This month marks the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Consolidated Rail Corp. or Conrail, as it was known to all (except during its first few months when it was ConRail). Of course, on April 1, 1976, no one knew if the government’s plan to bail out six bankrupt Northeastern railroads would work. Conrail was created by the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 and the subsequent Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1975 to take over the railroad operations of Central Railroad of New Jersey, Erie Lackawanna, Lehigh & Hudson River, Lehigh Valley, Penn Central, and Reading. Armed with $2.026 billion in United States Railway Association funding, the task of turning a 17,000-mile network covering 16 states and two Canadian provinces into a functional, profitable railroad was daunting.
I entered this world just a year after Conrail did. By the time I was five years old and taking my first train trips to New York City with my dad, Conrail was in the midst of abandoning hundreds of miles of track and slimming down its physical plant even further. While freight was the company’s primary charge, Conrail was the reluctant second-largest passenger carrier in the country with operations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Cleveland. Some of my earliest hometown railroading memories are seeing brightly painted blue-and-yellow EMD FL9s lettered CONRAIL hauling a mish-mash consist of tattered and weary coaches.
In less than ten years, Conrail had shed the commuter train burden, sold off or abandoned unprofitable lines, and had continuously grown revenue while improving the physical plant. The government’s initial investment had paid off, and then some. The Reagan administration did not want the government in the railroad business, however, and tasked Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole with finding a buyer for Conrail. Norfolk Southern seemed poised to purchase Big Blue in 1985. However, Congress rejected the sale plan the following year, which in turn inspired the famous “Let Conrail Be Conrail” campaign for independence.
By the time I graduated high school in 1995, Conrail was a juggernaut of the industry. Given every advantage to succeed, the railroad had a near-monopoly on the most profitable traffic destined for the largest markets in the East. Whether it was containers or coal or general merchandise, it seemed Conrail was always in the perfect position to capitalize on the situation
Of course, I had to witness this success from the pages of the magazines I picked up off the newsstand. I didn’t have any railfan buddies in those days; if I did, I would have been trackside in the Hudson Valley on the River Line or on the famed Middle Division in the mountains of Pennsylvania to catch all the action. Occasionally my dad and I would stumble across locals at work in nearby New England or anywhere up and down the Hudson Valley while my mom was busy antiquing. My friend Pat Yough made sure I was able to fire off a few Conrail slides before the bitter end.
By the time I moved to Rochester to attend school, plans were already afoot to split Conrail between Norfolk Southern and CSX. We met friendly workers at Goodman Street Yard who tolerated our visits and encouraged our interests. I’ll never forget the first time I got to ride along with the crew as they traveled from one end of the yard to the other to service their engines. The smile on my face stretched from ear to ear and lasted for days.
In this issue we travel with Mike Schafer to unremarked Conrail operations “off the beaten path,” followed by Tim Doherty’s recollections of the intense operations in North Jersey in the 1990s. We hope you enjoy this special tribute to Conrail, since it was an important chapter of our American railroad history.
—Otto M. Vondrak
This article appeared in the April 2016 issue of Railfan & Railroad.