My Life with Trains: Memoir of a Railroader

My Life with Trains: Memoir of a Railroader

by Jim McClellan


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Named one of the "75 People You Should Know" by Trains Magazine, Jim McClellan was a railroading legend and one of the railroad industry's titans. An iconic and innovative executive, McClellan participated in the creation of both Amtrak and Conrail and worked for the Norfolk Southern, the New York Central, US Railway Association, and the Federal Railroad Administration. My Life with Trains combines a world-class photographer's love of railroading with the insights of a government and railroad official. The book provides a short historical overview of the changes in the industry, recounts McClellan's experience at various railroads, and offers personal reflections on a lifetime of working with and chasing trains. Expertly detailed with over 250 stunning color photographs, My Life with Trains covers sixty years as observed by a legendary railroad strategist.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253044952
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2019
Series: Railroads Past and Present
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 958,276
Product dimensions: 9.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jim McClellan was a veteran of the railroad industry.

Read an Excerpt

My Life with Trains

Memoir of a Railroader

By Jim McClellan

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2017 James McClellan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02408-4



How the once-dominant northeastern rail network fell from grace and is now run from Jacksonville and Norfolk, and how the northeastern railroad crisis forced a basic change in the structure of railroading.


Growing up in south Texas in the mid-1950s, I was fascinated by stories about northeastern railroading. At the time, south Texas was a railroad backwater. Single-tracked lines handled between eight and ten trains a day. The Northeast, as I learned from Trains magazine and Railroad magazine, was a land of multiple-tracked main lines that often saw as many trains in an hour as a railroad serving San Antonio did in a day. A trip to Washington, DC, in 1955 let me see northeastern railroading firsthand. It lived up to its advance billing, so much so that I decided to attend the University of Pennsylvania, lured largely by its proximity to big-time northeastern railroading (30th Street Station was a short walk from the Penn campus).

The Northeast would also loom large in my career, with jobs at the New York Central and the Penn Central after the merger. Early into that merger it was obvious to me that it would fail and I left for the public sector, with tours at the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak, and the US Railway Association. I returned to the private sector and ultimately landed back at the Southern (later Norfolk Southern). There, my work focused on rail mergers and line rationalization, including the merger of the Southern and the Norfolk & Western (to create NS) and the acquisition of over half of Conrail to create the current NS system (the largest northeastern railroad). Years of chasing trains around the Northeast gave me knowledge of the network that was invaluable when it was time to redraw the northeastern rail map: once while in government (creating Conrail), and again at NS (splitting Conrail).


The railroad industry has undergone monumental change, and the epicenter of much of that change was the Northeast. In the 1950s, it was the home of the power players in the rail industry: the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central, with the Baltimore & Ohio and a host of lesser players filling in behind them. All carriers of any size operated passenger, mail, and express trains as well as a spiderweb of feeder lines. It was quite a show.

Sixty years later, all of that had changed. Declining traffic and profits led to bankruptcies, mergers, abandonments, and new ways of organizing the railroad business. Passenger services became the ward of federal, state, and local governments, and much of the freight feeder network was abandoned or transferred to new low-cost, short-line operators. Control of the northeastern freight network moved from Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia, and Jacksonville, Florida. The only major railroads now based in the Northeast are Amtrak and Genesee and Wyoming. The northeastern rail crisis redefined the relationship between the government and the rail industry and led to the creation of Amtrak and Conrail (CR) and the passage of the Staggers Act, a law that fundamentally changed how railroads related to their customers.


In 1950 northeastern railroads were the busiest and richest in North America. Manufacturing was king, requiring the movement of huge volumes of coal, iron ore, steel, automobiles, and a host of other industrial products. That traffic volume supported what were the most profitable railroads in the nation for more than one hundred years. Heavy traffic density required a robust infrastructure: the Northeast hosted the most miles of multiple-tracked routes as well as the most sophisticated signal systems. Significant segments of the network were electrified. (Electrification was a rarity elsewhere in North America.)

