I have this thing for bridges. I love them. However, I have a particular thing for cable-stayed bridges. They are my favorite. I love the simplicity of them. They are modern, sleek, functional, graceful, and gorgeous, all at the same time. Boston has a cable-stayed bridge right next to downtown, the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, by which I-93 crosses the Charles River. So naturally, while in Boston, I took a lot of photos of this bridge. Here are just a few.
I’m in Boston, and my friend Kristen, who lives here now, tells me there is something I have to see. Kristen knows me really well. She knows I am a member of the New York Transit Museum and a transit nerd. She says I have to visit Boston’s Transit Museum. Boston has a transit museum? No, but they seem to have unofficially made a tiny but not really accessible one that can be visited for the cost of a T ride. Go to the Boylston Station on the inbound side tracks, and that is the Boston “Transit Museum.” How permanent the exhibit is, I have no idea, but there are two old streetcars parked there. They are behind a huge fence, so it is difficult to get photos, but they are kind of cool to see.
I got to the MTA’s Substation #13 through the New York Transit Museum recently. The substation converts high voltage AC electricity from the grid and converts it to a lower voltage DC electricity that is used to operate subway trains via the third rail. The substation was originally built in 1904, and it fits into the category of “they don’t build them the way they used to.” The outside looks like a nice neighborhood building, and it has architectural aspects that I really wouldn’t expect from a substation. For example, an interior staircase has lovely decorative balusters.
Inside the substation are large rotary converters, specifically Westinghouse 1,500 kilowatt Rotary Converters. The rotary converters are what used to transform the AC electricity to DC electricity. Now modern solid state rectifiers are used to transform the electricity, and they are much more compact. The old rotary converters were used until 1999, when this substation was switched to the new equipment.
Our guide was retired general superintendent Robert Lobenstein, who showed us around. He also showed us how workers used to have to do normal work, like changing switches and listening for crackling to make sure a wire was not live.
We got to go into the basement which had all sorts of old equipment.
We even got to go into a vault under the street where cables left the substation to go to the subway. The vault can be accessed through a door in the basement or through a manhole in the street. Normally this type of vault could only be accessed through a manhole. The cables go through conduits that are buried under the street. The cables are tagged, but it still looks like it would be difficult to find the right one if needed.
Back inside the basement, some of the equipment was still being used, but some was no longer needed, like some massive cables that were cut.
We then went upstairs were the new equipment was, including the solid state rectifiers and the biggest breakers I have ever seen. The breakers are in the circuit with the third rail. They detect surges in the third rail and cut off power before a fire or some other damage can occur. There is a lot of redundancy with the circuit breakers. Our guide turned one off, so we could hear how loud it is, but because of redundancy, it had no effect on the subway.
The solid state rectifiers are very different in appearance, at least, from the rotary converters. [I understood very little about this.] What amazed me during the tour, was when I finally understood I was actually staring at the third rail. The long copper plates in the photos are the third rail, which leave the substation and go to the subway. The positive rail is the equivalent of the black or red wire in a house’s wiring. The negative is the equivalent of the white wire in a house’s wiring.
Also upstairs was this amazing old series of electrical switches, dials, and gauges. None of this stuff is used anymore, but it really cool looking. I liked how everything was tagged out, never to have the tags removed again and be turned on again.
Finally at the end of the tour, they turned on the rotary converter for us. Below is a video if you want to see it in action. It is almost hypnotic. During a portion of the video, you will see five lightbulbs on a wooden board sitting on the floor. They are being powered by the converter. After it is turned off and slowly slows down, the lights dim and then turn off.
Many people are familiar with New York City’s Highline, which has become a really popular spot with tourists and residents. It it is really cool, and beautiful all year round, in the dead of winter and in bloom. Because of the Highline’s success, some people came up with the idea of the Lowline. The Lowline would make use of of the abandoned Williamsburg Bridge trolley terminal under Delancey Street, which is right next to the Essex Street subway station. However, the somewhat radical idea for the Lowline is that it would make use of sunlight to light the space, which is completely underground. To help design and work out issues with this idea, the Lowline Lab was created. It is now closed, but luckily about a month ago I got to tour it.
I encourage your to click the hyperlink to my photos of the Williamsburg Bridge trolley terminal under Delancey Street because in order to comprehend the challenge of this project, you really need to see the space as it is now.
