Trackside in 1977

Adventures on the Northeast Corridor

CNJ GP40-P 3673, Newark Penn Station, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Back in 1977, my father and I wandered all over railroad rights-of-way to make our photos, and we rarely if ever got hassled.  That spring, Amtrak debuted its newly-restored GG1 electric locomotive, No. 4935, bright and shiny in a recreation of its as-delivered Brunswick green paint with Dupont Dulux gold pinstriping and lettering, and in addition to witnessing its maiden run in May, we saw the new superstar on a couple of other occasions when we went out to New Jersey -- sometimes by car, sometimes on the PATH trains that connected lower Manhattan with Hoboken and Newark. The photos here all date from during that year.

GG1 exiting North River Tunnel, North Bergen, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Westbound GG1 exiting the North River Tunnel

North Bergen, New Jersey

An unidentified GG1 comes out of the Bergen Hill portal of the North River Tunnel, 2.9 miles out of New York's Penn Station, headed for Newark's Penn Station and points south -- railroad west.  Overhead, U.S. Routes 1 and 9 (Tonnelle Avenue) cross on the concrete deck bridge dating from a quarter-century after the Pennsy opened the tunnels.

Amtrak Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 4935 eastbound, North River Tunnel, North Bergen, New Jersey, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak 4935 eastbound at North River Tunnel

In 1977, at the instigation of and with funding from a group of railfans calling themselves the Friends of the GG1 (FOGG), Amtrak repainted one of their former Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 electric locomotives in its original paint scheme -- arguably the first "heritage unit" on a modern American railroad (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritage_unit for a listing of currently-operating diesel locomotives that carry this label).

The workers at the Wilmington Shops, which had taken care of the Gs since the first one appeared in 1934, took the job very seriously, making mechanical and electrical repairs on the "motor" (as Pennsy men called every electric locomotive) as well as smoothing out some of the dents that had accumulated on the 4935's steel bodywork in the thirty-four years since she had rolled out of the erecting hall at Altoona in April 1943, the fourth-to-last of more than a hundred of the 139 Gs that the Pennsy assembled there beginning in 1935.

In late April and through May 1st of 1977, the paint crews sprayed multiple coats of Dupont Dulux onto the locomotive, finishing with the Brunswick Green topcoat. Then the masking tape came off, revealing the five gorgeous pinstripes that ran along both sides of the locomotive, and the P E N N S Y L V A N I A lettering in PRR Gothic, and all of the myriad other details.

The whole project had sprung out of an opinion column in Trains Magazine the previous year written by a fan named Howard Serig, and the magazine had kept my father and me up to date on progress -- to the point that we knew when No. 4935 would first appear on a train from Washington to New York, so we went out into the Jersey Meadows on the 15th of May to photograph the new superstar.

After that, we went out to photograph the Gs and other trains on the Northeast Corridor with some regularity, and later that year we ran into the 4935 by chance a couple of times.  On this occasion, we had trespassed onto the railroad right-of-way where the tracks surface in New Jersey after coming through three miles of tunnel from Penn Station in New York City; 4935 appeared on a northbound train leading another GG1 -- a rarity in passenger service (the Gs turned the 11,000-volt alternating current in the catenary wires above them into 4,620 continuous horsepower, with a short-time rating of 8,500 horsepower -- considerably more than any single-unit steam or diesel locomotive ever built -- and most passenger trains would not cause them to break a sweat).  Perhaps these two had an especially heavy Florida train behind them, or perhaps Amtrak simply needed to move an extra G to New York; I did not photograph the rest of the train and have no record of how many cars trailed the two motors.

"Penn Station, next stop. Penn Station, New York, in five minutes."

Eastbound Amtrak Metroliner, North River Tunnel, North Bergen, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Metroliner eastbound at North River Tunnel

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In mid-1977, Amtrak had operated the Metroliners for six years between New York and Washington, but many of the very fast multiple-unit electric cars still carried their Pennsylvania Railroad colors -- just a narrow red stripe around the windows on the stainless-steel exteriors; the small railroad logos on the cab fronts and on the car sides had disappeared (Penn Central worms had replaced Pennsy keystones in 1968, even before the new trains officially entered service), and Amtrak did not get its own insignias applied in any rush. My father and I did not go out intending to photograph the silver tubes -- we liked the GG1s -- but when the Metroliners went by I exposed a few frames of film on them.

