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There are many people interested in former transportation companies, whether they were trucking companies, railroads, airlines or ocean lines. They are called “fallen flags,” and the term describes those companies whose corporate names have been dissolved through merger, bankruptcy or liquidation.
The Alphabet Route was not actually an operating railroad; it was a coalition of railroads that worked together to connect the Midwest and the Northeast via their combined rail lines. The Alphabet Route offered a freight alternative to the four major systems: the Pennsylvania Railroad, the New York Central Railroad, the Erie Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Three Jersey Central locomotives lead their freight train through Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania on July 12, 1970.
(Photo: Roger Puta/American-Rails.com)
How it came about
George J. Gould.
The Alphabet Route grew from attempts by George J. Gould to create a transcontinental railroad. Gould was the eldest son of Jay Gould, who was a leading American railroad developer/speculator. Jay Gould was one of the “robber barons” of the 1870s-1890s and one of the richest men of his era. George J. Gould was a financier who inherited and then led the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGW), Western Pacific Railroad (WP) and the Manhattan Railway Company.
There were also proposals filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) for a “Fifth System” to compete with the four major systems listed above. However, the consolidations that would have formed the Fifth System did not happen because of the Great Depression.
The Alphabet Route came about on February 11, 1931, with the completion of the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railway’s (P&WV) rail line to Connellsville, Pennsylvania, providing a connection to the Western Maryland Railway (WM).
Rather than actually merging, the eight railroads that comprised the Alphabet Route entered into a marketing agreement that formed a route linking the Midwest (Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Great Lakes ports) and the Northeast (Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston). Together, the eight Midwestern and Northeastern railroads were able to provide shippers a fast-freight alternative to the much larger eastern trunk lines.
A map of the Alphabet Route. (Image: cs.trains.com)
While none of the eight railroads were big enough (or had a direct Midwest-Northeast route) to compete with the four major systems, the consortium could and did compete quite successfully.
With the Alphabet Route agreement, the eight railroads formed a continuous main line between the Northeast’s largest cities (New York and Boston), with the Midwest’s largest (St. Louis and Chicago).
A Nickel Plate Road locomotive pulls freight cars at Gibson City, Illinois on November 24, 1962.
(Photo: Roger Puta/American-Rails.com)
Where the name came from
The consortium was named the Alphabet Route because most of its members went by their initials, which caused an “alphabet soup of routing names.” From West to East, these railroads were:
The Nickel Plate Road logo.
(Image: Nickel Plate Road Historical & Technical Society)
The Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railway logo. (Image: American-Rails.com)
The Western Maryland Railway logo.
(Image: Western Maryland Railway Historical Society)
The Reading Lines logo. (Image: American-Rails.com)
The Central of New Jersey logo.
(Image: Jersey Central Railroad Historical Society)
The Lehigh and Hudson River Railway logo. (Image: railfan.net)
The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad logo. (Image: American-Rails.com)
With the various hand-offs between the Alphabet Route railroads, an end-to-end run was typically 10 hours or more, which was slower than the service provided by the four major rail lines. However, the Alphabet Route offered shippers greater flexibility, giving them the option of having their freight delivered in either the evening or morning hours.
Major sources of freight
The three major types of freight carried on the Alphabet Route were:
A pair of Lehigh & Hudson River Railway locomotives pull a freight train at Warwick, New York during June 1974 .
(Photo: Warren Calloway/American-Rails.com)
The Alpha Jets
Freight trains that operated on the middle section of the Alphabet Route were known as Alpha Jets. The WM, P&WV and NKP (and later WM and Norfolk & Western, after the P&WV and NKP were acquired by the Norfolk & Western in 1964) usually operated two daily freight trains each way via their connection in Connellsville. These runs originated or terminated in either the RDG’s Rutherford Yard near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania or in the WM yard at Hagerstown, Maryland, and ran to or from Toledo and Detroit.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, the rail lines of the Alphabet Route promoted Alpha Jet service as an alternative to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s (and later Penn Central’s) TOFC service between Philadelphia and Chicago. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s TOFC service (known as Truc Trains) took 23 hours between these points. The Alphabet Route partners offered 34-hour service. While the Alphabet Route’s service took longer, most of the 11-hour difference was because Truc Trains arrived and departed around midnight. Many of the shippers did not send and receive shipments late at night; therefore, the mid-evening departure and mid-morning arrival of the Alpha Jet service was preferable to many shippers.
However, Alpha Jet service was de-emphasized in the late 1970s and ended in the early 1980s when the WM was fully integrated into the Chessie System (B&O and C&O), which later became CSX.
An Alphabet Route train led by a Western Maryland Railway locomotive. (Photo: thepwvhiline.com)
The end of the Alphabet Route
While the four major rail lines provided freight shipments using direct routes (which reduced transit times), the Alphabet Route provided dedicated, friendly service that was competitive and more flexible to shipper needs.
Because of this, the marketing agreement among the railroads that made up the Alphabet Route was “surprisingly successful” and lasted for nearly 50 years. However, during the last years of operation track conditions were deteriorating on some of the lines and other lines were either going bankrupt or being merged into large systems.
Toward the end of the Alphabet Route, mergers led to the western end of the system being entirely owned by the Norfolk & Western Railway. (The railroad owned the Nickel Plate, Wheeling & Lake Erie and Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railway by the end of the 1960s).
Also, when the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central merged in 1968 to create the Penn Central, it was forced by the ICC to acquire the New Haven as a condition of the merger. This also seriously hurt the Alphabet Route’s viability.
The situation was made worse when the Chessie System was created in 1972 with the integration of the B&O, C&O and WM. Then Congress created Conrail in 1976; just three systems were now part of the Alphabet Route; the Norfolk & Western, the Chessie System and Conrail. There was no longer a need for the Alphabet Route; this ultimately ended the consortium.
Author’s note: This article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of American-Rails.com. Those interested in learning more about the railroads operating in North America – and those that are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.
This article first appeared on www.freightwaves.com
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