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Robert B. Watson professional papers

Creation: 1926-2005 Creation: Majority of material found within 1964-1981
Accession: 2577


Professional career files of mechanical engineer Robert B. Watson (1931-) documenting his work on the development of high-speed trains in the years between 1966 and 1998, especially his involvement in the Northeast Corridor Demonstration Project and the development of the first generation "Metroliners."


  • Creation: 1926-2005
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1964-1981



10 Linear Feet

Physical Description

9 cartons, 1 oversized flat box

Biographical Note

Robert Bruce Watson (1931-) was the Coordinator for the Northeast Corridor Project for the Penn Central Railroad.

Watson was born on June 29, 1931, at Altoona, Pennsylvania, where his father, Bruce B. Watson (1898-1958), was Chief Inspector in the Test Department of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR). Watson received a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Pennsylvania State College in 1953 and a Certificate in Transportation in railway operations and economics from Yale University in 1958. He began working as a Junior Engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad while in college and interrupted his studies with two years service (1953-1955) in the Railway Battalions of the U.S. Army at Fort Eustis, Virginia, and in Korea.

Watson returned to the Pennsylvania Railroad in June 1958 and rose quickly through the ranks of the Mechanical Department, reaching the post of Master Mechanic at Philadelphia on February 7, 1966. On September 21, he was chosen to fill the new post of Coordinator of the High Speed Demonstration Project, a post he held until January 1, 1972, when he resigned and was succeeded by Edward R. Stickel (1928-2008). Watson was the railroad's chief field administrator in the cooperative project to develop high speed passenger train service between New York and Washington and the point of contact between the railroad company, the government and the contractors.

The project began as a reaction to Japan's first "bullet trains," the 1964 New Tokaido Line between Tokyo and Osaka, and from an initiative of Senator Claiborne Pell (1918-2009) of Rhode Island to improve ground transportation in the Boston-Washington population corridor. President Johnson (1908-1973) included a high speed rail line in his "Great Society" state of the union message in January 1965, and on September 30 he signed the High Speed Ground Transportation Research and Development Act, with an initial appropriation of $90 million and a goal of 160 miles per hour. The act created the Office of High Speed Ground Transportation in the Department of Commerce (DOC), later moved to the Department of Transportation (DOT) when it was created in 1967 and still later subsumed in the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

The Department of Commerce ordered a set of four test cars from the Budd Company, basically electric commuter car shells modified for high speed running and packed with test instruments. The railroad spent additional sums to improve the track, catenary wire, signals and infrastructure for high-speed running. Two tracks of the four-track main line between COUNTY Interlocking south of New Brunswick and MILLHAM Interlocking north of Trenton, a straightaway through sparsely populated territory, were designated as the test tracks. The main focus was on the New York-Washington half of the Northeast Corridor, where the PRR main was completely electrified, had long straight sections, and was already equipped for fast running. The New York-Boston half was then owned by the bankrupt New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company (NH), was only electrified as far east as New Haven, and had long sections of winding track along the shore of Long Island Sound. The NH became the site for a second, lesser demonstration project with a low-center-of-gravity gas turbine train, the TurboTrain of United Aircraft Corporation, that was equipped with tilting devices to permit it to take curves at higher speeds. Watson's only connection with the TurboTrain occurred when it was tried on the PRR test track.

The Northeast Corridor Demonstration Project was to become a textbook example of how not to do things. Unlike high speed rail projects in other countries, which start with entirely new rights of way, the U.S. planned to run high speed passenger trains on existing tracks, whose alignments often dated from the mid-nineteenth century, and which were also used by much slower freight trains and conventional intercity and commuter trains. As speeds increase above 90-100 MPH, a host of issues become ever more critical, including aerodynamic drag, stresses on the rails, trucks and suspension systems, the mounting of the traction motors that power the wheels, braking, maintaining contact between the roof-mounted pantographs and the overhead catenary wire that provides the power, and maintaining sufficient voltage to the cars. U.S. railroads and equipment builders had mastered the art during the first phases of high speed running between the 1890s and 1930s, but as events were to show, had fallen badly behind. Indeed today, high speed passenger rail is almost entirely the domain of foreign firms. The mechanical and electrical systems required for sustained high speed operation proved almost unsurmountable obstacles, a learning curve not unlike that in the U.S. space program in the 1950s and very early 1960s.

