Can Conrail really be gone 10 years?

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Tuesday, June 23, 2009

By Matt Van Hattem

Senior Editor




For three weeks now I’ve been trying to ignore the voice in my head telling me that this month marks the 10-year anniversary of Conrail’s split-up.  

I’m not in denial so much because of what’s happened to the property since then. By all accounts, Norfolk Southern and CSX have done a tremendous job integrating Conrail’s physical plant and operations into their networks.


If anything, the denial represents my unwillingness to admit that 10 years have past since I could watch and photograph Conrail’s operations. (Not to mention, I’m now 10 years older — which could be the worst crime of all.)


If you’re reading this, chances are you have a railroad that became the microcosm through which you learned firsthand about the entire industry — what it was, how it worked, and what it all meant. For me, growing up in North Jersey, that railroad was Conrail.


I have vague memories of Penn Central (most of them involve trying to figure out what the heck that odd symbol was on the side of the locomotive).


But it was Conrail that grabbed my attention and opened my world to what freight railroads were and what they did.


Conrail’s demise was not sudden — it took three years of bidding wars, merger filings, new operating plans, and detailed reports of how routes, yards, locomotives, and cars would be divided (58 percent to NS, 42 percent to CSX).


As a corporate entity, Conrail disappeared in summer 1998, but its operations and name remained intact until the agreed-upon split day of June 1, 1999.


Sometime early in 1999, my best friend, Jimmy Winters, and I decided we should mark this occasion by documenting Conrail’s final week of existence.


Many of you, I’m sure, have done something similar when railroads you like have disappeared. You’ve made your own farewell trip, one last journey to say goodbye.


My colleague Andy Cummings got to photograph the last days of the railroad he had once worked for, Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern, and produced a beautiful story on it (“Black Hills Gold,” in the March 2009 issue of Trains Magazine).


By luck, the week before Memorial Day in 1999, I had to be in Chicago to attend the NRA conference (that’s the National Restaurant Association annual meeting).


Jimmy spent a few days in Philadelphia at the final Conrail Technical Society annual convention, then boarded Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian to Chicago. (Back then, the train made a long, 18.5-hour daytime run from Philadelphia to Chicago.)


I met him in Union Station at midnight (the train was late and I passed the time chatting with some inebriated Cubs fans who were waiting to board the Milwaukee District commuter trains that would take them home).


We spent the next 5 days driving Conrail’s main line from Chicago back to New Jersey.


It was a spectacular trip, following the historic Water Level Route, made all the memorable by an unprecedented string of 5 sunny days in a row.


I’m sharing these photos from our journey, plus one from the last day of Conrail, May 31, 1999.


There’s not much I can write about Conrail that hasn’t been said better by many others. (Pick up Rush Loving Jr.’s book “The Men Who Loved Trains” for the whole story about Conrail’s birth and dismemberment.)


But what strikes me about these photos is, here is a railroad going out in triumph.


So many of the mergers in the 1960s and ’70s were acts of desperation — the last-gasp spark from a corporate defibrillator to save a dying patient.


But Conrail’s slit-up was different. What Conrail did, it did well.


I wouldn’t even call it a victim of its own success. Railroading had changed so much since 1976 when Conrail was formed, and now one of the catalysts behind that sweeping change had to grow up and enter the new world it helped bring about — a world of transcontinental traffic lanes, longer hauls, and broad-reaching networks.


These photos show a railroad in peak form. The locomotives are clean. The roadbed is precisely maintained. The motive power is relatively new. The trains are brimming with the commerce that kept the Northeast working — trailers and containers, chemicals, bulk goods, automobiles.


The system itself ran like a well-oiled machine; we encountered only one train with a mechanical problem the entire 5 days.


Conrail went out on top. I’m glad I got to see it.


What are some of the farewell trips you’ve made?


Here is some information on the photos you’re seeing.


Photo 1: Conrail stack train TV-204 (Chicago-Elizabethport, N.J.) rolls east near Waterloo, Ind., at dusk. Wednesday, May 26, 1999, 7:05 p.m.


Photo 2: Led by a renumbered NS C40-8W, Conrail train TV-10 (Chicago-South Kearny, N.J.) crosses the Maumee River in Toledo, Ohio. Thursday, May 27, 1999, 9:30 a.m.


Photo 3: Conrail train TV-201 (South Kearny, N.J.- UP’s Global 1 terminal, Chicago), with 12 well cars of APL containers, passes eastbound intermodal/auto rack train TV-10 at Erie, Pa. Friday, May 28, 1999, 6:52 p.m.


Photo 4: Conrail and NS SD60 locomotives team up on train BUPI (Buffalo-Pittsburgh), which has just departed Frontier Yard and is entering the main line in front of Buffalo Central Terminal, on its way to Conway Yard. Saturday, May 29, 1999, 2:11 p.m.


Photo 5: Stretching 10,000 feet, the final TV-174 ushers in the future by delivering its cars to CSX’s Little Ferry, N.J., intermodal terminal. (The train had previously served the South Kearny, N.J., yard.) TV-174 is led by 3 CSX units (two B36-7s and a GP40-2), and other than some trailers on the head end, most of the train consists of empty flatcars being dropped off at the intermodal yards CSX will inherit. The date is May 31, 1999, Conrail’s last day of operation. New York’s World Trade Center rises up in the background, shrouded by the afternoon haze. Monday (Memorial Day), May 31, 1999, 4:00 p.m.

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