Profile of a contemporary modeler: enamored of far more railroads than he (or she) can ever afford to model, in love with enough diesel units to make every prototype builder bristle with pride, desiring nearly every type of scenic effect imaginable and undecided about operation between a rural branch and four-track high iron.
Sound familiar? Let us suggest a cure. Model Conrail, particularly in its infant days, roughly 1976 to 1978, when variety was virtually unlimited.
Let's review some prototype history. Conrail (Consolidated Rail Corporation) was created as an alternative to liquidation or nationalization of the Penn Central Transportation Company and five smaller bankrupt railroads, the Central Railroad of New Jersey, Erie Lackawanna, Lehigh Valley, Reading and Lehigh & Hudson River. Together those companies carried almost half the rail freight of the heavily industrialized Northeast. That translates into 168.5 billion ton-miles during the nine months following Conrail's start-up date of April 1, 1976. And that's on every conceivable type of trackage.
Or, if you need more convincing, the following Conrail statistics reported in March 1977 are revealing: 1
Route miles: 17,000
Track miles: 34,000
Locomotives: 4,507 diesel: 148 electric
Freight cars: 151,614
Freight trains: Daily average of 1,500
Translated into modeling terms, Conrail offers the opportunity to do just about anything. Its trackage includes such far-flung operations as the former Pennsylvania and New York Central heavy mainlines and backwoods branches through virgin West Virginia countryside. Modern hump classification yards route cars to small-town facilities nearly buried in weeds and rust. And, while finding a desert at trackside might prove overly challenging, such diversities as the Appalachian Mountains and the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, Pa., the farms and flatlands of Indiana and Illinois and the picturesque Hudson River valley of the Water Level Route provide every variation of scenic vista.
A study of the Conrail system map reveals a variety of operation that's certain to appeal to a myriad of modeling interests. Certainly there's mainline railroading of the highest order, such as the former Pennsylvania Railroad Pittsburgh Division from the Steel City over Horseshoe Curve to Altoona, Pa. Although much of this route (including the Curve itself) is now reduced to double and triple track, only a well-stocked fiddle yard could provide the mainline action that a typical day on "the Mountain" produces. Most of the numerous interlocking towers between Pittsburgh and Johnstown have been closed, and the Pittsburgh dispatcher now controls a good bit of the line with the use of CTC, but the early years of Conrail still favored the tower operators, who even today are primarily responsible for the difficult movements over Gallitzin summit (Horseshoe Curve is not the top of the grade) and underneath the tiny neighboring town appropriately named Tunnelhill.
Eastbound from Chicago, Conrail traffic is routed largely through a huge retarder yard in Elkhart, Indiana, (train symbol "Ei "). Anything destined east of the Hudson River goes to Selkirk Yard (Se) in Albany, New York. For points along the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline. Conway (Pa) Yard, located 20 miles west of Pittsburgh along the Ohio River, is the funnel point. Further classifications are made at Enola Yard (En), along the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg.
This pattern of movement has resulted in a major shift of traffic off the former "P-Company" main west of Crestline, Ohio. Most Pennsy trains now use the line from Cleveland to Alliance, Ohio, as a bridge route connecting the two Penn Central predecessors. Major upgrading of the "C&P" (Pennsylvania Railroad component Cleveland & Pittsburgh) southeastward from Cleveland's Lakefront and a track realignment at Alliance bending the mains northward toward Cleveland has significantly improved a line which, in Penn Central days. was all but clogged with crawling ore trains and stored "jennies," the stubby gondola-like ex-Pennsy ore cars.
The kind of vision to make major changes in operating patterns and persist in the downgrading or abandonment of money-losing routes is one of the major contributing factors to Conrail's present profitability. Although modelers have never been overly concerned with efficiency (indeed, most of us run trains as though diesel fuel were water and wages were play money), we serious Conrail fans take considerable pride in seeing black ink on a balance sheet that in Penn Central days was more reminiscent of Pennsy's tuscan red. Not only that, but we have the luxury of watching upwards of 70 or 80 trains each day along CR's primary routes.
Another Conrail mainline is the so-called "Big Four," the former New York Central route from Cleveland to St. Louis. It trades traffic with the ex-Pennsy main at Crestline, Ohio, and hosts a major yard at Avon (In), near Indianapolis.