Here, at least four cars swing around the curve that leads to the North River Tunnels, which this train will enter in less than two hundred yards.  The third and fourth car now carry Amtrak stripes and the pointless arrow, but the lead two have minimal decoration -- just the thin red stripes, their road numbers, and small car-type lettering by each door.

Amtrak Metroliner eastbound, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Eastbound Metroliner, Kearny, N.J.

 

This eastbound train speeds through the Meadows with Portal Drawbridge just ahead, the North River Tunnel three miles ahead, and the last stop at Penn Station New York three miles beyond that.

Amtrak Metroliner westbound, LANE Tower, Newark, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Westbound Metroliner at LANE Tower, Newark

LANE Tower stands between Newark's Penn Station and Elizabeth, New Jersey; at this location Conrail (formerly the Penn Central and before that the Pennsylvania Railroad) freight trains joined the Northeast Corridor.  The flyover in the background takes a northbound passenger main over the southbound freight track coming out of Waverly Yard and the cut-off from Meadows and Greenville Yards east of Newark, the Pennsy's main New York-area marshalling facilities.  The Pennsy put the massive substation here at the junction to serve both passenger and freight traffic.

This westbound train has one of the already-modified cars (Metroliner service officially started in January 1969), with the dynamic-braking resistors and the air intakes in the RDC-like housing on the roof; this reduced the overheating and the snow ingestion that plagued equipment mounted underneath the cars as originally built.  Still, the car carries no Amtrak identification.

New Jersey Transit GG1 4883, LANE Tower, Newark, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

New Jersey Transit GG1 4883 at LANE

No. 4883 still wears her broad yellow Pennsy stripe even after conveyance to New Jersey Transit (and the Pennsy had disappeared into Penn Central nine years earlier), and she now has small NJDOT lettering under her road number as she heads south for Rahway, Union Interlocking, the Perth Amboy & Woodbridge, and the New York & Long Branch -- now known as the North Jersey Coast Line.

Amtrak E60 974 eastbound, LANE Tower, Newark, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Eastbound Amtrak E60 974 at LANE

 

In 1977, the oldest GG1 had just turned forty-three years old, and the Gs' supposed replacements on Amtrak, E60s built by General Electric, had yet to put three years of revenue service behind them -- but the E60s had already demonstrated their fatal flaw, badly-designed trucks and bolsters that limited their top operating speed to 85 miles per hour, and around the same time that I made this photo of No. 974 eastbound at LANE, Amtrak had already started planning to acquire the E60s' replacements, the Swedish-design AEM-7s that served until 2018.

 

Unlike most towers that the Pennsy built for the ages, in stone and brick, the wood-frame LANE has long since come down.  In something of an irony, it stood less than a mile -- and in direct line of sight -- from the control tower at Newark International Airport.

Amtrak E60 959 westbound, Newark Penn Station, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Westbound Amtrak E60 959 at Newark Penn Station

Although imperfect, the E60s survived on Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, the last of them not retired until 2003.  Not at all attractive -- looking like the box a locomotive could have come in -- I wonder what impression the 959 made on the passengers waiting on the platform that day.

CNJ GP40P 3673, Newark Penn Station, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

New Jersey Transit GP40P 3673 at Newark Penn Station

Sometime in the fall of 1977, my father and I took the PATH train out to Penn Station in Newark, New Jersey, and spent part of the afternoon photographing the passing parade.  This included recently-repainted GG1 No. 4935 (see below) on a southbound Amtrak run as well as other Gs, E60s, and this former Central of New Jersey Geep waiting to head west for Somerville and Phillipsburg.

Built by the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors in 1968 to a special order by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the thirteen GP40Ps had elongated frames and an odd squared-off rear end on the long hood, to house a steam generator.  The units operated on the two CNJ commuter lines still in service, on the mainline to Phillipsburg (all of the way across New Jersey, on the Delaware River facing Pennsylvania, 62 miles from Newark) and on the New York & Long Branch and beyond to Bay Head on the Jersey shore -- what we now call the North Jersey Coast Line; Bay Head lies 57 miles from Newark.

