Eastern Pennsylvania/South Jersey Trip, May 7-10, 2006

By Jerry Jordak

The following narrative covers my road trip from May 7-10, 2006, across parts of southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey to photograph railroad operations.

Day 1: Sunday, May 7

Harrisburg and east

I'll start the trip narrative in Harrisburg, as I was out there already for the PRRT&HS convention. During the convention I didn't do much railfanning, other than spending an hour on Saturday morning at the "Iron Bridge" north of Enola Yard. (Photo) (Photo) (Photo)

I started that morning with a stop at HARRIS Tower in downtown Harrisburg. (Photo) The local NRHS chapter has preserved and restored the tower, including the interlocking machine and model board. They had a laptop computer hooked up to the interlocking machine to simulate trains going through the interlocking as levers were thrown to create lineups through the plant.

Leaving Harrisburg, I stopped at Middletown, home base of the Middletown & Hummelstown Railroad. Not much had changed there since the last time I visited several years ago. They still have their T6 1016, originally built for the Newburgh & South Shore. (Photo). I also discovered a former Penn Central work truck! (Photo).

Next I moved on to Strasburg. Since it was around noon, I decided to go visit the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania first, and then when I was finished there, the sun would be lower and I could go shoot the Strasburg Railroad. While going through the Museum, I got to see outside their recently-restored PRR G39A ore jenny (Photo).

Afterwards, I walked across the street and shot Strasburg 2-10-0 90 arriving at the station and passing the restored J Tower as it ran around the train in preparation for the next trip. (Photo) I also got some shots of the train arriving at Leaman Place, and on the return trip blasting across the Amish countryside. (Photo)

I then headed east, making a stop at Parkesburg to shoot a westbound Amtrak train near PARK Tower, and then arrived at Thorndale to get some pictures of THORN Tower. By this point, the clouds rolled in. After getting something to eat, I shot an eastbound Amtrak train passing the tower. (Photo) From here, I headed down to Essington and got a room for the night.

Day 2: Monday, May 8

Bonding with Baldwins

Monday was cloudy and overcast all day long, but I made the best of it. I first headed to Bridgeport to the home of SMS Lines, known throughout the railfan community for the fleet of Baldwins they operate. Of course, going to any new place, you're not sure what kind of reception you're going to receive. I pulled into the parking lot, and a fellow from the shop saw me, he looked at my license plate and said "You must be a U-boat fan." (My plate says "NH 2525", a New Haven U25B that is preserved at the Railroad Museum of New England.) About that point I realized that I was going to fine, and I was.

I ended up riding around with the crew all day as they did their work. Jimmy was the engineer, and on the ground were John and Brian, the SMS general manager. Most of the day was spent using the 102, an unusual DS4-4-750 switcher that was originally built for Youngstown Sheet & Tube. It came from the Pickens Railroad, and was wearing gray paint instead of the classy SMS green paint scheme. (Photo) Apparently paint seems to be a curse for a lot of their engines, as they sometimes suffer mechanical problems after getting painted, but not always. They also used briefly AS616 554, which is painted in SMS green. The big engine was a former Southern Pacific engine, and still has a well-worn SP engineer's seat.

After the SMS guys were done, and after spending a few minutes in the crew trailer with Jimmy and my DeLorme Atlas getting directions to other points of interest around South Jersey, I headed up to Paulsboro to see if the CA-21 job was leaving, but it had not. This is a train that works the Conrail (Shared Assets) Penns Grove Secondary in the afternoon, and I wanted to get a shot of it on the moveable bridge at Bridgeport. So I kept heading south following the Penns Grove Secondary, and ended up in Deepwater, near the PG&E power plant. There was an empty NS coal parked train in the yard. (Photo) I also managed to catch one of the two switchers that works inside the power plant and the adjacent DuPont works as it came out to drop off some covered hoppers (loaded with fly ash, maybe?) in the yard. (Photo)

After this, I made a brief run over to Salem to get acquainted with the Southern Railroad of New Jersey (SRNJ) line over there that I would be shooting the next day, and then headed back to Philadelphia to go meet some friends for dinner. Even though the weather wasn't the best, I still enjoyed the day. After all, riding around all day in a vintage Baldwin switcher sure beats a day at the office!

Day 3: Tuesday, May 9

Hurry up and wait

Tuesday I began the day in Salem, NJ, on the SRNJ. I had talked to my friend Steve Barry the night before and asked him some questions about this line. One of the things he told me was that they don't do anything very fast. It was a fact that I would be reminded of over and over through the day.

