H. Roger Grant
When President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Defense Highway Act in the summer of 1956, some transportation experts thought that the future system of more that forty thousand miles of high-speed, divided highways would severely injure the financial health of the nation's privately owned railroads. Perhaps the impact would ultimately force a government take-over, resembling what had occurred in the late 1940s in Great Britain. Not only would interstate highways encourage greater automobile ownership and usage, but trucks would accelerate the siphoning off from their rail rivals the most lucrative types of freight traffic and maybe even low-grade commodities. When jet-powered aircraft appeared shortly thereafter, the fate of long-distance streamlined passenger trains—like the Chiefs, Hiawathas and Zephyrs— that so many cherished, seemed to be in doubt.
Even before interstate highways and jet planes, there were signs of a deteriorating railroad network in Illinois. The state's once impressive network of 1,442 miles of electric interurbans had been largely abandoned. Only a handful of companies remained, virtually the last "juice" roads left in either the Midwest or nation: Chicago, Aurora & Elgin; Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee; Chicago, South Shore & South Bend; and Illinois Terminal (IT). In 1957 the "Roarin" Elgin" became junk and six years later the North Shore ended service. Also, the IT, the former Illinois Traction Company, reduced trackage, terminated passenger operations and dieselized, becoming a
Although it is today possible to ride on an interurban between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana, one of the greatest "juice" systems that served the state was the Illinois Terminal Railroad. But in the mid-1950s the company exited the passenger business and pulled down its overhead electric wires, becoming a dieselized freight road.
328-mile freight-and-terminal-switching property. The South Shore became the last bonafide interurban in the nation, but in time passenger operations entered into the realm of public control under the auspices of the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.
Not only did the interurban era come mostly to an end, but large and small steam railroads abandoned money-losing appendages, terminated scores of branch-line and local passenger trains, and generally pared down operations. Mileage in Illinois declined from 11,949 in 1940 to 7,338 in 2004, although the percentage decrease was far less than in neighboring states, most of all Iowa. Furthermore, the impact of dieselization—the replacement technology that revolutionized the industry after World War II—led to removal of most of those artifacts associated with the Age of Steam: water tanks, coal chutes, and roundhouses. And with radios, computers, and more sympathetic regulators, the number of functioning depots in the state also declined dramatically, especially during the 1960s. Most of these obsolete structures were torn down, but a few remained, being recycled into businesses, offices, homes, and the occasional museum.
While railroads were becoming more streamlined and more technologically advanced, there were enormous challenges, ranging from managing ever-increasing modal competition to wrestling with "feather-bedding" unions that persistently sought job protection for members, even demanding retention of firemen on diesel locomotives. Carriers were also tangled in a rat's nest of federal and state regulation, making it difficult for railroad leaders to implement cost-saving measures.
By the end of the 1960s those Illinois railroads that continued to operate intercity passenger trains would soon get economic relief from the federal government through the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, commonly known as Amtrak. On May 1, 1971,
every railroad in the state, except the Rock Island, joined this quasi-public corporation. Participating railroads and the communities they served were ensured retention of passenger service, albeit usually only a single daily train. Eventually the state helped to subsidize Amtrak service, making it possible, for example, for the Illinois Zephyr to serve such communities as Macomb and Quincy.
Illinois was part of the renaissance in railroading in the 1960s and 1970s and blossomed following passage of the Staggers Act in 1980, which brought about partial freight-rate regulation. Several Chicago-based carriers—most notably the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (Santa Fe), Chicago & North Western (C&NW) and Illinois Central (IC)-blazed the way.
