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  A century of great railroaders
  Railroads in the 20th Century
  Passenger rail in the 20th Century

  From the Editor
  Commentary of the Month

Passenger rail in the 20th Century

Change, innovation meet new needs

By William D. Middleton, Contributing Editor

. Zephyr
In one of the most celebrated railroad publicity events ever, Burlington's lightweight, diesel-powered Zephyr set out on May 26, 1934, on a dawn-to-dusk non-stop run from Denver to Chicago, completing the 1,015.4-mile journey in just 13 hours, 4 minutes, 58 seconds, at an average speed of 77.61 mph.

Railway Age file photo

Older Americans fondly remember those weekly movie serials that once played every Saturday afternoon all across America, in which each episode ended with the hero-or heroine-facing some sort of cliff-hanging, life-threatening situation. One had to return the following week to learn how ingenuity and pluck had saved the day.

For the railroad passenger business, much of the 20th Century has been like that. Again and again, the industry has met the competitive challenges of new transportation technologies or the demands of new passenger transportation needs with a spirit of innovation and change that has reshaped the business several times over the course of the century. Without it, there might well have been very little passenger rail to talk about at century's end. Instead, the business enters the new century in the midst of an extraordinary time of growth and new possibilities.

Passenger rail entered the 20th Century as a substantial, robust component of the railroad industry. Over the last half of the 19th Century railroads had expanded into a continental network that reached virtually every point of consequence in North America, and passenger trains had long since emerged as America's principal mode of intercity travel.

At the dawn of the new century, the passenger train had evolved from the primitive equipment of the industry's early years into trains that offered high standards of comfort and luxury to travelers. The Pullman Company offered a continent-wide network of sleeping car services to overnight travelers, while elegantly appointed parlor cars were available for first class daytime travel. Dining cars had replaced the hurried meal stops of an earlier era.

Even this well-established standard of service was undergoing a major transformation as the new century began, bringing an even higher level of comfort and safety to rail passengers. After years of experimentation, practical designs had been developed for an enclosed vestibule, eliminating an uncomfortable and dangerous passage between cars for passengers. The use of heating stoves and oil or gas lighting systems had always presented a serious threat of fire in the event of accidents involving the wooden cars of the time. By 1900 steam heating systems supplied from the locomotive had become common on the railroads' premier trains, and would soon become the industry standard for all of its trains.

By 1900 a long period of experimentation with electric lighting systems had produced a practical system supplied by axle-driven generators, and oil lamps and Pintsch gas lighting soon became a relic of the past. The wooden car itself was soon on the way out. Steel, which offered a much higher standard of safety, had started to come into use in car building in the 1890s. All-steel cars were delivered as early as 1904, and production of wood cars ended within the next decade.

The quest for speed
Passenger rail at the turn of the century was a highly competitive market. While ever higher standards of comfort and luxury remained the principal competitive features, railroad companies increasingly turned to higher speeds to gain an edge over their rivals.

As early as 1893 the New York Central achieved a record speed of 112.5 mph on a run of the Empire State Express with the railroad's famous high speed American Standard locomotive 999. Within a decade this had been eclipsed by an experimental electric car in Germany, which attained a maximum speed of 130.5 mph in the celebrated Marienfelde-Zossen high speed trials of 1903. Speeds such as these remained far from practical in daily service, but they set the stage for a new era of competition.

Perhaps the best known of all competitive trains were those of the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads in the New York-Chicago market. The Central kicked off the competition in 1902 with the inauguration of the luxurious 20th Century Limited on a fast 20-hour schedule between the two cities, advertising the new train as the "fastest long distance train in the world." Three years later the Pennsylvania responded with the inauguration of the New Pennsylvania Special-later the Broadway Limited-on an even faster 18-hour schedule, which it then advertised as "the fastest long distance train in the world." Thus was born a competitive rivalry based upon speed, comfort, and luxury that was to last for well over half the century.

America's great continental network of rail passenger services was able to absorb an enormous leap in traffic that came with the war effort of World War I. The passenger volume on U.S. Class I railroads grew steadily all through the war years and afterward. Passenger traffic peaked in 1920, when it reached a record level of almost 47 billion passenger-miles, an increase of 45% in only nine year's time.

