The Alphabet Route

Reading Company


1833-1896 Philadelphia and Reading Rail Road
The Philadelphia & Reading Rail Road (P&R) received its charter on April 4, 1833, to build a railway that would carry anthracite coal between Port Clinton and Philadelphia.  The line paralleled the Schuylkill Canal and was opened on December 9, 1839. The original railroad connected with the city owned Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad.  The P&R then ran east over the Columbia Bridge (still in use today) to a terminal at Broad and Cherry streets in downtown Philadelphia.  

   On May 7, 1842, the P&R completed a line from West Falls Yard to Port Richmond on the Delaware River. This facility would be come the largest privately owned tidewater terminal in the world.  In 1843, the railroad opened the first double tracked mainline in the United States.  The original mainline of the P&R was the 93 mile trunk from Pottsville to Philadelphia.  A connection was built to Mount Carbon on January 13, 1842, to connect with the Mount Carbon Railroad at Pottsville.  The railroad began an aggressive expansion program a few years later when on January 1, 1850, it purchased a segment of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad to gain direct access to center city.  Over the next 50 years the P&R would purchase, merge, or lease almost 100 smaller roads to become a 1366 mile key bridge line.  The most significant of these acquisitions were the Lebanon Valley Railroad (chartered in 1836, taken over by P&R in 1854, and opened in 1856 from Reading to Harrisburg), the East Pennsylvania, the North Pennsylvania (gaining access to steel mills in Lehigh Valley area in 1879), and the Catawissa Railroads.  Other lines added were the Chester Valley in 1859, the Reading and Columbia in 1870, and the Pickering Valley in 1871.  

   In 1859, the P&R began construction on a new terminal in center city Philadelphia to replace the facility at Broad and Cherry Streets.  Thirty-four years later this facility itself would be replaced by the Reading Terminal at 12th and Market Streets, which housed the Company’s headquarters as well as the famous Reading Terminal Farmers Market (still in use today).   In 1871, the P&R began the practice of numbering its engines rather than naming them.   Also in 1871, through control of the P&R Coal and Iron Company, the P&R became the largest corporation in the world with a value in excess of $170,000,000.  This vertical integration and expansion into real estate allowed the P&R to control anthracite coal from mining to market.  

   In 1879, the Delaware and Bound Brook was added to the P&R and an extension to Port Reading on Arthur Kill was completed in 1892.  This gave the Reading direct access to the New York City market for anthracite and other products.   The P&R began an ill-fated attempt to become a major railroad power in the northeast by leasing the CNJ in spring of 1883.  The company would later consolidate a number of short lines in southern New Jersey to form the Atlantic City Railroad.  The P&R and later the Reading Company would maintain a controlling interest in the CNJ until 1972 when the stock was finally sold.  

  The real trouble began when the P&R gained control of the Lehigh Valley and Boston & Maine in 1891. The major financial interests in New York did not want the P&R interfering in its business.  This situation combined with the panic of 1893 forced the P&R into receivership.  The Philadelphia and Reading Railway was created three years later in the fall of 1896 to consolidate the operations of the P&R as well as the P&R Coal and Iron Company.

1896-1923 Philadelphia and Reading Railway

   The early 20th century saw the Reading Company facing opposition in Washington from new anti-trust legislation.  So, just ten years in its operations, the Philadelphia and Reading Railway was forced to sell its interest in P&R Coal and Iron Company. This involved the sale of all mining properties and operations.  Once the sale was completed, the Philadelphia and Reading Railway focused its full attention on railroad operations and set another first for Class I railroads when it maintained an average of 5 shippers per mile of track.   

