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Lonesome whistle blew for last time

The Baltimore Sun

Fans of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad would have to agree with poet T. S. Eliot's assessment that "April is the cruelest month," because 50 years ago this weekend, the railroad stopped whisking travelers over its famed Royal Blue Route between Washington, Baltimore and New York City.

With annual losses of $5 million on the Washington-New York run mounting, Howard E. Simpson, the B & O's president, made the decision to terminate the service that had operated along the route since the late 1880s.

On Nov. 15, 1957, the B & O filed petitions to discontinue the trains with the Maryland Public Service Commission and comparable agencies in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. At stake were the six daily round-trip trains the railroad operated between Washington and New York.

Patronage on those trains had plummeted 46 percent since 1946, reported The Sun, so that "few passengers are now handled and continued operation of the trains is not warranted."

"Throughout our entire history we on the B & O have been passenger-minded," Simpson told The Sun, "but a continuing decline in patronage, upward spiraling wages and increasingly higher prices for fuel and equipment combine to create an enormous deficit in passenger operations."

The postwar years had not been kind nationally to passenger trains as they struggled to compete against airlines, buses, automobiles, cheap gas and new multi-lane highways such as the New Jersey Turnpike and the Delaware Memorial Bridge that opened in the early 1950s.

Memories of crowded wartime trains, and the freedom from having one's life tied to a railroad schedule that the automobile represented, didn't help either.

Competition came from other quarters.

The Pennsylvania Railroad, the B & O's arch-competitor on the Washington-New York run, fielded a fleet of 20 daily trains.

Thirteen flights operated daily from Friendship Airport (now Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport) while travelers willing to go to National Airport in Washington had their choice of 81 round trips to New York.

In those days, removing passenger trains was not an easy matter; in some cases the process dragged on for years. Howard Bruce, a Baltimore banker, industrialist and B & O director, advised Simpson that ending the New York service would not be easily accomplished.

"He told me, 'Howard, you'll never get those trains off in a year.' So, we bet a new hat on it and I won," Simpson said in an unpublished interview in 1977.

Simpson, who had spent most of his career in passenger service as he rose through the ranks of the Central Railroad of New Jersey and later the B & O, saw firsthand during the 1920s of the popularity of the automobile, coupled with aggressive highway building projects in the East, that drained away passengers.

And while he had reverential respect for the history and pedigree of the line's legendary passenger service with its distinctive royal blue and gray painted cars, he remained a realist and not a sentimentalist.

He embarked on a campaign that took him to all major cities and towns along the line where he patiently explained to mayors, city councils and other interested groups why the B & O was pulling the plug on the service.

"Thanks largely to his efforts there was no opposition - something unheard-of in passenger abandonment cases at the time and especially amazing, considering it involved all service on a major line," wrote Herbert H. Harwood Jr., rail historian and former CSX executive, in his book Royal Blue Line.

After its abandonment petition was granted, the B & O published the following notice in Baltimore newspapers: "EFFECTIVE SUNDAY, APRIL 27 BALTIMORE AND OHIO ROUTE PASSENGER TRAIN SERVICE BETWEEN BALTIMORE AND WASHINGTON-PHILADELPHIA-NEW YORK WILL BE DISCONTINUED.

"The last trips of these trains will be Saturday, April 26, 1958," continued the ad, "We sincerely appreciate the patronage of those who have used these trains in the past and regret the necessity for their discontinuance."

The last northbound Royal Blue, always the B&O;'s crown jewel, braked to a stop at Mount Royal Station at 4:23 p.m. April 26, 1958.

At the throttle was engineer Michael F. Goodnight, who was handling the train's last run.

The Royal Blue, which had started operation in 1890 as a deluxe, high-speed train, taking its name from the cars' royal Saxony blue paint, was nine minutes late when it arrived at 7:49 p.m. - four hours and four minutes after leaving Washington - at the Central Railroad of New Jersey's Communipaw Terminal in Jersey City.

Its sellout crowd was greeted by reporters from CBS, The New York Times, the New York Post, Life and the Saturday Evening Post who swarmed all over the terminal chronicling what may have been one of the most famous named trains in history.

The last eastbound B & O passenger train that rang down the curtain on the Royal Blue Route that Saturday night was the Shenandoah, which arrived in Jersey City with 256 passengers - mainly rail fans riding the route one last time - at 9:15 p.m.

The Metropolitan, the last westbound B & O train from Jersey City, departed with 256 passengers an hour late as an NBC crew filmed its farewell, which would later be shown on The Today Show.

The Metropolitan had one other funereal duty to perform. As a clean-up train, it was its duty to remove what remained of B & O passenger equipment remaining in Jersey City.

En route, the train made up 60 minutes, arriving on time at 6:50 a.m. Sunday, with 10 coaches, four dining cars, four Pullmans and a mail car in its consist.

"It was like a wake coming down," the conductor, E.J. Donaghy, told The Sun. "How would you feel if you buried your brother, your sister, your mother. It's all the same."

"Thus ended 68 years of continuous through service operated in a gentlemanly fashion between these points," reported The New York Times.

Coincidentally, the New York Central's fabled, crack Twentieth Century Limited, also one of the most famous trains in American railroading, disappeared the day before the Royal Blue faded.

The formerly all-Pullman Century, which had operated since 1902 between New York's Grand Central Terminal and Chicago's LaSalle Street Station, was combined with the Commodore Vanderbilt and for the first time carried day coaches.

While the Century's name would eventually briefly sputter back to life, it finally ran off the timetables for good in 1967.

"There were faster ways to get to New York and cheaper ones, but no one who had the time ever found a better way to enter New York, especially for the first time, than by the Royal Blue, with the cross-harbor boat trip and the profile of Manhattan thrown in," said a farewell editorial in The Sun.

"Those who remember the heyday of the railroads, of personal service and luxury on wheels, will for long be unable to pass the campanile of Mount Royal Station without a sigh."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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