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Last Updated: 10/13/06

BIG Map of New Jersey Rails at the turn of the 20th Century.

When people think of the Garden State, rarely does railroading come to mind...unless they are rail fans or look out of the plane window while landing at Newark Airport.

However, the state's history and that of railroads are tightly linked.  During the industrial revolution in the US, most of the manufacturing was in the North East.  The materials to make these products, the products themselves and the fuel for this industry all evolved along with the railroads.

In addition the to the industrial reliance on the steel rails, the bulk of the state was agricultural and nicely centered between the large population centers of the 19th century.   During this era, railroads like the Morris & Essex,  Camden & Amboy and Elizabethtown & Somerville  formed the backbone of these first generation railroads.

As the 19th century came to a close, the population had shifted inland towards the heartland.  With this came a change in the railroad picture.  Mergers between to small lines designed to serve local industry became common place.  This second generation of railroads included those like the Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, Jersey Central and the others that lasts through half the 20th century.

As the 20th century progressed, more and more of the population moved away from the cities.  At first, this was a boon to the long distance passenger train.  Trains like the Broadway Limited, John Wilkes and Phoebe Snow all passed through NJ as they linked the small towns and big cities.  This is the golden age of Railroading.  During this time, most towns of any size had at least one railroad.  Places like Lake Hopatcong, Asbury Park and Atlantic City were the major vacation stops and they were all served by the Railroads.

This started to turn during the years leading up to WW II.  Already, the car and the highway were becoming accessible to the general population.  Cars drew people and trucks drew goods.  This trend stopped temporarily during WWII, but almost immediately afterward, people fled the cities, bought cars and the passenger service suffered.

Mounting losses in passenger operations to the planes and automobiles caused some rethinking of the passenger service.  A fairly standard approach was used.  First, new trains were put together to entice the people back to the rails.  When this failed, most railroads scaled back operations, applied to the state for subsides or, like the Lehigh Valley, completely abandoned passenger service.

This change, along with the traffic decreasing brought about the third generation of railroads.  This caused the Erie-Lackawanna and Penn-Central to be formed.  The later became a text book example of how quickly a even a large company can go bankrupt.

All the mergers, decreased physical plant and subsidized passenger operations did not make any difference.  In 1976, the 6 largest railroads (Erie Lackawanna, Penn-Central, Jersey Central, Lehigh & Hudson River, Reading and Lehigh Valley)  in New Jersey merged (along with the Michigan-based Ann Arbor) to form Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail).

Conrail and New Jersey Transit turned the railroad picture in New Jersey around.   Conrail eliminated large portions of track and eventually turned a profit.  They then became the property of the Norfolk & Southern and CSX.

New Jersey Transit has an even tougher job.  They have completely revitalized a  decaying passenger infrastructure. At this time, the NJT rail operations are admired by both passengers and other state's rail agencies.

What does the future hold?  It is tough to guess.  There are talks of expanding passenger service on long-dormant lines and the traffic situation in New Jersey gets worse every year.  NS & CSX have expanded yard operations and might even add some double-track in areas that had been removed.  Most of the later comes courtesy of the huge container ships that now dock in Newark.

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