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 SeanW
As many regulars here and elsewhere no doubt know, Penn Central, by then long in bankruptcy and soon to be consigned to the history books with Conrail, made a movie about its troubles for the benefit of members of Congress, one copy of which survived and has been digitized. If anyone does not know what I'm talking about just do a Google Video search for "Penn Central 1974"

The reason I am posting this is that, a few months ago, I took the time to transcribe the speech in the video into a text file - at least, those I was able to ascertain - but have done nothing with it since. My end objective is to have a set of subtitles that I can post with the video to a video sharing site like YouTube, so as to provide access for the deaf or for any future translation projects.

I'm going to post the text that I have in a second post in this thread, but before I do I should probably explain why I am doing so, and what notations I am using.

1) I am posting because frankly I need help with some of the speakers. The narrator and most of the speakers were very clear, made their words and the concepts very easy to pick up. But some words I did not recognise and some of the speakers used either a dialect I cannot understand, or lots of terminology about the work they were doing, e.g. advanced welding and so on, that I did not catch and have been unable to ascertain.

2) The notations.
  • For all of the text, the narrators words are reprinted plain, not in any special notations. For the words of the guest speakers, I put all their words in quotation marks "".

    My plan is that any subtitled video would have the narrators words marked in grey, but the guest speakers would each have a new color, indicating a change in the speaker, e.g. so that a deaf person or someone viewing a future translation would be certain that the video has moved to a new speaker.
  • For short sections of text that I am not sure of, I surrounded guess words with 3 question marks on each side. E.g. " We are doing ???something bla bla??? and it could be better." These types of problems arose throughout the video, at least for me.
    For large sections of text that I had more severe difficulty with, cheifly the African-American gentleman in the Chicago shops, no disrespect to him but, I was simply unable to understand large sections of his speech so I just put dots into it substituting for significant portions of speech that I simply could not even make a guess about, there is some limited link between the amount of indecipherable material and the number of dots used.
    Finally, a small piece of the material was a total loss, not by myself, but with some damage to the original video tape or the video-to-digital transcription. Specifically, the part where the narrator says "Penn Central's freight car fleet has decreased 20,00 cars since [scratch zeep zeep]" I've simply marked that {material lost} but if someone could make an estimate of what that was I would go with it, e.g. assuming that I've dated the video correctly to Q1 1974, how far back would one have to go, starting from Q1 1974 and working backwards through time to lose 20,000 cars to old age etc?
  by SeanW
Penn Central was created by a merger 6 years ago. For the past 4 years, it's been in bankruptcy.
So far it has been a downhill run.
During a single recent month, Penn Central suffered 649 derailments ranging from a single car or locomotive, to pile ups of 10, 15 or more. They damaged 252 locomotives and 1637 freight cars. They caused cargo damage of more than $400,000. No railroad, let alone Penn Central can afford such losses. Each derailment is symptomatic of the deterioration of our plant and equipment, which has been going on for years and is now rapidly getting worse.


The basic ingredients of plant and equipment needed for operation of a railroad are tracks, rolling stock, locomotives, classification yards and terminals, and supporting facilities such as repair and maintenance shops. This is our major car repair center at Hollidaysburg Pennsylvania. The bankruptcy trustees have done their best to give good railroad service, but Penn Central has not been able to generate revenues sufficient to prevent continuing deterioration of its track and equipment, including its freight car fleet. Penn Central has about 150,000 freight cars. Nearly 13% of them are out of service.
"The cars that you see are those that are waiting to be repaired, there's about 5000 cars in this yard. On the whole system there is approximately - including what we have here - there is approximately 19,000 waiting to be repaired."
"The cars that have been damaged, the cars that have deteriorated through ... uh ... service, cars that have been ... eh ... damaged by the shipper"
"If we put all the cars together that are in need of repair, there is approximately 200 miles of cars to be repaired."
To the casual glance of the non-railroader, many of the thousands of cars clogging our yard at Hollidaysburg and Altoona appear to be usable. But they're not.
"They're just idle to us; we can't use them to get revenue. We're short of gondolas for, for steel loading, we're short of hopper cars for coal, and we're short of boxcars for the general merchandise."
Because it cannot supply enough cars to meet the demands of shippers, Penn Central is losing more than $150,000 in freight revenue each day. That's nearly $70,000,000 a year of lost revenue. The shortage of cars worsens continually, because new cars are not being acquired to replace the many which are too old for repair. Penn Central's freight car fleet has decreased 20,000 cars since {material lost}.
"We're cutting up about 25 cars a day, and probably by the end of the year we'll have 6000 cars cut up. They're over 40 years old are most of them, and then we bring 'em here and we salvage all the material we can to re-use on any rebuilding program or repair program. The wheels are one of the most hard products to come by, we have all our wheels, axles which we reuse, our truck frames, our couplers, our ???yokes???, every piece of the material in the car we're re-using. This is our ... this is our supply. We live off of it."
Every day we turn out a few cars which have been repaired. In their fresh coats of paint they look pretty good. But appearances are deceiving.
"We have to get cars going, so we're taking off the parts that are absolutely shot, and trying to substitute patches and so on."
"We are doin' a patchwork job, to get about 3 or 4 years out of the cars we have in service"
"We ought to start a heavy repair program rebuilding hoppers, in order to put 'em back in service for 10 to 12 years. Well, it's going to be actually a catastrophe 2 or 3 years down the road unless we start a heavy repair program, the next 12 to 18 months on hopper cars."

