by Otto M. Vondrak/photos by the author
Towards the middle of November 2012, there were rumblings that Amtrak was going to lease some passenger equipment from VIA Rail Canada to help alleviate the shortage of equipment due to the increase in holiday passenger traffic. While it has been common for Amtrak to borrow commuter sets from its transit authority neighbors up and down the Northeast Corridor, fewer extras were available because of flood damage from Hurricane Sandy.
Much to the delight of railfans, the Canadian equipment to be leased included two complete sets of five Budd stainless steel coaches and two classic Park-series dome observation cars that usually grace the rear of VIA’s flagship Canadian as well as trains serving the eastern Maritimes. I always admired these trains, many originally purchased by Canadian Pacific in the 1950s and later transferred to and rebuilt by VIA extending their service lives into the 21st century. I always wanted to travel to Canada to experience these classic streamliners, but for a variety of reasons, I was never able to do so.
With an official announcement coming from Amtrak that the VIA equipment would be used on the Adirondack between Albany-Rensselaer and Montreal during the week of the Thanksgiving holiday, it looked like I’d finally get my chance to see these trains first hand!
It was time to do some planning. Above Albany, Amtrak’s Adirondack runs over the north end of the Delaware & Hudson (owned by Canadian Pacific), a very scenic, yet very challenging chase. I had only explored this line once before back in 2006, chasing CP’s Holiday Train as it made its daylight trek from Saratoga Springs north to Fort Edward and Whitehall. It was a lot of fun, but my memories were rusty at best on how to execute a successful chase.
I dragged out my trusty DeLorme New York State Gazetteer, remembering I had recorded notes and highlighted chase routes from my last attempt. Now that I have the iPad, the DeLorme atlases don’t get used as much, but they still contain valuable information. I familiarized myself with shortcuts and side roads, and began to form a plan.
I was inspired by the photography of Kevin Burkholder, who had documented the southbound deadhead equipment move from Montreal to Albany, and also captured some great in-service shots of the VIA equipment on the Adirondack. Some recon work with Google Maps, cross-referenced with some of the photo locations I found on railpictures.net, and I was starting to get a pretty good idea of how my chase was going to proceed. Sun angles can change rapidly this time of year, so I double-checked some of the locations I had in mind against some online resources. It helped that I was chasing the south-facing rear of a northbound train!
I kept an eye on the weather throughout the week, which ranged from questionable to miserable depending on the day. There was no guarantee how long the VIA equipment was going to stay past the Thanksgiving rush, and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. It looked like November 26 was going to be the most promising weather day (and quite possibly the last day the Canadian equipment would be running).
My alarm went off at 6:00 a.m. and immediately I began having second thoughts. What if the equipment was swapped? What if the weather didn’t hold out? Was it worth all this driving for a handful of shots? I immediately pushed all those thoughts aside and headed out the door. Four hours later, I arrived in Fort Edward, N.Y. I scouted out my first photo location, tiny Rogers Island in the middle of the Hudson River (inspired by photographer Gary Knapp). I planned to capture the dome-obs on the deck girder bridge, then try to get the going away shot from Fort Edward station. When I arrived, I was pleased to find the sun shining (and in my favor), so I pulled out my camera equipment and waited. Since the weather was unpredictable at best, I decided I would save my Canon film body for sunny shots, and a borrowed Nikon digital for the more challenging conditions.
Over the next half-hour I watched the sun duck in and out of fast-moving clouds, making me more anxious by the minute. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally heard “Amtrak 69” calling the D&H North End Dispatcher to let him know he was close by. The sun was changing by the second, but I held my ground as the train came into view… Following the usual Amtrak Genesis was a solid matched set of stainless steel Budd passenger equipment! The best was yet to come… Bringing up the markers was dome-observation Tweedsmuir Park, complete with a purple VIA drumhead on the rear. Wow! As quickly as the scene came together, the train had already disappeared around the bend for its station stop. By the time I had scrambled out of Rogers Island, the radio crackled, “Highball, 69.” The Adirondack had already departed, and I watched the silver obs hastily retreat into the distance as I crossed East Street.
I decided my next photo opportunity would be at Whitehall, but first I had to endure a maddening 30 m.p.h. speed limit through the city limits of Fort Edward on U.S. 4. Once outside of town, I got stuck behind a loaded logging truck (common in the North Country). Amazingly enough, I beat the train to Whitehall. If I had any thoughts of stopping, they were quickly erased once I heard “Highball, 69” on the radio once more. I continued north to beat the train out of town to reach a scenic causeway just north of town (thanks, Kevin). I pulled onto a stub of abandoned highway opposite the South Bay, and slapped on the 70-200mm telephoto. The train came into view and the telephoto perfectly framed the entire consist on the causeway in soft afternoon light. I backed up the Jeep and returned to Route 22 to continue the chase.
