• ITVI.USA
    10,751.730
    -679.100
    -5.9%
  • OTLT.USA
    3.005
    -0.267
    -8.2%
  • OTRI.USA
    20.330
    0.360
    1.8%
  • OTVI.USA
    10,700.870
    -711.780
    -6.2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    2.960
    0.380
    14.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    3.710
    0.160
    4.5%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.290
    -0.010
    -0.8%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    3.720
    0.010
    0.3%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.240
    0.100
    4.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    4.160
    0.060
    1.5%
  • WAIT.USA
    132.000
    -5.000
    -3.6%
  • ITVI.USA
    10,751.730
    -679.100
    -5.9%
  • OTLT.USA
    3.005
    -0.267
    -8.2%
  • OTRI.USA
    20.330
    0.360
    1.8%
  • OTVI.USA
    10,700.870
    -711.780
    -6.2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    2.960
    0.380
    14.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    3.710
    0.160
    4.5%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.290
    -0.010
    -0.8%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    3.720
    0.010
    0.3%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.240
    0.100
    4.7%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    4.160
    0.060
    1.5%
  • WAIT.USA
    132.000
    -5.000
    -3.6%
BusinessFreightWaves ClassicsInsightsNewsRailSupply Chains

FreightWaves Classics/Fallen Flags: The Alphabet Route offered shippers an alternative to the Big 4

There are many people interested in former transportation companies, whether they were trucking companies, railroads, airlines or ocean lines. They are called “fallen flags,” and the term describes those companies whose corporate names have been dissolved through merger, bankruptcy or liquidation.

The Alphabet Route was not actually an operating railroad; it was a coalition of railroads that worked together to connect the Midwest and the Northeast via their combined rail lines. The Alphabet Route offered a freight alternative to the four major systems: the Pennsylvania Railroad, the New York Central Railroad, the Erie Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

Three Jersey Central locomotives lead their freight train through Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania on July 12, 1970. 
(Photo: Roger Puta/American-Rails.com)
Three Jersey Central locomotives lead their freight train through Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania on July 12, 1970.
(Photo: Roger Puta/American-Rails.com)

How it came about

George J. Gould. 
(Photo: ancestors.familysearch.org)
George J. Gould.
(Photo: ancestors.familysearch.org)

The Alphabet Route grew from attempts by George J. Gould to create a transcontinental railroad. Gould was the eldest son of Jay Gould, who was a leading American railroad developer/speculator. Jay Gould was one of the “robber barons” of the 1870s-1890s and one of the richest men of his era. George J. Gould was a financier who inherited and then led the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGW), Western Pacific Railroad (WP) and the Manhattan Railway Company.

There were also proposals filed with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) for a “Fifth System” to compete with the four major systems listed above. However, the consolidations that would have formed the Fifth System did not happen because of the Great Depression.

The Alphabet Route came about on February 11, 1931, with the completion of the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railway’s (P&WV) rail line to Connellsville, Pennsylvania, providing a connection to the Western Maryland Railway (WM). 

Rather than actually merging, the eight railroads that comprised the Alphabet Route entered into a marketing agreement that formed a route linking the Midwest (Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Great Lakes ports) and the Northeast (Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston). Together, the eight Midwestern and Northeastern railroads were able to provide shippers a fast-freight alternative to the much larger eastern trunk lines. 

A map of the Alphabet Route. (Image: cs.trains.com)
A map of the Alphabet Route. (Image: cs.trains.com)

While none of the eight railroads were big enough (or had a direct Midwest-Northeast route) to compete with the four major systems, the consortium could and did compete quite successfully.

With the Alphabet Route agreement, the eight railroads formed a continuous main line between the Northeast’s largest cities (New York and Boston), with the Midwest’s largest (St. Louis and Chicago).

