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 Dieter
Tadman, what you say about the forging of the Customer Mentality is certainly a legacy left by Penn Central. In an effort to get my mother to curtail long road trips at her age, I've encouraged her to try Amtrak. Her memories of PC and D&H rides between 1969 and 1971 are impossible to overcome.

No matter what anyone says about Amtrak, my harshest criticism of them, at least on the Adirondack, is they never carry enough food in the Food Service Car. For my money, Amtrak is always clean, has a comfortable seat, and I've never had a problem with the toilets, nor getting whatever I wanted, within reason. You can't even begin to compare Amtrak with Penn Central. Amtrak is like flying first class on Air France, compared to how bad things got during Penn Central.

Nacho, types of travellers who used Penn Central? Travellers of CIRCUMSTANCE.

1. People who couldn't get a flight at the last minute.
2. People who were afraid to fly.
3. People travelling to places where you couldn't get to by air.
4. People who hadn't caved in to slumming it by taking the bus.
5. People who couldn't afford an air ticket.
6. People who weren't aware of how bad conditions had become.
7. Heartbroken Railfans.

OK, I made a crack about taking the bus. The bus was and still is the pits unless you're utterly stranded or broke. Take note that the callibre of Rail Traveller went down as well through the 60's. It went from the well dressed family of multiple socio-economic backgrounds and serious businessmen, to students, trust-fund hippies and people looking for a cheap way to get there. People regularly commented during those times that the crowd on Penn Central was just one cut above the bus crowd!

Something else to note here. When you hear people carry on about the Pennsylvania Railroad, you hear about it's spectacular route and name trains. You don't hear anyone raving about the service in the 60's, and after the New York Central canceled the Century, it was all down hill. They couldn't even put on the lustre during the 1966 air strike, which was actually their final chance at survival.

Every opportunity Penn Central had to regain ridership, say during a blizzard, or whatever, they blew it. They might add coaches during a busy season, but they didn't bother to clean them, nor confirm the operationality of the heating system. Like I said before, they clearly wanted OUT of the passenger business and if the government wouldn't allow them to pull the plug, they became determined to drive off patronage themselves.

Penn Central was just an exercise in business stupidity and abuse of the public. Model Railroaders beware. Don't try to replicate the Penn Central on your layout unless you firmly glue down all the trash along the ROW so it doesn't get caught up in the mechanisms, and your weathering ability should parallel Rembrandt's talent!

Last edited by Dieter on Fri Dec 03, 2004 3:09 pm, edited 2 times in total.
  by wdburt1
The Penn Central Acquarium--I remember that!

To Hell in a Day Coach. Wasn't that the Lynch book? I read it long ago. Basically a long rant, but one can understand why the author was provoked even if he didn't understand very well that the decline of passenger service was merely the most visible part of the rot overtaking the rail industry at that time.


  by Dieter
The ultimate failure and ROT, as you effectively described the time....

It should be noted that any memory of riding the Penn Central will consistantly be a rant, regardless from where it comes from. The best part of a trip on Penn Central was arriving at the ultimate destination, and being able to sit down in someone's house, or being home. Usually, it was in a near shell-shocked state from the experience. The first hour after arrival was ALWAYS hearing about or relating the latest horror story of rail travel as it had degenerated at that time.

To borrow and rework an idiom, Riding the Penn Central any distance was enough to make a Minister swear.

Was it a failure on the part of management, economic forces of the times, or special interest groups at work to undermine the railroads and push people to the airports, like how the bus won in New Jersey? Forget Penn Central, the loss of respectable passenger service was simultaneously nationwide.

Last edited by Dieter on Fri Feb 03, 2006 4:08 pm, edited 3 times in total.

  by MC8000
I recall my rides as a kid in the late 60's over the old MC main between Detroit and Niles and the conditions on board were pretty bad. Dirty cars, windows and poor track mad for an unpleasant experience even for a young railfan. I don't remember any problems with surly employees, they were trying to work with the junk that the railroad had patched up to keep things going just a little longer.
In these days of crowded main lines and record freight volumes, I guess its easy to forget just how close to complete collaspe the eastern and midwestern rail system was during this period.
In contrast, the Grand Trunk Western service during this period never lost its first class feel. The cars were clean, the trains ran on time and the track was as smooth as glass.
I remember the shock of one of my Dads friends (A regular GTW customer) felt when he took a PC train to Chicago due to a derailment on the Trunk. He just couldn't believe that service had deteriorated to the level it had, his only contact with passenger rail had been the GT. He mentioned that now he understood what many people had been complaining about all this time.
  by wdburt1
Good reading on this subject:

Fred W. Frailey, Twilight of the Great Trains (Kalmbach, 1998). A more accurate analysis than anything else I have seen. Plenty of photos make it visually appealing as well.

Be prepared to have your assumptions questioned.


  by LI Loco
A friend who sampled Penn Central in the days right before Amtrak shared this story. He was eating breakfast in the diner-lounge of the day train from Buffalo to Chicago when he noticed they were pacing a short Norfolk & Western freight on the parallel former Nickle Plate Road. This continued for several minutes until the N&W engineer, in the tradition of his predecessors who piloted NKP's famed Berkshires, put his throttle up to Run 8 and left the PC passenger job in the dust. Said an exasperated waiter: "They do that to us every day."

  by Dieter
MC8000 reminds us of the deplorable condition of the trackage.