Routine and minor repairs to freight cars, are performed in what we call 'spot repair' shops. There are 36 in the Penn Central system. 29 do not meet requirements, like this one at Morrisville Pennsylvania.
"The air lines freeze up, there's problems with the ???jets??? they don't work properly, moisture in the air lines and stuff like that. As far as doing ???repacks??? go, ???pans??? in the boxes, water in the ???dremel boxes???, ???pans??? become frozen sometimes, ya it takes quite a while to get 'em out. It's a little hard walking around, with especially with these ???jacks??? we use and stuff like that, it's a little hard pushing 'em around in the ice, and the snow and, it makes things a little complicated sometimes."
"It's pretty tough. I have to get down in the snow, and under the cars and everything"
"I'd prefer something better than this here, it's pretty miserable in the winter time, it's pretty chilly. You can't perform 100% under these conditions. No man can. Between the elements and the working conditions themselves, why it's just impossible."
"Can't get the material. A lot of jobs you have to skimp a little bit, scrimp, do what you can. You got to rob Peter to pay Paul. So you're doing double work"
"I believe there's room for improvement somewhere, there's got to be."
There is indeed room for improvement, and among our 36 spot repair shops, are a handful we did improve, before we run (sic) out of money. This one, is at Columbus, Ohio.
"This is the second shop on the Penn Central that was built with ay a roof overhead, and doors on the end of the building, where we can shut out the weather. This is the type of operation where the material is on hand at the work location and the cars are advanced to the men, rather than they, the men walking to the cars as is done in the older type of operations. This type of facility will produce average 50 cars a day, some days 60 cars, we can do that with the same force that we used to produce half, so the efficiency is practically double. It makes a lot of difference, the men are happy, they feel like they're part of a team, and they like it. We all like it."

Freight cars, of course require locomotives to haul them. That leads us into another problem of growing dimensions: Motive power. While Penn Central acquired some new engines in the first years of bankruptcy, we now need to replace others that are growing old, but funds are not available.
"This locomotive is an AR-16, it's a 1600 horsepower unit, and its over 20 years old, and the problem with this type of locomotive, because of pollution, when they're going through local towns, they just make too much smoke. And it's mainly used as a switching locomotive, or on local freight service. But because of the conditions, we try to keep them in the yard. In this division we operate 100 of this type locomotive, and about approximately 25% are in this condition. At least one of every four of this type locomotive should be either rebuilt or replaced."

