Penn Central 1974 – The Movie

This is the movie commissioned by the Penn Central Railroad bankruptcy trustees to try to convince members of Congress that the railroad desperately needed a cash infusion or some other federal intervention if the railroad were to survive.

Think of it as the social media of its day, a corporate movie commissioned as a way of educating elected officials who had little time or inclination to actually visit the railroad to find out what was going on.

In fairness, there are some anecdotes I’ve heard about the making of this movie, including the fact that some of the really bad conditions just wouldn’t cooperate with the filmmakers. So instead of showing actual “standing derailments” (derailments caused by crossties so rotted that the rails just spread apart under the weight of the freight cars), they actually had to stage some of them.

There is a scene of a car derailing as it moves down the “hump” track in a classification yard, and I’m told it took more than one take to get it to derail.

Despite these moviemaker tricks, the facts were pretty bleak for Penn Central.

And the movie did help convince Congress to do the only right thing.

This digital rendering of the movie is Copyright ©2009 Lubetkin Communications LLC. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use, reposting or copying without written permission is strictly prohibited.

This video is available for purchase on DVD in the Lubetkin Communications e-Store.

Take control of the company and the other bankrupt railroads, and make something new. Conrail. And considering what the car companies are asking for as an INTERIM solution for just the next three months ($15 billion), Conrail was a bargain at $7.6 billion — all in.

That’s pretty much where the auto industry should be headed. Even as I was preparing this blog entry, I came across the daily agenda in the previous entry showing that GMAC is still taking folks out for expensive breakfast meetings, even as its owners go begging the taxpayers for a handout.

Enough bailout money, we need to nationalize these turkeys and impose a Conrail style solution once again.


  1. Not at this time, Frank. We’ve been told by some of our former railroad colleagues that this video is an important “find,” that the movie was long thought to have been destroyed. We’ll be exploring other ways to make it available. Remember, the original was a 16mm film, and our version was a film transfer to VHS tape that we digitized.

  2. Greetings Steve!Thanks so much for revising and sharing this wonderful film about a rough period back when.If this is re-formatted into a DVD, etc., several historical groups would be interested.Best for the Holidays, Bill Strassner, VP NYCSHS, former employee prr-pc-cr.*-*

  3. I worked as an engineer/fireman on the Penn Central from Apr 1968 until I came west and joined the Burlington Northern in Dec 1974. Staged or not, believe me that is the way the PC was in those days. I can’t count the number of derailments I personally was involved in while working my way through college on a midnight switch engine. The difference between the PC and the BN was like night and day.AK

  4. Maybe the folks at the Internet Archive ( ) can help with giving this rare footage a good home. The copyright is either with American Premier Underwriters (Successor to Penn Central) or Conrail, Inc. (CSX/NS Joint Ownership), Successor to Consolidated Rail Corporation. John in Syracuse

  5. Copyright may be something to check into. There may be several names listed on a copyright and if any of those persons are still living they may still hold copyright. They may also have transferred the copyright to another. Since railroads can claim rights to logos of lines they have absorbed then that may also hold true for copyrights of those predecessors. I would say it may be worthwhile to check with CSX and Norfolk Southerens Legal Departments, or at least inquire with the Copyright Office about the film.R. Federle

  6. Great movie enjoyed it, even though it was a sad period in life.I remember the once proud New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad. The New Haven was also a part of this Penn Central which was the railroad’s bottoming out in the Northeast. Our great and wonderful federal government has a lot to blame for the Conditions of the Penn Central. We have executives like Stuart Saunders who collected a lot of money then retired to Hawaii. I remember the pregnant worm and how unimaginative was the management of this organization. You are read the book the wreck of the Penn Central to get a lot more facts in that book. Again this is a great movie I wish I could get it and run on my DVD at home for others to see.Mike Wikman a 54 year railroad veteran

  7. Steve, I love the video, it shows how desperate things really were on the Penn Central and how this could have really been a real economic disaster for the country if it was allowed to fail. Penn Central was so big it would effected all other railroads as well and could have been and end of the railroad industry. We have a new crisis toady with our banks and auto industry and again the Federal Government is stepping in to help and restructure these key institutions for a similar outcome. It is funny how history repeats itself and this video is evidence to that.Matt Noel, Locomotive Engineer

  8. I have always thought if the PRR and NYC didn’t neglect track amd strted to upgrade their systems to being compatible Penn Central would have been better off.

