What if?

Discussion relating to the NH and its subsidiaries (NYW&B, Union Freight Railroad, Connecticut Company, steamship lines, etc.). up until its 1969 inclusion into the Penn Central merger. This forum is also for the discussion of efforts to preserve former New Haven equipment, artifacts and its history. You may also wish to visit www.nhrhta.org for more information.

What if?

Postby Ridgefielder » Fri Jan 03, 2014 1:44 pm

As a Christmas present this year, I got a copy of Alvin F. Harlow's Steelways of New England, a very readable history of New England railroading from the beginnings in the 1820's through basically the First World War.

Harlow goes into a lot of detail about the financial machinations behind the creation of the Boston & Maine, Central Vermont, New Haven and others in the last quarter of the 19th century. The book was written in the mid-1940's, which means that the author would have been able to speak first hand to people who were active in the industry at the turn of the 20th Century, 40 years before.

That brings me to the New Haven. He lays the blame for the over-expansion of the NYNH&H squarely at the feet of Charles S. Mellen. His contention is that it was Mellen's empire-building-- not Pierpont Morgan-- that led to the disastrous trolley-line purchases, the attempt to buy the B&M, etc. which in the 1900-1910 decade saddled the road with so much indebtedness and overcapacity that a collapse was inevitable.

So here's my question. What if the New Haven had not tried to buy everything that moved in Southern New England, but instead quit with their acquisitions after leasing the Housatonic in 1892 and buying the New York, Providence & Boston in 1893? Could the company still be around? It struck me in looking at an old map that a large percentage of what constituted the 1893 NYNH&H is still in operation today, while the bulk of the post-1893 acquisitions-- the NY&NE, the CNE, the Connecticut Company-- are long abandoned.
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Re: What if?

Postby Noel Weaver » Fri Jan 03, 2014 7:32 pm

Short answer NO. The passenger service could not carry the railroad no matter who owned or operated it because it did not cover costs. The freight operations were less and less all through the 60's, 70's and 80's until today there is not much left. Most of the freight loss could be attributed to the loss of industry which was very depended on rail for transportation, by the mid 70's these heavy industries were pretty much gone. One only needs to explore the Naugatuck Valley in Connecticut to discover what once was and what remains today. Had Penn Central not taken over in 1969 the railroad probably would have faced total liquidation and much of it would have been closed down then. Penn Central and later Conrail did the best they could but business by this time was so bad that it did not and indeed could not recover. The McGinnis and Alpert bunch of the 50's started the long ride downhill with money wasted for stuff that was not needed nor necessary while neglecting the things that were needed and could have caused more efficint operations thus saving money. There were lots of reasons that the New Haven failed and today we are very fortunate to have as much remaining as is because much more could have gone a few short years ago and once it is gone it is very unlikely to ever return.
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Re: What if?

Postby Allen Hazen » Fri Jan 03, 2014 8:44 pm

Noel's reply is sobering, even saddening, but I fear very plausible. The New Haven had various pieces of bad luck (the nmes McGinnis and Alpert come to mind here) that can be thought away in plausible counterfactuals, but its downfall was probably inevitable even without them, for the broader economic reasons Noel alludes to. The contrast between the railroad map of the state of Connecticut in, say, 1945 and the corresponding map today is shocking. Picking an example at random, better management in the early 20th C wouldn't have preserved rail-dependent heavy industry in, say, Collinsville: so the Collinsville branch was doomed.

Still... Let's imagine replacing Mellen with an executive who had good sense and a preternaturally accurate judgment as to what the economy would be like over the next few decades. (A small, isolated, "miracle": the sort of thing that allows, I think, the best chance of an objective evaluation of a counterfactual scenario.) What could "Nellem" have done? Obvious starting point: don't purchase trolley lines, don't put the New Haven's money into the Westchester, don't invest in coastal steamship lines... So maybe the New Haven would have had more money in, say, 1914 than actually. And maybe-- without the trolley/steamship/Westchester financial albatrosses around its neck-- it would have looked more hopeful to Wall Street, and so in a better position to borrow money. Could our hypothetical "Nellem" have spent money in a truly useful way? ... Completing the electrification from New Haven to Boston comes to mind. (Sorry, I don't have any actual numbers at hand: I don't know how far NOT buying the Connecticut Company's trolley lines, etc, could have gone in raising the money to electrify the 150-odd miles of the Shore Line. I'm just suggesting what might be an interesting scenario, not giving an objective evaluation.) This would have allowed faster, more reliable, and less expensive passenger service on the northern end of the "Northeast Corridor": a major boost to the New Haven's most important business.

What would have happened over the next few decades if the New Haven had been able to electrify all the way to Boston? My guess is that it wouldn't, in the 1960s and later, have saved the company: after all, the N.E. Corridor is operated by Amtrak, not a private business, and I doubt that would have changed. But perhaps the fortunes of rail passenger service in the Northeast woud never have sunk as low as they did in @ (@ : abbreviation for "the actual world," due to the philosopher David Lewis), and maybe they would be higher now than in @.
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Re: What if?

