Still a Good Place to Watch Trains

Posted by George Hamlin
on Thursday, February 1, 2018

TRAINS readers having considerable seniority in their relationship with the magazine may recall the evocative double-page spread that appeared on pages 16 and 17 in the June 1963 issue.  Titled simply “Train-watching in Selma, N.C.”, it combined the classic prose of the then-editor, David P. Morgan, with a pair of wonderful black & white photos by well-known photographer J. Parker Lamb.  To take a look, click on the link below:

7762.Train-watching in Selma N.C.-TRAINS June 1963.pdf

Neither of the photos was of the three-quarters/wedge shot genre; the second, in fact, had a relatively daring viewpoint: it was shot from rail/ballast level underneath one of the cars on the Atlantic Coast Line’s northbound Everglades.  While they weren’t particularly rare in the early 1960s, the presence of a pre-World War II slant-nosed E unit and an RS-3 evoke strong, and favorable, reactions when viewed from the perspective of the twenty-first century.  A boy on a bicycle appeared in both photos, hence the reference to train-watching.

While the ACL termed itself the “Standard Railroad of the South”, in at least one respect it was somewhat peculiar, in that it tended to keep its best public face out of sight in its home territory.  Its prime passenger trains, in particular the Champions, were little seen in daylight hours on the ACL’s Richmond-Jacksonville main line (Florida, however, was another story, although the East Coast Champion south of Jacksonville was on another railroad – the FEC).  Even some of the “lesser lights”, such as the Havana Special and the Palmetto didn’t frequent the Coast Line’s north end in lighting conditions conducive to making photos sans flash equipment, or time exposures.

The single exception to this was the Everglades, in both directions.  As of the 1962 Spring timetable, the southbound, number 375, departed Richmond at 1:55 P.M., and arrived Florence, South Carolina, at 8:05 P.M., providing essentially two divisions worth of photo ops with decent lighting, assuming the sun was visible.  Number 376, its northbound counterpart, left Florence at 7:30 A.M. and arrived Richmond at 4: 40 in the afternoon.  I suspect that this train's schedule played a role in Parker Lamb’s visit to Selma.

There certainly is a tendency to view these photos, after the passage of more than fifty years, with some envy, as well as a suspicion, along the lines of “everything was better in the old days” that there isn't much worth seeing now.

A visit in 2016 revealed that this is not necessarily the case.  It’s still possible to see passenger trains stopping at Selma in both directions during the middle of the day, but Amtrak now utilizes the Palmetto name for this service.  The station facility is open, and is a pleasant place to pause if you’re traveling, or awaiting the arrival of visitors.  Yes, Amtrak’s P42 Genesis locomotives have replaced E units, and the likelihood of seeing an Alco of any sort on what’s now the Norfolk Southern is essentially zero, although NS Heritage units have been seen on this time occasionally.


On the other hand, some things have actually improved.  Now, there is a second daytime passenger train to photograph, the Carolinian, although it uses a connecting track to the west of the station building rather than passing through the location utilized by Parker Lamb.  While the equipment on both trains is standard (and considered boring by many) Amtrak power and Amfleet coaches, there have been subtle improvements from a passenger perspective.

The Everglades in 1962 would not have been considered a prime passenger run; mail and express was its forte.  It offered coach service, in generally older equipment (it’s not likely that ACL’s purple-letterboard stainless cars appeared regularly on this train); “amenities” consisted of sandwich/beverage service between Richmond and Washington, DC (on the RF&P), with a café-lounge between Richmond and Florence only in the southbound direction.

Both today’s Palmetto and Carolinian offer a business class service, in addition to coach, and while Amfleet 1 Café cars aren’t famous for their cuisine, “sandwiches, snacks and beverages” are now available throughout the journey for passengers on these trains. 

And, as seen here, train-watchers are still extant in Selma, although no bicycles were noted.  Hopefully, they will continue to have cause to visit this location five decades from now.

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