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  • New England Central

    By George S. Pitarys and Brian Solomon

    The New England Central was voted “Short Line of the Year” by Railway Age in 1995. After undergoing the initial fuss and difficulties inherent in beginning a new operation, NECR has become a lean, efficient railroad.

    For most of this century, the Central Vermont Railway extended from the Canadian border at Cantic, Quebec, south and east, to its headquarters at St. Albans, Vermont, then ran south, skirting the eastern edge of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington. From there, it angled southeast across the breadth of Vermont to White River Junction, where the line plunged straight sought, basically following, at varying distances, the Connecticut River from White River Junction to Miller Falls, Massachusetts. At this point, river and railway diverged, with the CV arriving at the Atlantic port of New London, Connecticut, a distance of 234 miles from its starting point at Cantic.

    Although not totally bereft of branch lines, CV was primarily a mainline bridge operation. On the north end of the railway, two significant branches did exist. The first, the Richford Subdivision, parted from the main line at St. Albans and operated 28 miles to Richford, Vermont, connecting en route at Sheldon Junction with the St. Johnsbury & Lamoille Valley. The other branch, the Winooski Subdivision, swung west from the main line at Essex Junction and ran eight miles into Burlington, connecting with the Vermont Railway. While the St. Johnsbury & Lamoille Valley and the Richard Subdivision have been abandoned, the Winooski Subdivision plays an important role in NECR’s operations.

    Central Vermont Railway along with its sister roads – Grande Trunk in the Midwest: Grand Trunk Eastern in Maine and New Hampshire: and Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific – operated as U.S. subsidiaries to the sprawling government railway of Canada, Canadian National. Decade after decade, CV went quietly about its business, mostly ignored by the industry and railfan community alike. Its hallmark for many years were long strings of locomotives, usually about six GP9s on its daily end-to-end freight. It gained some attention in the late 1970s when several RS11s from DW&P showed up and relieved the monotony of the Geeps. However, even that long ago, change was in the wind; CV tried running a unit lumber train in 1985 in conjunction with Quaboag Transfer, an industrial train-to-truck transfer operation primarily handling lumber products. Quaboag even purchased a pair of the RS11s to run the train. The search to break out of the decades-old status quo was under way.

    From the railway’s point of view, economic decline in eastern Canada had been long and steady. By the 1990s, both major Canadian roads were no longer keeping it secret that they wanted out of the region—and both had evolved a plan of withdrawal. In the 15 years between 1980 and 1995, railway mileage in the Canadian Maritimes declined by 53 percent. Canadian Pacific no longer ran east of Sherbrooke, Quebec; and Canadian National had divested itself of its Grand Trunk line between Norton, Vermont, and Portland, Maine, spinning it off as the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad. So CV being on the block came as a surprise to no one.

    RailTex was the successful bidder. However, opposition to its takeover was strong and loud. Many employees resisted the caboose-less operation and reduced crew consists that RailTex was to implement. For although most U.S. roads had operated with these concessions for several hundred years, and most Canadian roads and their subsidiaries had not yet reached that agreement. But court cases and U.S. senators notwithstanding, on February 1, 1995, RailTex became the owner and operator of the Central Vermont Railway, renaming its new property the New England Central. 

    Today, the railroad operates 366 track miles and continues to house its headquarters in St. Albans, Vermont.

    New England Central’s roster is made up entirely of Electro-Motive Division locomotives, mostly four-axle power—GP38 and GP40 types—but a handful are SD40s. As of November, a GP35 was awaiting a part before going into service; and a GP9 was being cannibalized for parts.

    St. Albans

    The first train out of the chute each day is Amtrak No. 55, the southbound Vermonter. New England Central is one of only a few short lines to actually operate an Amtrak train. It departs St. Albans at 7:45 a.m. daily.

    Freight operation today (north of White River Junction) begins with the 5 a.m. St. Albans switcher crew. On reporting, its first assignment will be to taxi north, to East Alburg and relieve the Canadian, which is normally ordered in Montreal at 2 a.m. If the train is longer than 40 car lengths, the exchange of crews will take place north of the East Alburg trestle. If shorter, the CN crew will bring the train across the bridge, and the recrew will take over at the first grade crossing south of the trestle.

