Ten Days Before Conrail

Posted by George Hamlin
on Saturday, September 10, 2022

On March 21, 1976, I headed to West Trenton, New Jersey, to intercept and photograph the “Farewell to the Reading” excursion behind a pair of the railroad-made-famous-by-the-game-of-Monopoly’s remaining fleet of EMD FP7 diesel locomotives at West Trenton, New Jersey.

Conrail was on the way, of course, and would be arriving, appropriately, some wags contended, on April first.  Railfans in the Northeast were in high gear photographing the equipment and operations of the soon to be “Fallen Flag” railroad components that were being melded into Conrail Even operating employees were seen doing this, including one wearing a tee shirt bearing the heralds of the railroads that were about to disappear, under the legend “Same Clowns, Different Circus”.

Since I’d never visited the former Pennsylvania Railroad’s facilities at Morrisville, Pennsylvania, just across the Delaware River from Trenton, it seemed like a worthwhile activity to check it out after the Reading event.  Once onsite, permission was granted, and I unlimbered my camera and got to work.

A real prize was former New Haven EP-5 electric 4973, sitting next to a set of former Pennsy E44 electric freight locomotives.  Once, the EP-5s (nicknamed “Jets” due to their loud cooling blowers) were the New Haven’s most modern passenger electrics.  Replaced by GG1s in those duties following the Penn Central merger, this one now was assigned to local freight service in the Trenton area.

Also present were some former-PRR Alco RSD-12 six-axle road-switchers, which I had not photographed previously; the result can be seen above.

Take a good look at the 6865, as an indicator of why changes were about to be in the offing.  While the overall physical condition of the locomotive doesn’t appear to be too bad (although appearances can be deceiving!), it’s not hard to believe that it’s been “ridden hard and put away wet” on multiple occasions.  The paint isn’t in awful shape, but it looks like the white PC markings are in the process of dissolving.  My suspicion is that its most recent cleaning was whenever it rained last.

The surroundings aren’t exactly “neat as a pin”, either.  Spills and debris abound; this must have been quite a place to work, from a personal safety perspective. All of which conjures up something that can’t be seen in the photo; namely, how did the employees responsible for using the equipment pictured manage to get their jobs done, and trains over the road, hopefully safely? 

Nobody ever said (with limited exceptions, generally featuring new equipment) that 1970s railroading was a neat, clean way to make a living, but looking at this scene makes the observer wonder about what other difficulties were connected to operating the Penn Central in its final days.  Were parts and supplies at hand, and in sufficient quantities; could crews have much of any confidence that the equipment would operate reliably?  Appearance isn’t everything (“dirty diesels pull just as well as clean ones”), but morale must have been an essentially unknown factor among PC operating employees by this time.

I’ll bet that that there are many interesting tales about this railroad and time period. I also wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there were unsung heroes that managed to keep things going, and reasonably safe, as well.

The impetus for the formation of Conrail was largely the Penn Central’s bankruptcy, which threatened to take down rail service in much of the northeast; looking at the 6865 and its surroundings at Morrisville on that March day, it’s not hard to see why a form of corporate euthanasia was necessary for the PC. I don’t know whether the 6865 made it into “dress blue” (and in any case, it took a while for Conrail to get its footing established), but suspect that the locomotive and those operating it would have been glad for the change.

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