By 1968, the CNJ had fallen far from its heights as the "Big Little Railroad"; when it declared bankruptcy in 1967, that made three times since 1939.  The Baltimore & Ohio had become the Central's protector by then, by dint of the freight trains that the B&O operated to New York Harbor on the CNJ's tracks east of Bound Brook, N.J.; until 1958, the B&O had also run its passenger trains on the Central, to the CNJ's Jersey City Terminal, shared with the Reading Company's trains as well, and all three railroads' passengers took ferries past the Statue of Liberty to lower Manhattan -- so the CNJ's Lady Liberty logo made good sense.  The baker's dozen GP40Ps came in B&O colors -- handy in case the Central folded and the modified freight units ended up pulling TimeSavers instead of passenger cars.

In 1976, with the arrival of Conrail, NJDOT took over the passenger trains (Conrail operated them under contract), but the blue and yellow paint lasted on the Geeps until the formation of New Jersey Transit in 1983; silver paint and "disco stripes" eventually adorned the units, and the steam generators got traded for head-end-power electric generators -- at which point the locomotives' classification changed to GP40PH.  To avoid conflicts with other 3600-series locomotives on Conrail, the GP40PHs became 4100s; No. 3673 became 4102.  In the early '90s, all thirteen got rebuilt to Dash 2 standards, coming back as GP40PH-2s -- and No. 4102 became 4110.  In February 1996, a train pushed by 4110 ran a stop signal at Bergen Junction in the Secaucus Meadows and hit nearly head-on a train pulled by another GP40PH-2; both engineers died.

By 2014, NJT had invested in newer power, and most of the Geeps went in for conversion for non-revenue service (i.e. pulling work trains and the like); they lost their head-end power generators and had other small modifications made.  Although the railroad did not change their classification, they now more closely resemble GP40-2s.  In 2020, No. 4110 continues in service, occasionally as a "cab car" on push-pull trains while the actual passenger equipment sits in the shop as NJT works to install Positive Train Control before the December 31st deadline.

Fifty-two years after rolling off the erecting floor at LaGrange, and forty-three years after I saw her in Newark, this locomotive continues to earn her keep on the same hundred or so miles of track.  And somewhere I still have the 11x14 print of this photo that hung on my bedroom wall as a kid -- one of my favorite pictures made at age 12.

PATH train westbound at Dock Drawbridge, Newark, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

PATH train crossing Dock Drawbridge, Newark

 

When the Pennsylvania Railroad electrified its main line between New York and Washington in the 1930s, it also made substantial improvements all along the route.  This included building an entirely new station in downtown Newark and an all-new bridge leading to it from the east.  Dock actually consists of two parallel lift bridges directly adjacent to each other, each carrying three tracks; the eastern span, seen here, has one track used by the mainline trains and two tracks used by the PATH rapid-transit trains that connect Newark with Hoboken and lower Manhattan.  In the Newark station, trains from New York like this one use a platform on the upper level, keeping their passengers entirely separate from those heading to New York, who board on the main level.

Amtrak E60 966 westbound at Dock Drawbridge, Newark, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak E60 966 westbound at Dock Bridge, Newark

 

Seen from the end of one of the station platforms, an Amtrak train crosses the Passaic River approaching Penn Station, Newark.  This E60 has head-end-power connections to the Amfleet coaches behind it, meaning internal circuitry transforms the 11,000-volt alternating current from the catenary overhead to the 480 volts necessary for HEP .

Amtrak GG1 4895 westbound, Dock Bridge, Newark, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak GG1 4895 westbound at Dock Bridge

The "Heritage fleet" of passenger cars that Amtrak inherited from all of the railroads that joined it in 1971 had steam heat, and each car had its own axle-powered generator for lights.  The 4895 dated back to April of 1940, assembled at the Pennsy's giant Juniata Shops complex in Altoona, Pennsylvania, using electrical components supplied by Westinghouse in Pittsburgh.  Over the course of eighty years, from 1866 to 1946, the Juniata Shops built 4,584 steam and electric locomotives.

Amtrak ex-Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 4935, Newark Penn Station, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo
Amtrak ex-Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 4935, Newark Penn Station, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak GG1 4935 at Newark Penn Station


On this day, probably in the fall, my father made a great image of her coming across the Dock Drawbridge at the east entrance to Newark, New Jersey's Penn Station; for some reason, I do not have a matching negative -- perhaps I had wandered too far down the platform to see her coming?  So I only have these of the G as she waited and then left town, headed down the Northeast Corridor mainline for Philadelphia and either Washington or Harrisburg.  We did not take notes on what we photographed (or, for that matter, the date or time), so anyone's guess about which train 4935 had in her charge that day -- but we can say for sure that the coaches had the steam heat on, given away by the feather of condensate at the G's pilot and above her roof.

