Remembering the "Professional Iconoclast"

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Remembering the "Professional Iconoclast"
Posted by Eddie Sand on Saturday, March 22, 2014 5:15 AM

It's been nearly fifty years since Trains ran a cover story entitled "This Train can Save Railroading; Why Isn't it Used?" The story dealt with a proposal by the late John G. Kneiling, an industrial engineer, for a service which would have gone one step beyond the unit trains which were under development at the time -- single-commodity services shuttling from one shipper to one customer, and eschewing most of the things which seemed to make railroading such a fascinating business. The article, and several others which followed it, generated a lot of controversy, and it wasn't long before Trains Editor David P. Morgan, whom a lot of us still consider America's most talented rail journalist, set Kneiling up with a monthly column which ran for about five years. Kneiling also published a book. "Integral Train Systems", which can be found today in the engineering libraries on many campuses. To say that Mr. Kneiling was not very tactful, particularly with regard to social commentary in the polarization of the late Sixties, would be an understatement. But in reviewing his articles and columns, it's amazing how many of his proposals and suggestions were either adopted or seem well-suited to the next wave of technological and entrepreneurial progress. And many of them were inculcated as part of the process that turned railroading back into a growing industry, and one with a positive image.

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Posted by henry6 on Saturday, March 22, 2014 2:29 PM

Very forward thinking at his time.  But he made sense to many, especially investors and businessmen.  He Showed how to harness the value of the equipment and with marketing and contracts, turn that value into income.  Against him were the "we don't do things that way" railroaders from the executive offices down and those who were afraid to confront both regulators and customers.

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Posted by Overmod on Saturday, March 22, 2014 2:39 PM

Kneiling was a strong formative influence on my thinking, both through columns and correspondence.  He was delightfully curmudgeonly -- although that could take a bit of getting used to!

Iconoclasts are not usually known for tactful demeanor...   ;-}

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Posted by Euclid on Saturday, March 22, 2014 3:15 PM

Businesses where there is a lot of accumulated tradition bordering on dogma are fertile ground for the iconoclasts.  Kneiling could sure upset an applecart.   As I recall, he was almost as unpopular among Trains readers as was the annual all-diesel issue.

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Posted by ndbprr on Saturday, March 22, 2014 4:03 PM
In any industry there is a certain amount of, "we never did that before". Some of it is justifiable if the risk seems too great. Some of it is lack of vision. Some of it needs somebody to take the risk who has the power to implement the change. In the steel industry we had a saying selling high tech processes. Nobody wants to be the first to buy it but everybody wanted to be number two.
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Posted by Deggesty on Saturday, March 22, 2014 4:15 PM

Yes, I had some doubts at times, but on the whole he made what were to me good points.

There have been many changes in railroading since I became interested back in the fifties. I doubt that a young boy would be able to find an agent who would let him in to his office and broaden his knowledge of railroading--and it may be as difficult to find men in road service who are able to talk with him.

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Posted by dakotafred on Saturday, March 22, 2014 5:38 PM

Kneiling's column ran for a lot longer than 5 years; more like about 17. I want to say from between 1966 and about 1983.

He was discontinued in a most unceremonious manner, on the pretext of freeing up more space for "news." (Don Phillips, in his first "Potomac Pundit" incarnation, was axed at the same time and for the same stated reason; altho I always figured he was sacrificed just to camouflage the real objective of showing Kneiling the door.)

DPM didn't have that much longer to go at Trains  himself, and my theory is he agreed to get rid of Kneiling himself rather than leave that controversial chore to the new man. (Morgan himself had to go, I had from an insider, because his emphysema wouldn't let him do the job any longer.)

The way Kalmbach lost track of Kneiling for its readers, after his long service, is a disgrace. We never even saw an obit; to this day, I don't know when he died.

All I know is, for this reader the departures of Kneiling and then Morgan marked the beginning of a Dark Ages at Trains  from which the magazine was a long time recovering. 

