Covered Wagons Roll Through NE Ohio

The Norfolk Southern office car special passes a pair of Pennsylvania Railroad style position light signals near Maximo, Ohio, on the Fort Wayne Line on April 30, 2011. The train was en route to Louisville, Kentucky, and the Kentucky Derby.

There is nothing that gets the pulse of a railfan photographer racing quite a much as a special movement, particularly when that movement involves some vintage equipment that we rarely see come down the tracks. Mention the phrase “OCS” and there will be dozens of guys grabbing their cameras and heading trackside. And if its the Norfolk Southern OCS, you better get out of the way.

The NS OCS is no stranger to Northeast Ohio, but its visits are infrequent enough to merit getting out to see it when it does show up.

A few events every year are guaranteed to see the NS OCS show up. One of those is the Kentucky Derby. To get to Louisville from its base in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the NS OCS train must pass through Ohio. It’s typical route through Northeast Ohio is the Fort Wayne Line (ex-Pennsylvania Railroad) through Alliance, Canton, Mansfield and Bucyrus. At the latter point, the OCS then turns southward (railroad eastbound) onto the Sandusky District to head for Columbus and, eventually, Cincinnati.

Norfolk Southern does not announce when its OCS train is ferrying to and from various locations. But that information seems to get out on the railfan grapevine, which then distributes it via various railfan oriented websites and chat lists. It helps that a number of NS employees are willing to “leak” the information.

The Louisville-bound OCS train was set to pass through Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 30. I arranged to ride with Roger Durfee to intercept the train. We left Roger’s home in Cuyahoga Falls and headed for Alliance.

Upon arriving in Alliance, we heard an NS train on the Fort Wayne Line west of town call a signal. That ended for the moment our plans to get lunch. The bridge over the tracks just north of the Amtrak station where most railfans hang out in Alliance was closed for construction and the fence has been temporarily removed.

Roger parked his jeep at the east end of the bridge and we hoofed it up top for an unobstructed view of the eastbound train. It was nice to be able to have your pick of photo angles without a fence getting in the way.

We had lunch at the Burger Hut next to the Cleveland Line on the north side of town, watching a stack train roll by while munching on cheeseburgers and fries.

Then it was time to scout locations for the OCS train. Roger had initially thought about going back atop the bridge, but that would mean having a crowd of railfan photographers in the images. We checked out a couple of sites in town and on the edge of town. I suggested that we drive a little further west, which led us to the hamlet of Maximo.

The Fort Wayne Line has a largely north-south orientation just north of Maximo and is curving westward in the town itself. On that stretch sits a pair of Pennsylvania Railroad style position light signals. The Fort Wayne Line is double tracked here and signaled for operation in both directions on each track.

It didn’t take Roger long to decide that this would be where we would capture the train. We killed time sitting at nearby nature park within sight of the signals and monitored the radio traffic. We heard the Pittsburgh West dispatcher give the OCS a train order for a 15 mph speed restriction in Canton.

That was good news for two reasons. First, it meant the OCS was nearby. Second, it meant we had a fighting chance to get ahead of the train and catch it further west.

After hearing the OCS call a signal in Alliance, it was time to move. Roger backed his jeep up a narrow private driveway that crossed the tracks. Then we got a bonus. Although the train was coming toward us, the signals came on. But was this because of the approaching OCS or was it because of another train in the area on the Fort Wayne Line going eastward?

A second bonus was that the sun came out from behind some substantial clouds that were filling the sky. The gates of the nearby Beech Street NE crossing came down and then the OCS came around the curve. 

No matter how many times you’ve seen the NS OCS train, it is still a breath-taking sight when it comes into view. There is simply nothing else in America that looks quite like those F units that lead the NS OCS train with their black and white with gold trim livery.

But as a photographer, you don’t have time to admire them. The train was moving along at a good clip and we fired off several shots before we had to bail out. Getting through Canton was a challenge. From our position, there was no traffic light free path through town.

That made the 15 mph slow order the OCS had near Reed all the more important. As we crossed over the NS tracks on Interstate 77, we could see the end of the train in the distance. We had a chance. As we raced westward on U.S. 30, we soon caught and passed the OCS.

Roger had toyed with the idea of going to Bucyrus to catch the train, but by now the weather had deteriorated. A large sheet of cloud cover had camped over us. We elected to go to Orrville and get the OCS passing the depot and restored block tower there.

