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UB faculty member publishes the first comprehensive history of the Northeast Corridor

MBTA 1101 on the Northeast Corridor in June 1982.

MBTA 1101 on the Northeast Corridor — probably in Sharon, Mass., — in June 1982. Photo: Roger Puta


Published March 14, 2024

David Alff.
“The tracks tell us how the region came to be what it is. ”
David Alff, associate professor
Department of English

UB faculty member David Alff opens a copy of his new book, “The Northeast Corridor: The Trains, the History, the People, the Region,” to a photo of the Trenton Transit Center, the corridor’s southernmost stop in New Jersey.

Describing the scene — and its improbable confluence of history, technology and humanity that stretches across three different centuries — Alff speaks with an enthusiasm that might be enough to power the standing train in the still image right off the page. He starts onto a journey along the right-of-way drawn through a wilderness that became the turnpikes that were eventually laid over with gravel and converted into horse trams that would later emerge as steam, diesel and electric railroads.

Cover art for David Alff's new book, "The Northeast Corridor.".

There are contemporary engines in the photo, electrified by lines strung on poles placed as part of a New Deal public works project. Passengers of today watch the lights change on an ancient signaling system that has been adapted for modern use.

“The corridor is a collection of overlapping technology that can seem ultra-modern one second then appear like a ramshackle Smithsonian installation the next,” says Alff, associate professor of English, College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s both of those things at once.”

Alff’s book, to be published by the University of Chicago Press on April 9, is the first comprehensive biography of the Northeast Corridor, the busiest and most important passenger rail line in the Western Hemisphere, carrying more than 800,000 riders daily while connecting Boston to Washington, D.C., via Providence, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

But his treatment of the corridor is also an exploration of a cultural idea.

The Northeast Corridor is a regional geography, like the Rust Belt, the Deep South or Silicon Valley. Alff says “people do not simply ride the corridor, but live there, too” and his book brings readers along the rails and through the region that coalesced, developed and served as a background for sociological shifting events: Frederick Douglass escaped from enslavement in Baltimore on a train whose right-of-way would become the Northeast Corridor; the first bloodshed of the Civil War was spilled in a gap that also became the corridor; Abraham Lincoln rode the corridor in disguise with a fabricated itinerary following his first election as a precaution against secessionist violence; Levittown, Pennsylvania, the largest residential housing development in the country, formed beside the tracks; and Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train traveled the corridor from Penn Station to Washington.

“It’s hard to imagine what the Northeast would look like without the corridor, not only because of the way in which the railroad braids through the cities, but how its development and continued presence has affected history and continues to influence the present,” says Alff. “The tracks tell us how the region came to be what it is.”

The corridor is a fascinating historical object worthy of deep attention, and Alff explains how the trains influenced industry, expansion, metropolitan and suburban growth, and downtown decline and revitalization.

Alff has written prolifically on 17th and 18th century infrastructure. His first book — “The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660-1730” — investigated incomplete efforts to advance British society. But Alff’s motivation for “The Northeast Corridor” emerged from the isolation brought on during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world retreated into itself, he felt a need to connect with people beyond his academic focus and to write a book that made a specific argument while at the same time articulating the experiences inspired by its subject at a time when the opportunity for those experiences was lacking.

“I wanted to convey the experience of living around the railroad and the region it defined,” he says. “It’s this collage of sights, sounds and smells that I tried to share, while making an argument about the need to value and maintain old infrastructure.”

Amtrak, which originated as a government salvage project when private railroads were giving up on passenger trains, is one of the flawed protagonists in the book.

“Amtrak, along with a host of state and municipal transit authorities, kept the trains running until new generations of commuters started demanding them again,” he says. “Transit infrastructure is irreplaceable.

“There’s a vital inheritance in the Northeast Corridor and we have to do everything possible to hold on to it and better understand the places it makes.”