It did not help that the project was rushed to meet political and public relations-inspired deadlines or that struggling railroads and passenger car builders were captivated by the prospect of government R&D funding and good press. The four DOC test cars were delivered by Budd and the propulsion contractor, General Electric, and began road testing in the fall of 1966, but experienced numerous problems at speeds over 80 MPH. The instrumentation contractor, Melpar, Inc., was relieved because of tangential connections to the Bobby Baker scandal. Eventually, the test cars were coaxed up to 155 MPH, which was the target for government acceptance, on April 2, 1967. The test cars remained the property of the federal government and were later used as instrumentation beds in a variety of tests around the country. One in which Watson was partly involved was to test the concept of what became Auto-Train, the hauling of passengers in or with their automobiles on the same train as is now done between the DC suburbs and Orlando, Florida.

However, the fifty prototype cars, eventually dubbed Metroliners, were ordered before the test cars had been debugged, with the stated goal of beginning high speed service in October 1967. The Budd Company made the winning bid, with the electrical work shared between General Electric and Westinghouse. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, through the commuter agency SEPTA, ordered an additional eleven cars for a projected Philadelphia-Harrisburg service. As it turned out, most of the work and Budd's in particular, failed to meet the performance specifications, with over 100 specific shortcomings. Watson's role evolved into working with the other companies at the project's base in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, in an ongoing attempt to get enough of the cars working reliably to begin revenue service. SEPTA refused to accept its cars, and leased them to become part of the Metroliner pool. Relations between the PRR and the Budd Company in particular steadily worsened, with Budd eventually sending a corporate vice president to Morrisville on a permanent and antagonistic basis. Railroad officials came to believe that Budd intended to get its cars to the point that they could function long enough for a short term public relations victory and leave the railroad to deal with the long term mess.

Eventually, six Metroliner cars were considered acceptable to begin regular revenue service with one train each way in early January 1969. A reasonably full service was not achieved until mid-1971. Even so, there were numerous equipment failures, and the trains had to carry teams of technicians to monitor their performance and intervene in case of emergencies. The trains never achieved their goal of 160 MPH, rarely running over 125 MPH, and even having their speeds cut to close to conventional train speeds in their first years. However, their new look and airline-style amenities did lead to a resurgence of rail passenger travel in the Corridor that has continued. As more trains entered regular service, Watson spent less time in the field and more at his office in 30th Street Station, but he still had to keep daily watch on minor and major mishaps and the number of cars out of service in the shop.

Before the Metroliners could be put in sufficient shape for revenue service, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company had merged with the New York Central (February 1, 1968) to form the Penn Central Transportation Company, which in turn collapsed in bankruptcy in June 1970. On May 1, 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) assumed the operation of most intercity passenger trains, including the Metroliners, and it assumed full ownership of the Northeast Corridor in 1976. Like many executives after the bankruptcy of the troubled Penn Central, Watson left the company at the end of 1971 with the Metroliners reasonably well-established, and joined the Philadelphia engineering firm of Louis T. Klauder and Associates (LTK). Klauder specialized in transportation engineering and had been the government's chief engineering consultant on the Northeast Corridor Project. As a result, Watson continued to work with the never-fully-debugged Metroliner cars, as well as other commuter rail and high-speed rail projects across the U.S. and in Korea, becoming LTK's Project Manager for all work for the FRA. This included working on an upgrade of some of the Metroliners that improved their performance at the cost of reducing their maximum speed.

LTK's involvement in the Northeast Corridor tapered off during the 1980s. By then, the original Metroliners had been bumped from their Northeast Corridor runs by locomotives of Swedish design hauling cars that are really unpowered Metroliner shells. These were superseded in turn by the next-generation Acela, combined with billions in government-funded infrastructure improvements. The Metroliners were first downgraded to Philadelphia-Harrisburg service, and then either converted to cab control cars for push-pull service on regular trains or scrapped. Watson retired from Klauder, then LTK Engineering Services, at the end of 1998. He continued to write and lecture on his experiences on the High Speed Demonstration Project in a variety of venues.

Watson's own account of his professional life and involvement with the Northeast Corridor Demonstraction Project can be found in the files labelled "talks" and "resumes."


