Not in the Public Timetable

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, December 15, 2019

While I made a number of trips to Monroe, Virginia, the Southern Railway’s division-point yard north of Lynchburg, during my college years, the dismal-looking afternoon of January 23, 1969 was the only time that I either saw or photographed this train, number 21.  It and northbound counterpart 22 were the mail-and-express runs on the Washington-Atlanta main line, with 21 departing Washington, DC’s Union station in the early afternoon, while 22 left Monroe early in the morning and arrived in the nation’s capital city prior to noon.

Given the premium placed on “sleeping in” when possible by most college students, a trip specifically to see 22 at Monroe just wasn’t in the offing, especially because it was about an hour’s drive away.  I did view it once, from parallel U.S. 29 while nearing Lynchburg on an overnight bus ride aboard a Trailways “Silver Eagle” from New York City, and noted the F unit in the lead.

Information about the schedules of these trains wasn’t easy to come by, since they didn’t appear in the public timetable, and I didn’t acquire any Southern Employee timetables until years later.  My railfan friends and I did pick up bits and pieces of information about them, however, including the fact that they typically had multiple EMD F units for power.  We certainly weren’t disappointed when this proved to be true, with four F3s (all A units) trailed by a single F7.

Lead unit SOU 4129 was part of the Southern’s first group of post-World War II EMD freight cab units: F3s 4128 to 4206, delivered between 1946 and 1949.  It’s apparent that the 4129 is equipped with a steam generator, allowing its use on runs using passenger equipment.  It also sports air reservoirs on the roof, allowing for a larger capacity water tank (for the train-heating boiler) that allowed greater distances to be covered prior to replenishment.

Monroe and a mail/express train are part of both the Southern’s history and popular folklore, specifically the ballad, “The Wreck of the Old 97”, based on the actual wreck of Southern’s Fast Mail at the Stillhouse trestle in Danville, Virginia on September 27, 1903.  The song included the memorable lyrics about 97’s engineer, “Steve” Broady, who was “handed his orders in Monroe, Virginia,” with the admonition that he needed to “put her into Spencer [North Carolina; the other end of the division] on time,” even though the train was an hour late when Broady took over from the crew that had brought the train south from Washington.

Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the Fast Mail was scheduled for 4 hours and 15 minutes between Monroe and Spencer, for an average of about 39 miles per hour.  According to Time Table No. 98 of Southern’s Danville-Washington-Richmond Division, effective June 26, 1966, 21 was given 4 hours 55 minutes to cover the same territory.  However, after subtracting station dwell times at Lynchburg (10 minutes); Danville (10 minutes); and Greensboro (40 minutes); actual running time for this district was 3 hours and 55 minutes (for an average of 42.4 miles per hour), not a particularly dramatic increase in overall speed in the intervening 63 years.  By comparison, SOU 47, the Southerner, accomplished the same trip in 3 hours and 18 minutes in 1966, averaging 50.3 mph.

A point of interest on the cover of Time Table 98: it lists H. H. Hall, likely Harold H. Hall, the final President of the Southern, and the initial President and COO of the Norfolk Southern at its formation in 1982, as the General Manager of the Division as of June 1966.

Returning to January 23 1969, it looks like SOU 21 is lined up facing a “high green” signal at Monroe at the time of my photo, although no urgency was noted during its stay at Monroe.  We’ll assume it had an uneventful journey to Spencer, and beyond.  It certainly was nice to observe, however, and to see, and photograph the veteran F3 leading the way.

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