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).

1960s Decline of Railroads

By 1966, less than 2 percent of all intercity passengers were traveling by rail. Worse still, passenger trains faced critical problems in addition to this defection of patrons to auto travel. For one thing, railroads were hopelessly out of date in dealing with those patrons who did remain. They failed to enlist travel agents as valuable allies, and they even refused to accept the major credit cards.

Prevailing railroad work rules reflected century-old conditions and equipment, meaning that crew costs were astronomical. Even the newest equipment was a decade or two old, and more often than not, maintenance had been deferred as economics soured.

Meanwhile, the Post Office was systematically stripping passenger trains of the mail cars (RPOs) that had provided substantial (and increasingly critical) revenues since passenger trains were in their infancy. At the same time, country depots were being boarded up. In 1965, New York City's Pennsylvania Station was demolished -- an act of corporate vandalism that awoke the citizenry to the potential loss of our best buildings and sparked a landmarks preservation movement.

No doubt the most noted, rancorous, and painful of all passenger train-off decisions involved the illustrious California Zephyr, the San Francisco-Chicago service shared by Western Pacific, Rio Grande, and Burlington. By the time the Interstate Commerce Commission had reluctantly allowed this marvelous train to die, public opinion was thoroughly stirred up, and editorial writers throughout the land called to task not only the railroads, but also the federal government, for lack of a balanced and coherent transportation policy that could save long-distance trains.

In June of 1969, Colorado Senator Gordon Allot spearheaded passage of a resolution calling for a federal study aimed at saving the passenger train. This led in time to the creation of Railpax, which would be called Amtrak by the time this quasi-governmental corporation took over virtually all of the nation's long-distance passenger trains on May 1, 1971.

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.

Rail Passenger Service Act

There were, of course, some new beginnings, and Amtrak was perhaps the most notable -- a fragile phoenix of intercity rail service rising from the ashes of the languishing streamliners of the private railroads. Amtrak began operation on May 1, 1971, as a quasi-public corporation that had its genesis in the battles over the California Zephyr, as well as other discontinuances and downgradings. If a single individual can be called the father of Amtrak, it's probably Anthony Haswell, who in 1968 founded the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP), a lobbying and advocacy group that remains a critical force in rail preservation today.

With Haswell agitating, the press providing coverage, and the government getting into the picture following the 1969 resolution led by Colorado's Senator Allot, things began to move. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) appointed a task force, while the Department of Transportation (DOT), previously opposed to passenger trains, but apparently in a more positive mood under new head John Volpe, on January 18, 1970, released a preliminary plan for what would eventually become Amtrak.

On May 1, exactly one year before final implementation, the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 was introduced, providing for the formation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation -- or Railpax. A reluctant President Nixon signed the bill into law on October 30.

All railroads then operating long-distance passenger trains (as opposed to commuter services) were eligible to join Amtrak. The cost of admission: roughly half of 1970 losses on passenger service, payable in equipment, cash, or services. The benefits offered in return were enormous, as participating railroads would be free of all future passenger-related losses. Virtually all carriers rushed to join, though a few declined. Rock Island, already financially perilous and less than a decade away from total abandonment, simply couldn't afford the fee, and thus stayed with its surviving pair of short-haul Rockets.

Under the leadership of Graham Claytor (who later served as Amtrak's president during one of the corporation's healthiest eras), Southern Railway opted to run its New York-New Orleans Southern Crescent, plus a few lesser trains, on its own. The Rio Grande, not wanting to give Amtrak free rein on its highly scenic, single-track line through the Colorado Rockies, confused Amtrak's Chicago-to-San Francisco plans by staying out and running its own Denver-to-Salt Lake City Rio Grande Zephyr, using what used to be California Zephyr equipment.

Amtrak

At first, those passenger trains that survived -- and about 60 percent did not -- ran pretty much as before, but with Amtrak footing the bills. By fall, however, Amtrak had determined to purchase 1,200 of the best available cars from nine of the 20 joining railroads. In time, it would become the direct employer of all of its crews -- not just on-board service personnel, but engineers and conductors, too. In 1976, on the occasion of Conrail's formation, Amtrak took over ownership of the Northeast Corridor -- Boston to Washington, plus the spur from Philadelphia to Harrisburg -- but otherwise continued to be a tenant on the tracks of the freight railroads.

