Getting Back on Track | Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum

Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum
If you’re from New England you may have heard of the Berkshires. It’s the most rural mountainous region in western Massachusetts and is often the place where many go to get away during the summer for peace and relaxation. In the fall, people flock out here for leaf peeping. This area is also the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Lenox, Massachusetts is where you would find a typical New England train station, but this isn’t just an old train station. This is the home of the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum (BSRM) founded in 1984. Like most railroad museums, it’s a non-profit organization working off donations and admission fees. From the time BSRM was founded, it provided scenic excursions between Lee and Great Barrington. In 1989, passenger operations were suspended due to poor track conditions. The right-of-way was owned by Housatonic Railroad. In 2003, excursion trains returned, providing service between Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge. BSRM hit another red signal in 2011 when Housatonic Railroad announced they wouldn’t be renewing their agreement with BSRM.

After nearly four years, BSRM is working to get its scenic excursion trains back on track. There has been a huge movement in Massachusetts and across America to bring passenger railroad service back. More millennials are parking the cars and making use of public transit. How does this tie into this Railroad Museum in Western Mass? The state of Massachusetts has been very active in purchasing railroad right-of-ways throughout the state. In February of 2015, the state of Massachusetts purchased 37 miles of the Housatonic Line between Canaan, CT and Pittsfield, MA. This opened up an opportunity for BSRM with the new ownership of the right-of-way. Since the purchase, work restoring a stretch of track between North Adams and Renfrew, MA, a little over 4 miles, has been underway. Local businesses want the freight service up and running and this will give BSRM safe rails to get trains running again. The goal is to be up and running by fall of 2015. BSRM will be running its Budd Rail Diesel Car to get things going at first. A Budd Rail Diesel Car is a self-propelled diesel rail car, it’s almost like a bus on track, and can fit anywhere from 48 to 94 passengers.

If you plan on visiting the Berkshires this summer or fall,make a point to stop by BSRM on a Saturday. You can take a short ride on a train in the yard and see some of the equipment, and if staffing allows you to, you can even board some of the equipment. Many of the volunteers have worked professionally for the railroad industry. This may not be the largest railroad museum in New England, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. I plan on revisiting them in the fall once they have the excursion service restored. – For updates on the excursion service

Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum

Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum

Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum

Riding the Rails | Cog Railway – Mount Washington, NH

Written and photographs by Jonah Soolman

Upon reaching the finish line of the Mount Washington Road Race, I looked to my right to where the Cog Railway’s tracks dead end at the summit and wearily thought to myself, “You mean I could have just taken the train up here?” Since that day in 2009, I hoped to eventually ride the cog railway back to the top of Mount Washington. After years of logistical obstacles getting in the way, I finally had an opportunity to take the train earlier this summer.

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Hurdles presented themselves up until the very last minute, when bad weather at both the base and the summit made us rethink our plans. As it turned out, the rain and cold were blessings in that they kept the crowds away. Approximately 10 people, far less than capacity, rode our train, allowing everybody to have a window seat.

Hefty ticket prices may also have played a role with the small crowd. At $68.00 per person for adults ($73.00 if you want to take the steam train, which is the first run of the morning, compared to the biodiesel engines that run the rest of the day) the outing is certainly not cheap. Prices for the day’s last run are discounted, which probably explained why reservations for that train were all booked while the others were wide open.

Still, one must pay a price – literally and/or figuratively – to reach the summit one way or another. Driving up the auto road costs $28.00 for the first adult and $8.00 for each additional adult, and passengers must be able to stomach the steep and narrow road that winds its way up the mountain with precipitous cliff drops to virtually-certain death inches from your wheels. (Did I mention there are no guardrails?) And if you want to go up on foot, well, at best you are in for a tough workout and at worst your outing could legitimately turn fatal.

Upon boarding the train, I asked the conductor if he recommended one side of the train or the other. He was new and in training, so his more seasoned supervisor strongly recommended that we sit on the train’s left side, as that offers the best views up the mountain.

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The tracks ahead looked steep, intimidatingly steep, and the seats themselves, which pitch forward significantly when the train is on flat ground, offered a further clue to the sharp grade in front of us. Indeed, just a few minutes into the ride and we were leaning back so far that it felt like we were ascending a roller coaster.

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Along the way, the conductor took to a microphone and told us about the railway’s construction as well as the sights as we passed them. The section of the trestle known as Jacob’s Ladder is the steepest part of the tracks, close to a 40% grade, and highlights what an achievement of engineering it was to construct such an ambitious route in such harsh wilderness.

