The Railway Age Story
In business since its establishment in Chicago in 1856, Railway Age is the transportation industry’s longest-running trade publication, covering railway technology, operations, strategic planning, marketing, equipment finance and other topics such as legislative, regulatory and labor/management developments. What began as a weekly in the mid-19th century is, in the 21st century, an information resource incorporating digital and print publishing, a website, newsletters, webinars, social media and conferences.
What purpose does a trade publication serve? One of Railway Age’s earliest editors put it this way: “It may be true that experience is the best teacher. But a man is a damned fool who cannot learn from anybody’s experience but his own.”
As for a trade publication serving the railway industry, another early Railway Age editor said something his successors try their best to uphold: “If we shall succeed in producing a railway journal comprehensive without diffusiveness, practical without dryness, solid without heaviness, and of value both to those who build and operate our railroads, and those who use them, we shall feel assured of abundant success.”
The magazine known today as Railway Age began life in 1856 as The Western Railroad Gazette. It became known as The Railroad Gazette in 1870, and underwent a major name change in 1908 after purchasing its chief rival, The Railway Age, which had been founded in 1876. The merged magazines were initially published as The Railroad Age Gazette. In 1909, the name was changed to The Railway Age Gazette, and finally, in 1918, to Railway Age.
There have been other mergers and acquisitions over the years that collectively have shaped our history. In every case, the surviving name was Railway Age.
Prior to its merger with The Railroad Gazette in 1908, The Railway Age merged with The Northwestern Railroader, founded in 1887. The magazine was called The Railway Age & Northwestern Railroader until May 1901, when it reverted to The Railway Age. In later years following the Railroad Gazette/Railway Age merger in 1908, there were two significant acquisitions. In 1927, Railway Age absorbed The Railway Review, which had been founded in 1868 as The Chicago Railway Review. In 1991, Railway Age absorbed Modern Railroads, which had been established in 1946.
Those are the major pieces of Railway Age’s lineage. However, within our bloodstream flow the elements of several more publications, most of them monthly or semi-monthly companion technical publications devoted to specific industry disciplines. The oldest of these is the American Rail-Road Journal, founded in 1832 as the very first railway trade publication. It became the American Engineer & Railroad Journal in 1886, and then Railway Mechanical Engineer in 1911, when it was purchased by Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corp., Railway Age’s parent company. Before being folded into Railway Age in 1975, it was known as Railway Locomotives & Cars.
Railway Signal Engineer, founded in 1907, was purchased by Simmons-Boardman in 1910. It later became Railway Signaling & Communications and was last published in 1975 as Railway System Controls. The Railway Age family at one time also included Railway Purchases & Stores, last published in 1967; Railway Electrical Engineer, last published in 1942; and Railway Freight Traffic, last published in 1958. Simmons-Boardman continues to publish Railway Track & Structures, which was founded as Railway Engineering & Maintenance in 1905. RT&S stands on its own mostly because an industry that invests the bulk of its capital dollars in infrastructure can support a specialized publication.
International Railway Journal (IRJ), founded in 1960, is a sister publication based in Britain. Here, there is an interesting history: In 1904, the publisher of The Railroad Gazette, believing that, through a U.S.-owned magazine published in Britain, much could be done to extend U.S. railroad practices abroad and increase the sale of U.S.-made railway equipment and supplies, bought Transport of London, a weekly devoted to transportation on both land and water. Under the name Railway Gazette, a policy of very gradual Americanization was started, but after a few years’ trial the policy was abandoned as unsound and the magazine was sold to the individuals who had been publishing it in Britain. Today, Railway Gazette International survives as a principal competitor of its distant cousin, IRJ.
Back to the beginning: The Western Railroad Gazette was a very different publication from its descendants. It was founded at the Chicago Tribune as a publicly circulated periodical, not a trade publication. “It wasn’t much of a paper, to put it bluntly,” wrote the editors in Railway Age’s 1956 centennial issue. “It was not a business paper at all, in fact. It didn’t do a business paper’s job. It was not addressed primarily to the men who run railroads. There was not a line in its four littered pages that would help them build or run railroads better. Its audience was the public at large—chiefly the traveling public, and probably largely commercial travelers—most of whom got the paper free. Its chief advertisers were railroad companies. Other products and services hawked in its columns included hotels, clothing, patent medicines, tobacco, jewelry, banks, business schools, and stock brokerage. The editorial pages contained little of serious import to railroad men. They comprised mostly endless praises of the routes and services of the railroads that advertised, and horrendous tales of accidents, lateness, rudeness, and discomfort in the cars of their non-advertiser rivals.”