Postby TomNelligan » Sat Jan 04, 2014 11:20 am

Harlow's book is indeed essential reading for anyone who is seriously interested in New England railroad history and worth hunting down in the used book market.

My guess is that in the absence of the monopolistic spending spree of the Charles Mellen era, the NH might have had enough reserve cash to have avoided its Depression-era bankruptcy in 1935. The enormous traffic boost of the World War II years and the resulting revenue, combined with some branchline abandonments, might have gotten the railroad through the 1950s, especially if Patrick McGinnis hadn't gotten his hands on the company. But by the 1960s, the accelerating dropoff of carload freight business in New England coupled with unsubsidized passenger losses (especially commuter service) would have led to a financial crisis anyway. If the NH had somehow avoided the forced Penn Central takeover in 1969, it probably would have wound up as part of Conrail seven years later.

What's left of the New Haven today is basically lines with publicly-operated passenger service by Amtrak, Metro North, and the MBTA, a viable eastern Connecticut/Rhode Island freight operation thanks to the well-managed Providence & Worcester, and the Connecticut Southern/CSX freight business in central Connecticut, plus a few other freight odds and ends. But the total freight business in ex-NH territory is a tiny fraction of what it once was. Like Mr. Weaver, I grew up in the Naugatuck Valley, and to see nothing left of rail freight these days but a couple surviving customers in Waterbury would have been unthinkable fifty years ago when we had a daily 60-70 car freight into Waterbury and another dozen or two cars a day for the Ansonia/Derby/Shelton area. Now the heavy industry that was the NH's traffic base has utterly vanished and it's ten cars a WEEK to Waterbury, if that.
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Re: What if?

Postby Ridgefielder » Wed Jan 08, 2014 12:33 pm

So basically in the long run the New Haven without the Mellen-era expansions would have been like the Reading or the Lackawanna. They might have avoided the pre-WW2 bankruptcies but would likely have collapsed in the 1970's anyway under the pressure of de-industrialization and a money-losing commuter network. That a fair summary?
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Re: What if?

Postby H.F.Malone » Wed Jan 08, 2014 4:30 pm

Yes, that covers it perfectly. Unfortunate, but that's the reality.
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Re: What if?

Postby BobLI » Mon Jan 13, 2014 9:54 am

I'm not familiar with the New Haven operations. What did the Mcguiness era do to the railroad?
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Re: What if?

Postby H.F.Malone » Mon Jan 13, 2014 12:48 pm

McGinnis.

President for about a year, Spring 1955 to mid-summer 1956. He was effectively a financial speculator and manipulator; controlled the New Haven at a time when I-95 was being built (which would decimate the railroad's passenger and freight traffic), and when the decline of heavy industry in Southern New England (Mass and Conn) was just starting.

He was a poor manager, with questionable policies (at best). Followed by another poor manager, one of his cronies (Alpert, a Boston lawyer, not a railroader), then bankruptcy in 1961. McGinnis did lots of financial and operating damage to the railroad, but the real, long-term damage was the change in the region: railroad-served industry went away, and public subsidy of air and highway travel decimated the long-distance passenger trains (of which NH had many in 1955).

McGinnis helped start the final decline of the New Haven, but was not the sole cause of it.
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Re: What if?

Postby TomNelligan » Mon Jan 13, 2014 2:03 pm

I would just add to Mr. Malone's notes above that after leaving the NH, Patrick McGinnis went on to a similar position with the Boston & Maine that led to his eventual residency at the Danbury Federal Penitentiary following a conviction for taking cash kickbacks on the sale of company assets (passenger cars to a scrap firm).

Perhaps his one positive impact on the NH and B&M was hiring the design firm that developed the NH's classy red/white/black color scheme and N-over-H logo as well as the B&M's "Bluebird" scheme and interlocking B and M (although those who favor classic NH Hunter green and B&M maroon wouldn't agree that those were positive changes!).
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Re: What if?

Postby edbear » Fri Jan 17, 2014 6:04 pm

The CNE and NY&NE were not bad acquistions; they were good. They made the New Haven into a big West-East freight road with the Erie connection at Maybrook/Campbell Hall along with the L & HR, NYO & W, L & NE and even the NYC. Before it was the NY & NE the road was the Boston, Hartford and Erie as in Erie RR. Over time the NY & NE/CNE names faded and the NYNH & H name came into prominence. Even before traffic began to slip after World War I due to many factors, the NYNH & H began to concentrate its freight business on as few miles of track as possible. The only large cities on these routes were Hartford and Waterbury. Most of the West-East freight business was destined elsewhere. Boston could be served by another route. No, the CNE and NY&NE routes made the New Haven into that railroad powerhouse that we remember so fondly. The clunker in the New Haven system was the Old Colony which it had to take to get the Boston & Providence. Until the 1880s, the OC was a regional railroad in southeastern Massachusetts. Belatedly, the OC tried to get into West-East, South-North business by acquiring the Boston, Clinton, Fitchburg & New Bedford. It got a Boston & Albany interchange at Framingham and Boston & Maine (eventually) at Lowell, which were big traffic generators, but Fitchburg never was a big interchange point. But the OC got into these markets very late in its history.
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Re: What if?