    The East Alburg trestle is the major highlight of the line north of St. Albans. It is a wooden-pile trestle approximately half a mile in length, crossing Missiquoit Bay of Lake Champlain. It is easily accessible by proceeding west from Swanton on Vermont Route 78, and from mid-May until mid-August, the sun rises north of the track, making the southbound train (headed due east at this point) a spectacular shot.

    At 7:00 a.m., the crew of No. 556, the Burlington local, will report at St. Albans, make up its train, and usually head north to Swanton, set off empties, and lift loads of wood chips, the fuel mainstay of the Burlington Electric wood-fired generator in Burlington. On arrival back at St. Albans, the crew will lift any other local traffic for Burlington or points in between, generally de­ parting about 10 a.m.

    Lumber and lumber products are a major part of the railroad's traffic. It also hauls coal, fly ash, intermodal freight, and a significant amount of grain for feed.

    Daily except Saturdays, if the No. 324 connection from CN is on time, the NECR crew will report at St. Albans at 10 a.m., and switch its train, usually departing about one hour after on-duty time.

    The Connecticut River Line

    White River Junction is a classic railroad town, and while it was once a significant junction between several Boston & Maine routes and the CV, the "junction" refers to the confluence of the Connecticut and White rivers. At the railroad junction sits a handsome Colonial Revival red brick rail­ road station built in 1937. Today, that building serves the daily Vermonter and is worth a trip to see even if there are no trains in the area. In front of the station sits restored B&M 4-4-0 No. 494, built by New Hampshire's Manchester Works in 1892. It is one of only six extant B&M steam locomotives. Boston & Maine is now operated by Guilford Rail System, and Guilford's tri-weekly EDWJ/WJED (East Deerfield, Massachusetts, to White River Junction) operates on the NECR between White River Junction and East Northfield, Massachusetts. This is the Connecticut River Line, one of the most scenic main lines in New England, and is the only portion of the NECR with block signals: A 1960s-era Centralized Traffic Control system with General Railway Signal searchlights is controlled by the NECR dispatcher in St. Albans. Originally, the signals were installed and controlled by B&M.

    The B&M line north of the junction to Wells River is essentially dormant. A remnant of the B&M Northern Route, which once went southeast through New Hampshire via Concord, crosses the Connecticut River to West Lebanon, New Hampshire.

    Central Vermont operated a decent-sized yard about a mile north of downtown, but it dried up because of changes in railroad traffic patterns more than a decade before NECR assumed operations. Although largely unused, the yard is intact, and NECR occasionally bases a local freight there. The old CV roundhouse is now used by a private business. Just south of the depot are the re­ mains of the B&M yard.

    One of the highlights of the Connecticut River Line is its spectacular bridges. Several miles south of White River Junction, at Windsor, Vermont, the railroad crosses the Connecticut River and enters New Hampshire by crossing a long deck bridge. At Claremont, New Hampshire, a tall steel trestle spans the Sugar River and State Highway 12/103. Between North Walpole and Bellows Falls, the tracks re-cross the Connecticut on a solid truss bridge built to carry double track. 

    Bellows Falls is the junction with the Green Mountain Railroad, and the site of a short but notable tunnel located directly beneath downtown. Few places possess more charm or character than Bellows Falls, and this classic New England town is well worth a visit. It can be a good place to begin a trip on the Connecticut River Line because both the NECR and Guilford interchange with the Green Mountain there, and Bellows Falls can be a very busy place on weekday mornings. The northbound NECR 323 is usually in town by about 8 a.m., and Green Mountain will have a train working about the same time. The brick depot serves both the Vermonter and Green Mountain's seasonally operated Green Mountain Flyer, making it one of the few places in the United States where you can make an across-the-platform transfer between Amtrak and a privately run passenger train. Green Mountain's yard and shops are located in North Walpole due east of the depot, and the Green Mountain crosses the river on its own bridge, a substantial former B&M stone arch structure. About a mile north of the depot on the NECR is a small yard used for interchange traffic by all three railroads. Until 1983 Bellows Falls was home to Steamtown, which operated on the Green Mountain, but today few traces of this popular attraction remain.

