Railroads: Norfolk Southern (former Pennsylvania); CSX (former Chesapeake & Ohio), (former New York Central and Erie)
Traffic: More than 50 trains a day.
Radio Frequencies: NS, 161.190 (road and dispatcher); CSX [ex-C&O] 160.230 (road), 160. 320 (dispatcher); [ex-Conrail] 160.860 (road), 160.605 (dispatcher)
Highlights: Marion is one of those rare places where three sets of double-track mainlines cross right in front of you. You can set up a lawn chair on the grass outside the restored Marion Union Station and see all of the action without having to move. It is a safe and convenient place to railfan and you are sure to meet other railfans while you are there.
The Norfolk Southern route has the most traffic. This former Pennsylvania route between Columbus and Sandusky was sold to Norfolk & Western in the 1960s. Today the NS Sandusky District is part of the Heartland Corridor, a conduit for freight between the Midwest and Southeast. Traffic is a mix of intermodal trains out Chicago that passes through Bellevue, a lot of coal and some manifest freight.
Coal also is the primary commodity carried by CSX on the former C&O line. In C&O days, this route extended from Toledo to the Cincinnati-Virginia Tidewater mainline just west of Ashland, Kentucky, via Columbus. Aside from coal, the ex-C&O line also hosts a sulphur train. Manifest freight trains are scarce on this route, but more about that later.
The ex-C&O and ex-Pennsy routes come through Marion on a north-south alignment. Look at a railroad map and you will see how the routes come together at Marion, run parallel through town and diverge south of town, running a few miles apart even though both wind up in Columbus.
The east-west railroad through Marion is an amalgam of the New York Central and Erie. The NYC was the Big Four route between Cleveland and St. Louis via Indianapolis. The Erie came west from Akron and met the Big Four at Burt Tower in Galion.
Two things happened at Burt. The Big Four split into two routes, one going to Cincinnati via Columbus and the other to St. Louis. The NYC and Erie had a paired trackage arrangement between Burt and Marion. At Marion, the Erie divided into two routes. The busier route continued west to Chicago while a branch went to Dayton.
The Dayton line was the original Erie route through Marion, although when it opened in 1864 it was known as the Atlantic & Great Western. Railroad magnate Jay Gould leased the A&GW in the late 1860s as part of an effort to expand the Erie to Chicago. Gould then formed the Atlantic & Chicago to build between Marion and Chicago.
The Erie eventually became the Erie Lackawanna and the NYC became Penn Central. Both were incorporated into Conrail in April 1976. Conrail didn’t want the ex-Erie west of Akron and largely abandoned it in 1979. But one of the tracks between Marion and Galion is of Erie heritage. That is why when looking east from Marion Union Station you will see that one of the tracks veers sharply to the left as it turns to go around some buildings while the other track continues on a straighter alignment.
CSX acquired the Conrail route through Marion in 1999 and instituted a number of traffic pattern changes. In Conrail days, the ex-Big Four was a conduit for freight moving between St. Louis and Indianapolis to the east. Many trains turned at Crestline onto the former Pennsylvania mainline to Pittsburgh, but a few continued northward to Cleveland to reach the ex-NYC Water Level Route to Buffalo.
Today, most CSX trains operating east of Marion on the former Conrail route go to Cleveland, although a couple turn onto the ex-Baltimore & Ohio at Greenwich. One of the more interesting changes as a result of the CSX acquisition of Conrail was the construction of a connection between the ex-Conrail and C&O lines. Manifest freights enter Marion on the former Big Four and head around the connection to go north to Toledo. These are the only trains in Marion that do not directly pass the depot. But you can still see them from the station.
Much of the traffic on the former Big Four is manifest freights, auto racks and intermodals. One of the latter originates in Marion in an industrial park on the east side of town. This train carries trailers for Schneider National between Marion and Kansas City. The train is handed off to Kansas City Southern in St. Louis. KCS power sometimes operates on the train.
Another interesting train on the former Conrail is a local that originates at Marion and works the local industries and industrial park. It has a caboose repainted with an Erie Lackawanna logo and markings. The local originates at the former Erie yard that is visible to the west of the Marion station.
