This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 1 "Good Times and Growing Pains." Find more from that issue here.
The liquid orange sun comes up over the Southern Railway depot in Charleston, SC, and my new friend pauses and watches it glint off row after row of freight cars — tankers, boxcars, lumber cars, even an old square car with sliding house windows that railroad crews once used as a bunk car.
As we walk past the cars, I am shown their finer points: the wheels of this one had been a remarkable innovation when they were invented, as had the double-locking doors of another; the company logo painted on the side of a third is unique. My tour guide looks upon each railroad car as a blessing and a friend. “Jack Radley’s the name,” he had introduced himself. “Fifty years a brakeman for Southern.” His hair is not yet all gray and except when he sees a car that particularly fascinates him, he walks along swiftly. “Better than reading the papers,” he explains. “You can always know how the economy’s doing when there’s a train depot around. Just come out here and see what’s being shipped around. More carloads of chemicals you see. Lumber’s down a little from last week.” He stretches up to look within one car and walks away shaking his head. “Just as many running empty, though.”
The sun is nearly up now, and Radley unzips his windbreaker, thrusts his hands into his jeans. He kicks one of the small stones that lines the rails. “Whole industry’s going to pot,” he grouses.
“Used to be this was a great railroad city. We had the first passenger train in the country of course, The Best Friend of Charleston.’ For years if any freight was going to be shipped by water out of the South, it went out of either Charleston, Savannah or Norfolk, and the railroads got a big chunk of the freight going to the docks. We had almost a dozen passenger trains going through here every day. Why when Union Station was still downtown before it burned in ’48, people would gather in long lines to travel by train. Course that was all we had. But Lord, the ride was good.
“There was class then, the railroads were a classy operation. Now it’s just a business. Nobody feels like they’re serving the public. Most don’t even carry passengers anymore, gave all of that to the government. We’ve lost a lot.”
The old Seaboard Coast passenger station in Charleston is now the Amtrak station. It’s not much inside or out, just a cinder block building across from the Budweiser warehouse. Inside, it features twin gray waiting rooms. Both rooms include the usual two bathrooms, though the signs declaring White and Colored were removed long ago. The station is crowded with passengers this morning waiting for the northbound Palmetto.
A young boy, fat, with his shirt hanging out and a very excited look on his face, rushes into the station. All 25 passengers gather their luggage and pass through the glass doors to the the platform in time to see a Seaboard Coast Line freight rush past with its load of empty cars. The boy looks up in amazement. “It forgot us Mama.”
As the crowd files back into the station, the clerk announces the arrival of the Palmetto and everyone turns around and files back out. No train is in sight.
The people I talk with on the platform look at me incredulously when I ask them why they ride trains instead of cars, buses or planes. “We always have,” says one woman. “The kids don’t scream. And it’s about as cheap as a bus.” She shrugs. “We always have, why not?” She remembers other trips with pleasure — but not because of sumptuous furnishings. She talks of people she met, of friends waiting for her. “I never saw no flowers in the diner,” she said. “Only saw the diner once.”
Soon the Palmetto is spotted coming around the turn and easing into the station. It is six cars long, all painted red, white and blue. The passengers climb aboard, 30 in all, 27 blacks and three whites. “That’s about average,” said a station clerk. “Blacks ride the trains. Period. Any whites that come along are just incidental. We count on black families visiting kin up North, and being visited, to keep this station going. Especially during the summer. Without them it’d be nothing.”
Radley had earlier complained about the Palmetto. “It doesn’t even have a diner,” he said. “Just what they call an Amcafe. That’s a refrigerator and a microwave oven. You can’t run a railroad like that.
“But oh, that new equipment. Coming out of Savannah at 70, 80, 90 miles an hour you can put your coffee down on the seat next to you and never lose a drop, not even when they’re braking. I’ve traveled with my wife and we’ve both looked up in surprise to see that the train was moving. ‘I thought we were still in the station,’ she said. ‘It’s this new equipment,’ I told her. It’s really something.”
Radley rides the trains twice a year. The woman in the Amtrak station rides the Palmetto every month. She has no fantasies about the railroad’s glorious past. She rides trains because they are convenient and cheap, and when they are neither she takes the bus. When Radley talks of trains they sound like poetry rushing past; she makes them sound practical, as if they have a future.