The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) was the largest railroad in the nation in terms of revenues, passenger-miles, and ton-miles: it accounted for a full 10 percent of rail industry activity in 1950. With more than a little arrogance, it called itself the "Standard Railroad of the World" — not the United States, not North America, but the world. The PRR stretched from Manhattan to Chicago and St. Louis via Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. It did not serve New England and relied on the New Haven (NYNH&H or NH) for access to that market. The PRR operated an extensive network of intercity passenger trains, led by the all-Pullman Broadway Limited between New York and Chicago. The PRR operated what was and remains the busiest intercity rail passenger line in the nation — New York and Washington — and had major commuter services in New York and Philadelphia as well as some minor markets.

The New York Central (NYC) was, in terms of volume and revenues, the second-largest railroad in both the region and the nation and actually had more route-miles than the PRR. At a time when there were many great trains, its flagship passenger train, the 20th Century Limited, was probably the most famous passenger train in the world. New York Central operated extensive commuter services out of Grand Central Terminal in New York. Like the PRR, the NYC served virtually all of the important northeastern markets, linking the East Coast to the Midwest through its main line through upstate New York and Cleveland. However, it did not reach Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington.

The third major carrier in the region was the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O), which mimicked the route structure of the PRR but with its heart in Baltimore rather than Philadelphia. It was a more modest and friendly (and less arrogant) version of its competitor to the north. While it reached most important markets in the region, it had to rely on connecting railroads — the Reading and the Central of New Jersey — to reach the greater New York and New England markets. The B&O infrastructure was adequate, if not great, and its main routes were double-tracked. But it was built early and the alignment reflected that fact; unlike the PRR, it never had the financial resources for a major "do-over" of its track structure. It also operated extensive passenger service led by its premier train, the Capitol Limited, as well as commuter services in Baltimore/Washington and Pittsburgh.

These three railroads were the dominant players in the Northeast in 1950. They do not survive as corporations, but portions of their main-line network continue to be important. Surprisingly, the line survival rate has been higher for both the NYC and the B&O; much of the mighty PRR main-line network has been transferred to regional carriers or to Amtrak. And while PRR's Harrisburg-to-Cleveland route remains a busy freight route, its once busy lines to Chicago and St. Louis have largely fallen by the wayside.

The "big three" were supplemented by a number of secondary carriers, including the Erie-Lackawanna, the Reading, the New Haven, the Boston & Maine, the Maine Central, the Western Maryland, the Nickel Plate, the Delaware & Hudson, and the Wabash. They all shared a common trait: they lacked the market coverage of the major carriers. All northeastern railroad carriers faced daunting obstacles as the economy of the region declined. Starting in the 1950s, heavy industry, such as steel, declined in both relative and absolute importance. Some of these changes reflected new technology (such as aluminum replacing steel) and some the relocation of manufacturing to places with lower labor costs, lower taxes, and less regulation. Most of this relocation was to the south and the west; shifts to Mexico and China would come decades later. And with the building of limited access highways (toll roads and then the Interstate System), trucks took an increasing share of the freight market. Smaller roads, at least the ones that did not find a "sugar daddy" (think the Nickel Plate being acquired by the Norfolk & Western), faced an especially bleak future. Nowhere was the pain more intense than in New England where short hauls, intense passenger operations, and a lack of significant coal traffic combined to create a recipe for failure.

The southern flank of the Northeast was protected by two of the most profitable railroads in the land. The Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) and the Norfolk & Western (N&W) made their big bucks from gathering coal from mines in Virginia and West Virginia and hauling it either downhill to the Atlantic Ocean for export or westward to midwestern steel mills and power plants. The C&O and N&W both had the heavy-duty, double-tracked lines that were needed to handle coal traffic. Both operated a limited network of fine but money-losing passenger trains and neither had commuter services. Most importantly, however, these two railroads had the financial clout to enable them to survive and become the basis for restructuring eastern railroading. The rail system we have today, based on the CSX and NS, can be partially traced to the acquisitions made by the C&O and the N&W, and was fueled by those early coal profits.

As a sidebar of interest to the railfan, both the C&O and the N&W operated steam locomotives well past the time when other railroads had shifted to diesels. In 1955, the N&W still produced more than 99 percent of its transportation services — freight, passenger, and switching — with steam locomotives. That it still made a lot of money was testimony to the efficiency of its core coal business and to the high level of its coal rates.