Like all power units, locomotives require fuel and maintenance. This is where locomotives are serviced in the Chicago region.
"Our service facility for just the service: road units only has one ??stanchion?? on one side for the freight, and one on the other side for our yard service. And we can only serve say 60 - 80 a day with this setup, and if we had increased facilities, say we went to 6 ??stanchions?? we could increase that three-fold."
Our Chicago shop - designed for steam engines - is over 60 years old. It's one of 20 shops we operate. 15 of them - like this one - need modernization or replacement. Again, there is no money to do the job.
"Well the working conditions are pretty bad, the pits are too shallow, dirty, and you don't have the material to fix the things with."
"It is not set up too good for this. You know, in a way .... . . .. . . . .. . . . . there are certain pits you can't take them down on. Certain pits you can't take them down on, because some pits over on the other side are, the tracks are right down with the concrete. And just like this floor here, well this is not a concrete floor. No matter how clean you can put on; I put these clothes on this morning clean. And this ??is safety is non??, ??day as we have our dawn?? So if you can figure that out ... . . . ... . . .. this stuff is all like it used to be in; it's manpower. We have nothing you know . . . .. .. that take things a little quick, save a man, save time too, but ... . . . it's just a rough place to work."
"Well if I had my life to live over again, I'd never work for a railroad."
"We do our best, but with improved service facility, we could increase our own facility output by maybe 40-50%."
There's a terribly frustrating aspect to Penn Centrals' difficulties. Our few modern operations - like this locomotive shop near Albany, New York - show us on a daily basis how much operating expense can be saved with efficient facilities. They also demonstrate sharp improvements in employee morale and productivity.
"This shop itself runs pretty smooth. The locomotives are progressed, and everyone around here works good, they work together very good. On a whole, this shop is capable of doing any repair job to any locomotive on the railroad."

This is our terminal at Columbus Ohio, for handling trail-van or "piggyback" traffic. It's one of 39 such terminals Penn Central operates. All are too small for this increasing traffic. All are rated in either bad condition, or poor condition. Maintenance of these yards - as in so many cases - had to be deferred, not through choice, but because we simply didn't have the money.
"You may characterise it as a situation where you have lots of people to come to your circus, but you can't put on enough performances to get all of them inside the tent. We want to do a better job, and we can do a better job, and our people want to do a better job, but we're just hamsung ... hamstrung so to speak."

Classification yards, where freight cars are sorted out for routing to hundreds of destinations, are essential to the operation of a railroad. Penn Central has 14 major classification yards, which we call "hump" yards. This one, at New Haven, Connecticut, is illustrative of eight which are in similar bad condition.
"Those are retarders; they're all operated manually by car retarder operators. They're to slow the car down, space them right going in on the tracks, the various tracks, and to hold back on impacts. They've been here since 1925 and they're ... had it. As far as the retarding of the cars they just won't hold a heavy load."
They call this the 'toothpick machine.' Wood blocks hold heavy cars part-way down the hump so they will not hit the retarders with too much velocity.
"It's an existence, not railroading. One thing breaks down and you get that fixed and up comes another problem."
"You got a lot of deteriorated ties in the yard causing the rail to spread, and then you got your angle bars sitting on a lot of bad ties, you break an angle bar, throw your cars way out like these are here."
"On an average day, an average good day, without a derailment, we average 1300 cars in 24 hours humping."
They don't have many such days at New Haven. There've been 57 derailments there in two months, almost one a day. But that's not as bad as Cleveland. Our yard there has been averaging 5 or 6 derailments a night.
"Track condition is the main trouble we're having, we've got 56 class tracks, and the yard should hold 1300 cars. Right now we're down to 11 of these tracks out of service, which means that 325 car-loads of room is being wasted, we can't use. This means that we're switching classifications through tracks that actually classifications shouldn't be on, and we have to re-switch these tracks, which sometimes means 12-13 ??tracks?? a day and by doing this we're using at times extra switchers, which is money that we shouldn't be spending."
Money we shouldn't be spending - that's a key to Penn Central's predicament. We wouldn't have to spend a lot of it, if our major yards were all like this one at Columbus, the only one we've built since the merger. It's a model of efficiency. Except for brakemen to uncouple the cars, it's a no-hands operation. A computer directs each car to its proper track. It also operates the retarders, automatically slowing cars regardless of weight or size to exactly the speed they need to couple gently to the cars on the track ahead. We take pride in an operation like this, for it represents modern railroading at its best. But for every dollar we save in efficient installations, we lose many more in antiquated and dilapidated yards.
Penn Central operates 49 small classification yards. They're known as 'flat' yards. 30 are inadequate, in poor condition or both, like this one at Newark, New Jersey. It doesn't even have automatic signals and switches for through freight trains. It serves the metropolitan area of Northern New Jersey and New York City.
"One end of the yard, the West end of the yard, freight trains coming in off the main line, handled by switch ??stander??, manual operated switches. Only one train at a time can move through the switches at Waverly 5. The maintenance of the track has cut us down to where a freight train passing through the Waverly complex are limited to 5 miles an hour along the side of the yard here. There's one move being made through the switches at Waverley 5, everything slows down if it does not stop. We have to flat switch in 3 different areas in the yard to handle the volume of the cars that come through Waverley. We try to put 27 classifications in on 20 tracks that range in length from 40 car lengths down to 4 car lengths long. We end up spending a lot of the day, re-handling cars, picking up cars that are possibly derailed due to the maintenance that’s in here."
"Over on my left shoulder we have an industrial ???lead??? of approximately 25 to 30 consignees that's on the other side of the passenger main from Philadelphia or Washington through to New York. A car arrives on the right hand side of the yard over here, the car is re-handled approximately 3 times, to get to the other side of yard and onto the consignees' siding. We're talking about approximately 24-36 hours from the time a car actually arrives, until it's in a position for the industrial crew to shove up the Number 5 track on the other side into the consignee's siding. Little tough to explain to a consignee why it takes 36 hours to move a car 100 yards."
There are some classification yards on our system where we don't have to apologise for delays, yards improved or rebuilt when we had funds to do it. They are examples of efficiency that show how our yards can and should perform.
"This is the Penn Central Niagara yard in Niagara Falls, New York. It's a flat switching yard, comprised of 7 receiving tracks, 28 classification tracks, 2 main tracks for both East and West bound traffic through Canada to the West. We can receive trains, through freight trains on our main tracks or on the North side of our yard, and continue our switching operations on the South side of the yard without interference. It's a good yard, it's better than what was previously here. With the clearances we have, with the easy grade on our switching ??lead??. This is a very efficient operation for a flat switching yard."
"I feel it's a much more a better production here in this yard. We're not handling the cars over and over like we used to in the other yard for one thing. I don't feel we're doing any more work, we're handling more cars with less work, I think and it's much better, much safer, a lot better than it was. We appreciate that."

