Like its rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad, entire libraries could be written on the New York Central System (the “System” was included to recognize the markets the railroad served and the number of railroads which comprised it) and its history ranging from its famous passenger trains (like the 20th Century Limited) and commuter operations to its fast, efficient, high-speed freight services. For history’s sake you cannot really speak of the NYC without also mentioning the PRR (and vice versa) as both lines competed in many of the same markets stretching from New York City, through Ohio, Indiana and reaching St. Louis, Chicago and parts of Michigan. It’s quite amazing how similar, outside of operations, both were. They were institutions, two of the largest railroads in the country, and the class of the industry for decades.
In a perfect world both the New York Central System and Pennsy would have found other, more logical merger partners and likely would still be competing today, thus completely changing the landscape and history of the industry. However, we do not live in a perfect world, of course, and despite all of their success both wound up making horrendous decisions during their final years of independence and die a horrible death as the Penn Central Corporation in 1968 (aside from competing in virtually every market, from a management and operations standpoint they were polar opposites, which became painfully clear upon merger day when their management teams could not work together). The NYC had its humble beginnings as the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad, chartered and built in 1831 to connect Albany with Schenectady, New York.
In an attempt to build a route connecting Albany with the Great Lakes at Buffalo, a series of railroads where constructed that would be incorporated as the original New York Central Railroad in 1853. Around this same time its most famous president, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who oversaw significant growth of the railroad and laid its future foundations as a world-class carrier, would head the new NYC. He immediately changed the railroad’s name to the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad when he merged the NYC with his own Hudson River Railroad. Later including the New York & Harlem as well, the NYC&HR now held a commanding presence in New York City and after gaining control of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern it reached Chicago on a northern route that was virtually flat (late known as the Water Level Route), in comparison to Pennsylvania Railroad’s main line through the Alleghenies.
The NYC&HR was again renamed as the New York Central Railroad when it merged with the LS&MS in 1914. Throughout the early 20th century the NYC continued to expand reaching Boston; Pittsburgh, PA; Wheeling, WV; the coalfields of southern West Virginia via the Toledo & Ohio Central; Columbus, OH; Cincinnati, Cleveland, and St. Louis via the Big Four Route (the Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad), Columbus, OH; Detroit (and virtually the rest of Michigan via the Michigan Central); and even Montreal, Quebec and Ontario, Canada. Through the years the railroad gained control of notable railroads to reach these markets including the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie, Indiana Harbor Belt, and the aforementioned Big Four.
It's not surprising then that comprising a system which reached such large cities and markets, the Central would grow to become the largest and most dominate railroad in the east, save for the PRR herself. Throughout the first half of the 20th century the PRR and New York Central System commanded an astounding amount of freight and passenger traffic moving from the Northeast to Midwest and were literally the only true competitors in the east. Third in this trunk line race was the venerable Baltimore & Ohio but with only a minor presence in the Philadelphia, New York, and Boston markets and a main line that was forced over the rugged Alleghenies between Harpers Ferry and Parkersburg, West Virginia the Baltimore & Ohio was no match for the PRR and NYC in terms of speed and freight/passenger traffic (although, interestingly, the B&O outlived its competitors by 20 years!).
While the Central had a large and exquisite passenger train fleet (far too many to mention and name here) the flagship was without doubt the 20th Century Limited, which operated over the railroad’s entire system from New York to Chicago. Arguably the most regal passenger train ever created the Limited was adorned in grays, silvers, and whites and ushered in the Art Deco era of interior design when it was streamlined in 1938 (and one could only hope to find a seat on the Limited, let alone afford a ticket!). The New York Central System is remembered for many things but perhaps the railroad’s crowning achievement was its Grand Central Terminal located in downtown New York City. Opened in 1913, three years after the Pennsy opened its Pennsylvania Station, GCT replaced the earlier Grand Central Station and held an impressive 48-tracks below ground.
The terminal was beautifully adorned inside and out (as only the
Vanderbilt family would allow), and it served NYC trains through the
end. Today it thankfully still stands and not only continues to haul
commuters (intercity trains stopped calling to the station years ago)
but is also a National Historic Landmark and one of New York’s best
recognized landmarks. While the end of WWII signaled the beginning of a
decline that would result in the entire Northeastern rail market
bankrupt and in shambles by the 1970s, the NYC actually began to see a
reversal of fortunes beginning in mid-1950s when
new president Alfred Perlman was elected. Under his guidance the
railroad began an aggressive campaign to upgrade the railroad and make
the NYC as efficient as possible.