During this period actions taken by the C&NW reveal how progressive railroads responded. In the mid-1950s a brilliant Chicago attorney, Ben W. Heineman, had taken control of this historic, albeit deteriorating property, and he soon transformed it. Not only did the C&NW at last become fully dieselized, but Heineman forced confrontation with feath-erbedding station agents, who often worked only an hour or less a day in their small-town depots. The struggle took several years, but in 1962 the C&NW achieved a "stunning setback for the telegraphers," becoming an early victory in management's efforts to achieve a more productive workforce. About the same time Heineman spearheaded a revolution in Chicago-area commuter service. The company won national recognition for the introduction of "push-pull" trains that consisted of high-capacity, double-deck coaches, creating "the finest and most modern suburban service in the world." And Heineman, who became disgusted with the stranglehold of railroad commissions, decided in the mid-1960s to use the extensive tax credits that the C&NW had accumulated to diversify into less regulated non-railroad holdings. Northwest Industries became a leader in this type of strategy that several other carriers in the region also embraced, including the IC with its Illinois Central Industries. In the early 1970s Heineman really pushed the envelope when he engineered the sale of the railroad to employees, forming the Chicago & North Western Transportation Company.
Several factors contributed to the revival of Illinois railroads, including corporate mergers. The decade of the 1960s was a time of "merger madness" in the industry. Virtually every carrier that served the state became involved in the process of restructuring. When one company paired off with another, it created a new competitive situation, forcing non-participants to devise defensive strategies. In 1968 the merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads, which created the nearly twenty thousand-mile Penn Central Transportation Company, became a kind of poster child for this frantic series of realignments. There were the savings that a corporate marriage offered, including reduction of office staffs, repair facilities, and redundant trackage. Yet in the case of Penn Central these economies did not guarantee corporate bliss; the company failed in 1970, making it the largest corporate bankruptcy to that date.
Six years later the threat of a massive loss of rail services prompted the federal government to intervene, launching the quasi-public Consolidation Railroad Corporation (Conrail). It was not surprising that during this time the C&NW, for example, swallowed the Litchfield & Madison (1958), Minneapolis & St. Louis (1960), and Chicago Great Western (1968). The former operated entirely in the state, and the latter two had main lines that reached either Peoria or Chicago. Then, with the monster "mega-mergers" of the late-twentieth century, the C&NW in 1995 found itself in the hands of the Union Pacific (UP).
By the twenty-first century, the Illinois railroad scene was not only dominated by the UP, which also acquired the Missouri Pacific, including the former Chicago & Eastern Illinois, but the Burlington Northern Santa Fe that consisted of both the Burlington Northern and its predecessor Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) and the Santa Fe. Also dominating the Illinois railroad scene was the CSX, a company that included the former Baltimore & Ohio. Leading railroads also consisted of the Norfolk Southern that operated the Nickel Plate Road (NKP) and Wabash. And two giant Canadian-based carriers took over the one-time IC, Milwaukee and Soo Line roads.
The massive corporate reorganizations substantially altered the railroad map of Illinois. There were fewer miles of lines, altered corporate names, and newly created "regionals" and "shortlines" that took over still economically viable pieces of trackage. Examples of the latter abound. In the early 1980s the bankrupt Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (Rock Island) entered the corporate graveyard, and portions of the track that were not abandoned went to existing or newly organized carriers. The historic main line across Illinois remained viable, and in 1984, one of the nation's first regional railroads-companies that operated usually
several hundred miles of line and generated several millions of dollars of revenues annually-took control of most of the former main line and the branch between Bureau and Peoria. This 500-mile Iowa Interstate Railroad focused on serving patrons in Illinois and Iowa and developing interchange business through "gateways" in Chicago, Peoria, and Council Bluffs (Iowa). In subsequent years management, at times with the help of public funding, rehabilitated the trackage, allowing for long trains of ethanol, grain, steel, scrap metal, chemical, lumber, and even intermodal cargoes.
And the number of shortlines rose markedly. Little pikes with such names as the Decatur Junction; Kankakee, Beaverville & Southern; Shawnee Terminal, and Vandalia presently contribute to the gathering and distributing of rail shipments. The Kankakee, Beaverville & Southern (KB&S) nicely reveals the process of shortline-making. In 1977 the company began operations on twenty-five miles of former Conrail (New York Central) trackage between Kankakee and Sheldon. Three years later the KB&S acquired sixty miles of the former Milwaukee Road between North Hooper and Danville. The process of adding unwanted trackage continued; in 1989 Norfolk Southern made available a section of the one-time NKP between Lafayette, Indiana, and Gibson City, to the KB&S.
