The Reading Railroad (pronounced "Redding"), officially known as the Reading Company, was another of the many anthracite carriers of the Northeast and perhaps the most famous (it was even featured in Monopoly!). Unfortunately, despite this fame it also relied heavily on the commodity
and when demand dried up following WWII so, too did the Reading’s
profits. While the railroad was one of several that collapsed in the
wake of the Penn Central disaster of 1968 it was
certainly one of the most interesting and colorful anthracite railroads
of all. Today, despite the road's failure during the 1970s, ironically many of its principle lines remain in use by various successors (such as regional Reading & Northern) thanks in part to Conrail, which retained many of the routes within its network.
While the Reading has a history dating back to the 1820s, its true beginnings date to the creations of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad in April 1833 by the State of Pennsylvania to haul anthracite coal more efficiently to eastern ports than by either horse or canal. Six years later it had completed its main line between Reading and Philadelphia in 1839 and by the latter half of the 19th century was reaching towns such as Harrisburg, Pottstown, Norristown, and Bethlehem (by purchasing smaller lines such as the Lebanon Valley Railroad; Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Railroad; Williamsport & Erie Railroad; North Pennsylvania Railroad; and Delaware & Bound Brook Railroad).
The railroad also established connections with the Western Maryland Railway, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and Jersey Central Railroad (CNJ), the latter two of which would form a partnership amongst all three and help each other in terms of traffic and other means (the B&O also held control of the Reading for quite some time, which began in 1901). The fall of the Philadelphia & Reading began with Archibald McLeod, which became president of the railroad in 1890. In an attempt to establish an anthracite empire and dominate the region he began to aggressively lease or purchase other railroads (including the Lehigh Valley Railway; Jersey Central Railroad; and Delaware, Lackawanna & Western). Additionally, he was even setting his sights on New England. Despite controlling nearly three-quarters of the anthracite market by the end of the century McLeod’s dreams fell apart when he pushed the railroad too far and it collapsed into bankruptcy. Shortly thereafter the Reading Company was established to takeover the P&R and its affiliates.
A quick look at its system map and one can see why it relied so heavily on anthracite coal. The Reading itself, while having a system of more than 1,200 miles interestingly only operated a main line between Reading, Philadelphia and Port Reading/Bound Brook, New Jersey. The rest of its system was either branches or secondary lines, a virtual web of trackage! Prior to World War II the Reading did fairly well, moving millions of tons of anthracite from western mines to eastern ports, a staple which was quite profitable, at least while demand held. And, despite a system that only connected the larger cities of Philadelphia and New York (via trackage rights), the Reading did have one posh passenger train, the Crusader, a streamlined operation between New York/Jersey City (in conjunction with the CNJ at its Jersey City Terminal) and Philly. In its initial streamlining the train used a simple 4-6-2 Pacific (done at its own shops in Reading) and matched it to its lightweight consist of five cars (built by the Budd Company), bedecked in stainless steel.
Interestingly, while the road was heavily dependent on anthracite for many years it also operated an extensive, electrified commuter service around the Philadelphia regions. By the 1930s the railroad had electrified its lines, extending from its now-restored Reading Terminal in Philadelphia to Norristown, Chestnut Hill, Doylestown, Hatboro, and West Trenton. Amazingly, even as late as the 1960s, the Reading was continuing to expand its commuter operations! As the post-WWII traffic decline began, by the 1950s the Reading was hit especially hard from this downturn. As traffic sank demand for anthracite began to fall rapidly and it became harder and harder for the railroad to remain profitable. Interestingly, despite these issues the company was almost always well managed and operated throughout its time in operation.
As the 1960s unfolded the anthracite market had almost entirely dried up resulting in the Reading depending heavily on bridge traffic to remain competitive. The straw that brought everything down for the railroad was the merger by the Pennsylvania and New York Central to form the disastrous Penn Central in 1968. Almost immediately the PC began to crumble and along with it most of the other Northeastern carriers fell on hard times financially as they relied on the massive carrier to interchange traffic. On June 21, 1970 the PC declared bankruptcy and not long after so too did most of the other surrounding carriers, including the Reading on November 23, 1971. Things went from bad to worse as the PC was threatening total shutdown if some assistance was not given.
Harrisburg Special: (Jersey City - Harrisburg)
King Coal: (Philadelphia - Shamokin, Pennsylvania)
North Penn: (Philadelphia - Bethlehem)
Queen of the Valley: (Jersey City - Harrisburg)
Schuylkill: (Philadelphia - Pottsville)
Wall Street: (Philadelphia - Jersey City)
Realizing the severity of the situation the federal government stepped and setup the Consolidated Rail Corporation, Conrail, which would comprise the skeletons of several bankrupt Northeastern carriers, including the Reading with operations starting as of April 1, 1976. With federal backing Conrail began to slowly pull out of the red ink and by the late 1980s it was finally a profitable railroad after thousands of miles of superfluous trackage was abandoned and/or upgraded. While some systems like the Lehigh Valley and Jersey Central were mostly scrapped after Conrail's formation, interestingly, much of the Reading lives on today as Conrail’s initial system included many of its former routes and lines. Today Reading's old lines are under the operation of Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX, who purchased Conrail in 1999.