   In 1900, construction on the Reading shops was started and they opened in 1904.  This shop was the largest of its kind on any railroad and allowed the Reading manufacture its own engines from start to finish.  The Reading car shops would later provide thousands of pieces of rolling stock for the Company as well as many of its connecting roads.   In 1902, the Reading Belt Line was completed to alleviate congestion and provide a way to bypass the city of Reading.  This 7.2 mile addition remains in use today by Norfolk Southern and is a key piece of Northeast railroad.   From 1907 to 1914, the Reading quadruple tracked the Ninth Street branch from the Reading Terminal out to Wayne Junction in order to handle its growing passenger traffic business.  At its peak the Reading terminal handled over 350 trains daily.  In addition, the company either hosted or ran 55 more passengers on its system mostly notably with connecting roads like the B&O.  In 1923, the P&R ceased to exist and the Reading Company became the operator of the railroad.

1924-1976 Reading Company

In 1928, the Reading Company would again be the largest corporation in the world thanks to both a strong railroad and the company’s numerous real estate holdings.  The real estate bubble burst the following year when the depression hit and the downward slide for many railroads in the northeast began.  The real impact of this downturn would not be felt until after World War II.  

   The Reading remained profitable through the 1940s and 1950s although it was seeing a change in its major sources of revenues.  For the first time bituminous surpassed anthracite in revenue.  Revenues from merchandise traffic reached all time highs during this period as well.  The downturn in business started in the mid 1950s.  By 1960, anthracite revenues fell 55% to 7.8 million, general merchandise traffic dropped 32% to 50 million, and passenger & express mail revenues were down 13% to 7.9 million.   The only bright spots were bituminous revenues growing 2% to 27.7 million and the creation of piggyback service in 1954.    This service would later be expanded to reach 225 cities thanks to the Reading’s partners in the Alphabet Route. During this period, the Reading maintained 40+ interchange points with its connecting railroads.  

   During the 1950s, the Reading continued to expand and improve its track.  Over 75% of the mainline rail was now 130 lbs per yard or greater and yards were expanded at St. Clair, Newberry, Rutherford, Reading and Abrams.   New industrial trackage for Philadelphia Electric at Phoenixville was built in 1955 and the Bethlehem Steel Joanna Mine was reached in 1958.  Another key track opening was the Blandon Low Grade completed in 1955 to avoid the steep grades over Temple Hill on the East Penn Branch.  This combined with a new connection at Lebanon Valley Junction greatly increased traffic speeds and allowed crossline traffic headed for Philadelphia to bypass downtown Reading.  The Reading line from Reading to Harrisburg became one the most important pieces of tracks for the Reading.  This piece of railroad became part of the Alphabet Route and offered shippers an alternative way to reaching major markets in the Midwest and New England without relying on the Big Four carriers.  This route saw a downturn in 1957 when the St. Lawrence Seaway dried up much of the grain traffic that used this route previously, but still was responsible for almost a third of all the traffic on the Reading in 1960.  

   The 1960s brought a number of changes to northeastern railroading.  Newer more powerful diesel locomotives and longer switches increased service times but still could not keep up with the flood of shippers opting to take their business off the rails in favor of highways.   For the Reading, the biggest blow was the Penn Central merger in 1968.  This virtually eliminated the Newberry traffic as this now stayed on the Penn Central.  Reading needed this traffic to make up for the downturn in mineral traffic.  Still the Reading continued to provide excellent service and innovations such as Bee Line trains helped add revenue to the bottom line.  

   The highlight of the 1970s was the completion of a piggyback facility at Erie Avenue for the Alpha Jet trains.  This was quickly overshadowed by the CNJ’s departure from Pennsylvania the following year costing Reading another valuable connection. Hurricane Agnes wiped out miles of track for the Reading and many connecting roads.  This storm also cost Reading the chance to be included in the Chessie System.   Prior to the storm, the management of both roads was looking at the possibility of having the Reading become a part of the Chessie System.   Member road B&O had long held the majority of Reading company stock.  Unfortunately, the differences in work rules and pay rates could not be resolved before the hurricane hit and changed the focus of management.  The Chessie System decided to sell their Reading stock to raise badly needed capital and the Reading’s fate was sealed.   The Reading remained an independent railroad and even added a number of new locomotives to its roster in the 1970s.  It became part of Conrail on April 1, 1976, just three days shy of its 143rd birthday.