The Alphabet Route
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.
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
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
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Last modified: December 23 2009.
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