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CP Rail's Sunbury Line

by J. Alex Lang
Photos by the author, except as indicated

The following article appeared in the July, 1998 issue of Eastern Railroad News; an internet magazine dealing with railroading east of the Mississippi River (more or less).  For more information about ERN, check out their website. Reprinted with permission.

Although never known for large amounts of traffic, the Sunbury Line has long attracted rail photographers to the scenic line following the East Branch of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Originally a Pennsylvania Railroad interchange route, the Sunbury Line runs from Sunbury, Pennsylvania to Wilkes-Barre. Typical of Eastern Pennsylvania, the line traverses many small towns with colorful names: Riverside, South Danville, Catawissa, East Bloomsburg, Mifflinville, Nescopeck, Wapwallopen, Mocanaqua, and Nanticoke.

The Sunbury Line has changed hands several times: it was constructed by the PRR in the mid-nineteenth century to interchange with the Reading Company, DL&W, and other northeastern anthracite-hauling roads. Most interchange was done at Buttonwood Yard south of Wilkes-Barre. DL&W traffic was mainly interchanged with the PRR at Northumberland via the DL&W's Bloomsburg Branch. Most of the interchange occurred at Buttonwood, with the D&H, via the seven-mile long PRR/D&H jointly owned and operated Wilkes-Barre Connectiong Railroad, which connected Buttonwood and Hudson Yards, just north of Wilkes-Barre. The PRR also ran from Buttonwood into Wilkes-Barre proper, interchanging with the Lehigh Valley and CNJ as well as running passenger trains from there.

In 1968, the PRR was merged with the New York Central to form the ill-fated Penn Central. PC's ensuing bankruptcy caused a "Chapter 11 chain reaction" throughout the northeast. Upon the failure of a pro-competitive plan trying to include Erie-Lackawanna into the Chessie System, Congress decided instead to grant Delaware & Hudson trackage rights to Philadelphia, PA and Washington, D.C. The D&H's southern terminus was then Wilkes-Barre, traversing a mountainous route to Nineveh north to Albany and Montreal. Congress thought that new trackage rights would strengthen the D&H's position as a "bridge route" carrier.

On April 1, 1976 most trackage in the northeast was conveyed to the Consolidated Rail Corporation, designed to save the bankrupt roads and make them profitable as a unified system. On "Day One", trackage rights were gained on three major routes. The first was from Sunbury to Harrisburg PA to Perryville MD, thence via Amtrak's Northeast Corridor to Potomac Yard at Washington D.C. The second was from Scranton to Allentown, thence either to Philadelphia or Oak Island Yard in Newark, N.J. Sometime in the early 1980's, the former DL&W mainline from Binghamton to Taylor Yard (near Wilkes-Barre), as well as the former PRR Sunbury Line were conveyed to the D&H.

CP Rail train 555-29 heads northbound on CR's Buffalo Line enroute to home rails at Sunbury on May 29, 1993. CP Rail SD40-2's 5677 and 5670 are equipped with Locomotive Speed Limiting and Cab Signals for operation over Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.
The D&H generally operated one pair of trains over each of the routes through the early 1980's when Guilford Transportation Industries acquired the D&H along with the Boston & Maine and Maine Central railroads. The Sunbury Line remained active throughout this period, with one pair of regular trains operating as well as occasional extras. Trains had colorful, rainbow locomotive lashups, as units from Guilford, D&H, MEC and B&M could be found as well as runthrough units from southern railroads such as Chessie and Norfolk & Western.


The Guilford Era, although brief, brought other changes to the D&H's operations. The operation of the three roads as one created a new virtual main line running from Mattawamkeag, Maine to Sunbury, PA; a distance of approximately 700 miles. Through traffic from Portland, ME to Washington, D.C. ran as POPY/PYPO. Operations via Allentown primarily brought materials to the Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem as well as interchange traffic to Chessie at Eastside Yard in Philadelphia. D&H trains often interchanged traffic at Conrail's Enola Yard near Harrisburg, PA.
CP Phosphate Train 751-17 heads northbound by South Danville, PA on February 18, 1994 with CP Rail SD40-2 5698 and three other SD40-2's including two GSCX units. Photo by Kevin Burkholder.


The same CP 555-29 viewed earlier enters CP Rail territory at CP-Kase in Sunbury, PA. The train is leaving Conrail's Buffalo Line and entering the Sunbury Line.
Through 1987 and 1988, Guilford was trying to merge it's three railroads into it's Springfield Terminal subsidiary. Railroad unions were not supportive of this move, as GTI sought to reduce crew size, and introduce other conditions that the unions felt were harmful. B&M and MEC were soon merged into ST (not without striking and arbitration), but the D&H offered much resistance to GTI. At the time, D&H still had five-person crews - Guilford sought to reduce this to two or three person crews. As a result of difficulties involved with merging D&H into ST, Guilford declared D&H bankrupt and effectively left the D&H on the doorstep of New York State.


The D&H shut down for several days after the Guilford pull-out, causing much alarm with ICC and New York State officials. Very shortly thereafter, the ICC ordered the New York, Susquehanna & Western to operate the D&H. Seeing the need for competition (as well as an ally) in the Northeast, CSXT and Norfolk Southern helped NYSW financially and operationally in running the D&H. CSXT financed NYSW's purchase of 20 B40-8's which became quite well-known during the NYSW's operation of the D&H. On the Sunbury line, traffic dwindled to almost nothing. NYSW re-routed all through trains to operate via Allentown. The only traffic on the Sunbury line was the once-weekly TYEN/ENTY (Taylor to Enola), and the line occasionally witnessed a GE transformer high/wide load.
CP 555 picked up a GATX leased SD40-2 at Wolverton siding since we last saw it. The train is passing the former PRR station at South Danville, PA. This is one of the most well-known locations on the Sunbury Line.


