American Railroading

As steam came to a close in America there were still a few wooden cars running in backwater railroads.
All wood passenger car ‘Royal Blue’ B&O RR, 1890 (Wikipedia)

Most of those had been replaced by steel cars of much greater strength. By 1960 most of the old steel cars had been replaced by modern ‘streamliner’ type cars.
Streamlined Pioneer Zephyr, 1934 now at Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago (Wikipedia)
Several train wrecks had shown that high-speed crashes were devastating as the new cars were of light construction and not very crashworthy. On Wikipedia you will find a list of train accidents across the globe by decade. This lead to regulations that governed car and locomotive construction. In Europe, cars and locomotives became lighter to allow higher speeds. Often, aluminum and composite construction reduced weight and added speed by streamlining the shape. New wheel and suspension arrangements along with roadbed improvements increased speed even more. It soon became obvious that these new structures were not very passenger friendly in the event of a derailment or collision. The ICE train derailment at Eschede, Germany is an example of the problem with the newer design and construction. This crash was at 125 mph and the remains of the coaches are reminiscent of train wrecks of 100 years ago. The lightweight coaches telescoped and were splintered, killing more than 100 and injuring about the same. The derailment was due to a wheel fracture that was undetected. The wheel was a composite design, a type of wheel that was outlawed in America in the 1930s.

There is a huge difference in how lightweight cars respond to an accident at high speed when compared to current American car construction. American passenger cars have a collision post at the ends that prevent telescoping at the expense of extra weight. Amtrak bought some passenger cars from Bombardier for use on short and medium length routes. Once in the US, they needed conversion to AAR standards as corner steps and handrails were not installed, as in the regulations. The cars were aluminum, and soon they became damaged in car/train collisions due to the ‘soft’ skin. They were very pretty when new, but soon were scared and hard to repair. Additionally, they did not do well in train crashes.
Amtrak Superliner Dining carAmtrak Superliner Dining car (Wikipedia)
Other new Amtrak equipment, the ‘Superliner’ cars, were manufactured with German suspension systems that incorporated leaf springs that doubled as wheel alignment bars. The system worked well in Europe, but the constant pounding from crossing the rail joints on North American railroads led to frequent failure due to cracking that resulted from the vibration.

Building rail equipment to American safety standards adds lots of weight and cost. It does result in a safer product and saves lives.

About Terry Welshans

I grew up in Burbank, California. My dad worked at a company that made sub assemblies for about every airplane made in the 1960-1970 era, so it was only natural that the aviation bug bit me while I was quite young. I hold a commercial pilot certificate and fly as much as I can. I live in Bardstown, Kentucky with my wife, moving here after we retired. I am a Vietnam veteran and a cancer survivor. I like to keep politicians honest, and do so when they open an avenue where I feel they have erred.
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11 Responses to American Railroading

  1. I remember (barely) riding in an antique railroad passenger car when I was about four years old. It was a wooden coach. Even at that age, I appreciated the beautiful woodwork. I recall it was late at night and my dad carrying me. What little I can recall about what he told me was, as war loomed, old rolling stock was being brought out of retirement from museums and warehouses.

    • wordcloud9 says:

      One of my summer vacations in HS, we took the 45 mile trip on the Durango & Silverton RR in Colorado, on narrow gauge tracks through some spectacular scenery. It was built in the 1880s to transport ore from mines, but is still running in the 21st century as a tourist attraction. Aside from the mountains, trees and rushing river, I also remember the cinders, which left smut all over our clothes. Travel by train at the turn of the previous century was a pretty dirty business. Several of the K-28 steam locomotives from the D&S RR were sent to Alaska during WWII to run on narrow gauge tracks hastily laid to move troops and supplies in remote parts of the state.

      • Terry Welshans says:

        A truly wonderful trip, I am sure. I have not traveled that line, but intend to do so. I have an old friend who lives in Palisade, Colorado who is an engineer on that line and I bet I could get a cab ride if I asked him real nice.