“How Long, Baby, How Long”
Few subjects in the South are as cloaked with personal mythology as are the railroads. Oh, there are a few. Moonshine — there may be more tales of brewing moonshine, running it and hiding out from the law, and then, once clear, shaking up the mason jar to watch the bubbles rise to the wide lid, taking a swallow and convulsing in pleasure. And Eugene Talmadge — there are still plenty of tales about him and other suspender-snapping politicians of his ilk. And maybe a few other subjects. But not many. The railroad is in a class by itself. For decades we looked upon the railroads as a saviour, not the saviour of course, but a secondary deity, and we pinned our hopes and dreams to the trains, invited them into our lives, our music, our folklore. We rode the trains on very special occasions: when we visited kin, when we went away to school, when we went to the city for spring shopping, when we left for a better job, when we left for the war, when we left, when we left.
Or we stayed home, but noted the train’s passing, held onto it as a possible exit if needed, our one link to distant lands. We sat at home and nodded familiarly as it passed on schedule, called out the train’s number and name, and marked time by its whistle. As children, we placed pennies on the track to be smashed and eagerly waved to the men in the cab and caboose. And a friend told me that his father, a preacher, prepared all of his sermons while walking along the railroad tracks near his home in western Kentucky. He only rode the trains once, but weekly returned to that familiar place to step from tie to tie, trusting himself to the rhythm of the tracks while his mind concentrated on other matters. It soothed him.
If our imagination was captured by the tracks alone, those two simple lines, crossed with ties, stretching clear to the horizon, what of the grandeur of the stations? The smaller ones were nothing to inspire dreams, just small clapboard buildings, clean but dull though they opened onto the pounding glory of the trains. But in Charleston, Chattanooga and Atlanta, and other spots throughout the South, stood fairy-tale mansions which echoed with our wonderment, their high-ceilinged rooms with glass windows way above our heads, dirty and streaked with dust but higher than a house, a tree. Cracked leather seats cradled sad-eyed bums, curled up in search of a warm spot to catch a few winks, who would, at the proper time, obligingly raise their feet above the cold marble floors so stern men might pursue cigarette butts with their broom-handled dust pans. At long rows of counters of polished wood and gleaming brass we gathered accordion tickets and headed for wooden platforms protected by overhanging roofs in which birds built their nests. Scattered people waited, some forlornly, their suitcases the least of their burdens, others looking expectantly down the tracks as if anticipating hope and a fresh start.
When the train roared into town we stopped our business and took note. This was especially true when steam engines pulled the cars, before they were replaced by diesels. The first locomotives rushed out of the fields and swamps all glistening black and silver, clouds of steam rising from dozens of unseen valves, bells clanging, conductors shouting, leaving behind a thick trail of smoke to mark their passage. People from far away burst into town on those trains, and rode right out again; men sat atop tons of magnificent machinery, controlling it with powerful tugs and pushes, their massive arms shining in sweat, shouting to each other over the churning of the engine, the rhythmic gasps proclaiming its need to move on. It was mystery and adventure and sexuality and freedom all bolted together; it was power and money, a ticket to pursue your fantasies: everything you’ve ever wanted is out there at the end of the line, climb aboard, climb aboard. For many towns, it was the closest thing to x-rated movies. And at first, it didn’t even matter that only a few could afford it. It was there, that was enough.
“I don’t suppose you’ve ever eaten on a first class diner, have you?” Radley had asked. Well once, I had explained, but the sway of the train shook up the greasy eggs I had eaten and I got sick. He stopped walking to stare at me closely; his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed. “Wasn’t the Southern was it?” I assured him it was not. “Probably the Atlantic Coast, wouldn’t surprise me.” I explained that it was a train from western Michigan to New York City. His eyes swept over the sky. "Oh well,” he said, throwing up his arms.
According to Radley, in the early days when he worked on the Southern, the diners ran with precision and offered incomparably good food, fancy meals on ironed linen tablecloths with polished silver beside a bud vase and a single flower; the waiters rushed about the swaying cars without spilling a drop, coordinating heaping trays of food for large numbers of tables.
Somehow everything worked right. Meals were delicious and served quickly. Beds appeared as if by magic from the walls and ceiling when needed. Shoes left out at night were shined in the morning. Passengers left at the correct stop and their bags were waiting there. “Was a public ever better served by a workforce than railroad passengers?” Radley had asked.
Like Radley, many Southerners have accumulated this massive wealth of nostalgia and misconception in repeated story and anecdote. We have been captured by our own storytelling. But it wasn’t all our own doing. We have had help.