Reinventing the passenger train
By 1920 new competitive forces were beginning to be felt. As recently as 1911, automobile registrations in the U.S. had totaled just over 600,000. By 1920 this had grown to more than eight million, and with the great road building programs of the 1920s it would reach well over 21 million by 1928. Increasingly, Americans who once traveled by train were now making their journeys in the family automobile. By 1928 U.S. rail passenger-miles had dropped by a third from the peak level of 1920. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 only made things worse. By 1933 rail passenger-miles had plunged to a depression era low of 16.3 billion, scarcely a third of the 1920 level.

The railroads' response to the competitive threat of the automobile was, in effect, to reinvent the passenger train, remaking it into something much faster and far more comfortable and appealing than the solid, drab rolling stock of the railroad's "standard" era.

The genesis of this new era of passenger rail lay in experimentation with internal combustion power that had begun soon after the turn of the century. There were several attempts to develop a self-propelled railcar using an internal combustion powerplant, but the first really successful design was developed in 1906 by General Electric, which went on to market nearly a hundred gasoline-electric cars over the next decade. GE left the railcar field after World War I, but the gas-electric railcar market was soon taken up by the new Electro-Motive Company of Cleveland. Employing GE electrical components and Winton engines, Electro-Motive developed a highly successful line of gas-electrics, selling some 177 of them to North American railroads between 1922 and 1936.

Electro-Motive's gas-electric was an austere "maid of all work" vehicle designed for local and branch line services, but the new powerplant it pioneered offered great promise for a wider application in railroad service. By the end of the 1920s other builders were producing standardized boxcab diesel-electric locomotives for switching, freight, and passenger services. And by the early 1930s two railroads, Union Pacific and the Burlington, were ready to try the new powerplant in an entirely new kind of intercity passenger train.

The UP's new train, the M-10000, was a sleek three-unit articulated train built by Pullman-Standard, while the Budd Company of Philadelphia built the similarly configured Burlington Zephyr. Both, however, were fitted with powerplants supplied by Electro-Motive, by this time a division of General Motors. The UP train had a 600-hp distillate engine supplied by GM's Winton division, while the Burlington took a chance on GM's newly-developed 600-hp 201A high speed diesel engine.

Delivered early in 1934, the new trains established an entirely new standard for rail passenger service. The M-10000's lightweight aluminum carbody and the Zephyr's shot-welded stainless steel construction ated the already rapid growth of private automobile travel. The second came soon afterward with the advent of economy fares and the development of productive jet aircraft, which transformed the air transport industry into a major intercity passenger carrier. From 1944 through 1960 automobile travel increased almost four-fold, while air travel grew to almost 15 times its 1944 level. At the same time, rail travel declined to scarcely 20% of its 1944 level. Over the next decade auto travel increased by almost half while air travel grew to well over three times its 1960 level, while passenger rail traffic declined to only half the 1960 level.

For the railroads, passengers had become a costly albatross. In a highly-regulated industry, efforts to discontinue uneconomic trains dragged on for months, even years. Service amenities were reduced or eliminated in an effort to cut costs. As passenger losses mounted, few railroads were able to acquire needed new equipment. By 1970, the railroads' annual passenger service deficit, under ICC rules that allocated both direct passenger costs and a share of common expenses, had reached $470 million.

Federal intervention finally brought a solution, and on May 1, 1971, yet another new era for intercity passenger rail began when the congressionally-mandated National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, came into being to operate a national network of intercity services. For the railroads, it was an opportunity to bow out of any further obligation to operate their money-losing intercity passenger services, but it came at a high price. Buy-in fees for the 20 railroads that initially participated in the formation of Amtrak totaled over $197 million.

Canada went through a similar process a few years later with the creation of VIA Rail Canada, which by 1978 had assumed the operation of Canadian National and Canadian Pacific passenger services.

Building a new rail passenger model
For a few cynics, the new federal passenger carriers were seen as no more than a waystation on the way to the end of all intercity passenger service, but it didn't quite work out that way.

