Sunday Train Summary #1: Changing Of The Guard (Again) In Northeast Pa.

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So after nearly a year since it was announced, the highly awaited (and in many cases anticipated) changeover of the CP/D&H Sunbury Subdivision to the hands of the Norfolk Southern has finally taken place…. The change (which was originally supposed to happen back in August on the 15th) is probably the most significant thing to happen in northeastern Pa. railroading since the formation of Conrail back in 1976…. It’s certainly the most significant thing to happen since its takeover in 1999.

To understand (and maybe appreciate) my feelings you’d have to have an idea of what was happening in railroading back in the 90s…. Many people would agree that the 90s wasn’t a particularly happy decade for railroads who were disappearing one after the other. It started right here with the Delaware & Hudson who became part of the Canadian Pacific system in 1991. Along the way we also lost the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac and the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie to the CSX as well as the Green Bay & Western to Wisconsin Central, itself already an arm of the Canadian National.

It continued with the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe in 1995 which combined to form the giant Burlington Northern & Santa Fe which later became Burlington Northern Santa Fe and finally BNSF.

Not to be outdone the Union Pacific swallowed up its eastern extension, The Chicago & North Western later that same year and the Southern Pacific in 1996, itself a combination of the Espee and the Denver & Rio Grande Western in the late 80s.

By the time Conrail’s time came around, David LeVan was Conrail’s CEO as the road spent much of that time selling off track which ultimately put it into the price range (and the cross hairs) of NS and CSX. Much of his time as CEO was also spent fending off takeover and buyout attempts by both and when it was announced that the CSX would ultimately win the buyout battle, a nasty battle for the big blue ensued that ended with NS getting 58% of the prize and CSX 42%.

I can still remember when Conrail’s breakup was announced in 1997. It seemed almost unimaginable. The “Big Blue” (like the railroads it encompassed) would be fading into history. At first it bothered me a little bit but because of all the other ‘losses’ in railroading up to that point, but the more I thought about it the more I came to realize that if Conrail wasn’t willing to run trains, then carve em’ up and hand em’ over to somebody who would. I say this because by the time NS and CSX began the bidding war for big blue, Conrail had sold off many of its route miles to shortlines and in the case of NEPA, had pretty much left us out in the cold.

Its entire Wilkes-Barre cluster was spun-off as soon as the Staggers Act of the early 1980s allowed for that. That trackage including the old Erie-Lackawanna Bloomsburg Branch from Coxton Yard to Kingston became the Pocono Northeast Railroad and the Luzerne & Susquehanna after that. The Lackawanna line from Taylor to Binghamton was sold to the Delaware & Hudson and yes, somewhere in all of that the Erie Lackawanna route through the Poconos was spun-off to the Lackawanna and other surrounding counties that would be operated by the Delaware-Lackawanna shortline.

Conrail’s logic at the time, was to cut the short haul traffic and go straight for the long haul unit trains…. Not necessarily a bad idea but not a particularly good move either (IMO). And in trying to realize that vision it systematically butchered its core system down to what became known as a big “X” with essentially one line from Boston to St. Louis and the other line from NYC to Chicago. Needless to say NEPA wasn’t a part of that “X” and that led to the one line Conrail still served in the region being sold off to the Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern around 1995.

I have to admit that I didn’t like the Reading & Northern at first…. In fact, I called it the Reading & Nauseous because at the time I didn’t care much for anything outside of the “Super 7” of the 90s. Since then I’ve learned not only to appreciate, but also to endear what we have in the R&N, Class 2 regionals in general and Class 3 shortline operations.

But getting back to the Sunbury Sub, by the time NS and CSX began operating (or should I say choking on) their portions of Conrail on June 1, 1999, the CP was the dominant railroad in NEPA and had been running a handful of trains both up and down the Sunbury Sub and over the mountain on the R&N. The R&N track, which had been maintained by Conrail for mainline service was in pretty good shape but the Sunbury Sub was another story. Plagued by jointed rail and erratic curves I can still remember seeing a southbound train in Buttonwood wobbling back and forth so badly that I thought the locomotives would hit the ground!

