A little more background is required before I analyze the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission’s 1977 Peoria Gateway profile. As one might expect, Peoria’s railscene has changed quite a bit in 36 years.
In 1977, we had more railroads, more active rail lines and more rail-served industries. Obviously, this meant more trains and a lot more freight tonnage than today. At least this was true in the immediate Peoria-Pekin Switching District (see current description on page two of this tariff). I note that because BNSF Railway’s Chillicothe Subdivision, which passes through the northern fringes of Peoria County, handles far more trains and tonnage today than in 1977 for predecessor Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway.
Railroads were a troubled industry in 1977. For two decades prior, mergers were seen as a solution to truck competition. In theory, larger and stronger railroads would be created through such combinations, better able to compete against motor carriers and their federally-subsidized highways. Sometimes this worked, sometimes it did not. Burlington Northern was an example of a successful merger. Penn Central was a failure.
For nearly two decades, shippers’ use of and railroads’ promotion of Peoria as an interchange point as a way to bypass Chicago terminal congestion had been in decline. Since at least the 1950s, dieselization, longer freight trains, run-through agreements, and new or expanded railroad yards eased Chicago’s delays. Railroads serving that city preferred shippers use it as an interchange point whenever possible. Here are several key contributors to Peoria’s decline as a railroad gateway in the two decades prior to 1977:
For many years, the Peoria Union Stock Yards received and shipped a large quantity of livestock by rail. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, this once reliable traffic was shifting to trucks at a rapid pace. In addition to that received and shipped here, some livestock was interchanged at Peoria. Federal regulations made livestock a difficult commodity for railroads, which were fined when they failed to avoid feed and watering interruption longer than 28 hours (or 36 hours with written shipper authorization). And animals had to be removed from railcars for rest five hours prior and after. This was one commodity the railroads were glad to see shift to trucks.
RISING COSTS, TRAFFIC DIVERSION TO TRUCKS, RECESSION
From 1946 to 1957, rail rates increased an average of 103 percent. Higher rates were necessary to cover rising labor costs and passenger train losses, but it also caused a major shift in freight from the rails to motor carriers, a trend that would accelerate in future years as the interstate highway system criss-crossed the nation. During this period, the railroads’ share of intercity freight tonnage declined from two-thirds to one-half. Then in the summer of 1957, a business downturn deepened the rut. I believe that actual tonnage fell as well (a trend reversed in the early 1960s even though market share continued to decline). The 1959 steel strike forced steel users (including Caterpillar) to idle manufacturing plants and layoff workers which resulted in yet another, albeit mild, recession in 1960.
ST. LAWRENCE SEAWAY
Opened in April 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway changed traffic flows, at least for six months out of the year. Europe-bound grain normally hauled by rail from the Midwest to the East Coast shifted to Great Lakes ports such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Superior and Toledo. Grain gathered on Midwest Granger railroads and routed to eastern connections at points like Peoria had an alternative, paid for with taxpayer dollars.
Several mergers during the 1960s and 1970s marked changes in traffic flows that de-emphasized the Peoria Gateway. Among them:
- Chicago & North Western absorbs Minneapolis & St. Louis (November 1, 1960)
- Norfolk & Western absorbs Nickel Plate and Wabash (October 16, 1964)
- New York Central + Pennsylvania RR = Penn Central (February 1, 1968)
- Chicago Burlington & Quincy + Great Northern + Northern Pacific + Spokane Portland & Seattle + Pacific Coast RR = Burlington Northern (March 2, 1970)
- Gulf Mobile & Ohio + Illinois Central = Illinois Central Gulf (August 10, 1972).
But not all was bad. Under the Interstate Commerce Commission’s regulatory regime, rates between origin and destination were generally equalized regardless of whether one or multiple railroads was involved in the routing. So shippers could choose routings based on service, car supply, favors to friends, etc. Many traffic managers still preferred Peoria over Chicago in 1977. The Toledo Peoria & Western still functioned as a major east-west bridge route between the Santa Fe and Conrail. Since the 1950s, the Rock Island had developed a heavy flow of north-south interchange with the Gulf Mobile & Ohio, Illinois Central and Illinois Terminal, probably due to the population and industrial boom in Texas and the southeast states. Starting in 1970, low sulphur western coal routed to Commonwealth Edison’s Havana barge dock contributed to significantly increased tonnage moving via Burlington Northern, P&PU and Chicago & Illinois Midland.
Local population was growing. Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford Counties made up the City of Peoria’s Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA). According to the 1970 U. S. Census, the three counties together had 341,979 residents. Ten years later, this number would increase by nearly 24,000 (365,864 total). The Tri-County area was ”green and growing” thanks to Caterpillar Tractor Company’s massive hiring and plant expansion at East Peoria, Mapleton, Morton and Mossville. The significant local presence of industrial and wholesale distribution firms gave railroads substantial business in the 1970s.
Next, I’ll get into the Peoria Gateway book itself.
- David P. Jordan