The Endless Excursion

No, not the just-concluded, interminable presidential campaign—this was a railroad excursion, sponsored by an organization called the Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts, Inc. I had long wanted to go on one of these rail trips on, and behind, vintage equipment, so when I learned that the MBRRE were offering an excursion out of Worcester and down into Connecticut, there to ride behind a steam locomotive, I eagerly signed up.

Somehow I had not heard of the MBRRE, until a fellow working behind the key-and-rental counter at Robinson’s Hardware here in town spotted my Penn Central hat (the one I bought in 2009 at the famous Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, PA) and gave me a copy of the MBRRE newsletter, The Callboy. There I read about a

‘Two Rivers Steam Special’

on the Providence & Worcester Railroad,
Amtrak and the Valley Railroad

Worcester – Putnam, CT – Groton – Old Saybrook – Essex, CT – Goodspeeds & Return

Mass Bay RRE joins forces with the Providence & Worcester Railroad and the Valley Railroad to offer this unique charter train experience, operating over three railroads and diesel and steam power!

two-rivers-adThe excursion was scheduled for Saturday, October 29th, when I have a radio show (‘Hillbilly at Harvard’) to attend to, but fortunately that sold out, so they added a Sunday excursion as well. I joined the MBRRE in haste, enlisted my friend Guy, also a rail fan and—unbeknownst to me—already a member; we got up at the crack of dawn on the 30th, and drove to the P&W’s headquarters in Worcester, MA in time for the 8:20 AM departure. Now you will note that this was to be an all-day affair, not returning until 9:15 or so at night. It turned out to be even a little longer.

Here’s the train preparing to depart.


We learned later from Dave Brown, the affable President of the MBRRE, that although the Providence and Worcester is a short line* (see below for railroad terms defined) devoted to freight, it maintains a roster* of refurbished passenger cars, which it offers for railway excursions to groups like the MBRRE (many to the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council). On this train we had three coaches, originally built for the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1950s, now named ‘Vermont’, ‘New York’, and ‘Rhode Island’; a dining car (‘Connecticut’), a Parlor Car (‘Massachusetts’), and Observation Car (‘New Englander’), all but the New Englander originally belonging to the Union Pacific and subsequently inherited by Amtrak, the successor to almost all the US passenger business in the early ’70s. The New Englander with a classic windowed round end was built for the Northern Pacific, which became part of the Burlington Northern, and was bought by the P&W in the early ‘80s. Here it is; must have been freshly re-painted, as the crew were just putting on a new ‘PW’ decal on the rear end when we got there. The yellow gizmo may be some kind of rear-end marker.


The two General Electric diesel-electric locomotives are model B39-8Es, numbers 3907 and 3905, built in 1988 for Locomotive Management Services (LMX, a leasing company—many railroads lease power* rather than buy it). These two 3,900 horsepower locomotives are probably overkill for this short train of six cars, but there is a tall grade coming north on the return trip (2.2%, I think I heard), so maybe not.

Now if you’re wondering at the point of these details, there might just be railfans reading this, and I would be remiss if I did not include at least some of the nitty-gritty. And believe me, there’s plenty more. . .

Including the ‘Power Car’, right behind the two GEs. It’s not a car at all, but originally a diesel locomotive. Folks my age will remember the streamlined diesel-electric engines of the mid-19th century, the majority built by General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division (EMD). The lead locomotives with cabs were called ‘A’ units; there were often attached ‘B’ or booster units, without cabs; they had the same diesel engines (called ‘prime movers’) as the A units, and the same generators and traction motors. The Power Car here is a Union Pacific E9 B unit which was converted to an unpowered steam generator car, for passenger trains that used steam heat. It was then sold to Amtrak, which took out the steam boiler and installed a generator to provide a ‘head-end’ electric power to the coaches, for light, heat, and cooking. Here’s what it must have looked like, on the Union Pacific, behind E9-A unit no. 949; following the B unit is another A:


The train in this photo is actually an heritage excursion train, in 1995, in Clinton, Iowa (photo by David Wilson, via Wikipedia Creative Commons)

It is fitting, perhaps, that this one-time B-unit locomotive has been restored to making electricity, though of course nothing like the 2,400 horsepower an E9 put out in its heyday.

