Wednesday, September 07, 2011

This Week at Amtrak

Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, featuring high-sp...Image via Wikipedia
From the United Rail Passenger Alliance.

This Week at Amtrak, Vol. 8 No. 13
Volume 8, Number 13

From the Editors…

One cannot discuss Amtrak without at least a basic knowledge of the Northeast Corridor. What exactly is the NEC? In this first installment of a two-part series we examine the rise and fall of the NEC.

In the beginning

“While the mighty Pennsylvania boasted of having pushed its steel tentacles into some of the nation’s most populous cities, it could not make that claim with regard to New York City. Throughout the last years of the nineteenth century, the PRR struggled in vain to conquer the great natural barrier--the Hudson River--which lay between it and America’s largest metropolis.” - Michael Bezilla, Electric Traction on the Pennsylvania Railroad 1895-1968, Pennsylvania State University Press

To understand the United States, one must contemplate the challenges of those earliest days of the Republic. The two largest cities on the East coast, New York and Philadelphia, were a six-day journey by horse and boat for the founding fathers. Yet as early as 1811, Colonel John Stevens, the father of American railroading, petitioned the New Jersey Legislature to charter a railroad between Trenton and New Brunswick. His request was denied. His sons would build the storied Camden & Amboy Railroad in 1834 from a ferry connection in Philadelphia to a boat dock on the Raritan River in South Amboy, New Jersey. The Philadelphia & Trenton Railroad was built and fully operational in 1835. The Camden & Amboy completed a branch between Trenton and New Brunswick in 1839. That same year, the New Jersey Railroad completed its line between Jersey City and a connection with the C&A at New Brunswick, and initiated through service from the New York City area to Philadelphia. A journey that had taken six days a quarter-century before could now be completed in a matter of hours.

A similar story can be told south of Philadelphia. In 1832, the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad commenced operation in Delaware. After numerous charters and a few false starts, numerous smaller roads were consolidated into the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad in 1836. Through service between Philadelphia and Baltimore began in 1838. By 1851, it was possible to travel from New York to Washington, DC in 12 hours via a connection with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Following the American Civil War, railroads began their transformation from local concerns to national institutions. By and large it was these ideals that were at the heart of the war, itself. The Pennsylvania Railroad acquired control of the C&A, P&T and NJRR roads in 1871. After a battle for control with the B&O, the Pennsylvania Railroad gained control of the PW&B in 1881. As a result, the B&O would build its own line from Baltimore to Philadelphia.

What followed is a lesson in corporate overreach. There had been a proposal in the 1860s to build a "National Air Line" railroad between New York and Washington. It was supported by the then-upstart PRR, and opposed by the established B&O, which already had a line between Baltimore and Washington. After the B&O successfully fought off the "Air Line" repeatedly, it then found that the PRR was buying up the other railroads with which the B&O had been connecting for traffic between New York and Washington (the Baltimore and Potomac was the last piece, and then the B&O would be cut out). So the B&O built its own line to Philadelphia, at a time when the original B&O, and particularly the West End, were still unimproved and badly in need of investment; thus perpetuating its slide from the first-place East-West trunk line to third-place behind the PRR and NYC.

The story of the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad is somewhat more colorful. Originally chartered as a regional road to connect the farms of southern Maryland to the ports in Baltimore, it was purchased by a group of associates of the PRR in 1866. A “branch” was built in 1872 between Bowie, Maryland, and Washington, DC. In 1873, tunnels were completed in Baltimore, allowing connection between the PRR-owned B&P and the PRR-friendly PW&B. Within a decade, the PRR would control its own railroad in what was considered the most valuable stretch of real estate in the country.

North of New York the tale is equally as complex and historic. The first link was the Boston & Providence Railroad, which began operation between its namesake cities in 1835. The New York, Providence & Boston Railroad began through operation in 1837 between Providence and Stonington, Connecticut. In 1848 the New York & New Haven Railroad completed its line between New Haven, Connecticut and a connection with the Harlem Railroad to access New York. In 1858 the New Haven, New London & Stonington Railroad completed the last link, and by 1859 an all-rail route with two ferry crossings was possible between Boston and New York via four railroads. The NYP&B purchased the NHNL&S in 1864.

