ERA continues to take advantage of Zoom by inviting accomplished speakers from around the country. This month’s presenter is Al Churella, professor of history at Kennesaw State University in the Metro-Atlanta city of Kennesaw, Georgia. Churella’s research focuses on transportation history and transportation policy, with particular emphasis on the relationship between the railroads and the regulatory state. His presentation, “Escape from New York (and Philadelphia): How the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Long Island Rail Road Got Rid of Their Commuter Service,” is a fascinating pictorial retelling of the transition to new regional transit operators in the 1950s and early 1960s.
By the early 1960s, commuter rail services in northeastern cities were on the verge of collapse. Poor equipment utilization, high labor costs and highway construction transformed a profitless business into an existential threat to the railroad industry. As private corporations, the railroads provided a public service — one that was crucial to the functioning of the urban infrastructure. Yet they operated in an environment where the public sector rarely offered the assistance that was needed to maintain urban mobility. More than any other company, the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) experienced the problems associated with commuter operations. Directly and through its Long Island Rail Road subsidiary, PRR served Philadelphia and New York, the two largest cities on the East Coast. In both locations, PRR and LIRR executives first attempted to reduce the cost of commuter service, then sought government subsidies to offset increasing losses, and finally endeavored to make everything the responsibility of the public rather than the private sector. That story offers a fascinating mix of militant commuters, ambitious politicians, and government officials who sought to maintain as much commuter service as possible — without making the people pay for it.
Churella has written two books: From Steam to Diesel: Managerial Customs and Organizational Capabilities in the Twentieth-Century American Locomotive Industry and The Pennsylvania Railroad, Volume I, 1846-1917: Building an Empire and has nearly finished the second and final volume of the history of the PRR, covering the years between 1917 and the Penn Central merger in 1968. Churella is also the president of the Lexington Group, Inc., an educational organization that seeks to promote a dialogue on railroad and transportation history and practice.
This is a presentation not to be missed!