Monday, September 5, 2011

As I was Saying...

Every boy who grew up in New Jersey during the 60's knew about two things: spaceship details and train operations. I've written a lot about the former, but my knowledge of the latter is almost as troubling. Railroads crisscrossed the Garden State and rumbled past everyone's back yards. Locomotives designed by Raymond Loewy back before the Second World War pulled passenger trains faster than anything traveling on the highway today, and coal car trains of 100+ hoppers slogged out of the Pocono Mountains to the power generating plants of the Raritan Valley. Boys all over the state would watch and chase and wave at the passing steel parades from intersections and overpasses.

One of the great advantages of my current gig in Providence is that I can once again watch the operations of a mighty freight / passenger road on the quarter-mile walk to work every morning. Thanks to an as-yet-unmetered stretch of public parking, I leave my pickup truck on the street next to the Northeast Corridor, the great artery of high-speed rail that links Boston and New York City to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington DC. The fastest train in America, the Amtrak Acela, buzzes through Providence morning, noon, and evenings along this route. The Acela is not as inspiring as the old Pennsylvania GG-1 engines that rolled here decades before, but they're a great sight as they start getting up to speed leaving the station.

It's not just the passenger trains that are fascinating. The road is used mostly by the Providence & Worcester Railroad, a surprising survivor past the days of Conrail and CSX. The P&W had an uncanny knack for growth during the 70's, and by avoiding federal aid also avoided federal bankruptcy procedures.

Providence was once an even larger railroad town than it is today. With inbound cargo from their own port and shipments from the port of Boston, a staggering amount of rail freight filled this town a century ago. The American Locomotive Company built more than 3,000 locomotives right where I park my pickup truck today, shipping their products as far west as Australia. The Woonasquatucket and Providence Rivers were bridged and paved over as a solid mass to allow for the many rail lines that needed to cross the rivers, creating what was called "the widest bridge in the world," spanning almost two miles of riverbed.

As rail traffic faded, Providence repurposed the former locomotive plants and removed the massive bridgeworks, revealing the two rivers for the first time in nearly a century. A new shopping mall straddled a small section of the Woonasquatucket River, and the Northeast Corridor was realigned to allow more of the river to see daylight.

Here are a few pictures of the Providence & Worcester railroad, above the restored Woonasquatucket River, and below the Providence Place Mall. The P&W train (pulled by two GP-38 engines) was paused, waiting for the afternoon Acela to clear the Providence station. You can see the engineer watching some mallards on the river.

I have this gig until the end of September. I'm probably going to take way too many pictures of every train I see. Expect more posts on the topic. Thank you for allowing this indulgence.

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