The state's main lines remained strategic components in regional and inter-regional networks, and "cutting-edge" changes could be readily observed. High-speed intermodal (piggyback and container) trains now race along the former trackage of the C&NW and Santa Fe, providing shippers convenient, dependable and reasonably priced access to national and worldwide markets. No longer do railyards contain countless freight cars, particularly boxcars, but rather massive lift cranes and related mechanical paraphernalia that speedily load and unload specially designed flatcars with an endless stream of "boxes," those ubiquitous metal containers. While hardly as high-tech as intermodal movements, hundreds of "unit" trains rumble daily across Illinois. It might be a unit coal train that travels over the UP from the low-sulphur bituminous fields of the Power River Basin in Wyoming to electric-power plants in the greater Chicago area, or unit grain trains moving from the Northern Great Plains or perhaps from Illinois points over the rails of the Canadian National to Gulf ports for export to Asian or European markets.
Behind the scenes, much has changed in the conduct of railroad operations. The
Just as mergers often helped to enhance corporate earnings, the threshing out of problems that came from intense government regulation and antiquated labor work rules also enhanced balance sheets. On both fronts the industry has scored major victories, with the most spectacular being the relaxing of rate-making controls that did much to make the Interstate Commerce Commission superfluous, leading in 1995 to its abolition. No longer was the theme of railroad regulation "enterprise denied"; instead it became "rebirth." Revisions of rigid and expensive labor agreements that the C&NW spearheaded likewise contributed to this rebirth phenomenon. Fundamental technological changes, best illustrated by diesel locomotives with no fires to tend, had greatly reduced the need for an army of workers. By the 1990s a give-and-take attitude by management and organized labor brought about a happier day in employer-worker relations.
No informed person is about to write the obituary for railroads in Illinois or elsewhere. Likely even more trains will be rolling over the principal arteries that continue to lead to or through the nation's railroad Mecca, Chicago. Not only do the railroads, whether super-giants, regionals, or shortlines, have the income to enhance efficiency, but the trucking industry, the chief competitor, has been beset with a chronic shortage of drivers, rising fuel costs, clogged highways, and new federal rules that
reduce the number of hours truckers can drive. One response by trucking firms has been to redirect the long-distance haulage of trailers to the rails, creating an ever-more-integrated network of transportation for Illinois and the nation.
Connection with the Curriculum
Materials for Each Student
Objectives for Each Student
Opening the Lesson
Teachers will require some background themselves before they teach these lessons. Teachers will need to learn the meaning of the words "juice" road, dieselized, featherbedding, and intermodal. A lecture-discussion will open the lesson. Students will take notes as the teacher provides information.
The narrative and information is appropriate for teachers. The following sources will help prepare teachers for their classes on these lessons:
1. H. Roger Grant, The Com Belt Route: A History of the Chicago Great Western Railroad Company (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1984).
Teachers should be knowledgeable about the following areas of railroad history:
a) What motivated the beginning of railroads
e) How railroad development mirrored development of the state
Developing the Lesson
Part 1: Based on notes, have students develop a short paper, poster, or series of drawings highlighting at least five influences on Illinois railroads or influences made by Illinois railroads.
Part 2: Based on information in Part 1, answer the following questions.
Research railroads in your community via local library, historical society/group, railroad official, or retired railroad personnel, etc.
Have students draw pictures of passing trains in their area. Write captions for pictures. Talk about the importance of products noticed on trains. Would another means of transportation be workable for some of these products? How many semi trucks would be needed to haul the products carried by one train? Could all products be handled by semi trucks?
Extending the Lesson
Create a chart listing predictions for each of the above items showing increase or decrease for each. How might that make railroads more appealing as a mode of delivery? Might this situation apply to movement of people? Consider interurban traffic (i.e., Chicago Metro and Amtrak).