Mount Sutro: An Electronic Periodical

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The Locomotive Rolling Down The Track

Looking west along NASA Railroad (NLAX) tracks at the Oak Hammock Trail crossing near Wilson's Corner inside the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Oak Hammock Trail, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, Florida: Tuesday, 27 December 2022

part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge 2022 album


The thirty-eight-mile short line NASA Railroad (NLAX) at Kennedy Space Center has a fascinating history from its construction in 1963, use through the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, closure, and subsequent reopening to support the new Space Launch System. In lieu of a researched history, I am reproducing the text of KSC Fact Sheet FS-2013-04-075-KSC verbatim.

The NASA Railroad

The NASA Railroad is a 38-mile industrial short line on the Kennedy Space Center in Central Florida. It connects to additional Air Force trackage on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The railroad system is government owned and contractor operated.

1963 to 1983

In 1963, the Florida East Coast Railway built a 7.5-mile connection to the Kennedy Space Center from its mainline just north of Titusville, Fla. The line required a drawbridge to be built over the Indian River, part of the Intercoastal Waterway. The steel bridge and its approaches are approximately a half-mile long, built on concrete pilings. The draw span stays open continuously until a train approaches, and the crew activates a switch to lower it.

The Florida East Coast connection joined 28 miles of NASA-constructed track at a junction named Wilson's Corners.

The Florida East Coast built two yards, a seven-track yard now called Jay Jay at the main line interchange (originally called Cape Canaveral Junction), and a second seven-track yard called Wilson Yard, slightly west of the geographical location of Wilson's Corners.

East of Wilson Yard, the line divides with a nine-mile branch going south to NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building and the Kennedy Space Center Industrial Area, the other another nine-mile branch going east toward the Atlantic Ocean for service to the NASA launch pads and the interchange with the Air Force track.

In the late 1970s, NASA acquired three World War II-era ex-U.S Army Alco S2 locomotives for local switching in the area of the Vehicle Assembly Building and the KSC Industrial Area. The Florida East Coast provided track maintenance, crews and locomotive power for the arriving and departing traffic.

1983 to Present

NASA purchased the Florida East Coast portion of the railroad line in June 1983. Because of the hazardous commodities hauled over the railroad, particularly the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle, NASA decided to completely rebuild and upgrade the line.

The original track was 100- or 112-pound jointed rail on wood cross ties and limestone ballast. It was replaced with 132-pound continuous-welded rail and concrete cross ties.

The work was done by the track maintenance subsidiary of the Florida East Coast.

The track was constructed to 60 mph standards, which is Florida East Coast mainline speed; however, normal operating speed is 25 mph to reduce maintenance and increase the life span of the track.

To replace the aging S2 locomotives, NASA acquired three EMD SW-1500 locomotives, built in 1968-1970 for the Toledo, Peoria and Western Railway. Each was painted with the NASA Railroad red, gray and black color scheme, and the locomotives were re-numbered 1, 2 and 3. They are maintained in house at the NASA Railroad Shop at Kennedy. One of the original Alco S2 locomotives has been preserved at Florida Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami.

The primary traffic on the NASA Railroad has been the solid rocket booster segment cars. Each of the two booster rockets on the space shuttle consisted of four segments, each 32 feet long and 12 feet in diameter weighing an average of 150 tons. So, each launch requires delivery of eight segment cars.

Each segment car weighs 510,000 pounds and there were a total of 24 railroad cars in the overall fleet.

They were delivered to Kennedy from the Thiokol plant in Wasatch, Utah, over a route that uses the Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, CSX and Florida East Coast Railway.

The segments were stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Building before being joined with the external tank and space shuttle orbiter. After launch, the twin solid rocket boosters, empty of their fuel, are recovered from the Atlantic Ocean, broken down into individual segments once again and returned to Thiokol by rail. These solid rocket boosters also were used for the Ares IX test flight.

Initially five-segment solid rocket boosters will be used for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket.

The Air Force also had until recently three specially modified SW-8 locomotives for the Titan IV rocket. Used to switch the solid rocket booster segments that are delivered to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the three units were completely rebuilt by the mechanics at the NASA Railroad locomotive and equipment shop. These locomotives would later deliver the fully assembled Titan IV rocket to the launch pad. The Titan IV program has since ended. The NASA Railroad also has had a unique move interchanging traffic with Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, using specially designed cars for the Air Force and the Navy.

The Air Force used helium to purge the lines of the Titan rockets that use liquid fuel. However, the helium arrives as a liquid. A plant at Kennedy converts it to a gas which is then loaded into these specialized cars that are hauled by the NASA Railroad to the Air Force interchange. These cars originally were owned by the Bureau of Mines, and when the government left the helium business, some of the fleet was transferred to Kennedy for in-plant use.