Amtrak's first locomotives and cars were all veterans purchased from participating railroads, but within a few years the corporation went shopping for new equipment. These early acquisitions -- diesel locomotives, electric locomotives, coaches, and integrated trainsets -- all proved unsuccessful.

This shouldn't have been surprising, since the technology of passenger railroading in the United States had been stagnant for 30 years. The new cars and locomotives appearing in profusion immediately after the war were modestly upgraded versions of prewar designs. Perhaps the one significant exception was the self-powered high-speed Metroliner, which the Penn Central introduced on its New York-Washington speedway in 1969. These tubular cars, built by the Budd Company, were airplane-like, with unnecessarily cramped interiors and what probably are the smallest windows ever built into a modern passenger car anywhere in the world. (Trackside rock-throwers along this largely urban route were a factor in that design decision.)

Unfortunately, when Amtrak needed some new coaches for short-haul service, the only option not involving unacceptable delays and costs for design and retooling were "Metroshells" -- Metroliners without their traction motors. Dubbed the "Amfleet," these cars, 492 in number, have been the staple of Amtrak daytime services since the first one was delivered in 1975.

Off-the-shelf passenger locomotives were no more available than coaches, so Amtrak bought diesels (SDP40Fs from EMD) and electrics (E60s from GE) that were only slightly modified freight-haulers. Both of these designs incorporated six-wheel trucks, and both proved derailment-prone at high speeds, severely limiting their utility. Amtrak did better with its next major motive-power selections, opting for four-wheel-truck locomotives. EMD began delivering a fleet of F40PHs in 1976, and the diesels became the backbone of the Amtrak fleet nationwide for the next two decades. The following year, the corporation ordered the first of what would be a substantial fleet of AEM7s, diminutive but powerful electrics of Swedish design built by EMD and the Budd Company. (Earlier, Amtrak had turned to Europe for inspiration when it purchased six Turboliner trainsets from France, then had an additional seven similar sets built domestically by Rohr.)

Growth of Amtrak

Amtrak's improving success with equipment purchases extended to cars as well. In 1975, the corporation ordered from Pullman-Standard the first of what would be an extensive fleet of double-deck "Superliners," inspired by bilevel cars that Santa Fe had operated on its El Capitan, a luxury coach train. By late 1979, when the Superliners began entering service on the long-haul Western trains for which they were intended, they were two years off schedule. Before long, however, they were running throughout the West and proving popular with passengers.

The Superliners would, in fact, significantly fuel the Amtrak resurgence that began in the late 1970s and gained real momentum through the 1980s. In the '60s and even earlier, the nation's Western trains -- the California Zephyr, the Union Pacific's fleet of "City" trains (the City of Los Angeles, City of Portland, and so on), the Santa Fe's Chiefs, and others -- were deservedly considered superior to their eastern counterparts. The advent of the Superliners only heighted the disparity.

Clearances prohibited the operation of these bilevels in the East, where long-distance service was handled by the veteran sleepers, diners, and lounges inherited from the private railroads in 1971. Beginning in 1977, many of these old cars were upgraded and converted to "head-end power" (in which electricity generated by the locomotive replaces steam and axle-generators as the source of power for heating, air conditioning, and lighting). These reconditioned cars, dubbed the "Heritage Fleet," were actually quite attractive, but they were old.

With this new and refurbished equipment, its own railroad between Boston and Washington, and crews under its direct control, Amtrak grew through the 1970s into a creditable entity. It remained a political football, as it has ever since, but the corporation's staying power has surprised many critics who suspected that its creation might have been intended as nothing more than prolonged euthanasia for the passenger train.

Whatever else it may or may not have been, Amtrak was unarguably monolithic. Though the corporation chose to preserve many of the great train names from the past, it cloaked all its equipment in "platinum mist" (or, alternatively, natural stainless steel) adorned with red and blue. Gone were the rainbow colors of the private railroads' trains, as well as their individualized services. Standardization -- of menus, accommodations, and services -- was the hallmark.

Railroad Standardization

The rash of mergers had a similar effect on the face of railroading in general, and the demise of the weaker diesel builders led to greater standardization in motive-power as well. Fairbanks-Morse ended production in 1963. Alco threw in the towel in 1969. Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton had built its last locomotive way back in 1956. That left General Electric and Electro-Motive Division, the latter still the dominant force in diesel-building.

