Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Modern Decline of Railroads

1960s Railroad Mergers

Though the 1960s were preeminently the decade in which the privately operated passenger train languished and then died, other significant forces were at work, changing forever the face of railroading. For one thing, 1960 kicked off the modern merger movement, with competitors Erie Railroad and Delaware, Lackawanna & Western banding together in October to form Erie Lackawanna. For students of the railroad scene, this amalgamation wasn't that great a shock. Both names survived essentially intact, as DL&W was commonly called "the Lackawanna." Lackawanna's lovely passenger-train paint scheme of maroon, yellow, and gray would adorn all locomotives, but the EL circle-in-a-diamond logo descended directly from the Erie herald.

The next major merger was quite different. In October of 1964, when the Wabash, Nickel Plate Road, and Pittsburgh & West Virginia were merged into the Norfolk & Western, their names, colors, and logos vanished down the corridors of time -- as the Virginian's had earlier, after its acquisition by the N&W in 1959.

In 1967, a combination of Seaboard Air Line and Atlantic Coast Line produced Seaboard Coast Line. Then came the merger that characterized the decade -- the disasterous coupling on February 1, 1968, of the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central into Penn Central, with the decrepit New York, New Haven & Hartford thrown in later (against the wishes of the principal partners). The newly formed railroad's locomotive color scheme was basic black with no adornments. This proved all too appropriate. The new logo, an intertwined "PC," was sometimes called the "mating worms."

More mergers were soon to come, most notably the creation in 1970 of mammoth Burlington Northern from the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Spokane, Portland & Seattle.

In the 1970s, the process of merging would only accelerate. Illinois Central and Gulf, Mobile & Ohio merged to form Illinois Central Gulf, while the Chessie System was created from the Baltimore & Ohio, Chesapeake & Ohio, and Western Maryland lines. In a merger of mergers, Seaboard Coast Line joined with Louisville & Nashville (which earlier had acquired the Monon) and the Clinchfield Railroad to create Family Lines. In 1980, Chessie and Family Lines would come together to form CSX -- in effect, a merger of merged mergers.

The greatest combination of the era wasn't the result of a merger, strictly speaking, but of a government bailout. By the mid-1970s, railroading in the Northeast was in complete disarray. Not only was Penn Central in bankruptcy, but so were Erie Lackawanna, Lehigh & Hudson River, and the "anthracite roads" that had once thrived in eastern Pennsylvania's hard-coal country: Lehigh Valley, Reading, and Jersey Central. On April Fool's Day in 1976, these railroads (plus a subsidiary, Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines) were consolidated to form Con-rail.

So the operative word in stories of 1960s and '70s railroading is "ended." Passenger trains were discontinued in swelling numbers, and the very concept of passenger transportation by private railroads eventually became obsolete. Great railroad names vanished by the score.

The abandonment of unprofitable branch lines likewise gathered force. What began as a leak in the 1960s would slowly turn into a torrent. Between 1960 and 1980, approximately one fourth of the nation's route miles were abandoned, as branches were pruned and mergers resulted in redundant trackage.

The last Railway Post Office (RPO) car operated on June 30, 1977, between New York City and Washington, D.C. The last non-urban, heavy-duty, mainline, electrified rail service had ended in 1974, when the Milwaukee Road de-energized its track across Montana and Idaho.

More to Explore