George Alpert, Last New Haven President



George Alpert, the last president of the New Haven Railroad.

George Alpert, the last president of the New Haven Railroad died in September, 1988 at the age of 90 at his home in Cohasset, Mass. He was president of the New Haven Railroad from 1956 to 1961 when the carrier went into bankruptcy. Several months after he left the railroad, the Interstate Commerce Commission made public its opinion that primarily passenger railroads, such as the New Haven, must have federal subsidies to exist. This view had long been held by Alpert and he had testified several times before the ICC on the subject.

The president of the New Haven before Alpert was Patrick McGinnis. After his departure, auditors found that the New Haven’s earnings for 1955 were less than half what McGinnis had been saying they were. About the same time, piggyback traffic disappeared as everyone discovered they could move easily by way of the new Connecticut Turnpike that paralleled the New Haven from New London to Greenwich. While he was president, McGinnis ordered three radical new trains.

Work on the three New Haven McGinnis trains progressed during 1956. The public relations department worked overtime thinking up names. The Pullman Standard “Train X” would be called “Dan’l Webster” after the New England orator and statesman. The Hot Rod would be the “Flying Cloud” after a Boston clipper ship. The Talgo would be called, you guessed it, the “Talgo”. Later, this changed.

As Train X neared completion, advertising brochures, timetables, matchbooks, etc were splashed with it. Constructed in Chicago, it was a nine unit articulated train consisting of four two-unit, single-axle-per-unit coaches and one single-unit, double axle center coach (the “keystone”). Total seating capacity was 392 passengers. Food service was via a hostess pushing a cart (“Crusin’ Susan) as the expected run time between New York and Boston was only two and a half hours. Motive power was a twin unit (one at each end) German diesel-hydraulic design manufactured by the nearly-moribund Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corporation. Europeans liked the mechanical transmission because it was easier to maintain and cheaper to build. It was supposed to have high acceleration capabilities. These Eddystone-built units were capable of 120 miles per hour. Third rail shoes assured continuous Boston to New York operation.

Styling was by Lucile McGinnis with help from Marcel Breuer Associates. The train exterior was visually broken up with colored vermillion vestibule doors and locomotive trim. It gave the “Dan’l Webster” a pattern of alternating dark and light gray. The interior had aircraft style reclining seats with washable covers. Colors were alternating vermillion and blue. All baggage was to be stored in overhead racks.

Baldwin had troubles making the third rail system work (what else would you expect from a company used to building for the Pennsylvania). NH public relations blamed the delay on a “steel strike”. Because shoes were only on the rear idler trucks, there were power blackouts on gaps in Grand Central Terminal. Eventually, pantographs were fitted to the roofs (like an “S Motor”). There were also “start up” problems because of the train’s new technologies.

With all these difficulties, Alpert publicly declared that a “Dan’l Webster” press-demonstration run, from Boston to New York, would be scheduled for January 8, 1957. Regular passenger service was to commence the very next day (it was to take the schedule of the “Murray Hill” and “Bostonian” – depart Boston 7am and New York at noon). As the day approached, the DC problem hadn’t been resolved. Finally, either the Van Nest shop or the builder machined some steel plates which were attached to the journal box and to the shoe.

The publicity run left Boston with the General Road Foreman of Engines running the train. The trip was uneventful through New Haven. There were 250 people aboard the train (railroad and manufacturer’s representatives; news media; other honored guests including a group of Providence railfans). At SS-20 the third rail shoes were lowered. At Woodlawn, the train was on track No. 2 when the inspector in the rear unit reported that his unit was on fire. The shoe mechanism had gone to ground and arced to the truck frame. The whole section of track had to be deenergized and the fire department called. After the fire was out, the rear unit would not disconnect and then derailed. The derailment backed up the evening rush hour. It was a well-publicized disaster!

The Dan’l Webster was laid up in Van Nest shop for months. Questioned by a reporter after the incident if he wished he were “a simple lawyer again”, Alpert replied : “I had a much more peaceful existence as a lawyer, but I consider this a great challenge, and I’d much rather be doing what I am. “The “Talgo”, renamed the John Quincy Adams”, was to be composed of five triple unit coaches. This arrangement saw two single axle outer units semi-permanently connected to a double axle center unit (a three unit “car”). Each triple unit could support its own weight and could be easily uncoupled from the rest of the train. They were 109 feet long and sat 96 passengers. One end unit had an entrance/exit while the other had the toilets.