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Posted by Euclid on Saturday, March 22, 2014 5:55 PM

I don’t think Trains would have ever had Kneiling or anyone like him if it were not for DPM.  I think DPM could appreciate a good iconoclast.  But my sense is that the readership might have largely opposed Kneiling.  Have there ever been any polling figures showing agreement or disagreement with Kneiling within the railroad industry, among the Trains readership, and within Kalmbach?

If no polling results are available, what would you guess they would have been?    

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Posted by dakotafred on Saturday, March 22, 2014 6:14 PM

Going by the published letters in Trains, Kneiling caught all kinds of grief from readers, particularly those associated with labor. I should dig out some of my old issues from that era for their annual statements of circulation; reader rage may have taken a toll.

But Euclid is right; DPM, a great writer himself, would have been able to recognize Kneiling's virtue not only as an industry thinker but as a columnist.  

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Posted by CShaveRR on Saturday, March 22, 2014 7:44 PM

Google is your friend...he was born 1/18/1920, died 1/22/2000.  So he was a bit older than DPM.  (But yes, I remember nothing of a mention in Trains at the time.)

I have the book, and have looked at it again from time to time. 

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Posted by Polish Falcon on Saturday, March 22, 2014 8:02 PM

He made Trains Trains. He was like the Rush Limbaugh of railroading

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Posted by dakotafred on Saturday, March 22, 2014 8:08 PM

CShaveRR

Google is your friend...he was born 1/18/1920, died 1/22/2000.  So he was a bit older than DPM.  (But yes, I remember nothing of a mention in Trains at the time.)

I have the book, and have looked at it again from time to time. 

Good job, Shave; but could you site your source? I've Googled also-- starting a long time ago -- but have found nothing except a post about his death (from a supposed son) on TrainOrders.com. I did not take this as definitive.

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Posted by CShaveRR on Saturday, March 22, 2014 8:12 PM

Carl

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Posted by dakotafred on Saturday, March 22, 2014 8:18 PM

Thank you, Carl. I have also seen this. I would call it suggestive but not conclusive -- it's a big country. I'd like to find one site with my command, 'john g kneiling obituary.'

This guy seems to have disappeared into the mists. For Internet purposes, he may have died too early.

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Posted by samfp1943 on Saturday, March 22, 2014 8:44 PM

Euclid

I don’t think Trains would have ever had Kneiling or anyone like him if it were not for DPM.  I think DPM could appreciate a good iconoclast.  But my sense is that the readership might have largely opposed Kneiling.  Have there ever been any polling figures showing agreement or disagreement with Kneiling within the railroad industry, among the Trains readership, and within Kalmbach?

If no polling results are available, what would you guess they would have been?    

Top polish the term, slightly for some younger readers:

This is from Dictionary.com:   i·con·o·clast

[ahy-kon-uh-klast] Show IPA

Noun
1.
a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error or superstition.
2.
a breaker or destroyer of images, especially those set up for religious veneration.
 
2. nonconformist, rebel, dissenter, radical.
 
    John Kneiling was always a very interesting read...and the comment about him and his ability to raise ire in TRAINS Readers was almost an understatement.  When he was writing his columns Railroading was almost a moribund industry.IMHO  The "BeanCounters" were forcing the industry to rationalize and at time it seemed that the Luddites were winning most of the battles, and innovation was something off in the future.
 
  I would think that John Kneiling would really round out the writing being done these days at TRAINS .
He was definitely one to 'stir the pot' and think outside of that box (of norms.)My 2 Cents
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 

Sam

 

 


 

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Posted by Eddie Sand on Saturday, March 22, 2014 8:57 PM

Special tanks to Carl for the additional information on John Kneiling; there is also a thread at railroad.net -- transferred into the  "Railroads in Media" category after the "Famous People in Railroading"  category was discontinued a year or so ago.

