Regulation and Decline-Railroads During The Great Depression

Railroads during the Great Depression proved to endure much turmoil. American railroads entered into the 1930s with much uncertainty, as the genesis of the automobile was drastically cutting into their profits. It was during this time that the public opinion shifted on the basis of transportation, as it was viewed as a public entity, rather than as a privately run business, such as the railroads. This change of opinion was brought upon largely by the improved system of roadways, which was taxpayer funded.

Competition had been prevalent since the late 19th century, when interurban railroads and streetcars became commonplace in large cities and populous towns. The interurban railroad proved popular with commuters, and the genesis of the automobile and government subsidized roads led to a certain decline in rail travel.

The crucial elements that led to the decline of the railroads was the increasing popularity of the automobile. The genesis of the automobile began in 1913, when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line, giving automobile manufacturers a solution to mass produce cars. The popularity and convenience of cars, coupled with the public funding of other modes of transport, led to the stark decline of the railroads. Upon the financial crisis beginning in 1929, the railroads fell ever further, as railroad unemployment reached a staggering 42%.

The newly streamlined 20th Century Limited begins its test run, departing Chicago Union Station in 1938

In an attempt to increase profit, railroads increased their shipping tariffs on the freight they transported. However, with the nation’s increasing mileage of paved roads, shippers chose trucks, which were exponentially cheaper and more convenient than the railroad. During this arduous time, excess locomotives and rolling stock could be seen lined up in rail yards across the country, as traffic had fallen substantially by 1932.

After the victory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt over his opponent and incumbent Herbert Hoover in the 1932 election, Roosevelt signed his “New Deal”, which was a series of public works project, whose aim was to alleviate the strain of the depression. Projects funded by the taxpayer included the expansion of roads in the advent of the automobile, educational institutions, and hospitals. However, the nation’s railroads failed to receive the funding provided to the roadways and other forms of transportation, leading to a stark decline in rail travel.

Competition With The Automobile

Competing against the convenience and versatility of the automobile was a rigorous task. Various railroads began upgrading their infrastructure in an effort to modernize their operations. The northeast region of the country was increasingly dense, and the critical corridor between New York and Washington D.C. was at the center of an electrification project by the Pennsylvania Railroad. With the Philadelphia and Long Island portions of the railroad, along with the tunnels leading into Penn Station electrified years prior, the railroad was prepared to undertake this tumultuous task.

Electrification during the depression had esteemed financial benefits, as electric locomotives were far easier to operate and maintain than steam, and were exponentially lighter in weight. However, the price involved to install the electric wiring and conduit was costly, leading the Pennsylvania R.R. to accept loans totaling $107.5 million from various government agencies, a valiant endeavor, considering the endearing market collapse. By 1940, the entire line was electrified from New York-Washington D.C., which yielded a 20% increase in operating efficiency.

This electrification project led to the construction of the storied GE GG-1 electric locomotive between 1934-1943, which commanded the northeast corridor for decades under the PRR, Penn Central, Conrail, Amtrak and finally, New Jersey Transit. The electrification of this vital corridor continues to pay dividends in the modern era, as it is the busiest passenger route in the country. Furthermore, it provides a route for the country’s sole high speed trainset, the Acela Express, which operates between Boston and Washington D.C.

GG-1 4874 hauls “The Legislator” through Harrison, NJ in 1969. Roger Puta photo

Although the electrification of the northeast corridor was a historic feat, it proved the only superior event during the depression. Various railroads throughout the country were abandoning or reducing service on once fruitful lines. Luckily for western railroads, many were able to sustain their services due to their services reaching areas not accessible by other modes of transportation. The convenience and practicability of the automobile would have a profound impact on the railroad industry for decades.

The decline of the railroad was intensified by the strict regulations put in place, as shipping rates were set and regulated by the government. This enactment was fueled by the notion that railroads had been monopolizing and increasing their rates exponentially. The lack of public funding and strict regulations continues to plague the railroad industry in the modern day, as most railroads in the country are privately owned entities.

Age Of The Streamliner

In an attempt to compete with the automobile, railroads began experimenting with contemporary, modern looking trains called “streamliners”. The first streamliner was the brainchild of Otto Kuhler, who, in the late 1920s, devised various designs of what the modern steam locomotive would manifest. Kuhler’s design led him to a position with American Locomotive Works (ALCO), as an industrial designer. Kuhler would go on to design various notable locomotives in the decades to come.

Modernizing the railroad was a tumultuous task. To compete with the automobile, a lightweight, internal combustion propelled train was sought, which led to the manufacture of various “motor” trains. These trains were semi-permanently coupled, and one trainset weighed less than one heavyweight passenger car.

