The End of Steam Engines
Though the diminution and eventual demise of steam was the beginning of the depersonalization of railroading, the process didn't happen overnight. Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) dates back to 1927, when it was introduced on the New York Central, but the 1950s were still rich in train-order railroading, with "flimsies" (orders were generally written or typed on tissue) hooped up to engineers and conductors by agents and operators at thousands of depots and interlocking towers across the country. Though radio was coming in, replacing lantern signals as the preferred communication mode between train and engine crews, it would be years before operating authority could be transmitted over the air. Meanwhile, there were railroaders spread all along the line-and riding the cabooses that trailed every train.
Postwar America through the decade of the 1950s still had the appearance of a railroad country. In 1944, Class 1 railroad mileage totaled 215,493; by 1960 it had actually increased slightly, to 217,552. Over those rails during the decade and a half after the war, a heady mixture of steam and diesels had powered an impressive array of lightweight and heavyweight passenger trains-illustrious all-Pullman flyers, humble locals, and everything in between-and freight trains that ranged from hot "redball" merchandisers to coal drags, as well as "way freights," serving industries both large and small.
The 40-foot box car was still the emblematic and most common freight car. Stock still moved to slaughterhouse by rail. Many refrigerator cars were still ice-cooled, with huge blocks being wrestled from icing platforms through roof hatches of refrigerator cars. "Loose-car railroading" remained the order of the day, and the unique ability of a train to be combined and recombined at classification yards was held as a primary virtue. If you ordered merchandise, it was still likely to reach you courtesy of the Railway Express Agency, whose green baggage carts stood on the platforms of thousands of depots from coast to coast. So-called L.C.L. shipments ("less than carload lot") shipments were a routine and welcome aspect of the rail freight business.
The Official Guide of the Railways was still a rewardingly hefty tome, rich in routes and trains. The modern merger movement lay ahead, so most of the railroad names therein had been familiar ones for generations. Other than the colorful addition of diesels and streamliners, it might seem that little had changed, but forces were already in motion that would soon have serious implications for railroading.
In May of 1949, an ominous milestone was passed. For the first time, airline passenger-miles exceeded those of the Pullman Company. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower signed into law the act creating the Interstate Highway System. America was unmistakably in love with its automobiles, and the federal government decided to make a monumental investment in the roads they would require to dominate the country's surface transportation system.
On March 29, 1957, the New York, Ontario & Western was abandoned. Though this charismatic road has become better loved in death than it ever was in life, the loss of a Class 1 carrier undoubtedly was shocking-a further loss for an industry destined to become increasingly aware of its mortality.
On March 27, 1960, regularly scheduled passenger steam service in the United States came to an end (except for special excursions like Rio Grande's Silverton Train) when Grand Trunk Western pulled its Northerns out of Detroit-Durand local service. Two days later the Canadian Pacific mixed train between Megantic, Quebec, and Brownville Junction, Maine, was dieselized, making moot the question of whether a mixed train was a passenger train.
On May 6, 1960, the Norfolk & Western dieselized, and the twilight of steam faded into night.