Those routes are fairly well known: but others exist as well, many of them lending themselves beautifully to modeling on a more humble scale. Numerous coal branches, for example, still seek out hundreds of hopper-loads of black diamonds in various areas of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and southeastern Ohio. The line northward along the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, Pa., is as picturesque as one could find anywhere. Several New England branches and areas of upstate New York offer scenic possibilities at a relaxed pace. Steel mill traffic is handled on an Illinois line from Kankakee to Hennepin. The Chicago Terminal District offers variation worthy of its heritage as the "Railroad Capital of the World." Detroit trackage feeds auto plants. Indiana routes gather the output of grain elevators, and a hundred other categories of American industry are found along a thousand Conrail sidings. No matter where one lives in Conrail country. a Sunday drive is usually all the research needed to locate interesting modeling possibilities.
Motive power is what tends to finally convey most of us to a specific choice of prototype interest, and fewer as in American railroad history offer more in terms of variety and opportunity than Conrail in transition from Penn Central. The latter automatically suggests the leftovers of both the New York Central and the Pennsy, and much of this power did indeed survive into early Conrail days. Paint-overs alone could captivate a railfan's interest. The financial disaster that it was, Penn Central could barely afford to repair most of its diesels, let alone paint them. In its first nine months of operation, Conrail performed heavy repairs on 779 locomotives. That also meant their first trip through the paint spray booth in years.
And therein lies the charm. The early Conrail modeler inherits the opportunity to put as diverse a collection of diesels on his layout as most hobby shops might hold in their display case, except that it's all prototypical. Lashups of Erie Lackawanna, Reading and Penn Central power which would have been extremely rare among those pre-Conrail competitors became commonplace as of April 1976. And with power in short supply, the combinations approached the comedic in their in congruity.
Imagine lashups of F7As, often elephant-style, in mixtures of Penn Central black and Erie Lackawanna maroon and gray. Only F7A 1648 (later renumbered) was ever repainted into a simplified CR blue scheme.
Six-axle Alco Centuries of all three varieties (628, 630 and 636) were commonly seen lashed together, lugging Mesabi ore off Whiskey Island on Cleveland's lakefront and grinding toward Mingo Junction and the mills at Pittsburgh, Steubenville, Ohio, and Weirton, W.Va. A single train with rear-end helpers could easily contain black units lettered Penn Central and CR (with even a Pennsy keystone or Dulux gold number possibly still showing through an oily black flank), a fully repainted blue Conrail unit, plus a CR'ed (meaning original paint with white road numbers and small CR lettering over painted-out logos) Reading (cream and green), a CR'ed Cornell red Lehigh Valley or LV Snowbird. And during the winter months, when the Great Lakes were frozen over, these same units roamed system-wide, even appearing in helper service over Horseshoe Curve.
Every conceivable mixture of GE's and EMD's found themselves joined by m.u. cables during CR's early years, Collections of GP35's and GE U-Boats in Erie Lackawanna, Reading, Penn Central and Conrail colors were commonplace. Even today, eight years into Conrail, CR'ed units are often seen in mainline service. Total repaintings are normally reserved for major overhauls, but even then they're sometimes bypassed.
With helper sets of SD45's, SDP45's and SD45-2's based at the small engine terminal at Cresson, Pa., for the assault on Gallitzin summit and Horseshoe Curve and headend power of SD35's and SD40's (SD40-2's wouldn't appear until 1977), Conrail threw power at the Mountain with a vengeance. The early days were especially colorful, particularly with the presence of huge ex-EL's with 4,000-gallon fuel tanks originally purchased for long-distance running out of Marion, Ohio. Many remained in maroon and gray for years, and two were painted in patriotic hues for the Bicentennial. Both EL and Reading contributed straight SD45's, many of which remained in their original colors until retirement, as did the Penn Central (ex-PRR) units. Interestingly, a large block of these diesels now works for the Chicago & North Western, as Conrail trades and sells off older units in its quest for high-horsepower fuel economy.
Power, or lack of it, has been a major preoccupation with Conrail since its beginning. Predecessor Penn Central was forced to hold trains in yards for lack of sufficient road power on a daily basis, a fact that turned its freight schedules into an industry joke at which thousands of shippers failed to laugh. Unable to acquire new power quickly enough, even when federal money became available (and probably over-estimating the value of the PC fleet). Conrail in its early days simply continued the Penn Central policy of leasing diesel units wherever they could be found.