Amtrak ex-Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 4935, Newark Penn Station, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo
Amtrak ex-Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 4935, Newark Penn Station, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak GG1 4935 at Newark Penn Station

 

Forty-three years later, I can hear the hum of her twelve motors as they accelerate away from the platform, and the rush of the blowers, fading into the distance as the sounds of the coaches' wheels on the jointed rail overtake them.

Conrail GG1 4854 at Meadows Yard, Kearney, New Jersey, 1077, Oren B. Helbok photo

Conrail GG1 4854 at Meadows Yard, Kearny, N.J.

 

Back when we could simply drive into working freight yards and look around, my father and I did that one day at the former Pennsy Meadows engine terminal a few miles east of Newark alongside the main line (where New Jersey Transit's Meadows Maintenance Complex now sits).  Amtrak had taken title to most of the newest Gs in 1971, leaving the Penn Central and then Conrail the oldest; No. 4854 dated to June of 1935, and in 1977 her ripply sheet metal showed ample evidence of four million miles of pretty-much-continuous day-in-and-day-out service.

Amtrak GG1 4930 westbound, Hudson Tower, Kearney, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak GG1 4930 westbound at Hudson Tower, Kearny

 

West of Meadows Yard, we found the maintainers' road that ran right between the former Pennsy and the former Lackawanna main line (and about at the location of the erstwhile Manhattan Transfer where between 1910 and 1930 steam locomotives traded places with electrics).  In 1977, Sherwin Williams still had a manufacturing facility on the other side of the Passaic.

GG1 No. 4930 had started out life in June of 1940 as 4904, renumbered by Amtrak in the early '70s (the original 4930 had come off the Penn Central roster in late 1968).  Almost undoubtedly unintentionally at age 12, I managed something of a pan shot of her as she climbed the grade towards the massive Dock Drawbridge across the Passaic River.  That looks like a sleeping car right behind the G; I wonder what train and where it went.

Amtrak ex-Pennsylvania Railroad Hudson Tower, Kearney, New Jersey, 1977, Orn B. Helbok photo

Amtrak Hudson Tower, Kearny, with NJT m.u. train

 

This view looks southwest across the Pennsy main, in the direction of PATH's huge maintenance facility adjacent to where Manhattan Transfer once stood.  The Newark skyline has changed considerably over more than forty years, and the giant Public Service Electric & Gas gasholder tank (almost dead-center in the image) has vanished.

All of the rest of the photos here come from two excursions my father and I made out into the Meadows in the spring and summer of 1977, when GG1s ran back and forth like streetcars.  Halcyon days indeed.

Amtrak GG1 westbound, Portal Draw, Kearney, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak GG1 westbound, Kearny

 

This westbound has just crossed the Hackensack River at the Portal Bridge, itself barely visible in the distance.

Amtrak GG1 westbound, Portal Draw, Kearney, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak GG1 westbound, Kearny

 

After photographing the 35mm negative of this image, I processed it using GIMP software.  The lean comes mostly from the original negative; I doubt that as a twelve-year-old I intended to make such a dramatic photo: I often just did not hold the camera straight!

Amtrak GG1 westbound, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak GG1 westbound, Secaucus, N.J.

 

Most Amtrak Gs wore solid black, but a handful got a unique version of the railroad's red-silver-and-blue livery (they called the silver "platinum mist").  With the red on top and wrapping around the front, this of course became known as the "bloody nose" scheme.  I made this photo on a very auspicious day, Sunday, May 15th, 1977.

Amtrak E60 966 eastbound at Croxton Yard, Secaucus, New Jersey, 15 May 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak E60 966 eastbound, Secaucus

 

The Pennsy moved mountains of fill to create almost seven miles of right-of-way between the mouths of the North River Tunnels in North Bergen, New Jersey, and Newark.  In addition to keeping the trains' toes dry through the Meadowlands (fetid swamps, made worse in those days by industrial waste that included all of the effluent from slaughterhouses in Secaucus), the elevation meant not a single grade crossing of a road or other railroad.

