Excerpts from J.R. Hildebrand's November 1936 National Geographic article, "Trains of Today -- and Tomorrow"

"Trains of Today -- and Tomorrow"

"How fast?" I asked the conductor of the Twentieth Century Limited. "Slowing down now to 70 for a curve. We've been doing 80."

Passengers had been conscious of neither curves nor speed. Just then a town snapped by -- a muffled roar of trapped sound, a swift blur of lights, like a movie reel gone "haywire."

A tall young man came along the aisle chatting affably with an elderly train maid.

"That's Mr. Blank," the conductor explained, naming a millionaire sportsman. "Emma's been on this train since it started. In a way she helped raise him, and dozens of other sons of New York and Chicago families, when they were boys traveling back and forth with their parents."

Railroads have their historic liners; the Twentieth Century is the Mauretania of the New York Central. They lay colored carpets from gate to platform when the Century leaves Grand Central Terminal. Passengers know each other and greet the train crew as they would the officers and stewards of their favorite steam ship.


"Speed's the thing now, speed, safety, and comfort," rambled on the veteran conductor. "I remember when they put the first electric lights on the old Empire State Express. And they cut down the New York-Chicago time to 24 hours. There was a great to-do about that; crowds were out at every station to see her whiz by. Now we make it easily in 16.5 hours."

The Pennsylvania's Broadway Limited is a similar train, making the same time as the Twentieth Century. With rates and running time on competing roads often the same, rivalry now is for added touches of passenger comfort.

"I landed two regular passengers from our competitors," chuckled one passenger agent, "because they liked the doughnuts we give them mornings with their small cups of coffee."


Over a Chicago travel agent's desk hangs a sign, "Trains of Tomorrow." I asked the alert young clerk to name a few.

She looked puzzled, but, self-possessed, waived the question of destination and reeled off a list: the Sunset Limited, the Hiawatha, the Abraham Lincoln, the Argo-naut, the Green Diamond, the Columbine. And, taking breath, the Ak-Sar-Ben, the Super Chief, the Mark Twain Zephyr, the Mountain Bluebird.

The Mark Twain was my first ride.

There it stood in the station, its stainless steel gleaming like a platinum wedding ring, the humorist's pen signature scrawled on its beetled, glass-incased observation tail.

The whole train weighs not much more than a standard Pullman car. A train made up of a steam engine and two coaches would have 36 or 40 wheels; this one had 16 on four roller-bearing trucks.

Diaphragm vestibules make passing from one unit to the other scarcely perceptible to the passenger were it not for the different decorations of the smoking compartment, the main passenger cabin, and the observation lounge.

Victorian red plush and cupids carved in woodwork have disappeared from most railroads. Decorators and lighting specialists bid for contracts to do the interiors, even those of day coaches. An architect's fee of $28,000 is part of the cost of one club car built this year.

Gray-green carpets, pastel upholstery, rose curtains, aluminum chair frames marked the "rooms" of this Zephyr. Storage space for baggage supplanted overhead racks, radios transmitted the oratory of political campaigns and symphony concert music, a hostess helped make passengers comfortable and amused their children, insulated deadened outside noise.


Constantly a trainman kept a watchful eye on the thermometer and regulated air conditioning.

"The railroads handle more fresh air than any other industry except the movies," an expert said. "High-speed trains would scarcely be practicable without air conditioning. If windows were open, suction would deluge passengers with dust and dirt; if they were closed, bad air would suffocate them."

In effect theses clublike compartments are built within a titan sealed tube of stainless steel nearly 200 feet long, rounded at the ends and jointed at two places. A Diesel power unit within the tube rockets it along the rails at 100 miles an hour or more on wheel trucks that have been rubber-insulated to lessen sound and vibration.

The inventive genius and prolonged experiment that go into making such a carrier are bewildering.

Consider whistles and windows. The safety-glass panes of the latter are set in dumdum putty to prevent cracking. They are hermetically sealed to help keep temperature and humidity at proper levels, and between two panes is an inert gas that eliminates steam or frosting, which would hamper the passengers' view.