    Brattleboro

    Moving south, the next big town is Brattleboro, the location of a decent-sized yard used by both NECR and Guilford, readily accessible from the public road. This is the terminal for NECR's 323/324, and traffic continues south to Palmer from there on a nocturnal turn that normally goes on duty at 7 p.m. As a result, it is unusual to find a NECR freight in daylight operating between Brattleboro and Palmer. Immediately south of Brattleboro yard, the NECR crosses a Connecticut River backwater on a long fill. There, the remains of a B&M bridge to New Hampshire can be seen. Boston & Maine maintained its own line between Brattleboro and East Northfield (Massachusetts) until the late 1960s. Central Vermont and B&M operated this segment of the route in a "paired track" arrangement and effectively treated it as directional double track: The B&M track was used for most northbound moves, and the CV for southbounds.

    Today, East Northfield (located immediately south of the state line) is the junction between the NECR and Guilford's line to Greenfield. A mile beyond the junction, the NECR crosses the Connecticut River on an impressive bridge. At Millers Falls, the NECR traverses the Millers River on another notable bridge, and then briefly runs parallel to Guilford's Fitchburg Division main line before crossing the line on an overhead bridge and continuing south. 

    Amherst, Massachusetts, is a typical college town, complete with a variety of restaurants, coffee shops, a couple of photo stores, and slow-moving traffic when the schools are in session. A classic Victorian-era brick depot serves Amtrak's Vermonter and a stamp shop. Amherst was the home of poet Emily Dickinson. In at least one of her poems, Dickinson wrote about the trains of CV's predecessor, New London Northern, and she would occasionally ride the train from Amherst to Monson to visit her family. Between Amherst and Palmer, the NECR climbs over Belchertown Hill, a tough pull for the railroad – a 1.28 percent grade. Four miles north of Palmer at Barretts, the NECR interchanges with Quaboag Transfer. Quaboag operates about a mile of track from the connection with the NECR, but for several years in the mid-1980s, it operated its own train on the CY between St. Albans and Barretts.

    Palmer

    Palmer is the center of operations on the south end of the NECR, and several trains are based there. Three freight railroads serve Palmer, including NECR, and there is almost always rail activity. New England Central's yard in Palmer is one of the busiest on the line; however, operations are hampered by the yard's unusually awkward position. The north end is crossed by the former B&A main line (currently Conrail's Boston Line), a route with as many as 30 moves per day; the south end is con­ strained by a truss bridge over the Quaboag River; a grade crossing cuts the yard in half, and the entire facility is situated on a grade. To switch the yard, the NECR has to cross the former B&A repeatedly, which can hamper operations on both the NECR and Conrail (CSX).

    The southbound Vermonter leaves the NECR at Palmer and switches onto the former B&A by way of the interchange track and a special switch in­ stalled specifically to expedite its movement. It then reverses and continues westward to Springfield over the former B&A. Since there is no direct connection allowing a train on the ECR to proceed westward on the old B&A, the Vermonter has to make a 13-mile back-up move to Springfield. A push-pull arrangement is necessary, with a former Metroliner cab-car on one end or a locomotive on each end. Although the train does not pick up passengers in Palmer, it usually spends five to 10 minutes there while the engineer switches ends, performs brake and cab signal tests, and sees that the track switches are properly lined. The northbound Vermonter backs east from Springfield and undergoes a similar procedure in preparation for its northward run to St. Albans.

    The first weekday morning NECR train, No. 608, goes on duty at 5 a.m. and runs to New London, Connecticut, and back. It is often out of the yard by 6 or 6:30 a.m. Next is No. 610, which is on duty at 8 a.m. Depending on traffic arrangements, 610 may switch the yard and work the Conrail (CSX) inter­ change before heading south. While on somedays610may leave Palmer as early as 9 a.m., on other days, it may not de­ part until after 12 p.m. Usually, 610 will work south to Willamantic or Norwich and may meet the returning 608 somewhere en route. Both 608 and 610 usually call for two or three GP38s. A Palmer lo cal usually goes on duty weekdays at 7 p.m. If traffic is heavy, a second local may be called. The turn from Brattleboro often arrives in Palmer around midnight. Saturdays are normally pretty quiet on the NECR, and there is little activity around Palmer. On Sundays, a local often works Palmer during the day.

