Part 2 — a brief history of U.S. passenger trains, 1865-1970
This is the second of a multi-part series on the history and current state of passenger rail in the United States.
Before the turn of the 20th Century, Americans' travel options were extremely limited. Roads were primitive, where they existed at all. Automobiles were all but unheard of, and the idea of flying anywhere was unthinkable unless you were a fan of Jules Verne, or one of the Wright brothers.
Personal transportation was limited to one's feet or a horse or horse and wagon. Public intercity transportation consisted of the stagecoach, the steamboat and the "iron horse."
It's not surprising, then, that the railroads had a lock on intercity travel. By 1895, it was estimated that 95 percent of all intercity trips were made by train, according to the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
Passenger service was largely the result of government mandate. In exchange for using its power of eminent domain to obtain rights-of-way for railroad expansion, the federal government required railroads to provide a public service in the form of passenger trains. America's railroads approached that mandate with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but most of them soon realized providing top-notch passenger service was a good public relations move, and began to compete for passengers with gusto, creating flagship "name" trains and promoting ever-increasing speed, comfort and service.
Two innovations in the 1860s, the Pullman sleeping car and the dining car, had made rail travel tolerable. The railroads began ordering ever more lavish cars in an effort to make it chic. Watch a day's worth of old movies from the 1930s, '40s or '50s on one of the classic movie channels, and you're almost certain at some point to see a scene — or even an entire movie — set on one of the named trains of the period.
But beneath the glitz and glamour of luxury trains like the Super Chief, Empire Builder, 20th Century Limited and Southern Crescent was a great deal of political and corpororate turmoil which nearly killed all rail service in the United States. Follow me below the fold to see how passenger rail nearly died, and what attempts were made to save it.
From the start, the relationship between the railroads, shippers, labor and the government was one of near-constant tension as all sides sought to use newly-created government agencies like the Insterstate Commerce Commission to their advantage. According to a historical timeline on NARP's website:
"By 1917…the politics of rail had become a three-cornered hat dance among managers, shippers, and labor in which the shippers had captured the ICC and labor had gained the backing, however unwilling, of the administration."As an aside, I should say here that NARP's history takes a decidedly pro-management slant I can't entirely agree with, portraying railroad managers as caught in the middle between union pressure to keep wages high, shipper pressure to keep rates low, and government meddling which failed to solve either problem.
While I support NARP, I don't fully subscribe to that point of view (which I see becoming evident again here in Florida, but that's an issue for a later diary). Suffice to say I believe railroad management bears a significant amount of blame for the turbulance it experienced, thanks to an obsessive bottom-line focus we see so often today, and an image over substance approach I'm personally familiar with, having worked for a development company here in Florida with a similar approach.
Calls for nationalizing both freight and passenger rail service were frequent in the early 1900s, but never came to fruition. As battles between railroad managers, shippers and unions grew more heated, the whole rail system was in danger of collapse.
Finally, in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established the United States Railway Administration (USRA), and appointed as its head Secretary of Commerce William McAdoo. Under McAdoo, railroads were encouraged to buy standardized equipment, pool resources and eliminate under-used passenger services. In cities and towns served by multiple railroads, "union stations," single passenger facilities used by all the roads into and out of those cities, were built. To be sure, none of McAdoo's initiatives ended the ongoing battles, but they did serve to stabilize things somewhat.
Even so, by 1929, the railroads' intercity passenger monopoly was already beginning to break. Henry Ford had revolutionized automobile production with the Model T and Model A, and the Lincoln Highway and Route 66 were making long-distance automobile trips on decent roads possible. In every year of the 1920s, automobile sales topped 2 million, indicating that the car was here to stay.
Henry Ford was also responsible for the Ford Trimotor, the first practical airliner in the United States, which took to the skies in 1925. For the first time, the possibility of flying from city to city was within reach of the average American. By 1930, the cost of operating passenger service was already pushing the majority of railroads into the red.
Even in the early days, high-speed service was something of a holy grail. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, better known as the Milwaukee Road, boasted its tracks between Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St. Paul were so well-built and maintained that it's Hiawatha passenger trains could sustain a speed of 100 mph with such a smooth ride that a glass of water on a table in its diner would be undisturbed. The New York Central's 20th Century Limited and Pennsylvania Railroad's Broadway Limited routinely raced each other to see which train could travel faster between New York and Chicago.
But the first real attempt at a specially built high-speed train was a cooperative effort between the Budd Company, a railroad coach builder, and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. The "Zephyrs," as they were christened by the Burlington, were far ahead of their time.