  9. David Kwechansky from Toronto gave me permission to add this email exchange about my Conrail/auto industry commentaries:You certainly may. Part of me entirely agrees with you. If it was just one of the 3, and of their own doing, into Chapter 11, good luck, and maybe good riddance. The freedom to fail is as intrinsic to capitalism as the freedom to succeed, and that applies to the mightiest as well as to the merest.But this situation is not of their making. They have more infrastructure trimming to do for efficiency, and are doing it, because production capacity still reflects a former much larger market share they’ll never regain. However, they’re now building what the public wants, with the quality it demands, and have even better coming in the short term, if only people could feel confident enough to buy and get the credit they need to do it. This too shall pass. It always does. Until then, in my humble opinion it’s the lesser of two evils to keep them alive. It goes against my politics, but it’s what the Germans named Realpolitik—it’s useless to wish you’d been dealt a better hand, so gulp hard and make the best of the one you have. Canada is doing about like the US. Our resources industries—metals, minerals, lumber, oil—in particular are very US-dependent, so when the US is in the dumpster, so are we. Economically we’re conjoined twins, and it’s a safe bet that if one such twin is ailing, the other isn’t well either.I’d be delighted to do a Teller podcast with you. David________________________________________Sent: December 25, 2008 11:53 AMCan I post your comments to the blog? Very thoughtful look at another perspective…Hope all is well up in Canada. Given the intense interest in the Penn Central movie (more than 3,700 downloads) perhaps we should do a podcast interview about your painting and Grif Teller, etc.?Sent: Thursday, December 25, 2008 10:49 AMThat is an amazing movie! It deserves fan attention, and how fortunate we are that you had a copy.We differ on your parallel with the auto snafu, though. Back then, PC was the only big road in that deep a mess, as if today just one of the Detroit 3 was at the brink of collapse. The 3 are actually making the best cars they’ve ever made, in mostly very modern plants. If you’re thinking “And high time too—what took so damn long?” you’d be right, but past is past. They’re not being killed by product now, but by consumer retrenchment and tight credit, and onerous union contracts. It’s as if PC had modernized and rebuilt the fixed plant just as shippers curtailed shipping and legacy costs were sapping their scant free resources due to greatly diminished revenue. Also, I shudder to think what the 3 would be forced to produce if instead of giving customers what they want, they had to sell what a starry-eyed DC idealist believes they should want, and whether or not they do is irrelevant. Besides, the crunch is now. New cars take 4-5 years to develop. Without a safety net during the recession, there won’t be a 3 to make cars, marketable or otherwise.Of interest, Canada is adding 20% on top of what the US is providing. It’s little known down your way that 20% of Detroit 3 production is made here. Ontario builds more cars than Michigan, most of them exported to the US. If we lost the 3, we’d still have huge Honda and Toyota plants, but Oshawa (GM), Oakville (Ford) and Windsor (Chrysler) would be devastated, and even our Conservative (think GOP) government can’t let that happen without every effort to avert it. It’s a pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later scenario. Pick one: a bailout to keep them on life support until they can breathe again on their own (we hope), or massive increases in unemployment payouts that may total far more, since that idled army of workers won’t find other jobs anytime soon. The US and Canada are going to pay either way, and I’d rather pay to keep them working than pay them to stay home. Happy Chanukah to you and yours too Steve, and may ’09 be way better than all the pointy-heads are predicting.David ________________________________________Sent: December 25, 2008 8:49 AMHey, would you believe that the Penn Central 1974 movie I posted on my blog has become a sensation in the railfan world? Apparently everyone thought the movie was completely lost. VHS copy has been on my shelf since I left Conrail in 1988. Who knew?Sent: Wednesday, December 24, 2008 5:52 PMSubject: Which country has the most computers per capita?From The Economist.It’s not the US. Per capita, for every computer in the US, #1 has 1.6.

