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April 14, 2017

"Getting There" - The Greatest Railroad NEVER Built

What happens when a great transportation idea gets ahead of itself?  Consider the story of the greatest American railroad that never got built.

We are all familiar with The Twentieth Century Limited and The Broadway Limited, the crack trains of the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads that ran for decades between New York and Chicago.

Those daily trains defined deluxe, pampering passengers with plush Pullman cars, fine dining and even an on-train barber shop.  But they each took 16 hours to make the run because they took different circuitous routes.  The NY Central followed the “water level route” north to Albany, then across upstate New York and down the coast of Lake Erie.  The Pennsylvania RR journeyed south to Philadelphia, then west to Pittsburgh and beyond.

Today on Amtrak the NYC to Chicago run takes 19 hours following the route of the Twentieth Century.  Compare that to modern Chinese high speed trains that run from Beijing to Shanghai (about the same distance as NY to Chicago) in just five hours.

But way back in 1905, inventor Alexander Miller had a better idea:  build a brand new, flat and straight interurban railroad that would run directly between the two cities, The Chicago – New York Electric Air Line Railroad.

The train would be “faster than the limited” and make the run in 10 hours for $10 a ticket.  Powered by the new marvel of electricity, the train could operate at a third the cost of steam engines.  And by running in a straight line the 743 mile route would be 168 to 237 miles shorter than its competitors.  In principal, it was brilliant.  And the timing was perfect.

Mind you, its interurban cars (think trolley cars on steroids) might not be as plush, but they would average 70+ mph thanks to the almost flat grade of one percent and no pesky grade crossings.  There would also be few stops as the route would bypass all major cities.  And this train would be fast… 100 mph on the straight-aways!

Five million dollars worth of stock was issued with shareholders promised first priority for thousands of potential jobs.  Railroads were the dot-coms of the era, and people rushed to invest.

With no bonded debt, the company’s prospectus promised stock dividends of 14% on top of the shares’ appreciation. You just couldn’t lose!

Construction began from west to east, as the railroad opened in stages to help pay for itself and further building toward New York.  A mighty four track railroad, akin to Metro-North, was envisioned and it was hoped that the project would be completed in just ten years.  Spur lines would be constructed to serve the cities by-passed by the “air line”.

Then, reality set in with the depression of 1907 – 1908.  Construction got as far as Gary Indiana, about 25 miles from Chicago, when the money started to run out.  The engineering of this mighty railroad was just too expensive.

Shareholders revolted when news came that the railroad’s officers were getting fat paychecks as the coffers were drained.  A hoped-for bailout by British banks never happened.

Shareholders lost everything.  And the impending arrival of automobiles might have doomed the line anyway.  Even The Twentieth Century and Broadway Ltd eventually succumbed to the competition of true “air lines”.

But for a brief moment, a century ago, a dream almost became a reality in the greatest railroad that never was.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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