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Reading Company: A railroad history

By Dale W. Woodland | October 7, 2021

The Reading Company is Classic Trains' Railroad of the Month for October 2021

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Color photo of side-by-side noses of two road-switcher diesel locomotives
Black-and-white broadside photo of 2-10-2 steam locomotive with hopper cars beside a river
2-10-2 3012 leads a train of anthracite along the Schuylkill River at Tamaqua, Pa., in July 1953. RDG’s 20 K-1’s were the heaviest Santa Fe types ever built.
Classic Trains collection

Reading Company, as a railroad, disappeared into Conrail more than 40 years ago. But it is still possible to “take a ride on the Reading.” This can be done when playing the board game Monopoly, or (more literally) by boarding a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority commuter train in the Philadelphia area. Today, the Reading (pronounced “Redding”) would be termed a regional carrier, but in the classic era, it had a much larger presence on the railroad scene than its approximately 1,300 route-mile would suggest.

Reading Company history

The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad was chartered in 1833 and opened in 1842 from Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River through Reading to Pottsville, Pa., 93 miles. Its purpose was to haul anthracite coal to Philadelphia. Beginning in 1850, the railroad grew by leasing, purchasing, or merging with nearly 100 smaller railroads over the next century. Some of the more important were the Lebanon Valley, which gave the Reading access to Harrisburg, and the Philadelphia, Harrisburg & Pittsburgh, which extended its reach west to Shippensburg, Pa., and a connection with the Western Maryland. To the east the P&R acquired the East Pennsylvania Railroad between Reading and Allentown. These later routes would form a part of the famous “Alphabet Route” from Chicago to New York and New England. Other carriers associated with this route were Nickel Plate, Wheeling & Lake Erie, Pittsburgh & West Virginia, Central of New Jersey, Lehigh & Hudson River, and New Haven.

Map of Reading Railroad lines
The Reading system blanketed southeastern Pennsylvania. The lines southeast out of Camden, N.J., were spun off as the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines in 1933.

Expanding north and northeast

In the late 1880s, the Reading acquired the North Pennsylvania and the Delaware & Bound Brook railroads, which provided access to Bethlehem, Pa., and to a Jersey Central connection at Bound Brook, N.J. The inclusion of several small lines in the coal regions gave the Reading access to Williamsport, Pa., and an important connection with the New York Central. Eventually the Reading reached New York Harbor at Port Reading, N.J. As a result of these acquisitions, the Reading would become a strategic “bridge line,” forwarding overhead traffic. (In a high-profile example of this role, Reading Company was middleman on the Jersey City–Washington Royal Blue Route.)

At Philadelphia, ferries crossed the Delaware River, allowing the road to reach southern New Jersey seashore resorts via the Atlantic City Railroad. One other important link was the Wilmington & Northern, which gave the road access to Wilmington, Del. In 1923, the P&R merged the companies it acquired into the Reading Company and divested itself of the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Co. following a government antitrust suit. In 1933, the Reading and the Pennsylvania Railroad consolidated their South Jersey operations into the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines.

Color photo of streamlined diesel locomotive under arched trainshed
Brand-new FP7 900 is at Reading Terminal, Philadelphia, before its first revenue trip, May 30, 1950.
Robert J. Linden, Dale W. Woodland collection

Demise of the Reading Company

After World War II, the Reading was affected by several factors which would lead to its demise. The biggest was the decline of anthracite traffic, which went from 16 million tons in 1945 to less than 2 million in 1975. The completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1957 diverted grain traffic bound for Atlantic Coast ports. The expansion of the Interstate highway system, the Penn Central merger of 1968, the demise of interchange partner CNJ in 1971, and the sale of Reading’s stock by parent Chessie System led to bankruptcy in 1971. The biggest blow was the PC merger, because it removed much of the bridge traffic with NYC and New Haven, traffic the Reading desperately needed to make up for the loss of coal business.

On April 1, 1976, most of the Reading’s railroad assets were transferred to Conrail. With Amtrak charging high freight user fees on its former PC lines, Conrail shifted much of its New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania freight traffic to former Reading lines. SEPTA continued to operate the former Reading commuter routes, which Reading electrified in 1931. During the Conrail era, some 22 short lines operated portions of former RDG branches, but major yard and terminal facilities such as Port Richmond, Rutherford Yard near Harrisburg, and the Reading (Pa.) shops were downgraded. The famous 1893 Reading Terminal in Philadelphia survived inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center along with the venerable farmers’ market at street level.

Color photo of side-by-side noses of two road-switcher diesel locomotives
C630 5308 and GP30 5513, preserved by the Reading Company Technical & Historical Society, pose at Reading Shops in June 1987. The group has since relocated to a site at Hamburg, 17 miles to the north.
Robert S. McGonigal

Notable Reading achievements

The Reading was notable for many things. It was the first to use the “Stop, Look & Listen” crossbucks at road crossings. Since it served a large Pennsylvania Dutch (German) population, its passenger-train conductors were famous for being bilingual. In the middle of the 20th century, Reading boasted that its Port Richmond on the Delaware River in Philadelphia was the largest privately owned tidewater port on the East Coast. The stainless-steel Crusader of 1937, the first full-sized streamliner in the East, featured an observation car at each end to preclude turning at its terminals of Philadelphia and Jersey City.

After the steam era, the “Iron Horse Ramble” excursions, pulled by T-1 4-8-4 steam locomotives built in the road’s own shops in 1945–48, made the Reading well known all over the U.S. In the mid-1960s, Reading introduced its innovative “Bee Line Service.” A shipper could order a train of up to 20 cars to operate from point to point with one crew. This fast service, blurbed on some of the Reading’s yellow-and-green high-horsepower diesels, was designed to compete with trucks for short-haul traffic.

Reading’s locomotives were unique in both the steam and diesel eras. The Camelback and conventional end-cab steam locomotives had wide Wootten fireboxes, above-center headlights, and arched cab windows, giving them a distinctive look. In 1948, the Reading built the last Pacifics in the U.S. In the diesel era, Reading’s roster boasted a great variety with box-cabs, road­-switchers, and cab units, represented by five major builders. Reading had the first GP30s and the only SD45s with built-out windshields for dual controls. What really set most of Reading diesel apart was the inverted V­shaped drip strip above the cab side windows, a feature not found on any other U.S. railroad except stepchild PRSL.

Reading Company’s legacy today

Today, Norfolk Southern operates former Reading lines linking Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Allentown, while CSX Transportation runs the former Reading between Philadelphia and Bound Brook. Most of the remaining Philadelphia-area lines are part of the Conrail Shared Assets operation, and many former Reading branches are run by short lines. The largest cluster of these is the coal-region lines of the Reading & Northern Railroad. Much Reading equipment has been preserved at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania at Strasburg, and by the Reading Company Technical and Historical Society at Hamburg, Pa.

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