16.4.05

IN SOME WAYS AHEAD OF HIS TIME?

Book Review No. 11 is The New Haven Railroad in the McGinnis Era. This book merits a review, as it is different from most of the railroad interest books I have purchased, which I usually buy for the institutional history or for photographs that will clarify where the hardware goes on the model. I want to focus on three dimensions of the McGinnis era: the finances, the brand positioning, and the Northeast Corridor infrastructure.

Patrick McGinnis is a rather controversial figure in the history of railroad management, and time on the State of Maine Northern stops the day before he took control of the New Haven Railroad. But the railroads of the Northeast faced a real problem after the Second World War, with public money going into turnpikes and airport improvements, and the economic base switching away from coal as a fuel input and manufactured goods as outputs, all to the detriment of the railroads. The managements of the New England railroads attempted to keep up maintenance on all passenger-carrying lines and to modernize their premier trains. These railroads generally did not pay dividends to preferred and common stockholders. Mr McGinnis, the book tells us, noted that companies with a regular record of paying dividends were better able to attract capital; his plan was to make good the arrears on the preferred dividends and resume the common dividends; he was going to raise the money by down-sizing the railroad, as well as replacing the more expensive trains with trains he thought would be cheaper and better. Whether that strategy was the correct strategy given the secular changes remains a topic for research, the bad luck of consecutive hurricanes in the summers of 1954 and 1955 notwithstanding.

The book, written by a member of the New Haven Railroad Historical and Technical Association, with a lot of help from Association member collections, sheds some light on the rather expensive, and in my view ill-advised, complete image makeover of the railroad. The railroad hired graphics designers Herbert Matter and Norman Ives under the supervision of Lucille McGinnis, wife of Patrick. I was aware of some of that history, but not that the railroad also retained Minoru Yamasaki, better known for the late World Trade Center and for the central campus of Wayne State University, and Eero Saarinen, to design new stations. Mr Yamasaki had the commission for a generic suburban station that looks nothing like Plasticville's generic suburban station. Mr. Saarinen designed a number of stations for larger cities that reduced the space devoted to ticketing and waiting while providing more space for other uses, such as parking, shopping, or, in Hartford, a sports arena. Mr. Saarinen's design featured a cable-stayed roof that might have been more resistant to a snowpack than the flat space-frame roof built in a later arena. (The Morgan-era Hartford station still serves commuters today.) Again, whether such an expensive makeover was the best use of resources under the secular conditions remains subject to debate, but the idea of cleaning up and making the railroad look contemporary has its merits.

The McGinnis project that had the most promise proved to be the greatest flop. His intent was to install continuous welded rail the length of the Shore Line, reprofile some of the curves for greater speed, and remove the electrification. To cope with the curvy route, he envisioned a fleet of lightweight high-speed trains such as the Spanish Talgo train (there is an instructive useful history here) and this site, in German, is worth careful exploration (that pioneer train looks like an amusement park ride) -- there is a separate page devoted to the North American Talgo trains that includes images of several promotional booklets from the early days of the Talgo.

The New Haven first ran some tests with one of the Spanish Talgo trains (the locomotives were built for the American Car and Foundry in the States, but I cannot recall by whom.)


In light of what happened later, the New Haven might have borrowed the Spanish custom and named the engine "Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows." Some of the early trains are enshrined in Spanish railway museums.

The New Haven's problem then, as the successor companies are discovering today, is that the supertrains must coexist with commuter trains serving some of the most influential and demanding neighborhoods of the Official Region. (New Haven trains serve the northern suburbs of New York and the southern suburbs of Boston. Bad service could earn the displeasure of Henry Luce at Time, Norman Cousins at Saturday Review, and whoever had Harper's in those days. In those days, there was no countervailing blogosphere. If those guys were displeased, the chattering classes all saw the New Haven the same way.)

So, what of the super-train project? There proved to be no money for the welded-rail program (spent as preferred dividends?) The experimental super-trains proved to be rough riding and thin on creature comforts. The electric transmissions provided to get the trains into and out of Grand Central Terminal caused troubles (and the dual-mode electro-diesels purchased for the longer-distance commuter trains and the intercity trains not operated with super-trains proved to be less powerful than the straight electrics they replaced.)

But the more things change ... Talgo train technology is now being deployed, with some success, in the Pacific Northwest (and as the next iteration of the Hiawatha??? -- paint it orange and maroon, not blue, darn it!) On Mr. McGinnis's railroad, your tax dollars have installed welded rail its length (per plan) and extended the electric operation to Boston (contrary to his plan) and bought a new fleet of super-trains (the Acela Express) that have a history of teething troubles and were taken out of service again on April 15 with cracked brake disks.

2 comments:

cscardinal said...

Hi. Many of the links no longer work. =(

Stephen Karlson said...

A post from eight years ago? Doesn't surprise me. Can't guarantee that the weak links will be fixed.