Wire to wire: Train line to Stamford was transformed from steam to electricity a century ago

Wire to wire: Train line to Stamford was transformed from steam to electricity a century ago
By Mark Ginocchio - Staff Writer - Stamford Advocate, 9/2/2007

A new kind of train arrived in Stamford on Dec. 5, 1907. The slower, less reliable steam-powered train sets had been replaced with groundbreaking electric trains, capable of getting commuters and travelers on the New York, New Haven and Hartford rail line between New York City and Stamford in 50 minutes.

The train left Grand Central Terminal at 9:09 a.m. and arrived at Stamford at 10:29 a.m. That it arrived one minute late appeared to be the only reported problem.

"Everything worked lovely," Hoge Gilliam, a railroad superintendent, told The Advocate at the time.

Interviews with passengers revealed the ride was smoother than a steam locomotive and spared the distractions of soft coal smoke and cinders. They also marveled at how the electric train seemed to accelerate and decelerate so quickly.

By 12:18 p.m., the first train back to New York left the Stamford station with about 100 passengers. The train carried mainly summer vacationers, with a few commuters from Stamford and Greenwich, The Advocate reported.

The electric service, which began along the New Haven Line a few months before the first Stamford train - in New Rochelle, N.Y., that July and at Port Chester, N.Y., in August - marked a landmark development for the region's railroad that helped bring ridership to peak levels. Only a few years later, the rise of the automobile and increasing mismanagement issues caused commuting numbers to plummet.

The New Haven's electrification also introduced a new kind of technology, alternating current, or AC, that made the railroad a pioneer in its era. It enabled the railroad to run long-distance trains at higher speeds. The system, with some modifications, still exists today.

Battle of the currents

The desire for an electrified railroad actually arose from necessity and tragedy. In January 1902, a steam-powered New York Central train from White Plains, N.Y., crashed into the rear of a New Haven train out of Danbury while it was sitting in New York's Park Avenue Tunnel. The collision, which was caused by visibility issues from coal smoke in the tunnel, killed 15, and led to a New York state law that prohibited steam locomotives in the tunnel by 1908.

The New York Central and the New Haven Lines used the tunnel to get to Grand Central, so both were charged with electrifying their fleet if they wanted to reach Grand Central after 1908.

"If they didn't electrify, they would have lost their business," said Michael Vitiello, an employee of Metro-North Railroad, which now operates the New Haven Line.

The new law was a catalyst for electrification, but there was also a need for faster, more efficient trains to take an increasing passenger load into New York. By 1905, the New Haven Line was carrying more than 63 million passengers, up 20 million riders from a decade earlier.

"They had to more efficiently manage the traffic," said Branford resident Jack Swanberg, a railroad historian and author of the out-of-print book "New Haven Power." "There was no alternative (but to electrify). The only alternative was horse and buggy."

New York Central, which ran trains on Metro-North's current Hudson and Harlem lines, adopted a third-rail, direct current, or DC, system pushed by the General Electric Co.

The system was used by other railroads in London and Paris and was recommended by New York Central's Electric Traction Committee.

It was assumed New Haven, which needed to power a 21.5-mile stretch between Stamford and Woodlawn before joining New York Central's route into Grand Central, would do the same. New Haven also had experience handling third-rail DC power since 1895, on its small Nantasket Beach branch in Massachusetts.

But New Haven went in a different direction. Studies of an 11,000-volt, 25 cycles per second AC system, powered by overhead catenary wires, showed it could be more suitable for long-distance, higher-speed travel.

Pushed by George Westinghouse of Westinghouse Electric Co., New York Central shied away from AC because there was not a record of success.

"It has not demonstrated its ability to start under load as efficiently or to accelerate a train as rapidly as the direct current motor," said Bion Arnold, an expert on the traction commission, according to Fairfield University professor Kurt Schlichting's book "Grand Central Terminal." In a series of public letters, Westinghouse escalated the "battle of the currents," belittling Frank Sprague, an outside electrical consultant for New York Central who preferred DC. Westinghouse also argued that overhead wires, which were 18 to 22 feet above ground, were safer for railway workers in yards compared with the third rail.