The NASA Railroad owns a small equipment fleet of specialized cars and hoppers, as well as some highly specialized cars such as the solid rocket booster structures car. Many of these cars travel to other NASA locations to bring back components that cannot move by highway. An example are skirts and frustums which are very large, bulky rocket motor parts that are transported on the booster structures car.

There are some significant cost-saving opportunities available to NASA where modified or specialized railroad cars could be used, avoiding the expense of shipment by cargo aircraft or barge. The cars sometimes also eliminate the need to disassemble oversized items. The railroad shop has either modified existing equipment or fabricated new rolling stock. In some cases, a modified freight car could be cost effective just for a single one-way trip.

On March 30, 1982, space shuttle Columbia landed at the back-up landing site at the White Sands Test Facility in southern New Mexico, concluding STS-3. The dry lake bed runway at Edwards Air Force Base was flooded from heavy rain. All of the ground support equipment to be used to service Columbia after landing had to be moved from Edwards Air Force Base in California to White Sands, near Las Cruces, N.M.

If ever needed, the original plan was to fly the equipment in waves of Air Force C-5 and C-141 air cargo planes. However, at the time of the STS-3 landing, they were not available in sufficient time to have the equipment on the ground at White Sands for Columbia's arrival. Using equipment furnished by the Sante Fe Railroad, two trains were used to move the equipment over the lines of Sante Fe and Southern Pacific for the 1,000-mile distance between Edwards and White Sands. By using rail, the cost saving to NASA was more than $2 million for the equipment's round trip.

The Black And White World Never Fades To Grey

Looking down toward Niagara Glen Nature Reserve's Main Loop Trail along the Wintergreen Cliff from atop an eighty-stair metal access tower near the Niagara Glen Nature Centre.

3050 Niagara Parkway, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada: Wednesday, 11 May 2022

part of the Niagara Falls, Ontario album


A wilderness area "located deep in the Niagara Gorge," Niagara Glen features over two-and-a-half miles of rugged trails winding through "one of the last remaining remnants of old growth Carolinian forest in Niagara" and contains "some of the largest trees of their kind." Along the way are "prehistoric geological formations" and large boulders, "relics of the rapid erosion that occurred and continues to occur," fossils of marine life from an ancient sea, "delicate mosses and ferns," and "approximately 490 species of vulnerable plants and animals."

Niagara Glen's nine trails are accessible from an eighty-stair metal access tower near the Niagara Glen Nature Centre. At the base of the stairs is the Main Loop Trail, from which hikers can explore the area and cross over to other trails. I did not have time for much beyond descending the stairs, exploring for a minute, and heading back up, but the location is quite nice.

The Way You Wear Your Hat

An original Arby's Restaurant ten-gallon cowboy hat sign (1973) with neon and light bulbs at Store 619 in Meadville, Pennsylvania.

1151 Park Avenue, Meadville, Pennsylvania: Monday, 09 May 2022

part of the Meadville, Pennsylvania album


I can remember as a child seeing it tower overhead from 1395 Niagara Falls Boulevard, likely as my mother drove us to the Boulevard Mall or other nearby shops in western New York. The classic Arby's hat sign, proclaiming "Arby's Roast Beef Sandwich Is Delicious" in neon, was installed there around 1966 when the restaurant opened, the first of that chain in the Buffalo area.

Since the 1980s when I was living nearby, the Arby's cowboy hat met the same fate as so many other classic neon signs and was demolished sometime between 1989 and 2007. The Arby's itself went out of business in January 2019. An interesting aside, next door is the first McDonald's in New York, which opened in 1959 and underwent a retro-style renovation in October 2005.

Starting with the first 1964 location in Boardman, Ohio, the ten-gallon cowboy hat sign was a fixture at all Arby's restaurant locations built through the 1970s. Originally designed by Peskin Sign Company (1916–2016) of Youngstown, Ohio, the vintage signs have been gradually disappearing with very few of them remaining today. Peskin Sign employee Richard Cook told the Star Beacon in November 2009 that "the big old signs are costly to maintain," at least due in part to having "all these light bulbs, all these old electrical connections." At the time, Peskin was still contracted by Arby's to install, maintain, and remove their signs.

While Arby's is "progressively replacing the old signs with lighter, smaller plastic and aluminum signs," according to Cook, some locations have kept their original signs after being remodeled. The 4411 South Lamar Boulevard outlet in Austin, Texas, the first Arby's to open in that area in 1972, kept their original signage despite remodeling the building numerous times. However, despite keeping it unlit — franchisee Jon Parnell said in October 2018 that the old signs were "rather cost prohibitive" to operate due to high electricity consumption and the need to repaint them every five or six years — the original sign was eventually taken down between February 2020 and February 2021.