The practice wasn't really new. When the job of hauling state of Maine potatoes eased into the off-season. Bangor & Aroostook Geeps annually found their way to Cleveland to back up Pennsy power pulled into the peak of the Great Lakes iron ore movement. Penn Central, and later Conrail, simply continued the practice and then expanded it, with colorful results. Imagine a small fleet of RS3's, still lettered Spokane, Portland & Seattle, leased from the Burlington Northern (which also contributed NW2's and SW12's) The Chicago & North Western first got to know Conrail when it provided leased GP30s. SD40's and SD45's (perhaps old friends have been reunited?). Union Pacific GP9's and GP9B's actually belonged at the time to Precision National Corporation, but PNC didn't keep them long enough for a repainting. Still other units came from Missouri Pacific, Southern Pacific, Grand Trunk Western and the Pittsburgh & Shawmut. Even the Canadians got into the act in a big way, with as many as a hundred units including Canadian National wide-nose GP40's and a variety of Alcos involved in a massive lease arrangement. Those early Conrail years were a railfan's delight, albeit an operating man's nightmare.
IN THE BLACK
"I have no intention of presiding over yet another railroad bankruptcy."2 Those are the words of Conrail's first chairman and chief executive officer, Edward G. Jordan, on CR's day of birth, April 1, 1976, Jordan had become president of the United States Railway Association in 1974, where he directed the development of the Final System Plan that created Conrail. His background had actually been in consumer products, computers and insurance. No matter: when Jordan perceived the federal regulatory climate as preventing Contrail's chances for profitability, he brashly told the politicians to either back off or forever hand out taxpayer money. Many beleive the regulatory reforms of the 1980's case came largely because of Jordan's forthrightness.
Another non-railroader, Stuart M. Reed, became Contrail's second president in February of 1979. Reed succeeded Richard D. Spence, who was imported from Southern Pacific, but as Contrail's first president took the fire for the system's initial poor showing, and left for what became a successful reign as president of the Louisville & Nashville. Reed was an American Motors group vice president following an initial stint at Ford. He became perplexed with what appeared to him as excessive delays of freight cars in yards. He asked Senior Vice President-Operations Richard B. Hasselman (a Perlman-era NYC graduate) to do a study. That exploration has since become system-wide, and the resulting minimization of delays is now a matter of computerized record 24 hours each operating day. While the computer's role in model railroading may still be in its infancy, the Conrail advocate can already be assured of a print-out he can point to with pride.
No coverage of contemporary Conrail would be complete without a paragraph devoted to its present chairman and chief executive officer, L. Stanley Crane. Crane came out of retirement as former president of the highly successful pre-N&W merger Southern Railway System to lead Conrail into absolute profitability. Crane's philosophy first came to public attention in ad copy which pictured him riding the rear platform of a Southern caboose in the fall of 1978. "The only thing we have to sell is safe, on-time delivery of the goods...we're in this business to make money. And the only way to do that is to give better and better service."3
That's what Conrail shippers readily admit Crane has provided. Now working under a renewal of his original two-year contract. Crane was the Western Railway Club's "Man of the Year." Some even call him "the Messiah of modern railroading." What ever honor is selected, the plaudit is certainly deserved. Crane has taken the deregulatory climate which Conrail helped foster and is making the most of it. While airlines are stumbling under burdens not unlike those which killed the streamlined passenger train and truckers are reeling from the unregulated inefficiency of one driver per vehicle, the physics of the flanged wheel on the steel rail (so well depicted in Conrail's corporate logo) are being felt from Wall Street to the shipper's dock. Conrail is piling up profits to the extent the government is seeking to return it to the private sector. If even a tiny element of satisfying model railroading involves a form of hero worship of the prototype's leaders, then Conrail quality here as in all other aspects. Well over a century after the original empire builders, L. Stanley Cran's determined vision is fulfilling a prophecy.
United States Railway Association Chairman Arthur D. Lewis remarked on July 28, 1975, the day the USRA submitted its Final System Plan to the Congress. "The Association beleives Conrail can succeed as a viable private enterprise and is optimistic that the industry itself will remain in private operation."4 The following April 1st, Conrail was officially born. All too many, particularly in the media, noted it was likewise April Fools Day.
It's taken a long time for those of us who love Conrail to have our last laugh.
1 Consolidated Rail Corporation, 1976 Annual Report, P 6
2 Edward G. Jordan quoted in Trains, January 1981, P 33
3 L. Stanley Crane, Southern Railway Systems advertisement, Trains, October 1978, P 47
4 Arthur D. Lewis, United States Railway Association press release, July 28, 1975