Some of the most notable of these motor trains was the gasoline powered Union Pacific Railroad M-10000, built by the Pullman Company, and the diesel powered Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, “Zephyr”, built by Philadelphia’s Budd Company. The M-10000 is famous for crossing the country in a mere 57 hours from coast to coast, a record for this time period.

The Budd Company’s Zephyr proved advantageous, as its diesel engine was more efficient, and was the preferred choice for future motor trains. The attractiveness and speed of the streamlined trains created increased demand for the sleek, modern services. Union Pacific and Burlington alike envisioned their trains as the pinnacle of transportation in the future.

Postcard promoting the Pioneer Zephyr, “America’s First Diesel Powered Streamliner.”

Although the motor trains proved popular, their semi-permanent design flawed their flexibility, including the ability to adjust the length of the train and storage in yards. These issues began the transition from motor trains, to streamlined passenger cars that could be hauled by a conventional locomotive. The new streamliner cars would have all the amenities offered in the motor trains, such as air conditioning, reclining seats, and other luxury comforts.

Various reputable car companies began constructing streamlined trains, including Baldwin, ALCO, and American Car & Foundry. Interestingly, because of the railroads’ efforts to save cost and maximize revenue, especially during the depression, many decided to rebuild existing cars, or construct their own streamlined equipment in house.

The streamliner era is renowned for the famous named trains, such as the B&O’s Capitol Limited, the Great Northern’s Empire Buider, and the New York Central’s 20th Century Limited. In the seventies, these names would continue to be utilized by Amtrak for their copious long distance services. These prestigious names contributed to the allure of these trains, as they encompassed modernity, class, and style.

Although the streamliner reinvigorated rail travel during the depression, many could not justify the excessive price of the stately trains. Furthermore, non-streamlined trains experienced much competition from automobiles, thus, the streamliners attracted the affluent such as various stars in Hollywood, especially on the Santa Fe Super Chief, which was the first streamliner to be hauled by Electro-Motive’s new E-series locomotives. Many believe that the decision of catering to the affluent caused the railroad to suffer losses from other classes of travelers, who shifted their perspective of transport to the automobile, further quickening the railroad’s decline.

The Genesis of Diesel Power

Because of the modern and lightweight design of the streamlined passenger cars, it was imperative that a modern locomotive be employed to haul the train. After various trial and error with gasoline powered locomotives, it was decided the diesel locomotive was most suitable for railroad operations, thus, decided to build upon the foundation set by General Electric in 1925. Some of the earliest diesel-electric locomotives trace their lineage to the mid-twenties, when various diesel-electric switchers were built by ALCO, with electric generator and traction motor equipment provided by GE.

Although various switcher locomotives were constructed between 1925-1937, building a foundation for a diesel-electric locomotives that could withstand mainline service proved a rigorous task for both GE and ALCO. However, Electro-Motive Corporation had been purchased by General Motors and Winton Engine Company in 1930, and possessed an advantage over its rivals.

The advantage EMC possessed against their rivals was the manufacture of a lightweight two-cycle diesel prime mover, which was deemed suitable for mainline service, primarily, streamlined passenger locomotives. Furthermore, the capabilities of EMC were previously proven through their manufacture of the propulsion gear on the Burlington Zephyr motor train. This previous experience gave EMC the edge in building a lightweight passenger locomotive, the E-unit, that would grace the head end of the most famous trains for years to come.

PRR E-7A #5863 provides the power for a New York & Long Branch train at South Amboy, NJ in 1965. Roger Puta photo

EMC christened the age of the E-unit with the EA/EB series locomotives. The A unit included an engineer’s cab, whereas the B unit was solely a propulsion unit, receiving commands from the A-unit. Furthermore, EMC implemented the age of the diesel-electric freight locomotive in 1938, developing the four axle FT series. With the commencement of the FT locomotive, diesel locomotive production exceeded steam locomotive production for the first time since the inception of the railroad industry.

By the time the age of locomotion entered the forties, EMC and Winton Engine Company had combined their operations to create the Electro-Motive Division (EMD), which would command the diesel-electric locomotive market for decades. The element that solidified EMD’s prominence, and the rise of the diesel-electric locomotive, was that the FT was given permission to be constructed during wartime, further denoting its importance. Thus, by the end of the war, diesel locomotives began to assert their dominance, leading the steam locomotive into obsolescence.

Many of the depression-era streamlined trains operated under their original railroads until Amtrak overtook much of the nation’s passenger traffic in 1971. As a result, many of these famous trains were discontinued. The railroad industry utilized various tactics to survive the depression, which proved successful, as some of the world’s most notable trains came to fruition during the period. However, the decline of the railroad continued well into the seventies, as various railroads continued to abandon and cut down services. However, in the modern era, the passenger train remains vigilant, as one of the most convenient modes of transportation, and will continue for future generations.


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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