Discussion relating to the Penn Central, up until its 1976 inclusion in Conrail. Visit the Penn Central Railroad Historical Society for more information.

Moderator: JJMDiMunno

  by theastralcity
In my opinion Bevan would have said anything to make himself look better. Saunders was notoriously anxious to get the PRR married off, and his reasons for this weren't all bad. However, there was a feeling at the time that mergers somehow saved money, even when redundant costs couldn't be cut deeply, as was the case with the PC.

I agree that if the merger had been called off something would have had to have happened with the NH, it just was not solvent in any way. I also generally agree with the idea that eventually the PRR and the NYC would have gone bankrupt, but it could have been held off at least a couple of years longer. The most staggering thought to me is the one that was posted above that there could have been a belt of bankrupt lines across the entire country, what with the RI in such horrible shape and the Milwaukee making some of the worst business decisions of any line in American history. Eventually government would have to act in some way.

An interesting thought that occurs to me, if there were the string of smaller (compared to PC) lines going broke across the entire nation, would the Nixon administration have had the stomach to create something like existed in Canada at the time? It could have been possible to create, through controlled mergers, a 2 railroad solution, one private and one that was at least temporarily government owned. To their credit, the ICC was at least somewhat interested in maintaining competition between railroads, and always feared a nation-wide nationalization of the entire system. The Canadian model could serve as a basis for how the US could have dealt with the problem, especially if the federally-funded railroad were privatized in a manner like Conrail was.

The question I still have on that though, would it have been politically possible at all?
  by Tommy Meehan
theastralcity wrote:In my opinion Bevan would have said anything to make himself look better...
You mean that Bevan was saying that after the fact to separate himself from the disaster Penn Central became?

Okay but if you would read the book I mentioned, "No Way To Run a Railroad," or even skim through it, I think you'll find Bevans was saying that they should merge upper management first, the physical plant later (ala the way C&O absorbed B&O) -- and documents it -- before the merger took place.
  by Backshophoss
When the merger was approved,too much was attempted at the same time to "create" savings,the New Haven "shotgun" wedding
only made things worse,years later as UP took over smaller western US RR's ,when UP+SP merger was approved,UP followed the same path,
but over time(years) was able to overcome the "too much-too soon" mistake that PC made.
The "Green vs Red" fights within the mangement team didn't help. and that "fight" made it down to the operations level as well.
I remember reading the "Wreck of the Penn Central" as a paper back book,back in the early '70's,where the 1st hints of "too much-too soon"
popped up.
  by Tommy Meehan
Backshophoss wrote:...years later as UP took over smaller western US RR's ,when UP+SP merger was approved,UP followed the same path, but over time(years) was able to overcome the "too much-too soon" mistake that PC made.
You're right, and with all the resources Union Pacific has (which Penn Central didn't have) I was surprised that they had so many of the same problems -- confusion over interchanges, lost cars, plugged yards, dead trains -- following the SP takeover. UP had assured the public that wasn't going to happen. Yet, people have told me that the same thing pretty much happened when UP tookover C&NW. Chaos for months.

One of the things that has been forgotten about Penn Central, however, is that by early 1970 all the indicators -- yard time, trains delayed or annulled, average transit time -- had actually begun to come down. It looked like they were starting to get a handle on the expanded system. Saunders and Perlman said they were, and I think even Bevan agreed. Unfortunately by then the damage had been done, the railroad operations had lost hundreds of millions of dollars in 1968-69 and PC was running out of money.
  by theastralcity
Tommy Meehan wrote:
theastralcity wrote:In my opinion Bevan would have said anything to make himself look better...
You mean that Bevan was saying that after the fact to separate himself from the disaster Penn Central became?

Okay but if you would read the book I mentioned, "No Way To Run a Railroad," or even skim through it, I think you'll find Bevans was saying that they should merge upper management first, the physical plant later (ala the way C&O absorbed B&O) -- and documents it -- before the merger took place.
Ah alright that clears it up a bit. I've been meaning to read "No Way To Run a Railroad" for some time now actually, but sadly haven't gotten a copy. It's been moved to the top of my list though.