Southern writers gave railroads a place of honor in the Southern landscape right from the first, stuck them right among the dogwoods and magnolias:
“A breeze blew through, hot and then cool, fragrant of the woods and yellow flowers and of the train. The yellow butterflies flew in at any window, out at any other, and outdoors one of them could keep up with the train, which then seemed to be racing with a butterfly.”
So Eudora Welty described the Yazoo-Delta in Delta Wedding. Flannery O’Connor set one of her finest short stories on a train, one of the few places where a rural Southern white boy might be expected to encounter a big city Northern black man, a porter. For Thomas Wolfe, the railroad was a ticket out of Asheville, at once a lonely-toned reminder of isolation and a momentary respite from despair. And uncounted poets have sat by the tracks, in the stations, in their seats and berths, and tried to capture the rhythms of the train.
The railroads became an intimate part of Southern music both because of their omnipresence in Southerners’ lives and because of the personal involvement of Southern musicians with the trains. When Sleepy John Estes arrived in Memphis in the late ’20s to record his music, he came from Brownsville, Tennessee, where he had been a caller on track gangs. Hank Williams’ father was a sometime locomotive engineer, A.P. Carter worked for years on a railroad gang, Peg Leg Sam lost his right leg below the knee hitching a ride on a freight train in Raleigh. Johnny Cash’s father worked on the St. Louis and Southwestern Railroad. Merle Haggard, whose father was a railroad man, was himself born in a converted refrigerator car, near the Southern Pacific yard in Bakersfield, California. And Jimmy Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, was raised by his father, a section foreman for the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad. From the black crews he served as a waterboy, Rodgers learned to play the banjo and guitar, and was introduced to the blues. Before taking up music professionally, he was successively a section foreman, flagman and brakeman. Southern musicians transformed their experiences with the railroads into music and, in so doing, gave us images with a life of their own. Trains promised freedom from lives of bondage or constraint. The Texas inmate, for instance, who heard the prison folklore that a person would be freed if he were bathed in the headlight of a passing locomotive, wrote, “Let the Midnight Special shine its everloving light on me.” Box Brown became a popular symbol when the story of his escape from slavery was spread in song: Brown had taken the image of the Underground Railroad literally, and after building a wooden crate, had himself shipped from Richmond to Philadephia by the Adams Express Company. Even in their personal lives,
Southern musicians looked to trains as a way out. As a popular blues song explained:
When a woman takes the blues
She tucks her head and cries.
But when a man catches the blues
He catches a freight train and rides.
And if the railroad had the promise of escape and freedom, its distant whistle sounded the notes of loneliness. Leroy Carr sang:
I can hear the whistle blowing, but I cannot see no train.
And it’s deep down in my heart, baby, that I have an aching pain.
For how long, how long, baby, how long.
Musicians immortalized railroad heroes like John Henry, the black mountain man who refused to bow down to his mechanized replacement. Other songs describe stock railroad characters: road crews which worked at impossible speeds, women who crawled through ferocious storms to stop the train before it reached the washed-out bridge, little water boys and children saved from a terrible death on the tracks, horsemen who could beat the locomotives, hoboes killed under the wheels or who rode away and were never seen again, mean station masters, daring railroad thieves, and engineers who went down with their cabs:
Then up the road he hurtled,
against the rock he smashed;
The engine it turned over,
poor George’s chest was mashed.
George’s head in the firebox lay;
the flames were rolling high.
“I’m glad I was born for an engineer,
on the C & O road to die.”
So Inviting a Field
We have romanticized the trains and much of what we now so fondly “remember” was born of simple exaggeration. They were indeed a grand means of travel and in some instances still are. They really did contribute a great deal to our history and were justifiably celebrated. But the railroads were also a business, run by some of the most rapacious men in the country. Control of the railroads meant power and the means to even greater power. When the railroad’s futures were planned, passengers were often barely considered, and passenger service, even in the years remembered so nostalgically, was largely an effort by the railroads to gain wide public support. The railroads provided it because the public demanded it and was dependent on the railroads for transportation. But passenger service never produced great profits. It has always been subsidized, until recently by the fortunes the railroads made from hauling freight and from their other business enterprises, and since 1972, by the federal government.