American Car and Foundry had modeled the design of the Talgo cars after airplanes with stainless steel skin mounted over a formed aluminum alloy rib structure. Known as “stressed skin” construction, it was geared for extra strength with light weight. The use of standardized shell construction was later taken advantage of with “Amfleet”. A.C.F. had incorrectly anticipated eventual mass production. Other pioneering achievements were internal-expanding automobile type brake drums which meant long life and head end power using AC power transmitted through a trainline from generators within the locomotive.

Several ideas were considered for propelling the “John Quincy Adams”. Initially considered was an ALCO concept. The next idea was a General Motors diesel-electric coupled with a booster electric locomotive to handle the train in New York City. Eventually, Fairbanks Morse won the contest with their new lightweight passenger design, officially known as “P12-42” but dubbed the “Speed Merchant”. Fairbanks Morse lost money on the deal because they mistakenly believed the New Haven would order more units. However, they were the only builder to get paid in full as they wouldn’t deliver without money. These locomotives were similar to units built for the Boston & Maine. The two units were designed to operate push-pull fashion. The rear locomotive was controlled by a through-the-couplers MU trainline. Radio control was deemed risky because of the possible effect of the catenary structure. The engine had a top speed of 117 m.p.h. The train itself used non-standard couplers, but each engine had a conventional coupler hidden behind doors in the pilot for emergency use. As with the other new trains, third rail use was provided for. When the diesel shut down, a magnetic clutch disconnected the traction generator and connected it to the DC motor/alternator.

The New Haven didn’t put the “John Quincy Adams” into service until almost two months after they received it. Probably they didn’t want a repeat of the “Dan’l Webster”. Budd’s Red Lion plant constructed the New Haven’s “Hot Rod” train between 1955 and 1957. This train was essentially six self-propelled coaches constructed like the popular Rail Diesel Coach (RDC) but using tubular train technologies. All units were powered but only the front and rear units had a control cab. A MU trainline allowed for one operator in either cab. The two cab units sat 60 and one had a small food service buffet. The four intermediate units sat 76 passengers. Exterior height of the units was a foot less than a standard RDC because of Park Avenue tunnel restrictions, but the interior remained the same height. The “Hot Rod” units were built from stainless steel alloys and used standard RDC diesel-direct drive main propulsion. In addition, each car had DC power collection and traction motors. While RDC’s were geared for 83 m.p.h., these units could do 110 m.p.h. with the same 300 h.p. GM 6-cylinder engines.

While car heating was normally from the diesel engines, a 600-volt immersion heater did the job in the third rail territory. The cars were air conditioned. Other features were dual braking systems and coupler-compatibility with standard RDC units.

The original cab design was similar to a “bullet train”, but a design consultant hired by the railroad wanted to keep a family resemblance amongst the new trains. Originally named the “flying Cloud”, the “Hot Rod” train became the “Roger Williams” by delivery in 1957.

The Dan’l Webster’s fire damage was repaired at Van Nest Shop. The third rail collector was replaced with something similar to that found on conventional New Haven equipment. End of March 1957 was target for the “Dan’l Webster” to enter revenue service replacing the morning Murray Hill from Boston, the Bostonian out of New York at noon and the Commander out of Boston in the evening. The “John Quincy Adams” would start service the same day replacing the Mayflower out of New York in the morning, the New Yorker out of Boston in the afternoon and the Commander out of New York in the evening. The “Roger Williams” started a month later.

There were many problems associated with the new trains. Ride characteristics were noisy and harsh because of single-axle trucks and lower center of gravity. The whole train had to be removed from service for repairs. There was no way to add or drop cars due to varying load conditions or the method of operations whereby eastbound trains dropped cars at New Haven while westbound trains added cars from the Hartford Division. The railroad could not release older equipment because of the need to cover runs with conventional equipment when capacity was inadequate. The service availability was not good because of a multitude of problems, much of it connected with the new technologies of the trains. Even the “more standard” “Roger Williams” had problems, especially on DC track. Passenger comments on no dining service resulted in the conversion of one car in each train to a diner.

The experiment never fully worked and didn’t last until the end of the Alpert presidency. The “Roger Williams” was downgraded from mainline service in October 1957. It then served Boston-Providence, Springfield-New York and a variety of other assignments including Cape Cod. Ironically, it lasted longer than the other trains and some of its equipment even reached AMTRAK in 1971. The remaining trains only made it until the spring of 1958. The last run of the “John Quincy Adams” into Grand Central Terminal featured a spectacular fire in the rear unit. The “John Quincy Adams” coaches were sold to Spain in 1962 while the locomotives rusted at Cedar Hill until being scrapped in 1971. Pickens Railroad purchased the “Dan’l Webster” in 1964 for a tour service that never materialized.

