was acquired by CP in 1991. To rail enthusiasts and many employees, this territory will always be the Delaware and Hudson, even though the legal entity known as the D&H was formally merged into CP in 2006.
In sports, everyone loves the underdog. The Delaware and Hudson always was. Known as the “Bridge Line”, it featured little online business, and served mostly to connect other railroads in New England and Canada with railroads in Pennsylvania and beyond. Barely surviving wave after wave of northeastern railroad bankruptcies and merger attempts, the D&H itself was acquired by Guilford Rail System in 1984 and then forced into bankruptcy in 1988 after failed labor negotiations precluded it from inclusion into Guilford’s New England conglomerate.
Northampton, Pennsylvania – like many other PA towns was a Conrail town. Conrail’s blue engines were everywhere pulling trains north and south, east and west. Representing the 1976 combination of several bankrupt major US rail carriers, Conrail resurrected what was once an ailing industry and was quite healthy by the time I left elementary school. But to a 11-year-old kid, all that I saw was blue locomotive after blue locomotive. Not terribly exciting.
I was becoming vaguely aware of the presence of a competitor passing through Northampton. As a younger boy, I occasionally noticed strange looking locomotives, or the passing of a red caboose on the hind end of the train. But by the time we moved to Allentown in 1987, after discovering train magazines such as Railpace Newsmagazine, I learned that the “D&H train” was the best way to see engines and cars from far-flung places passing through my town. I was learning that Delaware and Hudson was running 2 or 3 trains per day through there, as a result of trackage rights agreements allowing D&H over Conrail’s tracks.
D&H’s 1988 bankruptcy introduced the New York, Susquehanna, and Western’s yellow-and-black locomotives to my area, as well as second-hand engines in a variety of colors. That year, NYS&W was appointed by the D&H’s bankruptcy trustees to operate the ailing railroad. Conrail’s competitors to the south (Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation) would provide financial assistance and motive power to the D&H-NYS&W combination. Over the next couple years, my mom and I would regularly prowl the area rails in the robin’s egg blue Super Buick (that we’d gotten used from my grandparents) in search of colorful locomotives from NYSW, D&H, CSXT, Norfolk Southern, and even the Bangor & Aroostook from Maine, or the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac from Virginia.
The hunt for D&H trains brought my mom and I closer together. Many a Sunday after church we would wait and wait for trains that would never arrive, driving my younger brother absolutely crazy. And occasionally we would strike paydirt. My mother photographed many of these trains before I started to do so myself. As a result, I still have envelope after envelope full of pictures, of trees, mostly. Shades of various locomotive colors could occasionally be seen, emerging from between the leaves – representing railroads from all around the eastern United States.
By 1990, when I started high school, I had learned that the D&H brought their trains through my home town thanks to trackage rights that were established as a half-hearted attempt by Conrail’s architects to introduce competition to Conrail’s mega-monopoly in the Northeast. The longest-distance trains connected Canada with Washington, D.C., forwarding newsprint, chemicals, lumber, foodstuffs, and other merchandise. Until 1976, D&H’s southern reach was approximately Scranton, PA. After Conrail’s creation, it was allowed to travel Conrail routes to reach Newark, N.J., Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Potomac Yard near Washington, D.C.
This same year, the trustees of the bankrupt D&H found a suitable buyer, the Canadian Pacific. By late summer, we began to hear the wailing horns of CP’s Action Red locomotives moving their freight through the night in the Lehigh Valley area.
By this time, I was taking my own pictures, albeit mostly on crappy Instamatic cameras and the like. But I have fond memories to go with those pictures of the trains, and the changes introduced by Canadian Pacific at the time. I’ll never forget the very unusual unit acid trains – almost 100 tank cars, filled with sulfuric acid, often pulled by Canadian Pacific’s exotic Canadian-built Alco-design locomotives, which were primarily extinct in the U.S. by that time.
Soon, Canadian Pacific introduced new coal and coke trains to Bethlehem Steel’s namesake mill. Intermodal service began first to Philadelphia and then Newark, N.J. This service, where truck trailers and shipping containers are placed on trains for most of their journey, often featured more Alco locomotives, as well as Canadian Pacific’s midwestern subsidiary Soo Line, whose trademark red-and-white locomotives would never have had any other reason to visit my area. As these trains would rumble by us, I would imagine them arriving or departing such places as Chicago, Montreal, Toronto. It was inspiring to see CP’s attempt to invigorate new business, competing with Conrail, the very company whose tracks were used to provide this competition.
Late on hot summer evenings, I would hear the CP horns blowing for road crossings at Catasauqua and again at Adam’s Island. My mom would later tell me that she was tempted often to get me up in the middle of the night so that we could go out and see what was causing all the fuss. I’m not so sure my dad would’ve appreciated that, as most of the train tracks were in locations unsuitable for evening touristry – at least not the sort of touristry that we were after.
