War and peace, duty and rebirth
War and peace, duty and rebirth
After giving their all during World War II, the railroads looked ahead to a bright future of diesels and streamliners.
By H. Roger Grant
Railroading in America during the 1940s hardly looked like railroading in the 1930s. “It has been either feast or famine,” remarked an official of the Erie Railroad in 1944. “We’ve experienced that long depression when traffic fell, workers were furloughed and our company went bankrupt, and now every resource is being taxed to the limit. We’re being forced to hire high-school lads and pull men out of retirement.” And, he could not resist saying, “We’re paying dividends on our common stock.”
Following the surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, America’s entry into World War II triggered a memorable decade for its steam carriers and remaining electric interurbans. The war years proved to be the finest hour of the railroad industry, when carriers responded to the unprecedented demands necessary to ensure victory against fascist forces in Asia and Europe. “Without transportation we could not fight at all,” contended Joseph B. Eastman, director of the Office of Defense Transportation, in 1943; no one challenged his observation. Railroads, which remained privately owned and managed during the conflict, accomplished far more than most politicians and others expected, a sharp contrast to World War I when chaotic conditions forced Washington to federalize most steam roads and strategic interurbans under the United States Railroad Administration.
Because gasoline, tires, new equipment, and replacement parts were rationed, airline, bus, and truck companies could not maintain their prewar levels of service, let alone expand. Yet the railroads could. Between 1941 and 1944 railroads managed to carry 83 percent of the increase of all traffic, and they moved 91 percent of all military freight and 98 percent of all military personnel. Freight traffic, measured in ton-miles, soared from 373 billion in 1940 to 737 billion in 1944. It took the industry until 1966 — two decades of prosperity and population growth later — to surpass the latter figure. Passenger volume, expressed in revenue passenger-miles, skyrocketed from 23 billion in 1940 to 95 billion in 1944, a peak number never again attained. Individual companies commonly set all-time traffic records; for example, in that hectic year of 1944 the Southern Pacific experienced its highest average number of revenue freight tons per train and its highest average number of passengers per intercity train (326.7).
Making every car count
With the crush of wartime business, management realized that its job was no longer how to find new traffic but how to handle it. Carriers large and small sought to locate, refurbish, and build much-needed rolling stock. Unlike trucking and bus companies, railroads had surplus equipment standing idle because of slack business during the Great Depression. Take tank cars. Thousands were out of service, but because of German U-boat attacks against American shipping during the early part of the war, the flow of petroleum from Gulf Coast oil fields to refineries and tank farms along the eastern seaboard was disrupted, making every tank car needed, even those slated for the scrap heap. It would take time before major pipelines could be installed to help move this vital commodity.
The demand for additional passenger equipment also seemed universal, and the carriers returned to life thousands of unused and derelict cars. What occurred on the Georgia & Florida Railroad was not unusual. To manage troop extras and increased ridership, G&F shop forces in Douglas, Ga., scrambled to meet these pressing needs. In November 1942 a local newspaperman inspected the shops and chatted with the foreman. The facility hummed with activity.
“[D]uring the depression several cars were taken out of traffic, as they were in bad shape and unsafe to use. Now it is a different story. All cars are needed and more, so now [G&F] is pulling these old cars out and reworking them from the rails up.” He continued. “But the marvel was an old coach that had been on the siding for years and looked like it was only fit for the junkman. Well, the G&F just put that coach in the work house, took the wheels from under it and put the workmen to rebuilding it, and when it came out it looked fit to run on the fast specials. Nine coats of the best paint available had been put on the outside. The inside had been cleaned of all old paint and varnished with the best of varnishes. The seats had all been rebuilt and electric lights installed.” This was an impressive accomplishment for a woebegone road like the G&F.
Whether moving tank or passenger cars, railroads required adequate motive power. Diesel-electric locomotives began to appear on flagship passenger trains during the mid-1930s, and in late 1939 the General Motors subsidiary Electro-Motive Corp. introduced the first truly successful freight diesel — the FT. This revolutionary replacement technology arrived just in time to help move war traffic on several roads. In October 1944, for example, the Erie took delivery of six 5,400 h.p. four-unit FT sets, and placed them on the rugged main line between Marion, Ohio, and Meadville, Pa.
