The Station Inn

Norfolk Southern train at Cassandra

Savor the Sights and Sounds at the Cassandra Railroad Overlook

Located only about ten minutes from The Station Inn, the Cassandra Railroad Overlook is a favorite for rail enthusiasts and casual sightseers alike. This quiet spot offers a great view of Norfolk Southern’s busy Pittsburgh Line, making it a prime location to witness the majesty of modern railroading.

But the overlook’s charm goes beyond its front-row views. The bridge you stand on was once a part of Pennsylvania Route 53. It lay dormant for decades before being reborn in the late 1990s. Thanks to the vision of Cassandra’s former mayor, John Shuniak, the area was transformed into a park, complete with picnic tables and benches – the perfect spot to spend an afternoon soaking up the sights and sounds of the railroad.

About The Main Line

The tracks that snake through the area carry a rich history. Once upon a time, this line belonged to the Pennsylvania Railroad, a transportation giant that played a pivotal role in the development of the American Midwest. Today, it’s part of the Norfolk Southern network, carrying a plethora of cargo – from coal to chemicals – that keeps the nation’s economy humming. Delve deeper on our Railroad information page.

Track 3 is closest to the entrance of the park, and Track 1 is closest to Route 53, with Track 2 of course located in the middle.  The empty space between tracks 1 and 2 is where track 2 used to be; with the tracks numbered 4 through 1 from north to south.  Old track 2 was removed in 1981.  Historically, westbound trains ran on track 3, eastbounds on track 1, and trains could move in either direction on track 2.  However, the signal system was upgraded in the 2018-2020 timeframe to support the mandate of Positive Train Control, and as a result, trains can move on any of the three tracks in either direction.

To the West...

Cassandra is about five miles west of Cresson; westbound trains can cross over at CP-MO (formerly the site of “MO Tower”) and so westbound trains can appear on any of the three tracks.  A dragging equipment detector is located in Lilly, just a mile or two east of Cassandra; listening on a scanner on 160.875 will yield the announcement of this detector over the radio.  The detector won’t go off until just after a train has passed, and so it may not provide sufficient advance warning for longer westbound trains.  Monitoring the Horseshoe Curve webcam or train log can help you identify westbounds as they ascend the grade from Altoona to Cresson; westbounds can take anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour to arrive at Cassandra depending on the tonnage and number of locomotives in the train consist.

To the East...

Looking west off of the Cassandra bridge, you may see a switch on track 1.  This is “BC”, where the Ben’s Creek branch to Sonman heads to the Sonman loadout (coal tipple) in Portage.  Coal trains can still be found loading here from time to time.  The Ben’s Creek branch runs through and reconnects with the main line at “NY” in nearby Portage.  The Ben’s Creek branch was the original mine routing until the early 1900s when the PRR undertook a major capital project to eliminate road crossings, straighten curves, and elevate the main line.

Continuing west from Portage are the towns of Wilmore, Summerhill, and South Fork.  South Fork is home to a small yard that is the home base for several of the trademark SD70ACu locomotives that ply the mountain.  Coal trains to and from the South Fork Secondary are based here; this is also the home terminal for trains that load at Sonman.

Eastbound trains may be heard on the scanner calling signals at CP-SO and CP-W; CP-W is on Track 1 only.  Otherwise, there is little warning for eastbounds until you spy a distant headlight.

The Cassandra "All-Nighter"

Most years, a group of volunteers organizes a "Cassandra All-Nighter", in which the park is open overnight and railfans come to enjoy the rail action all night long. Typically, extra lighting and portable restrooms are brought in, and visitors are invited to camp at the park. This year's event is planned for August 3-4, 2024 - you may want to bring a lawn chair, bug spray, sunscreen, and come prepared for rain or shine!

NS 9398 east on #2 with doublestacks. Dec 17, 2011

Capturing the Perfect Railfan Photo

For photography enthusiasts, the Cassandra Railroad Overlook provides a unique canvas. It’s a safe, legal way to get close to the action. Here are some tips to elevate your railroad photos:

  • Sun Angles and Time of Day: Morning light paints the eastbound trains in a warm glow, while afternoon light is ideal for capturing westbounds. If you’re aiming for dramatic silhouettes, consider shooting at sunrise or sunset.
  • Embrace the Telephoto Lens: Particularly for eastbound trains, a telephoto lens will allow you to zoom in on the trains, creating a sense of compression that emphasizes their scale and power. The tracks are perfectly straight for about two miles, allowing you to see eastbounds’ approach for several minutes before arriving.
  • Play with Angles: Experiment with different perspectives. Get down low for a dramatic view of the train barreling towards you, or climb onto a bench for a more elevated vantage point.

A Railfan's Paradise Awaits

Whether you’re a seasoned railfan or simply someone who enjoys the rhythmic pulse of industry, the Cassandra Railroad Overlook offers a unique experience. So pack your camera, grab a seat, and prepare to be awestruck by the power and grace of the American railroad.

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