Southern businessmen were among the first in the country to recognize the railroad’s economic potential as a prop for their sagging business fortunes. “The Best Friend of Charleston,” the first locomotive built in America for regular service, was the means by which Charleston merchants sought to end the decline of their port city with its limited river access. Charleston needed something to compete with Savannah’s river transport system, something which could bring merchandise to the ocean from inland textile and lumber mills and take supplies to the growing towns of the piedmont and mountains. For lack of a river, Charleston built a railroad.
“The Best Friend of Charleston,” however, suffered an early demise. From the time of its initial run on Christmas morning in 1830, the train operated regularly for only six months before its fireman grew irritated at the screechy sound pouring from the engine’s safety valve. The train had been stopped to allow the passengers a chance to rest, and the fireman wanted to relax as well. He tied the steam valve open. The sound ceased. The engine exploded.
But “The Best Friend” had already proved to be a popular means of transportation, both for passengers and for local businesses. The train was rebuilt, and renamed “The Phoenix.” The railroad had served its primary purpose by reviving Charleston business and it provided excitement for the people of the Low Country as well. One of the passengers on that first run of “The Best Friend” later wrote that the train “flew on the wings of the wind at the speed of 15 to 25 miles per hour, annihilating time and space and leaving all the world behind.”
But of course there were problems. The explosion of “The Best Friend” had scared away many potential passengers. And the new engine still sent sparks and ashes onto the clothes of the passengers, and made so much noise that conversation was difficult. The railroads responded by placing two cars between the locomative and the passengers. The first was piled high with cotton bales to catch any debris from the engine and to protect the passengers from an explosion. On the second sat a group of black musicians who entertained the passengers as best they could while they bounced along, and provided a bit more buffer space between the white passengers and potential death.
By 1833, the railroad was opened the full length of its 136 miles from Charleston to Hamburg, SC, on the Savannah River. It was now the longest railroad in the world. And over the next few years it also became the first railroad to carry the US mail, the on a flatcar before the locomotive), the first to use wheels that pivoted on sharp curves and allowed the train to increase its speed.
The idea caught on. In 1831, a Virginia coal mine owner paid for the construction of 12 miles of track from his mines to the James River at Richmond. Four years later, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun boasted that “a judicious system of railroads would make Georgia and Carolina the commercial center of the Union.”
And in 1837, a stake was driven at a spot near the Chattahoochie River in central Georgia to mark the proposed junction of the handful of existing city-to-city short lines nearby to make a new unified state system that would extend to Tennessee. Known simply as “the terminus” for the next five years, in 1843 it was named Marthasville in honor of the daughter of ex-Governor Wilson Lumpkin, a friend of the railroads. Two years later, it was renamed Atlanta.
Other cities were also investing heavily in the railroads, including Mobile, Louisville and New Orleans, but Atlanta boasted a more central location and already sat astride the connection of a number of lines. By the late 1850s, though the town itself had only crude wooden sidewalks and a few streets covered with crushed rock, it had invested more than $500,000 in the railroads. As a consequence of such single-minded support, Atlanta quickly became the railroad capital of the South.
The railroads expanded greatly in the years just before the Civil War. In the 1850s, Southern states built over 7,000 miles of track, more than the total built by the rest of the nation during that same period. Track mileage increased by 340 percent in the South and 230 percent in the North. Railroad construction was cheaper in the South for a number of reasons. The South used slave labor, selected lighter and sometimes inferior rail ties, built over the relatively easy terrain of the Southern coastal plains, and maintained fewer cars per mile of road than did the Northern lines. Even so, many millions of dollars were needed to fuel the expansion. Some of the money was invested by wealthy businessmen, but even more was put up by city and state treasuries. The taxpayers of Charleston, for instance, were the main backers of “The Best Friend’s” line, the Charleston and Hamburg Railroad. In addition, before the war, Charlestonians had financed the construction of a quarter of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, most of the South Carolina Railroad, a quarter of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad and had put a million dollars into the Blue Ridge Railroad. Throughout the South the story was the same.
The Civil War was the first war in history in which the railroads played a major role. Because troops and supplies could be rushed wherever needed, over great distances in relatively short amounts of time, the protection of railroad lines was a major concern of both armies. Though the railroads were one of the South’s most important weapons, they remained in the control of only a few individuals. Jefferson Davis early recommended building track to connect the various lines. The Confederate Congress in 1862 appropriated a million dollars to build the 40-mile connection between Danville and Greensboro, and even more to link Meridian, Mississippi, and Selma, Alabama, providing an all-rail route from Vicksburg to Richmond, entirely south and west of the mountains. The railroads, of course, were very grateful for this assistance and granted the Confederacy regular discounts for the duration of the war. The Wilmington and Weldon Railroad made enough money in the first two years of the war to pay a 31 percent dividend in 1863.