Postby Engineer Spike » Thu Jan 23, 2014 7:13 am

My best guess is that if the passenger subsidies had come earlier, New Haven could have become a successful regional carrier like P&W. They also should have gotten rid of branches like the Valley, Berkshire,,..... sooner. Again, the laws were not geared for this, along with passenger losses until it became a national nightmare with PC, B&M, EL, LV, RDG, L&HR, CNJ all in bankruptcy.
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Re: What if?

Postby Noel Weaver » Fri Jan 24, 2014 12:47 am

Engineer Spike wrote:My best guess is that if the passenger subsidies had come earlier, New Haven could have become a successful regional carrier like P&W. They also should have gotten rid of branches like the Valley, Berkshire,,..... sooner. Again, the laws were not geared for this, along with passenger losses until it became a national nightmare with PC, B&M, EL, LV, RDG, L&HR, CNJ all in bankruptcy.


The lower part of the Valley was abandoned by the New Haven before Penn Central took over and the still active part had some business including the power plant at Laurel that still got coal fairly late in the New Haven period. The Berkshire was doing all right until after the end of the New Haven with considerable local business at both New Milford and Canaan in Connecticut as well as business between Canaan and Pittsfield. The Berkshire is not doing too well right now but in 1969 it still had a decent amount of business.
I think the New Haven might have survived the Penn Central period IF they had received a reasonable amount fo full support for the passenger operations but in the long run it would not have made it past the period when the local business went kaput practically everywhere west of New Haven and Hartford. Too much business went too fast for any outfit to be able to run in this territory during the 70's and 80's.
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Re: What if?

Postby Engineer Spike » Fri Jan 24, 2014 11:58 pm

One could look at the B&M for comparison. The freight fell off in Boston, Lowell, Lawrence, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Springfield.... Eventually the T took over the commuter lines.

Whit that said, the B&M still had some major advantages. First it didn't have as large a burden of intercity passenger traffic. McGinnis did do well to cut this heavily. B&M also had commuter trains in only one large city, vs. 2.

The second difference was the copious amounts of bridge traffic from ME and Canada. The paper mills were still going strong. Lumber and natural resources was another large commodity.

Who knows what could have happened if New Haven had good leadership. I was just saying that B&M made it under similar circumstances.
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Re: What if?

Postby charding » Sun Jan 26, 2014 1:16 pm

…I got my copy of Harlow's book on Ebay…worthwhile checking periodically...
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Re: What if?

Postby FLRailFan1 » Sat Feb 01, 2014 2:16 pm

Ridgefielder wrote:As a Christmas present this year, I got a copy of Alvin F. Harlow's Steelways of New England, a very readable history of New England railroading from the beginnings in the 1820's through basically the First World War.

Harlow goes into a lot of detail about the financial machinations behind the creation of the Boston & Maine, Central Vermont, New Haven and others in the last quarter of the 19th century. The book was written in the mid-1940's, which means that the author would have been able to speak first hand to people who were active in the industry at the turn of the 20th Century, 40 years before.

That brings me to the New Haven. He lays the blame for the over-expansion of the NYNH&H squarely at the feet of Charles S. Mellen. His contention is that it was Mellen's empire-building-- not Pierpont Morgan-- that led to the disastrous trolley-line purchases, the attempt to buy the B&M, etc. which in the 1900-1910 decade saddled the road with so much indebtedness and overcapacity that a collapse was inevitable.

So here's my question. What if the New Haven had not tried to buy everything that moved in Southern New England, but instead quit with their acquisitions after leasing the Housatonic in 1892 and buying the New York, Providence & Boston in 1893? Could the company still be around? It struck me in looking at an old map that a large percentage of what constituted the 1893 NYNH&H is still in operation today, while the bulk of the post-1893 acquisitions-- the NY&NE, the CNE, the Connecticut Company-- are long abandoned.


I think if the NH didn't take over what they did, but instead try to manage itself... I think the NH would be around... I think what the NH should have done was not buying everything, but co-operate with some rail co... (including the Erie and the O&W). Then, the NH should have the $$ to buy the O&W in the 50s, some routes of the Penn and the NYC (and Rutland's) in the 60s. Then when Conrail was formed... trackage rights and more lines bought. (On my model Railroad, the NH survived into the 2010s as a Class 1 with a line from Chicago to Portland, Maine and from Montreal to Washington, DC. With interchanges with the major railroads, but also w/ the Ohio Central systems, PAR, HRR, Vermont Rail System (via the old Rutland's Chatham's branch), the CENZ (with a longer system - Hartford to Simsbury and Springfield to East Hartford) and a few fictonal railroads (including the Vermont and New York -- the Rutland's line in NY).

Of course, that is what I like about model trains...you can make a state industry friendly.
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