Railroads & Locomotives Fallen Flags Penn Central history remembered

Penn Central history remembered

By | May 1, 2023

Penn Central formed in 1968.

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from Trains.com brands. Sign-up for email today!

Black and white image of locomotives pulling a freight train under a signal bridge.

Penn Central history

Penn Central came into existence on Feb. 1, 1968. More accurately, it was incporated in 1846 as the Pennsylvania Railroad; changed its name to Pennsylvania New York Central Transportation CO. on Feb. 1, 1968, when it merged with the New York Central; and adopted the name Penn Central Company on May 8, 1968. On Oct. 1, 1968, it again changed its name, to Penn Central Transportation Company, and became a wholly owned subsidiary of a new Penn Central Company, a holding company.

Black and white picture of a freight train under a signal bridge.
A mix of EMD and GE diesels power a westbound Penn Central freight on the former Pennsy Pittsburgh-St. Louis line at Mingo Junction, Ohio, in 1976

The stockholders of the Pennsylvania and the New York Central approved the merger of the two roads on May 8, 1962; nearly four years later the Interstate Commerce Commission approve the merger on the following conditions:

-The new company had to take over the freight and passenger operations of the New York, New Haven & Hartford. That happened on Dec. 31, 1968.
-Penn Central had to absorb the New York, Susquehanna & Western. PC and the Susquehanna could not agree on price, and the NYS&W became part of the Delaware Otsego System.
-Penn Central had to make the Lehigh Valley available for merger by either Norfolk & Western or Chesapeake & Ohio or, if neither of those roads wanted it, merge it into PC. Lehigh Valley struggled along on its own and entered bankruptcy only three days after Penn Central did.

Now that we’ve looked at Penn Central history, let’s look at why it failed.

The beginnings of failure

Penn Central history is littered with missteps. The PRR/NYC merger was not a success. Little thought had been given to unifying the two railroads, which had long been intense rivals with different styles of operation. In the previous decade, New York Central had trimmed its physical plant and assembled a young, eager management group under the leadership of Alfred E. Perlman. The Pennsy was a more conservative and traditional operation. Many of NYC’s management people saw that Pennsy was dominant in Penn Central management and soon left for other jobs.

Penn Central map from the Kalmbach Media archives

In addition to the problems of unification, the industrial states of the Northeast and Midwest were fast becoming the “Rust Belt.” As industries shut down and moved away, railroads found themselves with excess capacity. The Pennsylvania was worse than practically anyone else in having four or six tracks where one or two would do – tracks that were no longer needed but were still on the tax rolls. West of the Alleghenies, Pennsy and Central duplicated each other’s track nearly everywhere.

Bankruptcy and reorganization

Penn Central logoPennsy and New York Central came into the merger in the black, but Penn Central’s first year of operation yielded a deficit of $2.8 million. In 1969 the deficit was nearly $83 million. PC’s net income for 1970 was a deficit of $325.8 million. By then the railroad had entered bankruptcy proceedings – specifically on June 21, 1970. The nation’s sixth largest corporation had become the nation’s largest bankruptcy.

The reorganization court decided in May 1974 that PC was not reorganizable on the basis of income. A U.S. government corporation, the United States Railway Association, was formed under the provisions of the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 to develop a plan to save Penn Central. The outcome was that Consolidated Rail Corporation, owned by the U.S. government, took over the railroad properties and operations of Penn Central and six other railroads – Central of New Jersey, Erie Lackawanna, Lehigh Valley, Reading, Lehigh & Hudson River, and Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines – on April 1, 1976.

It was a major step toward nationalization of the railroads of the U.S. Railroads had been nationalized briefly during World War I, but the U.S. had held out against a world-wide trend toward nationalization of railroads until the creation of Amtrak, which nationalized the country’s passenger trains, on May 1, 1971.

Metroliner and TurboTrain

PC participated in two passenger service experiments in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Both were aimed at upgrading passenger service in the Northeast Corridor. Between New York and Washington, D.C., PC inherited the Metroliner experiment the Pennsy had begun – fast electric trains that were intended for a maximum speed of 160 mph. The inauguration of service was delayed several times, and when it did begin, it was not shown in The Official Guide of the Railways. While not an absolute success, the Metroliners reversed a long decline in ridership on the New York-Washington run.

On the Boston-New York run, PC operated a United Aircraft TurboTrain in an effort to beat the 3-hour, 55-minute running time of the New Haven’s expresses of the early 1950s. Information about TurboTrain schedules was even more difficult for the public to obtain than Metroliner timetables.

The combination of untested equipment, track that had been allowed to deteriorate, and the general incongruity of space-age technology and traditional railroad thinking made the services the butt of considerable satire.

Amtrak took over PC’s intercity passenger service on May 1, 1971. The Metroliners were soon stored, and their schedules taken by Amfleet trains with accelerated timings. The TurboTrains were scrapped. The Penn Central commuter service, already subsidized by local authorities, passed first to Conrail, then to other operating authorities.


The Penn Central bankruptcy was a cataclysmic event, both to the railroad industry and to the nation’s business community. The PC and its problems were the subject of more words than almost anything else in the railroad industry, everything from diatribes on the passenger business to analyses of the reasons for PC’s collapse.

— Adapted from The Historical Guide to North American Railroads, Third Edition


Black painted electric locomotive leading a passenger train in a yard.
Train 111 is westbound at Trenton, N.J., behind former Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 No. 4918 on Aug. 10, 1970. Krambles-Peterson Archive

4 thoughts on “Penn Central history remembered

  1. I have found several spelling errors in this article that need to be corrected. It is a shame that such an otherwise nice article be riddled without being proofread. Or if it was, it needed to be proofed by someone other than the one who did it. You should be ashamed.

You must login to submit a comment