McGinnis had inherited several FCD rail busses ordered by the previous Dumaine administration. Intended for use on feeder lines, McGinnis only used one. Alpert did not revive the idea.

The Alpert years saw the introduction of 60 FL-9 diesel-electric-electric locomotives that either ran as a diesel-electric or drew power from third rail in the New York terminal and tunnels. This was a bold attempt to phase out electrification – after the road had received 10 new passenger electric locomotives and 100 new M.U. cars. The phase out was reversed and the New Haven purchased 11 nearly new electric freight locomotives from the Norfolk & Western. 1956 also saw a replacement program for the aging ALCO DL109’s: 60 road switchers – 30 GP9’s, 15 RS11’s and 15 H-16-44’s entered service for dual freight and passenger roles.

Alpert once complained that passengers were not a business because business implies the hope of profit and there was none in the passenger train. Alpert’s campaign for public assistance was picked up by Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut. He proposed nationalization of all rail passenger service – not just AMTRAK. Through his efforts, service on the old New Haven line in Connecticut continued through the “dark days” of the 1970’s. Many felt his way was not the right way and cited the Long Island as an example: In 1949, while under Pennsylvania control, the Long Island handled 91.8 million passengers and employed 7,800 people. In 1971, now under State of New York control, the LIRR only hauled 69.7 million riders but needed 7,265 employees.

Government loans guaranteed by the ICC kept the New Haven going until it finally went belly up on July 7, 1961. It fought for state and local tax relief and tried to get into the Pennsylvania and New York Central merger. Initially, Penn Central didn’t want it with its passenger service but the ICC won out and Penn Central got the New Haven on December 2, 1968.

The New Haven rolled along during Alpert’s presidency while suffering from a real change in New England’s economy and the shift from heavy industry to high technology. Hourly passenger service between New York and Boston continued as well as good service to Hartford and Springfield.

Alpert was a founder of Brandeis University and its first chairman from 1946 to 1954. Born in Boston, Alpert graduated from Boston University Law School in 1918 and was first assistant district attorney for Suffolk County from 1924 to 1927.

He served as national chairman of the Joint Distribution Committee during World War II. This was a group that resettled Jewish children left homeless in Europe.

Could George have saved the New Haven???

George Alpert had it right. He said that the government must be involved to save the New Haven Railroad.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the railroad was considered old fashion and the government was putting all its monies into air and highway travel. The tendency to want to bail out a railroad was pretty low, although that did happen with the Long Island. The Long Island had the advantage of being entirely within NY State.

The trustees had to either return the railroad to profitability, palm it off on the government or other group seeking to lose money or liquidate. Yes the trustees could have pushed for government take over, but that would have been tough. Essentially 4 states would have to agree to purchase, own and operate in a climate that was still more capitalistically oriented for solutions and not enamoured with railroads.

If the liquidation route were taken, the states of Connecticut and New York might have acquired the NY City commuter routes with no interest in running freights, the P&W would have come about 4 years earlier and MAYBE the MBTA would have acquired the 3 non-Old Colony lines. I suspect that there would be shut-downs of lines like happened with the Rutland, with some routes not returning to service. If things happened quick enough, the shoreline could have been abandoned between New Haven and the Massachusetts line, not to mention others.

Perhaps there could have been operations assigned to other railroads (designated operators): B&M, CV, PC, LHR & EL. Now there’s a bunch of power houses! Everybody was in bad shape. Who would pay for DO’s and how much interest would there be?

What might have worked would have been cutting the NH into logical chunks and selling off the portions outside of the passenger mains. Package deals with the railroad, rolling stock and employees readily available. It might have been interesting. Looking at the outcome, that’s essentially what happened.


Some other questions/observations

-if the New Haven Trustees had not decided several years earlier (when many railroad experts still thought Penn Central would be a success) that merger was their preferred option, and if they had pressed harder for the alternative, some sort of government support…. NH survival as a subsidized entity might have been possible.

-if government officials in the federal, Connecticut and New York governments had acted faster. The problem had been studied to death. The general costs and options were known.

-if other options, such as the 1967 proposal by a group of Chicago finance men to set up a joint governmental-private corporation to run the New Haven had been explored.

The actual timetable is interesting.
Jan 1, 1969: NH became part of Penn Central
October 1969: Basic outline of deal by states of NY and CT to buy the line arranged with Penn Central
November 25, 1969: Deal announced
January 1, 1971: NY and CT takeover implemented

We must consider that politicians also had to respond to voting commuters and local businesses. Faced with an actual shut down, there might have been swifter action.