The robust infrastructure that had permitted the northeastern railroads to move vast amounts of both cargo and passengers in the 1950s was now a huge economic liability. But paring the infrastructure required money for modern signals and new track connections, and that capital was increasingly hard to find. When the NYC automated Selkirk Yard, it had to take out tracks on the Hudson Division main line to obtain the rail needed for the yard. There were some brave attempts to change with the times. The New York Central's president Alfred E. Perlman modernized the NYC with the same tools Bill Brosnan was using at the Southern Railway (SR): automated yards, welded rail, traffic control, and a host of other efficiencies. But where business in the South was booming, all of the NYC's modernization could not compensate for the loss of freight traffic. Sometimes doing the right thing is not enough.

The 1960s were a grim time for railroads in the Northeast. Profits disappeared along with much of the traffic. In an effort to reduce costs, maintenance of both track and equipment was curtailed. That in turn led to slower speeds and a further loss of traffic, setting up a downward spiral. The lack of money showed, and the northeastern railroad scene looked increasingly shabby.

Mergers were one way to reduce overhead as well as remove redundant capacity. For example, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western merged with the Erie in 1960, providing the Lackawanna with longer hauls and the Erie with some much-needed volume on its Chicago line (at the expense of former DL&W partners such as the Nickel Plate). The Norfolk & Western moved beyond its traditional coal base with its acquisition of the Nickel Plate and the PRR-owned Wabash, extending its empire from Tidewater, Virginia, to Kansas City, Missouri (still the longest single system reach of an eastern-based system under single ownership). Even then, coal played a role in the westward march: the new routes allowed the N&W to extend its existing coal business beyond the Columbus, Ohio, gateway into the heart of the Midwest.

The NYC's Al Perlman had long desired a merger with the Chesapeake & Ohio. It was a natural fit that would fill in gaps in both systems, and the C&O's coal profits would have provided much-needed financial stability to the NYC. In the late 1990s, after the split of Conrail by CSX and NS, the NYC and the C&O essentially became part of CSX, the grandson of the C&O. But in the early sixties, the C&O pursued the B&O instead, and gained a controlling interest in the B&O in 1962. This put Perlman in a box. In 1968 he finally, and reluctantly, pursued a merger with the NYC's archrival, the Pennsylvania Railroad. The PRR was bigger and far less advanced technologically, and its passenger train losses were far greater. But some action seemed essential at the time, however misguided it now seems in retrospect. So the Penn Central was created. It turned out to be the equivalent of lashing two drowning men together with the hope that together they could survive — two drowning men who also did not like each other at all. It was a prescription for disaster. The failure of the Penn Central in 1970 created shock waves that forced a fundamental change in how railroads related to the government. Essentially, passenger train losses, a declining freight market, modal competition, excessive regulation, outdated work rules, and a lot of incompetent management decisions shoved the Penn Central over the edge. It was the largest US bankruptcy at the time and shook up investors, government officials, and rail customers. (See chapters 9 and 10 for more of this story.)

For both railroaders and railfans, the 1960s were a time of despair. Some railroads, such as the Erie-Lackawanna, tried to keep up appearances, while others, such as the Central of New Jersey, looked as ragged as their income statements. No one had any idea whether things would ever get better. It was an ugly and scary era.


As the 1970s began, the Northeast railroad scene was coalescing into three broad groups:

• Solvent carriers. This group was dominated by the Chesapeake & Ohio/Baltimore & Ohio (C&O/B&&O) and the now-expanded Norfolk & Western.

• A giant financial cripple. The core of the Penn Central's freight operations was only marginally profitable, and the passenger and branch-line services were such a drain that the entire enterprise was failing. The Penn Central was also encumbered by ownership of the hopeless New Haven, a financial burden forced onto the Penn Central by the Interstate Commerce Commission as a condition of merger.

• The smaller insolvents. This group included the Boston & Maine, the Erie-Lackawanna, the Central Railroad of New Jersey, and the Lehigh Valley. With the exception of the LV, most had substantial and very unprofitable commuter operations, and their freight traffic and revenues were in rapid decline.

