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Altoona's Horseshoe Curve: A Railroad Engineering Marvel

As someone who is into railroading, watching trains at Horseshoe Curve is like a dream. This is one of the most highly sought after railspotting locations in the world. People come from all over to see the trains maneuver through this giant curve that allowed the old Pennsylvania Railroad to get across the rugged mountains of the Alleghenies without a ton of tunnels. Prior to this, the main method to get freight and passengers across the Alleghenies was by way of a series of many inclined planes at the nearby Allegheny Portage Railroad. While this was an engineering feat that is still impressive to this day, it was not efficient enough for the needs of a booming economy. Horseshoe Curve enabled the Pennsylvania Railroad to cross the Alleghenies in an expedited manner and it remains an engineering marvel to this day. It was considered to be so important during the World War II era, that some Nazi spies attempted to sabotage the line to halt American shipments to the war effort from what Roosevelt coined as the "Arsenal of Democracy." That is just how important this single location was, and remains, in regards to American infrastructure. 

We were treated to some especially excellent railroading action on this visit, with the passing of a rail inspection train, and the Amtrak Pennsylvanian heading west for Pittsburgh.

You can opt to climb a series of steps to get up to the viewing area, or you can ride this funicular/inclined plane. 
While the Pennsylvania Railroad no longer exists in name, many of its wonders and innovations in infrastructure remain to this day. Norfolk Southern now owns the Main Line that goes through this location. As we were riding the incline on this visit, a Norfolk Southern train passed along. Here is a view through the window.
There is Brit!
The incline! A neat aspect of this incline is the fact that it is mostly on a single rail. The two cars pass each other at one bend in the middle of the track.
An old Pennsylvania Railroad Diesel Locomotive, sitting exposed to the elements. It is a cool display, though I really wish it was protected from the elements a little bit. 
A hawk taking in a birds eye view.
Last spring the viewing area was groomed, creating a better view. It was getting pretty grown in and they thankfully cut everything back. Some old timers say that the view is more clear than ever.
One end of the curve
Both ends of the curve in view. A series of reservoirs leads all the way to the edge of the town area of Altoona. One small runoff stream takes mine subsidence into one specific protected reservoir, keeping it protected and away from the water supply. It is pretty neat to see how these projects look when they are done right.
Here comes a single team of Norfolk Southern Locomotives without a load.
No zoom, just to give you a sense of just how immense the area of the curve is.
The team of four locomotives.
You can get pretty close to the track and trains, as seen here. It is nice to get one of the best views you can get of any railroad, at such close proximity and in a safe manner. 

Here you can see one of the reservoirs. On the left, you can see the mine subsidence basin. The basin leads to its own protected pool, keeping it from getting into the water supply.
A sure sign of summer, some blooming sumac.
I would love to see some old Pennsylvania Railroad rolling stock, whether it be diesels or steam, rolling through the curve. When is the next special train coming through?
Waiting for the train! 
This just may be one of the ultimate places to have a picnic.
Summer means that it is maintenance time. You can see many replacement rail ties sitting alongside the rails. This train here is an inspection vehicle. The engineers inspect the rails for any possible problems from these vehicles. I had never seen this happen before, so it was a real treat. 
They run these trains when the rails are being cleared. At this time, that means my favorite thing is about the happen!
Here comes the Amtrak Pennsylvanian! This is the last remaining daily route that crosses along the old Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line. I've made it a mission of mine to capture photos of the Pennsylvanian crossing through as many areas as possible, and we based this visit to the curve upon that. The timing was right and we got to see the westbound Amtrak Pennsylvanian traverse the curve!

Seven vehicles including the locomotive, and the train occupies only a small portion of the entire curve. That gives you a sense of scale for how large the curve is, and how it has attracted tourists since its inception.

Just passing by!

The train heading out of the curve on the western end, heading into a much smaller curve, Bennington Curve, the tightest curve on the old Main Line, and into the famous Galitzin Tunnels. 
Here is a freight car from the old PRR.
All in all, this is a place you have to check out. Even if you are not into railroading, the mountainous beauty and cool summer breezes in this area make it fun to just sit out and relax, especially if you have a picnic lunch. For people who are serious about railroading, there are a bunch of great places to watch the trains in this area, across the entire area of the Main Line, heading all the way towards Johnstown, especially at Bennington Curve and the Cassandra Overlook, which we will focus upon in another article, and at the Gallitzin Tunnels. A number of straight aways and wide open areas can be found in and around Altoona, especially around the Railroaders Museum. 
For more information on visiting and their hours of operation, check out their website at http://www.railroadcity.com/visit/world-famous-horseshoe-curve/


  1. I traveled the Horseshoe curve on the Pennsylvanian from Pittsburgh this past winter and the curve was such a spectacular sight.

  2. In the last years of the Portage Railroad to be more efficient they built the first all rail route over Allegheny Mountain from the Juniata canal basin in Hollidaysburg to the Conemaugh canal basin in Johnstown. Heading east out of Duncansville on old US22 the road goes under a stone railroad bridge known as the "Mule Shoe". It continued up the mountain slope and eventually came out to the Sugar Run Valley where the current RR line is running and almost parallel to it but on the other side of the valley to the low point of the mountain and built a tunnel through it which is still there but boarded up. The PRR used this tunnel after they bought out the Portage RR. It was the FIRST tunnel built there ! In the early 80's, accompanied by my son I drove up on the abandoned right of way at the stone bridge area and very slowly drove it the whole way almost to the tunnel. Parts of the old right of way are now access to newer houses and roads which can be seen on google maps.


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