Seventy-five years ago, New York Central bet big

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, December 10, 2020

A full-page newspaper ad featuring a dozen streamliners illustrates New York Central’s postwar commitment to its passenger service.
The scene: 230 Park Avenue, Manhattan, the stately 35-story Beaux Arts headquarters of the New York Central Railroad. The date: approximately 75 years ago this week. The decision: spend another big piece of $56 million toward the largest order of passenger cars in U.S. railroad history.

With that, NYC expanded its purchase of what eventually would total more than 720 cars, spread across all three major U.S. carbuilders. Flush with postwar excitement — and the promise of the return of peacetime travel — the NYC gambled big on passenger trains. As we all know now, it would be a losing bet.

But it didn’t seem like it, not at first. In those days, the Central’s publicity machine was operating at full tilt. Full-page ads in newspapers and magazines touted “Now — World’s Largest Fleet of Newly Equipped Trains,” with images of sleek trains spooling out from around the far side of the Earth. 

The trade journal Railway Age fairly gushed with its December 15, 1945, story headlined “NYC Buys More Trains.” The Central wasn’t just buying cars, you see, they were buying trains. “Many of the ideas making for greater comfort and luxury of these cars are the result of suggestions made in response to questionnaires … distributed to the New York Central’s passengers on its principal trains during the war,” Railway Age reported. “Thus, as members of Central’s postwar plans committee some 10,000 passengers helped design the equipment of these record-making orders.” 

Passengers on the 1948 20th Century Limited enjoy a meal in the train’s Pullman-Standard twin-unit diner, with its distinctive banquettes. 
The railroad dispatched photographer Ed Nowak to make countless images of Central’s gleaming trains, shot mostly up and down the Hudson River, but also at more distant locations. In a famous Nowak photo at La Salle Street Station, Chicago, five different round-end observation cars present a phalanx of modernism, lit up with the tailsigns of the WolverinePacemakerNew England StatesCommodore Vanderbilt, and 20th Century Limited.

A calendar tickler I use reminded me this week of NYC’s big move back in December ’45. The reference prompted me to reach for a book I consult rather frequently, Geoffrey H. Doughty’s New York Central’s Great Steel Fleet, 1948-1967, the revised edition released in 1999 by TLC Publishing, Inc. Geoff has authored an entire shelf full of passenger-train books, covering a variety of railroads; I think he’s at his best when he’s writing about the Central.

As Doughty notes in this book, the scope of NYC postwar car orders was breathtaking: 239 cars from the Budd Company, 354 from Pullman-Standard, 128 from ACF, to be spread across 52 trains. To put the cost in perspective, the $56 million NYC allocated to its passenger service represents more than $800 million in today’s dollars.

“If any railroad could have made passenger service profitable,” Doughty writes, “certainly New York Central could have. The railroad spent millions of dollars on stations, equipment, property, labor, and advertising. It was a tremendous investment to make the passenger service earn a profit, in spite of all the barriers, and it kept on trying as the losses increased.”

The Central wasn’t alone. All across America, railroads jumped into the postwar era with open checkbooks. Some of the biggest players — Santa Fe, Pennsylvania, Union Pacific, Burlington — bought huge fleets of their own. But none of them eclipsed the NYC’s spending spree. The strategy played to the very core of Central’s image of itself. The NYC, as David P. Morgan wrote, “was principally famous for tracks, terminals, engines, and trains created to convey people splendidly and in the mass.”

NYC tapped all three major carbuilders to contribute to its “Great Steel Fleet.” This 48-seat combine was one of 20 from ACF.
Thanks to the nonpareil reputation of the Century, some of NYC’s new passenger cars would become among the most famous in railroading: the deep-windowed Creek series observation cars, with their elevated Lookout Lounges; elegant twin-unit diners, with their distinctive and intimate two-person banquettes set parallel to the aisle, tables fit for an encounter between movie stars; even the Century’s 22-roomette Bay-series sleepers. NYC streamliners came in basically two finishes: two-tone gray on the smooth-side cars, gleaming silver on stainless steel. 

The high tide of the Great Steel Fleet didn’t last long. Although the Interstate Highway System wasn’t officially launched until 1956, portions along the Central’s route got a jump start, with portions of the New York State Thruway opening in 1954, part of the Ohio Turnpike a year later, followed by the Indiana Toll Road in 1956. The introduction of Boeing’s 707 and Douglas’s DC-8 in 1958 sealed the streamliners’ fate.

Doughty’s comparison of system timetables tells the sad tale. In its April 1949 folder, NYC listed 136 trains on 71 separate tables, including interline extensions to San Antonio, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, and St. Petersburg. By the 1955 timetable, on the eve of the I-system, the railroad still carded 114 trains on 54 separate timetables. But only eight years later, in 1964, with freeway construction continuing apace and jet air travel firmly established, Central was down to a mere 46 trains on 18 timetables. By 1967, that would be cut again nearly in half. 

It would be fascinating to explore the wrenching decisions Central brass had to make across that span of less than 20 years. When NYC was buying cars in a frenzy, its management, led by Chairman Gustav Metzman, was deeply rooted in the old Vanderbilt philosophy of being first among passenger carriers. That approach was turned on its head in 1954 after gadfly Robert R. Young assumed control from President William White in one of the great proxy battles of all time.

The Budd-built Pacemaker rolls up the Hudson River valley, capped by one of four tavern-lounge-observation cars delivered in 1948.
When Young’s hand-picked CEO, Alfred E. Perlman, vowed to “chop up the elephant,” as it came to be known, those passenger trains were fat, juicy targets. The end came, figurately if not literally, on December 3, 1967, when the last editions of the Century tied up for good at Grand Central and La Salle Street. Appropriately, bringing up the markers on trains 25 and 26 were two icons of those late 1940s car orders: observation cars Hickory Creek, one of the Century’s time-honored Pullman-Standard standard bearers, and Wingate Brook, a stainless Budd car introduced on the Southwestern Limited of 1949 and later used as a backup for the Century

I’ll leave it to author Doughty to leave an epitaph: “The Great Steel Fleet, riding a tide of optimism in 1948, flourished in the 1950s. While it lingered in spirit, its postwar demise can be traced to as early as 1949. It survives as a distant memory today and the photographs remain as a testament to a more civilized age when service incorporated style, courtesy, and comfort — not just getting there.” 

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