Railroad electrification in the United States

Railroad electrification in the United States

Railroad electrification in the United States comprised many different systems in many different geographical areas, few of which were connected. Despite this, there were a small number of common reasons for electrification.

Streetcars and interurban systems are not within the scope of this article. Most of these systems electrified very early; many were electrified from the beginning.

Impetus for electrification

The common reasons for electrification were these:

Laws banning steam locomotives

A number of municipalities passed laws in the early part of the 20th Century forbidding steam locomotives from operating within city limits, after some bad accidents caused by the awful conditions of visibility in smoke and steam-filled tunnels and cuttings. The most prominent of these was New York City.

Long tunnels

Long, deep tunnels provide poor ventilation for steam locomotives, to the point where crews had to wear oxygen masks to avoid asphyxiation. The ventilation problem also limited the frequency of trains through these tunnels. The Cascade Tunnel is a good example.

Mountainous terrain

The electric locomotive has many advantages in mountainous terrain, including better adhesion, greater power at low speeds, no requirements for fueling or watering, and regenerative braking.

Traffic density

Extremely high-traffic lines can readily recoup the high capital investment of electrification by the savings accrued during operation.

hort-distance commuter operations

Suburban commuter trains are an ideal subject for electrification since electric multiple units possess rapid acceleration, swift braking (and sometimes regenerative braking) and the ability to reverse without running a locomotive around.

Electrification schemes in the United States

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad

The construction of a line through Baltimore in order to make a rail connection to New York City brought about the world's first mainline electrification. Operation began in 1895 with three General Electric locomotives. These locomotives only worked pulling northbound trains; southbound traffic simply coasted through this section, which was all downhill. Initially the system used a unique overhead track in which the current shoe rode, but shortly after it was converted to a conventional third rail system.

New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad

The New Haven completed electrification in 1907 of its New Haven, Connecticut-New York City mainline and was one of the pioneers of heavy electric railway use in the United States. The New Haven choose the 11kV/25 Hz system later used by the Pennsylvania, in addition to working with Westinghouse to develop AC/DC electric motors (locomotives) to run on both AC catenary and DC third rail. The New Haven was at the forefront of many developments in heavy electric railroads. It possesses a unique triangular catenary and rounded pole design not repeated in any line.

Pennsylvania Railroad

Electrification on the Pennsylvania Railroad began in 1915 with the electrification of the Chicago-Philadelphia Main Line (now part of Amtrak's Keystone Corridor) between the former Broad Street Station in Philadelphia and the village of Paoli. The PRR electrification utilized overhead catenary wires electrified at 11 kV/25 Hz, and was fed by two substations, one in Philadelphia and another in Ardmore. It was expanded in 1919 on the PRR's Chestnut Hill line, and in the 1920's on the Philadelphia-Washington Main Line between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware and on the West Chester Line between Philadelphia and West Chester.

Extensive electrification after 1925 occurred on the PRR's New York-Washington line (now part of the Northeast Corridor), the Chicago-Philadelphia Main Line between Paoli and Harrisburg, several major commuter lines in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and on major low-grade, through-freight lines, including the Trenton Cut-Off, the Atglen & Susquehanna, Port Deposit, Philadelphia & Thorndale, Shellpot, and Enola branches. All electrification done after 1919 used the same catenary supports used on the Paoli commuter line, but with the catenary being supplied with 100 kV/25 Hz "transmission" lines with the voltage stepped-down at substations located every 10 to 20 miles. Plans were made in the thirties to extend electrification to Pittsburgh, but were not pursued due to the Great Depression.

Since its takeover by Amtrak in 1976, both the Northeast and Keystone Corridors are undergoing extensive wire replacements, either by Amtrak or SEPTA, while the through-freight branches taken over by Conrail have been de-electrified and freight operations carried out by diesel locomotives. Those lines that were de-electrified, but have transmission lines are maintained by Amtrak through arraingments through Conrail's successors, Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation.

Long Island Rail Road

The Long Island Rail Road's electrification was initiated in the first decade of the 20th century while it was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was building tunnels under the Hudson River and East River to gain access to Manhattan. The first segment of the LIRR to be electrified was the trackage between the Atlantic Avenue terminal in Brooklyn and Jamaica Station. In 1910, the opening of Pennsylvania Station (New York City) ushered in electric service between that station and Jamaica. The LIRR's Port Washington Branch was rebuilt and electrified by 1918. By the 1930s? (needs verification), LIRR branches to Hicksville, Hempstead, West Hempstead, Far Rockaway, Long Beach, and Babylon were electrified. At some later date, electrification was extended from Hicksville to Huntington on the Port Jefferson branch. In the 1980s, the Main Line from Hicksville to Ronkonkoma was electrified.

The LIRR utilizes third rail electrification, which was the original method used by the Pennsylvania Railroad. By the 1930s, the Pennsylvania Railroad had switched to overhead catenary electrification, but the LIRR has continued utilizing its third rail system. Voltage was increased from 600 to 750 volts in the early 1970s to meet the greater power needs of the railroad's new M-1 cars.