The first challenge was finding the crew. SRNJ keeps their motive power inside the Mannington Mills plant, one of two major customers at this end of the line. The plant is off-limits to the public, so unlike most short lines, where you show up at the yard office/enginehouse/headquarters and ask what's the game plan for the day is, on this line you don't really know until they come out of the plant.

I parked outside of the plant near a wye track located near the grade crossing on the road that leads to the plant. By walking a short distance along the main track around a curve, I could look up the main line across a bridge and into the plant grounds, but I didn't see any activity, so I went back into town and took a look around the SRNJ's yard. It was a 4 or 5 track affair, mostly filled with covered hoppers, but it also contained a couple of relics, including a Washington Terminal RS1 (Photo) and the former PRSL Salem freight station (Photo).

Afterwards, I went back to my previous parking place by the Mannington Mills plant and walked around the curve of the wye, where I saw a headlight in the distance. That was a good sign. Some time passed before I started hearing radio chatter, so they must have just started their locomotive.

For about a half hour, they moved around cars inside the plant, and made one move down across the grade crossing to their yard located in town. Motive power this day was chopnose GP9 100, painted in SRNJ's red and white color scheme that mimics the Jersey Central's final paint scheme, dubbed the "Coast Guard" scheme by some fans. At one point, when it seemed like they were going to need a few minutes to complete a runaround move, I decided to make a quick trip into town to grab something for breakfast. Sure enough, I got back five minutes later to find the train gone.

I asked some fisherman at the bridge by the yard if they had seen a train go through, and they advised me that it had gone down towards the Anchor Glass plant. Shoot. So I booked over there, parking in front of a couple of abandonded houses across the street from the plant, and found the engine inside. They proceeded to screw around for about a half hour, moving a car from one track to another, then sitting for 5-10 minutes, then moving another car, then sitting for af few more minutes, etc. Finally they got their outbound cars sorted out and came out of the plant and headed back to the yard. (Photo) As the conductor was closing the plant gates, he informed me that they were going back to the yard to make up their train, and then would head north to Swedesboro to interchange with Conrail. Okay, so at least they're going eventually make the run north that I came here to photograph.

Turns out that "eventually" was the operative word here, as they went back to the Salem yard, made a couple of moves to assemble their train, and then proceeded to sit there for about a half hour and go nowhere. In the meantime, I worked on setting up my shot of the train for when it would leave, cleared some vegetation, talked to the fishermen on the bridge and watched them catch a few fish, etc. Finally, the train started to pull out, and I got a really nice shot.

I then headed north to the first crossing north of town, at Acton Station Road, where I found a work crew installing new rail on the line. Turns out that the county is paying for some much-needed track improvements on the route for about three miles north out of Salem. As I was parking the car under some trees (Jordak's Fifth Rule of Railfanning: Park in the shade whenever possible), I noticed that there was a crane on the tracks and a semi flatbed trailer parked across the tracks at the grade crossing. Shortly after my arrival, the work crew must have received word that the train was coming and that they needed to clear up. What ensued was a Chinese fire drill as they first attempted to move the semi from its original position perpendicular to the tracks and park it along the right-of-way parallel to the tracks. After nearly wiping out a homeowner's fence and one of the worker's personal vehicles in the process, they decided that it would be more expedient to just pull the truck and trailer up the road a few yards and leave it there for the short time that the train needed to pass. Once the truck and trailer were secure, they then pulled the crane up on the crossing, raised its hi-rail wheels, and parked it along the ROW (the crane also had tires in addition to its rail wheels).

Finally, the train showed up (Photo) and I chased it east. I just missed it at the next crossing, but beat it to the next one. At that point, the line started to bend to the north. It was also the end of the county's track rehab project, as the train slowed considerably. Worse yet, the next several crossings were terrible photo locations. At almost all of these crossings, the tracks were literally in a tunnel of trees, with an opening that was barely larger than the size of the locomotive. Furthermore, the track was in abysmal condition, being completely overgrown in grass and weeds in many places. So, to make a long story short, I ended up parking in Woodstown, just north of the US Route 40 grade crossing, where a farmer's exchange mill and some other buildings provided less-foliated vistas than I had seen south of town, although there was plenty of foliage on the right-of-way itself (Photo).

Forty minutes later, a headlight appeared in the distance. As the train ambled closer, I set up for my planned shot. The gates and lights at the US 40 crossing went on, the train came up to the crossing.....