Inside the train the sound of the whistle is like the distant moan of a tugboat's signal heard from the top of a New York skyscraper, but it is warranted to be audible five miles; it carries ten miles or so if the wind is right.

I scanned a list of equipment for this short train: coil spring and V-belts, weather stripping, felt, copper screens, cork flooring, and composition table tops; exhaust fans, light fixtures, signal valves, paper cups, air filters, storage batteries, and other items.


"Probably you had to shop around a bit for these?"

A road official produced a requisition sheet listing 107 firms, which gives some idea of the railroads as customers and of the research required to meet their needs.

They let me ride in the control room where the motorman, an erstwhile locomotive engineer, drives the 660-horsepower Diesel engine.

"Motormen, drivers, operators, whatever you call them, all are graduates of the steam-engine school," an official explained. "Starting, stopping, running a Diesel or an electric engine is not hard to learn, but it is knowing every quirk and curve of every mile of track that counts -- every switch, every grade, every crossing.

"The engineman, by any name, always will be the pilot of any craft on rails."

It was much like sitting beside the driver of a sleek automobile, up there in the control room, busy windshield wipers oscillating on the half-dome of safety glass about us, gleaming instrument board at hand level, the motorman relaxed and casual, but eyes fixed on signals and track ahead.

The running was smooth as an automobile gliding over a superbly surfaced road, but the speed would have incited the most indulgent traffic policeman to instant action. Up to 75, then 80, past 90, on to 93 climbed the speedometer.

"Oh, yes, we could make well over a hundred; often do, but no need now," explained the motorman. One hand or one foot always was on the "dead-man control." Had he let go that, the power would automatically have been cut off and the emergency brakes applied.


For safety's sake all railroads have "slow orders" for certain stretches. An engineer showed me one, dated May 29, 1935 which read, "Articulated trains must not exceed 90 miles an hour on eastward track between milepost 195 and milepost 198."

"This streamlining, is that decoration or does it help speed?"

"Below 50 miles, no. Above that, where we run most of the time, considerably. They had scale models of this train tried out in a laboratory. Tests showed that at 95 miles an hour streamlining reduced the 'drag,' or wind resistance to motion, by 47 per cent."

The only flaw in the short, pioneer Zephyrs is their capacity. Passengers grow dispirited when all the space is sold out, sometimes for days in advance.

A zephyr train starts out in life as a coil of stainless steel, an alloy of ordinary steel, nickel, and chromium. The two ends of each coil are snipped off for a pulling machine, to assure its tensile strength, and for the "bend test," which may reveal various technical defects.


I pointed to one coil of the gleaming metal, wrapped like slivery ribbon 10 inches wide in a bolt two feet thick.

"How much is that worth?"

The attendant consulted his file and quotes "$355."

Like the stone money of the island of Yap, this wealth is not very vulnerable to theft, since the coil weighed 710 pounds.

When car making starts, a mechanic requisitions coils of desired width, slips one end into the forming rolls, which shape it, and as it moves along the rolls he arc-welds the other end to a fresh coil.

A radiac stone saw clips the formed pieces to the exact fraction-inch length of specifications.

Contour machines work on other parks; curved sheathing is beaten out by hand. All these parts are numbered and thus assembled in the jig for side frames, and these sides are then swung over by cranes to be welded to center sill, floor, and roof.

Hundreds of parts are "shot-welded," and the name is appropriate, for by this time the massive metal tube looks as if it had been dented by enough bullets to fight the Battle of the Marne.

Stainless steel is held by its proponents to be of special value in train building because of its high strength in proportion to weight, and no extra thickness is needed to allow for corrosion. The roofing of a stainless-steel train is only two one-hundredths of an inch thick. Its use reduced the weight of train equipment per passenger by more than half.

It takes about a ton of train equipment to move a ton of freight, which ton of freight the railroads haul for a cent a mile. It requires from two to seven tons of train to move one passenger, and the railroads now are hauling him for 2 cents, and less, a mile.