"It was a corporate rivalry between Westinghouse and GE," Schlichting said in an interview with The Advocate. "And from what I've read, (Westinghouse) was a very forceful personality."

He was forceful enough to persuade the New Haven Line.

Construction begins

Construction of the catenary wire system began in September 1905, though overhead wires at lower voltages had been used for trolley systems around the state.

For electricity, unlike third rail, which requires a number of substations along the railroad's right of way in order to provide power, the New Haven Line needed just one station to energize its AC catenary. Earlier in 1907, the New Haven opened a coal-fired, steam turbine power plant in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich.

The plant was built on a 13-acre tract at the junction of the Mianus River and the Long Island Sound, where it stood until its demolition in 2001, after closing in 1986.

In its later years, the plant was plagued by an inability to generate enough power for rush-hour trains and the pollution it produced, but at the time of its construction, the Cos Cob plant was a technological marvel. It was the first time a railroad had its own electric-generating plant.

Some ingenuity also was needed to construct the overhead wires. The single, low-voltage trolley wire was deemed unsuitable for trains running at significantly higher speed. To counter the inevitable wire sag associated with catenary, the railroad designed triangular catenary, enjoining the messenger wires with three pieces of 3/8-inch steel gas pipe. The triangles made the wire too rigid, a problem the railroad needed to address within the next year.

Failure, expansion

By the time the Cos Cob plant was operational in 1907, the railroad was already looking to expand its newly electrified system. But within a year, there were so many issues with the overhead wires, the railroad was nearly shut down so repairs could be made.

The copper wire used for the catenary was too flimsy and started to wear out. The New Haven Line had to either completely remove the wire or find another way to rebuild it without interrupting service.

The railroad succeeded again, designing new wire using a combination of cambium and steel. Instead of removing the copper wire, they added the new wire below the old one. Service was uninterrupted.

The steel-pipe triangles also were problematic. In extremely cold temperatures, catenary tends to stiffen, and in extreme heat, wires will sag.

The rigid triangle prevented the wires from bending or stiffening naturally, creating an unsightly "wave effect," that led to wire breaks, said Robert Walker, director of operating capital projects and a former power department chief for Metro-North Railroad.

The triangles would be improved when the railroad expanded its electrification to New Haven and the Harlem River branch - now the Hell Gate route Amtrak uses between New Rochelle and the Bronx.

The railroad used a floating "I-beam" style catenary, featuring wires running parallel atop each other. The triangles remained in the areas where they were installed until Metro-North Railroad began replacing them about 20 years ago.

Despite some of the engineering problems, Westinghouse's AC vision was hailed as a success.

A September 1913 edition of the New Haven Railroad News called the technology "another example of the daring and ingenuity of American business enterprise and a further proof of New England shrewdness."

Within 20 years, nearly the entire region between Stamford and New Haven was electrified.

The New Canaan branch between New Canaan and Stamford was electrified by 1908; the Harlem River Branch by 1912; east to New Haven by 1917; and the Danbury branch between Danbury and Norwalk by 1925.

Growth, then decline

Traffic was increasing on the New Haven Line regardless of electrification. But electric trains enabled the railroad to offer more service at a higher frequency.

By 1924, one out of 10 passengers using standard railroads were using the New Haven Line, according to a Westinghouse Electric publication from the same year. About 150 New Haven trains left Grand Central daily.

Between 1916 and 1923, ridership on the New Haven jumped nearly 50 percent - from 11.4 million passengers in 1916 to 17.6 million in 1923.

To handle the power load, a second power plant was built along the Harlem River branch in the West Farms section of the Bronx in 1915.

In a 1957 edition of Along the Line, a newsletter distributed to New Haven Line employees, the railroad credited the 50th anniversary of its electrification for helping the area around Grand Central in Manhattan become affluent.

In the suburbs, "the exact dollars-and-cents total of the increase value to property which has been created by the electrification . . . probably never could be accurately stated, but it certainly is well up in the hundreds and millions of dollars, and probably even tops a billion dollars," the article said.

The railroad praised the "quietness and cleanliness" of the electric railroad with promoting housing development close to the rail line.

But by the time the railroad was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its high-powered achievement, the New Haven Line was starting to sink.

The construction of Interstate 95 in the 1950s took passengers away from the railroad.

