The Pennsylvania Railroad “The Standard of the World”

For over one-hundred years, the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad commanded travel in the eastern and mid-western parts of the country. The massive 30,000 mile network stretched to Chicago, The Great Lakes, and into the southern states. The Pennsylvania Railroad is well-known for its pioneering of the world famous Horseshoe Curve, which navigated around the steep Allegheny mountains, allowing for a through route to Pittsburgh and the west. The PRR has made crucial contributions to the railroad industry, including the first railroad to experiment with the Westinghouse Air Brake System, as well as leading the industry in installing vestibules in passenger cars.

Headquartered in Philadelphia, PA, the railroad set the foundation for the city’s “Main Line”, which housed grand hotels, including the grandiose Bryn Mawr Hotel, the Strafford station building, and luxurious estates for the railroad’s management. During its peak in the 1920s, the PRR operated 20,000 miles of track, employed 279,000 workers, and controlled a staggering 10% of the nation’s freight rail, and 20% of its passenger traffic. In fact, during its heyday, the PRR operated an astonishing 6,700 trains across its system daily. Furthermore, throughout its history, the railroad managed hundred of additional businesses, such as other railroads, real estate, and bus and steamship lines.

The Pennsylvania Railroad is considered the most admirable rail entity in the world, and at one time, was the world’s largest corporation. Countless books have been published on nearly every aspect of the Pennsylvania Railroad, however, even then there is much more to tell. The history of the PRR is so vast, according to Mike Schafer and Brian Solomon’s book, “Pennsylvania Railroad”, on the PRR’s centennial in 1946, the railroad released a comprehensive history of the railroad. However, the abridged version was the sole issue released, encompassing over 800 pages. However, had the unabridged version had been released, page count would have amassed over 2,000! Although the PRR would eventually be the most influential company worldwide, its beginning in 1846 proved later than its rivals, as the heritage of the New York Central dates back to the 1820s.

As the 19th century began, there was a striking interest in expanding westward. The “National Road”, a gravel road utilized for horse carriages, was planned between Cumberland, Maryland to Ohio, via the future state of West Virginia. This primitive road provided a vital westward passageway from the east, most notably, Baltimore and Washington D.C. Canals were the primary source of heavy transport, as they connected larger waterways. However, the canals had a few significant pitfalls, such as the slow speed of transport, and the inability to traverse mountainous terrain effectively. However, they provided vital links between the nation’s metropolises, especially those in the east such as Philadelphia and New York.


Railroads in the United States began as early as 1812, when future Camden & Amboy Railroad president John Stevens applied to the New York legislature for a charter to construct a railroad. Although Stevens’ proposal was turned down, he continued to promote the railroad unscathed, leading to him proposing a rail line from Philadelphia-Columbia, Pennsylvania. This was considered the original Pennsylvania Railroad, which was state-operated. However, this system proved inefficient, as the journey included various railroads and canals.

Stevens realized the advantages of connecting the railroad to New York, as maritime traffic on the Hudson River was entering a boom. Thus, the Camden & Amboy was born, when Stevens connected the two metropolises, via a railroad from Camden, NJ – South Amboy, NJ, right outside the city. Passengers and cargo were ferried across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, brought to South Amboy by rail, and ferried across the bay to New York.

In the early 19th century, the city of Philadelphia was thriving, most notably, the port of Philadelphia, with its booming marine traffic. However, with construction progressing on both the Erie and Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, Philadelphia business interests were concerned with diminishing traffic from the Port of Philadelphia. In order to combat the competition, the Main Line of Public Works was commissioned, and a canal stretching across the entire length of the state was proposed.

Although canals were the main form of heavy transport in the early nineteenth century, it was deemed not feasible across the state, and thus, a railroad was proposed. Until the birth of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1846, people and freight were moved across the country by a series of canals and railroads, which was drastically inefficient. The importance of the railroad across the entire length of the state was the vital link with the Ohio River, which gave Philadelphia the ability to access the rapidly expanding western portion of the country. The railroad officially opened in 1852, and the length of the state in its entirety was now connected by rail.  However, issues arose when traversing the steep Allegheny Mountains, in which passengers and freight had to be transferred to the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad would transfer passengers over the mountainous terrain, and would then be transferred to another train for the duration to Pittsburgh. However, with construction completed on the Horseshoe Curve in 1854, the Allegheny Portage Railroad was decommissioned. With successfully securing their line across the length of the state, they had succeeded in defending the Philadelphia ports against fiercely competing rivals. Additionally, the railroad was performing exponentially better than initially anticipated, as it shattered the expectations of many. Furthermore, the railroad across the state was solely commanded by the PRR after the acquisition of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in 1857.