Thanks to friends like Jay Titmas, Peter McGilligan, and others, I was able to tag along on several trips north and west of Allentown to see the D&H in action in various locations. Especially exotic was any trip to Binghamton, N.Y. where the original Delaware and Hudson mainline intersected the busy Conrail Southern Tier line. Binghamton was the Delaware and Hudson’s southern hub of operations. Here, one could find all kinds of variety of locomotives from all over the place. The oldest, the newest. I’ll never forget the day that my mom took Lou Capwell and I to Binghamton where we waited and waited and waited to finally get our first glimpse of our first Canadian Pacific SD40-2, a locomotive that in our minds belonged in the Canadian Rockies, not in the Southern Tier of New York. But this very locomotive would become the mainstay of Delaware and Hudson’s operations for the next 20 years. Around 11 such locomotives were equipped with the necessary special equipment to be able to operate all the way to Washington DC, where D&H (excuse me, Canadian Pacific) would connect with CSX and Norfolk Southern to the south.
By the mid-1990s, I was photographing on slide film, and I’m happy to say that I have at least a few decent photographs of this time period. CP began to reroute their trains (starting with 555 & 556) via Harrisburg to the west, avoiding Allentown. By 1995, I was also avoiding Allentown as I started college near Harrisburg. And CP introduced another short-lived rebranding by establishing “St. Lawrence and Hudson” as another new name for the D&H.
It’s worth mentioning here, that CSX and Norfolk Southern – two systems competing and connecting the Southeast with the Midwest – both desired access to the population centers of the Northeastern U.S. The strength of this monopoly, namely Conrail’s multiple east-west routes between Chicago and New York City, would ultimately lead to Conrail’s undoing: After a major bidding war, CSX and Norfolk Southern jointly acquired then divided Conrail’s assets, integrating them into their own railway networks in 1999.
Through the acquisition, CSX gained its own routes into New England. Norfolk Southern did not enjoy this benefit. This strategic disadvantage is what leads us to the events that took place this week.
As early as 1997, and as Conrail merger plans were first formulated, Norfolk Southern and Canadian Pacific established a partnership that would change the flow of joint traffic to and from both systems centering on Harrisburg Pennsylvania. CP’s successive re-brandings didn’t result in much traffic growth. Incrementally, over the ensuing 18 years, Norfolk Southern enjoyed greater and greater access to the former D&H territory. By the mid-2010s Norfolk Southern trains and crews would haul their own freight over former D&H rails as far north as Saratoga, New York.
Over the last few years, train traffic to Newark and New York dried up completely, in favor of a hand-off of traffic to Norfolk Southern at Allentown. Train traffic to Philadelphia died shortly thereafter, as Canadian Pacific ceased its operations there as well.
By 2013, the only D&H activity in my old hometown of Allentown was a train down, and then back, three days a week. The fragility of the economics of this trackage rights arrangement was becoming clear.
Over the last year, CP and NS agreed to sell most of the former D&H lines to Norfolk Southern (who acquired most of the former Conrail lines in the 1999 merger). The start date was delayed, and delayed again, and then I lost track of it.
Late last week, I realized too late, that the last CP train to Allentown had already run two days prior. I didn’t even know that I missed my chance to see it. By then, if I’d hurried out to eastern Pennsylvania, there was nothing to see but a shut down railroad, with Canadian Pacific already having evacuated most of its equipment to Canada.
A bittersweet moment. Mostly bitter.
Thinking back to the late 90s, when I was off at college, my mom would still patrol Conrail’s route north out of Allentown in search of the D&H trains. She would occasionally report back to me with more pictures of trains in the woods, and she even bothered to write down the engine numbers in a little notebook. She would occasionally talk with the train crews who made it all possible. Of course, they were surprised to see a lady out taking pictures, and my mom was always happy to find out the latest rumors and gossip on the railroad.
It’s a small world out there. Paths cross and connect in funny ways. On one of her stops to talk to the train crew, my mom would run into a guy name Dave, who years later turned out to be the landlord of the apartment she lived in with her second husband, Jack. Dave was a good guy – he helped Jack out a lot when Mom passed in 2008. It was Dave who helped me clean out their stuff when Jack passed a few years later.
Perhaps ten years prior, this same Dave befriended a different young guy who would later become one of my best friends. At that time, he was considering a change in career, and asked Dave for some advice. Dave helped get my friend a job on the CP, where he would run the “D&H trains” for about the next 15 years.
Fortunately, that friend was able to move to another railroad before the CP ship submerged. Many others were not so fortunate. I’d heard that Dave managed to retire, but other friends are still faced with uncertainty. CP terminated everyone in the affected area, leaving Norfolk Southern to hire only those it chooses. So for some, unfortunately, this uncertainty will hang in the air for some time.
Smaller railroads in the area will no longer enjoy the benefit of having connections to two major railroads which allows their rail shippers an advantage by having access to competition.
There is a little bit of excitement, though, as Norfolk Southern is reported to have flooded the area with their sales and marketing staff, and I am certain that NS will use this new territory to their advantage, generating more rail traffic in a corridor that would surely appreciate the increase. While the locomotives won’t be as fun to look at, over time I can expect to see more and more rail traffic passing through Harrisburg and Allentown on their way to points north.
A few years ago I got back into HO scale model railroading, after purchasing a home with a decent basement. Like many model railroaders do, I then set out to recreate my childhood, namely, Conrail & D&H traffic in the Lehigh Valley area of PA in the early-to-mid 1990s. So, while the “real” D&H may be gone – heck, it was gone for awhile! – my friends and I will pretend it isn’t while enjoying some beers in my basement, running little trains around in circles.