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With all due respect to Sand Patch or the Southern Tier; Midwest-Northeast rail freight has always favored two premier paths. There's the "standard" route, the tortuous climb over Pennsylvania's Alleghenies. Or there's the smooth sailing along the great "Water Level Route." Granted, this line lacks landmark locations like Horseshoe Curve, but the Buffalo-Cleveland stretch in particular offers something the Alleghenies never will: trains rolling fast over a nearly flat raceway, often side-by-side with the competition in a show that features more that 70 movements a day.

Taken alone, CSX's new main line, the former Conrail Chicago Line, is one of the hottest stretches of railroad around. It's two tracks host a fleet of high-priority intermodals, coal drags, mixed freights (often with new diesels from General Electric's Erie plant at the head end), and Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited in the early morning hours.

And only yards away in places, there's the perennial underdog, Norfolk Southern's former Nickel Plate main. It's busier than ever, recast as part of a single-line route to New Jersey. But for now, it still boasts a great anachronism - the slow stretch down Erie's residential 19th Street.

This show along Lake Erie's shore has been playing out for over a century. The CSX line traces its ancestry to New York Central predecessor Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, formed in 1869. Since its earliest days, the route has hosted the county's crack trains, including NYC's 20th Century Limited. The straight, well-engineered right-of-way boasted four tracks until CTC was installed in 1957. The New York, Chicago & St. Louis, or Nickel Plate Road, wasn't built until 1882. The single-track line settled for the second-best route in most places, curving it's way through towns and across deep gorges. But the NKP held its own, teaming up with the Lackawanna, Lehigh Valley, and others at Buffalo to battle the NYC.

Today, the former NYC is still the main attraction. CSX's new crown jewel hosts some 52 trains a day, about the same number Conrail ran. They link points including Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Cumberland, Md.,with Buffalo, southern Ontario, Albany, Boston, and New Jersey.

Water Level power is often two high-horsepower units, although bigger consists can be seen. Off-line power was common in the Conrail years, including new GE diesels fresh from Erie. Since Conrail's June 1 demise, CSX power has been showing up on a majority of trains, often in solid sets. This, combined with an increase in visiting power; has suddenly left Conrail's familiar blue diesels in the minority.

The NS line, meanwhile, hit a low point in the early 1980's when only a handful of trains polished its rails. It's been on the rebound since then, although its trains are often shorter than CSX's 75-100 car average, and have slower schedules.

NS traffic has grown further since the Conrail split, and the road plans to double traffic from 13 to about 24 trains a day. Players include several pairs of mixed freights between Bellevue, Ohio, Elkhart, Ind., and even Pittsburgh, and Buffalo, Binghamton, and New Jersey. There's also a pair of intermodals to and from Canadian Pacific in Binghamton, a pair of Chicago-Buffalo intermodals, three westbound autorack trains from Buffalo to Fostoria, Ohio, and coal extras.

NS trains often rate pairs of big diesels, although the road isn't shy about using smaller units like GP38-2's here. Once common, power from New York, Susquehanna & Western and CP has dropped off, especially with the abolition of CSX Intermodal trains to and from the NYS&W. However; former Conrail units, leased UP power; and CN diesels (not to mention new GE's) have added color since the Conrail split.

Working from east to west, a tour of the line starts at the Tifft Street bridge on Buffalo's south side. Within sight to the east is CP Draw, where all CSX and NS traffinc squeezes over a two-track drawbridge into Buffalo. Trains of Bethlehem Steel's South Buffalo Railroad, regional Buffalo & Pittsburgh, and short line Buffalo Southern also pass under the span. Not far west is CSX's Seneca Yard, whose operation is linked to a Ford plant served via the parrallel SouthBuffalo.

Next stop: Dunkirk. Here the mothballed "X" tower once controlled the crossing of the Erie's Salamanca-Dunkirk branch and the NYC yard. A local based here serves a half-dozen customers, including one on the former NYC Dunkirk, Allegheny Valley & Pittsburgh branch, which crosses the NS at a diamond on Dunkirk's south side.

In Westfield , the Route 394 overpass offers perhaps the best overhead view on the entire Lake Shore, complete with an old depot and a passing/storage siding. One of several spectacular NS trestles along the Lake Shore is here, too.

New York-Pennsylvania border; there's another NS trestle, as well as sweeping views of both CSX and NS from a wooden bridge west of Interstate 90. In North East, Pa.; the Lake Shore Railroad Museum has an impressive collection of equipment, and the old NYC depot is a fine place to watch the action of both roads.

Erie is at the heart of the tour; and provides the best action and sights. East of town, GE's test track parrallels CSX and NS to Harborcreek, providing a unique four-track view featuring the latest GE diesels. Farther west, the Franklin Avenue overpass borders the GE plant. Near East Avenue, regional Allegheny & Eastern rolls into town on an old Pennsy line, with a pair of CSX locals or NS's unit paper train over the A&E often using small yards to the east and west.

Just west of downtown on NS lies the nostalgic treasure of the Lake Shore, the nearly 2 miles of track in 19th Street. Trains slow to a crawl here, with horns shouting out warnings to motorists and pedestrains that share the street. But this curiousity's days are numbered - NS is planning to bypass along CSX's mostly elevated right-of-way through Erie.

West of Erie is Girard, the Bessemer & Lake Erie interchanges coke trains with the NS almost daily.

Across the Ohio border is Conneaut, a Nickel Plate 2-8-4 is displayed outside old NYC station. On NS, Conneaut is also home to a local yard and is crew-change oint.

At Ashtabula, the former Conrail (NYC) line to Youngstown heads south from the coal docks on Lake Erie, crossing the main line just west of the NYC depot. The line is now NS property, although CSX has long had trackage rights on it. Under Conrail, a pair of freights between Buffalo and Pittsburgh and at least a handful of coal trains used the line daily.

The tour ends at Collinwood Yard on Cleveland's east side, long one of NYC's, PC's, and Conrail's major yards, and a crew-change point for some Buffalo crews. Although some of the yard is tough to access, there are plenty of public spots to watch the CSX action here, as NS trains speed by to the south.

Access to the Lake Shore lines is a breeze. Three highways - New York Route 5, U.S. Route 20, and Interstate 90 - track speeds are 60 mph on NS and up to 70 on CSX.

Trains are plentiful throughout the day on CSX. Late afternoon to early evening was the surest bet under Conrail, with a daily fleet westbound intermodal trains just when the sun is best for them. Many NS trains are scheduled through the area from later afternoon through the night and mid-morning, although they often run at different times.

On NS, passing sidings are good places to catch trains stopped for meets. On CSX, the various control points (CP's) are also worth staking out, since dispatchers frequently hold trains there when maintenance crews take one track out of service. If you're traveling with a scanner, listen for NS crews calling out signals, and for CSX trains acknowledging talking default detectors. NS trains use either a three-digit symbol or a new, cryptic number-letter combination. CSX freights still went by Conrail's four-letter system into mid-summer.

So there you have it - about 175 miles of can't-miss railroading. Get there quick if you want to see gems like the NS street running. But rest assured, as long as trains roll to and from the East Coast, the Lake Shore will be a busy place.

RYAN FISCHER is a newspaper reporter in Erie, Pa. This is his fourth TRAINS byline.

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