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The conductor pointed out to us that the engine and the passenger car are not actually attached to each other. Rather, they rub up against each other, with the engine always further downhill than the passengers and either pushing them up or acting as a brake on the way down. The main reason that he cited for this setup is that if something should happen to the engine’s brakes and it hurtles down the tracks uncontrollably, better that the passenger compartment be free to stop itself with its own set of brakes rather than face certain catastrophe along with the engine.

In response to a passenger’s question about safety, the novice conductor let slip that he was trained not to talk about accidents, but in reality two fatal train accidents, one in 1929 and the other in 1967, killed a total of nine people on the cog railway.

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Upon reaching the summit, passengers disembark the train and are allowed approximately one hour to explore the top of the mountain before reboarding for the descent. Mount Washington’s summit is a mix of contradictions. Some of the most severe weather in the world takes place there and books have been written about the various misfortunes and deaths that have taken place on the mountain, yet you will find a snack bar with fresh pizza and clam chowder, souvenir stands selling shirts and refrigerator magnets, and a post office from which you can impress your friends by sending a mailing with a novelty Mount Washington post mark.

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The weather can change in an instant. Paying no attention to the calendar, the rain and cold that greeted us cared not that it was the summer and instead demanded our heaviest winter jackets. However, the harsh weather quickly gave way to sunshine and warmth. A recently-renovated weather museum next to the cafeteria delves more deeply into the mountain’s quirky and rapidly-changing weather.

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Some of the passengers who wished to spend longer at the summit were disappointed to learn that they were required to take their regularly-scheduled train back to the base, as opposed to waiting for a later train, but at least the descent began with clearing skies and a look down at the clouds.

The clouds then soon enveloped us, and while they limited the view, they offered a reminder of the conditions facing those who dared to imagine and make real a railroad through this terrain and weather system.

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Despite the dodgy weather and costly tickets, I was very happy and satisfied with my cog railway experience. Compared to driving or running, riding the train was by far my favorite and most relaxing mode of reaching the summit, taking in the views, and enjoying Mount Washington as a whole. If you have been considering a visit to Mount Washington or you are just looking to take unique train ride in New England, I highly recommend the cog railway.

Riding the Rails | Shore Line Trolley Museum – East Haven, CT

Shore Line Trolley MusuemIf you have traveled throughout New England, you may have passed East Haven, Connecticut a few times on Interstate 95. The community is centrally located along Connecticut’s 96 mile coast line, and you wouldn’t know it today, but the Connecticut Company once operated electric street cars to the cities and rural areas along Connecticut’s western coastline and central area. In the system’s heyday, it covered over 600 miles. The Connecticut Company operated its last streetcar in East Haven in March of 1947, when a group called the Branford Electric Railway Association took ownership of the 1 ½ right-of-way. The line begins at the end of River Street and takes you on a scenic trip along the coast line. The original right-of-way was double tracked, but is now a single line operation.

Today, you can take a round trip and see some of the amazing views the Connecticut coastline has to offer. On the way back, you have the opportunity to tour the yard and its collection of trolleys. Unlike most of the trolley museums in New England, the yard is located a little ways down the tracks rather than being right at the office where you buy your tickets. This means you will need to take a trolley back to the office once you’re done touring the yard or taking another trip. Your tickets are good for unlimited rides for the day.

The collection includes some of the famous open cars once used to carry football fans to the Yale Bowl. Car #1802 operated its whole life on the Hartford system.

Back in 2012, Superstorm Sandy slammed the New York and Connecticut coastline. The Shore Line Trolley Museum fell victim to the storm’s heavy rains and coastal flooding. After getting slammed by Sandy and Hurricane Irene, the museum decided to move to higher ground by relocating its yard and building new car barns. The new yard and car barns are a short walk from the museum’s current location.

Here is a video from the local FOX-TV affiliate talking about the new yard and restoration project.
Video credit to foxctphotogs’s channel

It looks as though they are making great progress with the new yard and car barns. I’m looking forward to visiting the Shore Line Trolley Museum once the project is complete. – Read more about the project!

More info about visiting The Shore Line Trolley Museum

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White River Junction 2015

I was able to revisit the White River Junction, VT train station this past May.

The following locomotives was parked in the yard:
Green Mountain Railroad, Vermont Railway, New England Central and a Connecticut Southern Railroad Caboose.

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Bay State Model Railroad Museum – Roslindale, MA

The Bay State Model Railroad MuseumMetro Boston model railroaders have had a place to go for nearly 50 years to share their passion for the hobby: the Bay State Model Railroad Museum, located in the heart of Roslindale, a neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts.