-In many parts of the US, there was less interest in helping railroads. But in this case, the Senators from NY and CT were active in securing federal support. Gov. Rockefeller of NY had a very proactive style of dealing with transportation issues and had taken over the LIRR, organized the MTA and within ten months of the New Haven’s demise had agreed to a takeover of its commuter lines. This might have happened earlier if NY and CT had been quicker to agree.

There were viable examples of multi-state public agencies. The Port of New York Authority NY-NJ is one. The four state Delaware River compact is another. Such models were not adequately explored. The MTA-CDOT marriage was hastily and imperfectly arranged. A true Authority, with jurisdiction over the whole road, and separate operating agreements with each local state would have been more efficient than the piecemeal solutions which emerged. The public, which couldn’t afford to save the New Haven, eventually spent much more money trying to pick up the pieces.

In short, the damage had already been done when George took the throttle. He did what he could with toning down the puff and paint, and possibly he could have done more with reversal of the electric motive power and infrastructure phase-out before Trustees II came on the property.

But George recognized that the only way any passenger service would be economically viable was with public funding and I believe he worked to that end – especially since he represented a road from which some 40% of the revenue came from handling passengers.

What could George have done about it in 1956???? 1 Not have purchased the 1956 road diesel or the FL9’s
2 Take delivery of the EMD SW1200s and high speed trains.
3 Stop the repainting process and throw out the previous management advisors.
4 Countiue to use the electric powered engines.
5 The money that would be saved from not purchasing of the new diesel and FL9s would put back into the upkeep of the railroad.
6 Stop all passenger service where the goverments would allow. Cancelled all passenger service on the Old Colony route as soon as possible.
7 Try to find out a way to figure out how to serve the remaining indusries better and scrap all excess boxcars and try and increase TOFC service and try and make all freight service speedier and quicker to try and boost revenue.

Another idea might have been to merge with the B&M, D&H, LHRR and possibly the EL. That would open up direct routes to northern New England, northern and western New York, and connections to the West.

An interesting scenario would have been that if the judge ruled out inclusion in Penn Central, the New Haven would
1) get ICC permission to sell off all branchlines, except those with regular commuter service, to investors or whomever to raise cash to maintain remaining operations,
2) lines get sold off to MTA, CDOT & MBTA,
3) Amtrak takes over intercity trains and
4) Amtrak later puchases their routes.
The NH would only own yard facilities and trackage rights NYC to Boston and NH to Springfield along with whatever rolling stock that would have been retained.

Basic Assumptions
What would the New Haven RR be like if it was still around today? We need to make some basic assumptions:

That the New Haven was not put into Penn Central (obviously, else the whole point is moot), nor was it put into Conrail.

Amtrak would still have been formed in 1971, taking over long distance passenger operations on the North East Corridor (NEC).

The MBTA, M-N, C-DOT, etc. communter agencies would all be more or less the same as now.

P&W, however, would not exist as a seperate entity.

Many of the shortlines would still exist, as the New Haven spun off lines to remain afloat. But the longest hauls and marginably profitable lines would still be NH controlled.

The car floats and the Poughkeepsie bridge just might remain (possibly just one of them). After all the New York Cross Harbor is still around.

An important clarification is would have the Shore Line been sold to Amtrak and CDOT? If the answer is affirmative, then there would not be a New Haven.


Another opinion of George:

The BIGGEST Culprit is poor old George Alpert carrying on the deadly policies of the prior administration. George had the chance to be a star and he blew it but most of the talent was gone by that time anyway. Yes, TOFC and the Express business could have saved the NH. The passengers were losing money from 1952 even though they made up the largest part of revenues the margin was paper thin. Had the reality of state sponsored commuter operation been done in 1958 as Alpert said they should be rather than 1968 it might have been a different story but NOT TO HAPPEN in those automobile-obsessed times.

“We had to destroy the village to save it!” ??? Foreign policy or railroading???

Read more on this topic under a discussion of “What if the New Haven never merged with Penn Central?” and another discussion “What if the Penn Central Merger Did Not Happen?”

George in TIME about Firemen

In an article from the November 23, 1959 issue of TIME Magazine: “The necessity of employing firemen on freight and yard diesels costs the New Haven over $3,500,000 a year,” says George Alpert, president of the New Haven Railroad. The story was about the many abuses railroads felt they were getting because of obsolete laws and labor agreements. Under obsolete rules, a train crew gets a full day’s pay for every 100 miles traveled, and conductors and trainmen on passenger trains for every 150 miles—even though the actual traveling time sometimes takes less than two hours. Some yard crews get a day’s pay for moving a train 100 yds. They also want to change the mileage pay rates set 40 years ago when trains traveled at turtle speed. The railroads’ chief case is against their 40,000 firemen, who have little or nothing to do in modern diesels.


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