CP 556-28 heads southward through a bucolic scene typical of the Sunbury Line and of Eastern Pennsylvania. 556 operated from Montreal to Washington D.C, behind CP Rail SD40-2's 5690, 5678, 3254 (a former Norfolk Southern SD40-2B) and 5698.
CP Rail was picked by the ICC and D&H Trustee Francis DiCello to purchase the D&H in 1990. . CP's presence was soon known throughout the D&H system, operating it's bright red units everywhere. For awhile, all through freights ran through Allentown, then Norfolk Southern decided it wanted it's interchange traffic at Washington D.C instead of via CSXT at Philadelphia. Soon, CP Rail trains 555 and 556 (formerly known as PYRP and RPPY) were scheduled to run via Sunbury. 555, 556, and occasional unit phosphate trains ran via the Sunbury Line from late January 1993 through March 31, 1996, yielding these photos. During this time period, there were few sidings, and train operations were conducted via track warrants. Slow orders were in effect throughout much of the line. Average track speed was perhaps 40 mph.


Due to delays both on the Sunbury Line and Conrail's congested Harrisburg terminal area, CP Rail again routed 555 and 556 via Allentown in 1996, removing all scheduled trains from the Sunbury Line. The Sunbury Line has remained relatively inactive since that time, however, it has proved it's usefulness more than once. The winter of 1995/1996 wreaked operational havoc on railroads throughout the northeast. A large washout on Conrail's Lehigh Line (the route D&H trains use via Allentown, PA) caused CP to detour 4 through trains via the Sunbury line for over two weeks.

During the summer of 1997, trackwork on the Lehigh Line (by then owned by the Reading & Northern) forced CP to re-route 555 and 556 via Sunbury again - but this time, the trains operated Scranton - Sunbury - Harrisburg - Reading - Philadelphia to maintain their schedule and connections with CSXT at Philly. Since last summer, however, the Sunbury Line has seen little traffic.

CP 556 passed through Palmyra, PA on Conrail's Harrisburg Line with CSXT 7680, CSXT 7694, CSXT 6234, NS 9070, and NS3525 (2 CW40-8, GP40-2, C40-9W, B32-8. 556 was a real treat this day, as NS power had been the lead of most D&H detour trains. However, the Pennsylvania "potty" law - requiring chemical toilets - caught up with the D&H; and CP Rail power was in the lead until these trains resumed their normal routing via Allentown.

Last year brought other interesting news for D&H operations. CSXT and Conrail announced a friendly merger in October, 1996. NS and CSX then engaged in a counter-offer battle that resulted in a plan to split Conrail evenly between them. Both roads sought to get agreements in place with connecting and trackage rights railroads before merger-approval hearings would be held. With the Conrail split-up approved in a voice vote early in June, 1998, Conrail's system is slowly beginning to change.

Norfolk Southern last year negotiated an operations agreement with CP Rail that will hopefully bring about a resurgence in traffic to the Sunbury Line. Since NS will receive no Conrail trackage in or near New England, NS worked out a haulage agreement with CP Rail and Guilford Transportation Industries. Through this agreement, CP Rail's interchange with NS will be located at Harrisburg, PA (since NS is acquiring almost all former CR trackage in Pennsylvania). Reportedly, NS will run at least six trains from Harrisburg to Albany via Sunbury and Binghamton. Details are still sketchy, but it appears that the Sunbury Line will become part of NS' major inland north-south intermodal route.

CP Train 556-01 is southbound approaching Kase and Conrail's Buffalo Line. This power set consist was normal on the 555/556 during the 1994 operations to Potomac Yard. SD40-2 5698 followed by SD40-2B 3254, and SD40-2 5677 is at Sunbury on June 3, 1994. Photo by Kevin Burkholder
Tie work, resurfacing, and welded rail installation have been in progress on the Sunbury Line for the last several months. Much work has been reported, especially in the Wilkes Barre area, on increase of track speeds and repair of old track. The earliest NS can begin control of it's portion of Conrail is August 23, 1998; so it could be quite soon that hot intermodal trains ply the rails of the Sunbury Line.

With CSX and NS soon owning their own routes into the east and northeast, D&H's role as a bridge carrier will certainly diminish. D&H, previously an ally in CSX' and NS' quest for access to New York City, will not benefit from as much overhead traffic as before. Hopefully, the new NS and CP Rail agreement can secure a place for D&H and the Sunbury Line in northeastern railroading history.


   Details are still sketchy, and the "Day-1" splitup of Conrail gets pushed back repeatedly, but the latest as of March 1999 are that several trains will run via the Sunbury Line after "Day 1", projected to be June 1, 1999.  Trains reportedly will include:

Two intermodal trains are planned for operation between NS in the south and Guilford for delivery to New England. This is supposed to be direct competition with CSXT New England traffic.

No trains are running via the Sunbury Line as of January, 1999 with the exception of the P2 Taylor to Danville (Merck) local, any High-and-Wides for Conrail interchange (there have been a few in 1999), and any inspection or maintenance trains.

Special thanks to Sam Scannella for assisting with corrections to this article.