Nixon was in the White House, and Republicans are not noted for wanting to expand the role of government. Their bias was to just let the railroads die and sell the assets at the courthouse steps. But as the northeastern rail crisis unfolded, there was pressure from some key Republican constituencies (think General Motors and U.S. Steel) to craft solutions to save the Penn Central. The smaller carriers were not deemed sufficiently important to require federal intervention. The task of finding a solution at minimum cost fell to the then-new Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Railroad Administration.

Whether the railroads would be nationalized or not was a very real question. After all, the United States was the last major country other than Canada with a private-sector rail industry. And even in Canada, one of the two major companies was owned by the government. Even the best railroads' profits (measured by return on investment) were dismal, and many observers questioned whether private-sector railroading could survive. The DOT's initial hope was to contain the crisis by relieving the carriers of their intercity passenger train deficits; with those deficits gone, perhaps the Penn Central could avoid bankruptcy. The solution was Amtrak: a classic government compromise that satisfied none of the constituencies (see chapter 8). Amtrak did save a core intercity rail passenger service, but intercity trains were only part of the passenger problem. Amtrak did not address commuter service deficits, which for most sick railroads were even bigger losers.

Ultimately, and years later, most of the passenger train issues would be addressed. Relieving freight railroads of most of the financial burdens of passenger service was as important a part of the rail renaissance as the Staggers Act or improved labor productivity. But for the Penn Central, Amtrak was too little, too late: the railroad declared bankruptcy on June 21, 1970, almost a year before Amtrak started operations. Soon, thanks partly to the destruction caused by Hurricane Agnes, it was joined in bankruptcy by a host of smaller companies, including the Erie-Lackawanna, the Lehigh Valley, the Reading, the Central Railroad of New Jersey, and the Boston & Maine. All except the B&M opted to participate in the government-designed and government-funded rescue mission directed by the US Railway Association (USRA). The C&O/B&&O and the N&W remained profitable and the railroad crisis did not engulf the entire Northeast. But Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and most of New England were the domain of failed railroads that might soon be liquidated. Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and even parts of Illinois were at risk as well.


Excerpted from My Life with Trains by Jim McClellan. Copyright © 2017 James McClellan. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Part I. Railroads: 1950-2014
1. The Northeast
2. The Southeast
3. The Midwest
4. The West
5. Canada
Part II. Railroader
6. Look Ahead, Look South
7. Road of the Century
8. Creating Amtrak
9. Working at Amtrak
10. The Creation of Conrail
11. Look South, Again
12. The Quest for Conrail

What People are Saying About This

"Jim McClellan has gathered up a treasure trove of inside stories and tells them with precision and gusto. This book should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in the "whos," "hows," and "whys" of recent railroad history."

President & Chief Operating Officer, Conrail - Ronald L. Batory

The shared experiences and observations of Jim McClellan from both a public and private sector perspective lend the reader an appreciation for the state of our interwoven freight and passenger systems. My Life with Trains capsulizes rail industry planning dynamics and the evolving accomplishments during an era of financial weakness to the emerging Renaissance.

Herb Harwood

Jim McClellan has gathered up a treasure trove of inside stories and tells them with precision and gusto. This book should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in the "whos," "hows," and "whys" of recent railroad history.

Herb Harwood]]>

Jim McClellan has gathered up a treasure trove of inside stories and tells them with precision and gusto. This book should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in the "whos," "hows," and "whys" of recent railroad history.

Rush Loving

Jim McClellan dives into his treasure chest of reminisces and describes in rich detail an excellent and fresh view of American railroading during the last half of the 20th century. The book's real beauty is the air of innocence and charm that is created by McClellan's unvarnished view of events and the world in general. McClellan's photos are also exceptional and will serve as a handy guide for any rail buff or historian.

retired Founder and CEO, Indiana Rail Road - Tom Hoback

Jim McClellan is one of the most widely known and respected railroaders of my generation and few have had more direct involvement in the major reorganization of the industry. McClellan's personal observations will be extremely useful for anyone who wonders how and why the railroad industry has made such a complete turnaround in the past 30-40 years. This book is an excellent read and a valuable research tool.

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