Railfanning at 30,000 feet

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Friday, September 14, 2012

I am on the way to the world’s largest railroad trade and technology show, InnoTrans, held every other year in Berlin. I am taking the long way to the show, via one of Europe’s most spectacular steam-powered tourist railroads and some incredible fast trains that put Amtrak’s Acela to shame, but more about that and the show later as they happen. On Wednesday, I started my journey with a 2-hour plane trip from Milwaukee to Philadelphia, where I boarded my trans-Atlantic flight. En route, over Pennsylvania, I enjoyed beautiful views of Norfolk Southern’s main line, the famous Middle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.

From 30,000 feet, I spied the city of Altoona, Pa., and the sprawling Juniata Shops complex. I’ve taken this particular US Airways flight before, and have seen Altoona from this angle in the air, but this time we were far enough south that I traced the main line with my eyes. What a reward I got for doing this! Before it disappeared behind us, I glimpsed Horseshoe Curve, that aptly named civil engineering landmark that allows for a steady climb, where the PRR did battle with the Allegheny Mountains four tracks at a time. Even more astounding: I was able to pick out two stack trains converging at the curve, just east of the public viewing area. One was grinding upgrade; the other relying on dynamic brakes to retard its progress down the hill. Those containers make an easy and colorful way to spot a train from the air even when they‘re small enough to be the thickness of wire.

Our pilot did a remarkable job of following the Middle Division. I also was able to spot the famous arched bridges at Mount Union and Sherman’s Creek before we reached the granddaddy of all arched bridges in this region, Rockville Bridge over the Susquehanna. To my amazement, an eastbound train was just nosing onto the bridge. Just off the bridge, NS switchers were busy, working the leads for Enola Yard.

This part of the world is familiar to me, and it is especially vivid at the moment. Last month, CLASSIC TRAINS Editor Rob McGonigal and I spent a few days in the region, enjoying the sights, sounds, and scents of Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765 running NS employee specials (see the November 2012 and March 2013 issues of TRAINS for more coverage on this historic event). We followed the Berkshire on the Middle Division, photographing her at Sherman’s Creek, Mount Union, and of course, Horseshoe Curve. Seeing the places we just visited on the ground from 30,000 feet was a big thrill, and Keith Latimer, owner of  Bridgeview Bed & Breakfast, the lodging and train-watching spot that commands an impressive view of Rockville Bridge from the banks of the Susquehanna River, will be glad to know that his fine establishment is clearly visible at high altitudes. I promise I waved, Keith!

I’ve done airline railfanning before. From a Sacramento, Calif.-bound plane out of Chicago, I’ve spotted the Big 10 Curve just west of Denver on Union Pacific’s former Rio Grande. In my own home South, I’ve made out the Southern Railway loops near Old Fort on approach to the Charlotte-Douglas Airport. I imagine others, like me, love a window seat just to see what railroad landmarks we can see. Of course, there’s an extra bonus when you take a seat designated with an “A” or a “D.” We get to spot-check to see if National Geographic — and TRAINS, of course — got it right.

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