    South to New London

    New England Central moves right along on the main line. This is no poky short line, and in fact, it often operates faster than you can legally drive. However, south of Palmer, trains have to climb State Line Hill, and the grade usually slows the pace of all but the lightest. Route 32 roughly follows the NECR from Palmer to New London. However, the railroad is away from the road much of the route, and the most scenic locations are not along Route 32. The highlight on State Line Hill is the view from Bridge Street in Monson (on the west side of town) where you can get a decent view of one of the last remaining coal elevators along the line. Squires Lumber Co. of Monson still occasion­ ally gets a load of coal from the railroad. However this business has been declining, and someday the elevator will likely be demolished. 

    Trains usually run straight from Monson to Willamantic without stopping but may work several industries north of downtown Willamantic before continuing south. New England Central serves K&L Feeds in Franklin, Connecticut, and several industries, including Phelps Dodge in Yantic, Connecticut. The area around Yantic and Norwich is particularly photogenic, and there are a number of old brick mills there. However, the area is particularly difficult to navigate through, so a good map is particularly helpful. One of the most scenic spots on the south end of the NECR is Indian Leap in Yantic, where the railroad passes below the town through a short narrow tunnel, similar to that in Bellows Falls, and then crosses between two waterfalls at the top of a narrow gorge on a classic steel truss bridge.

    At Norwich, the railroad closely follows the west bank of Thames River (pronounced as it is spelled, and not as London's Thames River). On the opposite bank is the Providence & Worcester line from Worcester, Massachusetts, to Groton, Connecticut. South of Norwich are several low wooden trestles, including a long curved one near the AES Thames power plant at Montville. At one time, CV's short Palmertown branch connected with the main line at the south end of this bridge.

    New England Central maintains a small yard at New London, directly below the massive Interstate 95 bridges over the Thames, where it interchanges traffic with the P&W. Many years ago, the yard was much larger and handled a significant volume of traffic, much of which came off the New Haven's Shoreline Route. Central Vermont also operated an extensive pier there; however, now only one track is used. This facility had been almost entirely abandoned, but toward the end of CV operations, the pier was reactivated. To reach the pier, the ECR passes below Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Another track runs directly to New London Union Station, which is how the P&W reaches the NECR yard. Between 1989 and 1995, when Amtrak operated its Washington to Montreal Montrealer over the length of the CV/NECR, the train used that connection to reach the Northeast Corridor.

    New London Union Station was designed by renowned American architect Henry Hobson Richardson for New London Northern in 1885-1886. The station served as the company's head­ quarters and as a dispatching office. A portion of the building was leased to the New Haven for use as a passenger station. Presently, the handsome brick building is Amtrak's stop in New London and is served by more than a dozen daily trains. However, Amtrak plans to relocate its main line in conjunction with the Northeast Corridor electrification. A new station will be built, and the old station will be converted to non-railroad use – after more than 110 years of continuous service.

    In just a few years, New England Central has proven itself as a worthy successor to Central Vermont. Its excellent service and growing car counts are proof that it is doing an effective job of providing a transportation solution for New England.

    During the 1980s, Central Vermont was known for its colorful collection of vintage Electro-motive GP9s. At 10:26 a.m. on July 13, 1988, a late-running CV No. 444 crosses the high bridge at Milers Falls, Massachusetts. 

    No. 556, with a block of wood chips for the Burling­ ton Electric generating facili­ty, is crossing the Georgia High Bridge on January 24, 1997.

    A southbound NECR local pauses at the Palmer Diamond for a Conrail west­ bound on February 5, 1996.

    Southbound NECR No. 554 passes through Stafford Springs, Connecti­cut, on March 24, 1997. The railroad revamped its south­ end train schedules in April 1997, usually running two trains south of Palmer on weekdays.

    Winding through breathetaking countryside, New England Central No. 324 trundles past the sturdy Central Vermont depot at Waterbury, Vermont, on March 9, 1997.

    Among the most scenic spots on the NECR is Indian Leap in Yantic, Con­necticut, with waterfalls and a short tunnel. This northbound is captured there on April 11, 1997.

    Photo by Brian Solomon

     

     

     

     

    Article Details

    • Original Author George S. Pitarys and Brian Solomon
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date March 1998

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