Open main menu

Chicago – New York Electric Air Line Railroad

1907 map showing the projected 750-mile (1,210 km) route; over 150 miles (240 km) shorter than comparable steam railroads

The Chicago – New York Electric Air Line Railroad (CNY) was a proposed high-speed electric air-line railroad between Chicago and New York City. At roughly 750 miles (1,210 km) it would have been over 150 miles (240 km) shorter than the two primary steam railroads on that route, the New York Central Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad. The promoters' vision proved wildly optimistic, and in the end only a short interurban route in the vicinity of Gary, Indiana, was built and operated. It was the most ambitious of several such proposals, all of which ended in failure.




The AEG high-speed car after its 200 kilometres per hour (120 mph) run in 1903.

The Air Line was not the first proposed high-speed electric railway. In 1893 Dr. Wellington Adams promoted a 252-mile (406 km) ChicagoSt. Louis route with a maximum operating speed of 100 miles per hour (160 km/h). Adams believed the new railroad could be built in a year for $5.5 million. Trade publications ridiculed the proposal and it went nowhere.[1]

The proposed Air Line, first announced in 1906, was far more ambitious than that proposal. The proposed physical characteristics of the route were impressive and far ahead of contemporary practice: grades not exceeding 1%, no grade crossings, and straight route which would be 150 miles (240 km) shorter than other routes. Trains would run at 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) and complete the journey between Chicago and New York in 10 hours.[2] At the time the two fastest trains between New York and Chicago, the New York Central Railroad's 20th Century Limited and the Pennsylvania Railroad's Pennsylvania Special (forerunner of the more famous Broadway Limited), each required twenty hours to make the journey.[3]

Even as this project was announced global developments in electric railroading proceeded apace. In 1903, a railcar from Siemens & Halske and AEG reached 200 kilometres per hour (120 mph) on the experimental MarienfeldeZossen military railway outside Berlin.[4] Commercial projects, however, did not progress. Proposed electric railways such as Berlin–Hamburg and Wien–Budapest proved too expensive.[5] Several interurbans in the United States had made fast demonstration runs. In 1903 an interurban on the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railway covered the 35 miles (56 km) between Aurora and Chicago in 34 minutes 39 seconds despite the loss of over 6 minutes in stops, and numerous speed reductions for steam railroads, trolley lines (tramways), and street and highway crossings.[6] In 1905 Pacific Electric mogul Henry E. Huntington made the Los Angeles–Long Beach run (20 miles (32 km)) in 15 minutes in a private railcar at an average speed at 80 miles per hour (130 km/h) was higher than for the projected Air Line trains.[7]

Rise and fallEdit

CNY advertisement proclaiming a 10-hour Chicago-New York running time. Note the electric locomotive and passenger cars.

The project was trumpeted nationally, stock sold with great rapidity, sections of track and immense cuts-and-fills were built in the vicinity of Gary, Indiana, and operated as interurban transit, and investors were taken out to view these portions of the line in operation. It was promoted by the monthly Air Line News, which dramatized every development in the construction work (e.g., "A huge Vulcan steam shovel is already on the job, taking big bites out of hills that stand in the path of the straight and level speedway that is to be the Air Line")(Middleton 1968, p. 29).

The project had some weaknesses, and the depression of 1907–1908 worsened the problems. The immense expenses occasioned by the incredibly stringent engineering specifications, and some claimed (but never prosecuted or substantiated) accounting irregularities and other fraud, led to the failure of the main line to expand beyond several dozen miles through the Indiana countryside. The largest completed was a 19.2-mile (30.9 km) segment between LaPorte and Goodrum Junction.


The project is called the greatest fiasco of the interurban era (Middleton 1968, p. 29). However, the completed portions became the foundation of Gary Railways, a successful interurban street railway system. And several other interurbans by as high standard as the Air Line – though at a much less scale – were built. In 1907, the Philadelphia and Western Railroad opened its Upper Darby–Strafford line near Philadelphia with maximum grades of 2%, no grade crossings, and an absolute block signalling system (Middleton 1968, p. 109). And after World War I, the railway tycoon Samuel Insull upgraded the interurbans around Chicago, and station-to-station averages as high as 70 miles per hour were frequently attained (Middleton 1968, p. 67). Parts of these lines are in use even today.

Sections of the Air Line's right-of-way and some of the colossal concrete bridge supports are still visible to this day.

In 1943, Commander Edwin J. Quinby wrote a lengthy history of the CNYEALRR for the publication Electric Railroads and closed the report with the following:

And as time goes on, electric railroad enthusiasts will visit the right-of-way over which the original construction work was done—and some of the more imaginative individuals will hear the deep-throated whistle of a big palatial interurban as its spirit still streaks along this romantic pike, and they will catch a glimpse of the golden inscription CHICAGO on one end of the car as it flashes by, and NEW YORK on the other end—hurrying, hurrying—for 36 years have passed since it started on its swift way and it hasn't reached either place.


  1. ^ Middleton 1961, p. 27
  2. ^ Middleton 1961, p. 27
  3. ^ Welsh, Boyd & Howes 2006, pp. 73–74
  4. ^ Gradenwitz 1904, p. 468
  5. ^ Krettek 1975, pp. 47–49
  6. ^ Middleton 1961, p. 67
  7. ^ Middleton 1961, p. 60


  • Crane, Mary. "Chicago - New York Electric Air Line Railroad," Trains magazine, October 1946.
  • Gradenwitz, Alfred (July 20, 1904). "The Marienfelde–Zossen High Speed Trials". Street Railway Review. XIV (7).
  • Krettek, Ottmar (1975). Rollen Schweben Glieden – Unkonventionelle Verkehrsmittel (in German). Düsseldorf: Alba Buchverlag. ISBN 3-87094-033-6.
  • Middleton, William D. (1961). The Interurban Era. Milwaukee, WI: Kalmbach Publishing. ISBN 978-0-89024-003-8. OCLC 4357897.
  • Welsh, Joe; Boyd, Jim; Howes, William F. Jr. (2006). The American Railroad: Working for the Nation. St. Paul, MN: MBI. ISBN 9780760316313. OCLC 62892045.

External linksEdit