The next stop was a half-hour later just outside Fort Ticonderoga station. It was a nerve-wracking chase because Route 22 pulls far away from the tracks, so there was no reassurance that I was keeping up with the train at all. Finally the tracks came back into view, as briefly both highway and railway ran along the southern shore of Lake Champlain. Had I missed it? The answer to that question came from a horn heard off in the distance — I was ahead of him, but not by much. I clambered onto the roof of my Jeep to prepare for my shot. I made a mental note of a landmark so I would know exactly where to capture the tail and the historic fort in the same scene (thanks, Kevin). As the train approached, I got a friendly acknowledgement from the engineer, followed by many bemused waves from folks on board the train. As the dome slinked by I fired off a few shots in brilliant sunshine. More success, and the chase continued. The dispatcher was already setting up a meet just north of Port Henry with the southbound Adirondack that was (of course) delayed at Customs.
My next stop was just outside Port Henry at South Bay, where the tracks curve away revealing a beautiful scene of Lake Champlain. What I didn’t know was that there is a very narrow window of time for this location to be lit properly. When I arrived, it was already in shadow, but I decided to join another railfan who was already set up for the same shot. After some brief friendly greetings, the Adirondack arrived. We took our photos, and returned to the chase. Little did I know that there was another panoramic view just around the bend that was bathed in gorgeous afternoon sun! To make matters worse, I had blown off another well-lit causeway shot just previous to taking my less-than-ideal grab. Live and learn!
As I sailed through the small town of Port Henry, I noticed the Adirondack had just slowed for its station stop. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry knowing that this train was going to be cooling its heels in a siding for a while, so I bailed off and pulled into the parking lot. It was your typical holiday homecoming scene, with what seemed like a sea of people, cars, and luggage. Just as I was contemplating setting up for a shot on the platform, it was “Highball, 69,” and the train was already on the move. I got on the roof of the Jeep and composed a shot of the tail end framed between the classic station and an SUV being loaded with visitors and their bags. It was a nice little bonus since I didn’t get to record any station scenes until then.
The meet usually takes place at a location called “Howards Siding,” which I found thanks to a friend who relayed the location to me. Stevenson Road follows the tracks, and I was able to catch up with the train and shoot some pastoral scenes with the train passing through rural farm country, complete with horses resting in the fields. I found a driveway that offered safe access to photograph the meet. The northbound Adirondack pulled right up to the signal and waited for its southbound counterpart. The railfan I met in Port Henry joined me and we set up for the meet. Sunset was called for 4:30, but the mountains easily rob an hour’s worth of that time or more. As the clock ticked closer to 3:00, we were dangerously close to losing the light altogether. Our ears perked up when we heard “Amtrak 68” report clear of Westport station (the next stop north). The sun was just tickling the tops of the trees when we finally heard air horns announcing the southbound’s arrival. The next few seconds were a blur of activity as I attempted to use both film and digital to record the event: First the two trains side by side, then the two Budd domes passing each other, and then whipping around to get the going away shot as the Evangeline Park (VIA 8704) scurried out of sight around the bend. Wow!
By now long shadows had fallen all across the North Country, but I had an idea that I could beat the train back to Saratoga Springs with enough time to set up a few ambient-light night shots while it was stopped. The chase was on!
Except it wasn’t. I turned the ignition and nothing happened. Apparently I left my four-ways on too long and drained the battery. Resigning myself to ending the chase a bit early, I dialed Triple-A and requested service. To my pleasant surprise, help arrived quickly, and I was back on the road! By now the southbound Adirondack had a half-hour head start on me, so I just enjoyed the ride home, retracing my steps back to the Thruway. I reflected on the day’s events, and actually felt pretty good about what I had accomplished. I managed to capture the train in a variety of locations in good light, and I learned more about the D&H North End in the process.
Purely by chance, just as I was passing through Fort Edward and over Rogers Island, so was the southbound Adirondack. I glanced over to see the stainless steel streamliner glide over the bridge, punctuated by the unmistakable glow coming from the dome lounge disappearing into the woods. It was a fine way to end a good chase.
Speaking with some friends at Amtrak I learned that the VIA equipment performed flawlessly, and that the on-board staff enjoyed working on it. The experience received high marks from the traveling public as well. The only drawback was that the coaches would not clear third rail, which meant the VIA set was only operating as far south as Albany, requiring another Amtrak set to continue the journey south towards New York City. Even if the equipment could be modified for the trip down the Hudson River, the dome would still be switched off at Albany as it wouldn’t clear the tunnel approaches to Penn Station.
It was a wonderful and somewhat surreal experience chasing VIA equipment operating in Amtrak service across the Lake Champlain region of New York State. Maybe it’s time to start planning that trip to Canada after all…
Otto Vondrak is associate editor of sister publication Railfan & Railroad magazine.