Railroads During World War II

Converted for the duration of hostilities into materiel and ammunition makers, firms like Baldwin Locomotive Works, produced artillery and armament with much of the the same machinery used to build its steam locomotives.
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania

The nation looked on uneasily as the clouds of war gathered over Europe and Asia. Countering the prevailing isolationist mood, President Roosevelt proposed increased military appropriations in 1938 and the creation of a two-ocean navy. The concept of national defense and the need to rearm gained impetus with the declaration of a limited war emergency on September 8, 1939. The export of scrap iron was halted a year later, and an unlimited national emergency was declared on May 27, 1941. Though not officially at war, the nation was definitely on a war footing.

Railroad traffic increased as the armed forces rebuilt. A freight car shortage occurred in late 1939 for the first time since 1921, and the railroads worked steadily to put long-dormant cars and locomotives back in service. Determined to avoid the chaos that resulted from government seizure during World War I, an Office of Defense Transportation was created to exercise general control over the railroads and ensure that national transportation priorities were met.



Wartime Railroad Restrictions

During the Great Depression and subsequent war years, railroads sometimes exhibited exuberant tastes in railroad car furnishings. This lounge car ashtray was intended to tilt with the motion of the car.
Sanderson Photography, Inc.

World War II would prove to be the zenith of public rail transportation. More people and materials than ever before had to travel, and nearly everything moved by rail. Demand increased spectacularly. In 1940, steam railroads handled 378,343 million ton-miles: about 62 percent of all freight. This nearly doubled by 1944 to 745,829 ton-miles, representing 70 percent of all freight transported in the United States. Passenger miles increased at an even greater rate during the same period, from 23,816 million passenger miles to 95,663 million passenger miles. In 1944, the peak war year, more than 75 percent of all commercial passengers traveled by rail, as did an astonishing 97 percent of military passengers.

World War II actually delayed the conversion from steam to diesel locomotives. Steam locomotive builders recognized that the existing technology had been almost fully developed by the late 1930s, and they were willing to concede the superior characteristics of diesel-electric locomotives. Most believed that the conversion from steam to diesel was inevitable, but would occur over an extended period of time as steam locomotives came to the end of their economic lives and were replaced.


It was suggested that some roads would never buy diesels because of their commitment to coal, and that smaller lines would be years in converting because of the availability of low-cost second-hand steam locomotives. The conversion would be gradual and orderly, permitting the manufacturers to invest in new production facilities. The principal builders -- Baldwin, Alco, Lima -- expected to compete against one another for locomotive orders long into the future.

The reality was quite different. Despite the higher cost -- a diesel-electric locomotive cost two and one -- half times as much as a comparable steam locomotive-most railroads were eager to change over as quickly as possible. Wartime production restrictions limited the numbers and types of diesel locomotives that could be produced, so even though they wanted diesels, the railroads, strapped for motive power, had to continue buying steam locomotives.

More than 4,000 locomotives were built for domestic use during the war. The most memorable year was 1944, distinguished by production of the last and best examples of several remarkable steam locomotive designs, including the Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 Big Boys and 4-6-6-4 Challengers, Santa Fe's 4-8-4 Northerns, Baltimore & Ohio's 2-8-8-4s, and Southern Pacific's 4-8-8-2 cab-forwards.

The War Production Board restricted the designing of new steam locomotives, establishing production criteria that were intended to make locomotives more useful during wartime. This resulted in Southern Pacific's 4460-class engines having smaller drivers than their prewar sisters, and the design being copied for the Western Pacific and Central of Georgia. Even the proud Pennsylvania found itself building locomotives derived from a Chesapeake & Ohio design.

Despite restrictions, there were also brave attempts to improve the steam locomotive. The Pennsylvania Railroad was the leader in this direction, developing a direct-drive steam turbine locomotive, two different four-cylinder locomotives, and the shark-nosed T-1 4-4-4-4s. These efforts did little to stem the tide of dieselization: 608 diesel-electric locomotives were built in 1944, compared with 491 steam locomotives. The first Class 1 railroad to fully dieselize was the New York, Susquehanna & Western, which replaced 29 steam locomotives with 16 Alco diesel-electrics between 1942 and the summer of 1945.


The End of Railroad Restrictions

Conductors were required to wear regulation uniforms. Usually, they were sturdy, well-tailored suits of heavy blue or black wool. Polished buttons and company insignia gave them a formal, almost military, look.
Sanderson Photography, Inc.

The end of World War II brought the gradual elimination of travel restrictions, but it took months for the railroads to complete their wartime work and return to a peacetime footing. Millions of soldiers, sailors, and aviators had to be processed through discharge centers and returned home in the months following V-J Day -- nearly every one of them traveling by train. Restrictions imposed in the closing months of the war, such as the removal of sleeping cars from runs of less than 450 miles, eased the problems of military travel but increased the burden faced by civilians.

The sheer necessity of the service provided by railroads meant that their wartime work wouldn't be completed for months, while competing modes of transportation could respond to peacetime civilian demands quickly. The greatest troop movement of the entire war occurred on August 3-4, 1945, when Army returnees departed from Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, to various destinations around the country. More than 20,000 soldiers packed onto 31 trains, requiring 331 Pullmans, 100 coaches, and 41 kitchen cars. That same week, more than 250,000 servicemen and women were transported in organized troop movements requiring 726 Pullman cars and 512 coaches. The Army maintained its priority for Pullman cars well into 1946. By comparison, gas rationing ended quickly after the war, and even the airlines had gotten their planes back from the government by the end of 1945.


Peace meant that the nation could turn its attention to fulfilling expectations that originated during the 1920s and '30s, but were deferred by the Depression and the war. The prewar world's fairs popularized the vision of a modern consumer-oriented future embodying innovations in transportation and communication. This end could now be pursued by incorporating wartime developments in jet aviation, electronics, and synthetic materials. The railroads, tired but triumphant after serving as a bulwark of the war effort, needed to reinvest in order to preserve a place for themselves in the nation's transportation future.

World War II Railroad Timeline


In September, a war emergency is declared in the United States.



Japan attacks Pearl Harbor on December 7, Congress declares war.


Gasoline rationing is imposed, and travelers flock to passenger trains;

Northern Pacific responds by trying to discourage civilian travel.


The last Southern Pacific cab-forward locomotive is delivered.


In August, the United States drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrenders.