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Opinion: Radical high-speed trains briefly brightened the Depression

(The following column by Frederick N. Rasmussen appeared on the Baltimore Sun website on March 8, 2009.)

BALTIMORE, Md. — American rail travelers couldn't have been more heartened last week by the announcement that President Barack Obama's budget included in the stimulus program $8 billion for the development of a high-speed rail network as well as a $5 billion rail grant program for the states.

This is welcome news to Amtrak riders who have hoped for and deserved something better since the agency assumed operation of the nation's passenger trains nearly 40 years ago. It also represents a sort of deliverance for Amtrak, which for decades has had to crawl on its knees across a field of broken glass for whatever pitiful alms six presidents and Congress saw fit to bestow.

It was 75 years ago when the railroad industry, without government help, sought to save itself by developing new high-speed streamlined passenger trains.

In an eerily prescient statement released in 1934, diplomat W. Averell Harriman, who was then chairman of the board of directors of the Union Pacific Railroad, wrote:

"The executive officers of the Union Pacific several months ago reached the conclusion that to save and restore passenger business to the rails would necessitate the development of a radically different type of passenger equipment."

What Harriman was suggesting was the "development of a light, high-speed train which would provide safe, comfortable transportation at a minimum of cost."

Another goal, according to Maury Klein, author of the two-volume history, Union Pacific, was to cut a whole day from the schedule of passenger trains running between Chicago and the Pacific Coast.

On Feb. 12, 1934, Pullman-Standard delivered Harriman's revolutionary, aerodynamically designed three-car train, the M-10000, built at its Chicago shops at a cost of $230,997, to the Union Pacific.

The air-conditioned train, which had a passenger and crew capacity of 116, featured a combined driving, power and baggage car that was followed by two coaches. It was the first internal combustion engine, lightweight, streamlined express train built in the U.S.

In the race to get a streamlined train operating on American rails, the Union Pacific beat the Burlington Railroad by two months - its Pioneer Zephyr, billed as "America's First Diesel Streamline Train," rolled out of Philadelphia's Budd Co. on April 9, 1934.

The last car of the M-10000 had a built-in buffet kitchen and a counter where passengers could enjoy a cocktail or other beverage. Passengers were served meals, airline style, from a wheeled cart pushed by a steward.

Keeping material weight foremost in their minds, designers eschewed typical dining car china and employed Beetleware instead.

It is "very light in weight, exceedingly graceful in design, colorfully gray in appearance," said a contemporary Union Pacific news release. "The new train has the distinction of being the first train in America to employ this sort of service for meals."

The railroad crowed that the "total weight of the dining service of the new train - meaning dishes, cups and saucers, glass, etc. - aggregates only 189 pounds," as opposed to a conventional train's china service, which would tip the scales at 530 pounds.

Designed by Pullman engineer Martin Bloomberg, the 85-ton, articulated train measured 204 feet and had a distinctive exterior made of Duralumin, an aluminum alloy.

Taking note of its novel design, Newsweek described it as looking like "a great bulbous-headed caterpillar."

It was powered by a 600-horsepower, 12-cylinder, V-type Winton distillate-burning, internal combustion engine, rather than a diesel engine. The engine was directly connected to "a generator supplying electricity to two motors mounted on the forward truck of the first car," explained the 1934 Union Pacific news release.

Fuel capacity and economy were such that the train could travel 1,200 miles without stopping for fuel or water, whereas steam-powered trains of the day had to stop every 100 miles for coal and water.

Because it could travel at 110 mph, railroaders christened the M-10000 the "Little Zip."

Its eye-catching paint scheme featured cars with rooftops painted a high-gloss brown, with wide bands of canary yellow above and below the windows, and red dividing lines that separated contrasting colors.

Harriman wasted no time in sending his new train on a 12-week, 13,000-mile, coast-to-coast promotional tour during 1934.

Billed as "Tomorrow's train today," its first stop was Union Station in Washington, where the new train was visited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Baltimoreans got a quick glimpse of the M-10000 when it made a test run to Baltimore on Feb. 15, 1934.

"Resembling a huge projectile, more than anything else, the first streamlined train to enter Baltimore paid this city a fleeting visit yesterday afternoon," reported The Sun.

Pennsylvania Railroad officials kept the train's speed at 60 mph on its journey from Washington. After pausing at Penn Station for a minute, it traveled eastward to Bay View yards, then turned and headed back to Washington.

Returning to Baltimore early the next morning, it "slid into the station with less noise than an automobile," commented The Sun, where during its 13-hour visit an estimated 40,000 visitors lined up to tour the train that was parked just west of the Charles Street bridge.

A Sun reporter observed that "conversation could be maintained in an ordinary tone of voice. There was no roar," the only "noticeable sound being its wheels clicking through track switches."

At one point, lines of the curious extended up Charles Street and west over Lanvale Street to Maryland Avenue.

Among the spectators were B&O President Daniel Willard and Carl R. Gray, former Baltimorean and Western Maryland Railway president, who was then head of the Union Pacific.

The next day, the M-10000 departed Baltimore, traveling up the Pennsylvania Railroad's line to Harrisburg, Pa., where it then headed west over its main line that was lined with spectators.

Instantly, the M-10000 became the subject of jokes.

One spectator was heard to say: "They really don't run this Union Pacific train. They just aim and fire it." Another quip said a passenger ordering a three-minute egg got it "six miles from where he had ordered it."

More than a million people visited the train. After its promotional tour concluded, it was named City of Salina and operated on the Kansas City-Salina route until being withdrawn from service in 1941. It was scrapped the next year, its valuable Duralumin going to the war effort.

"Clearly, it gave hope to a Depression-ravaged nation," said Frank A. Wrable, a Baltimore railroad historian and writer. "For railroads, it really marked the end of doing things the old way, and showed them that they had to get busy in order to confront the future."

Monday, March 9, 2009

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