Kneiling's son turned up about two years ago and supplied a year of his death, but nothing regarding his residence during his later years (might have been Staten Island) or his final resting place. I would appreciate any help with this so that he can be memorialized at findagrave.com

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Posted by SALfan on Saturday, March 22, 2014 10:08 PM
Mr. Kneiling's column was in Trains when I started reading it in 1979. I still remember his idea that the Milwaukee Road and the Erie should shuck their common-carrier status and combine into an intermodal-only conveyor belt. The ICC would have crapped squealing worms at the mere mention of such heresy, and the management at both roads would have had to be replaced to make it happen, but I wish someone had tried it. Would have been interesting to watch.
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Posted by sandiego on Saturday, March 22, 2014 10:39 PM

I didn't think much of Kneiling when I first read his columns, and many years of experience, both in and out of the railroad industry, have done nothing to change my opinion but to reinforce it instead.

He struck me as a perfect example of the high-priced know-it-all consultant who comes up with an expensive, complicated engineering solution to a what is essentially a political problem.

The railroad industry had already started exploring the unit train concept in the early 1960s but the major obstacle was obtaining ICC approval for unit-train rates that were considerably lower than single-car rates. One example of the difficulties faced by the railroad industry was Southern's "Big John" grain rate case (SOU wanted to offer lower rates for grain moving in 100-ton covered hoppers vs. 40' boxcars): It took "four years of deliberation, 13 hearings before federal appellate courts, and two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court" before the Southern could offer the lower rates. (from Encyclopedia of North American Railroads; Middleton, et al; 2007)

Against this background Kneiling's Integral Train concept seems naive in the extreme. What's the good of this fancy train if a railroad can't offer the rates to haul traffic with it?

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Posted by dakotafred on Sunday, March 23, 2014 7:22 AM

Excellent points, SanDiego. As for me, I found his Integral Train the least interesting of his many lively ideas on the railroad scene, detracting from rail's wonderful versatility and delivering a transportation product very narrow in its application and general usefulness.

I think -- in those days, given the political restrictions on profitability -- he was merely seeking a way to wring what little value was available from an otherwise-compromised and near-hopeless mode, rail.

I have to think, given rail's renaissance, he would have other, better, ideas for us today. 

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Posted by CShaveRR on Sunday, March 23, 2014 7:56 AM

On the other hand, I wonder what he would have thought of some of the things that have happened to railroading since the end of his columns.  He lived, but (as far as I can remember) didn't comment, into the era of containerization that began around 1983 or so.  Double-stacking was a concept he didn't hit on, but I'm certain he would have approved of.  Distributed Power and Positive Train Control (whenever we get to that), and electronic air brakes (whenever we get to that) are all things he would have approved of.

He'd still be grousing about yards and how much they slow down operations.  He'd be sorely disappointed that the Michigan Central line from Joliet to Porter didn't become a major bypass route around Chicago (I remember that column--he was disappointed at the time, but since then most of the line has disappeared completely).  Rotary dumpers would take too long for unloading coal.   He'd probably have ideas for passenger rail that other people have had already, but nobody wants to spend the money on.  

He'd still be stirring the pot...only difference is that the pot is at least simmering now. 

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Posted by aricat on Sunday, March 23, 2014 8:37 AM

John Kneiling was a railfan who understood the industry. During the 1970's I rarely read Kneiling; mostly because I felt that he was on the conservative side of the divide and I wasn't. I was a railfan who liked trains but really didn't understand the industry. I was a union member working in another industry. I don't think that I was alone among Trains readers. David P Morgan also understood the industry and that is why he hired Kneiling. I think that he knew there were readers who didn't read Kneiling and I don't think he cared. Kneiling was written for those who both could and might change the industry; not mere train watchers.

I read  Kneiling's column in the June 1978 Trains issue quoting his last two paragraphs: Some readers claim that I shouldn't pick on railroaders this way. It is said they're doing the best they can. If so, someone should give them guidance. The theme is simple,and it is not a novel. A railroad can be a useful mode of conveyance, but it is not a toy and must be used effectively. The real world counts its money, and capital is not free(unless you believe the politicians). Now who will run the railroads as if he really means it?

Some of us who failed to read Kneiling in the 1970's might learn something if we re-read him today.