Reaching the Midwest

When the railroad received its charter in 1852, an able entrepreneur J. Edgar Thomson was placed at the helm of the railroad, as he served as the PRR’s first president. The ambitious Thomson failed to settle for the initial success of the line from Philadelphia-Pittsburgh, and began to look towards Chicago and the Midwest to further expand the booming railroad company.

During this time, the most viable route to Chicago was the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Railway, which Thomson soon acquired in 1856. Upon acquiring the PFtW&C Railroad, the Pennsy acquired the Erie & Pittsburgh Railroad, Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad, Toledo, Columbus and Ohio River Railroad and the Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Ashtabula Railway. In acquiring the latter, the Pennsy acquired direct access to Lake Erie, and its booming iron ore traffic.The railroad expanded further after the Civil War, reaching St. Louis, Cincinnati, Ohio, New York, Washington D.C. and Norfolk, Virginia. The vastly expanding railroad soon became the largest publicly held company in the world, and continued to pay out regularly to stock holders until the 1950’s.

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The railroad accessed Baltimore Maryland through the acquisition of the Northern Central Railway, via Columbia, PA, and soon gained access to Washington D.C., when the PRR subsidiary Baltimore and Potomac Railroad was constructed in 1872, linking Baltimore to Washington D.C. In 1890, the PRR acquired what they called the “Panhandle Route”, stretching through to Chicago. The route allowed the Pennsy access to St. Louis, as the route split at Bradford, Ohio, where one line went to Chicago, and the other to St. Louis.

“The moment this company forgets that its duty is to be at the head of the list of carrying companies of the United States and has ceased to have the ambition to become the first in the world, that moment do I wish to pass from its management, if not before.” — Pennsylvania Railroad President George B. Roberts, speaking to the annual meeting of the PRR, March 8, 1892 (Keefe, Kevin)

Emergence Into The Twentieth Century

The PRR emerged into the turn of the century as the most influential corporation in the world, and continued to further impact the railroad industry. Continuing its expansion, the PRR purchased controlling interest in the Long Island Railroad in order to gain access to the sprawling Manhattan. The access to Manhattan prompted the railroad to build the two Hudson River tunnels, leading into the newly constructed Penn Station, which was opened in 1910.

In 1902, the PRR sought an alternative to the standard wooden coaches that had been in use since the dawn of the railroad in the early 19th century. With traffic increasing exponentially, and with trains becoming longer and heavier, more robust rolling stock was duly needed.

These efforts were spearheaded by the construction of the Hudson River tunnels, that were to carry trains underneath the Hudson River, and into New York City. The railroad was anxious that the wooden coaches would pose as fire hazards in such an enclosed space. The new steel coaches would have increased passenger comforts, prove more astute to handling the everyday wear and tear, and prove safer in the event of an incident.

The project was to be undertaken at the railroad’s own Altoona Works, which perfected the design until 1906, when the first steel passenger coach emerged from the car shop. The steel coaches proved popular with both the railroad and customers alike, therefore, wooden coach production soon ceased in favor of the new steel design. Due to the railroad’s lengthy tunnel spanning the depths of the Hudson, the PRR decided to electrify the Hudson River tunnels. Electrification of the PRR began in small segments, such as the electrified tunnel in Baltimore in 1895, in conjunction with a short electrified 7 mile section of 500 volt DC 3rd rail track on the Burlington and Mount Holly Railroad.

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In 1905, future PRR subsidiary, the Long Island Railroad electrified much of its trackage, as many trains serving Manhattan and Brooklyn were at least partially electrified. The PRR’s greater plan was to create a non-stop rail route through the city, thus, reaching Long Island by rail. Throughout these endeavors, the modern day Northeast Corridor was taking shape, as the railroad sought to connect to the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. In 1916, with the completion of the Hell Gate Bridge, connecting to the New Haven was achieved, creating a rail link between Boston and Washington D.C.

In these early days of electrification, electric current was provided by a direct current (DC) rail. One of the PRR’s grandest achievements was the construction of New York Pennsylvania Station. PRR trains would enter the station via the Hudson River Tunnels, and operate through to Penn Station utilizing electric locomotives. Upon leaving Penn Station, trains would continue under electric power until reaching Manhattan Junction, located near Newark, where the electric locomotive was replaced with steam power for the remainder of the journey.