Yet steam was hardly dead. Not only were older locomotives refurbished, but some new ones were purchased. Many were built to existing plans, as the War Production Board discouraged the development of new designs. For example, the Pennsylvania’s J1 2-10-4s of 1942–44 were based on a 1930 Chesapeake & Ohio engine. The WPB rationed diesel production, too, so some roads that might have preferred to get FTs had to settle for new steam locomotives. For greatest flexibility of assignment, the WPB generally forbade the construction of purely passenger engines.
Notwithstanding the critical need for more and better equipment, American railroads by the time of World War II had become much more efficient than they had been during the previous global conflict, and that enabled greater productivity. During the intervening two decades, average tractive effort of steam locomotives had grown by more than 50 percent; average freight car capacity had risen 22 percent; and average rail weight had increased by about 20 percent. Other betterments such as Centralized Traffic Control and electrification also had been made.
The human demands during the war were enormous. “Keep ’em rolling” became the battle cry of both labor and management throughout the 234,000-mile national network. It took more than companies hiring under-draft-age or military-exempted workers, asking employees not to retire, and encouraging retirees to return, but also bringing thousands of women into the workforce — the railroad equivalent of “Rosie the Riveter.” Between July 1941 and July 1944, employment expanded 25 percent, from 1.3 million to 1.63 million.
No matter the individual or background, the war years meant long hours. “With the outbreak of war in the Pacific,” recalled a Santa Fe trainmaster at Williams, Ariz., “what had been merely a hard job became a nightmare.” In late 1942 journalist John Grover aptly described the situation: “Paper-work was multiplied as freight piles up and must be moved. The pressure on yard and roundhouse repair crews increases as equipment is speeded up and wears out. From the Big Guy worrying his brains out in the main office to the last gandy-dancer on the end of a pick on a branchline right of way, railroaders are working the hours its takes to move the freight that’s got to move.” He went on to relate a conversation between two Erie employees he’d heard in Marion, Ohio:
“Yay, Smitty, how y’ doing? Playing the horses lately?”
“Playin’ ’em, hell. I’m the horse. I’ve had only one day off since April.”
“Ya big sissy. What’s a day off? I don’t remember.”
The domestic economy failed to satisfy most blue-collar railroaders. Yes, workers did not have to worry about layoffs, and for many overtime employment became an option, even a requirement. A rise in the cost of living led to wage hikes during the early months of the war, but soon heightened inflation made matters worse, prompting operating personnel to call a strike for December 30, 1943. To guarantee uninterrupted railroad service the Roosevelt administration seized control of the carriers (largely in name only) until a settlement could be reached. An agreement came quickly, ending the government takeover. The carriers, though, did not receive from the Interstate Commerce Commission much of a rate boast to offset these raises. This wage issue flared up again after the war. In 1949 operating unions demanded a 40-hour week with 48 hours’ pay and other concessions. It took months before workers agreed to a settlement orchestrated by a Presidential Emergency Board.
Americans realized that their railroads had done much to make victory possible. Yet passengers often had unhappy memories of their wartime rail journeys. The Office of Defense Transportation, a less cumbersome and far-reaching bureaucracy than the U.S. Railroad Administration of World War I, encouraged civilians not to travel, and toward the end of the war restricted the use of Pullmans for trips of less than 500 miles.
Those who did travel found trains that lacked their peacetime glamour. Coaches, diners, and sleepers were usually crowded and services restricted, including the availability of meals. “During the war our passenger trains were filled to overflowing,” recalled a Santa Fe official. “Everyone, it seemed, was on the move, especially the servicemen. Their wives and children traipsed back and forth across the country trying to keep up with them. I saw many women with tiny babies stand in a vestibule, or sit on a suitcase, from Chicago to Los Angeles.” For that privilege civilian passengers paid a 15 percent excise tax on their tickets.