"The thruway runs so close to the railroad line . . . industrial development capable of generating a substantial amount of rail traffic is hampered," a November 1960 Interstate Commerce Commission report read.

Meanwhile, the Cos Cob plant continued to fail, and railroad officials were concerned "Cos Cob might pop," according to the commission's report. In 1961, because of mismanagement, the first part of the New Haven railroad, the Danbury branch, was de-electrified.

And the overhead wires were only getting older and needed to be replaced. It left behind a mess that the New Haven Line's current operator, Metro-North Railroad, needed to deal with.

"We were stuck with what our predecessors left us," Walker said.

It takes a lot of juice to power the trains. During the morning commute alone, the Connecticut side of Metro-North Railroad's New Haven Line draws about 30 megawatts of power, making the railroad the state's second biggest electricity user behind Foxwoods Resort Casino.

Some of that power is still being drawn from wiring and equipment erected 100 years ago.

Metro-North is working to change that. Since 1993, the railroad and the state Department of Transportation have been incrementally replacing the overhead catenary wires used by New Haven Line trains. These wires were installed as part of its state-of-the-art high-voltage alternating-current power system that went online between Woodlawn, N.Y., and Stamford in the summer and fall of 1907.

The New Haven Line was considered a pioneer for using this kind of electrical power, which promised and delivered higher speeds and more efficiency than its steam-powered predecessors, and the lower-voltage, direct current, third-rail power adopted by New York Central's Hudson and Harlem lines.

But the strain on the New Haven Line's landmark system has never been greater. Ridership is at its highest point since company mismanagement and the rise of the state's highway system nearly sunk the railroad 50 years ago. The New Haven Line's wires and tracks are also shared by the regional rail service Amtrak and its high-speed Acela train, which travels as fast as 120 mph on sections between Greenwich and New York City.

"These decisions made over 100 years ago are still with us today," said Kurt Schlichting, a Fairfield University professor and author of "Grand Central Terminal."

Parts of the New Haven Line's electrification system have changed dramatically since 1907. The coal-powered plant in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich, designated a National Historic Engineering Landmark because of its breakthrough in engineering achievements, closed in 1986 because it could no longer produce enough electricity to power the line. It was demolished 15 years later.

The overhead wires on the Danbury branch between Danbury and South Norwalk were removed in the 1960s for political and financial reasons, creating an antiquated commuting experience still experienced today for passengers on the vital branch line.

As the old overhead wires on New Haven Line's main line start disappearing and new ones appear, Metro-North is still looking for ways to refine and improve the vision of Westinghouse Electric Company's George Westinghouse, who 100 years ago fought vociferously for the current electrical system despite loud objections from rival railroads.

Constant tension

About 20 years ago, Robert Walker, director of operating capital projects and a former power department chief for Metro-North Railroad, was investigating ways to improve the overhead catenary wire on the New Haven Line.

The wires, primarily installed from 1907 to 1914, were prone to snapping in extreme temperatures. When the weather was too cold, the wires would become rigid. When the weather was hot, they would sag and could get caught on the rail car's pantograph, the arm that draws power from the catenary.

The answer was a new kind of catenary called "constant tension" being used on British railroads. Constant tension used weights and pulleys attached to the wires and poles to help compensate for sagging and restriction.

"It was state-of-the-art," Walker said. "The tension would remain the same despite the weather with weights and pulleys. That way, the system is stable."

In the early 1990s, Metro-North Railroad started removing the triangular catenary - the original 1907 wires that were enjoined by three-eighths of an inch steel gas pipes, forming a triangle. By December 1993, the new constant tension wiring had been installed between Pelham, N.Y., and the Connecticut state line.

By 2002, Connecticut's DOT started removing its own catenary. The $300 million project started with the removal of triangular catenary between Greenwich and Stamford, which was finished in May 2005. DOT then moved to a section between Stratford and New Haven, which housed catenary from about 1914. That project was completed in February.

The remaining catenary between Stamford and Stratford is under construction and should be completed by 2014.

Besides the replacement of the New Haven Line's 30-year-old rail car fleet, the catenary program is considered to be a key project that could lead to improved and more frequent service.

