The American Short Line Mystique
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Among the pioneers of American railroad journalism, few writers stood more accomplished that Lucius Morris Beebe (1902-1966). Beginning in 1938 with High Iron, Beebe would pen more than 20 railroad books, among them classics such as 20th Century and The Trains We Rode (in two volumes). But quite arguably, Beebe’s most evocative single work was a book published in 1947 – Mixed Train Daily.
Beebe’s Mixed Train Daily was subtitled “A Book of Short-Line Railroads.” It was that, and it was very much more, because in the 368 pages that rested between its hard covers, the book captured all the unique appeal and undeniable mystique that was – and is – American short line railroading.
Mississippi’s Columbus & Greenville dated to the late 1870s, was folded into Illinois Central Gulf in 1972 and miraculously regained its independence in 1975. The railroad was long noted for its fleet of rare Baldwin diesel road-switchers, such as C&G 606 crossing a spindly trestle near Maben, Mississippi in 1976. Today C&G is owned by Genesee & Wyoming. Photo by Gary W. Dolzall.
The title “Mixed Train Daily” referenced what, in the steam era, was a short line penchant to haul some freight and, in the same consist, tag on a coach or combine to carry a passenger or two that might be looking to go somewhere. The steam-powered, mid-20th century brand of short-line railroading as captured by Beebe, with a diminutive 2-8-0 or the like bobbing along a rural landscape over very uncertain track with a short mixed consist trailing along behind, is largely lost to history, but the American short line and much of its charisma remains very much alive and well.
What is a short line? To some degree, take your choice of definition. If one uses the traditional Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) definition, it equates to a “Class III” carrier with less than $20 million in annual revenues. The American Association of Railroads (AAR) squeezes short lines into a category below “regionals” (and it defines a regional as operating 350 miles or more or generating $40 million in annual revenue).
The Housatonic Railroad was created in 1983 and today operates over more than 150 miles of ex-New Haven Railroad trackage, primary in western Connecticut and Massachusetts. Second-hand EMD GP35s, such as 3603 leading a southbound freight through Housatonic, Massachusetts, are the workhorses of the railroad. Photo by Gary W. Dolzall.
I suspect either of those definitions would bring only a frown to author Beebe. I suspect he would argue – as indeed his Mixed Train Daily so well demonstrated – that a short line is as much about spirit and its unfailing attraction to a train-watcher’s heart and mind as it is about route miles or revenue or tonnage statistics. To some degree, the shorter, the more tenuous, and the more remote a short line, often all the more entrancing it is to the train-watcher (if not to its owners and accountants).
Short lines often endure for decades; alas, many others, reliant upon one or two shippers, do not. But happily, from the unwanted branch lines of big rail carriers, new short lines are regularly born. So, by any definition you choose, there are several hundred railroad short lines operating in the United States today. As often as not, those short lines, present and past, have had names that are as memorable as the railroads themselves – the Apache Railroad in Arizona, the McCloud Railway in northern California, Florida’s Apalachicola Northern, Illinois’ Bloomer Line, Pennsylvania’s Shamokin Valley, Kentucky’s Cadiz Railroad, New England’s Housatonic Railroad, and Vermont’s Green Mountain Railroad are just a few such examples.
The Green Mountain Railway was created in 1964 to operate the 52-mile Bellow Falls (Vermont) line of the Rutland Railway after the Rutland ceased operations. Today, the Green Mountain’s roster is mostly made up of EMD road-switchers, but Alco RS-1 405 – which in fact once served the Rutland – remains on hand, often handling passenger excursions. Photo by Gary W. Dolzall.
For the train-watcher, the appeal of a short line takes many forms – certainly a short line is easier to grasp and understand than a Class I giant that measures it routes miles in the tens-of-thousands and its locomotives in the hundreds. Short lines are, if you will, easy to befriend and, often as not, are friendly in return. Spend time along a short line and you will likely become known to the engineer and brakeman – and perhaps even the company president – on a first-name basis. And if it is true that everyone loves an underdog, then short lines often call to the heart in that manner, too, what with their occasionally uncertain right-of-way and car loadings that may on some days be counted on the fingers of one hand. But one needs be careful not to overly generalize, for there are also short lines that may be limited in mileage, but most certainly are not small in the urgent way they operate or in the heavy tonnage they haul.
Most assuredly, whether in the days of Beebe’s Mixed Train Daily, when the trackside experience might have been that of a half-century-old tea-kettle of an 0-6-0 wandering through Georgia’s pine forests, or today, where on any number of short lines from Massachusetts to California one can discover vintage diesels still hard at toil and earning their keep, short lines have and do represent for the train-watcher a window to witness past generations of motive power.
In the scenario “Mixed Train Daily” available at Steam Workshop, Train Simulator’s Ohio Steel 2 route and AT&N 2-8-0 provide a fine setting – and ideal motive power – to experience classic, steam-era American short line railroading.
In Train Simulator 2014, the American short line experience, past or present, awaits you. Certainly, if you are interested in trying your hand for a first time at building your own route, a short line provides an opportunity to undertake and complete a manageable and not overly complex first project – but one that, nonetheless, will provide hours of enjoyment when completed. Or portions of any number of RSC routes, the southern end of Ohio Steel 2, for example, or the Raquette Lake Railway created by Vern Moorhouse and available free at Steam Workshop, can easily be staged to re-create short-line style railroading. Motive power? DLC such as the GP9 or SW1500 pack are ideal, and the Smokebox AT&N Consolidation is just begging to be put to work on a short line!
In honor of Lucius Beebe and his timeless homage to the American short line, Elphaba’s Workshop has created a scenario– available at the Steam Workshop – entitled “Mixed Train Daily” and set on the Stone Creek branch of the Ohio Steel 2 route with the diminutive Smokebox 2-8-0 providing the power. Climb aboard – the short line mystique awaits you.
– Gary W. Dolzall
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