This is the result of deferred maintenance. Tracks so badly in need of repair that we risk derailment and perhaps human lives every time we run trains over them. Since we have to use, and because we have no funds for repair, we run our trains at reduced speeds, often 8 or 10 miles per hour. This is one of scores of branch and secondary lines which contribute to the 8400 miles of bad track in the Penn Central system. It's the Petersburg Secondary, which runs between Indianapolis and Evansville, Indiana, through an area with important bituminous coal reserves. It cannot be abandoned because it serves a vital public purpose, particularly in the energy crisis.
"This line serves Indianapolis Power and Light, and provides about 90% of the coal for the Indianapolis Power and Light Company."
"The first thing would be to get some decent rail on this line. Then we have to get, after we got the rail on, we have to renew all the bad ties and of course clean the ballast to eliminate these mud conditions."
"When I first started on this line here it was 30 mile and hour track, now it's down to 10 mile an hour"
"If you get over 10 mile an hour you got a pretty dangerous ride. You got a lot of them probably ready to jump the tracks at that."
"I'd feel a lot safer, it was better, we could run faster, get over the road better. It seems ???like, it seems silly??? for a revenue train out for 3 days when it could be over the road in 10 hours."
From 10 miles an hour in Southern Indiana, to 50 miles an hour in Western Ohio. This is also a secondary line, but it has a relatively new roadbed with welded rail, and has not had time to deteriorate from deferred maintenance. Amid the spreading decay of the Penn Central network, it stands as a vivid reminder than with first rate tracks, road operations could be efficient, speedy, and profitable.

The main lines of Penn Central are the railroads most vital arteries for commerce, industry and agriculture in America's Mid-West and North-East. Some are still in good condition because of fairly recent improvements. Our Mohawk Valley route, between Albany and Utica New York, where we can run on a solid roadbed, typifies our potential for transportation service. It does not, however, typify our main line tracks. Metroliners, speeding between New York and Washington, offer the nation's best passenger service. It cost $30 million to rebuild the passenger tracks for high speed operation, but the Northeast Corridor has track problems for the movement of freight. Take for example the route of our freight trains around Wilmington, Delaware.
"We really have, in effect, a single track here, because of the restrictions on the two bridges."
"While one train uses the bridge, others have to be held back waiting for clearance."
"And it's always in trouble, you can't lock it up, can't open it, and its rough going over for trains."
"Doesn't feel very nice to see the train coming down and the cars rocking, and him doing normal speed. Makes me feel like running out of here before he gets here."
Nearly 5000 miles of our main lines are infected with the disease of deferred maintenance.
"This is the main line between Columbus and Chicago, Columbus and St. Louis, main freight line. Between Columbus and Bradford - my territory - there is about 72 miles. I have about 30 slow orders at 30 miles an hour and I have 7 at 10 mile an hour."
"I don't like running on this track, it's too rough, I think it's unsafe to run on. The rail is good, but there just isn't any roadbed underneath it. You don't build highways on mud, and that's what this is done."
"We got the equipment, they're talking about new equipment, you know passenger equipment which I think is fine, but of course we don't know nothing about passengers, we're freight men. But we got the equipment that could take these trains across the track a hundred mile an hour right now, we don't need - we got the engines will do it, we just need something under that track, to run on. It stands to reason, you could have the best equipment, if you don't have nothing to run on, you're just not going to go."
"I'd like to rebuild it from the bottom up. With men, rail, ties, and equipment to do it with. I'm ashamed of it."