When asked about improving train service during a meeting of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, George Walker, Metro-North's vice president of operations, said, "I've got the rail, I just need the catenary."

The results of the catenary replacement project are small but noticeable. On-time performance on the New Haven Line's inner portion, between Stamford and Grand Central Terminal, has sat at 97.7 percent to 97.9 percent since the new wires went up, compared with 96.9 percent to 97.4 percent in the years preceding the new catenary.

On the line's outer portion, between Stamford and New Haven, where there is less new catenary, the on-time performance has remained at 95 percent to 96 percent the past seven years, according to Metro-North.

The results are not reflected by on-time performance alone, Walker said.

In areas where there is new catenary, the railroad uses a three-year inspection cycle, compared with an annual inspection in areas with the old wires, he said.

The new wire also enables the railroad to cut back on its weather-related speed restrictions. With the old wires, whenever the weather was hotter than 90 degrees or below 25 degrees, the trains would run as much as 30 mph slower.

Catastrophic incidents can still result after wires are torn down. Earlier this year, about 80 trains and 59,000 commuters were delayed when a pair of rail cars tore down wires outside the Cos Cob station. The incident took nearly two hours to rectify.

Even that is an improvement, Walker said.

"When we do get an incident that tears the new wire down, we can put it back up at least 50 percent quicker because the new system has less components that are easily fixed or replaced in less time by our crews," he said.

Without electricity

As the DOT and Metro-North continue to upgrade areas that have electrical power, they also have to address parts of the railroad that have been de-electrified.

During the New Haven Line's electrical age, no rail line has regressed as much as the Danbury branch. It was first electrified in 1925, but by the 1950s, railroad President Patrick McGinnis decided to sell the wires for revenue. For service, the railroad used newly purchased FL9 locomotives, which were diesel-powered and equipped to run on the third-rail portion of the railroad between Pelham and Grand Central.

The Danbury branch has never been the same. The diesel engines take longer to accelerate and affect the line's on-time performance. This past year, the 6:52 a.m. train out of Danbury was cited as the most frequently late train on the New Haven Line, arriving on time 88 percent of the time.

The line also has suffered because the electric cab cars used on New Haven mainline and the New Canaan branch are not compatible with the unelectrified area. So if there are equipment problems on the Danbury branch, it can't receive help from the other lines.

Rodney Chabot, a New Canaan resident who grew up riding the Danbury branch when it was electrified, is still outraged by the decision to remove the catenary.

"It was working beautiful," said Chabot, a former chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. "The diesels have been a failure."

Chabot and other rail historians are convinced that in addition to the funds received for selling the wires, the catenary was removed to justify the purchase of the FL9s.

DOT has had plans to improve the Danbury branch for years, but little, outside of studies, has occurred. The first phase of the most recent study, which was completed last year, determined the line could be improved if it was signalized and electrified again. Many of the improvements would cost about $200 million, though ridership would nearly double from its current 1,000 riders a day.

Electrification's legacy

Rail historians and engineers have long praised Westinghouse's vision. But even 100 years later, New Haven Line operators have combated complications because of the decisions of their predecessors.

During the winter of 2004, so many of the New Haven Line's antiquated rail cars were out of commission for repairs that the period was dubbed the "winter of woe." While Metro-North's other lines, Hudson and Harlem, which are owned by New York, were enjoying new rail cars that were running without as many problems, that equipment could never be transferred to the New Haven Line because it doesn't run on an alternating current system using overhead wires.

Service delays involving the third rail are often less severe, Walker said.

"When we have incidents (with the catenary), it often affects adjacent tracks," shutting down more available tracks for service, he said. "With third rail, it's usually on track and it's an independent problem, so it doesn't affect service as much."

These issues have resulted in cries to extend the third rail that exists south of Pelham all the way to New Haven. These requests have generally been rejected because of expense, and because Amtrak, which runs along the entire Northeast corridor, would still need the catenary.

Ordering new rail cars also has been a complicated process because they require compatibility with overhead wires and the third rail into Grand Central.

"The New Haven Lines cars were the first ones to require that (dual power) and have maintained their reputation as being the most complicated commuter cars in the world," Walker said.

But the railroad still stands by Westinghouse's vision.

"The decisions that were made were the right decisions," Walker said.