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Posted by daveklepper on Sunday, March 23, 2014 10:38 AM

I read Kneiling as youngster in TRAINS, and thought many of his ideas excellent.  I did not understand the political limitations and wondered why the railroads were not moving faster.  I also got to know the man, because he organized many of the fan-trips in the New York area, always doing something weird, like a flatcar pushed and occupied by railfans in front of five Third Avenue Elevated  gate cars up the Express Track of the elevated on a Sunday moring.  That one time a fantrip made the front page of the New York Times with photo!  Or the Bluebird articulated BMT subway train on streetcar and freight tracks in Brooklyn pulled by a Souh Brooklyn steeple-cab trolley equipped work and frieght motor.  On his streetcar trips in the Bronx and Brooklyn (too often the last car on a particular line the Sunday after the last day, a Saturday, of regular service), I was the official pole puller and enjoyed the job which took all my arm muscle power.  Another youngster my age was the seat-back reverser.  And a third the switch iron manipulator.  He very gruff and very demanding, but he liked youngsters, and he knew the experience of being useful around a railroad was even more valuable to a youngster than taking pictures.  I would say, in retrospect, considering all he did for me as New York teenager, I would have to say I loved the man.

Another excellent older Train columnist, far more conservative technically, was Edward Hungerford, who also organized the wonderful Railroads On Parade show the NY Worlds Fare 1939-1940.

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Posted by Firelock76 on Sunday, March 23, 2014 10:48 AM

Dave, your stories are priceless!  I know the name John Kneiling, as my father-in-law was a "Trains" subscriber I remember the "Professional Iconoclast" columns, but as I wasn't a railfan at the time I didn't pay much attention to them or even knew what he was talking about.

Considering that out of the ordinary fantrip he put together for you it sounds like Mr. Kneiling, like most iconoclasts, had a real sense of humor and a heart of gold under that gruff exterior.

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Posted by henry6 on Sunday, March 23, 2014 11:01 AM

I always read Knieling with interest.  If any thing his message was to "think outside the box" as if he were the inventor of the phrase.  At any rate, he implored railroad management, shippers, and governing agencies to look for new and different ways to provide economical transportation that would benefit all.  He wanted them to think not in terms of the heritage of the gauge, the automatic coupler, air brakes, diesels, work rules, and the ICC but of how things could be or had to be done as if none of that existed, as if they had to start new, as if they had to reinvent themselves for the future.  The same old same old, he warned, was not going to last, was not the future of railroading or transportation, that they had to make new friends and new enemies in order to move forward.  His unit train theory was just an example.  He asked about keeping the 5 ft 6 and one half inch gauge as well as the marketing strategies of the time as well as the strangling ICC.  Every business and every industry has had or has their Knielings.  If it weren't for the likes of them, the whole country would still be back in the 90's. the 1890s.  While offering up their own ideas and programs their real aim was to make the leaders and shakers think about what and how to change for the future.

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Posted by MP173 on Sunday, March 23, 2014 12:33 PM

On this cold spring day with snow alternating with sun, I will grab a handful of Trains from the 70s and read a few of his columns.   They were informative to me at the time...and he did stir the pot.  Oh, my the letters to the editor.

Trains did enter the dark ages upon the retirement of DPM.  What a master.  While I do not have the article at hand, my favorite article of his dealt with encountering steam west of Mattoon, Il and his aging.  Look away, look away.

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Posted by Paul_D_North_Jr on Sunday, March 23, 2014 3:10 PM

CShaveRR
On the other hand, I wonder what he would have thought of some of the things that have happened to railroading since the end of his columns.  He lived, but (as far as I can remember) didn't comment, into the era of containerization that began around 1983 or so.  Double-stacking was a concept he didn't hit on, but I'm certain he would have approved of.  Distributed Power and Positive Train Control (whenever we get to that), and electronic air brakes (whenever we get to that) are all things he would have approved of.