As the war dragged on, however, the railroads’ boom soon came to a temporary halt. With few ironworks in the region, damaged track or destroyed cars could not easily be replaced. The cost of nails rose from four cents a pound in 1861 to $4.00 a pound in 1864. In that same period lubricating oil rose from $1.00 to $50.00 a gallon. And when Sherman marched to the sea, his goal was to destroy all the rail service he could reach. He succeeded.
After the war, the cities and states that owned the railroads sold them at bargain rates to Southern investors, who began the massive task of rebuilding. Sherman’s forces had left much of this railbed destroyed, the rails themselves twisted around trees; these were removed, melted down and recast. The United States government, eager to get the railroads going again, supplied equipment. Businesses reestablished themselves; individuals began to travel more. By 1867 most of the ruined roads were repaired, and in the next six years 3,500 miles of new line were constructed on the way back to business as usual.
Immediately after the war a few Northern investors bought Southern lines, but most seemed content to sit back and watch while the lines got back on their feet. The governor of Virginia openly recruited Northern men and money to help the state rebuild her train system. Newspaper publisher James DeBow pleaded: “What the South now needs is capital, and if the immense accumulation of the North could only be diverted in that channel, something like the old days of prosperity would be revived... Will not these rich capitalists pause and consider? Never before was so inviting a field opened.’’
The rich capitalists paused, considered and then moved. In 1871 the Pennsylvania Railroad began to buy up lines, especially in Virginia. The Panic of 1873 brought in even more Northern investors. Even before the Panic was well underway, 34 railroads defaulted on their bond interest. Most Southern railroads went into receivership in the next year, and soon thereafter into the hands of Northern investors. By 1880, Northern interests controlled over half of the total Southern rail mileage. By 1890 the three largest Southern railroad systems — the Louisville and Nashville, the Richmond and Danville, and the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia — were owned outright by Northern investors. Of the six remaining large systems in the region, five were Northern controlled. And by 1900 all of the major Southern railroads were under Northern financial management.
Throughout the nation, a few men were making huge fortunes from the railroads, men like Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould. The South added to the riches of many of these, especially Morgan, who bought the Southern Railway system and helped it grow immensely. Each of the magnates bought dozens of small lines and consolidated them, and the number of railroads — and railroad owners — in the country rapidly dropped. Just as rapidly the owners realized that if they would stop fighting about rates they could all increase profits. From 1882 to 1886 freight rates had dropped by 20 percent as the various lines fought each other for the business. Railroad owners tried to end this by setting up standard rates for their biggest shippers, but found themselves continually undercut by the smaller lines. After four years of expensive rate wars, the large railroads, pleading that too much competition was unhealthy, turned to the federal government for help.
Farmers and some passengers were also demanding federal regulation of the railroads, but for entirely different reasons. While the rates for major shippers dropped, the prices charged to passengers, small businesses and farmers remained high. Farmers were sometimes charged for a ticket to the end of the line, even if they were only going part of the way. And, while larger businesses were granted rebates, small farmers sometimes had to pay as much as a bushel of corn in freight costs for every bushel they shipped.
The government responded to the complaints of both groups and in 1887 passed the first railroad regulation law. The first commissioners decreed that lines could not charge more for intermediate or short hauls than the price for the complete route. But they allowed the railroads to charge far more than the actual percentage of the route traveled, and farmers still felt robbed. The Commission created by this new legislation was weak — it permitted the railroads themselves to establish common rates and only rarely exercised its authority. Though the railroads themselves registered thousands of complaints about illegal rate-cutting in the decade that followed, the Commission heard only 180 cases from 1890 to 1900.
In 1891 one railroad executive, Aldace Walker, explained, “The term ‘free competition’ sounds well as a universal regulator, but it regulates by the knife. Unless the weapon in turn itself is held in check, it is too dangerous an agency to be endured.” The government eventually agreed with the railroads and in 1902 passed a stiffer law, the Elkins Act. This act, which set up the Interstate Commerce Commission, no longer even pretended to meet the needs of farmers and small business interests. It gave the commissioners the power to enforce their decrees and to penalize “over-competitive” lines. Some railroads had been giving up about 10 percent of their gross revenues in illegal rebates. The Elkins Act ended that, and forced all railroads to charge common rates under ICC regulation. Between 1900 and 1905, railroad income rose for the first time in many years, both in freight revenue per ton-mile and in revenue per ton. Dividends nearly doubled.