It was difficult to determine at times if the suspension was shot or was it the track? I recall walking along both the Harlem and Hudson Divisions and one could effortlessly pull up spikes out of the rotting ties. We always put them back. In addition, we always noted the startling absence of a high number of spikes from the ties along any distance we walked.

Another Railfanning favorite common to Penn Central spectators was the "Posturepedic Rail". This was fun to watch. A slow freight would pass over a length of rail, several feet of which was suspended in the air due to washouts, rot, whatever. The trucks would depress the rail to ground level, then once off, the rail would pop back up.

Speeds made photography a snap! How many pictures of Penn Central trains have appeared as a blur?

I recall hearing a staggering statistic that there was at least one derailment on Penn Central per hour. Anyone remember anything like that?

With condtitions like these, it was no wonder Penn Central long distance trains (even short distance trains!) had the wretched delays and rough rides that they gave the public. Imagine if the trains had tried to go faster what would have happened?


  by LI Loco
I don't know about a derailment per hour, but I saw a Penn Central freight derail right before my eyes. It happended in October 1971 as I was train-watching off the old bridge (Bridge St.) at the west entrance to DeWitt Yard in East Syracuse. We noticed the cars on an incoming eastbound swaying dangerously and sure enough, two of them jackknifed and went on the ground. That ended our trainwatching for the day since we figured action would have to shut down while they cleared things up.

Although they were technically Amtrak trains, the Penn Central Empire Service trains in those days were no picnics. Consists typically were 1-3 coaches, a snack-bar boach and a baggage car (only on the first NY-Buffalo train). In 1969, the morning train to Buffalo, which at the time carried through cars for the D&H's Laurentian, still ran a respectable 8-9 cars.

  by Dieter
LILoco, how were the trains "Technically Amtrak trains" if it was pre 1971?

  by LI Loco
The short trains I referred to (and rode to/from college) were mainly 1971-1973. They were Amtrak trains with Penn Central locomotives, cars, crews, food, booze and attitudes. The only thing that had to do with Amtrak was the sign that used to hang over the entrance to Tracks 23 and 24 at Grand Central Terminal.

  by Penn Central
Rockingham Racer wrote:Not so. In 1969, I rode from South Bend, IN, to Croton-Harmon by Slumbercoach. It was awful. Noisy, and bumping over lousy roadbed in many spots. Long stretches of 10 MPH slow orders, too.
Slow orders were very common. I remember coming out of Rennsalear with about 7 miles of 10 mph restrictions. You were an hour late right from the start. NH to Boston was similar although there was 100 mph track for the turbos, when they could make it.

On the Metropolitan Region (now Metro-North) the FL-9s were in horrible shape. On the NH, the power was terrible with frequent restrictions every time a generator went down at Cos Cobb. Leaving New Haven with a GG-1, you had to ease off on the throttle or the compressor would shut down and the brakes would come on.

The Penn Central days were the dark days for railroading except for the workers that survived the terrible conditions. Even in adversity, the people I worked with were great.

  by Dieter
You're right about LATENESS. It was a contributing factor to making any trip on Penn Central of any distance a miserable experience.

I would like to know if the trains coming to New York in the days of the New York Central had the same 4-5 hour delays in snow, as Penn Central did and Amtrak still occasionally experiences.

A factor to be noted is that during Penn Central, trains originating in New York or Buffalo towards New York (EMPIRE SERVICE), NEVER departed on-time. I recall waiting at Harmon for trains, and everytime, they were unreasonably late, and we would dread the total delay of the trip, if the train was 30 minutes late just covering the first 33 miles.

Last edited by Dieter on Fri Feb 03, 2006 4:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.

  by rdganthracite
PC on the corridor was so bad that when I needed to travel from Philly to New York I would take the Reading's RDCs which would take me to Newark. Then I only had to put up with PC for the trip through the tubes. Or I had the option of taking PATH, which I did if it wasn't too far out of my way.

One of my most prized photographs from the PC era is one of the eastbound Broadway rounding the curve to the Rockville bridge. I wrote in my notebook at the time that it was only 10 minutes late into Harrisburg. Later that same day talking to a friend who was a PC employee I found out that the train was 24 hours and 10 minutes late!!

  by Penn Central
Dieter wrote: I would like to know if the trains coming to New York in the days of the New York Central had the same 4-5 hour delays in snow, as Penn Central did and Amtrak still occasionally experiences.
Until 1983, in the Metropolitan Region (what is now Metro-North), crews worked combined commuter and Amtrak service. You would take a Poughkeepsie train from GCT to Harmon, then an Amtrak back to GCT. While 48 was rarely on time from Chicago, it was usually timely enough to prevent crews from not making their scheduled runs. Remember that in those days we were still changing engines in Harmon. Equipment failures were much more common than traffic delays, which is the big problem now and tracks that are shared with freight railroads.
  by coalmine
Quality - Extremely uneven as previous posters have suggested. I did have some good trups on the Broadway and the Cincinnati Limited as examples of long-haul trains, and some horrible experiences in the NEC. Comments re train crews are abt. on target; some wre good and some not so good. IOW, you had to cop an attitude like what they had, and that seemed to help things go a little better.

One thing I do remember is broken windows, windows filled with water or windows of Lexan (IIRC that was the name of the material) that were either cloudy or so badly scratched you couldn't see out of them. In general, at least out of Boston, you knew summer had come brecause the heat was on in the coaches. You knew it was winter because there was no heat.

work safe
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