The war years for many Americans meant the ubiquitous troop train. During the 45 months of conflict, the railroads handled more than 113,000 special troop trains and transported 43.7 million members of the military. These may not have been pleasant experiences — meals of franks and canned peas hardly ranked as epicurean delights, and a peaceful night’s rest was not likely with two servicemen squeezed into every lower berth. Perhaps these less-than-desirable accommodations planted the seeds of the eventual demise of privately operated passenger trains. Said one railroad officer shortly after the war, “I believe for many GIs that being herded onboard troop trains during the war convinced them that they never again would travel by rail.” Others agreed.
Railroads were nevertheless optimistic about their future, anticipating a prosperous peace. Notwithstanding burdensome state and federal regulation, although with modest concessions provided in the Transportation Act of 1940, the industry entered what might be considered an “Indian Summer” before suffering from intense modal competition and other problems.
Even before victory on the battlefield, the Association of American Railroads expressed positive expectations. In a widely distributed advertisement, “There’s a Great Day Coming!,” this trade group said in part, “Yes, the war will be over. But our work won’t. We will have many things to do — for [servicemen], for you, for the finer future we’re fighting for — and it is our aim to do them. You want, and we want to give you, finer cars, better roadbeds, faster, more modern motive power to replace the hard-working equipment now rapidly wearing out under war’s double load.” Concluded the AAR, “The big thing is that the great day that’s coming can be more than a day of victorious reunion. For him you are waiting to welcome home — for you who have been so patient with war-imposed travel limitations — we intend to do our share in making it just such a day.”
The poster child for the “great day” of the future was the diesel-powered streamliner. Company after company sought the latest motive power and rolling stock, and each was willing to spend handsomely to regain passenger traffic lost to the highways and to create new business. The Santa Fe, for one, in 1946–47 reequipped its Super Chief that sped between Chicago and Los Angeles. The Burlington ordered two Twin Zephyr equipment sets that allowed these trains to trumpet the first Vista-Dome cars, giving passengers spectacular views of the upper Mississippi River valley. The dome car became an instant hit, and the company immediately ordered 40 more for its fleet of Zephyrs. When in 1949 the Burlington introduced its California Zephyr, which rolled between Chicago and Oakland in conjunction with the Rio Grande and Western Pacific, each trainset contained at least five dome cars. After all, this Zephyr was aimed at scenery-seeking vacationers.
Near war’s end, the New York Central signed contracts for more than 700 pieces of passenger equipment from the nation’s principal builders: American Car & Foundry, Budd, and Pullman-Standard. NYC also accepted its first passenger diesels, E7A units from EMD. With the latest equipment, the Central’s signature train, the 20th Century Limited, restored its 16-hour running time between New York and Chicago, and then in early 1947 cut it to 15,5 hours. NYC and its chief competitor, the Pennsylvania, participated in the proliferation of through transcontinental sleepers that began in 1946.
While lesser Class I roads like the Chicago Great Western rarely joined the postwar rush to add state-of-the-art passenger trains, they almost universally dieselized their passenger operations as quickly as possible while modernizing their existing car fleets. This was also the decade when the Rail Diesel Car (RDC) made its debut. Remarked Trains editor David P. Morgan in 1949: “The Budd Company has welded together the doodlebug idea and the streamliner technique into a modernized version of the rail-motor car, christened the RDC-1.” Later additional RDC types became popular for local and commuter service.
To facilitate faster and safer freight and passenger trains, major carriers upgraded their signaling and communications systems. In the 1940s Centralized Traffic Control was greatly expanded, allowing a single track to carry 70 percent of the traffic of a conventional double-track line. Such upgrades permitted conversions of double-track routes to less costly single-track arteries. Although railroads continued to use their telegraphic equipment, telephone usage increased, including installation of thousands of miles of carrier telephone wires. Companies also began to install radio-telephones in yard offices, locomotives, and cabooses, a harbinger of the communications revolution that swept the industry after mid-century.
During the immediate postwar era nearly all Class I railroads were free from bankruptcy courts and had money in the till. They were in the mood to finance centennial and related celebrations. The most popular of these events occurred in Chicago, spearheaded by the Chicago & North Western, whose earliest predecessor had turned its first wheel in 1848. On a mile-long strip along Lake Michigan, 35 railroads and the Pullman Company joined with the North Western to sponsor the Chicago Railroad Fair in the summers of 1948 and ’49. This extravaganza, with its equipment displays and daily “Wheels a-Rolling” pageant, attracted more than 2.5 million visitors the first year and more the second year.
