The Atlantic Coast Line, 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
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.
Seaboard Coast Line GP38-2 #535 rolls light through the West Columbia yard in South Carolina during May of 1986.
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.
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.
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.
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 here was that the ACL and SAL
had spent many years planning their new system in an effort to ensure the
marriage would go smoothly. Such efforts would pay off as the new
Seaboard Coast Line, which began service officially on July 1, 1967. The new SCL system became a very
profitable venture for 13 years before merger mania again struck during the 1980s. A series of consolidations during the 1980s, including a final union between the Seaboard System and Chessie System formed today’s CSX Transportation