There are fans and then there are rail fans! There are rail fans and then there are specialist rail fans!! Meet Jon and Vic – the ALCO fans! Although based out of the UK, they travel the world to seek out and chase (in rail fan speak) the last of the operational ALCOs. India remains a stronghold of ALCO diesel locomotives, and expectedly so, is big on their list. That’s also how I happen to know them!
ALCO expands to American Locomotive Company. Founded in 1901 in Schenectady NY, it built steam and diesel locomotives till production ended in ’69. If you happen to come across an ALCO lover however, chances are they’ll be fans of the company’s diesels, more than anything else!
On a pleasant June morning in south eastern Pennsylvania, we join them on the ‘Lansdale Day Special’. It’s been about an hour since we left the town of West Chester and everything appears calm on board till we grind to a halt for an impromptu photo stop! The fans scramble, get into position track side and click away to their hearts content! There’s no mistaking the scene – this is a true ALCO fan trip 😉
The fans are mere spectators though – literally along for the ride! The real stars of the show however, are #1803 & #4230. The former an RS-18 and the latter a C242 class locomotive. Both were built in the 60s in Montreal for the Canadian Pacific Railway. They are now owned and operated by the West Chester Railroad, a tourist railway in Pennsylvania.
But that’s as far as the technicalities go. What, after all, makes an ALCO so special? Its a combination of the sights, sounds and smells peculiar to it – a fine balance, if you will – as any die-hard would attest to! And no doubt, the best way of taking in this multi-sensory experience is by sticking your head out through the window!
The Lansdale Day Special is ‘special’ for good reason! The West Chester Railroad operates along an 8-mile stretch of track, a former commuter line. Once a year, however, they are allowed to operate on SEPTAs (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) mainline into Philadelphia, and beyond, at mainline speeds! Due to signaling upgrades expected on the mainline next year, 2011 is to be the last year of this extended operation, and for that reason alone this run is ‘special’!
And so enthusiasts young and old have turned up everywhere – along way side stations, at grade crossings, track side and even along Chester Creek – waving to us enthusiastically, as we glide past them!
30 odd miles separate the town of West Chester from Philadelphia, and although the area in between could be considered the city’s western suburbs, it is far from that! A dense forest cover follows the rail alignment for most part, with the Chester Creek weaving in and out, necessitating several viaducts along the way, and causing the railway to run on an embankment from time to time, offering us sweeping vistas of our surroundings!
A spirited run and some 90 minutes after having left West Chester, we are deposited on to Track 5 of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Expectedly, our arrival there is met with a great deal of excitement, a battery of photographers, and some confused looks from unsuspecting commuters!
30th Street is to be a technical halt, long enough to allow for a look around the station. Given that I’ve gotten off and boarded buses (from and to New York!) several times just outside the station, it’s a real shame I’ve never been inside! Exorbitant prices, poor frequency and slow run times are to blame for that – a sad commentary on how unattractive rail travel has become within the US!
The negatives of rail travel aside, the station itself is a beauty – Neoclassical exterior, grand Art Deco interior – chandeliers, 95-ft high ceilings, the works!! And I’m more than glad to finally lay my eyes on it 😉
In the UK they refer to it as ‘clag’, back in India they call them ‘smokers’, to the untrained eye it’s only exhaust, and very subtly put, it’s simply emissions! And while every environmentalist would cry foul, the ALCO lover would revel in the moment. So it’s not at all surprising when I overhear someone say ‘breathe deeply’, and almost on cue Vic announces, ‘Gentlemen, we have lift off!!!’
We lose time somewhere between Glenside and Lansdale but no one’s really complaining! In fact, if anyone deserves to complain, it should be the Lansdale locals, who have been waiting at their station patiently to greet us into their town. And it is indeed a privilege to be there, for not often is a turnout so big, nor a reception so warm, for a mere train’s arrival 😉
We have a lay over of a couple of hours at Lansdale and after we have had our fill of photographing the ALCOs – if that were even possible – we make our way towards Main St. The annual Lansdale Day fair has been planned to coincide perfectly with the run of the special train (one could argue it is vice versa!), and the street fair has all the usual trappings one would expect at such an event – local merchants displaying their wares, activities for kids, and food, a lot of it I might add!!
There are plenty of choices, of course, and it takes the better part of Main St. to convince me of what to get! I try a Pulled Turkey Sandwich at one of the stalls – a first for me, and I come away suitably impressed – it tastes almost as good as the Pork version! My experimentation goes further with a version of the Potato that traces its roots back to the far east (of Asia!) but is evidently popular in this part of the US! The process of making it is best described here and it’s aptly named Twistix – Potato with a twist!!
More than fueled up for the journey back, we board the ‘Special’ once more and depart Lansdale at a little past 4 in the evening. The bulk of photo stops are to be made on the run back to Philadelphia – 4 in all – and at each of these there is a mad scramble to get to the door first, and then sprint out to the head of the train for a quick shot, or a series of shots, as is often the case!
But the smarter ones never follow the herd! They stay put at their seat, survey the locale carefully and occasionally choose an unorthodox vantage point from which to get that extra special shot 😉
At the corridor end of each carriage is posted a sign that reads, ‘WARNING – Passengers must keep head and arms inside windows’. It is one with good intent, no doubt, but every rail fan worth his/her salt knows better and ignores it blissfully – as do I!! After all, how often in the US does one actually get to put their head out of the window, and that to on a ‘mainline’???
Philadelphia arrival is expectedly late and we miss our connecting Megabus back! Finally, it seems, I’m going to be forced to travel to NYC by train! We choose the cheapest option available – a SEPTA commuter train to Trenton and then a New Jersey Transit (NJT) commuter train into New York’s Penn Station – a slower, more expensive option than the bus, for sure, and by electric trains no less – the ones ALCO fans derogatively refer to as ‘Sparky’s’ !!!
A full set of pics from the trip can be seen here.