Americans certainly were train-conscious during the time of the Chicago Railroad Fair. Even if they did not attend that Windy City gala or ride a diesel-powered streamliner, perhaps they witnessed the excitement of a presidential campaign special. In the months before the 1948 election, Democratic and Republican nominees Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey “whistle-stopped” extensively.
As the presidential election specials of 1948 crisscrossed America, rail enthusiasts, who earlier had been limited by their own military obligations or employment demands and hampered by wartime security and the shortage of photographic equipment, especially film, appeared at trackside to capture these historic events. And throughout the postwar years railfans snapped countless photos of new freight and passenger diesels and the always photogenic streamliners. As diesels increasingly replaced steam locomotives, and narrow gauges and other flavorful operations succumbed to progress, many fans documented the passing of the old order.
Although the diesel revolution was in full progress, the Super-Power era of steam continued. Said one confident manufacturer: “Steam [will be] the dominating power for railroad transportation for a long, long time to come.” A fine representative of the last surge of replacement steam power was the 2-6-6-6 Allegheny-type that the Chesapeake & Ohio began to acquire from Lima Locomotive Works in 1942, eventually amassing a fleet of 60. The Pennsylvania, with Baldwin’s encouragement, became enamored of rigid-frame duplex drives, acquiring 52 class T1 4-4-4-4 duplex-drive passenger engines and 27 freight duplexes between 1942 and ’46. Complex machines that arrived just as the PRR was committing to dieselization, the duplexes led short lives. C&O and PRR, both major coal-haulers, also tried steam-turbine locomotives in the 1940s, with spectacularly unsuccessful results.
Other roads stuck with steam of more conventional designs. They could be found hauling coal out of the Pocahontas region of West Virginia, pulling fast freights in the Midwest, and handling heavy ore trains from the Mesabi Range to Lake Superior. And a wide range of short lines continued to rely on steam. Yet the end of the Age of Steam was widely expected. Alco built its last steam locomotive in 1948; Baldwin ended production for the American market in 1949, and also that year Lima became the final domestic company to produce a steam locomotive commercially. The last holdout, Norfolk & Western, kept building its own steam power until 1953.
Changes all around
Not only would trackside observers experience the old and new on railroads, they would begin to see changes along the railroad corridor. With roads becoming dieselized, water and coaling structures began to disappear, and customized diesel facilities led to the abandonment or removal of roundhouses. Some small-town depots also vanished as companies won permission to end agency service or to retire trackage. Those depots that were replaced were usually highly functional and often of cinder block construction. A few urban depots appeared; in Ohio, Akron and Toledo by 1950 received utilitarian union stations, labeled “inept” in their styling by architectural historian Carroll Meeks.
Thousands of depots were still needed. Since approximately one out of two American households did not own an automobile, trains still found passengers, and these runs also handled the U.S. mails and Railway Express Agency shipments. Carriers found to their dismay that they lacked the regulatory freedom to eliminate these often uneconomical runs.
As the first half of the 20th century ended, railroaders could look back at a decade of patriotic and modernization achievements. A brave new world seemed beckoning and was nicely represented by the determination of certain railroads to meet anticipated needs for long-distance passenger trains. But their optimism was in some ways misplaced. As Jervis Langdon Jr., who later served as president of the B&O, Rock Island, and Penn Central, reflected in the 1980s, “We [railroads] did our part to defeat our enemies between 1941 and 1945 and to respond to needs for freight and passenger transportation in the postwar era. What many of us thought would happen in the ensuring years at times just did not happen. We’d have to wait until a more understanding government gave us the opportunities that we so badly needed and had so long wanted.”
Probably most railroad executives during the 1940s misunderstand what was happening in domestic transportation. Most of all, they failed to grasp that their fellow countrymen had resumed their love affair with automobiles, had the financial wherewithal to acquire them, and would have better roads to enjoy them.
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.
Roger Grant. Classic Trains, Holiday 2014, p. 8-15.
Ukrainian and Russian version: Alexey Krasnov
Photo: www.railpictures.net, trains.com/ctr, en.wikipedia.org, www.american-rails.com,