For twenty years or more stainless steel has been used for kitchen utensils. But its structural use was limited because ordinary welding processes destroyed the very quality which made it desirable. Not until an inventor adapted the shot-welding process could it be employed for train building.

Shot welding, in essence, consists of clamping piece to piece and then shooting an electric charge, exactly timed, through the pieces. To the layman it looks like nailing strips of steel by lightning bolts, only there remain no "nails," or rivets.


As I rode the Zephyr, the unexpected sight was the crowds.

Out West they again are coming down to way stations and crossroads to see the trains go by. They come by the thousands, in roadsters and afoot, some in Model T's; I counted five horse and buggy teams.

They gather for the silvery streak of the stainless-steel Zephyrs, for the polished angleworm dash of the "Cities" fleet, for the red-and-yellow splotch of the Hiawatha against Wisconsin's green meadows; and for the sturdy square-jawed "400," steaming standard locomotive defiance to Diesel and electrification speed.

"It's been ten years since I saw crowds waving to trains that didn't have the President aboard," said an eastern passenger.

At Omaha I abandoned the Burlington's Zephyr for the Union Pacific's Challenger.

"A challenge to what?" I inquired.

"A challenge to people who ride our own bus lines," replied an official of that historic railroad.

The Union Pacific had no prejudices against its own bus travel, but it believed it could carry passengers for long distances more speedily, more economically, and more comfortably on its trains. So it sent out scouts to interview hundreds of bus passengers; even the president observed them.


"We found we had to do far more than meet the price of the bus ticket," an official explained. "Some said train meals cost too much. Others hesitated to go from coaches to dining cars where they might meet friends traveling Pullman. Silly, perhaps, but that was human nature as we found it.

"Certain small charges irked passengers. We would spend half a million dollars to put a train in service, then collect pennies for towels, drinking cups, pillows.

"Coach passengers were cramped after sitting in straight-back seats. Lights burned brightly all night long, and brakemen would call out stations throughout the night.

"Women were afraid of meeting undesirable persons in coaches. They could not get proper food, or get it cheaply, for their babies. And women were 62 per cent of our patrons.

All these and many other complaints were codified, considered, and the Challenger was born.


The train's name was painted in bright colors on the exteriors of the coaches; the interiors were decorated in subdued designs. Upholstery of adjustable, individual seats varies. Two diners were re-furnished, in coffee-shop style; menus offer 25-cent breakfasts and 35-cent dinners. The latter, the day I was aboard, afforded:

Roast Loin of Pork, Apple Sauce
New Potatoes in Cream
Asparagus on Toast
Hot Dinner Rolls
Coffee, Tea, Milk

When the meal service is concluded, the two diners are used as club cars, for reading, writing, smoking, beverage service, or card games. As I retired, a group of college boys and girls had turned on the radio for an impromptu dance.

Normal lighting of the coaches is indirect. At 10 o'clock these lights go off, and there remain only dim blue lights and amber floor lights, enough to avoid stumbling in the aisles. But there are individual lights for late readers. Porters pass out pillows.

Tickets are collected once for all. Stations are not called; if any passenger must get off during the night he is awakened individually. Baggage is carried to the platform by a car porter and given to a redcap who must not take a tip. The road pays him.

Two cars, or more, behind the mail and baggage are reserved for women. Aboard are stewardesses who must be trained nurses, preferably also college graduates. They give first aid, assist the aged, infirm, and young, care for children traveling alone, look after others when their parents dine or wish to rest.


Back from Denver to Chicago I rode the City of Denver, then in operation just one week, pioneering in luxury as the Challenger was in comfort.

Thereon one may lounge in a frontier shack, authentic reproduction of a western tavern of the post-Civil War period. From its timber rafters hang faithful prototypes of kerosene lamps; walls and ceilings are white pine boards, of rough finish and uneven width, face nailed. Men hang their hats on iron spikes.

From the Union Pacific's historic museum have been assembled rifles, horns, portraits of famous pioneers, showboat and melodrama programs, old railroad schedules, one counseling those who have cattle for shipment to have them down at the station by 10 o'clock the following Tuesday morning, and faded newspaper clippings of the General Grant period.

One may sleep in the newest type of Pullman section, which has aluminum sliding panels that operate on the principle of a rolltop desk, to give greater privacy than berth curtains. Dressing platforms and windows are provided for upper berths.

This sister of the Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco "City" trains is a standard-size streamliner and has twelve aluminum cars. Its two 1,200 horsepower, 16-cylinder Diesel engines enable it to make the run in 16 hours, cutting 9.5 hours from the previous fastest schedules.

The adaptation of the Diesel engine for train motive power, by lightening their weight and lessening vibration, is a wonder tale of American inventive genius.

The story goes that after the units of 1,200 horsepower were completed, the famous engineer who supervises this development called in his associates and said, in effect, "You boys had better be figuring on even more horsepower. These railroads are insatiable. Given 'em 1,200 and in a few months they will be wanting 2,400."

That afternoon came a telephone call from the Santa Fe.

"Can you build us Diesel units that will give 3,600 horsepower to run our new Super Chief on a 39-hour schedule between Chicago and Los Angeles? How soon can you deliver the job?"

The order was accepted; the units are nearly completed.


Just 100 years ago the news of his father's death did not reach John Quincy Adams in Washington, D.C., for five days. Special arrangements were made to speed the statesman home; they whisked him as far as New York in 45 hours.

"He made six changes of conveyance en route," the historian relates. "His own carriage took him to Baltimore, a steamboat from Baltimore to Frenchtown to the head of the Chesapeake Bay, a stagecoach to New Philadelphia; a stage from thence to New Brunswick, at which place he took a steamboat to New York City."

Today Mr. Adams could buy a ticket for $4.55 and leave any hour between dawn and midnight to ride the 226.5 miles to New York in less than four hours!

To enable any citizen to do this, the railroads built in Washington a terminal costing $16,308,277.01; the Pennsylvania has bored tunnels under Baltimore costing $7-500,000; has spent $25,000,000 for a new station and tracks to facilitate his ride over and around parts of Philadelphia; has dug deep beneath the Hudson River and East River a 7-mile tube and erected a world-famous station in New York, which entire improvement cost $125,000,000.

Then the Pennsylvania spent $100,000,000 for the electrification of its line between Washington and New York.

The Pennsylvania likes to talk of "fleets of trains" which give frequent dependable service. But one must ride on some train, so let us consider the Congressional.

Legislation has been framed on that train, friends meet friends in its dining car and lounge. They have to talk faster now, because the time has been cut to 3 hours and 35 minutes; soon it will be 3.5 hours.

The power is already there, in its mammoth electric engines. Increasing speed waits on the work of further banking its tracks, like the automobile speedway at Indianapolis. One rail may be six inches higher than the other along the arcs of its broad curves; this rise must begin a mile or so back of the curve.

Its electric locomotive, one of 58 of the new GG-I type, equals the weight of 164 Ford V8 Sedans, and if it should stand on its hind end its bulbous nose would rise higher than a 7-story building.

It rides on 12 driving wheels and 8 more wheels on the other trucks, 20 in all; and a 152-pound track, heaviest yet made, is being laid to withstand that load and speed.

Science again outstrips mythology in the person of a modest engineering Jove who, from a Philadelphia control room, regulates the flow of electricity along this electrified route.


When one rides the new, luxurious trains of a score of railroads, making the highest schedule speed yet attained, it is not hard to believe that some of them cost a million dollars or more.

Does it pay?

The answers are affirmative, but the reasons are different, in the East and in the West.

"Our average passenger haul is 391 miles, as compared with 61 miles on a large eastern road, or 37 miles on one of the Middle West roads," said an official of the Union Pacific. "We can afford to go after passengers, as does a steamship company."

"Our tracks from New York to Philadelphia are some of the busiest in the world," said an official of the Pennsylvania. "The whole New York-Washington route is highly congested. Speeding up trains, running more trains and longer trains, is the equivalent of building more tracks. It cost less to electrify than to buy expensive rights of way and increase trackage."

