Freight Car Friday – Freight Cars of York

19 10 2012

Sure, the city of York, Pennsylvania is filled with thousands of freight cars this week – but not all of them are O and S gauge! Let’s take a look at some of the historic railroads and freight cars that have called York home.

The Pennsylvania

It’s hard to go anywhere in the Commonwealth without seeing the impact of the “Standard Railroad of the World.” York was an important stop at about the midway point between Harrisburg and Baltimore on the historic Northern Central.

X31 boxcar

York was and is a manufacturing town. Boxcars like the Pennsylvania’s X-31 were a common site around the many factories as well as passing through to the many connections.

Construction on the route began in 1854. Work on the southern end of the line was greatly stymied by both finances and politics. The Civil War actually provided an opportunity for the line as it used new political connections to its own advantage. Thanks to Simon Cameron’s appointment to Lincoln’s cabinet and an allegiance with the Pennsylvania, the Northern Central was able to out maneuver the Baltimore and Ohio who had blocked attempts for the “foreign” line’s intrusion in their home city.

While the Northern Central remained a separate railroad on paper for many more years, it was operated as a division of the Pennsy. Its mainline eventually extended all the way to Buffalo and formed a critical north-south route for the Pennsy.

PP&L hoppers

Although not located in York itself, a large PP&L power plant is just a few miles away at Bruner Island. The PP&L’s unit hopper trains, along of course with other hoppers from the PRR and its successors, remain a common sight in the area.

The route between York and Baltimore featured more curves and grades than online customers. But it was the most direct route between Baltimore and Washington and the Pennsy’s east-west mainline. Although most freight was routed via the nearby Columbia and Port Deposit, passenger trains continued to use the Northern Central up until Amtrak’s arrival in 1971. Hurricane Agnes delivered the final crushing blow to through service on the line two years later.

Conrail autorack

Conrail maintained an automobile distribution yard in York for many years. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the cars had to travel via Buffalo and the Northern Central due to the tunnels on the old PRR mainline. The facility closed earlier this decade and has now become a transload facility for lumber products.

Today you can walk most of the route between York and Timmonium on a rail trail. One track remains in place on the Pennsylvania side of the border and there are hopes of returning a steam excursion to the southern end.

Although the eastbound Pennsy branch to Wrightsville and Columbia has also been largely abandoned, northbound from York, the line remains an active freight corridor. Today it is part of Norfolk Southern’s network and is served by a train to and from Enola daily.

Western Maryland

Western Maryland

The Western Maryland’s insulated steel boxcars were a common sight in the region, carrying apples and other farm produce to Baltimore markets. Many were stenciled to be returned to the WM at Hanover – just a few miles west of York.

Often overlooked in the history of York’s railroads is the Western Maryland. The “Wild Mary” reached the city off of a branchline from the southwest.

Although its route to Baltimore was less efficient than the Pennsy, the Western Maryland did represent an alternative for local customers looking for a route to the west. The railroad also brought loads and empties from other points along the winding southern Pennsylvania line from Hagerstown to York for interchange to the Pennsylvania for delivery to points north and east.

Today both this and a nearly parallel Pennsy branch are operated by Genesee Wyoming to serve local customers and interchange with CSX at the western end.

Maryland and Pennsylvania

The smallest of the roads to call York home was the Maryland and Pennsylvania. The quintessential shortline, the Ma and Pa was built up through the late Nineteenth Century from a series of independent small roads, some of them narrow gauge. The winding course from York to Baltimore rolled through the hills of York, Harford and Baltimore Counties to a terminus just blocks from the Pennsy’s Baltimore station.


Although the lettering scheme is far more simple than the Ma & Pa’s “per diem” cars, Yorkrail boxcars can still be seen all across the country, like this one in Centralia, IL.

The Ma and Pa never really represented a competitive threat to the PRR for through passenger or freight traffic however. Traffic generally originated or terminated on line. From points north of the Mason-Dixon, York was the primary interchange.

Although the lines south of the border ended operations in the 1950s, the railroad’s northern end hung on. It became part of Emmons Transportation who built a railcar refurbishing plant on the line. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, rebuilt “MA & PA” boxcars could be seen all across the country. The railroad was finally merged with the company’s Yorkrail line (a former PRR line to Hanover) in 1999. Today the property is part of the Genesee and Wyoming shortline group.



One response

5 11 2012

The directors of the Baltimore & Susquehanna did not immediately give up their planned route via Westminster, the terms of the new charter being somewhat onerous. The Adams County Railroad was chartered on April 6, 1832, in Pennsylvania, to run from Gettysburg to the Maryland state line, but was never constructed, nor was the line to Westminster (later the Green Spring Branch) extended. A further amendment to the York & Maryland Line’s charter in 1837 allowed it the unlimited use of the Wrightsville, York and Gettysburg Railroad , which it had aided financially. The Baltimore & Susquehanna, and York & Maryland Line had completed the line from Baltimore to York by 1838. This line included the Howard Tunnel , the earliest railroad tunnel in the U.S. still in use today.

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