All of this was of intense interest to me. I wanted to get up to the GE engines at the head of the train, as I hadn’t seen these B39-8s up close. You may be able to tell that the GEs are not streamlined like the old E9s; in fact they are a type called ‘road switchers’, which is the name still given even to the largest, meanest freight locomotives, which don’t look anything like switchers (that’s a story in itself, but its unravelling will have to wait until later). However, we weren’t allowed up past the bridge. This was my first inkling that an excursion was a group endeavor, which required one to follow orders and not to wander off unsupervised. The other railfans with cameras were doubtless used to the rules, and waited patiently for instructions to board, even while I fretted at having to use my long lens to grab the locos (railfan talk):


We boarded coach New York and found our seats. The interior looked old, but relatively clean, and actually the seats appeared recently reupholstered. The car was less than half full (Saturday had sold out, but not Sunday). Half the seats faced forward; half the other way. So we were told that on the way back we could switch to the front (or the back?) of the car if we didn’t like riding backwards. Below is a view inside:


Looking toward the front of the car; a few folks didn’t mind traveling backwards.

The MBRRE provided us with a nice handout with information about the consist, the P&W roster; the history of both the P&W and the Valley railroads; and the itineraries of our trip on the Norwich Branch of the P&W, which was the line we were on from Worcester south to Groton, CT; the portion of the Northeast Corridor from Groton to Old Saybrook; and the Valley Railroad line up along the Connecticut River from Old Saybrook to Goodspeeds; along with a terrific color map of the latter section.

The Route Guide or itinerary contained many nuggets of interest to railroad historians, especially about the Norwich Branch, the route of the former Norwich and Worcester Railroad, which opened in 1840, later became a leased part of the New Haven Railroad, ending up in the hands of the newly-independent P&W in the late 1970s. The history, part of the spaghetti of 19th-century railroads in New England, is rich and complex, as we see in the Route Guide. Though many of the landmarks are simple enough; e.g. at Mile 59.80 (measuring from the south at Groton):

Oxford. Oxford was the birthplace of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. The station site is at the Sutton Street Crossing.

Unfortunately that went by before I read it. At Mile 55.00:

Webster. Across the French River to the west, the Ethan Allen Furniture company’s Dudley plant occupies an old mill. HILL block station is at MP* 54.5, after we go through Webster, where Samuel Slater set up a cotton mill in 1811. We cross Main Street at the Webster station site, where the Providence and Worcester Railfan Club maintains a small museum with a preserved diesel locomotive and caboose. On our left is the wood passenger depot from the Boston & Albany Webster Branch, abandoned in 1958.

Dang! Missed that one, too. Then, I was in the aisle seat, and trying to peer through the dusty windows on either side at the landmarks, which we were passing at maybe 35 mph. Guy was reading the handout intently and trying to find mile posts. At Mile 45.00 there was some more history:

Putnam. The brick Putnam station to the west houses two popular restaurants. A deeply rusted, long-abandoned single track branches off to the west after we leave the station. Once this was the busy main line of the New York & New England, later the New Haven’s “Midland Division,” which went from Boston through Putnam to Willimantic and Hartford, then west to Fishkill Landing (Beacon), NY on the Hudson River. This was the route of NY&NE’s premier train, the Boston-New York New England Limited via Middletown – known from 1891 to 1895 as the “Ghost Train” for its all white paint scheme. The New Haven abandoned the “Midland” in 1955 from here west to Willimantic, after floods from Hurricane Diane washed out the Quinebaug River bridge.

We stopped in Putnam to pick up another batch of excursionists, so I was able to look around, but never saw the “deeply rusted, long-abandoned single track,” more’s the pity. Then, there are a lot of those along every railroad route I’ve been on, though most, being sidings to old businesses, would not have such a long and exciting history.

At this point I gave up trying to keep track of our location and its relation to the Route Guide. I did catch one landmark at Mile 15.87:

Tafts Tunnel. We go through the 300-foot Tafts Tunnel under Bundy Hill, a part of the original N&W construction which opened August 28, 1837. This is the oldest tunnel presently in use on a common-carrier railroad in the United States.


Inside Tafts Tunnel

A claim to distinction for sure! I was standing in an open vestibule with a few others. A young fellow was poking his head and camera out watching for the tunnel. So I squeezed in behind him, and managed to edge him aside, but only after we had entered the tunnel. Still, the shot is noteworthy for the decidedly rough contruction; it really looks like it could be 187 years old.