That changed in 1870 when W. N. Kellogg bought the paper and renamed it The Railroad Gazette. Kellog wanted the Gazette to be “a complete repository of railroad news,” including “descriptions of engineering works and improvements in machinery and rolling stock. . . . We shall not be satisfied unless and until The Railroad Gazette is made an effective instrument for elucidating the science and perfecting the art of transportation; not by suggestions or instructions of its conductors, so much as by the teachings and discussions by practical railroad men given in its columns.”
The Railroad Gazette almost came to an end in the great Chicago fire of 1871, which destroyed most of its assets. Kellog had other business interests, all of which were affected by losses suffered in the fire. He sold what remained of the paper to Silas W. Dunning and Mathias N. Forney, who moved it to New York City and probably did more than anyone else to put the publication on the path to longevity. Dunning, editor from 1871 to 1887, shaped the Gazette into a publication with a positive influence on railroad practice and legislation. Forney, a mechanical engineer, was the magazine’s engineering and mechanical editor until 1883. He was a founder of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Master Car Builders Association. He was also a member of an MCBA committee that prepared a dictionary of carbuilding terms. The book, published by The Railroad Gazette, was the forerunner of the Car Builder’s Cyclopedia, later the Car & Locomotive Cyclopedia, the most recent edition of which was published in 1997 by Simmons-Boardman Books.
Silas Dunning’s successor as The Railroad Gazette’s editor in 1887 was Henry G. Prout, a civil engineer credited with influencing the U.S. Senate to select Panama, not Nicaragua, as the site of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans—today’s Panama Canal. Prout retired from The Railroad Gazette in 1903 to become vice president and general manager of Union Switch & Signal Co.
The Railroad Gazette, Railway Age said in 1956, “fought fearlessly for what it thought to be right. Frequently it criticized the industry upon which it depended for its life, in a manner that no business paper today would dare. It castigated individual railroads—by name—for what it considered gross negligence in providing crossing protection or block signals, and did not fear, for example, to call the powerful Vanderbilts (New York Central & Hudson River Railroad) ‘life-risking penny pinchers’ for not so protecting their properties. Week after week, it told stories of loss of life caused by continued use of link and pin couplings and old-fashioned ‘man-killing’ buffers, and kept up the barrage until the automatic, vertical plane coupler was adopted. It scolded top management for not paying its operating officers more generously. If it did not encourage the formation of the [labor unions], it did not oppose them; and frequently took the side of rank-and-file employees in disputes—especially when safety or good service were at stake. It kept pounding at the necessity for railroad officers to find facts, and not rely on hunches and ‘things they learned while young that are no longer so.’ Why was The Railroad Gazette so bravely outspoken? Probably because it grew up when there was no regulation of railways—when they were a monopoly, and before they understood the public interest. The only regulation in the country was that provided by The Railroad Gazette itself.”
Perhaps the best example of The Railroad Gazette’s influence was the “battle of the gauges.” During the early 1870s, heated debate occurred over whether a single track gauge or a variety would prevail. “Standard” gauge (4 feet, 8-1/2 inches) or “broad” gauge (5 feet) were advocated for heavy traffic main lines—and a 3 foot 6 inch gauge for light-density lines. The magazine’s campaign for the industry to adapt the prevailing standard gauge emphasized the lack of economic justification for narrow-gauge lines and the need for a single gauge “to avoid the strangulation of commerce in a rapidly growing nation of vast territorial extent.”
William H. Boardman, who had joined The Railroad Gazette in 1869 and had become part owner and president by 1883, succeeded Prout as editor. Boardman’s strengths, however, were more in line with the business side of publishing. In 1908, he and E. A. Simmons, The Railroad Gazette’s vice president of advertising, established the Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation with the intent of purchasing The Railway Age, which they considered The Railroad Gazette’s strongest competitor. The $265,000 transaction merging the two rival publications took place in June of that year.
