The Big Train
June 19, 2012 8:51 AM   Subscribe

"The Big Train" and other classic 1950s and 60s publicity reels from the New York Central Railroad. Lots of footage of trains, railroad infrastructure, well-dressed office minions, teletypes, punchcard machines, men in white lab coats, bubbling beakers, and even an "atomic signal light."

The reels were produced as the NYCRR was campaigning for rail deregulation and market-based freight pricing, a change that was not particularly popular with manufacturing industry and the public. (That change eventually occurred in 1980, but only after the Central was defunct.)

Introducing the first reel is Alfred E. Perlman, then-Chairman of the New York Central. He had been brought in to revitalize the company in 1954, and assumed the chairmanship after the suicide of his sponsor and mentor Robert Young. Despite this, Perlman spent the next decade modernizing the Central and attempting to keep it competitive with the growing threat of truck freight, and stayed on until the company's bankruptcy.

No word on what happened to the atomic signal light project.
posted by Kadin2048 (10 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Railroads have a great way of bringing out the romanticism in me. Neat post.
posted by k5.user at 8:53 AM on June 19, 2012

Note: that first link is to (World News), a content aggregator, which automatically grabs information from Wikipedia, Youtube and wherever else it can. In short, it's kind of a shady source, though in this case, it has a handy list of links to similar video clips.

Here is a direct link to the main video on YouTube, which also lists related videos on the sidebar. "The Big Train" also available in vaguely colored, though much grainer/noiser form from the Prelinger Archives in two parts: Part 1, and Part 2.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:00 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wasn't aware of's reputation; here are direct links to all of the reels: Also relevant:
  • Penn Central 1974 (which could easily be called, "What a Difference 20 Years Can Make")
Although most of what's shown in the 1974 video is ex-PRR equipment rather than ex-NYC.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:17 AM on June 19, 2012

[Swapped the link, carry on.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:22 AM on June 19, 2012

I was hoping the post was going to be about this Big Train, but this is good too.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:38 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

All I'm saying is that that "train whistle" sounds an awful lot like some poor sod blowing himself red-faced into a bassoon.
posted by bicyclefish at 9:57 AM on June 19, 2012

I was hoping the post was going to be about this Big Train , but this is good too.

I was hoping your comment was going to be about Walter Johnson, but Ball Hog & Tugboat & Carry On.

posted by yerfatma at 10:04 AM on June 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just watched the first link. Lots of fun stuff here for me.
My dad worked for the Reading for almost 40 years, mostly as a freight agent. I got to see freight yards and railroad offices. Later, working for IBM, I took dozens of service calls at several yards in Pennsylvania, working on equipment just slightly newer.
I liked how shots of modern industry showed progress, whereas the same shots today would be used to show pollution and decay.
The section about rail repair starting at 16:26 was very reminiscent of the video from this previous post.
Finally, the rant at the end was priceless. That at least sounds up-to-date- Just let us compete fairly without the government butting in.

Now off to watch the rest. Or maybe back to work??
posted by MtDewd at 12:06 PM on June 19, 2012

"Hear that click of the rails?" That's because NYCR was too cheap to install continuously welded rail.

It's a shame that the American railroads all failed, but man, a lot of them deserved that fate.
posted by schmod at 12:45 PM on June 19, 2012

There wasn't a lot of reason for them to install CWR, when you look at where they made their money: heavy freight. Welded rail is nice if for fast passenger service, but that was always more of a prestige thing (and a legal requirement) than something to pay the bills. If you're hauling coal or chemicals at relatively low speeds, it's not clear that it makes much sense. The Central was a fairly forward-looking organization throughout the late 50s and early 60s, and it's unlikely that they rejected it unreasonably -- given that they spent terrific sums of money for other technologies (e.g. diesel, traffic control, computerized logistics, automated machine tools).

With the exception of a few experiments that were either complete flops (jet trains) or just too far ahead of their time (piggyback trailer-on-train service), it's difficult to say that the Central wasted their money. They had an amazing R&D operation by modern standards, and I don't think you can point to any smoking gun that would have saved them. Given the rules they had to play by (fixed rates, requirements to maintain service even if it wasn't profitable, had to offer passenger service) I've yet to see a convincing case for how they could have kept it going much longer.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:08 PM on June 19, 2012

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