Most files are arranged alphabetically by subject. The Chron file and Notes subseries in Series I. are arranged chronologically.

Scope and Content

Robert B. Watson's professional papers document his close involvement with the Metroliner project and with high speed rail projects generally. Some files contain materials antedating or postdating Watson's active involvement with the project that he collected for reference purposes, both from Penn Central and the Klauder office. Watson continued a close involvement with the Metroliners after leaving Penn Central for Louis T. Klauder and Associates, but worked on other railroad projects after 1972.

The main series consists of Watson's files as Coordinator for the Northeast Corridor Demonstration Project (1966-1971). It also contains copies of files maintained by his successor Edward R. Stickel. This series gives a very detailed account of the project, as Watson struggled to overcome the various technical shortcomings and get a product that would meet its performance specifications. It shows the many disputes, particularly those between the railroad and the Budd Company, and the political pressures to show the flag to members of Congress and entertain VIPs and visiting dignitaries, while at the same time struggling with complex technical problems and equipment that would barely work. Subject files focus on the main problem areas such as braking, suspension, pantographs and the like.

The Chronological file is practically a day-by-day account of the project, although some of Watson's earliest regular reports to headquarters are missing. It documents the exact movements of the test cars as they were modified or taken for tests on other railroads, the gradual improvements in Metroliner performance, and the give and take among the various parties. After the Metroliner cars enter revenue service, they give an account of all in-service failures, accidents, passenger loads, on-time performance, and cars out of service.

The Notes subseries consists of Watson's hand-written notes of daily activities, similar to a desk diary, that were used to produce the more formal typed reports.

The Louis T. Klauder subject files deal with both the Northeast Corridor Demonstration Project, where the firm's involvement antedates that of Watson, and with subsequent high speed rail projects on which Watson worked. These files have been separated from the first series on the basis of bearing Klauder office stamps, but there is considerable overlap. Of special note are documents relating to the Metroliner upgrades, other high speed rail projects, and Watson's membership in the High Speed Rail Association.

The Personal files are those which could not be identified as coming from either of Watson's roles as Coordinator for the Northeast Corridor Demonstration Project or as a member of LTK. They are primarily collected articles and clippings about the Metroliner and TurboTrain, including official Penn Central publicity materials and press kits. There are also texts and associated paperwork for public presentations by Watson detailing his professional experiences and the history of the Metroliner project.

The Reports series contains a wide range of official reports that deal with the Metroliners and other high speed projects and were collected by Watson for reference and historical research purposes. Manuals are operating manuals for the Metroliner cars and their complicated electronics prepared by General Electric and Westinghouse.

Access Restrictions

No restrictions on access; this collection is open for research.

Use Restrictions

Copyright restrictions may apply on some material.

Related Material

Other materials relating to the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company collected by Watson or his father, but not relating to Watson's own professional career:

History of Conway Yard Development (Accession 2373), Manuscripts and Archives Department, Hagley Museum and Library.

Pennsylvania Railroad System locomotive rosters (Accession 2386), Manuscripts and Archives Department, Hagley Museum and Library.

Pennsylvania Railroad motive power studies (Accession 2412), Manuscripts and Archives Department, Hagley Museum and Library.

Robert B. Watson collection of Pennsylvania Railroad Company documents (Accession 2421), Manuscripts and Archives Department, Hagley Museum and Library.

Robert B. Watson collection of railroad photographs (Accession 2010.221), Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initaitves Department, Hagley Museum and Library.

Contains information on the Northeast Corridor/Metroliner project, but primarily from a public relations standpoint:

Pennsylvania Railroad Company records (Accession 1807/1810), Manuscripts and Archives Department, Hagley Museum and Library

Language of Materials


Additional Description

Separated Material

Copies of Speedlines, the newsletter of the High Speed Rail Association, have been transferred to the Published Collections Department and are now available in Hagley Library's online catalog.

Robert B. Watson collection of high speed train images (Accession 2013.224), Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initaitves Department, Hagley Museum and Library.

Related Names


Finding Aid & Administrative Information

Robert B. Watson professional papers
Christopher T. Baer
Description rules:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description:
Script of description:

Repository Details

Repository Details

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

PO Box 3630
Wilmington Delaware 19807 USA