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Railfan Extra Board - March 2012


A spot of sun breaks through the clouds as a set of Metro-North ACMU's skirt the Hudson River at Scarborough, New York., ducking under the Tappan Zee Bridge on a stormy June evening in 2004. These electric multiple-unit cars were originally purchased by the New York Central in the 1960s and served the commuter territory for nearly fifty years before they were retired. Running day in and day out for so many years, some photographers didn't notice them until they were getting ready for retirement.

In defense of the "tin can" commuters

By Otto M. Vondrak/Photos by the author

We are often told, "You don't know what you have until it's gone." No truer words have been spoken about our hobby! The railroad world is a dynamic, ever-changing world. How often do we ignore what's in our own back yard because we take it for granted and assume it will always be there?

Metro-North Harlem Line
A set of Metro-North M'7's arrive at Scarsdale, New York, on sunny October morning in 2011. A generation from now, will we consider this equipment to be "classic?"

Having grown up in the suburbs just north of New York City, my first exposure to railroading was with the commuter trains that called on my town nearly every half-hour. My first train rides were in stainless steel Budd coaches pulled by various diesels in questionable states of repair. Almost before I knew what happened, my railroad was transformed over the course of months, thanks to a program started by the MTA to extend the elecrtrified zone north. Diesels were replaced by shiny electric MU's, old stations closed and replaced with sterile high-level platforms.

At first, I didn't like the changes. I was eight years old and couldn't fully comprehend what all these changes meant, but I knew I liked the older trains better. Over time, I got used to the new trains. One big selling point was the ability to look out the front window of the lead car, allowing me to enjoy an engineer's-eye-view for the first time. I guess those new trains weren't so bad after all.

Commuter trains are often overlooked by photographers for any number of reasons. Lookalike consists, drab suburban scenery, and predictable schedules are just a few of those reasons. Does the frequent, predictable schedule of the commuter train breed contempt amongst railfans? Once I graduated to better cameras, there were many more attractive targets in the area than the same dowdy commuter train that comes calling day in and day out. Perhaps that's why I look upon documenting these operations as a challenge. How do you approach the mundane and make it look attractive?

Oh, but the equipment! Shiny and new and devoid of character! And yet, still a part of the railroad scene. I remember a veteran photographer's story about the arrival of the first "tin cans" (the Budd M-1 electric MU cars) in 1971. "No one wanted to see that stuff, let alone take pictures of it!" He turned his eyes away and continued, "But now I wish I did." It is amazing how the long lens of time affects our perceptions, especially the lowly tin can commuter.

Railfan Extra Board

When I returned to the New York area in 2002, the Metro-North I had grown up with had been through many changes. Almost all of the old "classic" equipment had been sold off or scrapped. The FL9 fleet had been dramatically cut back and relegated to the branch lines. If it wasn't for long summer evenings waiting for the tri-weekly Canadian Pacific freight along the Hudson Line, I probably would not have many photos of Metro-North at all. We watched as the last of the vintage equipment was phased out of service, the New York Central era ACMU's. We considered them "classics" and actually went out of our way to capture them. Yet I remember the first time I saw the first of the M-7's roll down the tracks. They were shiny and new and different. We knew they would replace the older equipment in the fleet, again changing the face of our hometown railroad. We snapped our first shots with mixed emotions. "For posterity," we told each other.

That was 10 years ago when I saw my first M-7, and now they make up the bulk of the fleet. Deliveries of new M-8 cars have begin for the New Haven Line, slowly changing the look of that operation as well. Perhaps it is the inevitable "march of time" that draws me trackside, as Metro-North continues to invest in new equipment to keep pace with its own growth. The sleek, modern equipment does take some getting used to, but it offers its own unique aesthetic that cannot be matched in any other environment. Don't get me wrong, I haven't turned my back on other "traditional" forms of railroading. But now I feel like my eyes have been opened as I spend some time photographing the "invisible trains" in my own back yard.

The only constant, after all, is change.


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