Electrics in the diesel age

Railroad electrification was the bright new dawn that never came.

For most of the first half of the 20th century, the United States led the world in railroad electrification. American inventors and experimentation in the 19th century had developed much of the new technology of electric operation. Electric traction became feasible for street railways in the late 1880’s, and within a decade had been applied to the much more demanding requirements of mainline railroading.

Railroad electrification
AEM-7 № 936. Matt Donnelly

Electric locomotives capable of railroad duties began to appear as early as 1893. Even before then, in 1892, the Baltimore & Ohio had made the daring decision to bet the success of its new Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore on electric operation. B&O contracted with the fledgling General Electric Company to supply the 500-volt D.C. electric power system and three locomotives to pull trains through the tunnel. Electric operation began in 1895, and the new motive power quickly proved itself.

The first decade of the new century was a time of remarkable progress for the new technology. In New York, the New York Central completed an extensive third-rail D.C. suburban electrification; the New Haven Railroad launched a pioneering A.C. project that would ultimately reach New Haven, Conn.; and the Pennsylvania began work on its great New York tunnel and terminal project that would depend upon electrification to bring trains into Manhattan through Hudson and East River tunnels.

Electrification proved to be the answer to the problems of steam operation in tunnels, and electrics went to work in Grand Trunk Western and Michigan Central bores under the St. Clair and Detroit rivers in Michigan; Great Northern’s Cascade Tunnel in Washington; and Boston & Maine’s Hoosac Tunnel in Massachusetts. Electric multiple-unit suburban trains began operating on the PRR’s Long Island and West Jersey & Seashore subsidiaries, and on suburban lines in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Railroad electrification
B&O № 1, en.wikipedia.org

More triumphs followed. In the West, the Butte, Anaconda & Pacific and much of the Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Extension were wired up for high-voltage D.C. Pocahontas coal roads Norfolk & Western and Virginian both installed single-phase A.C. systems. At Chicago, the Illinois Central put its suburban service under catenary, and the Lackawanna and the Reading soon followed suit in northern New Jersey and at Philadelphia.

The greatest of all U.S. electrifications was completed by the Pennsylvania during the 1930’s. When the last extension reached Harrisburg in 1938, Pennsy had almost 2200 track-miles of some of the busiest railroad in North America under catenary. By this time the U.S. stood as the world leader in railroad electrification. With 2400 route-miles and more than 6300 track-miles under electric power — far more than any other country — U.S. electrification represented more than 20 percent of the world total.

In almost every instance, electrification had delivered on its promise. Electric power substantially reduced running times and boosted line capacity. Electric locomotives operated at much lower fuel and maintenance costs than the steam power they replaced. Their availability was two to three times greater, and their effective service lives promised to be twice as long as those of steam locomotives. Electric traction’s proponents pointed to these benefits and predicted a bright future for U.S. electrification. A 1936 report by the Federal Power Commission, for example, suggested that electrification of an additional 12,000 miles of track on 20 railroads was economically feasible. The outbreak of World War II only temporarily — it was thought — brought the expansion of U.S. electrification to a halt.

Second part – Electrics in the diesel age: Postwar optimism

Third part – Electrics in the diesel age: What went wrong?

By William D. Middleton
William D. Middleton. Classic Trains, spring 2001, p. 22-29.

WILLIAM D. MIDDLETON has written extensively about railroad electrification. This article was adapted from the second edition of his book “When the Steam Railroads Electrified”, to be published later this year by Indiana University Press.