  10. Mr. Lubetkin, I thank you for posting what really amounts to a historical document (if obviously one-sided). I would love to show this to all the armchair railroad superintendents online who proclaim how “horrible” their local Class One’s track/operations are, how they’re “always derailing,” etc. I would feel, however, much like the ranting old fogey in his rocking chair screaming “You young ‘uns don’t know how good you have it–why, when I was your age….!”It’s important, however, to keep three critical differences in perspective between the railroad doldrums of the 1960s/1970s and the American auto industry of 2008:1) Much more so than even today, many railroad customers were in a de facto monopoly situation. All kinds of coal mines, power plants, oil terminals, ports, etc. were served only by one railroad, or a choice of bankrupt lines (Lehigh Valley, CNJ, Reading, etc.). Today, with the reorganization of the North American rail map, in spite of massive consolidation many huge customers have a de facto choice between railroads–see the Conrail Shared Assets Operation, which acts to give many of those customers a choice between NS and CSX.2) All the conditions described happened in a pre-deregulation environment. It seems impossible to convince a young person today that a railroad was expressly prohibited from just giving up operations over a line or to a town/area, or just raising rates to cover costs. The horrors of the ICC and the bureaucratic quagmires mandated for even a seemingly innocuous change in service seems in 2008 to be either a dreadful bad dream or a fantasy horror story.3) Whether we like it or not, thanks to circumstances not of their making, the railroad industry has become a de facto part of the national infrastructure (a buzz word we’re bound to get sick of in the upcoming months, mark my words). If the railroads shut down overnight, the chaos that would ensue with regards to fuel supply, electrical plant supply, international cargo distribution, etc. would be massive. Power plants, oil refineries, steel mills, and many more “critical” industries would shut down, and/or the cargo shift to highways would be catastrophic (can you see all those coal trucks to the power plant?). For all these years, however, the actual love/hate relationship between the “public” nature of the rail network and the “private” reality of their corporate owners has never been properly hashed out, and aside from a nationalized rail-infrastructure network with private operators as in much of the ECC now, it’s unlikely to ever be brokered to a successful resolution.The auto industry, on the other hand, is, whether we want to admit it or not, easily replaced. Why is it seen as a horrible thing if autos and trucks are made overseas or by overseas companies, but those same folks who lament that course of action happily buy clothing in Mega-Superstore 99% produced in China, computers built in Malaysia (as the Dell I’m typing this on is), televisions built in Indonesia, wood cut in Canada, furniture made in Scandinavia, and beer brewed in Belgium/Germany/Britain/Mexico? These loans are not aimed at bailing out an auto industry; they’re aimed at bailing out the largest suppliers of health care and pensions outside of Social (In)Security–the auto makers and their UAW co-conspirators!One final note: Most of the photos I’ve seen of “last trains” run at the end of Penn Central showed train crews of five and six members. Today, those same trains run with two or three men. It seems that the railroads back then were engaged in the exact same “societal welfare” projects that GM, Ford, and Chrysler now find themselves in. Is that the business model Penn Central and other railroads were in, and what we want the Big Three to be in now? Or do we want them to be railroads and car makers?

  11. Magnificent documentry of how not to operate a large railroad or other major industry. I was working for the New Haven RR when it was absorbed by the Penn Central in 1969 and it all started to change. This tells the whole story .Great job. V.M.Zolinsky NH,PC,CR (Retired)

  12. Steve -Thanks so much for preserving, sharing, and posting this little “independent documentary” movie. Please keep it in a safe place – it has great historical value. It had been thought to have been “lost”- but now it’s been found – wonderful !It’s already also got a little following over on the Trains magazine forum – see:'ll see you get either a copy of or a reference to the article I mentioned there when I find it (if someone else doesn’t beat me to it 1st !).Thanks again ! Have a great New Years !- Paul North.

