Reading & Northern: Cressona, Pennsylvania—Retro Railroad Fantasy?

Is it a retro railroad fantasy to make images that resemble those of the late-Reading Era in 2015?

Reading & Northern GP39RN 2532 leads one of the company's Santa Trains at Becks near Cressona, Pennsylvania. This locomotive was originally classified as EMD GP30 and is painted to resemble Reading Company freight locomotives as they appeared in the 1970s. FujiFilm X-T1 photo.
Reading & Northern GP39RN 2532 leads one of the company’s Santa Trains at Becks near Cressona, Pennsylvania. This locomotive was originally classified as EMD GP30 and is painted to resemble Reading Company freight locomotives as they appeared in the 1970s. FujiFilm X-T1 photo.

Traveling with Pat Yough, I made this selection of photographs at the former Reading Company yards at Cressona, Pennsylvania in December 2015.

Back in the 19th Century, Philadelphia & Reading consolidated various railroads primarily for the movement of anthracite. In its heyday, this railroad was one of the busiest and most profitable in the United States.

Coal demand and transport has changed dramatically in the last 130 years.

Reading Company’s operations entered a long decline in the 20th century and were finally folded into Conrail in 1976. Reading & Northern emerged as a Conrail spinoff in the 1980s.

Reading & Northern's old Reading Company yards at Cressona, Pennsylvania. Exposed in 'monochrome mode' with my LX-7. I'v adjusted the tonality with an in-camera red-filter setting.
Reading & Northern’s old Reading Company yards at Cressona, Pennsylvania. Exposed in ‘monochrome mode’ with my LX-7. I’ve adjusted the tonality with an in-camera red-filter setting.

Today, using a host of vintage railroad equipment R&N provides freight service and seasonal excursions in the spirit of the old Reading Company. Anthracite remains among the commodities moved by the railroad.

R&N paints its vintage locomotives and some freight cars to resemble those of the late-era Reading Company.

This is a similar view to the black & white image above, and aimed to include R&N's GP39RN. This could be a view of an R&N freight, or perhaps almost passable as a view of the Reading Company from the 1970s. Yet, its really a Santa Train excursion. CNJ 113 is at the back of the train. Lumix LX7 photo.
This is a similar view to the black & white image above, and aimed to include R&N’s GP39RN. This could be a view of an R&N freight, or perhaps almost passable (if we cropped the ‘derail’ sign, and ignore the graffiti-covered 1980s era freight cars)  as a view of the Reading Company from the 1970s. Yet, it’s really a modern R&N Santa Train excursion. Restored CNJ 0-6-0 113 is puffing away at the back of the train. Lumix LX7 photo.
Trailing view of R&N's no-GP30 disguises the true nature of the day's excursion. This could easily pass as a R&N freight. FujiFilm X-T1 photo.
Trailing view of R&N’s neo-GP30 disguises the true nature of the day’s excursion. This could easily pass as a R&N freight. FujiFilm X-T1 photo.

The line between documentation and photo recreation is blurred.

Through select cropping, I can either reveal the nature of the passenger excursions, or at first glance make R&N’s excursions operation appear like a Reading Company freight from the mid-1970s, or even its own weekday freights.

When does documentation become a re-creation? In the case of R&N does such a distinction even matter?

R&N offers a window on the old order, which is a relief for a railroad photographer aiming to step back from the contemporary scene dominated by massive class I carriers with modern six-motor safety-cab diesels moving unit trains of coal, ethanol and intermodal containers, and modern passenger trains.

LX7 panned photo.
LX7 panned photo—relatively slow shutter speed and careful continuous panning motion allowed the main subject to remain sharp while the background slips into a sea of blur.

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