The last portion of the run to Groton, we crawled at maybe 5-10 mph, because of track work, according to our hosts, though there was no sign of anyone working—but then it was Sunday. ‘Slow orders’, as they are called on the railroad, are a commonplace, even on the hot mainlines like the Northeast Corridor. Guy entertained me occasionally with tidbits from his vast knowlege of steam-locomotive history, and otherwise perused a book on the P&W Railroad, which we both bought copies of at the little shop the MBRRE had set up in the Parlor Car. The scenery along the French River and other waterways was pleasant (suggesting maybe places to come explore with the canoe), and the slow running worked to our advantage as we neared Groton and passed the US Navy’s Submarine Base on the Connecticut River. Fellow passengers avowed that the Submarine Force Museum and the USS Nautilus are well worth a visit, and I filed this away for a future trip as well. This was about Mile 2.10:


The USS San Juan (SSN 751) docked at Groton.

At Groton our train moved onto the tracks of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and proceeded south—or west, I think it’s called—past New London, where when I’m on Amtrak the train always stops, to OId Saybrook. This is familiar rail ground to me, but the MBRRE has provided a list of interesting historical notes, mostly about station stops that no longer exist. I’ll have to keep an eye out for what’s left next time I’m on the Northeast Regional (or Acela) train.

A surprise was the attention our train got along the route, even on the Northeast Corridor. On streetcorners, at grade crossings, in yards, there were people waving as we passed by, many with cameras. They obviously knew we were coming; some were set up with tripods. This was before we reached the Valley Railroad and the steam locomotive. How did they know we were coming? And was our train of vintage passenger cars worth coming out for a look? I can only conclude that the reach of the Railroad Enthusiasts was far greater than I imagined (the MBRRE is a branch of the national organization). Railfans support each other, like the fiberglass trailer fans I’ve gotten to know this year (see my post on “The Molded Fiberglass Obsession”). Here are a few fans on the Corridor:


Railfans on the NE Corridor, watching us join the main line.

A visit to the restroom at the end of the coach reminded me that we were in an earlier day. No, the toilet did not open onto the tracks (as I’m pretty sure one on a train I took back in the ’50s did), and there was no sign saying “Passengers will please refrain from flushing toilets while the train is standing in the station. . .” My mother used to sing that to the tune of Dvorak’s ‘Humoresque Number 7’ (according to Wikipedia that is the tune that Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and Yale Professor Thurman Arnold set the words to, back in the early ’30s). No, much to my disappointment, there was no such sign, or I would have come out singing the ditty; but the toilet, in a cubicle no larger than the one in our small Casita travel trailer, had a flusher of odd device: it was a brass contrivance that worked a bellows; you lifted up on the handle, which seem to fill the bellows with air (or water?), then pushed down and the toilet opened and flushed.

Apparently these were prone to malfunctioning, but the MBRRE, which had organized this whole endeavor with the precision of a military operation, had an answer to this and all other devices that might malfunction (like heating and cooling, which were somewhat variable): a ‘Mechanic’. The Mechanic was a fellow who the staff could call on the walky-talky and get him to fix whatever was ailing. And he did. This is an innovation that I would recommend heartily to Amtrak: Got a problem? Call the Mechanic!

By now there was considerable anticipation, as the next stop would have us entering the wye* at Old Saybrook, where we would stop, our GE locomotives would leave us and move over to the other leg of the wye, and a steam locomotive from the Valley Railroad would back up and couple on. I was all set to get out and take pictures of the engine change. But, we were told in no uncertain terms, the wye was Amtrak property, and no one without a yellow vest would be permitted to detrain. Nor could we see anything from our coach seats, not even from the vestibules.

So after sitting a while through the air check (for the brake lines), we began to move again, this time behind what we were told (and proved to be the case) a bona fide 2-8-2* (Mikado) steam locomotive. Of course, without open windows and cinders in our faces, as in the old days, how would we know? These 60-year-old coaches were air-conditioned!  As my friend Guy pointed out, whether it’s diesel or steam, “Tractive effort is tractive effort.” That’s railroad talk.

The Valley Railroad (VRR, more HERE) is essentially what’s left of the Connecticut Valley Railroad, opened in 1871 between Old Saybrook and Hartford. Financial hard times led to it becoming part of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad (the New Haven) system, and finally Penn Central, which turned over the line to the State of Connecticut. The State then leased 22.67 miles of it to a new Valley Railroad Company, for “freight and passenger service” in 1971. I don’t see any mention of actual freight service in the histories; basically it became a tourist (or ‘heritage’) railroad, notable for operating trains in conjunction with riverboat trips and for running steam locomotives, currently one 1920 ALCO 2-8-2, and ours, a 2-8-2 built in China in 1989.

