Mainline and Main Street

Posted by George Hamlin
on Wednesday, April 17, 2019

In times past, railroads were a very integral part of life in much of the United States.  When people traveled, particularly for longer distances, they took the train.  Mail was sent and received using the railroad system; for larger shipments, there also was the once-ubiquitous Railway Express.  Freight of all kinds arrived in towns and cities as a part of the production-to-user distribution cycle, often in individual carloads, or even the predecessor of today’s LTL (less than truckload lot), LCL (less than carload lot).  Dating back to the days when horsepower, in the flesh, was the power for local pickups and deliveries, so-called “Team” tracks were common, so that recipients could obtain their inbound shipments and carry them away.

The railroads of these prior times were generally more visible in the everyday life of all but the largest cities.  Passenger stations were in place almost everywhere, and well-utilized.  Branch lines served many small, and sometimes remote, communities, with both passenger and freight service.  Before the onslaught of rubber-tired highway transportation removed many of the smaller shipments from the rail network, there were both more railroads, and more trackage present in villages, towns and cities than now; the thought that the New York Central’s westside freight line in Manhattan would become a recreational facility (today’s High Line) was beyond comprehension.

Today, however, things have changed materially, on both the reality and visual fronts. Not only doesn’t the milk train stop in the small town; due to changes in both the dairy and transportation industries, it doesn’t go to New York City, either, since it no longer operates at all.  Manhattan, for that matter, doesn’t have a freight yard; the Illinois Central’s Congress Yard in downtown Chicago is gone, also.  With the post-World War II proliferation of suburbs, many baby boomers (who also proliferated) had little chance to even see an active railroad line regularly, with the possible exception of those with commuter service, in a relatively small number of places.

In fact, much of the intercity freight traffic on both the rails and highways has little interaction with their ultimate customers in the vicinity of their domiciles.  As we’ve discussed, the overall rail footprint in many urban areas has shrunk considerably in recent years, and most intercity trucking is on limited access highways, both in metropolitan areas and even in the countryside.

However, there still is at least visible evidence of goods in transit in many small towns throughout the country.  I’ll offer this exhibit of Norfolk Southern intermodal train 203 crossing Main Street in Orange, Virginia on April 13, 2019.  This priority intermodal from Harrisburg/Rutherford, Pennsylvania to Atlanta is, like most current domestic intermodal services, primarily a means for carrying double-stacked containers, but, as can be seen here, some traffic continues to utilize the “TOFC”, or trailer on flat car, means of conveyance.

NS train 203 is operating on the former Southern Railway’s Washington, DC-Atlanta main line, at least south of Manassas, Virginia.  The Railway Express Agency is gone, but at least part of its mission is carried on by United Parcel Service, whose trailers we view here, slowing for the 30 mph curve just south of the station, which is seen at the left.

While, to the best of my knowledge, there are no active freight customers on the NS in Orange, with the possible exception of a plant producing wooden railroad ties on the former C&O, now Buckingham Branch Railroad, line between Orange and Gordonsville, Virginia, trade and commerce, railroad-style, is still very much apparent in the county seat of Orange County.  Main Street here has a front-row seat to an active main line, served with a side of a little railroad history, provided by Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, as well.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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