Almost, but Not Quite

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, August 04, 2019

I suspect that many of you are familiar with the famed “Triple Crossing” in Richmond, Virginia, where three different railroads intersect in the same place, on three different levels.  Using their heritage identifications, from top to bottom, the players were Chesapeake and Ohio; Seaboard Air Line; and the Southern Railway.  Essentially adjacent to the James River, the crossing is virtually surrounded by highways today.

Needless to say, it’s been an objective for photographers for many years, and there is rich pictorial evidence of its existence.  There is a well-known black & white publicity photo taken in the steam era that has been circulated widely, for example.  At the 1983 NRHS Convention in Richmond, there was a staged night photo, featuring, by then, Chessie and Seaboard System; although the NS merger had taken place in 1982, the Southern Railway F units provided a sense of continuity with the past.  For a more comprehensive look at the site, see:  https://industrialscenery.blogspot.com/2015/06/three-levels-of-trunk-line-railroads.html

Largely overlooked, however, is a triple-crossing near-miss about 250 miles north of Richmond.  While three different roads were required to make the Richmond entity, this set of trackage all belonged to a single railroad, whose headquarters were located nearby: the “P Company”, known more colloquially as the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Infrastructure (particularly if it’s “shovel ready”) is a popular term in political circles in recent times, particularly when it can stimulate the economy and create jobs now, or even better, perform these functions during lackluster, or worse, periods of economic activity.  Back when there was less expectation that infrastructure was a function of public funding, the Pennsy excelled at this:  think the Rockville Bridge; Horseshoe Curve; New York’s Penn Station; etc.  In fairness, this eventually became a hybrid process economically, with Federal government loans being utilized during the Depression to expand the railroad’s main-line electrification.

Long-time TRAINS editor David P. Morgan puts all of this in perspective, in his “The mystique of electrification”, published in the July 1970 issue, and reprinted in Kalmbach’s 1997 collection of some of DPM’s best work, Confessions of a Train-Watcher; Four Decades of railroad writing by David P. Morgan:

PRR was as close as we got in the U.S. to European-style electrification: multiple-track, high-level platforms, flying junctions, expresses and commuter rushes and tonnage – all under 11,000 volt catenary.

Those features are readily apparent at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station even today (although the voltage may vary, and some of the nearby track isn’t under catenary now), as seen in the photo above.   SEPTA commuter train 1565, behind ACS-64 electric 910, is awaiting departure on the upper level utilized by suburban trains at this location.

To the west are two other levels of tracks.  Overhead, a freight movement is heading north on the “High Line”, known more formally as the West Philadelphia Elevated, essentially a bypass of 30th Street Station for freight trains.  Below, in what used to be 30th Street’s coach yard, sits Amtrak’s display train equipment.  The latter is parallel to, and almost under, the High Line; a pity that the design could not have been skewed slightly so that it passed directly under the other two lines as they cross.  There is a track at ground level that is within about 200 feet of the crossing, but that’s as close as it gets.

Ah, what might have been … a triple crossing that didn’t require three participants, since its sole owner possessed such an abundance of traffic in this neighborhood that it required this level(s) of infrastructure to keep from getting in its own way: the “supra-standard railroad of the world” in its day.  So near, and yet so far!

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