Continental Rail (reporting mark CON) is a Class I line haul passenger and freight railroad. The railroad operates in all contiguous states (plus Alaska), with extensive trackage in Canada and Mexico, as well, plus additional trackage in Guatamala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicuragua, and Panama (hence the name). It is owned and operated by Johnson Industries as its largest and oldest subsidiary.
The railroad was incorporated on June 1, 1862 (a month before Union Pacific) as the Central Valley Railroad, financed by Johnson Industries (at the time, though, it was known as Johnson Brothers Holdings, named for its founders, Daniel and Jonathan Johnson). The railroad was initially planned to run from San Francisco to Sacramento to meet the connection with the First Transcontinental Railroad. However, the proposed bridge over the San Francisco Bay would have been too expensive and required too much engineering work, and the Central Pacific refused to allow another railroad to connect the Transcontinental Railroad to the Bay Area, instead preferring to do it themselves. Redoubling its efforts, the railroad instead conducted a survey of a route to the unincorporated community of Fresno in the Central Valley, hoping to spur growth of the community.
Construction was expected to begin in 1863, but the outbreak of the Civil War prevented this. To compensate, Johnson Brothers instead built a temporary railroad called the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad. The first train from San Francisco to San Jose ran on August 30, 1865, powered by the first locomotive built in California (appropriately named California; this particular locomotive still survives and in operational condition for special events).
Meanwhile, a survey was carried out for a route between San Jose and Fresno. Eventually, a route via Pacheco Pass was selected, which would see trains pass through what eventually became Morgan Hill, San Martin, Gilroy, Los Banos, Califa, and Madera.
On July 4, 1870, the first train (fittingly pulled by California) departed San Francisco for Fresno, making a stop in San Jose (location of Johnson Brothers headquarters), before arriving in Fresno five hours later, where schoolchildren greeted the train. Construction on the line began only a year earlier, earning the railroad's construction crews a reputation for their lightning-quick work; in later years, the crews would be called the "Blitzkrieg Builders".
In 1871, the railroad further expanded, building a line from San Jose to Sacramento via Oakland, making the connection with the Transcontinental Railroad that Central Pacific had vehemently denied in 1862. Another extension was built the same year from Fresno to Sacramento, forming the "California Circle Route". In 1872, with traffic on the Valley Line growing, an alternate route via Firebaugh's Ferry was built to Fresno, branching off at Los Banos (and connecting with the SP West Side Line), along which such communities as Kerman were built; this line is known as the Firebaugh Bypass, and is generally used by local freights, select Valley Flyer services, and by all trains during trackwork. Spurs were also built off of the Valley Line to serve various farms, all of which now travel down the middle of local roads.
Denied trackage rights over Donner Pass, the CVRR built its own line over the Sierras from Sacramento in 1875 (around the time Johnson Brothers Holdings was renamed Johnson Industries), calling at Cordova Vineyards, Folsom, El Dorado Hills, Shingle Springs, Placerville, Moore's Station, Slipperyford, and Strawberry, before cresting Echo Summit and entering the Lake Tahoe Basin, where it called at South Lake Tahoe (really, the depot was in Tahoe Village at what is now "The Y", but was named as so for convenience). It then continued across the California-Nevada stateline and over the Carson Range, through Cave Rock and cresting Spooner Summit, before coming into Carson City, where it made it the rest of the way to Reno via the pre-existing Virginia and Truckee Railroad trackage. Construction of the line took eight months, beating the record set by the crews that constructed the Valley Line. At this time, the CVRR was renamed the Central Valley & Lake Tahoe Railroad. (CV<RR) to reflect this new route. Following the completion of the line to Carson City, the CV< and V&T entered into a partnership, which ultimately saved the latter from abandonment in 1950. The Sierra Line, meanwhile, remains in service, despite the building of US 50, which largely parallels the line, as the line's scenery draws major tourist traffic (passenger trains over the Sierra Line, which are typically equipped with heavyweight equipment and powered by steam locomotives, add an open car during the summer). A popular commuter service known as the Sierra Commute also plies this line from Carson City to Sacramento, and freight traffic (mainly manifest trains to free up Donner Pass for the more important intermodal traffic, as well as two daily local freights, one in each direction) is also commonplace, as is a once-daily roundtrip from Virginia City to Sacramento called the Comstocker. The line is also notorious for being unusually easy to clear snow off of, meaning it sees heavy use during the winter when Donner Pass and/or Feather River Canyon are closed. The Sierra Line, at the time of its completion, was considered one of the most ambitious engineering projects in history, as the line required 200 tons of dynamite to bore 28 tunnels, which led to final construction costs totalling $4 million ($87,162,751.69 in 2015 dollars).
