Past Meeting

Paoli and its catenary, taken by Frank Tatnall with the permission and participation of Amtrak

A Century Under Wire

by Frank Tatnall

Nationally-known railroad historian Frank Tatnall presented the fascinating story of the electrification of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Back in the early 20th century, the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) decided to experiment with the new technology of electric traction replacing steam to make its commuter rail services in the Philadelphia region cleaner, quieter and more efficient. It was determined that the Main Line to Paoli would be an ideal testing ground for electrification.

Over two years, and at tremendous cost, the four main tracks between Broad Street Station in Philadelphia and Paoli were electrified with 11,000-volt overhead AC power. A fleet of fast, clean "multiple unit" electric cars was acquired to replace the familiar steam locomotives on this 19-mile route to Paoli. The first electrically-operated "Paoli Local" left for Philadelphia on September 11, 1915 and was welcomed by passengers and lineside residents alike.

This electrified test bed between Philadelphia and Paoli was expanded before and during the Great Depression to New York, Washington, and Harrisburg, as well as over many freight lines in Pennsylvania and surrounding states. By the 1940s, the PRR had electrified over 3,000 track-miles on its busier routes.

Mr. Tatnall, who worked for the PRR and its successor Conrail for 38 years, explained during his richly-illustrated talk how this vast project was carried out, and its vital role in meeting the growing demand for high-density transportation in the populous northeastern United States.

This presentation was held at the Easttown Library & Information Center in Berwyn, PA on Sunday 21 May 2017, starting at 2 pm.


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