With less than two miles to go before burrowing under Bergen Hill and then the North River (the name by which the stretch of the Hudson alongside Manhattan goes), No. 966 and its short train of new Amfleet cars (probably train 220, the 5 p.m. "Clocker" from Philadelphia) has just crossed Conrail's former Erie Croxton Yard; in the lower right, note the boxcar still in dark green with script "Canadian Pacific" lettering -- the "CP Rail" multimark had not yet erased this piece of history.

And speaking of ancient history, dig the jointed rail on the Northeast Corridor!

This stretch of railroad now has three tracks and new low-level catenary towers that do not carry the high-voltage alternating-current feeder cables, and the Secaucus Junction station, opened in 2003 (where New Jersey Transit passengers can transfer between trains on the former Erie mainline and those on the former Pennsy) stands just a quarter-mile to the south of where the photographer stood.

Off in the distance at the left of the photo, the Pulaski Skyway -- U.S. Route 9 -- soars across the Hackensack River.

Amtrak GG1 904 eastbound at Croxton Yard, Secaucus, New Jersey, 15 May 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak GG1 904 eastbound, Secaucus

 

Fifteen or so cars long, this train practically disappears at the vanishing point of the photo.  A look at the 1977 Amtrak schedule shows this as likely the Silver Star from Florida running a little behind the advertised.

Amtrak GG1 4935 maiden run eastbound, The Murray Hill, Secaucus, New Jersey, 15 May 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo

Amtrak GG1 4935 eastbound with the Murray Hill

Secaucus, New Jersey

15 May 1977

 

Karl Zimmermann, in his 1977 Quadrant Press book The Remarkable GG1, tells the story of what led up to this photo that glorious day:

"At noon on Sunday, May 15, before a gathering of approximately 300 at Washington Union Station, the dedication ceremony began under brilliantly blue skies. Serig opened the program and was followed on [former Pennsylvania Railroad business car] No. 120's observation platform -- the perfect rostrum -- by Raymond Loewy [then aged 83], Amtrak president Paul Reistrup, and this author. In the climactic event, Mrs. Reistrup broke a bottle of Pennsylvania champagne over 4935's pilot, after speaking these words: 'To the Pennsylvania Railroad, "The Standard Railroad of the World," in honor of the men and women who worked for her and their service to the nation, I christen thee "Pennsylvania 4935".'

"Then all that remained was for engineer Harry Wilgris, a 36-year veteran (who thus had two years' seniority on his GG1), to make a perfect run to New York with No. 4935 on the 'Murray Hill', and for thousands at trackside to watch, photograph, and hail the rebirth."

My father and I must have found out about which date and which train in Trains Magazine -- how else in the pre-Internet era? -- and we went out into the Jersey Meadows as two of those thousands at trackside.  We chose a spot off County Road in Secaucus, just east of where the Northeast Corridor's two-track mainline crossed over Conrail's former Erie Croxton Yard; in that innocent age, we did not worry about getting hassled for trespassing.  Under the same clear blue skies as the train had left Washington under (although a little browner in the middle of industrial New Jersey), we photographed a few other trains that went by in each direction; I do not have any actual memory of the occasion, but I would imagine that my excitement rose the closer it got to when we would expect Train 160. According to the schedule available on the Web, we would have waited until about 6:53 p.m. -- still with plenty of daylight left (the sun would not set until after 8:00).

And here she came, a symphony in Brunswick green, drawing a train long enough to recede almost to the vanishing point -- first, a head-end-power car, then eight new Amfleet coaches, and at the end two Tuscan red ex-Pennsy heavyweight cars, the former "Alder Falls" and the No. 120.  This vision of eras spanning almost four decades swept past us at more than seventy miles per hour; I managed to hit the shutter release only a little early for the coming shot, but for the going-away my excitement just about got the better of me, as evidenced by the considerable camera shake (below).  The full complement on the 120's obs platform testifies to the enthusiasm of the people involved with FOGG; although I do not know any of them personally, and the fuzzy photo makes identification difficult, I would warrant that the group included Howard Serig and Karl Zimmermann.

What a glorious day!

Amtrak GG1 4935 maiden run eastbound, The Murray Hill, Secaucus, New Jersey, 15 May 1977, Oren B. Helbok photo