Train Travel in the Olden Days

Say it’s 1948, and you and your pals Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra need to get from Chicago to Philadelphia. Since this is before the days when every American over the age of 16 has an automobile, and train travel is still romantic, you hop on a train.

Back in the heyday of US train travel, were journeys between major cities pretty fast, compared to modern travel via automobile?

Furthermore, was the cost affordable to the average American? Or was interstate travel generally something only the well-to-do could accomplish?

By way of comparison, I note that in 2009, to get from Chicago to Philadelphia via:
[li]Car: 12 hours, 28 minutes, according to Mapquest. Cost: $78.73, according to my BOTE calculations.*[/li][li]Amtrak: 21 hours, 27 minutes (including a 2.5 hour layover in Pittsburgh). Cost: $131.00[/li][li]Plane: 1 hour, 52 minutes on United Airlines. Cost: $295.[/li][/ul]

*760 miles, 25MPG, $2.59/gal for gas.

There’s also convenience. Some vacation when you’re bored, try driving that trip without hitting the interstates; going thorugh (not around) every little town that can afford one traffic light.

In the days before airplanes, there would have been several trains a day. They probably even had express vs. local trains. Try travelling in Europe by train someday. There are pretty direct trains between the main cities, so you usually do not have to change trains halfway or endure long stops. You could probably travel overnight in a sleeper, saving the ocst of one hotel and yet being awake for the next day in the big city. Beats getting up at 4am for the red-eye. That has changed in the last decade with declining ridership and Amtrak. thier incentive is to meet budgets, more than to provide convenience to the traveller.

Does your timing for air travel include the time to get to and from the airport? If you and Bing, in the days before subirbs, were staying in the hotel downtown a block from the train station - train travel was pretty immediate, while getting out to the airport can be at least an hour… Plus one or two hours check-in time allowance, and an hour sitting in line on the runway, an hour waiting for your (lost?) luggage, etc.

You can easily see why downtown Washington to downtown New York is probably simpler and quicker by Amtrak than by air.

Also in the heyday of train travel, the railroads ran the passenger service, and had a monetary incentive to minimize delays and make their customers happy. Amtrak owns very little of its own railway, and otherwise leases or is allowed to use rail routes owned by the railroads (now in the business of freight). Amtrak has pretty much the lowest priority of anything on the railroad. A five hour trip to Chicago once took me 7 or 8 because the train had to wait in a siding for a freight train many many miles away to pass. This sort of delay is also the result of years of track reductions – lines that used be double-track reduced to single-track, causing more waiting for passing trains. And guess who almost ALWAYS gets to wait – the Amtrak train.

You can’t just look at the fuel cost. Take a $20,000 automobile that you drive 150,000 miles. The cost of ownership just for the purchase is $0.133 per mile, or over 100 dollars for a 760 mile drive. Add in the cost of other consumables, brakes, oil changes, tires, and you’ll come damn close to $350 for the trip by car without even considering things like insurance and registration fees, which are usually fixed and not affected by mileage.

760 x $.55 = $418

federal business mileage rate

Or 1 hour, 55 minutes on Southwest. Cost: $112 (before taxes & fees)

From 1945 through about the mid 50s, I travelled a lot by train. In the Army, I went by train from upstate New York to Ft Dix, NJ. Also from there to Texas, later to Illinois, then to NC. From there to Salt Lake City, then Seattle. Then by ship to Seward, Alaska where we got on the Alaska RR through Ancorage to Fairbanks.

The Alaska RR was pretty slow, and made frequent stops to pick up trappers, Eskimos and sourdoughs, so that does not count.

I caught an ATC plane to Great Falls, MT were I got a train to NYC where my mother was living while on leave. A couple of weeks later, back to MT. When I got discharged, same deal back East

Oh yeah, in the late '30s, as a kid, i was put on a train in NYC a couple of summers, went to Albany, changed trains to Rutland, VT where my dad picked me up. Little kids traveling alone back then had a note pinned on our chest giving the details of where we were going. The conductors were very helpful in watching out for us to be sure we knew how to change trains…

One interesting note, it was impossible to travel across the country by passenger train without not only changing trains in Chicago, but also changing RR stations.

I can’t recall the actual speed or times of these jounneys, but I know most of the roads had a 50 mph speed limit, and my best recollection is that trains were quite a bit faster. They went straight through, no traffic lights, etc. As you could eat and sleep on the train, no need to stop for that either.