In 1872, the New York & New Haven combined with the Hartford & New Haven Railroad to become the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad; thus began an insatiable quest for consolidation in Southern New England. Germane to the Northeast Corridor, the NYNH&H, better known simply as the New Haven, acquired the NYP&B in 1892. The Old Colony, which had leased the B&P in 1888, was itself leased in its entirety by the New Haven in 1893. With all of its acquisitions, the New Haven controlled all rail traffic in Southern New England and in so doing then possessed three separate routes between New Haven and Boston: The Inland route via Hartford, the “Air Line” which avoided all major cities as well as the State of Rhode Island, and the Shore Line route which hugs the northern banks of Long Island Sound. Sometimes holding all the cards means control of one’s destiny; and sometimes it means too much of a good thing.

Let there be light

The New Haven was a pioneer of electric traction utilizing low-voltage direct-current applications as far back as 1895 on many branch lines. The New Haven connection to New York was then part of the New York Central System, and as a result of a horrific accident on the NYC in 1902, steam locomotives were banned by city ordinance after 1908. The New Haven would use the NYC third rail system into the city, but had much more ambitious plans for the rest of its main line. In April 1907, the first high-voltage overhead catenary was energized between the end of third-rail territory and the power plant at Cos Cob, Connecticut. By the end of that year, wires had been extended east to Stamford. In 1914, electrification had reached New Haven. Numerous branch lines for freight and passenger service were also electrified. Had economic conditions not worsened, the electrification program would have continued, possibly to Boston.

For the PRR, of course, owning the premier transportation system in the country had its own responsibilities. As the final years of the 19th Century wound down, traffic on the PRR continued to grow. Even so, terminating at Harsimus Cove, like so many other roads on the Hudson River, did not meet the expectations of the “Standard Railroad of the World.” After much consideration, a plan of attack was reached in 1901 wherein the PRR would access New York and beyond. Tunneling beneath the solid rock of New Jersey’s Bergen Hill and then slogging through the muck that is the river bottom, the PRR would not just enter Manhattan, but would make the grandest statement in passenger railroading travel: Pennsylvania Station New York. It would not stop there. Working in conjunction with the New Haven and PRR subsidiary Long Island Railroad, four tunnels would connect Manhattan to the Borough of Queens and then a spectacular connection to New England via a bridge over the East River at Hell Gate.

Upon its completion in 1910, the new electric division from Manhattan Transfer, New Jersey to Sunnyside Yard in the city Borough of Queens was powered by low-voltage third-rail DC electricity as the result of the city ordinance banning steam locomotives. Even then the PRR was contemplating electrification of the railroad in a manner without the restrictions of low-voltage DC, high-voltage overhead catenary. In 1915, it electrified the Main Line between Philadelphia and Paoli. This was followed by extensions north to Trenton and south to Wilmington. In 1928, the PRR announced its intention to electrify north to New York, replacing the original third-rail system except for what was needed by the LIRR (the New Haven had extended its overhead electrification to Sunnyside Yard in 1917). Despite the Stock Market crash of 1929 and Great Depression of the 1930s, the expansion continued with plans to electrify to Washington and Harrisburg. Service to New York began in 1933, to Washington in 1935, and to Harrisburg in 1938. Much of this was underwritten by Federal loans of some $107.5 million.

It should be noted that the improvement to what would later be called the Northeast Corridor was not the only PRR plan for massive improvement. In 1905, the PRR incorporated the Pennsylvania & Newark Railroad, to build a parallel freight route from the yard at Morrisville, just south of Trenton, north; connecting to a freight yard in Newark. Work was suspended in 1916 due to wartime scarcities, and never restarted. The PRR had also planned building an entirely new mainline to the Midwest running west from Lewistown, Pennsylvania, across Ohio, and well into Indiana. This new low-grade line would have given the PRR the shortest and fastest link between New York and Chicago. For reasons left to speculation, the PRR decided to improve its line between Washington and New York. This would unwittingly set the stage for passenger railroading in the later decades of the 20th Century.