Yes, China was still building and using steam locomotives in 1989, though dieselization and electrification are pretty much complete by now. Valley RR no. 3025 was one of two shiny new ones shipped to the United States, originally to the Knox and Kane Railroad, and sold to the VRR, which rebuilt the cab and other features to resemble a New Haven 2-8-2. New Haven in the steam era had Mikados (Class J-1) numbered 3000 to 3024, but none escaped the scrap yards. So the Valley folks numbered theirs 3025, and wrote ‘New Haven’ on the tender. Here she is:


Valley Railroad No. 3025, built by Tangshan Locomotive and Rolling Stock Works in China, 1989

The railfan highlight of a steam excursion is a ‘photo runby’: we get to take pictures of the train chugging by. Finally, we could get out, all of us with with still or video cameras, ranging from fancy rigs on tripods to smart phones, and some who just wanted to stretch their legs. It was a surprisingly warm mid-afternoon under hazy sunshine in a place called Chester, with some trees still in color, and fall leaves under our feet. The MBREE crew put down a line of yellow tape and warned us not to step over it, and not to talk loudly lest we end up on our neighbor’s videos. The VRR engineer backed up the engine and train, just out of sight past a grade crossing and a yellow shack that might have been a gate operator’s, back in the day. Then he blew the whistle, opened the throttle, and pounded past. He did this three times, and it was fine. Short, but fine. Here’s a video (click to watch on Flickr):

Then we had to board the train and run a few miles farther north, where the Mikado would uncouple, run around the train, couple to the rear and pull us backwards to the wye at Old Saybrook. Before boarding I wanted to walk up to the engine and get a few close-up shots, but this was forbidden. If I did it, the staff said, everyone would want to, and we’d have a crowd up there. I’m not sure that would have been the end of the world, but I dutifully got aboard with everyone else, and we settled in for the trip back.

It was a long trip. The afternoon grew into dusk as we reached the wye. Then we moved onto the Northeast Corridor tracks, pulled once more by our two GE diesels (with a new crew), and stopped. And waited. Finally Dave Brown came on the loudspeakers and told us that we had to wait for a northbound Acela and a southbound Regional before we could get onto the main line. As it turned out, two Regionals blasted by, plus the Acela, before we got underway at a pokey rate. By the time we turned on to the P&W at Groton, it was already dark, and apparently slow orders still held.


Charlie Jack

Well, we weren’t due in Worcester until after 9 PM, so we just settled back. The MBRRE member assigned to our car, Charlie Jack, kept us entertained with conversation and recollections. Charlie’s manner is typical of the easy-going dedication of the MBRRE folks who staffed the excursion, stemming no doubt from long experience with such trips. They would be a credit to any ‘real’ railroad. And I think most of the patrons on board were also well used to the occasional tedium that long rail trips can engender. I did find myself thinking that I could have gotten to Richmond by then on Amtrak.

It got longer. Somewhere around Plainville we stopped. Finally, Dave Brown came back on the air: There was a fire in a building near the track, and the crew of an earlier freight had seen that a brick wall had come down. They worried that the track might be unsafe, so the dispatcher had decided to send out an high-rail* truck from Worcester to check out the track and make sure it was safe to proceed. They might take an hour to get there. Estimated ETA for us in Worcester: midnight.

I called my wife to let her know we’d be a tad late, and not to wait up. Guy fell asleep. And we waited. I read The Callboy, which fortunately reprints articles about railroading from many sources, and this was a double issue. But at last we began to move; there was not much left to see of the fire; just lights and a couple of firetrucks. After we passed the problematic spot, the engineer got us going pretty fast (I began to wonder if the engine crew might run out of legal Hours of Service,* and leave us short of our destination), and finally we got to P&W headquarters just before midnight. Some passengers still had a long drive ahead, and a few of them headed for a hotel, making their day even longer. It was only a half hour to Framingham, so we drove home, though Guy still had another half hour to his home near Boston.