The look and mix of units on the diesel-ready tracks changed radically between 1960 and 1980. Streamlined "cab-unit" diesels were everywhere, wearing the classy, multicolored schemes created in many cases by EMD stylists. "Hood units" -- preeminently Alco's RS3s (RS for "road switcher") and EMD's GP7s and later, GP9s (GP for "general purpose") -- were essentially the same under the skin as the cab units, but with better visibility and easier access to machinery.

The next evolutionary step was to "chop" the short hood for better forward visibility, an innovation of the early 1960s that would typify diesel aesthetics for the next two decades (until the boxy, blunt "safety cabs" of the 1980s). Streamlining and fancy paint schemes seemed superfluous in this hunkered-down era of railroading, characterized by boarded-up depots, abandoned branch lines, and weed-infested rights-of-way. First-generation diesels from all the builders joined steam trains in the scrap yards. Utilitarian "chop-nosed" units in a limited number of basic models from EMD and GE were the locomotives appropriate to this era of dramatically lessened expectations. For much of the industry, particularly in the East and Midwest, where the traffic base had eroded badly, survival was virtually all that could be hoped.

But even in these dark days, when the future looked bleak indeed, railroading had begun to reinvent itself. Diesel standardization, and perhaps the example of locomotive pooling that occured naturally in mergers, led to increased power run-throughs from one railroad to another -- an efficient and time-saving practice. Intermodal traffic (trailers and containers on flatcars, otherwise known as TOFC and COFC)-became a significant growth sector, doubling between 1965 and 1980, with the greatest explosion still to come.

Railroads began to exploit other niches with "unit trains" of a single commodity, such as grain or coal. (In 1979, in a rare example of route expansion, Burlington Northern opened its new Powder River Line, tapping rich coalfields in Wyoming.) Centralized traffic control, an idea that was already many decades old, became the norm, along with welded rail.

Railroading is an old-line industry, capital-intensive and labor-intensive, with a thoroughly unionized workforce. Though every gain was won only after a fight, essential work-rules rationalization was begun. The process of eliminating firemen on locomotives, for instance, started as far back as 1964. Crew operating districts, based on divisions that often dated back to railroading's early days (and thus resulted in operating crews receiving a day's pay for a few hour's work) in some cases were revised.

In the final months of 1980, several important events occurred. In December, The Pullman Company was dissolved as a legal entity (though it had ended its staffing of sleeping and parlor cars 11 years earlier), and Northwestern Steel & Wire in Sterling, Illinois, dropped the fires on its refugee fleet of steam locomotives -- engines that this huge scrapyard had chosen to operate, squeezing out a last few useful miles before melting them down for razor blades. This was the last daily, non-tourist steam operation in the United States.

Less than two months earlier, on October 14, President Jimmy Carter had signed into law the Staggers Rail Act, partially deregulating the railroads. This event was significant. It was the go-ahead for the railroad industry, however dramatically redefined and slimmed down, to "highball it" once again.

1960s and 1970s Railroads Timeline

1960:

The Erie Railroad merges with competitor Delaware, Lackawanna & Western to form the Erie Lackawanna Railroad.

1963:

After a U.S. ship is attacked, Congress endorses the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, authorizing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

New England's troubled Rutland Railroad is abandoned. Sections of the line soon reopen as the Vermont Central Railroad and the Green Mountain Railroad.

1965:

New York City's Pennsylvania Station is razed in December, sparking a landmarks preservation movement that continues to this day.

1968:

Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central merge to form Penn Central.

1969:

The Pullman Company's staffing of sleeping cars ends as of January 1.

1970:

In this frenzied time of mergers, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Great Northern; Northern Pacific; and Spokane, Portland & Seattle combine, forming Burlington Northern.

The Interstate Commerce Commission reluctantly allows the demise of the legendary California Zephyr.

1971:

Amtrak takes over most passenger-train operations in the United States.

Auto-Train begins service in December, carrying automobiles and their occupants between Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida.

1973:

A fleet of French-built Turboliners are delivered to the United States, marking fledgling Amtrak's first new equipment acquisition.

1976:

Conrail begins operation as a result of the consolidation of Penn Central; Erie-Lackawanna; Reading; Lehigh Valley; Jersey Central; Lehigh & Hudson River; and Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore lines on April 1.

1979:

The first double-deck Superliner cars enter service for Amtrak.