J. Alex Lang

East Schenley Sequence

AVR 3003 SD40-3 leads the AVR Bakerstown turn (running as CSXT Z401-06) past the ancient B&O color position light signals at East Schenley, while a CSXT Trainmaster looks on from his Chevy Hy-rail truck. January 6, 2014

Several months ago, I read an announcement for TRAINS Magazine’s annual photo contest. This year’s theme is “sequence” – three images that tell a story.  I couldn’t imagine that I had three images that told any story.  The most recent photo was taken early this week, and I uploaded it to Flickr; surprised that it made Explore (Flickr’s daily selection of interesting photos, and a great source of exposure to the Flickr community).  Interestingly enough, I remembered that I’d had an earlier photo from this location, also on Flickr, that also made Explore.

The first photo, made March 10, 2003, was taken on my trusty Canon Elan 7, probably on Kodachrome slide film.  While the camera was fairly new, slide film was the norm for many rail photographers until Digital SLR’s took over.  CSX Transportation is in charge here, having assumed control of the P&W Subdivision here two decades prior.  The P&W Sub had been the former Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s mainline through Pittsburgh; CSXT had been reducing traffic through here in favor of the gentler grades of the river running Pittsburgh Sub, which was acquired with the rest of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie in 1992.  Rumors were starting that CSXT was looking to make more changes in the area…

The photo is taken in the shadow of a 70-ton coal hopper, sized for the spindly trestle it would cross, delivering Kentucky bituminous to the Bellefield Boiler house that provides steam to the Carnegie Museum, University of Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Mellon University.  The latter, also my employer, is located in the background.  I probably walked down the hill from my office building to take this photo.  I was 26, married, and had one daughter who was just a toddler.  Was thinking about graduate school, maybe.  And man, I sure loved trains.

The second photo was made just a year and a half later.  September 20, 2005.  A wife and two kids.  Stressful at home, stressful at work, stressful trying to make grad school night classes fit. The only train time was in the wee hours with my friend Derrick – this photo was taken at about 2:40am, with my first Digital SLR, a 6 megapixel Canon 10D.

But this fine evening (early morning?) all I was thinking about was how neat it was to stand here, looking at the soft glow of the signal – a silent sentinel over the switch at East Schenley.  (Notice that the configuration of lights on the signal have changed – with the P&W sub losing its signal system west of FIELD, a Medium Approach Medium indication no longer made sense at East Schenley.) The Allegheny Valley Railroad had begun leasing the tracks here from CSXT, and their second-hand locomotives and eager crew are seen here delivering a couple more of those small 70-ton coal hoppers from Kentucky.  Carnegie Mellon built the CIC Building – background, right, illuminated by a few distant lightning bolts.  The AVR’s conductor’s lantern can be seen behind the hopper as the crew tries to finish up here before the rain storm hits.  A moment like this, it all comes together, man, I sure loved trains.

The third photo was made just a few weeks ago.  With my three-year old 21 megapixel Canon 5D Mk II.  A brace of shiny, red, “new on the inside, old on the outside” SD40-3’s is hustling a long train of traffic past the same venerable B&O position light signal at East Schenley, while the landlord keeps watch: a CSX trainmaster awaits the passage of the AVR in his hy-rail truck.  These newly rebuilt locomotives were purchased to accommodate a huge rail traffic boom made possible by the Marcellus Shale natural gas play in western Pennsylvania – and today’s train is delivering a string of empty cars from the adjacent Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad to be reloaded and returned back north.  Natural gas’s impact is felt here in other ways, too – the Bellefield Boiler plant switched to it (from coal) a few years ago, demolished their spindly trestle, and truncated the lead track to their facility.

In the meantime, I finished grad school. Got promotions.  I got divorced, got my own place.  Did a lot of rail photography, played a lot of music.  I met someone new, got engaged (on a train), married (at Horseshoe Curve), new wife and I bought a house, and then had a beautiful baby girl this past year.  All these life changes happened within earshot of AVR’s nightly “Valley Job” that trundles up and down the AVR’s namesake river.   Many a night, as I (and later we) would lie in bed, the bleating horn of AVR’s GP-11s could be heard, sometimes along with the distant squealing of draft gear and wheels rolling on cold rails.

Carnegie Mellon’s treated me well these last twelve years, and is adding yet another building in the background. But this last photo is different.  Right after I took it, I interviewed with the guys with the maroon locomotives.  Not long after, they invited me to help them improve their information technology systems.  Before, these were just some train pictures.  But now, after twelve years, I realize these pictures have a different a story to tell: I’m about to make another life change, because, well, I still love trains!