HOUSTON STREETCAR HISTORY PAGES
Houston, for a brief period, had a commuter train. Although it had nothing to do with the local streetcar system, it is an interesting facet of local transportation history so we are including it on this site. The basic outline is simple enough: a passenger train ran between downtown Houston and an outlying shipyard at Irish Bend during World War II. Little else has been written about it, but thanks to a recently-discovered 1945 report entitled "The Shuttle Train's Contribution to the War Effort," perhaps one of the only copies in existence, we now know quite a bit more about the operation.
Todd Houston Shipbuilding Corp. (originally Houston Shipbuilding Corp.) was one of the emergency shipyards created in 1941 by the United States Maritime Commission. Its task was to build Liberty ships on a fast schedule. The yard had six ways, soon increased to nine, and cost some $14 million to construct. The first keel was laid on July 1941 while the yard was still under construction; this ship, named the Sam Houston, was delivered in May 1942 and was lost to a torpedo in the Pacific later that year. By 1944 the yard was completing ships in well under two months. When the ship-building contract ended in 1945, Todd Houston had completed a total of 208 Liberty ships.
At its peak, Todd Houston employed as many as 23,000 people, working around the clock in up to three shifts. The yard was located a significant distance east of the city on the south bank of the Houston Ship Channel (also known by its traditional name of Buffalo Bayou), near the outlying community of Pasadena. Because of the distance, it was felt that transportation should be provided in order to have a reliable means of getting employees to the yard on time, as well as to discourage them from using private cars, thereby saving gasoline and rubber. Thus was born the "Shuttle Train," as it was locally known.
The train was authorized by the Maritime Commission with Todd Houston Shipbuilding serving as agent in charge of the operation. It was decided to run the service from the old International & Great Northern passenger station near downtown Houston, which had stood virtually unused since the 1920s. The route then followed the Galveston, Houston & Henderson tracks to Harrisburg, where a new connection enabled the train to pass onto the rails of the Southern Pacific Railroad, thence to Kay Junction near Pasadena. Here the train turned north onto tracks owned by the Port Terminal Railway and the Maritime Commission, finally reaching a boarding platform adjacent to the shipyard. Total length of the route was 13.3 miles. Intermediate passenger stops were provided at 67th Street (Wayside Drive), Harrisburg and Pasadena.
Not only did the trackage require the cooperation of several railroad companies, but so did the train itself. Steam locomotives and operating crews were provided jointly by the Missouri Pacific and the Southern Pacific under contract. The Shuttle Train was apparently popular with the railroad men, and it was said that the run attracted the crews with the highest seniority. As for the rolling stock, recently retired electric multiple unit coaches from the New York, Westchester & Boston suburban service were acquired by the Maritime Commission and refurbished. These heavy all-steel "Stillwell" coaches, with distinctive arched windows, had been retired when the line ceased operations in 1939. Pantographs and electrical equipment were removed. The report noted that "the seats were of the reversible type, upholstered in leather, with high backs, so passengers had the benefit of a superior type of equipment for this class of service." Train lengths varied to meet demand, and ranged from five to 12 coaches.
The first train operated on Feb. 1, 1943, and the final run was on May 31, 1945. Trains were timed to coincide with shifts at the yard, with arrivals coming 20 minutes before each shift was to start. The journey took 40 minutes, and the report claimed that a 99 percent on-time rate was achieved, an important matter considering the vital nature of the work that was being done at the shipyard. During the 28 months of operation approximately 4,400 trips were operated, with a total of 1.8 million passengers carried. The highest number of passengers handled on a single train was 1,162, on the train arriving at the shipyard at 6:40 a.m. on Aug. 18, 1944.
The Shuttle Train was not classified as a common carrier, and only employees of Todd Houston were authorized to ride. Fares were kept intentionally low - 25 cents per trip, with a weekly pass selling for $2.25. According to the report, "Later, the Perey turnstile system was inaugurated, which proved more satisfactory to both the passengers and management. With their installation, the weekly pass was discontinued, and packages of twelve tokens were sold for $2.10, or 17-1/2 cents per ride, with the added advantage that the tokens were good until used instead of within a specified time as with the weekly pass, and this proved a most popular and attractive feature."
It is interesting to note that the design of the token used on the shuttle train is virtually identical to one used in Los Angeles during the same period, with the exception of relevant geographical wording. The CalShip yard at Terminal Island was authorized at the same time as the Houston yard, and its railway (operated by the Pacific Electric), started just a month and a half after the Houston Shuttle Train began. Both shipyard railways had a similar lifespan and provided an essential wartime service; the most notable difference was that the Los Angeles operation was electric, while the Houston train was steam-hauled.
The Shuttle Train report concluded by stating "the operation has been fully justified from every war effort viewpoint - safety and protection in transportation to the worker, elimination of loss of man hours at the Yard due to dependable performance, saving in gasoline and tires so vitally needed elsewhere, and relief to highway congestion in a heavy traffic area."
A few words about the name "Irish Bend Island" as stated on the token: Irish Bend was one of the several sharp turns on Buffalo Bayou, which increasingly became a problem as ships grew longer and freight tonnage increased. In the first decade of the 20th century, during one of the periodic projects to deepen and straighten the Houston Ship Channel, a cutoff channel was dredged and Irish Bend actually became a tiny, uninhabited island. With the construction of the shipyard in 1941, most of the original channel was filled in and Irish Bend again was connected to the mainland (although now was attached to the south, rather than the north, bank of Buffalo Bayou). However, the "Irish Bend Island" name stuck around in popular parlance for several years and thus it appears on the token, even though it was no longer an island at the time.
The photo at the top of this page is believed by the author to be the only known photograph of the Houston "Shuttle Train."This article © Steven M. Baron, 2009. Please do not reprint without permission.
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This page last updated 11/25/09