On Sunday, March 8th, 2015, I was able to attend their springtime open house. There was a lot to see, with multiple layouts including N, HO, and O scales. One can see steam and diesel locomotives making their way through villages, over bridges and through mountains. Members have been working hard; adding lots of details, right down to the wires connecting the tiny telephone poles. I would strongly recommend attending one of their open houses, the members are super friendly and happy to answer any questions. Please check out the photos below from our visit.

For more info about BSMRM please visit their website.

Location:
760 South Street
Roslindale, MA 02131

The Bay State Model Railroad Museum

The Bay State Model Railroad Museum

The Bay State Model Railroad Museum

The Bay State Model Railroad Museum

The Bay State Model Railroad Museum
The Bay State Model Railroad Museum

The Bay State Model Railroad Museum

The Bay State Model Railroad Museum

The Bay State Model Railroad Museum

The Bay State Model Railroad Museum

The “Perfect Storm” at the MBTA

Help wanted – Seeking an MBTA General Manager
Looking for someone to manage aging infrastructure and equipment at all costs. Must be able to operate at 100% no matter what.

Beverly Scott

Dr Beverly Scott
Photo from MBTA.com

On Wednesday, February 11, 2015, the MBTA General Manager Beverly A. Scott submitted her letter of resignation to the MassDOT Board of Directors. Over the last couple of weeks the MBTA was crippled by multiple snowstorms dumping feet of snow to the Metro Boston area. The first storm caused huge delays and cancellations. Then, once the second snow storm rolled in, Scott took drastic measures to avoid more problems. She order an MBTA shut down for Tuesday, February 10th to clean up after the storm. – Read Scott’s letter of resignation

The new Massachusetts’s Governor Charlie Baker called the T’s performance “simply not acceptable”. With these remarks, Scott took the heat. In a perfect world, the city and regional transit system should be able to run at 100% no matter what is thrown at it, even a few punches from mother nature. In order for this to happen, the city/state would need to keep investing into the system and keep replacing old and tired equipment, and we’d need a perfect world of course. Sadly, a good amount of the MBTA rolling fleet is 30 years old or older, running with “band-aids”, so this is far from possible.

Subway
Green Line – Majority of its equipment is almost 30 years old.
Orange Line – Almost of its equipment is 35 years old.
Red Line – Majority of its equipment is almost 30 years old.
Blue Line – Majority of its equipment is only 8 years old.

Buses
The fleet is ranging in age, with the oldest being 10 years old.

Commuter Rail
Locomotives are ranging in age from 35 years to only a few years old. As for the rolling stock is varies.

The MBTA been working on replacing its fleet as the funds become available. It’s not an overnight fix, and a reliable transit system cannot run on a shoestring budget. When it comes to state and federal budget cuts, the rail and transportation systems become the first victims. The result of this is having to run on an aging system that’s far from dependable. There may be ways to tighten the MBTA wallet, but it will always need state and federal help.

Really, it isn’t fair to put the blame on Scott; she is doing the best she can with the equipment and funds available. We have had historical snowfall over a short period of time as of late, and the system really didn’t have time to recover from the first snow event. In amongst this mess, Scott became a casualty of mother nature and politicians looking for a scapegoat.

Rail infrastructure is the future because our highways simply cannot handle the demand. I hope this is a turning point for the state of Massachusetts, because other areas are trying to stay ahead of the curve; North Carolina being an example. North Carolina is investing millions into its current rail infrastructure. Studies show millennials (people in the age group between the 1980s to early 2000s) are parking their cars and using public transit versus going the conventional highway route. Some millennials don’t even own a car and are 100% dependent on public transit; this is the future workforce replacing the “baby boom” generation. If Massachusetts wants to keep people and jobs here, it needs to invest into its rail infrastructure.

I’ve haven’t meet Beverly Scott, but it seem like she truly cared about the transit system and I wish her well in her future endeavors. 

Baker ‘disappointed’ MBTA couldn’t maintain schedule during storm
Video thanks to WCVB-TV

MBTA General Manager on shutdown: “This was a perfect storm”
Video thanks to WCVB-TV

Gov. Baker dials back anger about MBTA’s performance
Video thanks to WCVB-TV

Best Portable Scanner Antenna for Railfanning

I’m often asked what is the best portable antenna for railfanning with a scanner, The rubber duck antenna that came with your scanner is called a wideband antenna which covers all of the monitorable bands on your scanner. If you’re just monitoring the railroad frequencies from 159.8100 to 161.6100 MHz, a tuned antenna is your best option. A tuned antenna will work on a specific frequency band, providing optimal reception on that band. A tuned antenna would pull in those weaker signals better, and may even increase your range.