Electrification- Shaping The Modern Northeast Corridor

The PRR spearheaded the electrification of the nation’s railroads, and sought further electrification on their highly trafficked route between New York-Washington D.C. In 1928, PRR management tossed around the idea of carrying out an astronomical electrification process between New York and Washington D.C. Upon this electrification, the PRR would utilize alternating current (AC) catenary system seen in the modern era.

The electrification project in New York proved to reduce congestion, thus, the PRR looked towards Philadelphia to electrify the congested commuter lines serving the bustling city. Focus was placed on electrifying the terminal Broad Street Station to Paoli, the Chestnut Hill Line, the White Marsh Branch, towards Wilmington on the railroad’s New York- Washington D.C. mainline, and the West Chester Line, which were completed by the early thirties, and utilized overhead AC catenary wire.

William Wallace Atterbury, president of the PRR from 1925-1935, suggested completing the electrification from Philadelphia to New York, and from Wilmington-Washington D.C., and ultimately, to Potomac Yard in northern Virginia. Through the electrification project, the PRR sought to increase speed, reliability, and passenger comforts on the line, as well as increasing capacity without the construction of additional trackage.

Even in the depths of the Great Depression, the electrification plan was put into practice, made possible by a $70 million federal loan, which was associated with the various federal recovery programs implemented due to the depression. Beginning in 1934, the project was completed in just thirteen months, with a rumored 20,000 workers assigned to the project, a welcome sight during the depression.

In 1935, electrification was complete, and was prepared for revenue service. Its success encouraged further electrification towards Harrisburg(modern day Keystone Corridor), including the new low grade freight line from Trenton, NJ to Enola, PA, the Port Deposit Branch, and various branch lines connecting Lancaster and Columbia, and Columbia and Royalton, which was completed and in operation by 1938. By the time electrification was complete in 1938, the PRR now operated a total of 2,677 miles of electrified trackage.

Locomotives of the PRR


When the original PRR was commissioned as a short line between Broad Street in Philadelphia and Paoli, PA, equestrian traction was utilized until the mid- 1830s, when steam locomotives were introduced. The PRR recieved its charter in 1846, and the line between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh was complete, and the classic 4-4-0 “American” types, which dominated many rosters of the nation’s railroads during this time, were prevalent throughout the system.

The locomotives utilized by the Pennsylvania Railroad were both simplistic and striking. PRR management favored standardization, allowing parts to be utilized for multiple locomotives. Much of the railroad’s roster was built in-house at the famed Juniata Locomotive Shops in Altoona, PA, with few being out shopped to Baldwin and Lima, only when Juniata could not keep up with orders. Baldwin was the railroad’s first choice for outsourcing, as they were also headquartered in Philadelphia, therefore, allowing engineers and management of both companies to meet often.

Because of the railroad’s standardization of locomotives, especially steam and electric, parts and maintenance were exponentially less expensive. A key spotting feature of PRR steam locomotives was the number plate on the smoke box door, with either a keystone, denoting a locomotive assigned to passenger service, or a circle, denoting freight service. Furthermore, the Belpaire firebox was popular within PRR management, due to its simplistic design, and continuing its efforts towards standardization, was placed on many of their steam locomotives, both passenger and freight.

The Pennsy had a distinct classification for their steam locomotives, as each wheel arrangement was denoted by a letter. According to John Kelly’s book, “Pennsylvania Railroad Locomotives: Photo Archive, Steam, Diesel, and Electric”, Kelly utilizes the famed K4 locomotive as an example of the classification process. The “K” denotes Pacific, type, “4”, the fourth class of Pacifics, and “s’ for the superheaters that were later implemented, additionally, if it was the first of this classification, it would be denoted as “a”, completing the designation, K4sa.

Known for its legendary passenger trains, the K4 class of locomotives became the backbone of the railroad’s passengers locomotive fleet, as they were quick and had decent pulling power. Always with a keen eye for innovation, the PRR experimented with various devices on the K4 class, included modified valve gear, stokers, even extended tenders, called “long haul” tenders. As trains became heavier, the K4s were oftentimes double-headed, especially when tackling the steep Allegheny Mountains near Altoona. The locomotives were utilized on both long distance, intercity, and commuter operations, until their retirement in 1957.

During the 1930s, which were dubbed the “Streamliner” era, the PRR sought to design a fleet of streamlined locomotives, which the railroad marketed as the “Fleet of Modernism”. On quite a few occasions, PRR management contacted esteemed industrial designer Raymond Loewy, to design locomotives for the railroad. The first instance Loewy was contacted by the railroad was to design the one-of-a-kind S1 6-4-4-6 duplex-drive locomotive. Once again referencing Kelly’s book, the S1 locomotive was designed to haul a 14 car train at 100 mph, and had a striking streamlined appearance. Once completed, the locomotive was displayed at the New York World Fair in 1939.

Although the locomotive performed sufficiently, it suffered from various wheelslip issues, and only remained in service for ten years, hauling passenger trains between Crestline, Ohio, and Chicago. The sole S1 locomotive was scrapped in 1949, however, it played an important role in PRR locomotive development, as it gave rise to the T-1 4-4-4-4 duplex locomotive.

Although the S1 was short lived, it laid out the blueprints for the railroad’s T1 “Duplex” locomotives, which was the largest class of streamlined locomotives to be constructed for any existing American railroad. The T1 locomotives came into existence due to the increasing length and weight of passenger trains during World War II. Thus, the railroad oftentimes had to double-head its K4 locomotives, thereby, utilizing more fuel, and additional crews.

The T1 locomotive was again the creation of Loewy, the locomotive coming to fruition as a 4-4-4-4 design, which was designed for hauling streamlined passenger cars throughout the railroad’s western division throughout Ohio and Illinois. The locomotive could oftentimes be seen hauling the famed Broadway Limited in the forties. The T1 was distinctive, as its pointed nose and dual drive wheels allowed it to stand apart from the rest.

The locomotives were constructed at the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, with the first locomotives 6110 and 6111, being delivered to the railroad in 1942. Although the locomotives were striking from the exterior, sub par ride quality, wheel slip issues and other maintenance headaches sidelined them from service in 1949, and were scrapped shortly afterwards, with some examples only three years old.


Electric locomotives existed on the PRR since the early 20th century, with the delivery of the DD1 in 1911, for use in the newly electrified tunnels underneath the Hudson River into Manhattan. As the PRR realized the benefits of electrifying portions of their railroad, subsequent locomotives such as the L-5 and workhorse P5 and GG1 locomotives were delivered in the twenties and thirties respectively. Additionally the MP54 electric multiple units were initially delivered in 1910, for the Long Island Railroad and the Philadelphia based commuter lines.

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With the on-going electrification on the railroad’s New York-Washington mainline, it was soon realized that a reliable electric locomotive capable of high speeds and sufficient pulling power was needed for the 300 mile trips to either terminus of the line. The P5a’s previously in service were not quick enough to handle the speed of the intercity trains, thus, the need for a new locomotive was prevalent.

The railroad contracted both GE and Westinghouse to produce prototypes for their locomotives, and PRR management would chose the preferred model. GE submitted the GG1, while Westinghouse submitted the R1, which was nothing more than an enhanced P5. The GG1 was ultimately selected, and Loewy, with the assistance of Donald R. Dohner designed the aesthetics of the locomotive. This is perhaps Loewy’s most noteworthy work, as the streamlined design of the GG1 would live on well into the 1980s, cycling through four different railroads, the original PRR, Penn Central, Conrail, and ultimately, Amtrak, before they were replaced with the venerable AEM-7 electrics.


Because of the effects of World War II, dieselization was delayed for many railroads throughout the nation, as the PRR received its first diesel electric road units in 1945, with the delivery of EMD E7 locomotives 5900 and 5901. Throughout this transition, the railroad would own locomotives manufactured by EMD, Fairbanks-Morse, ALCO, Baldwin, and GE. The EMD e-units, and ALCO PA’s could be seen replacing steam locomotives, hauling the railroad’s most prestigious trains, such as the New York-Chicago “Broadway Limited”. By 1957, steam was extinguished from the PRR, with the remaining eleven years of the railroad’s existence dominated by diesel power.

The railroad had a diesel classification similar to the classification of steam locomotives. According to Kelly, the first letter denotes the manufacturer of the locomotive, the second letter whether the locomotive is designated for freight or passenger service, and third letter how many units coupled complete the locomotive.

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The “Fleet of Modernism”

The 1930s had a profound impact on the railroad industry. As the automobile grew in popularity, and became affordable for the middle class, many turned away from the railroads for the convenience of the automobile. The automobile, in conjunction with the impending economic depression, proved for a troubling decade for the railroads. The automobile effectively became the most modern type of transportation, taking the title from the railroads since their genesis in the 1830s.

The decline of the railroads began with Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, which expanded the amount of paved roads in the country by tens of thousands of miles. Furthermore, the public’s position towards transportation as a public entity, rather than private, such as the railroads, became commonplace. The railroads received little funding from the New Deal, and thus, began a stark decline in traffic. The Pennsy’s premier train, the Broadway Limited, carried on its daily run between New York and Chicago with a mere five cars in the 1930s, and freight traffic was down due to the expansion of roads, and cheaper freight transportation by truck.

The railroad industry realized that modernization was crucial for their passenger trains, thus, various contemporary, modern trains called “Streamliners” were built by various reputable manufacturers. Initially, streamliners were self-propelled sets called motor cars, however, railroads later sought to have conventional locomotives haul modern passenger cars of similar design.

The PRR dubbed their streamliner trains, “The Fleet of Modernism”, in which various locomotives such as the streamlined S1, and T-1 duplex locomotives were assigned to haul the railroad’s premier train, the “Broadway Limited”. In 1938, the Broadway Limited received lightweight, streamlined passenger cars, which were painted in the Fleet of Modernism scheme. Prior to the arrival of the T1 Duplex locomotive, the train was hauled by recently streamlined K4s locomotives east of Harrisburg, while standard K4 locomotives, oftentimes double-headed, would haul the train west of Harrisburg.

In addition to the Broadway Limited, the other long distance trains such as the ever popular General, Spirit of St. Louis, and the Liberty Limited, all utilized the lightweight streamlined equipment. To deliver more variety to passengers, the Trailblazer was introduced, which consisted of all coaches, and was much less expensive than the aforementioned four luxury trains.

The Fleet of Modernism paint scheme was designed by Lowey, who initially applied it to all lightweight Pullman cars and Budd diners, however, it was also eventually applied to heavyweight stock. Although the scheme was short-lived, lasting merely ten years, it once again attracted patrons to the rails. The PRR began repainting the FOM stock in 1948, and by 1950, the railroads vast fleet of passenger cars were repainted into a red paint scheme, with gold striping. Additionally, the FOM stock was relegated to secondary trains due to a new delivery of lightweight Budd cars.

In the early forties, the Broadway Limited posed no threat to the “20th Century Limited”, operated by its rival, the New York Central, and experienced record low patronage. The train experienced such low ridership, management pondered the idea of discontinuing the train. However, to preserve the image of the railroad, management decided to continually operate the train, disregarding the feeble ridership.

However, due to the nation’s entry into World War II in 1941, railroad traffic began to soar, and the Broadway Limited experienced such an exponential increase in ridership, that the railroad struggled to keep pace. Talk of discontinuing the Broadway ultimately ceased, in fact, the train outlasted the Pennsy, finally being annulled by Amtrak in 1995.

The Final Decade and Merger

The years after the war proved troublesome for the Pennsy, as they incurred their first financial loss in 1946, and unfortunately, their traffic and revenue continued to decline. Strict regulation and a booming trucking industry plagued railroads during the fifties and sixties, leading to countless locomotives being placed into storage. The most prominent government regulation placed on the railroads were their dictation of shipping rates, which greatly hindered their efforts to compete with the trucking industry.

The government continued to lead the decline in rail travel, as competitors such as the budding trucking and airline industry received federal and state funding, including the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which tremendously boosted the trucking industry due to the construction of four lane highways. By the sixties, the PRR, along with competitor New York Central were in financial trouble, and merged into the ill-fated Penn Central Transportation Company.

The World Famous Horseshoe Curve

The Penn Central was a dismal failure, filing for the largest bankruptcy in the history of Wall Street in 1970, after only 870 days in operation. The Penn Central operated until 1976, when the government-run Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) was formed, rejuvenating railroading in the Northeast.

Today, the electrified stretch between New York-Washington D.C., and Philadelphia-Harrisburg is operated by Amtrak, and continues to be the busiest passenger rail corridor in the country. The PRR’s various routes to Chicago are now owned by various freight carriers, most notably, Norfolk Southern, who currently commands the railroad’s original mainline between Harrisburg-Pittsburgh, and the famed Juniata Locomotive Shops.

Although the PRR ceases to exist in the modern day, its accomplishments and contributions to the rail industry keep the company’s legacy alive. The Westinghouse Air Brake, vestibules in passenger cars, and their advancement in locomotive technology, just to name a few, carry the railroad’s legacy into the 21st century, and solidifies their legacy as “The Standard Railroad of the World”.







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