World War II Railroads, The 1940s

Railroads in World War II were pushed to their limit of keeping men and materiel fluidly moving for the war effort.  Without them, victory would have never been possible.  The government also played a considerable part in this.  During the previous conflict, railroads' inability to coordinate and keep traffic flowing resulted in a nationalized industry, led by the United States Railroad Administration (USRA).  While this organization was highly criticized for its handling of the nation's rail infrastructure it did set forth many standardized practices which greatly aided the private industry, particularly during the second World War.  The diesel locomotive's development, spearheaded by Electro-Motive's FT of 1939, was also a major boon.  However, only some railroads were able to acquire this new form of motive power before wartime restrictions precluded further construction.  Nevertheless, the tried and proven steam locomotive performed flawlessly, enabling railroads to handle record freight and passenger traffic during the war years.

Following Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, otherwise known as the September Campaign or Poland Campaign, evermore countries throughout Western Europe found themselves under Nazi occupation.  The country's blitzkrieg was a brand new military tactic catching many by surprise, particularly France which officially surrendered on June 22, 1940.  On July 10th, the Battle for Britain began, the last European stronghold not controlled by Germany.  Realizing the severity of the situation but not willing to officially enter the fight, the President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress authorized shipments of food, materiel, and other supplies to beleaguered Britain in September.  While the railroad industry witnessed slight increases in freight tonnage (for instance revenue ton-miles increased from 333.44 million in 1939 to 373.25 million a year later) it was not until the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, which fully thrust the United States into World War II, did this increase astronomically.

While it took some time for the country's industrial might to be fully felt by 1942 America was fully engage in the war effort.  And, of course, without the railroads moving such record-breaking traffic numbers would never have been possible.  In 1941 revenue ton-miles increased to 475 million and then jumped exponentially to 637.99 million in 1942.  That year, Railway Age published a piece entitled "What We Fight For."  It predominately discussed the American resolve, freedom, and our way of life.  It also mentioned railroading's importance: "Our railroads are one of our finest examples of free private enterprise.  What they have achieved for the nation during the last two years, and are still achieving, in efficiency and economy, never has been, never could be, equaled in piece or war by any dictatorial government bureaucracy.  For it is the result of thousands of widely-scattered free men exercising their full initiative and energy in free cooperation - which government bureaucracy, by its nature, prevents.

Also, Lowell Jackson Thomas, a well known writer, actor, and broadcaster mentioned railroads' superb job in maintaining fluid transportation for the roaring American economy in a piece he wrote on May 12, 1942: "I've seen a locomotive over 130 feet long, speeding war material over mountain grades.  I've watched troops unloading from train after train, powered by fast Diesel or Streamliners, some with 7,000 horsepower, the heaviest and most powerful ever made.  And, I never witnessed a speed-up so swift, or so well directed, as men and women of America's railroads swarmed to their tasks of building even more powerful locomotives, laying more tracks, and organizing incredibly complex shipping schedules.  We Americans needed a miracle in railroad transportation during early 1942, we expected that miracle, and, by George, we got that miracle!"

By comparison to the Great War, railroads were far better prepared to handle the onslaught of traffic in World War II.  In 1996 Don DeNevi published a wonderful book entitled, "America's Fighting Railroads: A World War II Pictorial History."  In over 135 pages he provides an in-depth look at just how vital the railroads were to the war effort through statistics, detailed text, and historic photos/advertisements.  His work is a must read if you have any interest in this subject.  Mr. DeNevi notes that when the U.S. entered the war the industry contained more than 41,000 locomotives and 2 million freight cars.  In addition, the nation's rail network had dropped to under 230,000.  These figures were astonishing in what they didn't contain which included roughly 50% less locomotives, 33% fewer cars, and some 25,000 fewer miles.  As historian John Stover notes in his book, "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," railroads did not want a repeat of World War I.  They were quite eager to fully cooperate with the government to avoid federal control.  This occurred only briefly during the conflict when labor disputes led to a two-month takeover between December, 1943 and January, 1944

Railroads In World War II Statistics

Revenue Car Loadings

Year

1939

1940

1941

1942

1943

1944

Total (Thousands)

$33,911

$36,358

$42,290

$42,826

$42,440

$43,500

Revenue Ton Miles

Year

1939

1940

1941

1942

1943

1944

Total (Millions)

$333.44 Million

$373.25 Million

$475 Million

$637.99 Million

$727 Million

$740 Million

Revenue Passenger Miles

Year

1939

1940

1941

1942

1943

1944

Total (Millions)

$22.65 Million

$23.76 Million

$29.35 Million

$53.66 Million

$87.82 Million

$96 Million

Source:  "America's Fighting Railroads: A World War II Pictorial History" by Don DeNevi.