The first of these diesel-electric powered train sets was delivered to the CB&Q by Budd in 1934. Their streamlined bodies were finished in highly-polished stainless steel. Unlike nearly all other passenger trains of the day, the Zephyrs were built as a unit, with every pair of cars sharing a "bogie" set of wheels between them. This design saved a great deal of weight, as it eliminated the need for two wheel sets (called trucks) for each car, as well as couplers. The disadvantage of the design was that the train couldn't be lengthened or shortened.
To introduce the new streamliner to the public, the CB&Q and Budd came up with a grand publicity scheme — the "Dawn to Dusk Dash." The Zephyr left the CB&Q's westernmost terminal in Denver, CO at 7:04 a.m. Central Time on May 26, 1934, with the goal of reaching Chicago — 1,015 miles away by rail — before dusk.
The train was to run non-stop between the two cities. All highway grade crossings along the route were guarded by flagmen, and all station platforms between Denver and Chicago were roped off and protected by local police.
The railroad estimated the train could make the trip in 15 hours. The Zephyr blew that mark away, arriving in Chicago at 8:09 p.m., a time of 13 hours, 5 minutes at an average speed of 77 mph. Along one section of the run, the Zephyr hit a top speed of 112.5 mph, an incredible speed for the time (the world land speed record in 1934 was 130 mph).
Immediately following the dash, the Zephyr was placed on display at the 1934 Century of Progress Fair in Chicago, then set out on a 31-state, 222-city tour. The original train was placed into regular revenue service between Kansas City, MO and Omaha and Lincoln, NE as the Pioneer Zephyr. Other sets were ordered, including the Twin Cities Zephyrs, which competed with Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha on the Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul route, and the Mark Twain Zephyr from St. Louis, MO to Burlington, IA. For a time, the Mark Twain and one Pioneer Zephyr set were re-assigned to the Denver to Chicago run as the Denver Zephyr.
The fast, sleek silver trains were immensely popular, and ridership along the routes they served increased dramatically. They were also far less expensive to operate than steam-powered trains, though the early Diesel engines used by Budd were not reliable, making maintenance costs and down time higher than they potentially could have been.
Still, the Zephyrs served the Burlington for 20 years, and other railroads took notice. Budd built similar trains for the Boston & Maine Railroad, which was christened the Flying Yankee, operating twice a day each way between Portland, ME and Boston, MA, and making one trip from Portland to Bangor between the two Boston runs. The streamliner was later switched to other routes, operating through its career as the Cheshire, Mountaineer and Businessman, before being retired in 1957 as the Minuteman.
The train's light weight and radical design also proved a liability when one of Burlington's Zephyrs collided head-on with a freight train, demolishing its cab. That collision was largely responsible for the Burlington's management ultimately deciding to buy more conventional diesel-electric passenger locomotives rather than additional Zephyr trainsets.
During the steam era, tunnels presented a huge problem for railroads, and the extensive tunnels underneath northeastern cities like New York proved particularly troublesome. The Pennsylvania; New York Central and New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroads responded by replacing steam locomotives with electric-powered locomotives powered by overhead "catenary" wires in their tunnels in New York and Long Island beginning at the turn of the century. By the 1930s, the entire Northeast Corridor was electrified.
Electric locomotives had several advantages. They were easier to maintain than either steam or diesel-electrics (though their catenary systems required constant upkeep), and provided more pulling power into the bargain. Other railroads with mountain routes and long tunnels took note, and electrification spread to portions of many railroads throughout the U.S. Most of those projects covered less than 10 miles, but two railroads, the Milwaukee Road in the midwest and Pacific northwest and the Virginian Railroad in Virginia and West Virginia, undertook more ambitious electrification projects.
The Milwaukee Road electrified two divisions, the 438-mile Rocky Mountain Division from Harlowton, MT to Avery, ID and the 207-mile Coast Division from Othello to Tacoma, WA and south to Black River near Seattle. The lines remained under catenary until 1972, though diesel-electric locomotives had, by then, largely replaced the all-electric units.
The Virginian electrified a 134-mile stretch of track from Roanoke, VA to Mullens, WV to haul heavy coal trains through the Appalachain Mountains. It remained in service until the Norfolk & Western Railroad took over the line in 1959, and was de-electrified in 1962.
