Alphabet Routes

OriginalAlphabetRoute

ORIGINAL ALPHABET ROUTE

The Alphabet Route was a coalition of railroads connecting theMidwest United States with the Norteast, as a freight alternate to the four major systems – the Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Central Railroad, Erie Railroad and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Named for the many-lettered initials of the participating railroads, it used the following systems from west to east:

Major yards on the line included:

  • The NYC&StL’s Bellevue Yard was just east of the junction with the W&LE at Bellevue, Ohio. Freight cars were transferred here between the two lines, leaving the same way they came; a direct connection avoiding the yard was impossible due to the lack of a suitable connecting track.
  • The CNJ’s Allentown Yard was just east of Allentown, Pennsylvania; the RDG and L&HR had trackage rights along the CNJ to the yard.
  • The RDG’s Rutherford Yard just east of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; the RDG here combined traffic from Allentown (including L&HR traffic from New England via the NYNH&H through Maybrook), Jersey City and the New York / New Jersey metro area (via the CNJ to Allentown), and Philadelphia.
  • The WM’s Jamison Yard in Hagerstown, MD, where traffic from the RDG via Rutherford Yard was combined with traffic from Baltimore on the WM.
  • The NYNH&H’s Maybrook Yard was just east of the junction with the L&HR. Cars were transferred between the two lines.
  • The NYNH&H’s Cedar Hill Yard was in New Haven, Connecticut. Through trains continued on to Providence and Boston, while some freight was transferred to other NYNH&H lines at Cedar Hill.

The freight trains along the middle section of the route were known as Alpha Jets. The WM, P&WV and NKP (and later WM and Norfolk & Western, after merger of latter two lines into N&W in 1964) generally operated two daily “run-through” freight trains each way via their connection in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. The westbound trains were variously symbolled AJ-1 (Alpha Jet 1) and Advance AJ-1, 1st AJ-1 and 2nd AJ-1, then later PAJ-1 and WAJ-1. The eastbound runs were usually called AJ-2 and AJ-12, with an Advanced AJ-12 sometimes also running. These runs originated or terminated in either the RDG’s Rutherford Yard near Harrisburg, PA or in the WM yard at Hagerstown, MD, and ran to or from Toledo, OH and Detroit, MI. The Advanced sections usually originated or terminated in Bellevue, OH. For a time during the 1970s, the RDG also symbolled its high-priority connection run from Philadelphia to Rutherford, PA as an Alpha Jet.

Three major sources of traffic for these trains were: 1.) automobile manufacturing parts and supplies going from eastern factories to the Detroit and Toledo automotive manufacturing regions, and autos and manufactured items moving from these cities to the north eastern region; 2.) high-priority boxcar loads (often from freight consolidation and forwarding companies such as Acme Fast Freight) moving to and from New England, the New York City area, Philadelphia and Baltimore to Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and St. Louis via other trains connecting with the Alpha Jet schedules; and 3.) trailer-on-flatcar (TOFC) service, especially to and from Philadelphia but also from the New York area via the CNJ, going to or from one of the above mid-western cities.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Alphabet Route partners promoted Alpha Jet service as an alternative to the TOFC service offered by the Pennsylvania Railroad (and then the Penn Central, after the Pennsylvania-New York Central merger in 1968) between Philadelphia and Chicago. The Pennsylvania offered 23-hour service between these points with its Truc Train runs, while the Alphabet Route partners offered 34-hour service (depending upon a prompt connection at Bellevue to the BC-1 priority freight to Chicago). Although this did not seem competitive, much of the 11-hour difference was due to departures and arrivals around midnight for the Pennsylvania service, whereas many shippers did not send and receive shipments during the night and thus could accept a mid-evening departure and a mid-morning arrival, as the Alpha Jet service could provide. Alpha Jet service was de-emphasized in the late 1970s and eventually ended by the early 1980s as the WM was fully integrated into the Chessie System (B&O and C&O), later to become CSX, which was and remains a major competitor of the N&W, later Norfolk Southern.

The route was formed on February 11, 1931 with the completion of the P&WV to Connellsville, Pennsylvania on the WM.  It was an outgrowth of George J. Gould‘s attempts to create a transcontinental railroad and later proposals made to the Interstate Commerce Commission for a “Fifth System” to supplement the four major systems; the consolidations planned to form those systems were stopped by the Great Depression.