And stopped. (Photo)

The engineer got off the train, shut off the grade crossing signals, and walked to a nearby diner, presumably to pick up lunch. Hopefully he had called ahead to put in his order. I figured in a few minutes he would be back and they would be underway again. Wrong. A half-hour later, the engineer returned and the train started across the busy highway. The extra delay actually helped, as the light swung around to the other side of the tracks, which made for a better picture of the farmer's exchange in the background, even though the whole scene was still pretty badly backlit. They stopped to make a pickup of an outbound empty covered hopper at the farmer's exchange, which gave me a chance to get up to the next grade crossing for another shot, and then set up at another crossing on the north side of town for a shot of the train coming out of another tree tunnel and passing an old cast iron whistle post.

From here, the tracks followed a county road almost all the way to Swedesboro. Of course, the road was on the shadow side of the tracks, and the other side was almost solid trees. I found one crossing where the trees stopped, and I got several shots across a farm field of the train. Going north from there, though, the next several crossings were useless for photos. There was a really neat wooden trestle over a creek I saw....that was buried among trees. (I bet that bridge was a nice shot in PRSL days, though...when those trees were mere saplings.)

Finally, I found a nice open shot across a field just south of Swedesboro, where the tracks passed a food distributing warehouse. Of course, I had gone a few miles without waiting for the train, so I sat under a tree and waited for the train to appear. During this time, I saw a woman in a minivan drive across the crossing a couple of times, parked across the road and look down the tracks, and then drive off again, then come back, then drive off again. I figured that either she was going to report me as a terrorist, or I had fulfilled my life-long dream of meeting a female railfan who was as gung ho as me.

About 20 minutes later, I saw a headlight in the distance, back in the trees under the New Jersey Turnpike overpass. Of course, this being the SRNJ, they weren't going to make it easy, as the locomotive's ditchlights abruptly shut off and the engine stopped. Now what?, I wondered. About ten minutes later, here came the locomotive--sans train. It headed into Swedesboro, and I got a couple shots of it as it came into town.

They pulled down and coupled onto a cut of cars and the conductor started walking down the line checking the cars. I then noticed that same minivan again on the other side of the tracks. figured we had a few minutes, so I decided to go see what was up. As I was walking over to the minivan to ask the woman when she was going to call me in to the authorities, the rear door slid open and I saw two toddlers in the backseat. Yep...turns out that Mom had a couple of kids who really liked trains and wanted to watch. Afterwards, the conductor confirmed my suspicion that they left their outbound cars south of town, and had to get their inbound cars before they could drop off their outbounds. So that meant a couple more moves between Turnpike and downtown.

In Swedesboro, the area where the Conrail-SRNJ interchange is located is on somewhat of a grade. I had relocated to the next crossing south to watch them start to pull south, as did Mom and her kids. With a roar, I heard that old Geep start to pull, and it was putting on a nice sight and sound show coming up the grade. Suddenly, the engine stopped and the headlight went out. Now quite acustomed to such things, I walked down the tracks to see what was going on. I noticed an eerie silence as I got closer, and when I got there, the engineer and conductor had hood doors open and were looking around the prime mover. The locomotive had quit on them and they were trying to fix it.

Try the PA-21 again

Considering that I had a 6:30 dinner appointment with a friend up in Mount Laurel, and that they might not get back to Salem until the following week at this rate, I decided to leave the SRNJ chase at this point and headed north to Paulsboro, where I found a train rolling north through the yard. Turns out that was the CA-11 job heading back to Camden, and PA-21 was going on duty to head south. So I went down to Gibbstown where they had to pick up some cars and got a shot of PA-21's light engine (CSXT GP38-2 2797) rolling light through town. They made their pickup and were gone. I hauled tail down to Bridgeport, where I was able to get a long telephoto shot of the train crossing the Bridgeport swing bridge from the nearby highway drawbridge. Since I couldn't make a left turn from where I was to resume my chase, I knew that I wouldn't easily catch up to them again, so I ended up heading back north and calling it a day.

Day 4: Wednesday, May 10

Decisions, decisions

By Wednesday morning, I was getting tired and wanting to go home. I had been gone for about a week at this point, and decided that I wanted to be back home that night. Originally I was going to head south to do the Winchester & Western, but the weather forecast was inconclusive as to whether or not there would be sun. I awoke at 5:30 AM to a cloudy sky. After considering my options, I decided to forego the W&W and stick around the Philly area, then head for home around noon when the light (if there was any) started to get bad.