During the summer, the New York Transit Museum offers Nostalgia Rides, when they put some of their vintage subway cars back into service and bring a train full of passengers to some fun destination. Today I went on the Nostalgia Ride to Rockaway Beach. The train we rode on was two types of 1910’s and 1920’s BMT cars. The cars were complete with wicker seats, ceiling fans that “are machetes” according to the numerous warnings we got from MTA employees, and normal looking lightbulbs that are evidently powered straight from the third rail, which we were also warned not to touch. The ride is generally more exciting than the destination, and once we got to our destination, they offered some more rides back and forth for those who didn’t want to get off.
One of my favorite parts of nostalgia rides are the people in the stations we pass. They can generally be described in four different groups. The first, a small group, are those that see the train coming through but don’t seem anything abnormal about an antique train passing through. The second group, possibly the most common, are the ones that start smiling and waving, and grab their camera and start taking photos. The third group are those that just stare open mouthed or with a look that can only say, what the heck is that? The fourth and tiniest group are those that know we are coming and already set with photo and video cameras, sometimes with tripods. I once asked a Transit Museum employee about them, and she said they seem to know the route that the nostalgia ride will take before the museum does. Clearly there are transit fanatics spies about.
Another great part of these rides and a reason why I love New Yorkers, is when the nostalgia ride is ending. We all get on at the same location, but at the end, they stop at several large subway stations, so you can get off wherever is easiest. The train pulls into a station and stops. Normal subway riders start lining up to get on because a vintage 1920s subway train running on the A line is evidently a completely normal thing to New Yorkers. [To be clear, you don’t have to be a subway aficionado to know that these trains look very different from the regular modern trains running.] New Yorkers are just so nonchalant about it. A subway train, of some sort, has arrived at the platform. They must get on. They have places to go, and a train has arrived to take them there. MTA employees have to stand in front of each door and say “off loading only”. Some of waiting passengers will ask why. Some waiting passengers start peering in, and normally either MTA employees or nostalgia ride passengers will have to explain. This part of the ride always makes me laugh.
One final note about the nostalgia ride, the train runs wonderfully. My sincere compliments to the MTA employees who keep the vintage cars maintained. Maybe they don’t run like they were built yesterday, but the ones we were on were 100 years old. To me it is amazing that they are still running at all.
This past weekend, I got to tour the MTA Coney Island Overhaul Shop with the NY Transit Museum. The complex in which it is located is the largest rapid transit yard in North America. They overhaul subway cars with a scheduled maintenance system and also scheduled maintenance that is too intensive for the maintenance shops. They do maintenance on all parts of the subway cars including the electric motor, air brakes, compressors, and wheels and axles.
Before boarding the Cheat Mountain Salamander train, I had some time to wander around the area where the Elkins Roundhouse used to be. Not much is left. Of the actual circle where the turntable was, all that is left is the pit with a fence around it. Alternating concrete wedges and grass lanes where the tracks were are the remains of the stalls. The only other remains are random metal parts scattered about.
I don’t know why I like photographing ruins, but I do. Part of what I like is imagining what used to be there.
To wrap up my trip to scenic railroads in West Virginia, my tour group visited Cass, where the Cass Scenic Railroad is based. Cass is now a state park, but it once was a company town, built to support the logging operations and mill. The company store and many of the company houses are still standing. All the company houses were built the same and are basic, yet today, they still look charming. Cass was famous for having wooden sidewalks on all its streets. The town still does have wooden sidewalks, but obviously they are not the original ones. The mill burnt down, but remnants of it still remain. A newer train shop is there also, and if you are lucky like me, you can get a tour.
A short video of the Cass Scenic Railroad rolling to the station and stopping to pick up water.
I went on a ride on the Cheat Mountain Salamander train this morning. Most of the route was along the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. We stopped along the way at High Falls of the Cheat. The train was vintage, and the car we rode in was lovely and vintage with classic fabric seats.
I took a ride on the Durbin Rocket this afternoon. The Climax geared logging locomotive was built in 1910 and powers a vintage train, including an old postal car. The train is indeed a rocket, as it moves along at a whopping 8 miles per hour. At one point a butterfly passed us. The roundtrip route from Durbin, West Virginia, however is gorgeous as it follows the Greenbriar River in the Monongahela National Forest. The only problem is after seeing all the smoke the coal burning created, I feel the need to go plant an entire grove of trees.