As airplanes, automobiles and the facilities they used continued to improve, squabbles between the railroads, the shippers who used them and the union labor that kept trains running continued to hamper innovations which might have put passenger rail on a better footing, such as identifying corridors where the railroads could effectively compete with the up-and-coming transportation modes. Perfecting trains like the Zephyrs and taking advantage of electrification could have resulted in greater speed, reliability and cost-efficiency along many key routes. But the Class 1 railroads chose instead to focus on style, dieselizing and adopting colorful paint schemes, purchasing new lightweight stainless steel passenger car sets every few years, and focusing on gimmicks like on-board hostesses.
Those changes in and of themselves were not fatal, but combined with ever-declining levels of service, they certainly didn't help.
Passenger rail experienced a small renaissance during World War II, as fuel rationing pushed people out of cars and airplanes and onto trains. During the war, Jacksonville Union Terminal in Florida was served by as many as 142 passenger trains in a single day. But the railroads were dealt several body blows in the 1950s which would mark the beginning of what was almost the end of passenger rail in the United States.
On April 25, 1946, the Burlington's Exposition Flyer, approaching Napierville, IL at 85 mph, slammed into the rear end of the Advance Flyer, which had made an unscheduled stop to address minor mechanical issues. Although the Exposition Flyer's engineer applied his brakes, his train was still going 60 mph when it struck the other train, killing 45 and injuring 125 people.
In response, the Interstate Commerce Committee placed a speed restriction, which took effect in 1951, of 79 mph on all passenger trains in the United States unless they were equipped with automatic cab signals, automatic train stop or automatic train control. Few locomotives were equipped with those features, so the railroads decided to abide by the new speed restriction rather than go to expense of retrofitting their fleets.
Then, in 1955, Pan American World Airways shocked the airline industry by placing simultaneous orders with Boeing for 20 of their new 707 jetliners, and with Douglass for 25 new DC-8 jets. Some airlines had dabbled with jets before this, but had been reluctant to go all in on the new technology because of the higher operational costs. Pan Am's decision to make such a large commitment to jet transport opened the floodgates, and the jet age was born.
Passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the Interstate Highway System, delivered the final punch. Soon both airline passengers and highway travelers would be able to travel at speeds unimaginable before World War II, while passenger trains were being forced slower than they had before the war.
One effort to boost passenger rail service and increase speed was made by the government in the 1960s. On October 1, 1964, Japan introduced the world to the Shinkansen (literally translated as "new rail line"), the first high-speed train to run on dedicated tracks. Achieving speeds of 130 mph, the new trains promised a competitive leg up for passenger rail.
The new "bullet trains" (nicknamed for the bullet-shaped noses of the first trainsets built) did not go unnoticed in the United States, which had given Japan an $80 million loan to help build the line. In 1965, Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the High Speed Ground Transportation Act, with the goal of bringing high-speed trains to the United States, with a focus on the electrified Northeast Corridor.
The result was the Metroliner, built cooperatively by Budd, General Electric and Westinghouse for the Penn Central Railroad, recently formed by the merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central (the earliest Metroliners carried the Pennsylvania's "Keystone" logo). The first Metroliners entered service on Jan. 16, 1969, reaching speeds of 120 mph.
It would prove to be too little, too late. By the late 1960s, the railroads' share of intercity travel had fallen to 7 percent. Where Jacksonville Union Terminal alone had handled 146 trains a day during World War II, by 1970 only 450 daily intercity trains operated nationwide.
The death blow came in 1968 when the United States Postal Service ended its contract with the railroads to carry mail. This move hit the Penn Central especially hard — mail traffic in the Northeast Corridor made up a substantial portion of its revenue.
On July 16, 1969 the ICC released a report entitled Investigation of Costs of Intercity Rail Passenger Service, which delivered this gloomy assessment:
Significant segments of the remaining intercity service, except for rail service in high density population corridors…will not survive the next few years without a major change in Federal and carrier policies…Should the public need for such service warrant retention of these trains that cannot be operated without significant losses, we would support a program of Federal aid to the carriers.The message was clear — bleeding red ink, the railroads were clamoring to end most of their passenger service, and the ICC was telling policy makers they would begin approving those requests unless the government stepped in.
Free market advocates, of course, were inclined to let passenger trains die. Only 7 percent of intercity travelers used them, they pointed out. Who would miss them?
But one man thought differently, because he noticed something. Although it was true few people were riding passenger trains, public opinion polls consistently showed a majority of Americans still supported their existence. Anthony Haswell reasoned that these polls suggested strongly that more people — many more people — would ride passenger trains if better passenger rail service was available.
On May 18, 1967, Haswell formed the National Association of Railroad Passengers to lobby for a government solution to dwindling passenger rail service. Four years later, almost to the day, Haswell would get what he was asking for.
Next week: How Amtrak saved the passenger train