As I did not get a car until a few years later, I can’t compare costs, but most people I knew said trains were actually cheaper, as well as faster, even with gas around 30 cents a gallon, as I recall. Can’t be sure of that.

There were some really fancy trains like the 20th Century Limited that went from NYC to Chicago, but as I never could afford that (like first class on a plane), don’t know how much they cost. These were all pulled by steam engines. In 1949 I also took one of the “streamliners” (can’t recall the name) from Salinas, CA to San Antonio, TX and back.

As an interesting aside, in circa 1950, I took trains from Kyoto to Tokyo a few times. Those were also hauled by steam engines, went through numerous tunnes, and took eight hours. I think the bullet train does in iin a couple of hours now. The thing about Japanese trains then was that they were amazingly punctual in leaving and in arriving. About the only method of long distance travel back then.

Excusse the rambling, but I feel sort of nostalgic about all that train travel.

OK, so what would be a general idea of the travel time between Chicago and Philadelphia on a train in 1948? How much would a ticket cost, and how would that compare to the average consumer’s spending power?

The best available train speed was on the Broadway Limited - this was a luxurious and fast train that cost some $10 more than a comparable sleeper fare. Coach service was unavailable on this train. In addition to dining and bar services a traveler could get a haircut and his clothes pressed.

Your traveler would board in the early afternoon in Chicago and make Philadelphia by 8 AM the next day.


The New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited did New York - Chicago in 16 hours, but that was an exception.

No Philadelphia service - so I didn’t answer for that. The Broadway Limited and the Twentieth Century Limited were competitors to each other in most other respects - both provided speed and luxury along the Chicago-New York route.

Finding Rosemary Clooney in your sleeper: priceless.

I keep reading this thread title as Time Travel in the Olden Days. Yeah. I’m glad we don’t have to use those old steam-powered Time Travel devices with their analogue gauges and hard-to-pull levers. It’s all push buttons and digital readouts on our electronic Flux Capacitors these days.

Yeah, until they crash and won’t reboot. :smiley:

For a different light on the subject, I have it from a source dated 1960 that a first class airline ticket cost about the same as the basic rail fare plus Pullman accommodations. I don’t know if that means that first class air travel was a lot cheaper, or if train travel with a Pullman berth was extremely expensive. I do know that today first class air is usually about the same as basic Amtrak plus accommodations. (It’s not a terrible deal on the train, you do get all your meals included and the food was quite good, in my experience.).

md2000 what declining ridership in the last decade? Overall, Amtrak ridership has been increasing over the decade, as seen here. Although much, if not most, of this is probably shorter-haul routes like the NE Corridor and San Diego-L.A.-SLO, and not entirely applicable to the sort of long-haul train trips, with berths and dining cars, that you see in old flicks.

A friend of mine, now deceased some 20 years, entered the business world around the time of the great stock market crash. His heyday involved business travel by train.

He described business life in general and business travel in particular as simpler and more gently paced, though with plenty of opportunity for working hard. There were more times when one could only wait.

BTW the times for air travel don’t sound like they include all the hassle of airports and rent-a-cars. Also, depending on the trip, having to take a flight several hours away from the ideal time has to be counted somehow. Moreover, it’s common enough for flights to get cancelled and passengers to get bumped that that has to be taken into account somehow. I don’t know, but would guess the uncertainty about ariving on a particular day is greater for air travel than for car.

I read someplace (probably the Boston Globe) that in the 1890s, you could get from Boston to New York by train faster than you can today with the Acela Express, which takes four hours, give or take. It’s also true that in the 19th century, the trains went just about everywhere – even tiny villages in New England were connected to the rest of the world by train. Maybe the train would only stop there once or twice a day, and it might have been a poky local, but you at least had a way out. And my impression is that train travel was cheap, affordable by most.

But you are aware what decade-style defensive devices those old time machines sported, right?

The NE corridor is not a fair comparison, but the NY-Philly train was about an hour and 3/4 back in the 50s (and cost about $10). I think that both the times and costs, given inflation, are not that different today.

In three days I will be taking the Adirondack from Montreal to NY. Although it obviously takes much longer than a plane (about 11 hours), it is so much less hassle–not to mention expense, about $120 for a RT–that I do it anyway. The worst part of the trip is between here and Plattsburgh (including at least an hour at the border) that I could cut four or five hours off by driving to Plattsburgh (an hour and a half). But in this weather I won’t.

According to this website, $0.30 in 1940 is equivalent to $4.64 today.