Liner Transatlantic Crossing Times, 1833 – 1952

Liner Transatlantic Crossing Times, 1833 – 1952 (in days)

Note: Liverpool / New York.
Source: data from P.J. Hugill (1993) World Trade since 1431, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, p.128. Stopford, M. (2009) Maritime Economics, Third Edition, London: Routledge.

The passenger liner era roughly lasted for about 100 years, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. Its evolution can be divided into four distinct phases:

  • Introduction. The steamship Great Western can be considered one of the first liners in 1838, crossing the Atlantic in 15.5 days. Early liners were made of wood and used paddle wheels, often complemented by sails, as the main form of propulsion. Their capacity was limited to less than 200 passengers. This phase demonstrated the possibility and market potential of transatlantic liner services.
  • Growth. By the 1860s, the introduction of iron hulls, compound steam engines, and screw propulsion significantly reduced crossing times to about 8-9 days. No longer limited by the technical limits of wood armatures, the size of liners increased substantially, with a tonnage exceeding 5,000 tons and a capacity of 1,500 passengers. The number and frequency of liner services across the Atlantic (and across the world) increased substantially as the market potential was being realized.
  • Maturity. The early 20th century represented the Golden Age of the liner, where those ships dominated long-distance passenger movements. In 1907, the liner Mauretania with a capacity of 2,300 passengers, was able to cross the Atlantic in 4.5 days, a record held for 30 years until the liner Queen Mary reduced the crossing time by half a day (4 days). Liners reached their operational capacity of around 1,500 to 2,000 passengers, and Atlantic crossing times stabilized around 5 days. They relied on quadruple screws using turbine steam engines. This also corresponded to the peak American immigration years from European countries, a process to which liners contributed substantially.
  • Obsolescence. By the 1950s, the prominence of the liner was challenged by the first regular transatlantic commercial flights. This challenge quickly asserted itself, and in a decade, the liners shifted from being the main support of transatlantic passenger movements to complete obsolescence. One of the last liners, the United States (mainly made of aluminum), held the transatlantic crossing speed record of 3.5 days in 1952. By the 1960s, air transportation had overtaken the supremacy of liners for transatlantic crossings, and reference time became hours instead of days. Liner services disappeared, and the surviving ships became the first cruise ships.

The usage of ships for carrying passengers is now restricted to cruise shipping, ferries, and small-scale passenger crafts in archipelago countries (Indonesia, the Philippines, Greece, the Caribbean) or great river systems in developing economies (Chang Jiang, Huang He, Nile, and Amazon).