Boardman remained as editor of the new Railroad Age Gazette until 1911, when he retired and was succeeded by Samuel O. Dunn, who had been The Railway Age’s managing editor at the time of the merger. Dunn was initially appointed western editor of Railroad Age Gazette. He changed the name of the publication to Railway Age Gazette in 1909, and in 1918, he simplified it to Railway Age.
The Railway Age had been founded by George S. Bangs, Charles F. Hatch, and E. H. Talbott in Chicago in June 1876. Its headquarters were located at the Grand Pacific Hotel Building. Bangs had been superintendent of the United States Railway Mail Service Besides founding The Railway Age, his claim to fame was establishment of Fast Mail trains. The Railway Age defined its readership as railroad managers and investors and its natural source of advertising as railroad suppliers, though it also accepted advertising from the railroads.
The Railway Age was much different in character than The Railroad Gazette. It “was not then as vocal as to its objectives, but it became a lively chronicler of events and developments in the railway field,” as Railway Age described it in 1956. “Its tone was lighter than that of its older rival. It dealt less consciously with the science and art of conducting transportation and leaned more to the business aspects of railroad management. It was edited for other employees of the railroads as well as officers. It attracted a large volume of advertising.”
Why did Simmons and Boardman want to acquire The Railway Age? “While, prior to the merger, The Railroad Gazette had the greater prestige, it was losing ground in circulation and in advertising to its livelier, more enterprising Chicago rival,” Railway Age noted in 1956. “Boardman himself admitted that The Railroad Gazette was ‘edited for student railroad presidents and there were never enough of them.’” The combined magazine “reflected the character of both ancestral lines. It continued the Age’s alertness to the news of the industry. It continued the thorough exposition and interpretation of technical aspects of railroad operation that it had inherited from the Gazette. Altogether, it was a stronger paper than either and began at once a steady climb in circulation and advertising revenues. Starting out with about 4,000 subscribers on the Gazette and the Age apiece (many of which were duplicated), it pushed circulation to 10,000 by 1929—despite its policy of limiting promotion of sale of the paper to readers of railway officer status.”
Samuel O. Dunn in 1911 was the highest paid business paper editor in the United States, with the largest editorial staff of any technical journal. He introduced “what was then a new attitude toward editorial staffs,” as we reported in 1956. “Although he had himself neither technical nor railroad experience, he chose as his editors men who had received technical education in leading universities and who had had railroad experience.” For example, Roy V. Wright, who reported on mechanical subjects besides serving as managing editor, had been mechanical engineer of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie and was regarded as a national authority on shop techniques. He was president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in the 1930s.
“When Dunn took over, railway papers in general were almost exclusively technical. Having made himself a recognized authority on regulatory problems, he concluded that railways were confronted with a problem that surpassed all their technical difficulties—namely, public ill will, evidenced by bitter attacks upon them, even by business interests, and by crippling regulation. He therefore broadened the paper’s scope and began to hammer home forcefully the evil effect of bad railroad regulation and government ownership (which occurred during World War I with the United States Railroad Administration). These arguments were given wide distribution in the daily press. At the height of this activity, it was reckoned that papers with a combined circulation of more than four million were regularly printing items quoted from Railway Age or its editor.”
It is widely believed that Railway Age did much to chronicle the ills of government ownership and helped return control of the railroads to their owners in 1921.
1912 marked a major turning point in the fortunes of Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corp. and set the company on a course to its present form. Simmons bought out Boardman’s holdings and became the owner of a majority of the company. Simmons, who died in 1931, extended the company’s properties to include trade publications in other industries. Active direction of the company passed to Dunn, chairman of the board. Upon Dunn’s retirement in 1950, James G. Lyne, who had been co-editor of Railway Age for two years, became editor as well as president of Simmons-Boardman. In 1954, controlling interest in the company was sold to a group of long-time employees, and Railway Age and its sister magazines became owner-operated properties. The principal stockholders were Lyne and Executive Vice President Arthur J. McGinnis Sr., both of whom started with the company as associate editors of Railway Age (McGinnis in 1940). Robert G. Lewis, who had joined Railway Age in 1947 as associate editor, was named publisher of the company’s railway group in 1956.