The only thing I would wonder though if that had been attempted is if it would have killed the whole process very early on. The C&O from the outset was taking over and integrating the B&O into its system. There were few if any illusions of a "merger of equals" such as the PC was supposed to be. The command structure integration would probably have still resulted in a Red Hat/Green Hat rivalry which probably would have seriously impeded progress. Given the admittedly hidden, but dire financial situation of the PRR going in (the NYC not being much better either) such infighting could have dragged the merger down before a better physical plant and operations integration plan was hammered out. Overall Bevan was being much smarter about it, and it does make sense, but I don't think anyone in the upper levels at the PRR or NYC really understood just how much they would end up hating each other once they shared an office.
  by Tommy Meehan
If you really want to understand what happened with Penn Central I would highly recommend reading "The Wreck of the Penn Central" first, then read, "No Way To Run a Railroad." The authors of Wreck, Joseph Daughen and Peter Binzen, were Philadelphia Inquirer reporters who followed the merger from the ICC hearings to the bankruptcy. They represent the "outsiders" view of PC, but I think they do it pretty well. Salsbury in No Way, greatly assisted by the many interviews he had with Bevan and the many internal documents Bevan provided, represents the "insiders" view.

Taken together they're invaluable in providing a real understanding of what happened.
  by FLRailFan1
Now looking at this article, I wonder what would have happened if the Stegers Act (the act helping the railroads to sell lines) was in place around 1967 (as part of the Penn Central merger). I mean, when you look at a railroad map of 1965 and today, Connecticut has about 60% of the New Haven lines. I wonder if PC could have sold the canal, Midland and Airline routes to companies like G&W in the 70s...
  by Noel Weaver
I worked and rode the Canal Line a good number of times and it was in decent condition with freight train speed of 35 MPH between Plainville and Westfield. I got a group together in May, 1968 and we chartered a Budd Car and rode from New Haven to Northampton via Mildale returning via New Britain and Berlin. It was a great trip and the tracks were in good shape. I was saddened when the line was no longer needed and torn up. The same thing happened to a lot more trackage New England, there is simply no more business and you can't run a railroad on wishes and wind pudding. Yes I well remember those wonderful old branches, I rode most of them and worked several of them as well. Fortunately a few of these branches are still with us. Changing traffic patterns and excessive physical plant are ripe for abandonment action and not even a short line could manage to survive. There was way more physical plant than existing traffic could possibly support. The result is a lot of gone but not forgotten. Want to bring back memories? Get active in one of the excellent railroad museum operations in Essex, Thomaston, Danbury or one of the wonderful trolley museums in Branford or Warehouse Point, you can enjoy your hobby and meet some fine folks as well plus you can learn a lot about railroading, the opportunities are endless.
Noel Weaver

PS To add to the part above about the Canal Line; the protion between New Haven and Plainville has lost nearly everythiing that used the rail line to either plant/facility closing or moving out of the area, no freight business left. The part between Plainville and Westfield did not have very much local business anyway, a siding here and there but not much, all gone today. The really good part of this territory at least in New Haven days was Westfield and even more Holyoke. There was enough local business in Holyoke alone to keep a yard switcher busy all day long with some days well over eight hours. There were a lot of local customers in Holyoke. Westfield also had a good amount of business and two local freights were busy, one did the Westfield work and went south to Granby as required. The other did the work north to Northampton and sometimes further, lots of work there too. Northampton today what remains is served by the Boston and Maine/Pan AM. Westfield and Holyoke are served by the Pioneer Valley and as far as I know they are doing just fine. Once Penn Central took over the New Haven the traffic out of Holyoke and Westfield went to Selkirk rather than Cedar Hill and those customers still got decent service.
Noel Weaver
  by conductorchris
I found this old thread and got good and distracted reading up. Some interesting thoughts here.

It seems to me, in retrospect, that the real problem of railroading in that era was a failure of imagination to fix the underlying problems.

Why? Government regulation probably the biggest cause - perhaps the entire relationship with government which also subsidized the competition.

But Brosnon on the Southern railroad was fixing problems. So was Pearlman, for that matter. I suspect he'd have been able to fix New York Central's problems that seems insolvable for Penn Central. For that matter, the "road gang" was busy "fixing" the situation in regard to government involvement with transportation -- no real reason the railroads couldn't have played the same game.

The big problems:
- Too many branch lines
- Labor expenses
- Passenger losses
Added to this were service problems that drove railroad business to the truckers. The worst of this was Penn Central and if no merger, you wouldn't have had the traffic losses of the first years of the seventies.

C&O and N&W wrote off the northeast as toxic, but if it could have been shown that the problems could actually be solved things would have been different.