Becoming Continental Rail and Finding Competitors
In 1880, the railroad was renamed to its current name of Continental Rail, coinciding with the railroad's scope expanding. This included building a major line from Gilroy to Los Angeles, meeting the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe. In the mid-1880s, SP built its own line from Los Angeles to Fresno via the Tehachapis and Bakersfield, as did ATSF, in an attempt to compete with Continental Rail and hopefully force it out of town. Thus, the Great Fresno Railroad War began, in which CR, SP, and ATSF all competed to steal each other's traffic (ATSF's main form of access came in the form of trackage rights via the SP Tehachapi Pass line). Ultimately, though, CR won because of its direct connection to San Francisco and the lumber coming from the mountains at Madera. The SP was forced to concede, but was granted trackage rights to Sacramento so it could connect to the Transcontinental Railroad; in return, SP granted CR trackage rights via Donner Pass, rights that SPs predecessor Central Pacific had denied. ATSF, meanwhile, built its own parallel line to Sacramento, hoping to gain something from connecting to the Transcontinental Railroad while operating their own Southern Transcon.
CR next began building another major line, this time from Sacramento all the way to Seattle via Portland. The Cascade Line opened in 1889. After the completion of the line, CR began looking East, hoping to building its own Transcontinental Railroad to Chicago via the Rockies. However, James J. Hill's Great Northern Railway put pay to those thoughts, though CR was able to build a parallel line via St. Paul's Pass to Chicago, and later gained trackage rights on the GN to serve areas not already served by the latter (much of CR's secondary lines in Idaho and Montana were spun-off as Montana Rail Link in 1987).
CR next expanded across the US-Canadian border to Vancouver, and extended Northward to Whitehorse, Yukon in 1892, which spurred the building of a narrow-gauge line called the White Pass and Yukon Route to Skagway in order to serve the Yukon Gold Rush. CR proceeded to build out its network in Canada, directly competing with Canadian Pacific and Canadian National. The competition with CP was a second front, the first front being with CP's ocean liners by way of Continental Shipping Lines (CSL).
Here, There, and Everywhere
CR's expansion continued unabated in at the turn of the century. In 1900, having been granted trackage rights via the SP, Denver & Rio Grande Western, Union Pacific, Chicago & North Western, and New York Central, the railroad introduced its flagship passenger train, the Transcontinental Zephyr, from San Jose to New York. Several other big-name trains (known as the "Star Trains") soon followed, including the Western Star (San Diego-Seattle), Transcontintental Star (Los Angeles-Chicago), Orange Star (New York-Miami), Midwest Star (Chicago-New Orleans), and Northern Star (Seattle-Chicago).
Throughout the first decade of the 1900s, CR managed to acquire several failing railroads in California, Nevada, Oregon, and Texas, adding them as branchlines.
Expansion continued throughout the 1900s and 1910s, with new lines in the Midwest and East. Having heard stories of CR's successes in the West, the Eastern roads (namely the NYC, B&O, and N&W) vowed to drive the railroad out of the East and take over its lines. The Eastern Seaboard became a great railroad warzone, perhaps one of the most intense in history. In the end, though, the war ended in a stalemate, but CR came out stronger than before and had acquired several failed Eastern roads.
Upon the United States' entry into the First World War and the establishment of the United States Railroad Administration (USRA), CR was briefly nationalized, operating in all three districts. When news of the Zimmerman Letter was received, a group of overzealous CR crewmen took up arms and formed a "Train Brigade", taking their train over the border, into Mexico, and opening fire indiscriminately on every Mexican in sight, mistaking many for Germans. The crew was later arrested and executed by hanging, while the train was returned to CR unharmed.
Following World War I, Continental Rail reaped the fruits of the Roaring Twenties. Freight trains became longer, passenger ridership increased, and the railroad's expansion abated, with the completion of branchlines in and around its hometown of San Jose, CA. With all expansion complete, Continental Rail then turned to its existing network and began making much-needed infrastructure improvements. These improvements included, but were not limited to:
- Additional platforms at the Market Street Depot in San Jose
- Double-tracking the Valley, Coastal, Cascade, and Northern Transcon Lines
- Signalling on the Sierra Line, which for years had operated as dark territory; train movements being dictated by telegraph via checkpoints at several points along the line
- Replacing many trestles with steel girder bridges and stone viaducts to increase speeds and allow for double-tracking
In addition, Continental Rail also began increasing passenger services along several of its major corridors. The San Francisco-Fresno train was rechristened the Valley Flyer in 1921, and the myriad of trains running on the mainline between Seattle and San Diego were combined to form the Northwest Regional, which run the length of the route and stop at all stations; very few passengers actually stay on for the entire trip, and as a result, the next order of Pullman chair cars for the Regional was equipped with seats that can convert into beds; the Western Star was also re-equipped at this time with sleeper cars, and Night Owl services provided much-needed relief to exhausted passengers.