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OntarioWesternHeader

Ontario & Western “Alphabet Route”

New York, Ontario & Western played a role in an “alphabet Route” between Maybrook and Scranton.

More interestingly, the O&W traffic from the Lehigh Valley and Lackawanna at Scranton was artificially induced by an odd rate division established by the New Haven — presumably as a way of preserving its interchange options with two roads it would not otherwise have had a connection with, as well as a way to “presere” its investment in Ontario & Western.

Routing of this traffic couldn’t have been marketed in its own merits. The route was short for a bridgeline, cobbled together from mine branches and involved back-up moves, etc. That lends credibility that there were outside influences at work.

In the 20th century a huge commodity was Pennsylvania antracite coal for home heating. The New Haven Morgan interests wanted to get control of the Lehigh & Hudson River to maintain connection with the CNJ, DL&W, Reading and Lehigh Valley in the Allenton-Easton area. The reason for these seemingly convoluted rates to DL&W and LV was to keep the LH&R-RDG rates at bay. In other words the NH had another source of coal, probably seldom used, to maintain a competitive edge.

What role did the New Haven, a majority owner of the NYO&W, play in establishing and maintaining the bridge traffic between the LV and DL&W near Scranton to Maybrook?

To tap important coal regions in the Scranton area, the NYO&W built a 54-mile branch from Cadosia in 1889. This opened up the O&W as a mover of anthracite coal to New England and to the New Jersey ports. The mines failed in the late 1930’s, forcing a 1937 reorganization.

If the NYO&W connection did not exist, the only two all-rail routes into southern New England would have been the Erie (Maybrook) and the New York Central (State Line). The NYO&W connection enabled the New Haven to access more traffic coming out of Buffalo. If all the shippers were looking for was the cheapest rate, this routing worked. Plus, it protected the New Haven’s investment in the NYO&W. It may have sliced the profit pie awfully thin, but any piece of the pie was better than no pie at all. So the NH propped up the NYO&W as insurance to protect rates rather than as a route that was useful. It went away when New England was largely converted from coal to oil for home heating.

It is 1950 and coal revenues are negligible on the New York Ontario & Western. The LNE and L&HR are directly competing for the bridge traffic that is the sole remaining significant revenue source. Despite the competition and the contrived route, merchandise bridge traffic grew and stabilized at about 5 1/2 million dollars for the last ten years of the O&W. Was the O&W taking advantage of rates established much earlier for anthracite reasons or was something special being done by owner New Haven?

Lets speculate what might have happened if NH got the LH&R. It would have given direct land access to may more carriers: PRR, LV, CNJ, DL&W plus good connection to RDG and B&O and three good routes south (PRR, RDG/B&O and PRR or RDG to N&W at Hagerstown. The New York City float operation of the New Haven could have gone away and switching could have been concentrated at Maybrook.

Another possibility? Especially around 1910-1920 the Pennsylvania and NYNH&H were very closely associated in the Hell Gate project and running the Federal Express over the Poughkeepsie Bridge, float interchange etc. Pennsy owned large blocks of NH stock. Did the Pennsylvania ever contemplate acquiring control of the L&H RR as its own gateway into New England, in cooperation with the NH? If not, why not? Or would it have been Morgan’s interest to keep the PRR away from NY? Remember the South Penn situation with the West Shore?.

The trip from Cedar Hill to Bay Ridge it was 90 miles while the trip from Cedar Hill to Maybrook was about 126 miles. Even if you add in the miles from Bay Ridge to Greenville you don’t get 126 miles. Add in the cost of maintaining car floats, bridges, tugs and all of the labor involved, it was far more costly to float cars than to run the extra miles. Penn Central correctly figured that out immediately after taking over the New Haven and got rid of the floating operation. One opinion is that the floats lasted as long as they did was because the PRR and the NHRR did not want to deal with the Lehigh and Hudson River but eventually they would have had to either buy the L & H R outright or deal with it. Had the New Haven Railroad not been taken over by the Penn Central, the Bay Ridge float operation would have gone and probably sooner rather than later. All of the west and south bound freight would have come through Maybrook except the freight from the former New York Central. Car floats were a very expensive way to move cars.

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