Electric Train History Railroad Power Director Center - Thirtieth Street Station, Philadelphia Pennsylvania

Frank J. Sprague, a prominent engineer associated with the electrification of the New York Central, researched the origins of the electric railroad. Sprague claimed that a blacksmith in Brandon, Vermont, by the name of Thomas Davenport, built the first model electric railroad in 1834. Sprague also documented that an electric locomotive ran on the Edinburgh-Glasgow railway in 1838 at a speed of four miles per hour. Other experiments followed during the midnineteenth century. In 1840, Henry Pinkus patented the use of rails for conducting current to an electric locomotive-Moses Farmer of Dover, New Hampshire operated an experimental electric railroad car in 1847. In 1850 Thomas Hall had an automatically-reversing car operating on battery power.

Around 1850 Professor Page of the Smithsonian obtained a grant from Congress and built a car with a double solenoid motor. It had a reciprocating plunger and fly wheel that gave its running gear a motion similar to a steam engine. It received power from one hundred "Grove elements" and had its first run on April 29, 1851 using the right-of-way of a railroad running from Washington to Bladensburg, Maryland. Reportedly it attained "a fair rate of speed."

Frank Julian Sprague was an electrical engineer who worked with Edison developing equipment for an experimental electric locomotive in 1885. He built the first large scale trolley system in the United States at Richmond, Virginia in 1888. Once it was available, the public demanded a transportation system that didn't rely on animal power with its need to care for thousands of horses and clean up tons of manure. Consumer demand fueled development of the electrically propelled vehicle which evolved rapidly during the 1880s and 1890s. Investors financed construction of electrified city transit lines and interurban routes, yet common carrier/mainline railroads continued running on steam power.

Sprague also developed a multiple unit (MU) control system which enabled individual electric cars be combined into trains of any length and yet be controlled from a single master unit. He had a long and distinguished career in the electric industry and was known as "the Father of Electric Transportation." He strongly influenced the electrification of the Long Island Railroad.

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad reached the vicinity of New York City in 1889. Traffic through its eastern Maryland facilities expanded and created a serious operational bottleneck in Baltimore. At the time the railroad used car floats to ferry trains across the Patapsco River, a system that created additional expense and delays. To bypass the float operation, they built a new line, tunneling under central Baltimore. A shallow tunnel would have solved the railroad's problem but venting it would have caused distress to abutting property owners. Electrification, using a 600 volt direct current system was the preferred solution.

In 1895 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was close to achieving electric operation through the tunnel under Howard Street in central Baltimore. However, the New York New Haven & Hartford opened an electrified short branch line between Nantasket Beach and Pemberton, Massachusetts on June 3, 1895. This antedates the first operation of the Baltimore and Ohio which was on June 27, 1895; the first train ran on July 1, 1895.

The Pennsylvania railroad experimented with electricity; it had a prototype 600 volt DC system using an overhead trolley operating on the Burlington and Mount Holly branch in NJ in 1895. The Pennsylvania electrification was purely a local transit system and electric locomotives were not used. Service was provided by multiple-unit cars similar to those used on interurban transit systems.

Although the railroads serving metropolitan New York had been experimenting with electric traction for several years, a tragedy in 1902 compelled prompt construction of an electrified system. A wreck on January 8th killed seventeen people in a smoke-filled tunnel leading into the original Grand Central Station. The disaster resulted in legislation banning steam engines from New York City.

In 1904 The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad decided to electrify its line from Stamford, Connecticut, to Woodlawn, New York. At Woodlawn, New Haven trains would continue to New York City over the electrified lines of the New York Central, a combined total of 33 miles. This was the first trunk-line electrification in the United States and was powered up in June of 1907.

The Pennsylvania Railroad appreciated the possibilities of the single-phase, high voltage, alternating-current system adopted by the New Haven. Employing a common system would allow maximum interchangeability of equipment and a more dependable power supply. It adapted the pioneering techniques of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company and New Haven engineers Calvert Townley and William S. Murray to design an advanced railroad electric traction system.

The first section of the Pennsylvania line to be electrified was from Manhattan Transfer, near Newark, New Jersey, through the two single track tunnels under the Hudson River to the Pennsylvania station in New York City. The electrified section continued through four single track tunnels under the East River to the Sunnyside yard in Queens on Long Island. This section was completed in 1910.

The Manhattan-Sunnyside segment had been electrified earlier by Frank Sprague as a 675 volt direct current third-rail system for the Long Island Railroad which was completed in 1905. The eventual change over to an alternating-current system was planned from the start and tunnel's and clearances had been provided for an overhead catenary power supply. They switched over the whole section to alternating current when they built the Manhattan Transfer segment. Electrification of suburban service in the Philadelphia area was inaugurated in 1915 and extended gradually until 1932 when it included all suburban service in the metropolitan district.

The railroad announced plans to electrify the line between Manhattan Transfer and Washington, D.C. in 1928. The Pennsylvania Railroad inaugurated electric passenger service between New York and Philadelphia on January 16,1933. The project cost 100 million dollars. Electric locomotives moved trains only as far south as Wilmington, Delaware at this time. Electrification of the line as far as Washington was completed by 1935.