Era Focus: Modeling the Transitional Age

Era Overview

The Transitional Age (1940-1970) was an era of contrasts, struggles, and massive technological developments. Beginning at the start of World War Two, railroading’s future was looking up. Following a slow but steady decline in passenger revenues during the previous decade (thanks to the development of the automobile) passenger and freight numbers bounced back quickly, with soldiers shipping off to war, individuals traveling to do their part in the war effort, and a massive amount of equipment and materials suddenly needing shipment. Sadly this reprieve was short lived. Already being challenged by automobile and truck competition, two significant further blows were about to be dealt to the railroad industry following the conclusion of the war; the Interstate Highway System, and the Jet Age.

For the first time, railroads were no longer seen as the most efficient means for crossing the country, with new and exciting methods now available for travel either by land or air. This predicament was made worse by a massive amount of subsidies being granted to these new transportation methods, while the railroads continued to endure a tax structure that was developed when they were a much stronger industry. Not surprisingly, this spelled disaster for many rail operators. Despite impressive efforts to modernize and innovate, many railroads found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy. By the mid 1960s, with dwindling freight customers, and passenger service barely hanging on by a thread, many large railroads looked to mergers to preserve their operations, while smaller railroads simply folded into their larger competitors or shut down altogether. The most prominent merger took place in 1967, with the formation of the Penn Central Railroad out of the once mighty New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad operations.

The Trains of the Era


Although early diesel locomotives were already starting to gain favorability with many railroads, it still took a steam locomotive to handle the heavy freights seen early in the era. With the war effort spurring a massive increase in demand, a new breed of steam behemoths was born, with designs such as the massive 2-8-4 Berkshire appearing in the east, articulated 2-6-6-4 Challengers in the west (mostly), and even larger 2-8-8-4 types appearing on railroads from the Mid-Atlantic to the Pacific Northwest. This race for size and power culminated with the Union Pacific Big Boy, a massive 132ft 4-8-8-4 monster, built specifically to muscle mile long freights over the mountainous grades between Utah and Wyoming.

By the 1950s, diesel power was beginning to catch up in dependability. While no single diesel locomotive could match the capability of a Challenger or Big Boy, it was still found to be more cost effective and efficient to run a consist of diesels together, when weighed against the costs and maintenance required to operate one steam locomotive. While some railroads which relied heavily on the coal industry resisted, such as the Norfolk and Western (which continued to operate steam hauled passenger services well after all other railroads), most rail companies had transitioned fully to diesel operation by 1960.

By the close of the era, the first generation of diesel locomotives was well established, filling all roles from local switching duties to heavy mainline operation, and companies such as EMD were already developing new lines of more powerful and efficient second generation locomotives.

Passenger Cars

Although the heavy competition brought on by air and highway travel was devastating to the passenger industry, this challenge was also a catalyst for many advances in passenger railroading technology. In a bid to maintain a market share of the travel industry, railroads doubled down on their new lightweight passenger cars developed in the 1930s, adding additional cars with features such as full-length glass domes and air conditioning. Onboard amenities were also improved, with the addition of more comfortable sleeping cars, and traveling barber shops and movie theaters. Despite the stiff competition, this was passenger railroading at it’s finest.

While investments were poured into long distance passenger rail, local and commuter rail remained fairly unchanged for most of the era, with ancient heavyweight rolling stock continuing to see use in many places. The Chicago and Los Angeles regions were two exceptions however, thanks to investments in new Pullman-Standard Gallery Cars by the CNW and Southern Pacific. In an effort to preserve service on more lightly used lines elsewhere in the country, the Budd Rail Diesel Car (or RDC) was developed as a cost-cutting solution to replace more expensive locomotive hauled trains. In the mid 1960s, the Pennsylvania Railroad, with Budd as the manufacturer, began development of a new high-speed electric variation for use on the Northeast Corridor. Known as the Metroliner, this design would pave the way for the next generation of all medium-distance passenger equipment.

Freight Cars

The transitional age was an era of change for freight railroading. No longer cornering the market on bulk transportation, railroads had to figure out how to keep business going, while adapting to changing consumer and manufacturing needs. After playing an important transportation role in World War Two, many railroads began to modernize their freight equipment to meet the new needs of the nation. Wood-Sheath boxcars and reefers were phased out and replaced with more durable steel sided cars, and longer 50 and 60ft boxcars were constructed to allow more bulk good to be transported with less equipment.

As the auto industry exploded, railroads were quick to employ new auto-carriers to transport vehicles from factories to distributors across the country, and in the 1950s, agreements were made with trucking companies to handle long distance transportation of filled trailers, launching the age of intermodal transportation. Refrigerated cars were also improved upon, with new models featuring motorized refrigeration units, allowing railroads to transport produce over longer distances than ever before.

Industries and Scenery

America was booming during much of this period. The great depression was over and cities were thriving. In addition to the development of widespread asphalt or concrete streets, new forms of architecture were appearing across the country, including the popular Moderne style, seen frequently on apartment buildings, civic structures, and restaurants. Mass production of consumer products was in full swing, with new prefabricated concrete factories and warehouses springing up from coast to coast. With the success of the auto industry came suburbia, parking lots, and drive-in restaurants or theaters. Electricity by now had reached every corner of the country, from the largest cities to the rural heartland, and structures such as long distance utility lines and radio towers were prevalent in all regions.

By the close of the era, Moderne architecture had given way to Brutalist, and some cities had begun to see a decline, as industries closed or consolidated operations, taking jobs with them. Along with the financial hardships experienced by the railroads, came a reduction in upkeep of infrastructure and equipment, particularly those relating to passenger operations. Once grand stations were now dirty, plastered in advertising as a desperate attempt to gain a little extra revenue. Their platforms were cracked and riddled with weeds, while some secondary lines were beginning to take on an almost abandoned appearance. Other lines were abandoned completely, leaving scars on the landscape that only railfans could remorsefully appreciate, while on some key routes, infrastructure was improved and signal operations fully automated.

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