In the 1870s, with the rail networks fully formed, the managements of the various eastern railroads found themselves in a very competitive market for freight and passengers. Their first thought was to use speed to attract customers— hence, the origin of the “fast freight” lines and through-train limited-stops passenger service.
The gigantic Pennsylvania RR found itself on top of the game for speed. The railroad’s Altoona, PA, shops, run under a succession of talented master mechanics— John Laird, Alexander Cassatt, Isaac Dripps, G. Clinton Gardner, and Frank Thomson— could build the best, fastest, and most modern passenger engines anywhere. So the PRR officials focused on another problem— making long-distance non-stop runs.
Specifically, they wanted a non-stop run of 440 miles from New York to Pittsburgh. The railroad had begun to install track pans to help reduce the number of stops. This was an idea borrowed from English railways— having a mile-long pan of standing water between the rails.
Locomotive tenders were equipped with scoops that could be lowered into the pans as the train passed over, and momentum did the rest. A tender could be refilled in moments.
The only problem with the concept was that the Pennsylvania RR was not a flatland railroad. Those mile-long stretches of level track were few and far between in hilly Pennsylvania.