    • Terry Welshans says:

      Yes indeed. The business cars of the 20s and 30s were magnificent. Lucius Beebe owned two cars, the ‘Gold Coast’ and ‘The Virginia City’ and toured the country with his good friend Charles Clegg. Together they wrote more than 35 books, mostly about these fine old cars and those who owned them. Read more about Beebe and Clegg at
      A friend of long ago owned the private car ‘La Margarita del Oro’ at one time and ‘La Condesa’ at another. Read about his car at:

    • Terry Welshans says:

      Those old wood cars were deathtraps, as you know. In 1915 the train from Louisville to Bardstown was rear-ended at Bardstown Junction, about 15 miles west of where I live when they stopped to align the switch from the main line. More than 50 passengers were killed with twice that seriously hurt. The train was returning Christmas shoppers back home in the late afternoon.
      It was said in the early days that if you weren’t killed in the impact you would burn to death when the coal stove fell over spreading flames throughout the car. Not long after this, the much safer all-steel cars were bought as replacements.

  2. thurayya says:

    Thank you. I enjoyed reading this.
    This is OT but I thought it might be of interest to you:
    Steam hauled trains in Australia up to the 1960s:
    Lots of pics and plenty of info.

    • Terry Welshans says:

      Thanks, Ms. T.
      Can’t have too much steam train. While at Amtrak, the US’s national passenger railroad, I participated in the conversion from the 1950s vintage streamline cars to the modern all-electric fleet. The streamline cars had steam heat that required the locomotive – a diesel – to carry a steam generator on board. I was the steam generator shop foreman until they were all gone. I supervised the rebuild shop where we renewed the internal parts that converted water into steam by burning diesel fuel in a big insulated container. In terms of power, each steam generator produced enough steam at 300 psi to be rated at 100 horsepower. Oddly, some of the older Santa Fe railroad passenger cars also had an air conditioning system that used steam (!) to cool the car. A complicated process, expensive to maintain, and prone to many problems.

  3. shortfinals says:

    I grew up in the mostly rural county of Derbyshire. A good part of the northern half of the county formed the basis of the first National Park in the U.K. We were a poor family; hard to be otherwise when your Father had been a coal-miner who had become partially disabled in an industrial accident. I remember a family trip, when I was 8, when took a ‘bus to a point about a mile from the closest railway station – Butterley, on the old Midland Railway system. We took a day excursion train from there to Manchester, through the heart of the Peak District National Park, and over the famous Monsal Viaduct. The coaches were old wooden stock, and the locomotive was a LMS ‘Jubilee’ Class, 4-6-0. There were framed photographs on the carriage walls of views on the London, Midland and Scottish system (which the Midland had become part of, post-‘Grouping’). We had a grand day out, spending time at Belle Vue Zoo (closed 1977). The return journey was equally exciting for me, but it was after 11pm, when we arrived at the station. The last ‘bus had long gone, of course, so it was a foot-sore 8 year old that arrived home with his family after walking c. 3 miles. British railways were radically different in those days. Steam was still king, and the sounds and smells of that era stay with me. Oh, and the station at Butterley? Still there, now part of the preserved section of the Midland Railway Trust !

    • Terry Welshans says:

      Great story.
      I too grew up poor and lived near the tracks. I lived a short walk to the Southern Pacific RR Burbank Junction, a place where the main line out of Los Angeles split to head to San Francisco up the Pacific coast or turned inland where it climbed through the mountains to continue north from Bakersfield to Oakland. When I was very young the SP ‘Cab Forward’ steam locomotives stopped at Burbank Junction to pick up their train orders.
      I recall standing next to one of these fire-breathing monsters feeling the ground shake as they waited the signal to go.
      This junction was where the two ‘Daylight’ trains dismounted from their separate routs and entered the main line to Union Station, about 20 miles down the track. On the last day of April 1971, I rode the very last ‘Valley Daylight’ from the Burbank station to Bakersfield and back. The next day, that train was discontinued as Amtrak was officially born May 1 and 90% of the passenger trains in America were lost.

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