Today, Simmons-Boardman is owned by the McGinnis Corp., whose Chairman, President, and CEO is Arthur J. McGinnis Jr.
In many ways, Railway Age’s fortunes have followed those of the railroads. In the early 20th century, some railroads had bigger budgets and employed more people than the federal government. Reflecting the industry’s character at the time, Railway Age was the world’s largest periodical in sheer physical size, with some single issues containing 200, 300, or even 400 or more editorial and advertising pages. Our editors traveled in the magazine’s own business car, the first built by Pullman for a non-railroad company.
Its early appearance on the scene gave Railway Age many business publication “firsts.” In the 1880s, it was the first periodical to operate a permanent exhibition center for advertisers, at Chicago’s Grand Pacific Hotel. In 1909, during the magazine’s campaign to have the railroads pay more attention to the public, Railway Age became the first periodical anywhere to define and use the term “public relations.” It was the first weekly business periodical in the U.S. to publish daily editions during industry conventions, and the first technical publication serving a single industry to use photo engravings. In 1881, it was the first technical publication to use color on editorial pages. In 1886, it was the first technical publication to use color on advertising pages, for the Westinghouse Air Brake Company.
Perhaps most important, in 1916, Railway Age was the first single-industry weekly to open an editorial office in Washington D.C. and put a full-time staff editor in charge. In the 1930s, Railway Age was the only trade publication with full White House accreditation.
Such close ties to the railway industry has had its downsides. For example, much of Railway Age’s early prosperity was built on the steam locomotive. Most steam locomotives were custom-built, using parts offered by many competing suppliers, and much of the competition for this business took place through advertising in the magazine. Is it any wonder that the magazine was not one of the early enthusiasts of essentially off-the-shelf diesel-electric locomotives?
Railway Age’s connection to the industry’s fortunes became painfully clearer in 1970, when the gradual decline in traffic and profitability with which the railroads had been dealing for years under the burden of over-regulation—which, in turn, hurt suppliers—prompted its shift from a weekly to a twice-monthly publication. The industry was in the beginning stages of a long period of consolidation, and suppliers were becoming fewer in number.
Partial deregulation of the railroads under the Staggers Act of 1980, and the efficiencies the railroads were able to employ following this landmark piece of legislation, led in no small way to Railway Age’s 1983 shift to a monthly. “Our new publishing frequency makes sense both editorially and from a business standpoint,” we said. “It lets us move and respond in the marketplace just as railroads are now moving, responding and growing.”
But change can also mean growth. Railway Age was for many years devoted almost entirely to freight and main line passenger railroads. That changed in 1963, when the first issue of Railway Age devoted to rail transit was published. Today, we consider coverage of this important industry segment one of our biggest assets.
We have also attracted our share of controversy. Railway Age in 1959 was accused of steering the industry toward socialism by suggesting that railroads needed to be indemnified by government for the huge losses they incurred operating commuter trains for “the public convenience and necessity.” The president of the Illinois Central Railroad threatened to boycott the magazine’s advertisers. Interestingly, IC was among the first railroads to line up for federal aid for operating commuter trains when it became available in the 1960s.
In addition to helping the U.S. railway industry fight off nationalization in the early 1920s and again in the 1960s, Railway Age is credited with aiding the industry in two other monumental battles: against federal regulation that paralyzed the entrepreneurial spirit, drove many railroads into bankruptcy and came close to pulling down the whole industry; and against anachronistic work rules that penalized railroad labor in lost jobs and railroad management in lost productivity.
Today, as an efficient and profitable railroad industry deals with the promises and pitfalls of renewed strength, relevance and market power, Railway Age continues its role in serving the industry. We have embraced the shift to electronic publishing and social media that has fundamentally changed the way information is gathered and disseminated. Our website, www.railwayage.com, reports industry breaking news and offers commentary. A daily electronic newsletter, Rail Group News, as well as a weekly electronic newsletter, Passenger Rail News, incorporate content from Railway Track & Structures (www.rtands.com) and International Railway Journal (www.railjournal.com). All three titles are published monthly in digital as well as print format.