In doing so he completely dieselized the locomotive fleet, built new classification yards, and introduced new innovative marketing schemes such as Flexi-Van service (the trains themselves were known as Super Vans), an idea far ahead of its time, which was the first successful application of Container-On-Flat-Car service (or COFC). Despite this success the future of the railroad was still uncertain as an independent carrier. However, the PRR was in far worse shape and nowhere near profitable by the late 1950s. It was during this time that the two began exploring the idea of merger, despite Perlman’s protest to find another partner besides the PRR (fully realizing what a mistake such an idea would be).
The NYC looked long and hard to find another partner but could find no serious interest and it lost out on a bid for the B&O to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in the early 1960s (perhaps the best fit for the NYC, a southern road with new marketing opportunities). In the end and despite a long search for another partner it was eventually decided that a merger with the PRR was the only option for the New York Central System. Surprisingly the ICC approved the merger that virtually allowed for a monopoly in the Northeast and the ill-fated Penn Central Corporation was born on February 1, 1968.
On merger day chaos ensued and the new railroad literally began to fall apart from the very beginning. With a merger that was not only a terrible fit but also unplanned it comes as no surprise that the situation would end in bankruptcy. To make matters worse the NYC and PRR could not have had more opposite corporate cultures. The management of the NYC was more laid back, open to new ideas, and the chain of command was “loose” so to speak (one reason for its renewed success in the 1950s under Perlman) whereas the PRR was extremely strict, new ideas were shunned and looked down on (the railroad was still using practices that had been out-dated since the 19th century!), and orders came down through the chain of command. Naturally, then, these two management teams did not get along at all and pure hell and pandemonium resulted across the entire system.
The PC was losing over $1 million a day and trains were becoming lost throughout the system, as dispatchers were not properly trained on how to dispatch their trains. To make matters worse as the red ink began to become an unstoppable flash flood maintenance was deferred and derailments became the norm with large sections of main line reduced to 10 mph slow orders. After only two years of operations and financial assistance completely gone, the destitute Penn Central officially declared bankruptcy on June 21, 1970. The result of this was a ripple effect throughout the entire Northeast, as other railroads, which depended on the PC to ferry traffic, no longer had a means to move their freight. It became so bad that the Penn Central was facing total shutdown if financial assistance, any means of help at all, were not located.
20th Century Limited: (New York - Chicago)
Chicagoan: (New York - Cleveland - Chicago)
Chicago Mercury: (Chicago - Detroit)
Cincinnati Mercury: (Cleveland - Cincinnati)
Cleveland Mercury: (Detroit - Cleveland)
Cleveland Limited: (New York - Cleveland)
Commodore Vanderbilt: (New York - Chicago)
Detroiter: (New York - Detroit)
Detroit Mercury: (Cleveland - Detroit)
Empire State Express: (New York - Buffalo)
James Whitcomb Riley: (Chicago - Cincinnati)
Knickerbocker: (New York - St. Louis)
Lake Shore Limited: (New York - Cleveland - Chicago)
Mercury: (Detroit - Cleveland)
The Michigan: (Chicago - Detroit)
Motor City Special: (Chicago - Detroit)
New England States: (Chicago - Cleveland - Boston)
Ohio State Limited: (New York - Cleveland - Cincinnati)
Pacemaker: (New York - Cleveland - Chicago)
Southwestern Limited: (New York - St. Louis)
Twilight Limited: (Chicago - Detroit)
Wolverine: (Chicago - Detroit - New York)
(A deep thanks to the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University for allowing Ron Nixon's historic collection of the NYC to be featured here.)
Realizing the severity of the situation the federal government stepped and setup the Consolidated Rail Corporation, which comprised the skeletons of several bankrupt Northeastern carriers, and began operations on April 1, 1976. With federal backing Conrail began to slowly pull out of the red ink (it took many years) and by the late 1980s was a profitable railroad after thousands of miles of excess trackage (and sometimes perhaps not so excess when compared to today’s boom of the industry) was abandoned and/or upgraded. Today even Conrail is no longer with us having been split up amongst CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern in 1999, with CSX taking much of the NYC while NS got a good chunk of the Pennsy. In any event many parts of the railroad continue to serve an important role in moving goods (and people) from eastern markets to the Midwest and vice versa (such as its main line Water Level Route).