StephenJohnson wrote:I have a question that is probably difficult to answer, but along with it I will provide my thought process used to identify the inquiry:
Why did the Reading build (or continue) their line from Abrams on the West side of the Schuylkill all of the way into Philadelphia?
Hello, Stephen, and thanks for posing such an interesting question!
The Philadelphia & Reading RR remained on the south bank of the Schuylkill River because another railroad was already on the north bank: the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown RR. PG&N was a competitor, and operated as one until it finally gave in and was leased to the P&R in 1870.
Even if P&R leadership had embarked upon the course you propose after their takeover of the PG&N, it would have entailed operating hardship & inefficiency. I'll go into detail...
The P&R Main Line had been meticulously surveyed by Moncure Robinson, who intended the railroad to be a permanent success story and not just another flimsy fad of the moment. He surveyed an alignment such that the eastward journey from Pottsville to West Falls was downhill all the way. The sole helper district was the short but steep half of the Richmond Branch, from West Falls to just east of Nicetown Jct. (south of SEPTA's Wayne Jct. and Roberts Yard), which was a 0.9% grade eastbound. This allowed the railroad to concentrate helper engines in a single short area, instead of having a cheaper but less generous alignment that dictated helper use at multiple spots.
That excellent surveying turned out to be crucial to the railroad's survival in paying back the huge loans it racked up during construction. Since the line was almost literally a steel-wheeled conveyor belt of anthracite coming from the coal region, the economy of loaded
coal cars going downhill
to the east and only the empty coal cars having to go uphill back to the west was a major advantage. As our country was then experiencing its own Industrial Revolution, demand for anthracite was extremely high and anything that the P&R could do to avoid upsetting their #1 cash cow was well worth avoiding.
The Norristown Branch of the PG&N was constructed to no such standards. Ruling grades of 0.4% eastbound and 1.1% westbound made it unsuitable for long heavy drag freights, even with doubleheaded steam engines. Restrictive curvature was also a factor which further limited speeds. The P&R's Main line was superior in both respects.
Why didn't they, alternatively, expand their grand passenger line (as the PRR did their Main Line) from Abrams, crossing the Schuylkill in Norristown, and thus following the current R6 on the East side of the Schuylkill? They would have just needed two additional tracks and more complex interlockings. In my opinion, if not built, this would have saved the railroad millions $.
1. There were few, if any passengers, that would provide commuter revenue along this portion of the line.*
Passenger revenue was a minor concern to the P&R in its early days, and therefore grew only slowly. Movement of anthracite from mines to tidewater trumped all other considerations, no matter how interesting or socially praiseworthy or valuable over the long term. The company's debt load was too heavy to allow major deviation from that policy until decades after it opened the Main Line.
Just to show how many other goals had to be subordinated to that end, the main passenger station in Reading was built in 1838. Even then it was derided as inadequate and unpleasant, and that was for a facility which served the railroad's home city! Even more amazingly, it had to wait until 1874 before funds were allocated for its replacement!
2. There is little industry that profited the railroad on this side of the Schuylkill that could not also be accessed by the current R6 Line* (i.e. Manayunk's Venice Island).
* Except Bridgeport in both cases. Bridgeport had (and still does) passengers and industry. A spur from Abrams could have easily handled this.
Intermediate business concerning the haulage of small quantities of general freight was not a consideration in the railroad's early days. Anthracite haulage was nearly the only thing keeping the P&R solvent, so the lack of shippers along the south bank of the river from West Conshohocken to West Falls was a non-issue to management.
For example, between 1844 and 1856 the revenues earned from coal revenue soared by a factor of seven
. It's not hyperbole...to the P&R, coal really was
king. It would take passenger service quite a while to even fractionally approach such lofty heights.
3. There would be no need to dig a costly Flat Rock Tunnel.
But there would be need to dig signifigantly wider cuts deeper into the river valley along the Norristown Branch. The topography is such that, in the end, that may well have been more expensive than Flat Rock Tunnel. Add to that the necessity of a railroad bridge across the Schuylkill at Norristown, and much sooner than it was actually built (circa 1900-1905).
Consider also the ongoing expense of keeping a hypothetical north bank four-tracked ex-PG&N line free from damage owing to floods coming from the all-too-nearby river. In many places, the PG&N is much closer to river level than the P&R is on the other bank. Between Manayunk and Conshohocken, stormwater runoff from higher elevations can be a real problem.
Putting all the eggs in one geographic basket creates the risk that weather could negatively impact not only the passenger service up the Schuylkill valley, but the much more remunerative freight service as well. Ouch.
4. The current R6 does (and used to tie in to) cross over the Reading line that accesses Reading's Port Richmond.
Yes, the PG&N crossed above the P&R's Richmond Branch about 0.9 mile east of East Falls station. Due to the signifigant vertical difference between the two, a major interlocking between them would be a real pain in the neck to build and operate. The Bellvue Branch formerly connected them at the southeast corner (28th St. Jct.), but that was only a single-track line of limited utility. If the P&R Main Line didn't exist east of Bridgeport and the ex-PG&N was four-tracked instead, the predominant coal flow means that the interlocking would need to be in the northwest corner, demanding far more excavation and grading that the Bellvue Branch needed.
5. The Reading could still easily interchange with the B&O in multiple places.
They could still interchange elsewhere, yes, but not nearly as easily as they did at West Falls.
So where does this leave us?
After 1870, the Philadelphia & Reading RR enjoyed many of the operational advantages of a four-tracked railroad between Norristown and West Falls. Theirs simply had the slight irregularity of a river going down the middle of it.
For the most part, passenger trains remained on the north bank and freight trains kept to the south bank. A wreck or a mishap on one route still left the other route unaffected and thus available as a by-pass until the mess was cleaned up. Most importantly, the P&R Main Line was superbly engineered for that traffic which kept the railroad alive in the 19th Century: anthracite loads headed eastbound.
There were hard limits as to why it was not possible for the P&R to build their own four-tracked railroad on the north bank of the Schuylkill before 1870. We see that there were also reasons why it was less than desirable for the P&R to do so after 1870. The argument in favor of such a major "what if?" is a fascinating conjecture, all the same.
Franklin Gowen • • • • READING COMPANY forum moderator
for "America's Largest Anthracite Hauler"!
In 2020, the late, great RDG overlaps with SEPTA, NS, CSX, RBM&N, and several shortlines - that's life . . .