We made it to Orrville ahead of the train with literally a few seconds to spare. We parked, crossed the tracks and ran into position. With our mission accomplished, we called it day, but not before stopping in Marshallville on the way back for some railroad archeology work.

This small town once hosted the Akron branch of the PRR that used to go to Columbus. That track is all gone except for a short segment within Orrville to serve the J.M. Smucker plant on the north side of town.

Roger recalled having shot Conrail trains here in the 1970s. At the time, Conrail had rerouted traffic off the former Erie Lackwanna that used to operate west of Akron. Instead, it moved from Akron to Warwick and then onto the Akron branch to Orrville, where it turned west onto the Fort Wayne Line. But even this arrangement did not last long and the Akron branch was torn out.

We parked near a grain elevator and Roger looked for the spot where he had once photographed a Conrail train heading westbound. He snapped an “after” shot and that night spent a few hours in vain trying to find the “before” shot. It’s somewhere in his collection, but right now he can’t find it.

A week later, Roger and I met up again to chase another pair of covered wagons. Bennett Levin of Philadelphia owns a pair of E8A locomotives painted in a Pennsylvania Railroad livery. He also owns three passenger cars painted in Pennsy colors, one of which is former PRR office car No. 120.

The E units and three passengers cars passed westward through Northeast Ohio on Thursday, May 5, but I was working and couldn’t get out to see it. The train was en route to Chicago for display at the National Train Day event there on May 7. It would leave Chicago to return to Philly on Sunday, May 8. It figured to pass through Cleveland in late afternoon.

Roger and I scouted a few locations in Bedford, but he decided the best spot would be his first choice, which was near his office. Roger’s “office” is the yard office at Motor Yard in Macedonia. While out scouting, I photographed two NS trains from the Egbert Road overpass. We also ran into fellow Akron Railroad Club member Tim Krogg in Bedford.

The “Pennsy” train was technically an Amtrak special move and operated under an Amtrak symbol, 068. I would learn later that fellow ARRC members Dennis Taksar and Alex Bruchac photographed the train near Berea with Alex then chasing it to Maple Heights. ARRC officers Ed Ribinskas and Marty Surdyk were stationed at Tim Lally Field in Bedford, a city park. They were able to get something of a rare sight. The 068 crawling along.

Train 068 had a stop signal at CP 107. A long stack train, the 25Z, would cross over there so the OCS train had to wait. That the 25Z had to cross over was due to a grain train being dead in its tracks by Motor Yard due to one of the locomotives having blown a turbo. That made the busy NS Cleveland Line a one-track railroad.

The 25Z lumbered past and we heard the 068 get a clear signal at CP 107. We moved into position and waited. In two miles, the 068 had managed to build up quite a bit of speed, which Roger estimated at about 60 mph.

But not for long. The 068 had got caught by the hotbox detector a few miles east. Roger speculated that the engineer had applied the brakes hard coming out of a dip and going into a 40 mph speed restruction. This must have heated the brakes shoes. That turned out to be exactly the case.

We hung around for another hour or so, photographing a somewhat steady parade of NS freight trains. I don’t know if I’ll get the NS OCS train again this year or when the Pennsy E units will get back this way. Whatever the case, it turned out to be a nice way to begin the summer railfanning season.

Article by Craig Sanders. Photographs by Roger Durfee

The NS OCS passes the restored block tower at Orrville on April 30, 2011. The tower, used to sit on the other side of the tracks in approximately the same location where the photographer stood to get this image. The tower is now maintained by the Orrville Railroad Heritage Society, which owns the Orrville depot.

The photo below was a sput of the moment shot that Roger made. The dwarf signal is on a spur to a customer located on the southwest side of Orrville. At one time, this was a lead to the Orrville yard and a connnection to the Akron branch that crossed here.

In the photo below, Craig Sanders prepares to photograph the last car on the NS OCS train as it passes through Orrville, Ohio.

The first photo below begins a three-photo sequence of the passage of Juniata Terminal Company’s Pennsy locomotives and passengers cars passing near Motor Yard in Macedonia.


The Amtrak special was gaining speed as it passed the yard office at Motor Yard.

In the going away shot below, Pennsylvania 120 brings up the rear. This was formerly the PRR’s primary office car.

Sunday is just another day of work on the railroad. And so it was for ARRC member David Mangold, an NS engineer. In the photo below, Dave is bringing the “crosstown job” back to Motor Yard. This job begins at Motor Yard and works its way to and from Rockport Yard on Cleveland’s southwest side near Hopkins Airport.

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: