All change for the future!

For America’s railroads, the Indian summer of the early 1950s gave way to a worsening winter.

By H. Roger Grant

During the 1950s American railroads experienced hope, turbulence, and uncertainty. This decade might be thought of as a drift from a kind of Indian summer, which lasted from the immediate post-World War II years through the Korean War, to winter-like conditions that emerged in the mid-1950s and worsened toward the end of the decade. Throughout this latter period, railroads faced a multitude of challenges. These troubling times caused Delaware, Lackawanna & Western president Perry Shoemaker to wonder: “What’s going to happen to our railroads, mine and many in the East and Midwest?”

паровоз 2-8-2 № 3431 залізниці Canadian National і тепловоз EMD F7 № 1160 залізниці Wabash

This was a worthy question. The industry faced rapidly growing modal competition, including increased automobile and truck usage that the developing Interstate Highway network accelerated, and the introduction of high-speed, long-range commercial jet aircraft. There was more. Railroads confronted antiquated labor work rules; money-losing passenger, commuter, and branchline operations; burdensome taxation; and restrictive government regulation. A nasty economic recession in 1958–59 added to these woes.

Before conditions caused railroad executives to develop acid stomachs, optimism reigned. The war years had pressed carriers to their limits but had also produced strong freight and passenger revenues. Although high usage wore out rolling stock, the diesel revolution was at hand. Since locomotive replacements were badly needed, it took little convincing for most railroads to go for diesel-electrics. Operational costs, range, and power were compelling sales points. What became the workhorse locomotives for scores of roads, large and small, first appeared in 1949 when the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors introduced its first General Purpose road-switcher — the “Geep.”

Тепловоз EMD GP7 № B&O 3400

The decade began with steam in retreat. In 1950, steam handled 54 percent of freight work, 36 percent of passenger, and 38 percent of switching; by 1960, steam was essentially gone. Diesels capable of replacing steam in all services were on the market by 1940, but World War II retarded dieselization. After the war the floodgates opened, and by 1950 there were six major diesel builders and a handful of Class 1’s had shed steam entirely, with the rest of the industry poised to follow.

This triumph of diesel-electric technology — arguably the biggest change in railroading since the air brake — resulted in a greatly altered landscape, as water tanks and all but some large (hence, expensive to raze) coaling towers came tumbling down. Steam backshops, once staffed by scores of boilermakers and other skilled workers, became diesel repair shops with fewer employees, or were closed. Total railroad employment tumbled 36 percent during the 1950s.

Листівка із зображенням нових двоповерхових вагонів Hi Level, червень 1958

Changes in passenger service were similar. Riding the euphoria of increased wartime ridership, albeit largely in outmoded or worn-out equipment, many major passenger-carrying roads showed their optimism in acquiring state-of-the-art equipment in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Epitomizing this commitment and confidence in the future of long-distance service was the 1949 introduction of the Vista-Dome California Zephyr, a joint effort of the Burlington Route; Denver & Rio Grande Western; and Western Pacific. Remarked a contemporary CB&Q annual report: “We are confident that with the growth of our nation the railroads will enjoy a volume of traffic that will enable a continuance of good, fast, comfortable day and night service between centers of population.”

The popularity of the “Silver Lady” and other trains sparked a renewed interest in rail travel. CB&Q did not stop with the CZ, re-equipping another flagship, the Denver Zephyr, in 1956, making “the Q” the last U.S. railroad to update completely a named train.

Тепловоз EMD F3 з поїздом № 22 El Capitan

Another notable pro-passenger road was the Santa Fe, which gained acclaim for introducing an imaginative car design in 1956 when it placed new Budd Co. double-deck Hi-Level cars on its Chicago – Los Angeles El Capitan and Chicago – Oakland San Francisco Chief. The goal was to increase capacity on a train that often required expensive second and third sections to meet demand.

More than improvements in conventional passenger cars took place in the ’50s — some truly novel trains also were tried. Representative of this foray were the Talgo trainsets. Although of Spanish design, American Car & Foundry did the manufacturing and marketing. The articulated, aluminum Talgo employed a tilt mechanism and had a lower center of gravity than traditional trains, allowing for higher speeds.

The expectation was that the train, weighing a fraction of conventional cars of equivalent capacity, would be less costly to build and cheaper to operate and maintain. Plus, the radical styling and speed would create a progressive image and surely lure travelers away from airplanes and their automobiles. Competitors built the ultra-lightweight Aerotrains and Xplorer in 1956–57, but all these imaginative trains failed to catch on. Poor riding qualities and other shortcomings doomed them.

While hardly radical, the Rail Diesel Car (RDC) became popular in the 1950s, mainly as a cost-saving device for railroads. Budd introduced a prototype in 1949 and revved up output soon thereafter; production continued until 1962. RDCs offered passengers streamliner comfort on local, branchline, and commuter runs. These self-propelled, bidirectional, stainless-steel cars were efficient and reliable, especially on commuter assignments. Boston & Maine operated more than 100, about a quarter of the total, and eventually entrusted all its remaining Boston-based passenger service to RDCs.

Less glitzy were ongoing investments in track, signaling, and other betterments. Take continuously welded rail. A growing number of railroads began to employ this approach to track structure in the 1950s. By replacing jointed rail, companies reduced maintenance costs and equipment wear and tear. On the operations front, the expansion of Centralized Traffic Control increased line capacity and improved safety. By 1950, about 13,000 miles of track was CTC-equipped, but during the ensuing decade, that figure more than doubled. Modern hump yards replaced old-fashioned flat-yard switching facilities, and early computers were introduced for accounting and other duties.

Листівка залізниці New York Central

After the war, most railroads became active with publicity, projecting a rosy outlook for the future. In the late 1940s and early ’50s many roads held celebrations, often system-wide, to commemorate centennials or other landmark events. At the time, such parties were financially feasible. The success of the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948–49, where modern rolling stock was on display and in action, encouraged additional events. The corporate messages were direct: railroads were not becoming transportation dinosaurs and were good places for investment dollars. Moreover, good will could be created among the public and would boost employee morale.

In 1951 the Erie Railroad “went all out” to celebrate a centennial. In this case it observed the opening 100 years earlier of its “river to the lakes” initial core between Piermont and Dunkirk, N.Y. In May the company operated a two-day excursion that retraced the original celebration, replete with historic and the latest equipment, speeches, dinners, and a parade in Dunkirk that attracted nearly 20,000 onlookers. Erie also distributed an illustrated centennial booklet and commemorative pins and stickers.

Вагон Budd RDC-1 № B&O 1908
John Dziobko

As that bright outlook began to fade not long after the Erie centennial, many roads, including the wealthiest, strove to stave off red ink. One response to rising truck competition would be trailer-on-flatcar (TOFC) or “piggyback” service. Although the Chicago Great Western and New Haven had spearheaded this novel program among steam railroads in the mid-1930s, the industry generally expressed little interest in the concept. Many decision-makers viewed TOFC as a “flash in the pan” and were reluctant to make financial commitments. Admittedly the technology had not been fully developed, and standardization was hardly universal among those roads that offered this service. There was also the question of how profitable TOFC could become.


By the mid-’50s, resistance had crumbled. Innovators — most of all Gene Ryan, who began the Rail-Trailer Co. in 1952 — responded effectively to the real or alleged shortcomings of TOFC. He and others made such improvements as placing two trailers on each length-ened flatcar and streamlining terminal operations.

Рекламне фото залізниці Union Pacific, 1959

Within a few years, scores of railroads entered the “intermodal” business. Their participation often came through Trailer Train (later renamed TTX) Co., which recently had been set up and staffed by the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1956 the president of the Wabash crowed to a St. Louis journalist: “This new branch of railroading since its inauguration in July of 1954 by the Wabash has doubled and redoubled.” The “Intermodal Age” was evolving and would mature within a decade or so. It was badly needed, as the Interstate system of cross-country highways had changed the dynamics of moving freight.

The 1950s also witnessed investments in bigger and better freight equipment, and there would be a poster child for this coming revolution. As the decade ended, the 100-ton-capacity covered hopper car, the “Big John,” entered service. The determined efforts of D. W. Brosnan, the creative Southern Railway executive, made possible this productive piece of rolling stock.

Паровоз 2 8 4 класса M-1 “Big Emma”

The Big John steadily took hold for shipments of grain and other bulk commodities, triggering the demise of the 40-foot boxcar with its capacity of 50 tons or less. Big John cars would go down in regulatory history when the Southern won a federal court decision that allowed it to offer lower, competitive rates that the Interstate Commerce Commission had denied.

Diesel locomotives, TOFC, and Big Johns energized the rail business, but they failed to stem some disturbing figures. What worried Wall Street analysts (and others) was that the rate of return on railroad investments sank dramatically during the decade. In 1950 the figure was an unimpressive 4.28 percent, but closed the decade worse, at 2.72 percent. Although the rate of inflation remained relatively stable through much of the ’50s, the average hourly wage rate for railroad workers climbed from $1.61 in 1950 to $2.59 in 1959.

Железная дорога Great Northern

Take what happened on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific: wages and benefits rose 59 percent between 1948 and 1957. This trend was made more galling owing to “featherbedding,” by such labor requirements as firemen on diesel locomotives and six-member crews, mandated by some states on intrastate freight trains.

The passenger sector was a growing albatross, as revenues were in a free fall, from $1.25 billion in 1946 to $813 million in 1950 and $651 million in 1959. Deficits were mounting rapidly. While corporate mergers would dominate the railroad scene in the 1960s, the decline of  passenger service did so in the ’50s. By decade’s end, the passenger train appeared to be mortally wounded. What took place on Louisville & Nashville was indicative of the national trend. In 1946 the road carried 7,014,547 passengers; in 1950, 2,624,955; and in 1958, 1,097,384. Patrons were abandoning their short trips and were taking longer ones less often.

В вагоне-кабузе железной дороги Canadian National
Philip R. Hastings,

The crisis in the passenger sector prompted Trains Editor David P. Morgan to devote the April 1959 issue to the question, “Who Shot the Passenger Train?” Morgan made it clear that “the passenger train is dying today as a business. It loses money — lots of money.” He continued, “Now, if passenger trains are in the red because they’re technologically obsolete, because Americans prefer the convenience of a car or the speed of a jet, then these trains must be given a decent burial and be left to the historians.”

Still, this distinguished observer of the railroad industry did not think that the passenger car had achieved museum status, joining the canal boat and stagecoach. “But the passenger train is not dying of old age. It was shot in the back.” Morgan suggested that railroad officials, workers, regulators, and customers all were responsible. Lawmakers, too, carried blame, especially through unfair ticket and property taxes and publicly sponsored highways and airports. Although the passenger side of the ledger bled red ink badly — $161.86 in expenses for every $100 of gross income in 1957 — all was not lost.

Morgan believed that most long-distance service could be saved by renegotiating labor contracts, upgrading equipment, and segregating freight from passenger operations. “Man has yet to invent an overland passenger mode of transport with the train’s unique combination of speed, safety, comfort, dependability, and economy.” The Trains piece was read, quoted, and remembered, but reforms would be modest. Not until Amtrak’s creation in 1971 would the passenger sector be dramatically altered, although not in the way Morgan envisioned.

By the end of the 1950s, positive change was in the air. Railroads became more hopeful when Washington passed the Transportation Act of 1958. For passenger operations, it became less onerous for carriers to discontinue money-losing trains. The law also made it easier for railroads to battle the regulatory maze in their pursuit of line abandonments. Although a step toward reducing archaic regulation, this legislation was hardly the railroad Magna Carta. Such a landmark measure would eventually come, but not until the Staggers Act in 1980.

Part of the emerging change involved corporate mergers. Toward the mid- to late 1950s the savings produced by the diesel revolution had mostly run their course, prompting a growing number of railroaders to see unification as their financial salvation. “Merger madness” did not burst forth until the 1960s, with the signature event coming in 1968 with formation of giant Penn Central through the wedding of New York Central, Pennsylvania, and New Haven. NYC-PRR merger discussions, though, dated from 1957, and at the time produced “a thunderclap that shook all railroading,” as one observer called it.

Электровозы Virginian EL-C
Bob Drake (Collection of Tom Sink)

The modern merger movement actually began shortly before the NYC-PRR talks when the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis was absorbed by its parent L&N. The expanded L&N expected to save nearly $4 million a year through retrenchments, mostly line abandonments and elimination of duplicate personnel and support facilities. Yes, this was a company absorbing an affiliate, but in 1959 came a union of two independent, competing roads, the 611-mile Virginian and the 2,135-mile N&W. Both enjoyed good profitability, functioning like coal conveyor belts from mines to markets. But savings would come, mostly from combining managements, shops, and yards. It would not take long before other “fallen flags” joined the NC&StL and Virginian.

Another change was transpiring, and like mergers it would become more pronounced, particularly after Staggers. A new breed of creative and venture-some rail executive was emerging, similar to a few memorable leaders of the 1950s, including Brosnan, D&RGW’s Gale “Gus” Adylotte NYC’s Alfred Perlman, and C&NW’s lawyer-turned-railroader Ben Heineman.

What Heineman did at the North Western was representative of this exciting leadership. His immediate predecessors were too tradition-bound to back much innovation. The veteran president, Roland “Bud” Williams, embraced a “we’ve always done it this way” attitude. A trade journalist concluded that he “epitomized a railroad that was overbuilt, old fashioned, and lethargic.” Perhaps Williams should not be too harshly criticized; after all, over-regulation fostered ossification among industry officials. Heineman was different, though. His administrative team did much, including “D-Day” on May 11, 1956, when the system was totally dieselized simply by redeploying existing motive power.

There also would be changes the public never saw, such as installation of data processing equipment and other office updates. But the public did see the closing of scores of small-town depots; elimination of scattered, inefficient shops and modernization of C&NW’s Clinton, Iowa, shop; scaling back of intercity passenger trains; and dramatic improvements to Chicago commuter service.

Тепловоз EMD E8A № CNW 5021B
Mark & Mike Nelson

Heineman insisted on dealing head-on with the “commuter problem,” wanting to eliminate old rolling stock and outmoded ticketing and scheduling — all producing lots of red ink. During 1956–60, a fleet of air-conditioned bilevel cars on push-pull trains was introduced. C&NW was on its way to creating what one observer called “the finest and the most modern suburban service in the world.” Jervis Langdon Jr., who in the early ’60s brought his own revolution to Baltimore & Ohio, remarked that “Mr. Heineman was the kind of railroader who’s been needed for years. Yes, he made blunders, but he brought much-needed imaginative thinking to his railroad and the industry.”

It’s unlikely any 21st century railroader would want to return to the 1950s — the environment was difficult, especially for executives, whether tradition-bound or forward-thinking. Still, it was a time of monumental change, moving from that postwar optimism characterized by diesel-electric locomotives, streamliners, and celebrations to distress and uncertainty fueled by modal competition, burdensome regulation, and archaic labor restrictions. As the decade closed, there were signs that pointed to a brighter future. These possibilities ranged from continued expansion of TOFC to the savings derived from mergers.

The 1950s remains a vivid reminder that the “good old days” were not always so. The decade encapsulates that recurring historic theme of glory to gloom to glory, or at least the start of a more glorious future.

ROGER GRANT is a professor of history at South Carolina’s Clemson University. He has written or edited 29 books, mostly about railroads, and has had five articles in Classic Trains publications. Grant was president of the Lexington Group in Transportation History.

  1. Roger Grant. Classic Trains, Special 2013, p. 8-13.

Алексей Краснов

Ukrainian and Russian version: Alexey Krasnov


Railway magazine “Railway Supply”


Rail track clearance: high-performance self-propelled snow rotor