Perlman hadn't solved all the problems of NYC, but as things continued I'll bet he would have. Lots more branchlines abandoned. Lots of passenger trains abandoned. Commuter service moved to the wing of government. NYC would have ended up looking a lot like Conrail, but with flexi-vans.

PRR, as noted, was the real problem. What if somebody tried a hostile takeover and installed a Hunter Harrison type operator? Or if it merged with N&W and they applied cost controls and gradually got it into shape as they did their own property?

Another set of possibilities I'm surprised didn't happen: separating the passenger division of a big railroad like PRR the way CN created VIA before it became independent. It was easier for CN, being a government railroad in the first place. As it was, the railroads had decided they just wanted to be rid of passenger trains and everything, even Amtrak, aimed in that direction. But here again, it was a failure of imagination. Understandable given the times, the interstate highway and the direction of the country. But not inevitable. Not what happened in Canada. Anyway, what if Amtrak was created first as the passenger division of PRR and set about fixing the problems of passenger trains at the time, gaining government support and expanding by taking over the passenger operations of other roads. What if commuter operations were set off and transferred to non-profit organizations. Like hospitals, supporting the community. Would the ICC have allowed it? Maybe not. It would have had to be done skillfully. The way to do so skillfully would be getting the commuters (a potent and easily organized political force) to support it. The problem is, the unions would have to support it too.

What if the railroads had decided to really take on the unions, FEC style? Go from 5 man crew to 2 man all at once.

What if the railroads had decided they needed to do what had to be done to kill the ICC and bring about staggers earlier. It was possible, they just didn't imagine it.

A big reason many of these things didn't happen is there was no financial incentive for taking risks to fix long-term problems.

Christopher Parker
  by Dcell
If William White and NY Central had won the proxy fight in 1954, I believe WW would have continued improving therailroad to the point where a Western Railroad would have merged with it. Alas, NYC lost the proxy fight and WW never got to run a major railroad long term as he deserved. So we end up with the disaster that was PC, the gubmint Conrail, and ultimately a two system East following the offloading of Con rail. We could have saved 40 years of wasted time to this end result if only NYC and WW had won that 1954 proxy fight.
  by urr304
A lot of us remember that even into early 1970s, the general consensus was that railroads were big and powerful as they were in the 1920s and too many politicians dated from that era. That is why stuff like the Staggers Act, Amtrak [which primary focus was saving NEC], government run commuter operations were not possible until late 1970s and into 1980s.

All of the participants had a bit to play, some are not mentioned, PC Board member [former PRR President/Chairman] Symes had been instrumental in starting the merger in late 1950s with talks with Robert Young. Alfred Perlman had tried to hold off merger a couple times, especially during the proposed takeover of B&O fight with C&O then trying to be included with that merger. Time that could have been used for planning. Perlman and Symes I think were more equals than the other figures involved. The only thing that seemed to get done right was renumbering both NYC and PRR locomotives into a cohesive system that was done before the merger. Stuart Saunders was too much a lawyer rather than a manager and compromised too much to get the merger. David Bevan had many faults but even though he was made to be villian knew more about the PRR side than Saunders.
  by Meckanic
Reading the book “No way to run a Railroad”. Two different accounting methods, two different ways of operating. Not really thought out. Hurting for money does not help either.
  by BandA
There are a whole myriad of "what if"s; Everyone asks if the regulatory reforms had come during the 1960s instead of the 1980s. Should have happened but didn't, that's government for you.

What if in the late 50s or early 60s, the railroads got the property tax relief they had sought, and the property values were marked down to their profit-generating potential? (So say Penn Station would have had a tax of $0 since passenger service was unprofitable?)

What if the people running Penn Central weren't corrupt? What if the NYC had gotten the upper hand in the merger instead of the Pennsylvania?

Here's the one I wonder about. What if they had Just Said No to including the New Haven in the merger, so that either the merger did not happen or the New Haven was excluded and shut down on 1/1/69 instead.
  by urr304
Well if they had not taken the New Haven the merger would have happened, perhaps delayed. Too many things were already in motion. If it had been delayed there would have been possibliity that a better consolidation of operations, something B&O/C&O did.

In my area, there were mistakes made but Ashtabula Harbor was a better consolidation than most, could have been a model for other points. If they had had taken the time Chicago could have had a inbound destination and an outbound origination instead of trying to run two yards as they were before and getting freight lost.

I guess all of it had to occur so the changes needed would happen.