Story: Train Speeds in 1926

The following article may be of interest to NYC steam fans. It is taken from a long-out-of-print book, “Railway Reminiscences of Three Continents” by French locomotive expert, Baron Gerard Vuillet.

New York Central Lines [1926]

The main line of the New York Central from New York to Chicago divides into two branches at Buffalo, one being the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern (the route of the “Twentieth Century Limited”) following the southern shores of Lake Erie and running through Cleveland, and the other, the Michigan Central (the route of the “Wolverine”) passing north of Lake Erie and running through Detroit.

In 1926, the fastest medium-distance trains in North America ran on the Michigan Central between Detroit and Buffalo. The fastest was No. 48, “The Detroiter,” which usually covered the 227.8 miles from Windsor to Bridgeburgh, through Canadian territory, including a stop at St. Thomas, in 3 hr 47 min to 3 hr 49 min, as much time as possible having to be gained on schedule to allow for marshalling delays at Buffalo. It has always been the practice for the New York Central to combine trains at Buffalo into formations of maximum weight. All long-distance trains must arrive at New York at about the same time, following each other at 2- or 3-minute intervals, and it is essential to reduce their number between Buffalo and New York. Some trains, such as the “Twentieth Century Limited,” at times were made up of six sections. Passengers on extra-fare trains were entitled to a refund if their train arrived late. Thus on the “Twentieth Century Limited” one dollar was refunded for every 15 min of lateness on arrival at New York or Chicago. It followed that the then 20-hr schedule for the 958 miles covered the delay between the times of the first and last sections. Individual sections thus made the run in 19 hr 30 min. The locomotives used on these trains were mostly Pacifics of the K3q class, fitted with boosters, reputed to be light on fuel and capable of hauling eight cars (510 tons) at 80 mph on level track. On September 14, from Chicago to Detroit, train No. 8, the “Wolverine,” consisted of one club-baggage car, eight Pullman sleepers, two dining cars and two parlour cars (weighing 890/920 tons), and heated. The locomotive was K3q class Pacific No. 8338. The run was quite typical of American practice in 1926. A jerk was felt at the start, then acceleration was rapid up to 15 mph. With the booster cut out, higher speeds were gradually reached. When stopping this long train, the brakes were applied with the throttle partly open. Heading south at first, the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad were used as far as Kensington. The train was 10 min late on arrival, having covered the 283.5 miles in 6 hr 24 min at 44.3 mph, but there were six intermediate stops, three of 20 to 25 seconds, one of 1 min 15 sec, one (Jackson) of 3 min 15 sec and one (Kalamazoo) of 4 min 10 sec. Water was taken from troughs at mp 208 and mp 106. Nine regular slacks to 25-55 mph were negotiated, some of them quite long; the one through Michigan City cost 4 min 30 sec. In addition, signal stops and permanent way slacks, five in all, caused a loss of 20 min. A speed of 60 mph with a maximum of 65 was maintained on practically level track between mp 240 and mp 231 just before the Michigan City slack. After having accelerated to 63 mph on level track, 5 miles averaging 1/400 up (mp 217-mp 212) were covered at 53 mph.

Between mp 174 and mp 171, 66 mph was maintained on level track, and from mp 171 to mp 162, the average was 62 mph over undulations, the maximum being 67 at mp 162. From mp 162 to mp 152 a continuous gradient averaging 1/238 had to be climbed. This section was covered at 49.3 mph, speed falling to 42.5 mph on the sharp curve at mp 152. Downhill, before applying the brakes for Kalamazoo, 70 mph was reached.

A slight down-gradient before mp 80 produced 65 mph. Including two slacks, the 50 downhill miles between mp 60 and mp 10 were covered at 60.4 mph with a maximum of 70 at mp 55 and an average of 66 mph from mp 24 to mp 10. The engine was worked to full capacity at various points, notably between Kalamazoo and Jackson.

On September 17, No. 56, the “De Witt Clinton,” was made up of one smoker-baggage, one Mail, two coaches, and three Pullman: one parlour, one dining car, one sleeper (weighing 415/440 tons) and hauled from Windsor by Pacific 8419 of the K80 class. The K80s were the first to run on the New York Central Lines, having been built from 1904 onwards for the Michigan Central, and later superheated. The last ones came out in 1912, in superheated form. They had driving wheels 6 ft 3 in in diameter. From Detroit to Windsor, electric traction was resorted to in the tunnel under the Saint Clair River joining Lake Huron and Lake Erie, comprising a down-gradient of 1/47 followed by an up-gradient of 1/67. A BB electric locomotive No. 7509 was used, covering the 2.8 miles in 9 min 30 sec. While changing engines at Windsor, the westbound “Detroiter” came in, running 30 min late, in two sections of eleven and twelve cars, each section being headed by two Pacifics.

After a signal stop 9 miles from the start we went like the wind. A total of 200 miles were covered in 200 min 43 sec including a stop of 3 min at St. Thomas, with the usual slow entrance, and six regular and three exceptional slacks costing 5 min 30 sec in all. From mp 204 to mp 118, a section rising 150 ft, 68 mph were averaged, and from mp 150 to mp 118, 70.9 mph. On level sections, such as mp 195-190, 148-142, 130-123, 75 mph was maintained, the maximum recorded being 77 mph. Up 6 miles averaging 1/300 (mp159-mp153) the mean speed was 61 mph, the minimum at the summit being 58 mph. After St. Thomas, there was no need to hurry as much, and speed varied between 62 and 70 mph.

The total time elapsed from Windsor to Falls View (221.9 miles) was 3 hr 51 min 2 sec, the overall average speed, 57.6 mph, the net running time, including ten regular slacks, 3 hr 40 min 29 sec, equal to 60.4 mph.