  13. I have some reasons why not to nationalize the auto industry.1. British Leyland. Learn from the UK. The government does not know how to build cars.2.The Auto Industry is a victim of the Banking Indusry Crisis.The Government gave the Banks almost 700 Billion Dollars to put their houses in order to continue making loans.Instead some banks like PNC used that money to buy National City Bank Corp. and tightened up on lending. Others just added it to their cash reserves to shore up the bottom line and tightened up on lending. Thus The US Big 3 can not get short term loans to meet gaps in revenue from day to day operations. 3.Ford only needs a line of credit. 4.Chrysler was raped by Daimler-Benz of all useful asset that help produce revenue that was not car related,but transportation related.The Car business was sold off with all the heritage cost assumed by the new owners.Chrysler was also taken away from the path that Lee Iacocca set out of fuel efficient cars with front-wheel drive and returned to big rear-wheel drive cars with lower fuel mileage by Daimler-Benz.Daimler-Benz also walked away from Chrysler with all the Fuel Effeicient/Hybird/Clean Diesel/Turbine Designs in development and left Chrysler with the crumbs left behind that Daimler did not want or have a use for.Daimler should be made to pay for damaging Chrysler.The Government should fine Daimler for 10 Billion US Dollars and use that money to help return Chrysler to Financial Health.5.General Motors was slow to introduct its,new fuel-efficient designs to the marketplace and to put them into production. This was made worst by the lack of available credit due to the Credit Crisis.(The Banks,Again.)GM also had become to dependent on Full- Size Trucks and SUV to shore up the bottom line. GM has now over 19models that get 30+MPG and the new Hybirds and Eletric Cars &Trucks are just 6 to 18 months from the marketplace,if GM can get the short term loans it needs to survive this finacial crisis.GM with continue to make decent cars and return to profitability.SincerelyEric BonkCanton,Ohio

  14. Here is an excerpt from the US Government Copyright office office on length of copyright for works prior to 1978. “”Under the law in effect before 1978, copyright was secured either on the date a work was published or on the date of registration if the work was registered in unpublished form. In either case, the copyright lasted for a first term of 28 years from the date it was secured. The copyright was eligible for renewal during the last (28th) year of the first term. If renewed, the copyright was extended for a second term of 28 years.1 If not renewed, the copyright expired at the end of the first 28-year term. The term of copyright for works published with a year date in the notice that is earlier than the actual date of publication is computed from the year date in the copyright notice.””If the “owners” of this film, whether it be one or more persons, if any of them renewed the copyright then it lasts for another 21 years according to the above excerpt (provided the original copyroght was due to expire 7 years ago).

  15. Buhere is another kink. While researching renewal requests this may have applied to the Penn Central work as well so it may still have a valid copyright. See the excerpt below:””Any work published or registered before January 1, 1964, must have been renewed by registration in the 28th year following the original date of publication or registration. Copyrights in works registered or published between January 1, 1964, and December 31, 1977, have an automatic renewal for a full 95-year term of protection. Renewal registration is optional, and there may not be a renewal registration in the public records.””

  16. Given the chaos that accompanied the PC bankruptcy and the subsequent nationalization under Conrail, the likelihood that the successors could prove any real intent to keep ownership in this film is slim. Indeed, all the evidence suggests it was never intended to be preserved, considering how excited the rail historical community has become by this posting of the film, which most thought was lost.

  17. PRR & NYC should have never merged. When Conrail was sold it was basically split along the former PRR & NYC lines. That being said it certainly was a fiasco. I recall Amtrak derailing four times in 30 days during 1973 between Indianapolis and Louisville. They had three pages of slow orders for 110 miles of track.

  18. Great video, matches exactly the stories told by the oldtimers here in Buffalo who lived through it.As a young man, I followed the merger, bankruptcy, and birth of Bonrail as an observer.As I worked at my turret lathe in a machine shop I lamented that there was nowhere for me to be at a railroad nearby (in Western New York…they allwere going belly up!). During my lunch breaks I read the Congressional reports of the hearings. There is little question why PC went tits up. Money, when it was available was shoveled into everything other than the railroad property…hotels, land deals, airlines, private jets, officials’ perks, trucking companies…everything but the railroad plant and equipment.So the conditions seen in the video is of no surprise to anyone who could see the dishonesty prevalent then…as it is now.