With large segments of our railroad handicapped by bad track, the slowdown multiplies all expenses that are dependent on time, such as crew wages and equipment costs. Utilisation of plant, equipment and manpower, each goes down. For instance, we're averaging 10 trains a day delayed because locomotives are not available. Not available because they are tied up for days on runs which should take hours. This leads to another expensive burden: our crews cannot work more than 12 hours. At the end of 12 hours, the law requires that their train be stopped, and a relief crew sent to take over. This is costing Penn Central more than $400,000 each month. But it's the effect of track conditions on operating expenses that causes the most concern. For example, during the week of February 25th through March 3rd, we had 153 derailments. It cost us nearly $400,000 just to clear them. Over two-thirds were caused by track conditions.
"This rail is wore out. The life is gone. It think it's, what is, 1941 I think it is. It started cracking right here, broke at an angle up, to about 3/4 to the top of the first bolt-hole, about a 45 degree angle up, and then progressively as trains went over it, broke out to around 14 inches. If we're going to run freight over these things we've got to rebuild the tracks. No way in the world to get it over this way."
The effect of these track and equipment conditions on Penn Centrals' effort to compete successfully in the transportation market, needs no explanation. Because of the reduced speeds, on-time performance in many cases is a practical impossibility. Because of the large number of our freight cars in need of repair, as well as slow transit times, we fall far short of satisfying customer requirements for cars.
"It's not only that, it's the delays to the freight. People its expecting the damn stuff. Hell if you gonna serve people you got to get it to them ???the day??? on time. Or you don't run."
To use an old simile, it's like a snowball rolling downhill. Without immediate and substantial help, Penn Central will roll downhill at an ever increasing rate. Its destination could be disaster.
"34 years out here beating your brains out, end up with something like this?"

**Horns blowing, fading out**
  by charlie6017
I think it's a very cool thing you are doing, especially to help benefit the deaf community so
that they may enjoy this.

I look forward to seeing the finished product. Thumbs-up to you, Sean!

  by ExCon90
In the section beginning "One end of the yard, the west end ... ", switch ??? stander ??? is most likely "switchtender." Further down, "industrial lead" sounds right. Still further, "seems silly" is probably what he said.
  by JimBoylan
At Hollidaysburg Shop, "yokes" is probably correct, since that is the rear end of a coupler.
at Morrisville Pennsylvania.
"The air lines freeze up, there's problems with the ???jets??? they don't work properly, moisture in the air lines and stuff like that. As far as doing ???repacks??? go, ???pans??? in the boxes, water in the ???dremel boxes???, ???pans??? become frozen sometimes, ya it takes quite a while to get 'em out. It's a little hard walking around, with especially with these ???jacks??? we use and stuff like that, it's a little hard pushing 'em around in the ice, and the snow and, it makes things a little complicated sometimes."
"repacks" is correct, that's what you do to "journal boxes", not to ???dremel boxes???. " jacks" to lift car bodies up off their wheels and trucks are "hard pushing 'em around in the ice, and the snow", so that's probably the correct word.
At the Chicago, Ill. locomotive shop, "stanchion" and "stanchions" are probably correct, since that's the pole that holds a fuel hose up in the air and out of the mud. The 1st missing phrase probably has to do with traction motors, since you can't remove them from under a locomotive if the rails it's sitting on are too close to the floor of the shop. (Removing wheels from under a locomotive requires more than a sufficiently deep pit, as you also have to move a section of rail out of the way.)
At Waverly, N.J. and Niagara, N.Y. "lead" is a proper term for the track that leads towards some sidings.