Amtrak and VIA Rail were born out of a belief that a nationwide system of intercity rail passenger service was in the national interest, and both have come far in restoring the quality and reliability of these services. In medium-distance corridors, where rail can represent a time-competitive alternative to air travel, the two carriers have built highly-successful services in such markets as New York's Empire Corridor, Chicago-Milwaukee, Los Angeles-San Diego, San Jose-San Francisco-Sacramento, or Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto, while Amtrak has become the dominant passenger common carrier in the Boston-New York-Washington Northeast Corridor. Such premier long distance trains as Amtrak's Coast Starlight and VIA Rail's Canadian have established reputations as a superior travel experience, and peak season reservations are much sought after. Both carriers have been making progress in reducing their need for government support. Amtrak, for example, expects to reach a congressionally-mandated goal of operational self-sufficiency by 2002.

Critical to this success have been the giant steps that both have made in equipment quality. Amtrak has completed a transition to a new motive power and passenger car fleet that is more economical to operate, and much more productive, than the aging rolling stock acquired from the railroads in 1971. Innovative new Amtrak equipment has included two generations of diesel-electric locomotives, 130-mph electric locomotives, turbine-powered trains, modular Viewliner passenger cars, and the popular bilevel Superliner equipment used on most long distance runs. In Canada, VIA Rail introduced LRC tilting equipment in its Quebec-Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor, and handsomely-rebuilt streamlined equipment from the 1950s for its premier long distance trains.

There seems little question that both the U.S. and Canadian national rail passenger carriers have a bright future ahead of them in the 21st Century.

The quest for speed-again
Even as the intercity rail passenger business was spiraling downward in the 1960s, there was a remarkable revival of interest in high speed services. Its proponents argued that a high speed service in such relatively short, high-density corridors as New York-Washington or New York-Boston could successfully compete with air travel in overall journey time, and make money in the process. Aided by federal funding under the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965, the Pennsylvania Railroad embarked upon an ambitious project to develop a high speed service in its New York-Washington Northeast Corridor, with an eventual goal of 150-mph operation. By May 1967 a test train had achieved a maximum speed of 156 mph, and later in the year a train of the railroad's new Metroliner EMU cars hit 164 mph in early testing on a section of the Northeast Corridor in New Jersey.

At the same time a much different type of high speed train was rolled out for testing in the New York-Boston corridor under a Department of Transportation demonstration program. This was the United Aircraft Turbotrain, which was designed to deliver high speed performance over the existing railroad infrastructure. The radical new train proved even faster than the Metroliner, hitting a maximum speed of 170.8 mph in a December 1967 run over the same Northeast Corridor test section.

Metroliners entered regular Penn Central service early in 1969 on schedules that allowed as little as 2 hours 30 minutes for the 226-mile New York-Washington journey, and regularly operated at speeds as high as 120 mph. Turbotrain was ready to go in April 1969, and was soon making the 229.5-mile run between New York and Boston in just 3 hours, 39 minutes.

Both high speed programs were handed off to Amtrak in 1971. Troubled by a variety of technical problems, both were eventually sidetracked, as were a fleet of Canadian National-VIA Rail Turbotrains operated in Montreal-Toronto service. If neither train quite lived up to its original expectations, both succeeded in setting the stage for high speed service in the corridor. Federal funding supported a comprehensive Northeast Corridor Improvement Program to rebuild the entire corridor from Washington to Boston for high speed operation. By the early 1980s Amtrak's speedy AEM7 electric locomotives were operating Metroliner schedules at 125-mph speeds.

By the early 1990s Amtrak began to plan for the next stage of high speed operation. Swedish X2000 and German ICE high speed trains operated in corridor demonstration service in 1993, giving Amtrak experience that helped it shape plans for procurement of a new-generation train. The resulting contract went to Bombardier-Alstom, and early in 2000 Amtrak expects to begin operating the first of 20 high-speed Acela Express tilting trainsets over the Boston-New York-Washington corridor. Designed to operate at 150 mph maximum, the trains will establish the fastest schedules ever in the corridor, and are expected to generate a large share of the revenue growth needed to meet Amtrak's self-sufficiency goal. For much of the rest of the country, a non-electric version of the Acela power car under development for the FRA offers future high speed prospects in as many as 11 other identified potential high speed corridors.

