Return to the Lounge Car

Story of a Swamp:

Conrail's Dirt Trains

by Paul R. Tupaczewski
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NOTE: Click on the word Photo while reading the story to see the corresponding image.

In late 1993, the State of New Jersey opened one of the last pieces of the Interstate Highway System yet to be completed. The final piece of Interstate Route 287 opened in November to the applause of drivers throughout the State. Not only were drivers happy, but so were environmentalists. In the course of constructing the highway, a large swamp had to be filled. Environmental activists noted that this action would cause the demise of many swamp-dwelling creatures, so an agreement was struck with the Environmental Protection Agency and the town of Wayne, where the swamp was located. Permission would be granted to fill the swamp, but a new swamp would have to be constructed within the town limits to provide a new home for migrating animals.

A site was found at the southwestern corner of the town at the location of a former military facility, one that was primarily woods located in a flood plain. The site proved ideal, as it would also reduce the amount of flooding in this notoriously flood-prone part of Wayne. To create the swamp, mountains of dirt would be moved to create a basin. The dirt would go to Liberty State Park in Jersey City, as fill to help bolster the marshy land along the New York harbor waterfront. However, local residents immediately expressed a concern about having several hundred dump trucks pass through residential neighborhoods each day, and a suggestion was made that one train a day could handle the work of nearly 150 dump trucks. The State immediately put out bids on the move, and two railroads responded.

Conrail expressed a strong interest in this extremely lucrative contract. Conrail offered to move the dirt via NJ Transit to Croxton Yard in Secaucus, where the train would reach Conrail trackage for the remaining run to Jersey City.

Also expressing an interest in moving the dirt was the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway. The Susquehanna offered to move the dirt via its ex-Erie Greenwood Lake Branch, which came within 3/4 of a mile of the site. However, the NYS&W would still have to pass the train off to Conrail at some point during its journey. The cost proved to be too prohibitive for the State, and Conrail got the nod.

A half-mile piece of five-foot high fill was built between NJ Transit's Boonton Line and the excavation site, the fill being constructed on the bed of a former spur that once led to the site. A track was laid atop this fill, and Conrail has its new "dirt spur" complete by early Fall 1994. Conrail also readied a small fleet of former Pennsylvania Railroad ore jennies to carry the dirt. The first run took place in late 1994.

Scheduling for the trains is extremely tight. According to the Conrail road foreman in charge of overseeing the dirt trains, this is the second hottest train on the entire Conrail system (piggyback train TVLA being the hottest), and for many reasons. Due to contractual obligations, Conrail is required to have the loaded cars in Jersey City by the start of the next work day. Additionally, Wayne Township, where the dirt trains are loaded, requires the Conrail trains to be out of the town limits by 12:30 AM, lest CR be slapped with a large fine for "disturbing their peace." Finally, the largest sticking point seems to be scheduling the train around the many commuter trains on NJ Transit's Boonton Line (former EL, nee-DL&W Boonton Line and nee-Erie Greenwood Lake Branch). Current schedules have the train running five days of the week. The four weekday runs (Monday-Thursday) are nocturnal, and considering the tightness of the schedules, there is no chance to possibly see any of these trains in daylight. The fifth run usually occurs on Sunday afternoons, and it is this run that draws fans by the dozens.

This writer decided to take in the dirt train one beautiful Sunday afternoon. The train was running about an hour behind its usual schedule, but around 3:00 PM the train rolled into Lincoln Park. The lead units, a trio of consecutively numbered General Electric C39-8's (6008-6009-6010) (Photo), cut off the train at the Lincoln Park passing siding, running back to the dirt siding to collect the loaded cars. The engines slowly made their way across the man-made fill towards the cars. (Photo) Note the building to the left of the engines; this will house a more permanent air compressor to keep the train's brake line charged and ready to go. For now, a standard construction-style air compressor is located nearby to perform this duty. The engines couple up (Photo) and combine the two strings of ore cars, (Photo) then head east on the Boonton Line to a point just east of Wayne and stop. The "pusher" then pulls out of the Lincoln Park siding with the string of empties, and it shoves them into the two tracks formerly occupied by loaded cars. The unit then runs light to meet the rest of the loaded train. After coupling on, the unit is placed into idle, and the train begins its trek east.

An excellent location to view the train on its eastbound run is the locale of Great Notch. This is approximately the top of a steep grade in both directions, and the train usually puts on an interesting battle climbing the hill. After an unusually long wait on this Sunday, the sound of horns blowing for crossings further down the grade announced the train's pending arrival. A few minutes before the train came into view, local and Conrail police arrived at the station. The police informed the fans that the delay incurred was caused by "riders" that jumped on the ore cars as the head of the train sat in Little Falls waiting for the "pusher" to catch up. Several youths simply climbed up and wrapped themselves around the ladders on the cars, not exactly the safest of maneuvers one can perform! The police were there to apprehend any youths that might be on the train. With the afternoon sun beginning to hang low in the sky, the big GE's slowly appeared around the bend, exhaust shooting into the sky and FDL prime movers slugging away. For those who grew up with the sight of Erie Lackawanna hotshots storming up this hill, it was indeed a grand sight to see real freight trains battling the Great Notch grade for the first time in over a decade. (Photo) At Great Notch, the eastbound train reaches the double track section of the Boonton Line for the remainder of the run to Croxton Yard in Secaucus.