It should be noted that railroads did have improved technology to move freight in the 1940s such as heavier freight cars and locomotives and the new diesel-electric locomotive. However, the accomplishments they were able to achieve from the first conflict are still impressive.  Another new technology that helped railroads during the decade was the development of Centralized Traffic Control, or CTC. CTC gave a dispatcher complete control over a section of track, known as a block, to set switches and watch over signals. The new system allowed for a single track main line to achieve 75% capacity of a fully double-tracked line. CTC was originally implemented in 1927 but with the help of the government hundreds of miles of additional main line were covered with system allowing for much more efficient railroad operations.What's more the war years saw the railroad industry's overall operating ratio drop to a record low of 67.5% while profits were so lucrative that, overall, lines were able to repay $2 billion in debt. Perhaps it was the government that gained the most from the industry's efficient operations during World War II. Because of the land grant discounts that still applied to western lines the fed saved approximately $900 million. Following the war, however, Congress ended the discount. 

The 1940s also saw the peak of piston-driven steam locomotive technology. Because of wartime restrictions the government did not allow the building of new diesel locomotives because the steel and other metal components required was needed for the war effort. Instead, railroads were forced to buy steam locomotives to fill their motive power needs. Thus, for instance, the Baltimore & Ohio purchased its newest and last steam locomotives in the early 1940s of the 2-8-8-4 Yellowstone Type.  The 1940s also saw the peak of piston-driven steam locomotive technology. Because of wartime restrictions the government did not allow the building of new diesel locomotives because the steel and other metal components required was needed for the war effort. Instead, railroads were forced to buy steam locomotives to fill their motive power needs. Thus, for instance, the Baltimore & Ohio purchased its newest and last steam locomotives in the early 1940s of the 2-8-8-4 Yellowstone Type.  Designated the EM-1 Class by the B&O it had a rather low boiler pressure comparative to other models in its class but this low pressure had a great benefit, a high factor of adhesion (4.22). This high ratio allowed the locomotive to start rather efficiently in that it was not as susceptible to wheel slippage as other designs. For instance, this added incentive was an extra benefit in the type of service the B&O originally designated the EM-1, the torturous grades of the railroad’s West End (its Cumberland Division), through the Appalachians. The locomotive did a marvelous job at this, having little trouble hauling merchandise or coal drags over the steep climbs of Cranberry Grade, along the West Virginia/Maryland border, or over Sand Patch in Pennsylvania. 

Designated the EM-1 Class by the B&O it had a rather low boiler pressure comparative to other models in its class but this low pressure had a great benefit, a high factor of adhesion (4.22). This high ratio allowed the locomotive to start rather efficiently in that it was not as susceptible to wheel slippage as other designs. For instance, this added incentive was an extra benefit in the type of service the B&O originally designated the EM-1, the torturous grades of the railroad’s West End (its Cumberland Division), through the Appalachians. The locomotive did a marvelous job at this, having little trouble hauling merchandise or coal drags over the steep climbs of Cranberry Grade, along the West Virginia/Maryland border, or over Sand Patch in Pennsylvania.  It wasn't just the B&O.  As David Jones points out in his article, "The Joy And Thunder Days: On The Hectic Home Front, America's Railroads Saw Their Finest Hour As They Hauled A Nation To War" from the June, 1994 issue of Trains Magazine, the Pennsylvania Railroad manufactured several home-built J-class 2-10-4's and the Western Pacific 4-8-4's modeled after Southern Pacific's successful line of Class GS-6's.  

Railroading's importance was not confined solely to the movement of goods,military supplies, and troops.  The general public was also finding their way back to trains.  While Interstate Highway system was still decades away, even by 1941 most Americans were utilizing the automobile.  As Mr. Jones further points out at that time, fully 89% traveled intercity by car or bus with just 9% doing so by train.  However, by 1944 these numbers had changed drastically to 63% and 34% respectively.  In addition, railroads handled no less than 64% of all intercity freight throughout the war, peaking at 72% in 1943.  It all hearkened back to the 20th century's dawn when the industry routinely enjoyed such a dominate transportation monopoly.  Railroad executives knew in the postwar era such strong numbers were likely unsustainable.  Nevertheless they remained hopeful that steps could be taken to lessen the losses.  Unfortunately, nothing worked, made worse by a government that had abandoned trains for highways.


During the war, railroads did slow their pace in christening new streamliners (in one particularly disastrous instance the New York Central's unveiled the newly streamlined Empire State Express, a service linking Buffalo and New York on the morning of December 7, 1941).  Afterwards, however, many new names appeared such as Milwaukee Road's Olympian Hiawatha, Baltimore & Ohio's Cincinnatian, and the legendary California Zephyr.  The Central rebounded well during World War II and felt so good about its future prospects that it ordered 420 new lightweight, streamlined cars in 1945 to overhaul its passenger fleet.  This was in addition to 300 cars it had already ordered only a year earlier.  Mr. Schafer and Mr. Solomon point out in their book that the combined purchase (720 cars) was the largest single order, ever, for any American railroad.  The Pennsylvania Railroad spent a similar amount only to see its efforts prove futile. Into the 1950s railroads watched helplessly as passenger traffic plummeted and not even new equipment and promotional advertising could sway passengers back to the rails. Some lines continued to spend money on new streamliners, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad, for passengers that never came. The 1950s also saw a slow decline in freight traffic as the new interstate highway system began to take its toll. 

Top Of Page

› Railroads In World War II

Photography Featured On This Site

Loyd Lowry Photography
Wade Massie
Ron Flanary


Popular Train Ride Events


Collections Presented Here