Railroads became one of the major sources of wealth in the country. Profits from handling freight were high already, and the companies came to own millions of acres of land, at no cost. The companies had complained to the government in the 1860s that they could not take on the task of building transcontinental lines without an added incentive. Congress gave the railroads title to all of the land surrounding their tracks, so that they might sell it and use the profits to finance construction costs. The railroads, however, held onto their land. Eventually minerals were found beneath much of the land. Cities expanded and the vast land holdings were sold at high prices. The railroads grew even richer.
In 1913, 35 Eastern railroads applied to the Commission for a general rate increase of five percent. Hearings were held and some increases were granted, though not the full five percent requested. However, as historian Gabriel Kolko writes, “For the first time the Commission made explicit its doctrine that the railroads had to receive a ‘living wage,’ in Commissioner James S. Harlan’s phrase, if they were to attract investment and function profitably. The Commission made explicit what had been an operational reality for many years: the ICC was to protect the railroads in their function of making profits for individual capitalists so long as the railroads provided their services to the public on reasonably minimal standards of equality.”
The onset of World War I brought even greater consolidation of the railroads by a government seeking an efficient rail system to serve the nation’s wartime needs. Between 1916 and 1920, freight revenue rose by 50 percent.
Yet railroads still were faced with the fact that passenger service, though extremely popular, was not profitable. Only freight made money, and rail executives tried to lose as little on their passenger division as possible and still provide enough services to keep the good will of the public.
After WWI, the American people quickly became fascinated with air travel and private cars, and the nation’s love affair with the railroads was suddenly over. The private lines were more than willing to forfeit a money-losing operation and in the 70s asked the federal government to take over passenger rail services. Citing the steady decrease in passengers and declining revenue in the last two decades, management claimed that if the government did not take over the passenger business, the railroads would go bankrupt. Some in fact did go bankrupt, notably the massive and mismanaged Penn Central. To upgrade passenger service would have demanded a huge infusion of money, money that the railroads had but didn’t want to invest in passengers. Rather than order the railroads to build up their own services, the government agreed to take over the passenger business. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) was established in 1972, leasing much of its equipment and personnel from private rail lines and running over their rapidly deteriorating roadbeds.
Other Than Romantic Notions
Since the establishment of Amtrak, the number of passenger trains in the country has been cut drastically, though the actual quality of service has improved somewhat. Charleston, SC, for instance, had been served by five trains daily heading north and south in the mid-’60s; when Amtrak took over, the number of trains dropped to two in each direction. Throughout the region, Amtrak trains only run up and down the east coast, east and west through the middle of southern Georgia. The Southern Railway refused to join Amtrak, and operates passenger trains from New York south to Charlotte, Atlanta and on to New Orleans. That’s all that’s left of our passenger trains. People now find it impossible to travel through much of the South by train. No line takes passengers through western North Carolina or eastern Tennessee, the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Jacksonville, or the entire state of West Virginia. And many large cities like Asheville, Wilmington, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Pine Bluff and Fayetteville are not served at all.
The moribund state of passenger service became most apparent on January 15, 1977, when the Southern regional division of the National Association of Railway Passengers, the nation’s leading consumer group for train riders, met in Atlanta. Only 37 of the 375 members actually showed up to discuss the need for improved passenger rail service, and most of them had to travel by plane. From my home in Charleston, I would have had to go by way of Alexandria, Virginia, in order to reach Atlanta by train. If I had made a 15-minute connection (unlikely, since the first train is usually an hour late), the trip would have taken almost 21 hours to cover 289 miles at a cost of $78. Missing that connection would have meant an additional 11- hour lay-over. Delta offers eight flights daily between the two cities, and charges $42; some nonstop flights take less than an hour. Trailways provides three buses from Charleston to Atlanta daily, and covers the distance in 12 hours for $22.30. By car, the drive can be completed in less than seven hours.