When the 3826 East Thomas Road location in Phoenix, Arizona was remodeled in 2019, the franchisee "felt there was some history and some nostalgia there from a sign that people […] just kind of remember and know about." Since "keeping the original sign kind of just seemed like the right thing to do," the franchisee hired Steve Skye with famed sign producer YESCO to refurbish theirs at some expense. The one-month rehabilitation project included recreating neon letters, redoing the electric internals, installing new transformers, swapping out incandescent light bulbs with LED bulbs, and rebuffing the ceramic face.

It seems that this preservationist approach has also prevailed at the Arby's in Meadville, Pennsylvania, located about nine miles away from the home of my stepsister and her family. Settled in May 1788, Meadville has a population of 13,050 (2020) and was the first permanent settlement in northwestern Pennsylvania. Its Arby's location, opened in 1973, is the "busiest Arby's franchise" between Rochester, New York and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

During my most recent visit in May 2022, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the forty-nine-year-old sign was still present, albeit modified, and took a few photographs of it. I also returned one night to see the neon in all its glory but regrettably the sign was unlit. What I did not know at the time was that the restaurant was soon to be demolished and the sign saved.

Closed for business at the end of the day on Thursday, 30 June 2022, demolition started the morning of Thursday, 04 August 2022 and by noon "all that remained was the restaurant's red-roofed front section" and the classic sign standing nearby. Due to the "enthusiastic support of area residents" and project feedback received at Arby's corporate going back to before COVID-19, the sign will be kept but moved slightly and refurbished.

Tammy Puharic with Arby's Restaurant Group, Eastern Alliance, told The Meadville Tribune on Thursday, 30 June 2022 "that the sign was an 'important part of the renovations.'" While the restaurant is rebuilt with a smaller dining room and the parking lot reconfigured for a two-lane drive-thru, the sign will be relocated and "protected by a curved island" while also receiving an updated wiring package and new LED fixtures to replace non-functional incandescent lights.

"This was a rare chance that our leadership valued," said Puharic. "We know it was important to the town." Puharic promised that the sign's refurbishment would be "well worth it" despite being "no small feat." There was no mention, however, if the "Is Delicious" portion of the neon sign would be restored to original. At some point in history, that section of the text was cleared and a new three-dimensional piece saying "drive-thru" was mounted to it.

Arby's corporate plans to keep and restore the sign became more solidified through discussions in weekly teleconferences years ago, according to Josh Long with CESO, the Dayton, Ohio engineering firm managing the entire tear down and rebuild project. Remarking on the "keep this sign" feedback that they were receiving about their corporate artifact, Long said that one Arby's official remarked, "it's pretty amazing that a town takes pride in a sign of ours… we should really take that into account."

The Meadville Tribune reported on Friday, 20 May 2022 that a restaurant manager had posted on social media in July 2021 asking for the community to express their interest in keeping the sign. This petition effort "drew more than 2,600 positive reactions and more than 1,500 comments, the overwhelming majority calling on Arby's to preserve the sign."

The final look of the sign cannot yet be shared as the redevelopment project is still underway. While Long told the Meadville Zoning Hearing Board on Thursday, 19 May 2022 that Arby's wanted the project "to be completed by the end of the year," a sign at the restaurant seventy-seven days later said "see you in October." I am sure they wish to finish and reopen as soon as possible, especially since driving to the next closest Arby's is a fifty-mile roundtrip.

More recently on Sunday, 25 September 2022, local construction firm Fuller Building Group shared a photograph of one of their veteran employees working on recently poured concrete. From the position of the photo, it appears to be the new building's foundation under construction. Meanwhile, McCray Technologies posted on Tuesday, 25 October 2022 that they would be working on-site "next week or so" and that the Arby's "should be re-opening soon."

The last time I wrote about an old, neat structure in Crawford County, it was demolished not long after. As more companies take the less expensive or easier routes at the loss of historic signage, it is refreshing to see at least one project acknowledging the desires of the surrounding community and taking preservation efforts. Even if it is just a sign for roast beef sandwiches.

Update 2022-11-21

Thanks to a local source, I can report that the "Is Delicious" portion of the sign is indeed being restored! The restaurant is not yet reopened, but work at the site continues.

Meadville Arby's sign on Monday, 21 November 2022
Special to Mount Sutro

Update 2022-12-17

Ten days ago I was sent a third-party photograph from social media of the sign repaired and illuminated, and the restoration looks great. The neon letters spelling "Arby's Roast Beef Sandwich" are fully operational as well as the light bulbs that border the hat. As previously reported, the "Is Delicious" portion of the sign was restored but it appears they did not reconstruct the neon for those letters.

Regarding the restaurant itself, local chatter suggests that it should be open to the public on Monday, 19 December 2022, following employee training on Friday, 16 December 2022 and likely throughout the weekend.

Update 2022-12-30

Justin Kibler, program director and morning show host on Froggy 100.3 and 98.5 FM, shared this photograph of the sign lit on Tuesday, 20 December 2022. You can see where the original neon tubes were installed on the "Is Delicious" section, now restored sans lighting.