The Commodore's railroad, then and now

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Born in Staten Island, N.Y., the great-grandson of an indentured servant from the Netherlands, Cornelius Vanderbilt earned many fortunes in ferries and steam shipping before coming to railroads late in his long life. In 1863, at age 69, he bought control of the down-on-its-luck New York & Harlem, supposedly to prove his prowess in the field of the iron horse. This he quickly did. In six tumultuous years, Vanderbilt assembled the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad to Buffalo, N.Y., and the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern to the west, forming the nucleus of one of America’s great rail systems for the next century.
How did Vanderbilt do all this? Relates “Ruthless in business, Cornelius Vanderbilt made few friends in his lifetime but many enemies. He was a vulgar, mean-spirited individual who made life miserable for everyone around him, including his family.” They didn’t call him Commodore for nothing.
You’re spending today crossing New York on the Commodore’s old NYC&HR, although now it goes by the name of Amtrak, Metro-North Railroad, and CSX. The Maple Leaf emerges from under the streets of Manhattan into a developing snow storm that almost hides the Palisades across the Hudson River. Heading up Metro-North’s Hudson Line in the warmth of your coach, you pity the commuters huddled on station platforms against the blowing wind, their parked cars already turning white. Later, near Peekskill, a lull in the storm lets you witness the meet of two CSX freights on the parallel West Shore Line across the water. Not long afterward, at Poughkeepsie, you spy another southbound CSX intermodal train crawling under the great railroad bridge. Announces the conductor: “Ladies and gentleman, this is Coldkeepsie.”
Near Rhinecliff, a defect detector announces your speed as 94 mph. The Commodore would be pleased. You always admired his New York Central. From your briefcase you pull a 1951 Mohawk & Hudson Division timetable. Just 17 years before the merger with the Pennsylvania Railroad and 19 years before the enterprise collapsed into a catastrophic bankruptcy, the Central could still launch seven passenger trains from Grand Central Station toward Albany between the hours of 11:01 p.m. and 3:20 a.m. — which is to say, the dead of night — and 22 others over the course of 24 hours. Today’s Maple Leaf is running close to the schedule of 1951’s Advance Empire State Express, and you note that you’ll get to Buffalo 25 minutes faster than No. 55 of that bygone era.
You are about to conclude the Hudson is frozen solid when you observe a tugboat pushing a barge down river. This is not weather for sissies. Yesterday, near-zero temperatures and blowing winds froze the remote-control switches south of Albany and pretty much shut down Amtrak’s Empire Service. Today you cross your fingers.
West of Albany, with the addition of West Shore freights and Boston & Albany trains, the New York Central of 1951 was a wonder to behold. Thirty passenger trains went in each direction, half of the eastbounds leaving Syracuse between midnight and 4 a.m., and half of the westbounds leaving Albany between 5:15 p.m. and midnight. Those two walls of traffic passed in the night west of Syracuse, watched over by levermen in interlocking stations at Lyons, Palmyra, Wayneport, and East Rochester. Four tracks wide. Forty-two 24-hour offices and towers from Albany to Buffalo acting as the dispatchers’ eyes and ears.
Today some things remain as they were. Your little train gets a drink of diesel fuel at Albany-Rensselaer, loads passengers from an icy platform at Schenectady, and passes boarded-up factories along the route. But much has changed, too. The four tracks Albany west are two, the gaps left by Tracks 3 and 4 covered by a sheet of snow. The 30 pairs of passenger trains are four, and all but one of the 24-hour offices are history. In place of New York Central limiteds, today you see plenty of CSX freights. Let it be known, however, that south and west of
Rensselaer the Maple Leaf flirts with 110 and 100 mph, respectively. The Commodore’s railroad hasn’t gone away. It’s just different. — Fred W. Frailey

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