Trains: The American electric

At the time of the electric locomotive’s U.S. debut in 1865, American railroading was, from then on, forever changed. On more than a few rail lines, electricity became the mode-moving method of choice. For those rail enterprises taking the electricity plunge, as long as such remained viable and relevant, said operations were kept operational: electric locomotives, rolling stock, infrastructure and all.

The electric motors or “‘lectrics” (as electric locos are at times referred to as, that plus the overhead catenary and third-rail electrical-distribution hardware that supported it), added a whole new dimension to the American railroad scene. On some pikes (railways), in fact, such equipment served in an interim capacity, that is, until diesel equipment was procured and placed in service. Other networks, meanwhile, after years of successful operation as a bona fide passenger-rail-service provider and due to things like competition, economic factors, etc., figuratively collapsed under their own weight and had no other choice but to shut things down.

Most streetcar and interurban networks during the height of the 1930s depression era were affected. Others just began to lose public favor as the idea of personal automobile ownership became an ever more attractive proposition. Either way, as a consequence, rails were torn up, overhead electrical-distribution hardware came down all the while with the trams themselves having a date with destiny – the scrapper’s torch.

But this did not mean this was the swan song for the electric era. In fact, it was anything but.

For common-carrier railroads like the Pennsylvania and the New York, New Haven & Hartford, for example, in the early to mid-1930s, what “going electric” meant for them, was bottom-line savings. Otherwise, why even go that route?! And, on still other ‘roads, as well as on parts of these too, due to smoke-abatement mandates in cities – major metropolitan areas especially – dictated that alternatives to steam-locomotive-hauled railway operations must both be identified and installed. The affected railroads then went about the task of converting, if not their entire track-network ops, then, at least, those designated parts. Indeed bold these moves were, especially during lean times like these. Several remain “wired” to this day.

While the country seems all abuzz with electric-car energy, and how the United States’ automobile-development model is more and more headed in what appears to be a move in that direction exclusively, we citizens cannot, at the same time, ignore the fact that electrification in the railway field is just as – if not more – important a consideration in reducing greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions in the air as what will be the electric road-vehicle’s role in accomplishing the same thing.

Which is why I’ve decided to assemble this specially prepared, multi-part essay featuring, you got it, the electric train. The history, state of the industry, the types or classes of, the railroads using them, and more, will each and all be covered.

So, sit back, relax and enjoy this excursion of sorts into the realm of the clean electric train.

Getting on track

This story begins with the introduction of the electric motor in the railway locomotive realm in the 1860s and 1870s. Though there was early progress in this space going on in Germany and elsewhere, the bulk of the advances in electric locomotive propulsion-systems development was occurring in Europe then.

In the U.S., however, it was inventor Frank Sprague who in the town of Richmond, Virginia in 1888 apparently had an epiphany which drove him to get to work to add direct-current electric motors to the streetcar’s drive-train. Proving quite successful, that one move enabled the passenger conveyance to run under its own power instead of relying on one horse or a team of equines to do those honors instead. Through this addition the trolley world was turned on its ear and was forever changed for the better, a revolution all begun by the at-the-time forward-thinking Sprague.

Furtherance of electric motors in the locomotive-manufacturing field, meanwhile, led to Baltimore & Ohio Railroad locomotive No. 1 being the first electric to successfully ply the company’s track inside the city’s Howard Street Tunnel in 1895. This was done in response to a city-imposed smoke-abatement ordinance that forbade the operation of steam locomotives in confined spaces such as that located inside of railroad tunnels. (See: “Reflections on our rail past: Knowing where we’ve been could tell us where we’re going”.

No. 1 was built by General Electric. This 675-volt DC loco was fed via an overhead electrical distribution system. What’s more, it operated with a total of four traction motors all of them “gearless,” meaning the speed of the motor’s rotors correlated directly with the speed of the locomotive itself. No. 1 and company’s usefulness was relatively ephemeral.

Unlike the electric car, which during the 1910s fell into disfavor with the motoring public thus sealing its fate, the electric locomotive fared far better for a number of reasons, one of these due to a deadly rear-end train-on-train collision happening inside a Manhattan railway tunnel.

The crash in 1902 involving two trains inside a New York City tunnel, resulted in a total of fifteen passenger lives lost on the train ahead which, when on the tracks inside the tunnel in question, had come to a full stop.

Meanwhile, a second, following train passed a critical signal that in this instance was red and was indicating stop. Completely unbeknownst to the second, following train’s crew was there, inside the tunnel, was that signal they had passed. Why that happened was on account of that signal being obscured by thick smoke aspirated from the stack of the first, stopped train’s locomotive. According to information on Wikipedia (see: The Kaufman Act) the incident itself caused public outrage that prompted the city to take action to pass legislation to ban all steam locomotives on all of Manhattan’s rail lines. Such action although passed in 1903, did not actually take effect until the first day of July 1908. From then on, electrification became the order of the day on railway lines on Manhattan and on those located nearby.

Coming up in Part 2, we’ll take a close look at examples of modern electric locomotive classes in the U.S.

Image above: Electric locomotive drawing train out of tunnel – Baltimore via Wikimedia Commons

⁃ Alan Kandel

Copyrighted material.

Corresponding, connected home-page-entry image: B&O RR electric locomotive number 1 1895 via Wikimedia Commons