He'd still be grousing about yards and how much they slow down operations.  He'd be sorely disappointed that the Michigan Central line from Joliet to Porter didn't become a major bypass route around Chicago (I remember that column--he was disappointed at the time, but since then most of the line has disappeared completely).  Rotary dumpers would take too long for unloading coal.   He'd probably have ideas for passenger rail that other people have had already, but nobody wants to spend the money on.  

He'd still be stirring the pot...only difference is that the pot is at least simmering now. 

"+1"

I too bought the book - lent it to a friend who's in the management of a regional.  It's probably doing more good with him than with me.

Many - but not all - of John's ideas have been adopted.  Some are still valid and will be widespread someday, I think; others, not so much.  And some things have happened that he didn't anticipate.  A few examples (in no particular order):

Radio-Controlled Locomotives by belt packs and one-man operation are changes he advocated.

DPU's are a significant step towards his idea of the power being under the load-carrying cars.

He was definitely in favor of ECP brakes, and a step further - the separate "high-air" line used by some of the steel / iron ore railroads, sometimes called "Orinoco brakes" (see page 91 of John Leonard's book on the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railway, MBI Publishing Co., 2005); see also http://www.trainorders.com/discussion/read.php?10,2778844 

http://www.altamontpress.com/discussion/read.php?1,95925,95925 

Domestic containerization and the involvement on non-rail marketers and "3PLs" - J.B. Hunt, Schneider National, Pacer Intermodal, etc. - in chartering the intermodal trains was definitely something he was in favor of.

Drawbars between intermodal well cars conform to his vision.

He did not approve of the big, expensive, intermodal terminals - felt they were too expensive and not close enough to the traffic origins/ destinations.  the CPR "Expressway" / CSX "Iron Highway" and RoadRailer are more what he had in mind.  Side-loading container trucks are manufactured and used in other parts of the world, and he would not understand why they haven't taken hold here. 

Proposed crude-by-rail for the Alaskan oil, and would no doubt be somewhat happy with present operations.

Many of the unit train (coal, iron ore, grain, potash, containers, auto-racks/ multi-levels, etc.) and run-through operations have adopted his principles - leave the power on for the entire trip, and just service it at a run-through facility. 

He claimed to have invented "flood-loading" of coal as it's now practiced.  He despised rotary car dumpers as being more for the benefit of the hardware salesman than any user, and instead advocated bottom-dump rapid-discharge systems (Miner's Auto-Mec, Trinity's RDL, etc.) to unload and turn a train far more quickly. 

But he would not be happy with present-day car utilization and average train speeds, and hence the excessive amount of capital needed, poorer service, higher costs, and lower returns. 

Deregulation (Staggers Act) seemed like it followed what he wrote. 

He would have approved of the many line abandonments and turn-overs to regionals and short-lines.

His social rhetoric made clear that he could have been a presidential candidate for the Libertarian and/ or Tea Parties - or at least the chief theoretician for their platforms.  Likewise for the "Right-to-Work" advocates.

Despite his inveighing against ConRail - which might have been justified in the early years - it managed to survive and then thrive long enough to refute his dire predictions, and be sold at an apparent profit.  

But Amtrak is still here, along with many more commuter agencies and light rail operations, chief among them the NYC subway and Long Island RR which he loved to hate.   

His proposed system of gas-turbines on individual power trucks, coupled by either side-rods or large chains, has seen zero interest. 

He did not foresee AC-drive locomotives.

He did foresee the increase in car weights, and the challenge of evaluating whether the benefits outweigh the added costs.    

His biggest criticism was the ignorance of costing in rail managements, but that now appears to be a critical part of the decision-making process for almost all purposes.

The decline of the boxcar and many more shippers owning their cars is something he advocated, to get the railroads out of that no-win, money-losing proposition.

He would have eliminated "loose car" / general freight railroading, instead using either containers or unit trains.  I think we can see now that freight cars have a niche for volumes and O-D pairs that are not big enough for a dedicated train, but would take way too many containers to be economic (3 to 5 containers worth of freight can fit in 1 freight car).  

That's about all I can think of right now, but I'm sure there are many more in each category.

