The mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, at the height of its power and magnificence, adopted for itself the name The Standard Railroad of the World. Arrogant, for sure, but if any railroad had a right to arrogance, it was the PRR.

Standard, in this context, did not mean ordinary. The Pennsy saw itself as the standard against which other railroads could be judged - and found wanting. The standard to which others could only dream of equalling. The gold standard railroad.

It is difficult, these days, to perceive just how enormously powerful the Pennsylvania Railroad was, in its day. It was the largest publically traded corporation in the world. In terms of traffic and revenue (if not in length of main line) it was the largest railroad in the United States, and held the most votes in the Association of American Railroads. It was known for its conservatism, but also its leadership - being the first railroad to totally adopt the much safer all-steel passenger car, for instance. In places, when The President was uttered, it was at least as likely to refer to the President of the Pennsylvania Railroad as to the President of the United States.

The PRR, unlike other railroads in the United States, designed its own steam locomotives, and built many of them in its own Juniata Shops, part of its huge Altoona Works complex in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a city practically owned by the railroad. The Pennsy produced so many locomotives that it came fourth only to the three large commercial locomotive builders - Alco, Baldwin and Lima - in numbers of locomotives produced, and Lima was not far ahead. Yet even the capacity of its own works was not enough for the PRR, and its outside orders made up a significant part of Baldwin's manufacture also. Other railroads bought locomotives in dribs and drabs, a few here, a few there, generally allowing the builder to draw up the plans to specifications, different for each batch. The PRR, on the other hand, would produce a prototype or two, test them exhaustively for a year or two, and then, when satisfied, order hundreds and hundreds of identical copies.

This standardization gave us the other meaning of Standard Railroad of the World - most standardized railroad of the world. Everything the PRR did was to a system wide standard. Hundreds of identical locomotives. Identical passenger cars riding on identical trucks with identical components. Fleets of identical freight cars, some tens of thousands strong. Standard bridges, track, structures, stations. The PRR recognised both the efficiency of such standardization, and the strong corporate image it brought.

By the 1930s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was in decline, and eventually it stopped calling itself the Standard Railroad of the World; but like the Roman Empire, it rotted from within, so mighty the trappings that the decay was hard to spot. The Pennsy was once different because it was better, but now the road was different just to be different. The Great Depression dealt a blow; the PRR's expensive modernizing during the 1930s for a brighter future that never came; the War, that ground down and wore out the PRR's equipment and facilities while forbidding it from charging the Government sufficient for its repair; and finally, and crushingly, the postwar adoption, aided by government money, of road transport and air travel. By the 1960s, although the longest continuous dividend history in the United States was still intact, the writing was on the wall. The railroad was forced to the humiliating position of merger with its great rival, the New York Central, in order to survive; that merger finally took place in 1968, but it did not stop the red ink, and within a few years the newly minted Penn Central was bankrupt.

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