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Going Like Thirty

June 2024
1min read

In her interesting article “Terror of Trains” (August/September 2003), Michelle Stacey claims that speeds of 60 miles per hour were reached on American railroads as early as 1832. This is correct, but it is worth noting that in that era passenger trains never operated at such high velocities. What is likely being referred to are two locomotive tests conducted on separate lines, one on the Mohawk and Hudson and the other on the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown. These were one-off stunts and did not involve passengers or cars and definitely did not represent everyday operations. For most of the nineteenth century, few U.S. passenger trains ran much more than 30 mph, and average speeds were far lower. Locomotives were capable of fast running, but the track and signaling were not up to it. By the late 1880s fast trains had begun to appear on some U.S. lines, though most were short runs like Washington to Baltimore or Jersey City to Philadelphia. The fastest was the B&O’s Flyer: 53.3 mph from Washington to Baltimore. Long-distance trains remained much slower; as late as 1893 the New York Central’s fastest train to Chicago took just over 24 hours, with an average speed of about 40 mph.

One other point: The vehement broadside on page 38 is often reproduced and just as often misdated. Why the date of 1839 is used remains unclear. The locomotive is more modern-looking and probably dates from 1860. The wording of the text makes clear that the “outrage” concerns the Connecting Railroad in Philadelphia, built from 1864 to 1867 to offer a fast all-rail route across the city. Running from Frankfort Junction in North Philadelphia to the PW&B station in Southwest Philly, it pushed through a built-up area and so probably became one of the first NIMBY actions in our history. The line is used today by all New York to Washington passenger trains.

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