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Posted by MP173 on Sunday, March 23, 2014 3:19 PM

I would say he had a pretty good vision of railroading in this era.

Thanks Paul for the listing.

Ed

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Posted by Overmod on Sunday, March 23, 2014 3:27 PM

Paul_D_North_Jr
His proposed system of gas-turbines on individual power trucks, coupled by either side-rods or large chains, has seen zero interest. 

It does have to be said, in all fairness, that gas turbines at the time Kneiling took them up were seen as inexpensive ways to provide lightweight distributed power to go on modular integral trainset equipment, and the associated hydromechanical transmissions were cheap and could be made reliable.  He made a good case for a type of operation that has only JUST been re-introduced by Don Oltmann -- for the 2040s -- operating different parts of a train in 'blocks' for rapid reassignment to other consists without the need of touching any of the containers or trucks in the block.

I had to chuckle at the post that condemned him over regulated rates, but did not mention his advocacy of the 'iron ocean' over which his trains were intended to run, divorced of any concern over routings that might need to be externally economically regulated.  The latter was far more 'unthinkable' then (and actually more so, in many cases, now), but represents among other things about the only framework under which wider adoption of electrification might develop...

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Posted by Paul_D_North_Jr on Sunday, March 23, 2014 4:12 PM

Some 15 years after John first suggested gas-turbines, the Honeywell AGT1500 gas turbine became the engine for the U.S. Army's M1 Abrams series of Main Battle Tanks.  Although I've heard that their fuel consumption is prodigious* when compared to a diesel, perhaps cycling some of them in a train on-and-off - to be running only when needed - would address that issue.  Otherwise, at 2,500 lbs. for 1,500 HP (1,200 HP per ton tare weight), and 66.5" long x 39" x 31.8" size, it could probably fit on a freight car or locomotive truck or at the end of a car (like under a hopper car slope sheet) fairly well.  

*10 gals just to start it, 10 gals. / hr. when idling, 60 gals. per hour when running cross-country, per http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M1_Abrams#Tactical

See also:

http://www51.honeywell.com/aero/common/documents/myaerospacecatalog-documents/SurfaceSystems/AGT1500_Turbine_Technology.pdf

http://www51.honeywell.com/aero/common/documents/myaerospacecatalog-documents/SurfaceSystems/AGT1500_Turbine_Technology.pdf 

http://turbotrain.net/en/m1tank.htm 

Railroad use simulation - http://turbotrain.net/en/ifm1powerpackavailable.htmv

http://forum.worldoftanks.com/index.php?/topic/252174-m1-abrams-fuel-consumption/ 

http://www.g2mil.com/abramsdiesel.htm 

- Paul North. 

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Posted by Paul_D_North_Jr on Sunday, March 23, 2014 4:20 PM

Overmod
[snipped - PDN] . . . I had to chuckle at the post that condemned him over regulated rates, but did not mention his advocacy of the 'iron ocean' over which his trains were intended to run, divorced of any concern over routings that might need to be externally economically regulated.  The latter was far more 'unthinkable' then (and actually more so, in many cases, now), but represents among other things about the only framework under which wider adoption of electrification might develop...

John's "iron ocean" concept was indeed unrelated to a regulatory scheme, as was much of his other commercial aspects. 

He envisioned - after abandonments and other plant rationalizations - a nationwide network or system of about 40,000 to 50,000 miles on mainline tracks, similar in size and scope to the Interstate highway system.  I think if you look at a traffic density map or the STRACNET system, that's about where we are now.  He also wanted interchange to be more fluid and less of a slow and cumbersome process, and we're partway to that goal now (except maybe Chicago).

I don't recall that he had much to say about electrification, one way or the other, besides praising it for the PRR's ability to run passenger trains like streetcars during World War II.  Perhaps electrification's capital intensive need - in an industry that was already wasting capital, in his oft-stated opinion - would have been even more of an unwise choice.

- Paul North. 

"This Fascinating Railroad Business" (title of 1943 book by Robert Selph Henry of the AAR)

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