Ten years ago one ate lobster in Baltimore or Washington with some trepidation; fresh berries and melons from Maryland and Georgia might be wilted by the time they reached Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and other inland cities.

Now a train loads lobsters from the boats at Boston's wharves into special tank cars and delivers them to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington the next morning. Refrigerated freight trains speed nightly from Baltimore and Washington with fruit, oysters, and vegetables over a 450-mile radius and more to the north and west.


This introduces the portentous question of freight, which is considerably more important to the railroads, also to the citizen, than passenger travel.

The new fast passenger trains are the most spectacular advances in railroading; the faster freights, and the improvement in handling freight shipments, are far more fundamental.

If all the railroad trackage in the United States were laid down in a vast continental gridiron, each line would be only 14.29 miles from the other. Nobody could live more than 7.15 miles from a railroad.

That simple fact was all-important in the population spread of our country.

Never before in the history of the world, or anywhere else in the world today, has been developed such an extensive network of rail transportation.

Everywhere else, dense populations cluster along river courses -- along the Yangtze, the Nile, the Ganges; or they settle near the sea, as they did on the peninsulas we now call Greece, Italy, Spain, Denmark, and the islands of Great Britain and Japan.

In the vast expanse of the United States are populated places many miles from navigable water. Railroads peopled and still sustain some areas which otherwise might be as thinly settled as the fringes of the Sahara or the Gobi.


The race of rail and canal began even. The Ohio River was the goal. On the same day of the same year, 108 years ago, work was started on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, from Georgetown, D.C., and on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, in Baltimore.

On July 4, 1828, just 52 years after he had affixed his bold signature to the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, or Carrollton, Maryland, then only survivor of the signors, laid the first stone of the new railroad.

"Just a crazy dream," said most people.

Certainly no one dreamed that railroads were to become to the United States what ships are to the British Empire, coolies to China, caravans to the Near East: the essential, but swifter and cheaper transport, to feed, clothe, and supply the people.


Riding the front platform of a Diesel switching engine, I caught stray whiffs of Florida oranges, Hawaiian pineapples, Brazilian coffee, and vinegar from Wisconsin -- two tank cars of vinegar, sire of how many orders of pickled pigs' feet or platters of salad?

Pungent odors of onions there were too, of a tarred rope shipment, of scented soap, and of fresh fish. Shut your eyes there and your nostrils report the geography of the railroads' amazing distribution of food and goods.

Speeding up perishables is only part of the advantage. The merchant profits by carrying smaller stocks, saves on storage, and can give quicker and more flexible service.

Recently a customer entered a Boston store at 4 o'clock to buy a rug. The only one in stock that fitted the color scheme of his room was damaged.

"If you like that rug, I will have a perfect one delivered to your home tomorrow morning," promised the salesman.

"If there is another one to be had, tell me where and I'll drive out to get it."

"You will scarcely wish to do that, sir. I will wire our New York warehouse, they will put it on the night freight, and I'll have it out to you by 11 o'clock tomorrow morning."

And he did!


To visualize the volume of freight and passengers hauled by all the railroads of the United States is difficult. To say that the 1,964,000 freight cars would make a train reaching two-thirds around the world at the Equator is accurate, but no human eye could encompass such a spectacle.

Perhaps the plain figures are most impressive.

To the rolling stock of nearly two million freight cars add 48,300 locomotives and 43,800 passenger cars.

Imagine, if you can, 1,400,000,000 tons of freight hauled each year, at a cent a mile, in addition to hundreds of thousands more tons of mail, express, and baggage.

There are 450,000,000 passenger hauls -- four 40-mile rides for every man, woman, and babe in arms in the United States, at an average of about two cents a mile.

To move that traffic over highways would require more trucks and busses than the 21,500,000 private passenger automobiles in the entire country.

Yes there is plenty of business for the railroads!

Hildebrand, J.R. "Trains of Today -- and Tomorrow." The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. LXX, no. 5 (November 1936): 535-589.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

The Railroad revolutionized American travel. What trains have you been on? Do you have any memories of Streamliners? Have you been in a Pullman car? Share your most memorable train ride.