Now freed of the burden of carrying passengers, Southern railroads have been able to concentrate on serving Southern industry. It is a job with which they had had particular success in the past. The three major lines now serving the South are all ranked in the top 17 transportation companies in the nation. The Seaboard Coast Line and Norfolk and Western both had operating revenues of well over a billion dollars in 1975; Southern Railway had $879 million. By 1976, Southern’s annual revenues had also topped the billion dollar mark. The three are among the nation’s 10 largest transportation companies in assets and among the top 11 in net income.
That they might serve industries throughout the region, all three have placed representatives of key elements of the Southern economy on their boards of directors, as well as others from the media, local Southern political circles and national banking groups which have major input into the business picture of the South.
Not content with the present revenues, the railroads have all begun massive programs to lure new industries to their routes from other regions throughout the country. As a result of successful recruiting, Southern takes in an additional $18 million each year just from the new industry now located on its lines. Seaboard Coast has been equally successful in their efforts, and the Norfolk and Western figures are not far behind.
We’ve still got our trains and probably always will, but our relationship to them has changed. For the first time in years, the number of passengers riding trains is increasing. We have discovered that only the bicycle is a cleaner vehicle than the train, whose fuel mileage is 12 times that of the automobile and 15 times that of airplanes. And travel by rail is much safer than any other means of transportation. We realize now that railroads need consume no new land; every year we spend millions on new highways, parking lots and airports, yet we have already built more miles of track than we can possibly use. If the country is serious about mass transit, an extensive, well-advertised, highspeed train system is crucial. In short, passenger trains can be supported for other than romantic notions.
The railroads themselves, however, the private lines, really haven’t changed that much. Founded for profit, they have certainly fulfilled their purpose. And in the process they have, over the past century, taken more and more from the government and the people of this country. The railroads received tax breaks, protective legislation and free land; in exchange they transferred the responsibility for passenger rail service to the federal government while they strengthened their hold on the lucrative freight business. Not exactly an equal trade. Today this lopsided arrangement is exemplified by the relationship between the federal government and ConRail.
In 1976 Congress took over six bankrupt lines to establish ConRail, now the largest railroad line in the country, with 17,000 miles of track in 16 Northern states. Like Amtrak, ConRail was funded by the government in an effort to prop up the nation’s railroads. Unlike Amtrak, however, ConRail is not a semi-private corporation, but a wholly private business which proudly advertises that it is “in business to make a profit.” As one ad explains, “Don’t confuse us with Amtrak — a Government subsidized company responsible for intercity passenger service. ConRail is a forprofit company — primarily a freight railroad.” Congress, then, has set up a private railroad and bankrolled it with $2.1 billion to haul freight, traditionally the railroad’s most profitable business activity.
For years we bestowed federal money and gifts on the railroads with little reluctance. We received fresh linen in the diners and berths and a low haunting whistle that blew in the distance. And we were satisfied.
Now, however, we have been freed of the private lines’ hold on us and on our imaginations. At last we can be critical. The railroads in the South have made it clear that as businesses, they can still make large profits. They don’t need our unending assistance. After everything American railroads have been given in the past century, after we have allowed them to give up their passenger service, if they cannot succeed financially, then it’s time to consider nationalization. Michigan recently took over the entire Ann Arbor Railroad and parts of other lines in the state. That’s one option. Other states could look into the possibility of running those lines that the private railroads are rapidly abandoning. And when the federal government is called upon to bail out the railroads again, we should look beyond ConRail-type systems to other alternatives. The federal government has recognized the need for rail transportation, and has provided funds for that purpose in the establishment of ConRail. Yet control of the line remains in the hands of a few wealthy men.
Recently a friend told me about the last time a steam engine puffed through his hometown of Covington, Virginia. His father, who regularly went out to watch the trains pass, returned to the house with tears in his eyes. My friend said it was the only time he ever saw his father cry. He knew things would never be the same again. He was right.
But today we have no reason to weep for the railroads. We have only to turn our appreciation for the railroads’ rich past into a program for the future.
Stephen Hoffius is a free-lance writer in Charleston, South Carolina. For a year he edited the state newsletter of the Palmetto Alliance. (1984)
Steve Hoffius is a free-lance writer in Charleston, and a frequent contributor to Southern Exposure. (1979)
Steve Hoffius is a Charleston, SC, bookseller and free-lance writer. (1977)
Steve Hoffius, now living in Durham, N.C., co-edited Carologue: access to north carolina and is on the staff of Southern Voices. (1975)