As early as 1904, there was talk of electrifying the entire Western Line, as it had come to be known as, to improve speeds and efficiency. The project was greenlit in 1918 just days before the USRA took over. Construction began in earnest in 1920, after the end of the war. In addition to the construction of catenary and substations, several segments of the line were quadruple-tracked in anticipation of express services using 4-6-2 Pacific locomotives, and the entire line was resignalled.
Between 1920 and 1925, the Western Line was transformed into the Northwest Corridor, electrified in stages and adding infill stations at Hayward, CA, Albany, OR, and Kelso, WA. Total construction costs ran in excess of $53 million, which was the source of much ridicule in communities along the line; the Sacramento Bee called it "a money sink", while the Los Angeles Times referred to it as "The biggest mistake Continental has ever made". Common concensus from surveys carried out by the Wall Street Journal was that the project "will never work, and be the death of Continental". The only newspaper with any faith in the project was the San Jose Weekly Visitor, unsurprising given that San Jose served (and continues to serve) as Continental Rail's hometown.
The naysayers ended up eating their words on July 4, 1925, when the first electric-powered train departed San Diego and arrived at San Jose's Market Street Depot four hours later, on time. The train consisted of six Pullman chair cars and a Milwaukee Road-designed EP-2 "Bipolar", of which Continental owned 60, along with the MILW EP-3 (35 locomotives), and the NYC T-Motor (120 locomotives). In spite of the electrification, the shortage of electric locomotives (and multiple Continental-designed prototypes proving unsatisfactory) meant steam was still a common sight on the Northwest Corridor, leading to further ridicule of Continental for failing to properly electrify, which saw the railroad's stock price fluctuate wildly.
By 1928, Continental was still turning a profit, in spite of the rise of the automobile and truck-haulage, as well as fixed rates by the ICC. The railroad had managed to countermand the trucking industry with fierce advertising touting the advantages of rail over road, aimed at both motorists and shippers. The Northwest Corridor had been joined by new locomotive types from the NYC, PRR, GN, and MILW.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Line received two new branchlines. The first was a loop going around Lake Tahoe, calling at Emerald Bay, Tahoe City, Kings Beach, and Incline Village. This was known as the Tahoe Beltway. The other branchline branched off from the loop at Tahoe City and went to Truckee, connecting with the SP Donner Pass Line and adding another alternate route.
The Not-So-Great Depression
On October 29, 1929, the Stock Market crashed, beginning the Great Depression. Among Continental alumni, though, it was known as the "Not-So-Great Depression", as it barely fazed the railroad. The biggest effect it had was somewhat lower freight revenues. Continental responded to the economic climate by lowering its ticket prices from $3.00 to a mere quarter. Attempts to lower freight rates, meanwhile, were obstructed by the ICC, who deemed the proposed rates as "too unfair to the trucking industry". Continental Rail's response was blunt and to-the-point: "F*ck you". The ICC, enraged, threatened to forcibly demolish Continental's 30-Inch Empire in Northern California as punishment, but Continental responded by running a smear campaign exposing the ICCs attempts to kill the railroads by granting favors to the trucking industry. The US Government intervened, reprimanding the ICC and moving all telecommunications regulation to the new FCC, as well as apologizing to Continental for the ICCs unorthodox and unrestrained handling of the situation.
In 1935, Continental Rail entered into an agreement with Southern Pacific. SP, unsatisfied with the Market Street Depot in San Jose, CA that it had shared with CR for some time, built a brand-new depot at Cahill Street. Continental Rail was allowed to move its long-distance trains to the new station in exchange for CR taking full control of the Market Street Depot and the entire 4th Street Line. Shortly after the deal was completed, CR was given permission to electrify SP's new bypass to allow its electric locomotives to run into Cahill Street as needed.
CR completed the initial build-out of its network in 1938 with the completion of the Allegheny Route. Around this time, the railroad purchased its first diesel locomotives, five EMD NW1 switchers. CR, however, never embraced diesels as a replacement for steam, choosing instead to run steam, diesel, and electric alongside each other, with the philosophy of "if it ain't broke, don't replace it", a philosophy that still stands today.
World at War
When the United States entered the Second World War, Continental Rail immediately jumped into the war effort. The railroad also shifted various rail-based artillery pieces out of storage, and put them on standby against any Japanese invasions.
By 1943, troop trains were a common sight on Continental metals, and passengers flocked to the trains due to wartime rationing. In response, several lines that had been freight-only had passenger service added, with temporary stations set up until more permanent buildings could be built after the war. The railroad also hired a large amount of women and minorities to fill positions left by men who had been drafted (Johnson Industries had a history of equal-opportunity employment, as well as willfully ignoring Jim Crow laws in the south, which had caused the State of Alabama to shut down a major Continental branchline as punishment for treating the two races as equals, to which CR responded by running down the workmen attempting to scrap the line, killing 23; the state backed off afterwards, having seen that CR would resort to murder in order to defend their property).
The railroad also participated in the Manhatten Project, having been entrusted to operate the secret Los Alamos branchline.