The Alphabet Route was not actually an operating railroad. Instead, it was more or less a marketing
tactic between eight Midwestern and Northeastern railroads to provide
shippers a fast-freight alternative to the large eastern trunk lines,
notably the New York Central, Erie, Pennsylvania Railroad, and Baltimore
& Ohio. The eight companies of the Route included the
Western Maryland Railroad, Nickel Plate Road, Wheeling & Lake Erie, Pittsburgh & West Virginia, Reading, Jersey Central, Lehigh & Hudson River, and the New Haven Railroad.
While the four trunk lines could provide freight shipments via a
direct route, thus reducing transit times, the eight Alphabet systems
(so named for the number of railroads that took part in the operation)
offered dedicated, friendly service that was competitive and flexible to
shipper needs. The tactic proved to be surprisingly successful and
lasted for nearly 50 years despite the fact that during the last years
of operation track conditions were deteriorating and companies were
either entering bankruptcy or being merged into large systems (which ultimately ended the consortium).
Two Western Maryland GP9s sport different versions of the road's livery, #39 in the newer Circus scheme and #41 in older speed-lettering, as they perform switching duties at the yard in Hagerstown, Maryland on December 29, 1970.
The history of the Alphabet Route began officially, on February 11, 1931
when the Pittsburgh & West Virginia completed its extension to
Connellsville, Pennsylvania with the Western Maryland. With the opening
of this line all eight railroads formed a continuous main line between
the Northeast's largest cities, New York and Boston, with the Midwest's
largest, St. Louis and Chicago. The high priority trains that
ran-through on the Route were known as Alpha Jets and
were nearly always the most important movements across all of the
railroads, save for perhaps passenger trains themselves. These trains
were typically symbolled AJ-1 for westbound movements and AJ-2 for
eastbound movements. They also carried additional designations for
higher priority or some other reasoning and later featured slightly
different classifications such as AJ-12, WAJ-1, and PAJ-1.
The Many Railroads Comprising The "Alphabet Route"
Heading from west to east the Route was made up of the following systems, including the territory covered:
Nickel Plate Road: The NKP carried trains from its Bellevue Yard, Ohio where there was a junction with the Wheeling & Lake Erie to both East St. Louis and Chicago. The run to Chicago covered 275.6 miles over the Nickel Plate's main line to the Windy City while the distance to St. Louis covered 271.8 miles along its other main line (both of these figures are courtesy of the railroad's official timetable).
Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway: The operations of the Alpha Jets on the W&LE were just a quick jaunt. From the NKP's Bellevue Yard they operated just 131 miles to Pittsburgh Junction, Ohio and a connection to the Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railway. Here there were no major yards to navigate like with most of the other connections and trains passed through relatively quickly.
Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railway: One benefit the P&WV carried, in terms of the Route, was that it could pass through Pittsburgh with somewhat ease. The P&WV was also one of only two railroads among the group where the priority trains operated along the entire railroad, a distance of 132 between Pittsburgh Junction and Connellsville, Pennsylvania where the Alpha Jets where handed off to the Western Maryland.
A Jersey Central GP40P, #3678, leads a local commuter run through Cranford, New Jersey on June 19, 1972. By this date the CNJ was bankrupt and broke.
Western Maryland Railway: The WM picked up the trains and
continued heading east. Here, there was an added option for shippers.
At Hagerstown, Maryland the Jets were forced to navigate the
company's Jamison Yard, which also headed directly east to Baltimore.
The yard also served as a gathering point for expedited traffic arriving
from both Baltimore as well as the Reading, which had assembled freight
from other Northeastern points. In any event, trains heading eastward
towards the major Northeast cities met the Reading Railroad at Lurgon, Pennsylvania (in later years this location was switched to York, Pennsylvania).
Reading Railroad: From Lurgon freight continued
westward where it arrived at the Railroad's Rutherford Yard. Here, just
as on the WM, freight was gathered from various points and assembled
(Allentown, New York, and Philadelphia the latter of which arrived from
the Reading's own line from the city). From this points trains
continued on until Reading and headed for either Philadelphia or a
connection with the Jersey Central at Allentown.
Jersey Central: Under CNJ direction the Alpha Jets
gathered or shipped freight to or from the Jersey City/New York City
region. Additionally, those trains heading to Boston interchanged with
the Lehigh & Hudson River at Easton, just a few miles east of the
previous interchange at Allentown.
Two first-generation Reading units, RS3 #450 and GP7 #662, team up with second-generation GP30 #3613 as they work the yard at Hummelstown, Pennsylvania on June 9, 1972.
Lehigh & Hudson River: The L&HR was the other railroad were the Alpha Jets operated over the entire system, a distance of 85.8 miles to Maybrook, New York where a connection with the New Haven Railroad was established. This was also the location of the NYNH&H's Maybrook Yard where freight was further classified.
New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad: The New
Haven carried the trains the rest of the way into Boston and also
assembled freight at its Cedar Hill Yard in New Haven from other various
points along its system.
While the Route was typically 10 hours, or more, slower
than service provided by the other eastern trunk lines it offered more
flexibility by giving shippers the chance to have their freight
delivered in either the evening or morning hours. In later years as
mergers became more commonplace the western end the system was entirely
owned by the Norfolk & Western Railway as by the by late 1960s it
owned the Nickel Plate, Wheeling & Lake Erie, and Pittsburgh &
West Virginia Railway. Additionally, Penn Central was forced to acquire
the New Haven as a condition of its merger.
It's just another day on the Nickel Plate Road as GP9 #526 meanders through the yard at Michigan City, Indiana on a cold and overcast December 26, 1963.
By doing so it seriously hurt the viability of the Route. The PC's two largest predecessors, the NYC and PRR, had of course been a major competitor against the service and with its creation no longer had as much of a desire to see the routing continued. The line slowly lost interest which was further expounded by the creation of the Chessie System (B&O, C&O, and WM) in 1972 and Conrail in the spring of 1976 that resulted in just three systems being a part of the route; N&W, Chessie, and Conrail. No longer adding any value the Route finally died away in the early 1980s.