Norfolk and Western Railway

The N&W had an electrified district of 52 miles from Bluefield to Iaeger, West Virginia, between 1913 and 1950. It was an 11 kV overhead electrification in a mountain region with a major tunnel.

Virginian Railway

The VGN had an electrified district of 134 miles of mountainous terrain built in the 1920s from Roanoke, Virginia to Mullens, West Virginia. It went to the N&W with the 1959 merger and was de-electrified in 1962.

Chicago, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (the Milwaukee Road)

The Milwaukee electrified with 3000V DC overhead. Two divisions were electrified; a plan to connect them was never completed. The 438-mile section from Harlowtown, Montana to Avery, Idaho operated under wire from 1916 to 1974. The 207-mile section between Tacoma and Othello, Washington was electrified from 1919 to 1971.

Great Northern Railway

The Great Northern Railway (now BNSF Railway) in 1909 electrified a section of its main line route to Seattle, Washington from Wenatchee to Skykomish. Electric locomotives were hooked or changed on this section, which has as its landmark--and electrification purpose--the 7.8 mile (12.5 km) Cascade Tunnel. The route was de-energized and dismantled in 1956.

New York Central Railroad

The New York Central electrified a section of its main line Hudson Division route in 1913 from New York City (Grand Central Terminal) to Harmon (now Croton-Harmon), where it changes to normal steam or diesel power. The Harlem Division in Westchester County, New York was also electrified.

The Hudson Division electrified line is still in use by Amtrak for inter-city passenger service. Metro-North Railroad, a commuter railroad, uses both Divisions and has extended electrification.

Illinois Central Railroad

The Illinois Central Railroad electrified its passenger lines into Chicago in 1926 due to laws passed by the city. The IC commuter lines remain electrified and now run as Metra Electric. The catenary is energized at 1500V and serves four tracks of commuter operations. Two tracks are unelectrified and used for freight and Amtrak service to downstate Illinois and beyond.

Chicago, South Shore, and South Bend Railroad

The Chicago, South Shore, and South Bend Railroad (now run by NICTD) runs electric commuter trains from South Bend, Indiana to Chicago. The line joins the Metra Electric mainline at Kensington (115th Street); from there, it uses the same tracks as Metra Electric service to the Loop. As with the Illinois Central Railroad, laws passed by Chicago in 1926 were the impetus for electrification.

Reading Railroad

Electrification on the Reading Railroad began during the late 1920s. The first stage was placed in operation on July 26, 1931, when electric suburban trains began serving the Bethlehem Branch between Reading Terminal and Lansdale, the Doylestown Branch between Lansdale and Doylestown, the Warminster Branch between Glenside and Hatboro, and the Jersey City Branch between Jenkintown and West Trenton, New Jersey. The second stage, the Norristown and Chestnut Hill branches, was opened on February 5, 1933. Like the Pennsylvania Railroad's Paoli commuter line, the Reading employed overhead catenary wire powered at 11 kV/25 Hz, but unlike the PRR, the Reading used a single generator, located at Wayne Junction, with long-distance lines being supplied by spider-frame pylons that can still be seen to this day, mostly along the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76).

Extensions of electrification over intercity lines, such as West Trenton-Jersey City, Norristown-Reading-Harrisburg, and Lansdale-Bethlehem were planned, but because of the Great Depression, they were dropped. Only two expansion projects, carried out by the Reading with funding from SEPTA, was that of the Newtown Branch between Newtown Junction and Fox Chase in 1968, and the Warminster Branch between Hatboro and Warminster in 1973. Since the takeover of the Reading commuter lines in 1983, SEPTA has practically rehabilitated the entire catenary wires between the Center City Commuter Connection and Wayne Junction, and on all ex-Reading tracks owned by SEPTA. Those sections of ex-Reading tracks owned by Conrail, and later by CSX Transportation are being done on a step-by-step basis.

Butte, Anaconda and Pacific Railway

The BA&P, a copper ore-hauling short line in Montana, electrified in 1913 using a 2,400 Volts DC system engineered by General Electric. It was the first primarily freight railroad in North America to electrify. Original motive power was in the form of 28 identical B-B boxcabs, which served until de-electrification in 1967, by which time diesel-electric locomotives were cheaper to run. General Electric used the BA&P as a model railroad for demonstrating the success of its DC electrification techniques. The Milwaukee Road electrified soon afterward using a similar technique at 3,000 V DC.


Amtrak, the national intercity passenger railroad, has completed two electrification projects on its own lines.

The Empire Connection was electrified when it was built in 1991, allowing trains from Albany direct access to Penn Station New York by use of dual-mode locomotives. The Empire Connection was electrified with 750V DC third rail, compatible with the third rail system used within Penn Station by the Long Island Rail Road.

The Northeast Corridor mainline from New Haven to Boston was electrified in 1999, completing the thwarted ambition of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. This electrification was part of the Acela Express high-speed project, and involved the building of overhead lines electrified at 25kV 60 Hz AC, requiring trains to handle a change of voltage and frequency on the fly at New Haven. Plans to convert the rest of the Northeast Corridor to 60 Hz AC have been shelved.

ee also

* Amtrak
* List of current systems for electric rail traction
* Metro-North Railroad

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