Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Federal Express


The Danbury research (see the last two weeks) led me to the Wikipedia page for the Federal Express train, which needed some corrections and additions. And who better to do it?

The Federal was the overnight Boston-Washington train that ran around New York, not through it, before the opening of the Hell Gate span in 1917.

I didn't know that the train went all the way back to 1876, but come to think of it, I should have guessed that. The Centennial Fair in Philadelphia inspired numerous special train routings and even new rail lines. The alternate New York-Philadelphia corridor via West Trenton opened that year and vied with the Pennsylvania Railroad route for decades.

The overnight train wasn't actually called the Federal Express for a while. I have a reprint June 1893 Official Guide, and the train still ran then under generic names like Boston-Washington Express. But it had the name by 1903. I couldn't narrow that gap without spending more time researching it. But it was substantially the same train.

Originally the train left Boston on the New York and New England Railroad and came into the New Haven system at Hartford. The New Haven did not control its own line to Boston until 1893. The NY&NE was the shortest route although it had the disadvantage of missing all cities (Willimantic was the largest place on the line!). The Boston and Albany Railroad route via Springfield was the other lead contender. In 1888 the New Haven completed a long high bridge at New London, and for the first time the shore route to the Boston and Providence Railroad, now the Northeast Corridor, became competitive with the other two. Once the New Haven acquired that B&P line in 1893 it became the favored route, and I think it may have been then that the Federal was shifted to what would become its permanent routing.

At New York a trip on the Federal involved a ride past Manhattan on the special steamship Maryland. I do mean that the rail cars themselves rode on the ship. During the hour on board, you could leave the cars and enjoy the breezes, or stay in your Pullman sleeper and... sleep. The north transfer was the New Haven Railroad's Harlem River station, in (what is now) the Bronx near the Third Avenue Bridge, and the south transfer was Harsimus Cove, a few blocks north of the Pennsylvania's Jersey City terminal at Exchange Place.

I could mention that Maryland was so named because its original job was carrying the Pennsylvania's trains across the Susquehanna River at Havre de Grace. Once a bridge was completed there, the unusual ship was out of work for about a decade. It was partly rebuilt in 1876 for the New York service. Here is a photograph of it on April 4, 1876, run aground at Martha's Vineyard, probably on its way to New York.

Maryland could carry six passenger rail cars or twelve (shorter) freight cars. It looks like a ferry, but in a lawsuit in 1877, the railroad succeeded in having it defined as not a ferry, to avoid regulation by the City of New York, whose officials objected to it. Maybe they didn't like seeing passengers go right past New York.

This Maryland burned in 1888, and was replaced by a new Maryland. The name had become so attached to the service that it could hardly be called anything else. I found a report from 1903 that businesses often specified freight routing "via the Maryland" rather than "via Harlem River station". In fact a railroad man admitted many shippers did not even know the name of Harlem River station, and did not know that there was a second boat in service, Exchange, usually used for freight but sometimes for passenger services as a backup for Maryland.

But none of this relates to Danbury. Here is what does.

The Pennsylvania began service to New York Penn Station in 1911, and all of the long-distance trains were rerouted there instead of Jersey City except the Federal and the Colonial. They continued to ride on Maryland for almost a year more. In October 1912 the Colonial Express was split in two, and passengers were provided a special bus service between Penn Station and Grand Central. The Federal could not be treated that way because it passed through New York in the middle of the night.

Instead the Federal was sent the long way round: via Poughkeepsie.

Running southbound, the Federal left the corridor south of New Haven and ran over the New Haven Railroad's Maybrook Line, the Lehigh and Hudson River Railroad, and the Pennsylvania's Belvidere Delaware Branch, finally returning to the corridor at Trenton. The all-rail route was not faster. It just allowed retiring Maryland and the special equipment and staff involved.

The Maybrook Line is where Danbury comes in. This was the freight route that the New Haven put together from 1908 to 1911, using the former New Haven and Derby, and parts of the former Housatonic, New York and New England, and Central New England. Notice the dates. It looks like the Maybrook Line was just getting into full operation when Penn Station opened in 1911. Maybe there was uncertainty about using it for a passenger train, even an overnight one that could run closer to slow freight speeds than most.

This lasted less than four years. The reason stated was capacity on the Maybrook Line. The freight trains "congested" the line and made the passenger schedule unreliable. I wonder how bad it got before they gave up.

After about a year without overnight service, the Federal came back in April 1917 when the Hell Gate Span opened and through routing via Penn Station became possible. The Federal and Colonial were revived. But for decades the New Haven continued to run almost all of its trains to Grand Central. It was not until the Amtrak era that through service became the standard.

It's too bad there was no daylight service. The view from Poughkeepsie Bridge is said to be spectacular. It has been open as a public walkway since 2009. But the ride along the Delaware River and through the New Jersey Highlands, the Dutchess County farm country, and the Connecticut hills would be very scenic as well. Admittedly there was limited population along the entire diversion, Phillipsburg, Poughkeepsie, Danbury, and Derby being the largest towns en route. I can see why the routing was not viewed as a potential moneymaker. But it would have been fun to ride just once.


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