Gray and Gritty

Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, February 3, 2023

A half-century ago, this was a typical scene at what New York Central traditionalists still call “Harmon”, but by the afternoon of August 12, 1971, when the photo above was taken, it had been “Croton-Harmon” in the public timetable for the better part of a decade, and for that matter, served by the “Penn Central” for over three years. Located in Westchester County, New York, it was (and still is) a beehive of passenger train activity, punctuated occasionally by the modest number of through freights that ran down the east side of the Hudson River, as opposed to the “West Shore” route across the water, which had been freight-only for many years.

This view from what was the stairway down to the platform for tracks one and three, typically used for westbound (by timetable, but essentially northbound on a compass) trains proved to be an excellent vantage point for understanding the geography/geometry of this station. 

We’re looking north at track one, which is currently occupied by two sets of Budd RDCs (Rail Diesel Cars).  This track is set up to facilitate the electric-to-diesel motive power change that takes place when trains arrive from Grand Central Terminal in New York City, 32.7 miles distant to the south.  Since the NYC’s electric zone ends another mile or so north at Croton North Station, this is an utter necessity for both through/long-haul passenger trains and commuter/suburban runs that are destined to Peekskill or Poughkeepsie, the latter being the outer limit of this type of service on this railroad.

To track one’s immediate left is track two, where these processes are reversed.  Track four is on the far side of the platform utilized by track two, and like its westbound counterpart, track three (not visible to the right), is used primarily by suburban services that don’t need to swap engines, and that typically operate with electric MU (Multiple Unit) cars, and will terminate/originate either here or at Croton North.

All of what’s seen here, including the major shop facility pictured at the left, resulted from the electrification of the Central’s service into New York City in conjunction with the construction of the present version of Grand Central Terminal early in the twentieth century.  Electrified third rail is visible throughout the scene as a result.

The presence of the RDCs is indicative of something in the nature of a hybrid operation, however.  While there are some through trains to and from Poughkeepsie that are locomotive-hauled during peak rush hour times at both ends of the workday, off-peak schedules are handled by the Budd cars, often in multiple.

Thus, what we see here closest to us is the train that will make local stops as far north as Peekskill, and then turn back there.  Ahead of it is a consist destined to Poughkeepsie, which won’t stop at the locations between Croton-Harmon and Peekskill. Virtually all the passengers for both of these trains will arrive, via MU from points south on track 3, and make an across-platform transfer to the next conveyance.  In this case, the passengers change, not locomotives.

In the coming years, many other changes here will occur.  Even the then-new M-1 MU cars visible under the road bridge at the upper left will be supplanted by newer equipment.  On the positive side, at least prior to Covid-19, there will be enormous traffic growth, requiring more frequent service, and locomotive changes will be eliminated via the use of “dual-mode” (diesel and third rail compatible) motive power.  Hourly base service to Poughkeepsie with seven car trains became the rule; the RDCs (and even Budd’s attempt at their direct replacement, the SPV -- now generally described as “Seldom Powered Vehicles”) haven’t been viewed here in many years.

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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