Most railroads are using line-of-sight communications, which means they are not on a repeater system. When you’re listening to railroad communications you would normally hear the dispatcher because they are transiting off a high tower or multiple towers along the right-of-way. As for the trains and crews you can hear them when you’re within close range, which is about 3 – 6 miles. This all depends on the terrain between you and them and their radio output power.

Railroad Communications
Some railroad use the same frequency for the train/crew and the dispatcher.  Another railroads use two frequencies one for the dispatcher and one for train/crew.  When its a two frequency operation you need to program both frequencies into your scanner to hear the full conversation.

Best Portable VHF Railroad Antenna

If you have a portable scanner dedicated to rail-fanning, then I would highly recommend the VHF 150-162 Professional Portable. This antenna is 6 ½ inches tall with a BNC connector. This antenna is a similar size and design to a rubber duck antenna, and retails for the extremely-worth-it price of $30. – Order this antenna

VHF Railroad Portable Scanner Antenna

Forgotten Railroad Lines – Middleboro/Lakeville

Forgotten Railroad Lines
Middleboro & Lakeville, Massachusetts

Do you ever drive by a trail or a building that looks like an old railroad building? There are thousands of miles of abandoned railways, making these sightings common. During the fall and winter months, these trails become exposed as the trees shed their foliage. Some of these right-of-ways are easier to spot while others would take some research first  As a teenager I became fascinated with railroad history and abandoned railroad lines.

As you may have read in past blog entries, I grew up in Middleboro, MA. You wouldn’t know it today, but Middleboro was once a railroad junction point for connecting to all points in Southeast Massachusetts.

Plymouth to Middleboro Line
Opened 1892 – Abandoned 1939
At one point, you could go from Middleboro to Plymouth by rail; the 15 miles route would run thru Plympton and Carver (running parallel to the current Route 44). When you cross over the Nemasket River in Middleboro on Route 44 you can see the old railroad bridge’s substructure. This may be the largest remnants of this line, since most of the right of way is overgrown now. You can see it with Bing’s bird’s eye view to the left of Route 44. – View here – http://binged.it/1Hf2CSD

Middleboro to Myricks
Opened 1846 – Abandoned 1937
Middleboro also had a direct connection to Myricks Junction (Berkley, MA) which is where trains can go to New Bedford or Fall River. You can see some of the right-of-way over its 5 miles. The Lakeville Train Depot is still standing and is located on Route 18 (162 Bedford Street Lakeville, MA). You can see a good stretch of the right-of-way across the street near the old depot.

Lakeville, MA Train Depot

Lakeville, MA Train Depot
Middleboro to Myricks Right of Way in Lakeville, MA

Lakeville, MA Railroad Right of Way

 

Another shot of Lakeville, MA Train Depot

Lakeville, MA Train Depot

Proposal for a MBTA Station in Buzzards Bay, MA

Buzzards Bay MBTA

The CapeFLYER Crossing Academy Drive

Trains are a buzzing topic in Buzzards Bay. Earlier this week, I attended the Bourne transportation meeting. Right now there are multiple project on the table, including updating track infrastructure near the Cape Cod Railroad Bridge along with a new CapeFlyer station on the capeside. The meeting was about a totally separate project, however, that involved extending MBTA commuter rail service to Buzzards Bay via the Middleboro/Lakeville Line.

The Study
During the hour and half meeting, the transportation committee went over the Cape Cod Commission’s “Potential Economic and Transportation Impacts” – Buzzards Bay Commuter Rail Study. The study went over everything from parking options to how traffic would be impacted. The proposed MBTA station would be at the current site of the Buzzards Bay Train Station (at the corner of Main St. and Academy Dr.). The study predicted that nearly 800 passengers would use this station. Two parking alternatives were presented, the first one with 120 parking spaces, which would slightly change the current parking lot, and then there was the other option; to build a parking garage that will accommodate 400-600 parking spaces. The study also goes into great detail about how traffic would be impacted by passengers traveling to and from the train station by car. As for the economic impacts, the study shows potential business growth and real estate values going up over time.

Proposed site for MBTA Parking in Buzzards Bay

What happens from here?
There will be a special selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday, January 20, 2015. During this meeting, there will be requests to add a question to the May 2015 ballot: should Bourne become a MBTA Community? A vote for yes does not mean the train station is definitely coming, however; basically, this will get the conversation going with the MBTA on a potential commuter rail station. If the project gets a green light, it will be a few years before we will see daily commuter rail service to Buzzard Bay.

