Railfan & Railroad Extra Board

Conrail is Fading Away

Former Conrail B-237 4027 works for its new owner Norfolk Southern on the Latrobe Turn at Radebaugh, Pa., on December 23, 2001. The Pennsylvania Railroad that installed the iconic position-light signals became history in 1968, but for a young railfan it was hard to come to grips with the fact that the steadfast Conrail we knew was no longer. Six months later, this locomotive would suffer a fire and would be unceremoniously retired.

Conrail is Fading Away

By Otto M. Vondrak/photos by the author

During a college break my good friend Joe Werner invited me to join his family for the Christmas holiday back in 2001. Remembering that his mom was an excellent cook, I quickly accepted. Our conversation on the five-hour drive to Pittsburgh wandered between football and railfanning. Even though Joe professed his allegiance to the old Pennsylvania Railroad and the Steelers, and I to the New York Central and the Giants, we could both agree on one thing: Conrail.

I was born a year after Conrail started operations. I think railfans of our age feel a special affinity for Conrail. I mean, after all, we practically grew up together. Our parents knew Conrail’s parents. We were practically family.

Once I got my hands on a “good” camera, Conrail was what my lens was pointed at. I got my first cab ride in a Conrail locomotive. There was always a heavy schedule of freight traffic through Rochester, New York, where we both went to school. If we ever wanted variety, we could head down to the nearby Southern Tier Line and see Big Blue mixed in with through traffic from the Susquehanna and Delaware & Hudson. Life was good.

The storm clouds began to gather in 1997 when we first heard that CSX would acquire Conrail. How could this be? To add to our confusion, Norfolk Southern made its own takeover bid. We felt like kids in the middle of a custody battle. When the dust settled, Conrail would be split down the middle amongst the two. By June 1999, Conrail would cease to be the mainline leviathan we had known since childhood. Sure, I had read in the pages of railroad magazines how folks out west had to put up with losing icons like the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific… But could we really be saying goodbye to Conrail?


Forgotten and forlorn, the Conrail “can-opener” logo adorns a former Erie gondola assigned to a crane stored for scrapping at Rochester (N.Y.) Goodman Street Yard. When this photo was taken in January 2008, the events of 1999 seemed like a lifetime ago.

Back at Joe’s house, there were many preparations to be made for Christmas Eve-eve dinner. We ended up running a few errands for Joe’s mom that brought us out towards Radebaugh Junction. Or maybe it was the fact that I had the scanner tuned in and we heard the Latrobe Turn was nearby setting out cars for the connecting Southwestern Pennsylvania. Either way, we “happened” to stop by at the right time. A B23-7 in full Conrail paint was switching cars at the interchange. Purchased new in 1978, this fleet of GE’s could be found in every corner of the system. Serving to the end, they were the among the first former Conrail engines to be retired by both CSX and NS.

We snapped a few pictures and got on our way to make it home in time for dinner. I didn’t think much about my brief encounter at Radebaugh until a return visit to Rochester in 2008. There was a line of stored cars waiting for the call to go west for scrapping, mostly former Conrail cabooses and some work equipment. An old 40-foot gondola coupled to a small crane caught my attention. The trucks were marked “ERIE RR,” yet it was the Conrail logo that seemed to be the anachronism here. Observing the weather-beaten stencil made me realize just how quickly Conrail is fading away.


This article was posted on: April 1, 2010