Modern Decline of Railroads

By the time the 1970s ended, the glory days of railroading were over. Emblematic of the period was the case of Pennsylvania Railroad, which, in 1968 merged with arch-competitor New York Central. The result, Penn Central, went bankrupt in 1970, becoming the centerpiece of government-sponsored Conrail in 1976 -- which itself struggled for years before finally landing on its feet.

As the 1960s dawned, steam's departure had left a vast void in the railroad landscape. Gone were the mournful whistles in the night, the hiss of steam and clamor of exhaust, the rich smells of hot grease and coal smoke. Lacking such sensory delights, the diesel seemed pale in comparison. Steam locomotives had been manifestly alive. They also had been endlessly various, precisely the characteristic that gave the readily standardized diesel its superior competitive edge.

The demise of steam surely contributed to railroading's slow, inexorable slide out of the public eye. In the decade's early years, on the other hand, the fleet of colorful streamliners introduced in the immediate postwar era remained largely intact, speeding across the country behind sleek diesels -- Electro-Motive's E-units, Alco's PAs, plus the occasional Baldwin or Fairbanks-Morse unit. The feature trains still ran: the Chiefs, Rockets, Daylights, Zephyrs, and Limiteds (named Broadway, Twentieth Century, Panama, Merchants, and North Coast), as well as the ever-popular Empire Builder, Silver Meteor, and City of Los Angeles.

Still, a huge change occurred in the way the nation traveled. What had been a railroad country was now an automobile country. Between 1945 and 1964, non-commuter rail passenger travel declined an incredible 84 percent, as just about every American who could afford it climbed into his or her own automobile, relishing the independence. What changed was not just the way Americans traveled, but also the way they worked, shopped, and played.

Before World War II, the country's growing urban population was starting to expand into the suburbs, but these by and large were "railroad suburbs" or "streetcar suburbs," dependent on these transportation modes and essentially pedestrian. The Levittowns and all their postwar kin, on the other hand, were clearly automobile suburbs: scattered, sprawling, without definable downtowns, and not negotiable on foot. Not far behind came the supermarket, shopping center, drive-in this-and-that, and the proliferation of motels. Rail-focused downtowns withered, and with them the hotels and Main Streets that had been their anchors.

As a result, businesses that once needed railway access now gravitated toward highways -- particularly the interstates, into which the federal government poured billions of dollars, while simultaneously squeezing taxes from the railroads on rights-of-way and other company assets, including increasingly unused depots.

Branch-line passenger services were the first to go, then secondary services on the main lines. Finally, as the 1960s wore on, the flagships began to fall. One early and dramatic casualty came in May of 1961, with the discontinuation of the Milwaukee Road's Chicago-Seattle Tacoma Olympian Hiawatha. This was a splendid train, with a full-length dome car, diner, sleepers, and distinctive "Skytop" observation car. Its route was exceptionally scenic, but the ridership just wasn't there.

Other trains followed -- many others. The roll call went on and on, as railroads presented their cases for discontinuance to the Interstate Commerce Commission (then the arbiter of transportation issues) and in most cases got the nod: State of Maine, Ambassador, Pacemaker, Commodore Vanderbilt, Wolverine, Ohio State Limited, Knickerbocker, Maple Leaf, Phoebe Snow, Pocono Express, Owl, Blue Bird, Penn Texas, Golden Triangle, Pittsburgher, General, Admiral, Columbian, Erie Limited, Lake Cities, Thoroughbred, Powhatan Arrow, Cavalier, Sportsman, Southerner, Peach Queen, Pelican, Ponce de Leon, Humming Bird, Dixie Flyer, Havana Special, Green Diamond, Meteor, Sunnyland, Texas Special, Shreveporter, Southern Belle, Colorado Eagle, Royal Gorge, Prospector, Pioneer Limited, Copper Country Limited, Golden State, Shasta Daylight, Lark, Rocky Mountain Rocket, Corn Belt Rocket, Sam Houston Zephyr, Black Hawk, Ak-Sar-Ben Zephyr, Laker, and Winnipeger.

The names represent only a part of the landslide of "train-offs" that the I.C.C. approved in the course of the decade. A number of Class 1 railroads had previously gone freight-only, and more joined the list in this period, including the Lehigh Valley, Katy, Monon, Kansas City Southern, and Frisco lines. Some of the very greatest train names were erased from the Official Guide, including, unthinkably, the Twentieth Century Limited, New York Central's famous New York-Chicago flyer. On December 3, 1967, it lost its name, and, with it, its cachet, along with its beautiful deep-windowed observation cars (though downgraded overnight service remained on roughly the same schedule over the route).