The darkest hour

By the mid 1960s, America’s railroads were in trouble. Not only was the once-mighty PRR not exempt from this pain, but in many ways was its full embodiment. The radical improvement of the 1930s which made the PRR the paragon of transportation now weighed like a millstone around its neck. Overly-burdensome regulation from early in the 20th Century had ended the PRR program of continuous self improvement. This was followed by the post-war largess manifested in the Interstate Highway program; an open-access network of asphalt and concrete, underwritten and maintained at the expense of the American taxpayer. Passenger trains had always been guaranteed enough cross revenue from freight through the rates set by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Now with freight (especially the premium carloads) leaving for the subsidized highways, there was no longer enough to go around.

For the New Haven, things were even worse. Having a dense regional railroad in a small industrial area of the country made sense before the age of subsidized roadways. With the coming of the Connecticut Turnpike and New England Thruway, the New Haven did not stand a chance.

Sowing the seeds of socialized rail transportation

In the decade of the 1960s, the economy of the country was running like a well-oiled machine. Every corner of business was garnering its share of the national largess with one notable exception: The railroads. Increase in business revenue correlated with an increase in internal revenue, and much of this went to the railroads’ new competition: Socialized transportation in the form of interstate highways and airports. Meanwhile, Japan was continuing to rebuild its infrastructure. As it did not enjoy national largess, it was imperative to make the most of what it did have by rebuilding and improving on existing technology. Thus, after rebuilding its railroads, Japan took the next logical technological step of speeding up its railroads. Its 125 mph “Bullet Trains” captured the imagination of the world, and the imagination of at least one person in the U.S. Senate. After all, that money in the U.S. Treasury was not going to spend itself.

Claiborne de Borda Pell served in the U.S. Senate representing the people of Rhode Island for six terms starting in 1961. He will always be best known as the father of the Pell Grant, which offers tuition aid for college students. Immediately following his election, he turned his attention to the possibility of high-speed trains in the Northeast. He aroused then-President Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the idea, and this led to the initiation of feasibility reports by the Commerce Department. But how to pay for it?

“Where will the money come from to build a high-speed rail line in the northeast corridor? A federal subsidy only as a last resort, said the Senator. What he favors is the creation of a public authority which could guarantee bond issues. But there are other possibilities, too: ‘I am by no means exclusively wedded to the public authority approach…one alternative which has been discussed is the formation of a public corporation…’” - Railway Age, October 12, 1964

Apparently, all the other possible options were discarded rather quickly. Following the release of the Commerce Department corridor studies in 1964, Senator Pell introduced (and Congress passed) the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965. Signed into law by President Johnson, the Act authorized in 1965 an expenditure of $20 million, and $35 million the next year. These funds went to upgrades to the railroad right-of-way between New York and Washington, DC, as well as to the purchase of the now famous Metroliners; 50 multiple-unit cars capable of 120 mph speeds, from the Budd Company.

This was the era of “The Great Society” where all the nation's woes could be cured with copious quantities of public money. Sadly, such was the mindset of the age of avarice; throwing money at problems was much easier than solving problems. All around the country, the railroads were losing traffic to government-subsidized competition. This atrophy of traffic led to the mistaken notion that parallel railroad mergers would equate to survival, thus leading the PRR to merge with its long time rival, the New York Central, in 1968. Part of the PRR’s agreement to allow its property between New York and Washington to become a guinea pig for an imperious immediacy of political interest was the hope of a favorable decision to grant its merger. Unfortunately, in less than two years this misbegotten union called Penn Central became the single largest corporate bankruptcy in history up to that time.

Instead of addressing the continuing failing fortunes of the nation’s railroads, elected leaders of the day concentrated on one symptom: Passenger rail losses. It has been said that Americans operate in only the two modes of complacency and panic. Complacency was no longer an option. Millions of public dollars invested in the NEC faced the possibility of liquidation in bankruptcy court. Politically, this was untenable. A key reason for the 1971 formation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, was to protect America’s investment. America’s passenger trains were now in the hands of Senator Pell’s suggested “public corporation.”

How has this public corporation fared in its governance of the NEC? This will be addressed in our next installment.
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