Working Harder

Posted by George Hamlin
on Monday, January 2, 2023

Back in the 1960s, rental car company Avis pitched itself using the tagline “We Try Harder”, directed at industry-leader Hertz.  Not only was it memorable then, but Avis continues to use the slogan today, over fifty years later; you can see for yourself on the web, at:

In a number of respects, this description could have been applied in the railroad business to the Erie Lackawanna.  The 1960 combination of the Erie and the Delaware Lackawanna & Western allowed the new entity to shed some duplicate trackage in New York state, but certainly did not create anything resembling a powerhouse entity among the eastern railroads of the time.

The Erie, of course, made it all the way to Chicago (the Lackawanna didn’t get further west than Buffalo, New York), but was never a major factor in the New York-Chicago passenger market, and likewise on the freight side of the ledger, although its connection with the New Haven railroad at Maybrook, New York allowed it to access traffic between the Midwest and southern New England that neither the New York Central or Pennsylvania could contend successfully for, since the New Haven was quite content to “long-haul” freight traffic moving in this lane via its Poughkeepsie Bridge route.

In 1968, however, the NYC and PRR merged (and were forced to include the New Haven as of 1969).  This initially cost the EL traffic, since it was a relatively short haul from Cedar Hill yard in New Haven, Connecticut, the New Haven’s principal freight traffic hub, to Springfield, Massachusetts, where it could head to the Midwest via the NYC’s Boston and Albany route.  Furthermore, in 1974, the Poughkeepsie Bridge burned, and was not returned to service, rendering the Maybrook routing moot, in any case.

However, the Penn Central and had declared bankruptcy in the summer of 1970.  In 1972, the Erie Lackawanna followed the PC into bankruptcy court, following extensive damage to much of its eastern infrastructure by Hurricane Agnes in June of that year. Following the PC’s financial debacle, according to Wikipedia (, “The EL also gained a lucrative contract with United Parcel Service in 1970, which led to the operation of five dedicated intermodal trains daily between New Jersey and Chicago”.

While the Erie Lackawanna’s routing was longer than the Penn Central’s, the “EL was able to land large contracts with UPS because of its ability to move piggyback traffic between Chicago and Metro New York more reliably, although not faster than Penn Central”.  In the late 1960s, the EL had acquired a unique fleet of EMD SDP45s for their long-haul piggyback services; these ostensibly “passenger” locomotives lacked steam generators, but their longer frames, versus “stock” SD45s, coupled with no need to carry water to generate steam, permitted the installation of large fuel tanks that required fewer fuel stops.

“Hustle Muscle” was the name applied to the Great Northern’s first SD45, a nod to the unit’s 3,600 horsepower rating; the EL was an entire railroad that hustled, and snatched a demanding, albeit high-value customer, UPS, away from the then-incumbent, Penn Central.

Alas, all this eventually was for naught, as the EL never recovered from its own bankruptcy, and was folded into Conrail at its inception in 1976.  The western end of the Erie Lackawanna was abandoned as a through route, and today’s large intermodal volumes move in and out of the New York City metro area via the former NYC West Shore (CSX) and an amalgamation of the former Reading and Lehigh Valley (NS).

As seen in the photo above, at Croxton Yard in Secaucus, New Jersey, on February 29, 1976, however, once there was a scrappy railroad that not only tried harder, but won, versus its larger, seemingly more powerful opponent.  Note the UPS trailers (red vertical stripes) following the locomotives on this eastbound arrival, as well as another behind the IC trailer on the adjacent track.

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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