Turbulent times for urban and regional/commuter rail
For urban rail systems, it has been an even more dramatic up, down, and up again century. As the century began, fast-growing electric street railway systems were the backbone of North American urban transit. By the time they reached their peak in 1917, U.S. street railways had become an enormous industry, operating 60,000 vehicles over 26,000 miles of track, representing investment of over $4 billion. Electric elevated railways helped carry the load at New York and Chicago, and similar systems soon began operating at Boston and Philadelphia. The first U.S. subway had begun operating at Boston in 1897, and New York began construction of what was to become the world's largest subway system in 1900.

Beset by the competition of the more economical motorbus and the rapid growth of private automobile ownership, street railway systems began a long decline soon after World War I. Revived by the development of the radically improved PCC car in the mid-1930s, streetcar systems remained in many of the largest cities to handle the record traffic of World War II. But the decline resumed at war's end, and street railways were gone from all but a few North American cities by the end of the 1950s.

Within another few decades, however, many Americans were finding that their automobiles were no longer providing the convenience and freedom of movement they had promised. Experiencing ever-growing congestion on urban streets and freeways, America took a renewed interest in public transit. Growing numbers of failing urban transit systems shifted from private to public ownership, while the 1964 passage of the Urban Mass Transit Act brought a new era of federal support for transit.

For a few cities, a valued transit alternative lay in surface electric railway systems that remained in operation, largely because of extensive reserved rights-of-way that offered freedom from the street traffic congestion that handicapped automobiles and buses alike. Surviving systems like these in a half-dozen U.S. cities, and at Toronto and Mexico City, were rehabilitated and re-equipped, and became models for what came to be called light rail transit. The first entirely new LRT system opened at Edmonton, Alberta, in 1978, and since then a dozen more have begun operating at U.S., Canadian, and Mexican cities, with the most recent opening this month at Salt Lake City.

Urban metro systems entered a similar era of growth. Elevated and subway rail systems had long been confined to just four of the largest U.S. cities, but by the end of the 1950s new metros had opened at Toronto and Cleveland. Montreal opened the first section of an innovative rubber-tired metro system in 1966, while Mexico City followed with a similar system three years later. Over the next two decades the federal aid that followed the 1964 Urban Mass Transit Act helped bring more than a half dozen other new systems on line.

These new metros represented a new technological era as well. With the opening of such "new generation" metro systems as the PATCO high speed line between Philadelphia and suburban Lindenwold, N.J., in 1969, and the first segment of the landmark BART system at San Francisco in 1972, computers and advanced electronics brought the industry into a sophisticated new era of advanced train control and signaling. The use of aluminum, fiberglass, and other new materials helped to reduce the weight of rail vehicles, while air conditioning and a new emphasis on passenger comfort helped to make rail transit more competitive with the private automobile.

A still more advanced technology was added to North American metro systems in 1986, when Vancouver's BC Transit began operating its fully automated SkyTrain metro system. Since then, similarly automated "people-mover" systems have become part of urban transit systems at such cities as Detroit, Jacksonville, and Miami.

As America's expanding suburban populations brought worsening congestion, there was a growing interest in the expansion or development of regional/commuter rail systems as well. By the beginning of the 1980s existing systems had moved into public support or outright public ownership, and both federal and local funding had become available to finance rehabilitation and expansion. By the end of the decade entirely new systems were coming on line, and the number of North American regional/commuter rail systems is now more than double what it was a few decades ago.

With this substantial growth of rail systems in the past several decades, urban and regional/commuter rail have represented the fastest growing segment of public transit for close to two decades. As the century neared its end, rail system passenger-miles climbed to almost half the U.S. public transit total. With still more growth and expansion in prospect for existing rail systems, and new-starts coming on line or under serious study at least a dozen other urban centers, the new century seems full of promise for rail transit.

Copyright © 1999. Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corp.