A Nickel Plate Road locomotive pulls freight cars at Gibson City, Illinois on November 24, 1962. 
(Photo: Roger Puta/American-Rails.com)
A Nickel Plate Road locomotive pulls freight cars at Gibson City, Illinois on November 24, 1962.
(Photo: Roger Puta/American-Rails.com)

Where the name came from

The consortium was named the Alphabet Route because most of its members went by their initials, which caused an “alphabet soup of routing names.” From West to East, these railroads were:

  • New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (NYC&StL; also known as the Nickel Plate Line) from Chicago and East St. Louis, Illinois, to Bellevue, Ohio. Its marketing slogan was “High Speed Service.” A two-part FreightWaves Classics article profiled the Nickel Plate Line recently. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. The run to Chicago covered 275.6 miles over the Nickel Plate’s main line. The distance to St. Louis was 271.8 miles along the railroad’s other main line. 
The Nickel Plate Road logo. 
(Image: Nickel Plate Road Historical & Technical Society)
The Nickel Plate Road logo.
(Image: Nickel Plate Road Historical & Technical Society)
  • The Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway (W&LE) ran from Toledo, Ohio, via Bellevue to Pittsburgh Junction, Ohio. Its marketing slogan was “Since The 19th Century.” Alphabet Route operations on the W&LE were just 131 miles – from the NKP’s Bellevue Yard to Pittsburgh Junction, Ohio and a connection to the Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railway.
Wheeling & Lake Erie logo. (Image: Rail.Ohio.gov)
(Image: Rail.Ohio.gov)
  • The Pittsburgh and West Virginia Railway (P&WV) from Pittsburgh Junction to Connellsville, Pennsylvania. Its marketing slogan was “The Hi-Line.” Alphabet Route trains using the P&WV rail line could pass through Pittsburgh rather easily. The P&WV was also one of two railroads among the group where the Alphabet Route’s priority trains operated along the entire length of the railroad (132 miles between Pittsburgh Junction and Connellsville). 
The Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railway logo. (Image: American-Rails.com)
The Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railway logo. (Image: American-Rails.com)
  • The Western Maryland Railway (WM) ran from Connellsville via Hagerstown, Maryland, to Baltimore, Maryland, and Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. Its marketing slogan was “The Fast Freight Line.” The WM picked up the trains and they continued heading east. The WM also offered an added option for shippers. At Hagerstown, trains navigated the WM’s Jamison Yard, which also allowed trains to head directly east to Baltimore. In addition, the Jamison Yard was a gathering point for expedited traffic arriving from Baltimore as well as on the Reading Lines, which had assembled freight from other Northeastern points.
The Western Maryland Railway logo. 
(Image: Western Maryland Railway Historical Society)
The Western Maryland Railway logo.
(Image: Western Maryland Railway Historical Society)
  • Reading Company (RDG) ran from Shippensburg via Reading, Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Its marketing slogan was “Bee Line Service.” The Reading Railroad was also the subject of a FreightWaves Classics article; you can read it here. Trains heading eastward towards major Northeastern cities met the Reading Railroad at Lurgan, Pennsylvania (later, this location was switched to York, Pennsylvania). From Lurgan, freight continued eastward to the Reading’s Rutherford Yard. Similar to the WM, freight was gathered at Rutherford from various points and assembled to head to Allentown, New York and Philadelphia. From this point trains continued on until Reading and headed for either Philadelphia or a connection with the Jersey Central at Allentown.
The Reading Lines logo. (Image: American-Rails.com)
The Reading Lines logo. (Image: American-Rails.com)
  • Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) ran from Allentown via Easton, Pennsylvania, to Jersey City, New Jersey. Its marketing slogan was “The Big Little Railroad.” On CNJ tracks trains gathered or shipped freight to or from the Jersey City/New York City region. Trains heading to Boston interchanged with the Lehigh & Hudson River at Easton, just a few miles east of the previous interchange at Allentown.
The Central of New Jersey logo. 
(Image: Jersey Central Railroad Historical Society)
The Central of New Jersey logo.
(Image: Jersey Central Railroad Historical Society)
  • Lehigh and Hudson River Railway (L&HR) ran from Allentown via Easton (trackage rights on the CNJ) to Maybrook, New York. Its marketing slogan was “The Bridge Route.” The L&HR was the other railroad on which Alphabet Route trains operated over the entire system (85.8 miles to Maybrook, where a connection with the New Haven Railroad was established). This was also the location of the NYNH&H’s Maybrook Yard where freight was further classified.
The Lehigh and Hudson River Railway logo. (Image: railfan.net)
The Lehigh and Hudson River Railway logo. (Image: railfan.net)
  • The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (NYNH&H) ran from Maybrook via New Haven, Connecticut, and Providence, Rhode Island, to Boston. Its marketing slogan was “The Friendly New Haven Railroad.” The New Haven took the trains into Boston and also assembled freight at its Cedar Hill Yard in New Haven from other various points along its system.
The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad logo. (Image: American-Rails.com)
The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad logo. (Image: American-Rails.com)

With the various hand-offs between the Alphabet Route railroads, an end-to-end run was typically 10 hours or more, which was slower than the service provided by the four major rail lines. However, the Alphabet Route offered shippers greater flexibility, giving them the option of having their freight delivered in either the evening or morning hours.