If I thought the trip was overlong, it may be I did not fully understand the lure of The Excursion.  In the MBRRE handout, there is a notice of an annual award given in memory of a Railroad Enthusiast member named H. Albert Webb of Melrose, and a reprint of a moving remembrance of Mr. Webb by his son, Leigh A. Webb, from 2003 (see HERE). He writes,

As a child, I would remember getting up in the dark to make sandwiches, wrapping them in waxed paper, filling the Thermos, and adding a small bag of Hershey’s Kisses (my favorite treat) to the lunch basket, so that we would have something on which to munch during an entire day of “riding the rails” on an Enthusiasts Excursion. Then, we would walk to the train station in my hometown of Melrose, to take the B&M into Boston, and then either go directly to a platform in North Station, or continue on to South Station to hook up with the special consist that would be our home for the next 10 to 14 hours (depending on whether the trip adhered to its departure and return times, which they rarely did). On some trips, we would have to take the car and drive for hours to connect with a train leaving from Maine or perhaps Connecticut. No matter from where we left, the object was always the same: to ride over as many lines as possible, and enjoy the unique experience, smells and motion of being on a train.

When I read this, I realized that for many, if not all, of our fellow passengers on this excursion, a trip lengthened another 2.5 hours beyond its already-lengthy 12 hours was not just par for the course, but maybe even a bonus, to “enjoy the unique experience, smells and motion of being on a train.” I found myself wishing I had sprung for the extra fare to ride in the Parlor or Observation cars, which offered comfortable seats facing inward, encouraging group conversation and camaraderie. Maybe next time. And just maybe a bit shorter trip, with more opportunities for photography. This shot was the best I could do, when I was deterred from getting up close to the VRR Mikado; I grabbed it with the zoom:



UPDATE 29Nov16: Dave Brown, President of the MBREE, writes: 

Thoroughly enjoyed reading your account of our trip. One thing to clarify – you give us credit for a few things that we had little or nothing to do with. The gift shop in the parlor car is entirely run by the P&W Railroad (note lack of any Mass Bay RRE merchandise!) and the mechanic on board (Tomasz) was a railroad employee. We’re happy to take credit for a lot of things but the condition and operation of the train was all the railroad’s doing.


Apologies for getting those details wrong.  I did buy a hat and shirt emblazoned with P&W logos, since Dave warned us that with the impending sale of the P&W to the G&W (see below under ‘Short Line’) these might be collectors’ items. /LEJ  
* Railroad Talk:

2-8-2: In the long-established Whyte system of labeling types of steam locomotives, the numbers represent (left to right) pilot wheels, driving wheels, and trailing wheels. In the 19th century, the most common type was the 4-4-0, ‘American’, type. The largest steam locomotive made in the United States, the Union Pacific ‘Big Boy’ had (and has—one is just now being restored to running condition) a 4-8-8-4 wheel configuration. The story is that the 2-8-2 is called ‘Mikado’ after a Baldwin Locomotive Works order that was sent to Japan, about the time when the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta was popular.

Consist (n): The railcars making up the train.

High-Rail (or Hi-Rail, or other variations) (adj): a vehicle that can run on a highway or a railroad track, hence high+rail.

Hours of Service (n): Train crews are restricted by Federal law to 12 hours (minimum rest 8 hours). I needn’t have worried, as we had a new P&W crew for the return from Old Saybrook. Though as someone pointed out, after we arrived, they still would have to “put the train to bed.”

MP (abbrev): Mile post; along the way the railroad puts up markers called mile posts, which train crews and Maintenance-of-Way crews can use to identify locations.

Power (n): The locomotive(s) pulling a train.

Roster (n): A list of the locomotives (and often railcars as well) owned or in use by a particular railroad.

Short Line (n): There are seven ‘Class 1’ or major railroads in North America, with thousands of miles of track each. ‘Short lines’ are railroads that may run for only a few miles or several hundred miles, helping to bring freight service to businesses out of the reach of the Class 1s, often on tracks divested by the Class 1s but kept active by enterprising short-line companies. The Providence and Worcester owns 163 miles of track, and has trackage rights on another 350 miles, including on a section of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. It has just been sold to the Genesee and Wyoming, a growing conglomerate of short lines in North America and even abroad. The future of the passenger tourist business on the P&W is now in doubt, as G&W reportedly do not indulge on any of their other roads.

Wye (n): a junction with two branches, like the letter Y, used where one line joins another, or often in yards so trains can reverse course.

Note: For more photos, and higher resolution versions of those in this post, go to Flickr, HERE.  All photos taken with Canon Rebel T2i and Tamron 18-270 lens.

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