Serving Pittsburgh, the right way

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, November 19, 2020

Taking the train these days from Pittsburgh to New York — or vice versa — is a pretty simple and, frankly, a rather sad affair. You’ve got one choice, Amtrak trains 42 and 43, the daily Pennsylvanian, and if you can’t make either one work, you’re left with driving or flying. 

The state of Pennsylvania is hoping to improve the situation by adding a second daily train, beginning in the 2023-24 fiscal year, which would be a big improvement. The state predicts annual ridership could grow from the present 215,000 to 378,000 within four years. But all that really would do is raise the route to the same standard it lost 15 years ago when the Three Rivers — itself a daylight remnant of the Broadway Limited — was discontinued. Such is how we measure progress.

It didn’t used to be that way. Although they never got the attention of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s famous limiteds to Chicago or St. Louis, once upon a time PRR’s Pittsburgh–New York trains served a critical mass of corporate power. Tables 21 and 22 of PRR’s September 1955 system timetable carded no fewer than 21 trains each way between Pittsburgh’s Penn Station and its counterpart in Manhattan, most of them included as portions of New York–Midwest overnight service. 

The service reflected Pittsburgh’s status as a city of big business. At one time or another, it ranked in the top third among U.S. cities in terms of corporate headquarters, with some of the great names of American industry: U.S. Steel, Gulf Oil, Westinghouse Electric, Alcoa Aluminum, H. J. Heinz, and Koppers Chemical. The executives and managers running these companies were regulars on PRR trains headed to the banking centers of New York and Philadelphia. 

To get a deeper sense of all this, I checked in with my favorite PRR historian Dan Cupper, who recently began a new stint as editor of Railroad History, the journal of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society. Dan’s 1992 book Crossroads of Commerce, ostensibly about PRR’s Grif Teller calendar paintings, is actually a classic study of the Pennsy at high tide.

“The Pittsburgh market was important to the PRR for many reasons,” Dan told me. “The railroad’s most notable answer to this need was the Pittsburgher, an all-Pullman overnight to/from New York, inaugurated in 1924. It was frequented by the Mellon banking family and other scions of the Pittsburgh business world. This was acknowledged in 1956 when PRR renamed Pullmans used on the Pittsburgher for captains of western Pennsylvania industry.”

Dan points out that the route was also at the very heart of the PRR, with its heaviest concentration of tonnage originating or passing through along the four tracks of the Pittsburgh, Middle, Philadelphia, and New York Divisions. “And Pittsburgh was also strategic because Pennsy’s passenger main lines split for Chicago and St. Louis right inside the station,” he adds.

For the daylight trade in the Pittsburgh market, PRR fielded a number of trains, among them the Steel King, the Duquesne and the Juniata. But it was trains 60 and 61, the Pittsburgher, that really defined the market. In its salad days of the late 1940s and early ’50s, the train carried as many as 10 sleeping cars. That it remained first-class-only as late as 1964 is a minor miracle from today’s perspective.

In a November 2000 story for Trains, Cupper recounted the story of one typical Pittsburgher passenger, Willard Harvey, whose father, a department store buyer, traveled to New York once or twice a month to visit the apparel markets. Occasionally, the son would accompany his dad. 

“It was well maintained,” Harvey told Cupper. “We’d get on in the evening, and they had a beautiful spread of cheeses and crackers in the lounge car. I was too young to have a beer or glass of wine, but my dad did, then off to bed. I always thought of it as one of the class trains of the railroad.”

Class train or not, the Pittsburgher met its inevitable fate fairly early. By the early 1960s, PRR President Allen J. Greenough had begun to note the train’s dwindling passenger count, urging his subordinates to take a fresh look. Although there was evidence the train was actually covering its costs, and perhaps even making money, the railroad decided to discontinue it, in effect folding it into the eastbound Manhattan Limited and the westbound Pennsylvania Limited, both New York–Chicago trains. The final runs of 60 and 61 came on September 13, 1964.

That wasn’t the end of Pittsburgh–New York service, of course. In the April 1965 timetable — nearly on the eve of Penn Central — the PRR was still offering plenty of trains, 10 eastbound and 8 westbound, although some of that was due to the railroad billing itself as the “Gateway to the New York World’s Fair,” which closed in October 1965. 

Assuming the new Biden Administration takes office on January 20, the odds for another Amtrak train across Pennsylvania might not be as long as you think. One can hope. Two trains are always better than one. And seeing Norfolk Southern’s greatest inheritance — the 250 miles of former PRR main line between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, including the heart of the Alleghenies — remains one of the best train rides in America. 

Note: Technical problems are preventing us from including any photos with this week's post. 

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