My thoughts
the CapeFlyer is such a success story and based on that, there is great potential for a Buzzard Bay Commuter Rail Station. I feel the project should start out slow, starting with the 120 parking-space option; rather than investing in a multi-million dollar parking garage that might not be needed. The one in Wickford Junction, RI is a perfect example; they had the idea that if the garage was built, people would use it, but sadly they are still waiting for them to do so. This is a perfect example of why they should be “testing the waters” before investing tons of money into a project that might not be needed.  They may find that passengers are getting to the station via carpooling, walking or via bus.   With the CapeFlyer operating on this line, they have made some improvements in the track conditions and railroad crossings. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done, but I feel this project would be done before the South Coast Rail Project. I will keep a close eye on Buzzards Bay, and updates are soon to follow.

Amtrak’s Vermonter – Amherst Station

Vermonter pulls into Amherst station

Vermonter pulls into Amherst station

By Jonah Soolman 

Taking the day off to drive from Boston to Waterbury, Vermont, ride Amtrak’s Vermonter south to Amherst, Massachusetts, and then disembark the train only to board its northbound counterpart and retrace my steps all the way back home may strike you as odd.

You have to understand who I am though. When I lived in Amherst about 50 yards from the tracks, I watched the Vermonter pass from one window on my townhouse’s top floor and then excitedly ran to the opposite-facing windows in time to get a second glimpse at the train as it curved around the bend. Getting “stuck” at the crossing gates on North Whitney Street always struck me as fortunate timing despite whatever rush I may have been in at the time.

My favorite bicycle route took me north from Amherst along route 63 to Northfield. The eastern part of the rail trail connecting Northampton to Belchertown, on which I frequently jogged, runs parallel to the train tracks through the rivers, swamps, and farmlands of the Brickyard Conservation Area.

Oftentimes, I thought about how fantastic it must be to take in the same scenery through the lens of a train window. In 2007, I got a chance to do just that when I took the Vermonter south from Amherst to New York City and back. Points north of Amherst though? That was a different story, that is, until a few weeks ago when I learned of Amtrak’s plans to alter the Vermonter’s route through Massachusetts by utilizing tracks along the west side of the Connecticut River while abandoning the Amherst station and the stretches of track so far mentioned.

Although I wished that the route remained east of the river for the sake of nostalgia and scenery, nothing could stop the inevitable change that was about to occur. Amtrak and the other transportation organizations involved with the switch have their valid reasons. Besides, truth be told, going from Brattleboro to Springfield via Amherst and Palmer makes just about as much sense as driving from Philadelphia to Boston by passing through Pittsburgh. Instead of fighting, I made immediate plans to ride those northern rails before the opportunity dissolved.

The ride did not disappoint. Some of the views of the Northfield farmlands and Sunderland forests were spectacular, even in the dead of winter, while my favorite spots were crossing the Miller’s River high above the water and passing over the Mill River Conservation Area gorge. Although I have many pictures from the trip, my amateur photography skills are an injustice to what I saw with my own eyes. If you ever had the experience yourself, you know exactly what I mean.

The Boston suburbs in which I now live are home to many stretches of track that are no longer in use, such as the rails that stretch from Needham Junction to Medfield and from Newton Highlands to Needham Heights. Whenever I see these tracks, I think about what it must have been like to ride them. Now those who see the Vermonter’s old tracks east of the Connecticut River are destined for the same fate: to only ride those rails in their imaginations. For me and for everybody else who was able to ride the Vermonter before the switch, I am grateful that we got a chance to do it for real.

Train crossing on North Whitney Street in Amherst, Massachusetts

Train crossing on North Whitney Street in Amherst, Massachusetts

Passengers awaiting northbound Vermonter at Amherst Station

Passengers awaiting northbound Vermonter at Amherst Station

Crossing the Mill River in Miller's Falls, Massachusetts

Crossing the Mill River in Miller’s Falls, Massachusetts

Waterbury, Vermont

Waterbury, Vermont

Looking northeast at the North Whitney Street train crossing in Amherst, Massachusetts

Looking northeast at the North Whitney Street train crossing in Amherst, Massachusetts

Amherst Station, Amherst, Massachusetts

Amherst Station, Amherst, Massachusetts

Vermonter approaching Waterbury station

Vermonter approaching Waterbury station

Crossing the Connecticut River in Northfield, Massachusetts

Crossing the Connecticut River in Northfield, Massachusetts

Snow-covered farmland in Northfield, Massachusetts

Snow-covered farmland in Northfield, Massachusetts

Bellows Falls, Vermont

Bellows Falls, Vermont

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