Like any hotspot, there can be three or four trains trying to move through Marion at one time and there can be long lull periods. Traffic on the CSX north-south route seems to be a crap shoot. You can spend hours in Marion and see only one train on the ex-C&O or you might see four or five. Because the ex-C&O is single track north and south of Marion, dispatchers often arrange meets if two trains are nearby.
If two trains are headed in the same direction and one is slower than the other, the faster train might pass the slower train in Marion. Although not common, it is possible to have two trains crossing the former NYC/Erie diamonds on the ex-C&O and two NS trains passing each other while clattering across their ex-NYC/Erie diamonds. The NS line also is single track north and south of Marion.
Trains on all three routes call block signals, so you should have plenty of advance notice of traffic in the area. Marion is at milepost 101.5 on the CSX east-west line, MP 45.6 on the CSX north-south line and 45.2 on the NS Sandusky District.
On the NS, there is a detector at MP 56 north of Marion near Monnett. There is no nearby detector south of Marion. NS trains sometimes call the CSX dispatcher on the radio to see if they have a clear route through Marion. On the former C&O, the closest detectors are at MP 58.9 (north of Harpster) to the north of Marion and at MP 38.7 to the south. On the former Conrail line, there is a detector to the west at New Bloomington (MP 110.1).
A dispatcher in Indianapolis who controls the former Conrail line through Marion also controls the home signals at the diamonds. Therefore, CSX trains on the ex-C&O also sometimes must call this dispatcher to get a clear route.
The home signals for most tracks are not easily visible at the station. There are a pair of signals on the ex-C&O line that can be seen from the station platform because they control the interlocking for the connecting track to the former Conrail route. If one of these signals is lined green, it means that the dispatcher plans to route a northbound through Marion. The signals are constant lighted, but most of the time they are all red.
On the former Conrail, there is a new set of signals just to the west of the ex-C&O diamonds. These control a crossover just west of the diamonds. These signals are not illuminated continuously.
C&O style signals are still in place to guard the crossing of the ex-C&O and ex-NYC/Erie. The northbound home signals are situated just north of the grade crossing with West Center Street. You can walk out to the sidewalk along Center Street and “read” these signals. However, the northbound home signals on NS are south of Center Street. The NS line still has Pennsylvania style position light signals, few of which remain on the Sandusky District.
When not watching trains at Marion, there is still much to do. The Marion Union Station Association maintains regular open hours at the station and it is worth checking out. The group has restored the interior of the depot and started a small museum. Among the items on display are the CTC panel that was once in F Tower in Fostoria and a section of pistol-grip levers from BE Tower in Berea.
A model railroad club has an extensive layout in a former express building that is part of the Marion station complex, but it tends not to be open on weekends. On the eastside of the station is a former Erie Lackawanna Caboose.
The station association has restored AC Tower, which once controlled the crossings of the four railroads. AC stood for Atlantic Crossing, a throwback to the days when the Erie was known as the Atlantic & Great Western and Chicago & Atlantic.
The tower originally was located on the north side of the tracks and much taller than it is today. The Marion Union Station Association bought the tower from Conrail and hired a crane operator to swing it across the tracks to its current location next to the caboose.
The tower is open whenever an association member who has a key is present. The inside of the tower looks much as it did when it stilled operated. The model board, interlocking machine, operator’s desk and telephones are all in place. The association has rigged the model board so that toggle switches can be flipped on and off to simulate the lights illuminating as a train moved through the plant.
Even if the tower is closed, photographers use the stairs on the tower. There is a landing about halfway up and another landing outside the door leading into the tower. Both offer good vantage points to photograph trains on the NS and east-west CSX lines.
There is a fence along the platform by the station, but shooting over it is easy. In the corners, blocks have been placed to enable photographers to get a little more elevation.
There is plenty of parking in the station lot. There is a picnic table in a breezeway of the station for those who have brought something to eat.
Food and beverages: The closest eatery is a tavern located by the entrance to the station parking lot. Just west on Center Street is a convenience store. Numerous other restaurants and conveniences stories are located within Marion.