But with the breakup of Conrail, the summer of 1999 (in preparation for the arrival of NS) was spent rehabilitating the Sunbury line trackage which was mediocre at best at the time. Both CP and NS contributed millions to the lines rehab. In fact, I can still remember the big red & white signs at all of the grade crossings that read “CAUTION! Any time is train time. Daily train traffic is increasing.”

And it did….

Back then, mainline railroading in the region was dominated by red SD40-2s. When NS came into the picture it was a breath of fresh air…. And unlike CP which only ran its oldest (albeit beloved) locomotives, Norfolk Southern was running almost anything it had on its roster and for the first time railfans in NEPA were able to see GE’s and EMD’s newest 21st century hi-tech, widecab diesels, not to mention high hoods and foreign power to boot. Plus there was a wide variety of commodities that included (for the first time since loss of the anthracite industry in the region) unit coal trains albeit now bituminous.

Immediately after June 1, 1999 black and blue diesels started parading through the region and what a sight it was!… It looked like early Conrail!… The following year the first Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus Train came to the area behind two big SOO LINE SD60s followed by the James E. Strates Carnival Train a few years after that. But the real purpose for the Sunbury Rehab was for intermodal traffic, more specifically double-stacks. Even back then intermodal was the jewel of the Sunbury’s crown and Norfolk Southern’s stake in that crown was that with Conrail’s breakup CSX gained entry (by way of the Hudson River, Selkirk Yard and the old Boston & Albany) into the lucrative New England market while NS did not. That and the fact that the Sunbury Sub was the only fully cleared double-stack container route into New England from the South is what gave the Sunbury Sub its luster and the NS its interest in it.

And that’s the way it was…. For a while…. In the first decade of the new millennium CP and NS operated a brisk business in the region whether it was “over the mountain” or on the Sunbury Sub. But somewhere along the way CP seemed to lose interest in that business and by the time the announcement was made that the Sunbury South End was up for sale in 2014, CP was only running one pair of trains between Binghamton, NY and Allentown, Pa.. The 258 and the 259…. (Ok, technically two pairs as even though the 458 and 459 utilized NS power, they were CP trains operated with CP crews). Even the ranks of the SD40-2s had dwindled to almost nothing more than the #5690 who (since the days of the St. Lawrence & Hudson) toiled day in and out for the remainder of CP’s presence in the region…. And that’s what I can’t understand….

According to CP past, Conrail was the big blue blob that prevented the D&H from thriving and it was…. Long before CP took it over. But after 1999 the blue stumbling block was all gone and all kinds of trains including unit double stack and auto rack trains were snaking through the hills and valleys of northeastern Pa.. Then almost overnight it seemed that the D&H was (again) in a state of decline. CP says that with its purchase of its share of Conrail, CSX seems to think that it bought a monopoly into NYC…. But North Jersey is a Shared Assets region served by both CSX and NS and even by the D&H…. And let’s not forget that CP had a growing container operation in South Philadelphia that it seemed to lose interest in also.

A lot of people blame Hunter Harrison for CP’s woes…. I know that the folks over at Canadian National can’t stand him. I’m no expert on CP operations nor do I have any inside info but although it seems premature to blame Harrison for all of CP’s problems with the D&H, it does seem fishy that not long after Harrison took over the railroad that the D&H operations shrunk to almost nothing…. That’s certainly something to think about….


Exactly one week ago on Saturday, September 19, 2015 Norfolk Southern assumed all operations on the (now) former Sunbury Subdivision. After being on hiatus that day trains immediately resumed the next day with new symbols, new players and a new vision for the line. The D&H South Line makes up the northernmost extension of Norfolk Southern’s massive Crescent Corridor project. 2.5 billion dollars and over a decade in the making, the Crescent Corridor is designed to be a truck-competitive alternative between New England, the Northeast and the Southeast. And with its Kansas City Southern connections in Mississippi, possibly between the west and Mexico too.

So what started over 50 years ago with the D&H to cope with the loss of coal traffic has been re-incarnated into something much bigger and brighter…. And although the dazzling blue & gray of the D&H has now been replaced by the monochromatic black & white of NS, the legacy of “The Bridge Line To New England And Canada” is finally being realized to its true potential.