A surprise treat this particular Sunday came in the form of a meet at Great Notch with a pair of NJ Transit GP40PH-2 diesels. 4102, an ex-CNJ GP40P rebuilt to GP40PH-2 specs by Conrail's Altoona Shops, led Conrail-rebuilt 4213 in the rare back-to-back configuration. Dubbed by many fans as "GP45's", the units indeed looked ready to pull a piggyback hotshot as they waited for the meet. (Photo) The units were running light to Dover as a power balancing move for the next morning's rush hour, and arrived at the end of double track at Great Notch about 10 minutes before the appearance. As the dirt train approached, NJT Engineer John Snogans stepped out onto the front platform to give a friendly wave to the Conrail crew. (Photo) In only a few seconds, the trailing unit rolled by (Photo), and the switch was thrown automatically by the Hoboken dispatcher. The NJT units quickly accelerated towards Dover.

Recently, C39-8 6009 suffered a turbocharger failure, and was subsequently replaced with pusher 6005, keeping the three-unit C39-8 lead set intact. The replacement pusher came in the form of EMD SD60M 5552, running with the cab facing west. The big EMD nose indeed made an interesting sight trailing the eastbound trains! As of April 26, 1995, unit 6009 was back, this time in the trailing position. The head-end power consisted of C39-8's nos. 6008 and 6010, and "Conrail Quality" SD40-2 no. 6515. It is apparent that the power can change at any time, though Conrail likes to keep a dedicated set of power for the train.

As of this writing, the trains have just begun Friday operations, running the same schedule as the other weekday trains. For those interested in following the dirt trains, they follow this approximate schedule:


Lv. Jersey City 4:00 PM
Ar. Croxton 5:00 PM

* At Croxton the train will sit and wait for the evening rush to subside. When a large enough hole opens up, the NJT Hoboken dispatcher will let the train through.
Ar. Great Notch 8:30 PM
* The train will wait at the end of the double track at Great Notch for an eastbound commuter train to clear.
Ar. Lincoln Park 9:00 PM
* The train waits at Lincoln Park for an eastbound commuter train to clear. Then the crew has approximately two hours to pick up the loaded cars, place the empty cars, and prepare for the eastbound trip. The eastbound run usually begins before after the 11:49 eastbound train passes Mountain View.
Lv. Wayne 11:50 AM
Ar. Jersey City 3:00 AM


Lv. Jersey City 12:00 PM
Ar. Lincoln Park 2:30 PM
Lv. Wayne 4:00 PM
Ar. Jersey City 7:30 PM

Note that the Sunday runs are much quicker due to lack of commuter traffic on the weekend. Lately, many of the Sunday runs have occurred at night, approximately following the weekday schedule. It is not known if this will be a common occurrence, or only a temporary rescheduling of the runs.

A good set of New Jersey maps (particularly Hudson, Essex and Passaic Counties) will aid tremendously in watching the trains. The dirt "quarry" is located at the end of Ryerson Avenue in Wayne, easily reached by the Newark-Pompton Turnpike exit off NJ Route 23.

The dirt trains will be running until at least the end of the year, so don't miss this opportunity to see big-time railroading in the hilly wooded suburbs of northern New Jersey!

Article and Photos (c) 1995 by Paul R. Tupaczewski. Republication without express written permission of the author is a violation of United States Copyright Laws.

Photo List

(Photo) Two strings of loaded ex-PRR ore cars await transport to Jersey City. Note the ore car with steel lettering panels approximately halfway down the line of cars; this car was one of several that the PRR applied insulation to keep ore from freezing during the winter months.

(Photo) Conrail GE C39-8 #6010 gingerly leads two other units across the fill leading to the dirt loading site. NJ Transit's Boonton Line is located where the spur disappears into the trees.

(Photo)- Big Conrail GE C39-8 #6010 prepares to couple to the first of two strings of dirt cars. The new swamp will encompass much of the area to the left of the picture, and will take most of the trees in the distance with it. In the foreground is the dirt quarry crossing.

(Photo) Conrail C39-8 #6008 leads the dirt train as it awaits departure from the loading site. Note that the units still wears the red "L" from its days in service on the Southern Pacific as a lease unit.

(Photo) NJ Transit GP40PH-2's numbers 4102 and 4213 sit shadowed in the late afternoon sun at Great Notch, New Jersey, awaiting the passage of the eastbound dirt train.

(Photo) The eastbound dirt train crests the hill at Great Notch, New Jersey, as it enters the double track section of the former Erie Lackawanna Boonton Line.

(Photo) NJ Transit engineer John Snogans gives a friendly wave to the crew of the dirt train as the two power sets pass each other.

(Photo) NJ Transit GP40PH-2 #4102 juxtaposes with the dirt train's trailing unit, Conrail C39-8 #6005.