  19. Thank you Mr.Lubetkin,what memories this brings back.I was a high school student when PC went insolvent.Their inabilty to pay property tax forced my school to layoff teachers and cut all elective subjects.One half of the students were in a mass study hall in the caffeteria all morning,the other half all afternoon.After graduating I applied at Moraine Ohio and Indianapolis for work on the PC.I did not get an interview.But both Trainmasters were kind enough to speak to me.I remember the one in Moraine pointing out the window and saying see those men some with 20 years or more there pulling weeds just to have something to do.I worked for GM Frigidaire for 5 years and it was freezing cold in the winter and over 100 in the factory in summer.I was lucky and did not work the assembly line,some of which turnned out over 1000 units a shift.Those folks won their pensions.If congress and the president give up theirs,after the debt is projected to exceed 5 trillion.That would be a start and a good example.

  20. Regarding some of the comments made:1) The bankrupt roads were not “nationalized” per se, but put into a half-public, half-private organization called Conrail. Which, by the way, eventually made the government money when it went all private. The government running something does NOT mean a successful operation.2) But the real reason Conrail succeeded was not government bailout, but the Staggers Deregulation of 1980. With it railroads were free to abandon money losing lines, set rates that made money (or at least met the costs – unlike the ICC which allowed rates to go up 6-12 months after the request). Why not get rid of CAFE for the automakers (suggested recently in the WSJ)?3) The railroads did not practice “societal welfare” when it can to crews. Since the end of WW2, they tried to eliminate firemen when they switched to diesels. Unions wouldn’t let them. Further, when they did get agreements, some states had full crew laws which mandated the 5-6 member crews.4) Which isn’t to say that Penn Central was an innocent victim of circumstance. As a former track supervisor, I can attest to some not-too-bright ideas that were passed on from on high. (Like even tho’ travel expenses cost MORE than overtime, “no one was watching the expense reports, but everyone was watching the ovetime reports!”)

  21. Gus makes some good points, although to clarify, Conrail wasn’t half government, half private. 85% of the securities were owned by the US Government, and 15% was placed in an ESOP trust. Once Conrail started achieving financial benchmarks, the 15% vested with the employees.The Northeast Rail Services Act and Staggers both helped Conrail achieve profitability. But without the preceding government investment in the physical plant, the broken down PCTC could never have achieved profitability. The government was persuaded that the 3R and 4R Act, which codified the ill-advised labor guarantees from the Penn Central merger into federal law, was crippling the company’s ability to become profitable. So was a laborious branch line abandonment process that allowed anyone to block abandonment of unprofitable service endlessly.Once Conrail had the ability to size its workforce and its plant to realistic levels based on the volume of traffic, it had a chance of becoming profitable. And Staggers put it over that hump by allowing pricing flexibility.

  22. I remember back in 1970 after the NYC & PRR merger, I was working as a instructor for the Diccs system that the NYC was using to track the demurrage cost to the customers to off set per diem cost by other railroads while their cars were on the PC railroad and in courage the customers to unload the freight cars faster. We were working in Waverly Yard located in Newark NJ on 3rd trick (3am) In the morning with cattle cars across from the Yard Office window, no air condition with the windows open, with the smell from the live stock drifting thru the open windows in 95degree heat making it unbearable to breath. I don't know how we manage to teach the system to the clerks./// Charles Wright, started on the PRR in 1954 and retired from Conrail(NCSC) 1994(Pittsburg, Pa)

  23. And to think Penn Central wasn't the only one in this kind of shape at the time! I can list a whole slew of railroads that were collapsing or on the brink in the early 1970's:Rock Island*(Liquidated 1980)Southern Pacific(Texas and Louisiana lines mostly, repaired to a certain extent)Milwaukee Road*(Slimmed down to a "core" system before being taken over by Soo Line)Illinois Central Gulf(Rebuilt itself, and returned to using the Illinois Central monkier)Kansas City Southern(Rebuilt by the late 1970's)Missouri-Kansas-Texas(Rebuilt and became immensely profitable)Central Railroad of New Jersey*Ann Arbor Railroad*Philadelphia & Reading*(You know, the one from Monopoly?)Lehigh Valley Railroad*(Coincidentally, it was OWNED by Penn Central corporation!)

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