I first decided to go check out NJ Transit's new RiverLINE (yes, that's how they spell it), which features diesel multiple-unit cars (DMUs) running on the former PRR Camden & Amboy ROW (later the Conrail Bordentown Secondary). Conrail still services freight customers on the line at night, and the DMUs run during the day. (I think the Feds call that "temporal separation".)

My initial stop was in Palmyra, the first station I came to after getting off of Route 73. I had just parked my car and was looking at the schedule when I heard a horn, so I grabbed my camera and snapped a couple pictures of one of the DMUs making a station stop. I walked back to my car and was getting ready to drive further down the line when there was a tap on my car window.

Apparently, one of Palmyra's finest saw me taking pictures and wanted to know what I was doing. He asked for my ID, which I gave him, and answered some questions. He asked me why I was taking pictures (because I'm a train buff), do I still live in Ohio (yes), why I was out here (on vacation), why in the world I came to NJ of all places on vacation (to photograph trains and see friends), where these friends lived (Bensalem and Mount Laurel), and how long I was out here for (going home later today). About this point he finished writing down my name, rank, and serial number from my driver's license, and seemed satisfied that I wasn't a terrorist looking to blow up the RiverLINE, and bid me to have a good day. (I guess if NJ Transit was getting anywhere near the ridership levels on the RiverLINE that they had initially predicted, he might have had a point, but I can think of much busier rail lines in New Jersey to be concerned about. If you really want to see a potential terrorist threat, try looking at the country's borders and our government's ambivilence about tightening those up...)

Next, I went a little further north to the Cinnaminson station and waited for a shot (with camera in pocket this time). I noticed that NJ Transit had a couple of signs by the commuter parking lot showing the history of signals on this line (ala PRR position-light signals) and the evolution of grade crossing signals. Pretty neat! I shot one train arriving (Photo) and then seconds later, another arrived. Apparently, with alternating segments of single and double track on this line, that is rather common.

Continuing north, I came to Riverside, and found a decent spot on the north edge of town where the tracks passed a large abandonded factory/plant/some sort of industrial complex. After a short wait, a northbound DMU went by (Photo). I then noticed that the sky was starting to clear to the south, so I began to head that way, but then noticed that the former PRR station in Riverside was still standing. I stopped to get a picture of it, when a DMU approached, so I waited for it to make its station stop and snapped its picture passing the station (Photo).

Delair, Camden, and the AC Line

Next I headed south towards the Delair Bridge. I actually went past it and found a road that went down to a park near CP-HATCH, where the connection track from the Bordentown Secondary split off to go up onto the bridge. I arrived there to find NS train 39J waiting to depart and head over the bridge to Frankford Junction Yard in Philadelphia. So I headed back north and found a public boat ramp at the base of the bridge, which allowed me to set up a shot. Fortunately, the train waited for about 20 minutes before leaving, which gave the sun enough time to come out for its passage over the bridge.

After that, I headed south to go see where Pavonia Yard is, as that is the main freight yard for the Camden area. I learned how quickly the neighborhood can go downhill in a short distance. I knew Pavonia was in a rough neighborhood, and they were right. You would probably be OK there during the day, but I wouldn't go near there at night. There really wasn't any place to park and watch the yard activity, and you probably wouldn't want to hang out there anyway, so I left and headed north again to pick a spot to shoot a couple of NJ Transit trains on the Atlantic City line. I found a suitable overpass on Maple Avenue in Cherry Hill (or maybe it was in Pennsauken--I can't tell) and shot an inbound and outbound train in the span of 5 minutes.

Heading west

Since that would do it for excitement on this side of the river, except for RiverLINE DMUs, I decided to head across the river and start working my way west. Over the Ben Franklin Bridge I went, and took I-676 through center city and north on I-76 (the Surekill Distressway) out of the city. As I approached the exit for Conshohocken, I got to thinking that I might be able to find some shots in the valley on either the NS Reading Line or the parallel SEPTA line, so I exited and found a location on the SEPTA R6 line just east of downtown. My schedule indicated that two trains were due through shortly, and it was correct, as I got pictures of both of them. Following this, I got on the highway and headed for home, making a detour through New Castle, PA, to get some structure pictures for my model railroad structure construction. Thus ends my vacation narrative. Hope you enjoyed it and thank you for reading.