The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, Standard Railroad of the South


The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, also known as the ACL or Coast Line, was synonymous with the South and served points from Richmond, Virginia to Florida and east to Birmingham, Alabama. The railroad was also very profitable being that it served direct north-south routes from Florida to Richmond. It also held one of the most unique paint schemes of any Class I of both its day, having a beautiful purple and silver livery with yellow trim. Remembered in the likes of the Southern Railway in later years the ACL was highly respected throughout most of its existence and like the Southern was blessed with excellent management and never faced any serious bankruptcy threat up until its merger with the Seaboard Air Line in the late 1960s to form the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad.

The last surviving of its kind, E3A #501 makes an appearance outside of the roundhouse at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer on January 13, 2007. Its purple and silver passenger livery was one of the most unique ever developed.

The Atlantic Coast Line began its life like many classic fallen flags, put together and shaped through a series of mergers with small railroads. Its earliest predecessor was the Richmond & Petersburg chartered in 1836, and after linking with the Petersburg Railroad the two made a through connection from Richmond to North Carolina. Throughout the 1800s there were numerous smaller lines that would go on to form the ACL including the Wilmington & Weldon, Wilmington & Raleigh, and North Eastern which served points between South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia (including the ports of Wilmington, NC and Charleston, SC).  The Coast Line itself would begin to take shape when all of these railroads came under the control of William Walters, a Baltimore investor. In the late 1800s these railroads would come under the holding company of the Atlantic Coast Line Company. The railroad’s growth would not end with the 1800s.

As each of its original lines were slowly merged into the holding company the ACL grew tremendously just after the turn of the century when it acquired the Plant System, a series of rail lines running throughout Georgia and Florida, and took control of the Louisville & Nashville, which served northeastern points from the ACL’s core system.  The rest of the railroad would come together in the 1920s when it gained control of the Atlanta, Birmingham & Coast giving it a link to western southeastern cities such as Birmingham, Alabama. In all, including its subsidiaries, the ACL was a giant system serving nearly every major southeastern market from Kentucky and Virginia, south to Alabama and Florida. Like a giant, and being well managed it earned substantial profits, calling on the L&N for help during the few short times when money was hard to come by.

When the "Great Depression" hit in the fall of 1929 the ACL was able to weather the storm and the worst of the times (through the mid-1930s) by its excellent management team and frugal financial practices even though freight traffic was down more than 50% and passenger traffic was off by more than 60%. With the help of its subsidiary, the L&N, it was soundly able to avoid receivership and bankruptcy.

After the Great Depression the Atlantic Coast Line would live out the rest of its life upgrading its equipment and infrastructure. By 1955 the railroad had totally dieselized its motive power fleet, purchasing locomotives from EMD, GE, and Alco. Also by the 1950s the railroad had upgraded its infrastructure substantially. By that time most of its main line was double-tracked between Florida and Virginia, and it had put in Centralized Traffic Control and automatic block signaling to more efficiently handle train movements (especially on its signal-track segments, where CTC is predominantly used). The railroad had also become a high-speed highway and freights were flying up and down the coast averaging 50 mph.


The ACL also had a thriving passenger business for years, once again due to its well-positioned north-south routing. Because the railroad served literally the entirety of Florida it handled a number of trains coming from all different directions as travelers flocked to the state's sunny, tropical beaches.  This strategic positioning of handling so many Florida-bound trains, coupled with its own passenger fleet, the railroad enjoyed the very rare privilege of the passenger business being profitable, even into the 1950s and 1960s when many railroads were bowing out of the market. The ACL was so successful that it even continued to build new stations and depots into the 1960s!

As a result it’s interesting to wonder what the future may have held for the company had the railroad not merged. Alas, this was the ACL’s fate like so many others during the same period. Mergers, if planned and implemented correctly can save a railroad millions of dollars down the road and this was the very reason behind the merger with Seaboard Air Line, discussing the option seriously as early as the late 1950s.

Seaboard Coast Line GP38-2 #535 rolls light through the West Columbia yard in South Carolina during May of 1986.

While the two companies were fierce competitors, similar to the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central who would also merge during the same period, the difference between the two was that the ACL and SAL spent many years planning their new system in an effort to ensure the marriage would go smoothly. Their planning would pay off as the new Seaboard Coast Line, formed in the summer of 1967 would become a very profitable venture itself for 13 years before merging again, this time with the Chessie System to form today’s CSX Transportation.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
HH-10002519401
S226-461942-194421
HH-660190019391
C6282000-20101963-196411
C6302011-201319653

The Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
VO-100010-181942-19449

Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
SW850-59195210
GP7100-279, 1100-11041950-1951185
FTA300-3231943-194424
FTB300B-323B1943-194424
F2A324-335194612
F2B324B-335B194612
F3A336-347194812
F3B336B-347B194812
F7A348-4291950-195182
F7B392B-403B195112
FP7430-4731951-195244
E3A500-50119392
E6A502-5231940-194222
E7A529-5431945-194815
E8A544-556195013
NW2600-6051940-19426
SW7643-651, 717-718195011
SW9652-661, 719-7201951-195212
E6B750-7541940-19425
E7B755-764194510
E8B765-76619492
GP30900-90819639
GP35909-91419636
GP40915-928196614
SD351000-10231964-196524
SD451024-1033196610
SDP35103519651
SW1190119391

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
U30B975-97819674
U25C3000-30201963-196521
U30C3021-302419664

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
A-3Switcher0-4-0
C Through C-8American4-4-0
D, D-2 Through D-7American4-4-0
D-1Mogul2-6-0
E Through E-13Switcher0-6-0
E-14Switcher0-8-0
F Through F-5American4-4-0
G Through G-5Mogul2-6-0
HAmerican4-4-0
I, I-1, I-3Atlantic4-4-2
I-2Columbian2-4-2
JPacific4-6-2
J-1Mountain4-8-2
K Through K-16Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
L-1 Through L-4Consolidation2-8-0
M, M-2Mikado2-8-2
ODecapod2-10-0
P Through P-5Pacific4-6-2
Q-1Santa Fe2-10-2
R-118004-8-4

Notable Passenger Trains

It should be noted that the ACL reached New York via the Pennsylvania Railroad and eastern Florida via the Florida East Coast Railway. The railroad likewise ferried other railroads most prestigious trains to and from Florida.

The Champion

Everglades: (New York - Jacksonville)

Florida Special: (New York - Miami/St. Petersburg)

Gulf Coast Special: (New York - Tampa/Ft. Myers/St. Petersburg)

Havana Special: Connected New York with Key West until the devastating 1935 Hurricane which destroyed the Florida East Coast's Key West Extension.

Miamian: (Washington - Miami)

Palmetto: (New York - Savannah/Augusta/Wilmington)

Vacationer: (New York - Miami)


Seaboard Coast Line GP40 #1512 and a trio of other units work their way with a freight train through Atlanta, Georgia during May of 1978.

For more reading on the Atlantic Coast Line consider Mike Schafer's Classic American Railroads Volume III. This book, the latest in the series, was published in 2003 and follows up on his original titles, Classic American Railroads and More Classic American Railroads, both of which cover several fabled and well remembered fallen flags (of which the ACL is covered in the third volume). I own all three in this series and can attest to their high quality, so I am sure you won't be disappointed if you decide to purchase one. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing this book please visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.

Share Your Thoughts

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below. Please note that while I strive to present the information as accurately as possible I am aware that there may be errors. If you have potential corrections the help is greatly appreciated.