In many ways, that’s where this website begins and what this documentary has been leading up to….

Norfolk Southern SD40-2s, having just arrived the day before are taking a time-out before starting another shift of switching duties….

The best part is that there’s new local power at Taylor and new train symbols to match!… Trains K81 and K82 are turns out of Taylor to Binghamton (K82) and Enola (K81). I’m still waiting for confirmation on those but I believe that information is accurate.

CORRECTION 10/3/15: K81 and K82 can go in either direction from Taylor…. The difference is that K81 is a day shift crew and K82 is the night shift crew…. I also believe that these two trains also run on weekends. 

Also this week we got for the first time (or at least I got for the first time) a taste of Extra freight in the form of several freight extras like W7T (a 37T Extra), W6T (a 36T Extra) and W0T (a 30T Extra).

The main purpose of NS’s purchase of this line is for intermodal and when we start seeing trains with symbols that start with a “2” and an “I” that’s when we’ll know that its purpose has finally been fulfilled. -AC

One of Norfolk Southern’s new trains on the Sunbury Crescent is K82 (a Taylor, Pa. to Binghamton, NY turn) shown here behind two of NS’s SD40-2s #3475 and Operation Lifesaver #3480….

Understanding the train symbols of the Norfolk Southern Sunbury Crescent….

Norfolk Southern Train 11R is a Binghamton, NY to Enola, Pa. manifest which formerly ran as Canadian Pacific Train 458.

Norfolk Southern Train 14R is a Harrisburg (Enola), Pa. to Binghamton, NY manifest which formerly ran as Canadian Pacific Train 459.

Norfolk Southern Train 30T is a Rouses Point, NY to Harrisburg (Enola) Pa. manifest which formerly ran as Canadian Pacific Train 930.

Norfolk Southern Train 31T is a Harrisburg (Enola) Pa. to Rouses Point, NY manifest which formerly ran as Canadian Pacific Train 931.

Norfolk Southern 37T is an Allentown, Pa. to Buffalo, NY manifest which formerly ran as Canadian Pacific Train 932.

Norfolk Southern 36T is a Buffalo, NY to Allentown, Pa. manifest which formerly ran as Canadian Pacific Train 933.

Sunday Train Summary is a summary of all my railfan adventures for the week….

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Author:Railfan AC

AC is a U.S. Air Force Veteran, a long haul trucker, a transportation enthusiast and a lifelong lover of trains. AC's mission is to travel America documenting American railroading in the 21st century while educating those who want to know about the importance the railroads play in our daily lives including, but not limited to, the movement of goods, services and more.

4 Responses to “Sunday Train Summary #1: Changing Of The Guard (Again) In Northeast Pa.”

  1. Andrew Zehner
    January 6, 2016 at 12:30 am #

    Hey here is a little more on the SD40-2s with the black number boards with white letters. These are a group of 24 EMD SD40-2’s acquired by NS in September 2012 via National Railway Equipment. Prior to delivery to NS, NRE replaced the number boards on the units with their new NS numbers, which is why they have white numbers on black instead of the standard black on white boards. I have seen 4 now regularly running out of Taylor 3468,3475,3476,3480. Units 3468-3491 are the 24.

    • Railfan AC
      January 6, 2016 at 5:27 am #

      That’s good to know…. Thanks for that little nugget of info…. I’ll have to check my roster and see which ones that I’ve shot…. My favorite one so far is the #3480 which has the “Operation Lifesaver” livery. It’s an ex-Burlington Northern that started out as #7265. It later became BNSF #7265 after the merger and then FURX #7265 after it was retired and sold off. Norfolk Southern acquired it from FURX and had it repainted in the OLS scheme. I like it because of the low mounted headlight unlike that of typical NS units.

  2. Andrew Zehner
    January 18, 2016 at 3:07 am #

    Can add 3470 to that list i saw it sitting in Taylor on Saturday afternoon!

    • Railfan AC
      January 18, 2016 at 4:17 am #

      Added!… LOL

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