Major sources of freight

The three major types of freight carried on the Alphabet Route were:

  • Automobile parts and supplies moving from eastern factories to the Detroit and Toledo automotive manufacturing regions, and autos and manufactured items moving from these cities to the Northeast.
  • High-priority boxcar loads (often from freight consolidation and forwarding companies) moving to and from New England, the New York City area, Philadelphia and Baltimore to Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and St. Louis via other trains that connected with Alphabet Route trains.
  • Trailer-on-flatcar (TOFC) service, particularly to/from Philadelphia but also from the New York City area via the CNJ, going to or from one of the key Midwestern cities served by the Alphabet Route.
A pair of Lehigh & Hudson River Railway locomotives pull a freight train at Warwick, New York during June 1974 . 
(Photo: Warren Calloway/American-Rails.com)
A pair of Lehigh & Hudson River Railway locomotives pull a freight train at Warwick, New York during June 1974 .
(Photo: Warren Calloway/American-Rails.com)

The Alpha Jets

Freight trains that operated on the middle section of the Alphabet Route were known as Alpha Jets. The WM, P&WV and NKP (and later WM and Norfolk & Western, after the P&WV and NKP were acquired by the Norfolk & Western in 1964) usually operated two daily freight trains each way via their connection in Connellsville. These runs originated or terminated in either the RDG’s Rutherford Yard near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania or in the WM yard at Hagerstown, Maryland, and ran to or from Toledo and Detroit. 

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the rail lines of the Alphabet Route promoted Alpha Jet service as an alternative to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s (and later Penn Central’s) TOFC service between Philadelphia and Chicago. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s TOFC service (known as Truc Trains) took 23 hours between these points. The Alphabet Route partners offered 34-hour service. While the Alphabet Route’s service took longer, most of the 11-hour difference was because Truc Trains arrived and departed around midnight. Many of the shippers did not send and receive shipments late at night; therefore, the mid-evening departure and mid-morning arrival of the Alpha Jet service was preferable to many shippers.

However, Alpha Jet service was de-emphasized in the late 1970s and ended in the early 1980s when the WM was fully integrated into the Chessie System (B&O and C&O), which later became CSX.

An Alphabet Route train led by a Western Maryland Railway locomotive. (Photo: thepwvhiline.com)
An Alphabet Route train led by a Western Maryland Railway locomotive. (Photo: thepwvhiline.com)

The end of the Alphabet Route

While the four major rail lines provided freight shipments using direct routes (which reduced transit times), the Alphabet Route provided dedicated, friendly service that was competitive and more flexible to shipper needs. 

Because of this, the marketing agreement among the railroads that made up the Alphabet Route was “surprisingly successful” and lasted for nearly 50 years. However, during the last years of operation track conditions were deteriorating on some of the lines and other lines were either going bankrupt or being merged into large systems. 

Toward the end of the Alphabet Route, mergers led to the western end of the system being entirely owned by the Norfolk & Western Railway. (The railroad owned the Nickel Plate, Wheeling & Lake Erie and Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railway by the end of the 1960s).

Also, when the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central merged in 1968 to create the Penn Central, it was forced by the ICC to acquire the New Haven as a condition of the merger. This also seriously hurt the Alphabet Route’s viability.

The situation was made worse when the Chessie System was created in 1972 with the integration of the B&O, C&O and WM. Then Congress created Conrail in 1976; just three systems were now part of the Alphabet Route; the Norfolk & Western, the Chessie System and Conrail. There was no longer a need for the Alphabet Route; this ultimately ended the consortium.

Author’s note: This article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of American-Rails.com. Those interested in learning more about the railroads operating in North America – and those that are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.

Scott Mall, Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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